Tuesday, September 4, 2012

'Diffusing the population bomb'

'Diffusing the population bomb'

Since the publication of Paul Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" in 1968, so much about it have been said and written. These highlight the issues already of concern to many -- "population, resources, and environment." (This was actually Ehrlich's preferred title before the "publisher exercised his right" to select Population Bomb.) After 40 years, the authors, PR Ehrlich & AH Ehrlich (the publisher also insisted on a single author), recalls the book's origins and impacts (see The population bomb revisited, Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, 2009).

They report that the Population Bomb has been praised and vilified, but no controversy on the book's significance -- "in calling attention to the demographic element in the human predicament." They suggest that their basic message is even more important now than it was 40 years ago.

They conclude, "The Bomb did exactly what we had hoped – alerted people to the importance of environmental issues and brought human numbers into the debate on the human future. It was thus a successful tract, and we’re proud of it."

Alert actions taken by the world scientific community

The Ehrlichs mention two groups of world leading scientists, which released warning statements in 1993. The first was the Union of Concerned Scientists, including more than half of all living Nobel Laureates in science. Over 1500 of them signed the statement.

The second group consisted of 58 Science Academies, including the the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. They issued their separate statement also in 1993. Both statements are "a nearly consensus view of the world scientific community."

The Scientists' warning said in part: “Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society.”

The Academies’ pronouncement, in part: "Resource use, waste production and environmental degradation are accelerated by population growth. . . . As human numbers further increase, the potential for irreversible changes of far-reaching magnitude also increases.”

If we surveyed the literature, with "population bomb" in the article title, actions and debates on issues raised in the Bomb are widespread -- from natural & social scientists, influential media people, politicians, non-government organizations, and religious groups. Let me just cite some examples; note the progressive nature of science in action (briefly discussed in my earlier comments, now as Nature and role of science relative to RH bill (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 3 Sept 2012).

Early actions: 'Diffusing the Bomb' before the 1968 Book

I Löwy - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: …, 2012.
After the World War II era, the progress of medicine had led to a decrease in mortality in developing countries, but it was not accompanied by a parallel decrease in birth rates. This would lead to population explosion and its terrifying consequences: famines, riots, political instability, wars. In the 1950s, a local contraceptive, simple to use, cheap; and efficient, was launched to solve the population crisis. But program failed due to the unreliability of the product.

G Easterbrook - The Wall Street Journal, 2009.
Norman Borlaug's work on wheat in the '50s and '60s lead to the Green Revolution and a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived. In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that Borlaugʹs efforts -- combined with those of the many agriculture‐extension agents he trained, and the crop‐research facilities he founded in poor nations -- saved the lives of one billion human beings.

Few more alerts and successful actions

SV Valentine - International Journal of Sustainable Development & Ecology, 2010.
This paper argues for a renewed international focus on managed population reduction as a key enabler of sustainable development. The paper presents development data that
demonstrate why population reduction should be elevated to share top priority with poverty alleviation, and these two as the goals of international development strategy.

JA Goldstone - Foreign Affairs, 2010
Forty-two years ago, the biologist Paul Ehrlich warned in The Population Bomb that mass starvation would strike in the 1970s and 1980s, with the world’s population growth outpacing the production of food and other critical resources. Thanks to innovations and efforts -- such as the “green revolution” and family planning -- Ehrlich’s worst fears did not come to pass. In fact, since the 1970s, global economic output has increased and fertility has fallen dramatically, especially in developing countries.

D Lam - Demography, 2011
This article looks at the last 50 years of extraordinary demographic change. World population grew at rates never before seen. Concerns include mass starvation, resource depletion, and increased poverty. But the actual experience was very different. World food production increased faster than world population in every decade since the 1960s. Poverty declined significantly in much of the developing world. The article looks at explanations for the surprising successes. It also looks at the regions that have been less successful, and at the lessons for dealing with the important challenges that still remain.

Example of scientific debate

F Pearce - Nature, Published online 11 May 2011.
The latest global population projections, published by the United Nations last week, say that the world will be awash with 10.1 billion people by 2100, a billion more than previously supposed. Already, there is talk again of a ticking population time bomb.
But a closer look at the assumptions behind this scenario shows it to be perverse and
contradictory. In fact, it looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis.

H Zlotnik - Nature, Published online 29 June 2011
Fred Pearce's view of the latest United Nations population projections misrepresents our results (Nature 473, 125; 2011). The causes of the differences between the 2008 and the 2010 revisions are more complex and varied than he conveys.

The Philippine situation: Catholic bishops and politicians to blame; Science Academy (NAST), silent

Here is from Raul Suarez, a Fil-Canadian Professor, Univ. Calif. at Santa Barbara.
I encourage everyone to read Jared Diamond's book on Collapse (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303655-6)

Flor, I must take issue with your statement that "most harmful predictions -- like Paul Ehrlich's “Population Bomb” (1968) -- have largely failed. Continued research stopped the serious threats."

Diamond, for example, has pointed out in interviews that we can see Ehrlich's predictions already unfolding. Others have pointed out that the "green revolution" one of the great achievements of modern science, has only postponed what is inevitable if human population growth and its consequences are not brought under control.

If aliens were observing us, they would wonder why there is even a debate about the RH bill. It is because old men in robes in a place called Rome, who vowed not to reproduce, insist that the rest of us should keep doing so regardless of the consequences. They claim that this teaching comes from someone born 2,000 years ago, yet according to their own records, he never said such a thing.

From Ben de Lumen, a Fil-American Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley,
Dear Raul,
Well said. The Philippines has often been compared with Thailand because of many
similarities and one big difference: Phil is predominantly Catholic , Thai is Buddhist. As of 2010, the population of Thai is 65M, Phil is 93 M, a difference of 28M, which is about the population of Malaysia. A Thai scientist made a comment that she is surprised that Phil is still talking about population planning when Thai took care of that issue 20 years ago!

In conclusion, as seen from the examples above and my previous posted comments on the subject (e.g., Let’s stop debating the RH bill now and improve science), most countries have been trying to diffuse the population bomb, and determined to continue, despite some failures, relying on science. Is the Philippines destined to be one of the countries that will suffer the wrath of the Bomb? After over 10 years debating the RH bill, the Senate President says, Expect long RH debate in Senate—Enrile (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 3 Sept 2012).

Flor Lacanilao
Retired professor of marine science

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