Letters to the Editor, June 2023
Published: June 12, 2023
John Seager’s March President’s Note was right on target. I think we (population, environment, and energy folks) need to encourage research and publication of “getting smaller” stories. When a city, town, municipality, zip code, county, state, or country gets smaller, the answer is not to import more people or to encourage more births, but to downsize wisely. As you said, billions of dollars are invested in growth, but few are invested in right-sizing governments, social welfare systems, etc. Right-sizing communities is not as exciting as saving lives, saving wildlife, restoring forests, electrification, etc., but it is every bit as important.
As long as our capitalist culture and predominant religious entities rely upon, and indeed encourage, continued and unrelenting population growth, we will be faced with mounting overpopulation concerns. The current climate crisis, wildlife extinctions, deforestation, and other environmental and biological threats are merely ignored or poo-pooed by the very institutions most able to help. We are in the midst of a very scary era of human development. I fear that it may take even more worldwide disasters of biblical proportion to sway public sentiment into a more responsible and sustainable position.
I was pleased to read in the December 2022 issue about Mechai Viravaidya. I spent several weeks negotiating a USAID contract with him when I was working for an international engineering consulting firm in 1984 or thereabouts. At that time, his business cards were embossed on condoms, which he handed out cheerfully, with the suggestion they be used. Pretty groundbreaking. It’s great to see him still in a leadership role.
You report on Thailand’s population going from 40 million in 1974 to 72 million in 2022, which, while substantial, still speaks to a slowing compared to locations that have not had as much success with voluntary fertility decline—Egypt, for example, where I was stationed from 1975–1978. That country’s population was then also about 40 million. Our firm was helping Egypt begin to rehabilitate its infrastructure upon the departure of the Russians, as well as helping the government plan for the future. Our resident economist presented then-President Anwar Sadat’s Advisory Committee for Reconstruction with a graph showing how the country’s population would double to 80 million in 30 years. They responded, “Tsk,tsk, not possible.” Our economist asked, “Why not possible?” Their response: “No room.” Because, even then, Egypt was teeming with people, almost entirely situated on the narrow, irrigated margins along the Nile, around the delta extending from Cairo to the Mediterranean coast, and along the Suez Canal. But unlike Thailand, and in spite of there being “no room,” Egypt did almost exactly double in population in 30 years, and by 2022, its population stood at 111 million, nearly 40 million more than Thailand’s. I don’t want to point fingers, nor do I wish to cast doubt on Egypt being able to keep this up, but there has to be a lesson in here somewhere.
Population impact has always been a concern of mine and so I share these stories. I guess I am somewhat heartened by the recent National Geographic issue that predicts some leveling off of population in certain areas, in spite of new pushes to have more children to support the aging. Yikes. How do we rein in this madness before our poor old planet just can’t sustain its growth?! Good luck to us all.