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The Population Bomb for the 21st Century

By Sarah Friedman

RAMAT AVIV, Israel (Nov. 14, 2012) — In his influential 1968 bestseller, "The Population Bomb," Prof. Paul Ehrlich wrote about the population-driven resource shortages that would lead to hundreds of millions of human deaths by starvation in the following decade unless population growth ceased or reversed. In the years since, the global population has doubled from 3.5 billion to 7 billion people today.


The mass starvations he predicted have not transpired, despite global failure to carry out some of his proposed policies, including sterilizations and the elimination of food aid to some foreign countries. But if his specific predictions were off, his message was and remains undeniable: A burgeoning global population exerting ever greater pressures on our environment cannot continue unabated without devastating consequences in the near future.


In a lecture at Tel Aviv University this week, co-sponsored by the Israeli Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the Tel Aviv University Porter School of Environmental Studies, Ehrlich spoke about his 20th-century predictions and the challenges we face in an even more populous, resource-consuming global society. His message is particularly relevant in this small country: Israel’s population has increased even more quickly than the world’s in the 44 years since publication of "The Population Bomb," from 2.8 million in 1968 to almost 8 million today, and by 2050 it is projected to reach 20 million. With living standards also on the rise — and resource consumption increasing — Israel urgently needs to address the dangerous population-resource complex about which Ehrlich warns.


Ehrlich, now the president of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, said that today one billion people are hungry and two billion are malnourished, and we can only expect it to get worse. Our highly connected, high-consuming global society is becoming increasingly vulnerable to resource shortages and connected conflicts, problems compounded by climate change. In this context, he deemed current international conflicts and the problems about which most politicians speak as “trivial.” He had just come from southern Israel, where Palestinian rockets have been falling and disrupting life for days, and maintained that this violence barely registers as a serious danger compared to the longer-term issues we face.


Ehrlich gave a run-down of the alarming global trends related to environmental degradation, focusing on toxic materials in the environment, land degradation, and changes in precipitation patterns that will affect the food supply for the predicted 2050 global population of 9.5 billion people. Ehrlich also talked about the complex and rarely discussed issue of “non-linearity” of population growth: “Every person you add of the next 2.5 billion is going to do infinitely more damage than the last 2.5 billion,” he explained, since as we run of out productive land and easily extractable resources we have to damage the environment more to produce the same amount of food and energy.


In Israel, even an additional one million Israelis will be “just disastrous” for the land, Ehrlich said, but Israel nevertheless has to prepare for a more than doubling of its current population. Climate models for the region indicate less water and more climate extremes in the future, and today’s levels of consumption are simply not sustainable. He noted that if the entire world consumed at Israel’s present standard of living, the Earth could support only 1.5 billion people.


A green future?


Ehrlich saw some signs of hope for Israel. The country has been technologically innovative with water, particularly in desalination technology, and Ehrlich pointed to this as a field in which Israel has become a world leader. But technological fixes won’t solve political problems: Ehrlich emphasized that whatever political conflicts exist now, “when you don’t have any water, it’s going to get really grim.”


He also gave credit to Israel’s environmentalists.


“There’s a wonderful green movement here, which we don’t have in the United States,” Ehrlich said.


Ehrlich’s first practical suggestion for stopping global downward trends is to “make universities relevant to the world again.” Scientists and activists are not getting through to politicians and the public on the critical, pressing issues of population and the environment.


“It’s crystal clear that we don’t know how to package the message,” Ehrlich said. He offered the university system as a theoretical solution, but disparaged the siloed system that exists today, saying that no human problem can be solved by just one faculty. A collaborative, multidisciplinary approach led by universities might accomplish more than anything happening now, he suggested. Appropriately, the event’s host, the Porter School, is a multidisciplinary environmental studies program that draws from each of Tel Aviv University’s nine faculties.


Asked what he would do if he were a policymaker, Ehrlich said he would use the bully pulpit to talk about women’s rights. He said that there is no country in the world where women are fully equal, and the best solution to the population problem is to give women everywhere full equality and access to contraceptives. He emphasized that if we care about the quality of our lives and our children’s lives, we cannot add to the population problem. His concise message: “Patriotic Americans, stop at two. Patriotic Israelis, stop at two.”


Ehrlich predicted that our world has a 10 percent chance of avoiding ecological collapse. Think that's too dim? He said that he has been criticized by a colleague as too optimistic by a factor of 10. Still, Ehrlich said, it's worth doing all we can to increase that chance to 11 percent. Human society can change rapidly, he said, when a critical moment arrives.





Sarah Friedman is a former reporting intern for Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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