Some travelers call the southwestern corner of Uganda the Switzerland of Africa, but the quaint tourist name belies the rugged landscape's hazards. Just outside the thickly forested Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, where half the world's last few hundred mountain gorillas cling to survival, farmers work their crops so far up the steep hillsides that sometimes, I learned when I visited some years ago, they hurt themselves falling off their fields.
Farmers in the world's poorer countries don't cultivate hazardous hillsides and farm at an angle because they can, but because they have to. They need every inch of arable land to support themselves. And their children often face equally dismal prospects in finding housing in the crowded cities where half of humanity now lives. These farmers and their families are suffering the consequences of, for lack of a better word, overpopulation. It's not a term used much these days and I don't especially care for it myself, with its implication that some of us already here should not be. But the reality remains that what most people call overpopulation is more evident, in more places, than ever.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently urged his fellow New Yorkers to "face up to the fact" that overcrowding undermines environmental stability. Members of Rwanda's nearly half-female parliament considered a national drive to achieve three-child families in the land-short African country, in the hopes that slower growth might prevent a repeat of its genocidal 1994 civil war. China, its 1.3 billion people clambering up the lower rungs of the consumption ladder, reached to Brazil for livestock feed, to the west coast of Africa for fish, and to Ethiopia for oil, where nine Chinese oil workers were killed by Somali insurgents. And as for the gorillas of Bwindi, they are far from the only apes that may miss the train to the twenty-second century. The 373,000 human babies born on the day you read these words will outnumber all the world's existing gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, our closest animal relatives.
The most-covered story in the "population news" category, however, is one in which population received few mentions: final public acceptance that by using the atmosphere as a dump for waste gases, human beings are heating up the planet. Even as we have awakened to the scientific reality that human-induced climate change is real and happening now, we still pull up the covers and roll over in bed at the thought that this has any important connection to how many of us there are. In April 2007, Time magazine offered "51 things we can do to save the environment"; not one had anything to do with population. A report from the environmental group U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) called The Carbon Boom detailed state by state the rising emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from 1990 to 2004 in the United States. The word population did not appear in the report, even though the country's carbon dioxide emissions grew a hair less than did its population over the period, 18 versus 18.1 percent. As I neared completion of this book, serious talk began about the need to slash global and U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by up to 80 percent within decades—with no discussions of how different population scenarios will affect our chances for achieving such a staggeringly challenging objective.
Why so much silence on something so firmly entrenched in the foundations of the environmental economic, and social challenges the world faces? Some resistance stems from the "impersonal reduction of humans to quantity," in the words of English historical demographer Peter Biller. Who wants to be reduced to a number, or go out for a beer with one? Partly, population is just a sensitive topic. Any discussion of population growth quickly taps into an edgy confusion of feelings most of us harbor about contraception and abortion, about childbearing and family size, gender relations, immigration, race and ethnicity, and—not least—the intense longing, the pleasure, and the risks we can't avoid as sexual beings. Sexual taboos are getting harder to confront as a wave of religious fundamentalism grows in apparent response to the same chaotic global complexity to which population growth itself contributes.
Many doubt that we need to worry about population growth at all. Humanity has been growing steadily for centuries. For most people life gets longer and better, with tastier and more nutritious food, improved health, more affluence, and lots of cool gadgets and amusements. If population growth is a bomb, some have suggested, it seems to be a dud. Indeed, so dramatic have been the changes in childbearing in recent years, with the spread of effective modern contraception—supplemented in many countries by safe and legal abortion services—that the worry has shifted to countries like Japan and many in Europe where population has begun to ebb, or to nations that will need to draw many more immigrants to avoid imminent demographic decline.
It's almost amusing to see this new phase of "population crisis" based not on growth but on decline. The likelihood of future decreases in population drives far more writing, broadcasting, and blogging than does population growth, despite the fact that growth remains the overwhelming global dynamic and probably will for decades to come. On any given day, after all, more than twice as many people worldwide begin their lives (373,000, as noted above) as reach life's end (159,000). That's cold comfort all the same in countries from Belarus to South Korea, where women are having little more than one child on average. Politicians and demographers worry about the future of such countries' retirement programs, the vibrancy of their economies, and their capacity to project military power or defend their territories.
Fear of losing not just population, but "our" population, also underpins the angst many people express over the high levels of immigration that have changed the complexion of industrialized countries in recent decades. One of the cures offered for population aging or decline is simply to invite in more people from other countries. Already, foreign-born Americans are more numerous than the native-born in Miami-Dade County and in several cities in Florida and California. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2070 there will be no majority race in the country.4 Serious authors like Phillip Longman and Ben Wattenberg, and fearmongers like Patrick Buchanan, have called openly for a return to large families—implicitly or explicitly by native-born Americans—to stave off population aging, stagnation or an immigrant-driven continuation of growth.
Excepted from More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want by Robert Engelman. Copyright (c) 2008 Robert Engelman. Reprinted with permission of Island Press.