It's a simple fact of ecology that the human race cannot continue to grow and consume as it is doing now. The planet just can't support us and the rest of the organisms that are competing for resources on the Earth. If we don't curb our appetites and fertility, we'll eventually eat ourselves out of house and home. And the sad part, in the eyes of many nature lovers, is that we'll probably drive many of the plant and animal species on the planet into their genetic graves before our own population either crashes in a distinctly nasty way or stabilizes.
The human race could theoretically stabilize itself at a global population of about 10 billion (Caldwell 170). This will require vigorous technofixing on the part of our agricultural scientists to provide enough food for the masses. And, because all arable land will have to be used for agriculture, it will also mean extinction for most large wild animals.
And even if (and it's a big if) science and technology can come up with a way to keep the billions fed, housed, and clothed, we'll still be awfully crowded.
Too Little Space
When I think of how crowded the planet would be with ten billion people, I have to think of when we were breeding mice for snake food at the San Angelo Nature Center.
I started out with about four mice, one white lab mouse and three cute little spotted Swiss mice. In the wild, mice are basically annual animals; they don't usually live longer than a year, so they breed as much and as fast as they can. They're good examples of animals with a J-shaped reproduction curve (Smith 366). That is, if they've given the chance, their population grows exponentially until they exceed their carrying capacity. Then there is a massive die-off, and the process starts all over again.
I put a pair of mice each in two 20-gallon tanks, made sure they had plenty of food, and basically left them alone except for tank cleaning. It was winter, so the snakes were eating rarely if at all. In the space of about three months, the two tanks were swarming with mice.
I had no other tanks or other containers to put them in, and I was told by The Management to make do with what I had. I made sure they had plenty of food and water, and I tried to keep the tanks clean, but that part was impossible. The stench from the cages always made my eyes water. And pretty soon, those cute little mice started to get ugly. They stopped grooming themselves. Some of the females stopped breeding, but that didn't help the crowding. Those females that did continue to breed started eating their young, even though they had plenty of mouse kibble a few inches away. The mice started getting into vicious fights, the big ones killing the smaller ones.
Fortunately, spring came, the snakes woke up, and we were able to feed the mice to the serpents.
Flirting With Disaster
We only have to look at the most crowded cities of the world to realize that if we have to live shoulder-to-shoulder with each other, we'll end up just like those mice. We'll be wallowing in filth, and we'll be murdering each other. It won't be a world worth being born into.
Mother Nature has always been in charge of the game, whether we like to admit it or not. Our population will be reduced to manageable levels, sooner or later. If we don't take steps soon, our "later" will involve the death of billions in developing countries through starvation, epidemic diseases (particularly if AIDS mutates or smallpox makes a return as a terrorist bioweapon), violence (both domestic crime and war), and natural disasters in highly populated areas. People in polluted developed countries will experience some of the same misery, but they may also discover that their fertility has been severely reduced by exposure to the estrogenic pesticides and plastics that we've dumped in the environment (Raloff 58).
But despite this and the gloomy outlooks of environmental policy thorists like Lynton K. Caldwell, I don't think we'll drive ourselves to extinction. Let's not forget that our ancient pre-hominid ancestors resembled rats. And we have a lot in common with modern rats (it's no accident that they're our favorite research animals): omnivory, versatility, and hardiness. The rats won't die out, and neither will we. But we're fully capable of sending ourselves into another Dark Ages.
We can avoid disaster, but it won't be easy.
Thinking About Sex
The first and most obvious thing that needs changing is global attitudes toward sex and birth control. Sex is a very basic human need; the urge to reproduce is only slightly less intense than the urge to eat or sleep.
And yet, despite the fact that sex is such a normal, basic activity, people can almost never discuss it in the same way that we discuss other basic human activities. In the U.S., where sexual messages are used to sell everything from Coke to cars, we can't really discuss the subject in the way that it needs to be discussed. We've certainly come a long way from the days when married, pregnant school teachers were fired from their jobs for fear that the students might learn something shameful. But when sex is brought up in conversations, many people still whisper, giggle, or blush. A movie can show a man getting shot through the head and get a PG rating; show that same man having sex with another male, and it gets an R. Parents think that drug education classes are a good idea, but many still object to sex education and condom machines on the grounds that such measures "teach our kids how to have sex."
