World Population Clock

The Greatest Problem in the World

Andrew Chrucky

Cub's Roar, Pennsylvania State University,
Worthington Scranton Campus, Sept. 1985.

Charles Whitney correctly reports that I believe that the greatest problems facing humanity are the nuclear threat and overpopulation. Both situations can lead -- one directly and the other indirectly -- to massive self-destruction. But he apparently contends that these problems exist as a result of political policies, and that they require a political solution. And by this token, he thinks, the greater problem for humanity is political organization. He goes on to lament that we, as a people, have been unable to work democratically to solve these problems. He writes: "I am suggesting that overpopulation and the nuclear threat are to a significant degree functions of the fact that people are prevented from associating as equals in more than local ways -- and of people's belief that they can't associate effectively."

In response, when I spoke of these as the greatest world problems I had in mind those world developments -- whether natural, technological, or "political" -- which pose the greatest threat to human life. Nuclear war is an obvious colossal threat; but for many people overpopulation is not. Many would say that the various wars, terrorism, famine, poverty, pollution, and lawlessness are current realities and are, therefore, greater actual problems. Moreover, these problems, they would say, are amenable to partial solution through greater use of technology and a more equitable distribution of the world's wealth. By contrast, in saying that overpopulation is a greater problem, I mean to claim that the technological innovations and distribution of wealth cannot alter the fact that the earth is finite. It has only a limited number of resources, it has a limited amount of arable land, it has a limited amount of fresh water, it can absorb only so much pollution, and it can support only a limited population. Whatever the remedy, if it does not also include population control, it will eventually fail.

Charles, however, is focusing his attention on political policies as instruments for solving these kinds of problems. In doing this, he conflates means and ends. Of course the rational means have to be political; otherwise the laws of nature will run their course and kill us off through famines, diseases, and violence. But I also discern in his writing a plea for a democratic solution. He wants people to cooperate in charting their destinies instead of delegating the course of events to the "authorities" (representatives). By this, I take Charles to be implicitly expressing a dissatisfaction with the American democratic process. His fixation on the American political system prevents him from seeing the overpopulation problem as amenable to solution by other political systems. For example, China has a law that a couple can have only one child; having a second child incurs a penalty of about $300 and a third child a penalty of about $1000 -- which is an amount greater than the average yearly income. India has a massive family-planning program to curb its population growth. These are, obviously, political ways of coping with the overpopulation problem. So some countries have recognized the need to control the population explosion, and have taken steps in that direction; though not the U.S.A.

Maybe what Charles is lamenting is the failure of the American people or their government to even acknowledge an overpopulation problem. The reason for this could be that people do not make a connection between pollution, industrialization, and overpopulation. Perhaps they think that the water shortages they experience are really caused only by drought and not by a greater demand by more people; perhaps they think that cancer is caused by some factor unrelated to the tons of pollution being spewed into our atmosphere; perhaps they don't understand that all that industrial waste is generated by industry trying to satisfy the demand of the millions of people being added to the globe. There are approximately 5 billion people on the earth and the number will double in about 30 years.

Even if people verbally recognize a population problem in the abstract, they aren't doing anything about it. For example, we continue to provide tax exemption for every child in a family; whereas some other countries either do not give such an exemption after one or two children, or, as in the case of China, they penalize the parents for having more than the prescribed number of children.

Charles, however, thinks the reason why Americans have not mobilized to do something about overpopulation is that Americans have been, as he puts it, "prevented from associating as equals in more than local ways." I don't know what he is driving at. After all Charles is free to associate with anyone he chooses in the most global of ways he likes.

The reason why we aren't mobilizing against overpopulation, as I see it, is this. The policies of the U.S. government are, for the most part, compromise policies resulting from various pressure groups. For example, consider the historical plight of Blacks in the U.S. Nothing was done for them from any principle of universal justice -- not until they mobilized into effective pressure groups. The dominant pressure groups in the United States are, of course, industrial corporations. And it would be economic suicide for industrial corporations to want fewer births. Fewer births means a shrinking market, and a shrinking market may mean eventual bankruptcy. Other pressure groups, mostly organized religions, in their zeal to foster the "sanctity of human life" have, in effect, worked as pressure groups against birth-control.

Of course, there are many individuals and some groups who are writing and offering Malthusian warnings of the perils of too many people. But what political pressure can they really exert? To whose interest, after all, should it be to limit the size of families? In the final analysis, it would be to humanity's long-range self-interest. But it is not to the interest of corporations, not to the interest of organized religion, and certainly not to the interest of those couples who can and want to have many children. Consequently, the U.S. has no significant pressure groups advocating a national policy of birth control. It may, after all, be an inherent tendency of a Christian capitalist democracy -- geared as it is to resolving conflicts between pressure groups through piecemeal engineering -- not to be able, with its cherished ideologies, to plan for the long-range survival of everyone.
See Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (1990).