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Whose Problem Is It Anyway? : Overpopulation on a shrinking planet : CRITICAL MASSES: The Global Population Challenge, By George D. Moffett (Viking: $26.95; 353 pp.)

February 05, 1995|Paul R. Ehrlich | Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University and the author of a classic in this field, "The Population Bomb."

Population can be a real bore. The problem is so vast, and the numbers are so large, that even those of us professionally involved with the worsening human predicament often find it difficult to put a human face on the situation. One sick or starving child can elicit our intense pity and a desire to help; more than 10 million a year dying of hunger or hunger-related illness seems distant and unreal and makes us feel helpless.

Journalist George Moffett has done a real service in writing a book that illuminates the population problem in poor nations in terms of real people rather that just large numbers. From it you can get a feel for what life is like for a family that must find shelter in Cairo's "City of the Dead" or a virtual slave of a husband who "regularly beats her. Sometimes with his fists. Sometimes with a stick. Once when she was six months pregnant." You can also find out what has and has not been done to help solve their problems and those of billions like them.

Moffett also provides a lively chronicle of the history of concern in developed countries about the population explosion in less developed countries, and of the determined efforts of the Reagan Administration and the Vatican to see to it that the problem did not get solved. The reader is led to the conclusion that the activities of both (which were coordinated) actually increased the numbers of abortions and maternal deaths worldwide. If you prevent people from practicing contraception, they naturally turn to the less desirable alternative.

This is a good book in part because a journalist wrote it. Moffett interviewed large numbers of people, those enmeshed in problems partially caused by overpopulation, those determinedly trying to solve those problems, and those too doctrinaire or foolish to see the connections. And he reviewed a fair selection of the vast literature on such things as the determinants of family size preferences and the success of birth control programs as indicated by the extensive but unobtrusive end notes.

The major weakness of the book resides mainly in the title. It leads one to assume that "Critical Masses" attempts to cover the entire population problem, when it only deals with one aspect of it. Population problems do not have to do just with numbers of people, but with how those people behave. While overpopulation among the poor is a major factor in keeping them in poverty, overpopulation among the rich is wrecking the life-support systems of the planet, the most serious of all our population-related problems. The birth of a baby in the super-consuming United States represents dozens of times the threat to the human future as does the birth of another baby to that poor woman in Bangladesh. If the poor are asked to give up the economic security of large families, then the rich should equally be asked to give up the pleasures of multiple cars and other overconsumption--or to reduce their reproduction even further. A one-child family policy in the U.S. (the most rapidly growing major industrial nation) would do much more for the human future than the one-child policy in China. Moreover, international economic policies of the rich are a critical factor in perpetuating the poverty, overpopulation and environmental deterioration in developing nations.

Moffet clearly did not set out to write about overpopulation in the United States and elsewhere in the rich world. But by not even alluding to it, the book might give the uninitiated the notion that we have met the enemy and it is them, not us. Moffet is properly hopeful about the possibility of bringing birth rates down quite rapidly in less developed countries, and gives appropriate emphasis to the equity issues involved, especially those having to do with the empowerment of women. But he leaves the reader ignorant of the pressing need for gradual shrinkage in the populations of rich nations, accompanied by a decline in the per capita environmental impacts of their citizens. Only that, accompanied by appropriate economic growth in poor nations (a closing of the rich-poor gap) can lead to a sustainable society. ZPG, and eventual population shrinkage, in today's developing countries is necessary but not sufficient.

Another minor but annoying problem with the book also derives from Moffett being a journalist, afflicted with that ubiquitous journalistic goal--"conservation of debate." Journalists claim that they must give both sides of a contentious issue. But when an airplane breaks the round-the-world speed record, or there is a space launch, they don't feel obliged to quote the views of the Flat Earth Society. Journalists recognize the limits of sensible debate in these contexts. Due to the near total failure of our schools to inform even "educated" people about environmental science, however, reporters show little such judgment when stories fall in that area.

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