Despite all the talk shows and sexual self-help books, many Americans still react to sex as if it's something shameful and dirty. Since it's impossible to talk about birth control without talking about sex, condoms and pills are dirty, too.
How did sex become such a taboo subject? Well, most of it stems from old religion and old cultural beliefs, the two being so intertwined that they're almost impossible to separate.
That Old-Time Religion
For starters, let's look at the Bible, specifically the Book of Leviticus. This section of the Bible prohibits, under pain of death and subsequent damnation, homosexuality, witchcraft, promiscuity, and the eating of pork products, among other things.
The laws in Leviticus and the rest of the Bible aren't about morality; they're about economics and power. And so are the laws of the holy texts of other religions (remember Hinduism's caste system in India, which long insured the sociopolitical supremacy of the descendants of the Aryans who started the religion).
Imagine this: you're the leader of a small tribe out in the middle of the desert. What do you want? Well, for starters, you want to maintain control over your people, want to make sure they obey your rules. How to do this? You make the people think that your laws are God's laws, so that if they disobey you, they won't just be risking earthly punishment, they'll be risking eternal damnation. Oh, but the people might start worshipping gods that you aren't affiliated with ... better make switching religions a mortal sin as well: "I am a jealous God ... thou shalt not obey any other gods before me."
Okay, now you've got the tribe in line, but it's still pitifully small. You haven't got nearly as much power as the fat kings in Babylon. What you need is a bigger tribe. You need to get these people to breed, but you also don't want a bunch of abandoned kids running around making a nuisance of themselves. What to do? First, ban homosexuality, because two men or two women aren't going to make any babies to fuel your power. Ban pre- and extramarital sex, because you want to make sure any kids that come along will be taken care of by somebody besides you. You ban masturbation so that people will have no outlet for their urges besides marriage, and they'll get hitched in puberty and start cranking out those babies. And you certainly don't want any of those married folks to stop having kids, so you ban birth control practices and abortion.
To this mass of politically-inspired holy laws against a variety of perfectly normal sexual behavior, add superstition stemming from biological ignorance. To the ancients, pregnancy and birth were truly mysterious, living evidence of God. And after hearing their holy men and leaders tell them that God doesn't like sex except between married men and women, the common people naturally viewed STDs as a form of divine punishment.
After several thousand years of this kind of thinking, it's no wonder that people still talk about sex in a whisper. And it's no wonder that traditional economic theory is steeped in the idea that a constantly-growing population is necessary for a healthy economy (Ehrlich 159).
The Role of Women's Rights
And while most Western countries are slowly severing their mental ties to these old beliefs, the same cannot be said for developing and underdeveloped countries. Political and religious leaders still believe that their power lies in the size of their population (actually, so do U.S. politicians who object to population control on the grounds that it will lead to a Social Security tax disaster, but they ignore the fact that if we control our population size, the standard of living will go up, elderly people will be healthier and will be able to keep working into their seventies). Discussing sex and birth control is still taboo in many developing countries, and, to make matters worse, women are treated like children or property.
Women, being the ones who suffer most directly from pregnancy, childbirth, and even STDs, don't have a say in their own reproduction in many of these countries. Some nations in North Africa and the Middle East have entirely outlawed family planning and contraceptives (Eschen 107). Even when international NGOs have managed to set up family planning services, some national governments prohibit advertising and birth control distribution, and restrict the types of medical procedures that can be performed by health professionals. For instance, competent health professional have been barred from dispensing birth control pills, inserting IUDs or performing mini-lap sterilizations (Eschen 107). In these countries, it is often illegal to provide family planning services to adolescents or to women who don't bring a permission slip from their husbands. For instance, in Niger and Papua New Guinea, women cannot buy contraceptives without their husband's approval (Eschen 110). Also, some countries slap heavy import duties on contraceptives, making them too expensive for the people who need them most (Eschen 107).
Even when national laws don't directly bar women from buying contraceptives, culture makes it almost impossible for women to use birth control. Male-dominated cultures support the belief that female fertility is a male right. Surveys in Zimbabwe and Sudan have showed that most men feel that husbands have the right to unilaterally decide how many babies their wives have (Eschen 109). Women in such countries may be too embarrassed or afraid to bring up the subject of birth control with their husbands and may be afraid that they'll be beaten, abandoned, or divorced if they use birth control without their husband's permission or, heaven forbid, refuse their husband's sexual advances (Eschen 110).
