Stanford population biologists: Global civilization threatened by religion and children

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | January 15, 2013

On January 8th, the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B published a commentary by Stanford scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich titled “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?”  It would seem that the husband-and-wife team think that, even after the Mayan calendar apocalypse that failed to materialize and the repetitive doomsday chiming from the stopped clock that is Harold Camping, we need a little more end-times worry, this time with more scientific footnotes.

Notwithstanding its dependence on citations, this report is assuredly not a “study”, as Salon erroneously labels it, since it adds no new data to the literature and contains no experimental results.  What it does contain is a pessimistic scenario in which overpopulation leads to societal collapse, which has been a long-standing and highly debatable theme for Dr. Ehrlich since the late 1960s, when his book The Population Bomb became a best-seller.

In this latest repackaging of a familiar Malthusian refrain, the Ehrlichs say:

Too many studies asking ‘how can we possibly feed 9.6 billion people by 2050?’ should also be asking ‘how can we humanely lower birth rates far enough to reduce that number to 8.6?”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Dr. Ehrlich would want to steer away from asking questions about the mechanics of feeding specific numbers of people; reprints of The Population Bomb had to be altered to remove some of the dire predictions in earlier editions that had been proven false by the passage of time.

A Stanford news article announcing the Ehrlichs’ report draws attention to the importance of women’s equal rights as a key step for avoiding societal collapse.  They quote Dr. Ehrlich as saying:

This will allow us to include more of their brainpower to help solve these problems.  And studies have shown that when women are given full rights, they have fewer children, which will help slow birth rates. We also need to give every sexually active human free access to modern contraception and emergency abortion.

If the best way to solve a problem is more female brains working on it, it would seem self-defeating to reduce the production of children, approximately half of which would likely be female.  However, Dr. Ehrlich has written positively about sex selection in favor of sons as a way to combat overpopulation, so perhaps his comments on women’s rights should be taken with a grain of salt in any case.

In the Proceedings of the Royal Society article, the Ehrlichs write:

Monumental, but not impossible if the political will could be generated globally to give full rights, education and opportunities to women, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion. The degree to which those steps would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but they are a likely win-win for societies.

This claim is particularly rich when taken in the context of an earlier passage:

There are great social and psychological barriers in growthmanic cultures to even considering [taking steps to curb population growth]. This is especially true because of the ‘endarkenment’—a rapidly growing movement towards religious orthodoxies that reject enlightenment values such as freedom of thought, democracy, separation of church and state, and basing beliefs and actions on empirical evidence. They are manifest in dangerous trends such as climate denial, failure to act on the loss of biodiversity and opposition to condoms (for AIDS control) as well as other forms of contraception. If ever there was a time for evidence-based (as opposed to faith-based) risk reduction strategies, it is now.

It seems that faith-based strategies are perfectly sound when our faith is in the Ehrlichs rather than divine Providence.  However, not all population researchers are true believers in the Church of the Likely Win-Win: Jeff Wise at Slate recently reported on the growing fear of a precipitous population decline, citing falling birthrates in developing as well as developed countries.  At a minimum, there is a lack of consensus regarding exactly what the future will hold, and our current quantum of brainpower has not yet agreed on what solutions are called for.

The Ehrlich’s article is generating a certain amount of attention, including a hat tip from His Royal Highness Prince Charles himself, who comments:

I have said it before, and I will say it again – our grandchildren’s future depends entirely on whether we seize the initiative and prevaricate no further.

As those who follow the news will no doubt be aware, the Prince of Wales is currently expecting his first grandchild.  It would seem that the entire matter was best summarized by P.J. O’Rourke: “Overpopulation: Just enough of me, way too many of you.”