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Where is Overpopulation’s Rosie the Riveter?

Here’s installment #3 in our series of questions unanswered during the GrowthBusters webinar, Solving Overshoot: End Overpopulation or Stop Overconsumption. I’m including responses later provided by our panelists, Paul Ehrlich and Madeleine Somerville. Find more information about the panelists, the first 3 questions and links to all these follow-ups here.

8. Terry Spahr asked (in relation to Paul Ehrlich’s remarks about the U.S. uniting on a single mission for WWII: “That was Pearl Harbor. there is no social impetus to go on a consumer war time footing. how do you galvanize a population to go to a wartime footing on reducing consumption?”

Paul Ehrlich: That’s a question a lot of us have been struggling with for a long time – and obviously haven’t found an answer.

 

9. James McDermott asked: “Paul, what did the political leaders do in the past to create immediate change? How do we re-create that drive to solve today’s problems?”

Paul Ehrlich:  Immediate change very rare, except in Pearl Harbor type situations.  Many politicians struggled to end slavery in Britain and U.S. but success took many decades.

 

10. Karen Shragg asked: “For Paul: Don’t you think if we tell the truth about overpopulation that we could also change policy to tax extra children etc.? How many people in the US have been told by environmental groups that we are overpopulated relative to our resources? How many families who have plenty of access to birth control continue to have unsustainable numbers of kids because they have ONLY heard about eating organic food and riding bicycles?  I like to use Sarah Palin as an example of an empowered woman who has 6 kids .. it’s not always about access, the story is just not told frequently enough.”

Paul Ehrlich: This is true – overpopulation is truly the elephant in the room.  We keep trying, and failing.

 

11. Dana Visalli asked: “Don’t we have a genetically mediated biological problem?  Most organisms optimize their reproductive potential and horde resources to that end. What leads to the ability to overrule genetic imperatives with ecological insight?”

Paul Ehrlich: Culture – no human society follows the DNA imperative of “maximize your reproduction.”

 

I’ll post more tomorrow. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Keep them coming. Here’s the 4th post in this series.

 

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Comments (3)

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    Karen Pitts

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    Focusing on people like Sara Palin, who had 5 children, not 6, according to my Google search, is a mistake. Only 12% of American families have 4 or more children and Sara Palin was wealthy enough to choose her own reproductive destiny. Condemning her is a lot like condemning Donald Trump for his overconsumption. You are not going to get anywhere criticizing him. People like Palin are balanced out by women who have no children (20%). We need to concentrate on the women who might have an unintended pregnancy due to poverty, lack of information, lack of access, or barriers to health care – anything that would that would stand in the way of their determining their own reproductive destiny. To give you an example, my own daughter, a grown woman, was told by her doctor that he wouldn’t give her an IUD because she didn’t have any children yet. (She, wilful like her mother, went to another doctor). My daughter’s friend went to her doctor for an IUD, and he told her it promoted slutty behavior. These are every day occurrences. Another common example: one of the best times for a woman to get an IUD is just after she has given birth, while she is still in the hospital. However, often insurance does not cover the birth of a baby and the insertion of an IUD in the same visit: she has to come back later. But life gets busy with a newborn, and she puts it off, until … oops! Babies are born 12 months apart. There are numerous barriers to getting effective contraception – all which can be bridged. That’s were effort needs to be concentrated.

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    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      You’re a dear, Karen, and I agree that the work you are advocating is important. However, I want to point out that making one-child families the norm in the (over)developed world doesn’t require “condemning” people who have acted irresponsibly, either intentionally or out of ignorance (though I’m sure some people will try). And we aren’t looking at mutually exclusive tactics here. Just as we should not focus on population and ignore consumption, we should not focus only on one segment of the population or one technique in the overpopulation arena. There is room for multiple strategies.

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  • Avatar

    Brian Sanderson

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    Regarding question 11., this touches upon the question which I tried to raise: What is the human strategy for reproduction? Clearly humans are not simply programmed to have as many offspring as is biologically possible. But it is not sufficient to simply leave it at that. That is why I frequently mention the various papers and books published by Paul Colinvaux. He gives the best answer to the question that I have ever seen. Sadly, Paul passed away earlier this year. I recommend his books:
    (1) “Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare” (Published 1978)
    (2) “Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory for History” (Published 1980)

    To very crudely paraphrase Colinvaux’s model: “The Human breeding strategy is for each couple to have as many children as they think that they can afford.”

    Note that the model is grounded in human perception.

    This model has a lot of explanatory power. Thus a culture that aims to provide an ample niche for each of it’s children will likely have smaller families. Take Donald Trump as an example. If he’s really worth as many billions as he says, and if he’s really God’s gift to women, as he says, then he would have dozens of children — not just the mere 5. But obviously a Trump needs a hell of a lot of resources to live in the style that he thinks that he deserves… and so he can only afford 5 (and only 2 wives).

    I should add that if you read Malthus carefully (hardly anyone does) then you will see that Malthus came close to discovering the same model as Colinvaux — but given the state of knowledge at the time of Malthus, it’s not surprising that he didn’t quite get it…

    Additionally, the evidence grows and grows that it is not facts that modify human behavior — rather it is perceptions. Thus, Ember and Ember recently published empirical findings that the act of going to war was strongly related to the perception of impending scarcity. Again, Colinvaux was ahead of them by many decades — because his model made the same prediction. To my dismay, Ember and Ember seemed oblivious of Colinvaux, they did not reference him.

    All of this may sound academic to some people. But it’s critical to get the science right. Sadly, it seems that human population is as much a taboo in science as it is in every other aspect of our “civilization”.

    Reply

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