Women in all countries must be given access to birth control and medical help if the world's population is going to be controlled. It's a bit of a Catch-22: women won't be able to use birth control until they're on equal social and economic footing with men, but they'll probably never get any power until they can control their own reproduction. In any case, I don't think the population control movement will make any headway in developing countries until women's rights have been established.
The Need For Better Birth Control
But there's another aspect to the family planning problem in both developed and developing countries: birth control drugs and devices themselves. They're obviously much better than nothing, but they're still not that wonderful. People don't enjoy using them, and for good reason. Condoms can be literally irritating for both partners; with AIDS epidemic in the U.S., more an more people are using latex condoms and some are becoming sensitized to the latex. There have even been cases of people going into fatal allergic shock after they've used a condom or diaphragm. IUDs can cause horrible, potentially fatal pelvic infections. In socially repressing countries, women don't want to touch their own genitals and therefore are unwilling to use barrier methods like diaphragms.
The invention of the Pill and its hormone-controlling descendants Norplant and Depo-Provera have been big steps in the right direction, but if they're the best science can come up with, we're in trouble.
First of all, the Pill, Norplant, and Depo-Provera are for women; men do not pay a physiological price for their use, and males may not even help women pay the monetary cost incurred with their use. Furthermore, these methods alter a woman's body chemistry and may cause illness ranging from a disrupted menstrual cycle to cancer.
And even the mildest side effects, which are often dismissed as irrelevant by health professionals, can dissuade women in developing countries from using hormonal birth control (Eschen 108). In such countries, where women have had little education into the workings of their own bodies, women tend to blame any type of health problem, and especially gynecological problems, on the birth control they've been given. Uneducated women associate changes in their menstrual bleeding or cycles with disease (Eschen 108). Furthermore, disrupted cycles or irregular bleeding can keep women from engaging in socially important religious or cultural activities (Eschen 109).
Science and medicine must address these problems and continue working toward better, safer methods of birth control for both sexes.
And now we come to abortion. Even if everybody used safe, reliable birth control, accidents would happen. Nothing is ever 100% effective. Women who have no desire whatsoever to have a child would still get pregnant.
And on top of that, people, especially young, hormonally-driven people, just aren't responsible all the time. That's just how we humans are; we act on emotions, we act on sexual instinct, and no amount of puritanical lecturing or idealistic hand-wringing is going to change that.
The people and governments of developed countries (read: the U.S.) have got to come to grips with the fact that some abortions will always be necessary if we're going to ensure that the people who are born have a decent standard of living.
And, in the meantime, the governments of developing countries have got to start allowing women access to medically-supervised, safe abortions. Illegal abortions are going on at a great rate in developing countries, and women, children, and the countries' economies are suffering because of it. 99% of the world's women who die because of pregnancy die in the Third World, and it is estimated that 25-50% of these deaths are due to botched abortions (Eschen 105). Furthermore, every year close to two million children are orphaned because of their mothers die, and few of these children survive (Coyetaux 134). And finally, the cost of cleaning up illegal abortions is much greater than the cost of providing women with medically safe abortions in the first place. For instance, Chile saved $200,000US a year in medical costs when that country briefly legalized abortion (Coyetaux 134).
Caldwell, Lynton K. International Environmental Policy: Emergence and Dimensions. Duke University Press.
Coyetaux, Francine M., Ann H. Leonard, and Carolyn M. Bloomer. "Abortion" in The Health of Women: A Global Perspective (Koblinsky, Timyan, and Gay, eds.) Westview Press, pp. 133-146.
Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne Ehrlich. The Population Explosion. Simon and Schuster.
Eschen, Andrea, and Maxine Whittaker. "Family Planning: A Base to Build on for Women's Reproductive Health Services" in The Health of Women: A Global Perspective (Koblinsky, Timyan,and Gay, eds.) Westview Press, pp. 105-131.
Raloff, Janet. "That Feminine Touch." Science News, January 22, 1994, Vol. 145, No.4, pp. 56-58.
Smith, Robert L. Ecology and Field Biology. Harper and Row.