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Open Letter Regarding a Topic Practically Impossible to Discuss

As my primary action for this year’s Global Population Speak Out, I decided to go all out and wrote and sent a message to a list of no less than 25 recipients. Both the list of recipients and the English translation of the message are below. Please note that I tried to stay as close to the original message as possible, so certain parts may sound slightly odd in English. Still, while I was translating I noticed that I somehow managed to forget my usual reference to the fate of all ancient empires, which is what I compare the current drive for constant growth to, but nothing to do about that now…

Recipients:

State agencies: Office of the President of Romania, Romanian Chamber of Deputies
Political Parties: Greens’ Movement (MV), Green Party (PV), Romanian Ecologist Party (PER)
TV stations: Antena 3, Pro TV, Realitatea TV
Radio stations: Radio Guerrilla, Radio Zu
Magazines: Descopera, National Geographic Romania
Newspapers and other publications: Academia Catavencu, Adevarul, Azi, Click, Cotidianul, Curentul, Cuvantul, Dilema Veche, Evenimentul Zilei, Gandul, Jurnalul National, Romania Libera
NGO: Contraceptive and Sex Education Society (SECS)

Message:

In a world where selfishness and greed are in control, in a world where most people’s thoughs are limited to worrying about today and, at most, tomorrow and where the press focuses largely only on dirt and “sensational” topics, mainly those of local and immediate interest, it is extremely difficult to bring up worldwide problems whose effects are noticed in the long term, especially when you’re talking about the really unpopular ones, whose existence isn’t even accepted by most people, and which can also be easily blamed on “others” each time when they are somehow noticed. And in a country where a large part of the population really has reasons to worry about tomorrow and the media is so preoccupied with the eternal muck of local and national politics, media scandals, fake stars and, possibly, football that even events that are truly history in the making, such as what’s currently going on in the Middle East, have great difficulty in dominating news programs and newspaper pages, it’s practically impossible.
Despite this situation, regardless of any risks, the first of which being that most recipients will stop reading after the next phrase, I will try to draw attention towards the most serious problem the world is facing for at least the last 50 years. The issue is overpopulation, and this message is being sent to you at this time because, starting in 2009, each February, an event called Global Population Speak Out takes place, encouraging researchers, university professors, writers or politicians, as well as activists or simple concerned citizens who acknowledge the existence of this problem and desire to solve it, to express their views in public, breaking this social, political and media taboo because the first condition that must be fulfilled before a problem can be solved is for people to understand that said problem exists, and the second is that solving it must be truly desired.

As you probably know, the world’s population is estimated to reach seven billion by the end of the year, continuing to grow and exceeding nine billion about halfway through the century, only afterwards probably starting to drop slightly. This information is very easy to learn, for example even from the January issue of National Geographic Magazine. But many sources, including said magazine, which I’d like to take this opportunity to state that this time I was deeply disappointed by, stop at offering this data and claiming, in one way or another, that the problem, inasmuch as they somehow accept that one exists, is about to be solved on its own, which is completely false.
It is true that a few studies that claim that the current population, and in some cases even one of more than ten billion, could be sustainable exist, but those studies generally only take into account one element, such as for example the available amount of drinking water or the capacity to produce food or energy, and ignore the effects that such intensive exploitation would have on the environment. The studies that attempted to take into account a large number of factors, including the environmental impact, tend to reach results varying between 500 million and three billion. Under these circumstances, the problem could have perhaps solved itself if this process of reducing birthrates would have started immediately after World War II, in which case the population would have probably peaked somewhere around three billion and then would have started to drop, staying within sustainable limits. But when the estimated population peak is more than three times the maximum that could possibly be sustainable, we certainly can’t talk about the problem solving itself!
At the same time, one can’t say that the blame for overpopulation lies solely on certain countries and certain cultures either. It is true that the people who benefit from at least a resonable standard of living tend to have fewer children, but when the world’s population is so much above any potentially sustainable limits and those people have access to this information, if they wish to look for it, as well as to a large number of effective contraceptive methods, I’m more inclined to blame the average European or North American who chooses to have even a single child, not to mention those who have more, than the average African or, closer to home, even the Gypsy who lives in abject poverty, who ends up creating their own football squad, as they say, as those people are mostly lacking access to both a wide range of effective contraceptive methods and any real way of learning how things stand in the world.
In fact a large part of the problem has to do with resource consumption, and it’s logical that a larger number of people will consume more resources. We currently consume 50% more resources in a year than the planet can regenerate, not to mention that we use very many non-renewable resources and dump toxic substances in every direction. It is true that the full blame for this exaggerated consumption currently lies on a small number of people, about 2% of the world’s population, who are responsible for 50% of the current consumption, so 75% of the maximum allowable consumption under sustainable conditions. But, at the same time, the large majority of the population, about 80%, lives in poverty, in one way or another, consuming only about 20% of resources, so 30% of what could be consumed under sustainable conditions. Which leaves us, the remaining 18%, to currently consume 30% of resources, so 45% of what could be consumed under sustainable conditions.
Some conclusions can easily be drawn from the above paragraph: If we reduce the consumption of the 2%, it appears as if we would solve the problem for the moment. But if we increase that of the 80% we really have no way out. And yet even we, the 18%, desire more and, under certain circumstances, are even entitled to do so. But if we desire more despite having a roof over our heads that we probably don’t fear will collapse on top of us, not wondering where will we obtain some food from the next day, having easy access at least to basic medical services, having certain electronics in our home as well and perhaps even a car in front of our house or apartment building, and so on, what could be said about the 80%? And yet they have the same right to live a decent life as we do, right? But how could these resources be distributed in such a manner so we would all live a decent life, if simply aligning all, so the 2% as well as the 80%, to the standard of living that we, the 18% who even so desire something more, enjoy would take the consumption to 250% of what could be sustainable?
Of course, I recently saw a report about the engineering challenges created by population growth, which included plans to tackle the issues and possible solutions that would allow the current standards to be preserved even under these circumstances. But, on the one hand, some of those solutions only delay the inevitable or even have a very high potential to actually be harmful, not just for the environment but even for the people as well. On the other hand, other solutions are very ingenious, very costly or require immense effort, or perhaps all three at the same time. Under these circumstances, I can’t help but wonder why should we use our ingenuity, time and resources in a desperate attempt to control the effects of a problem we ourselves create instead of solving the problem, allowing us to then use our ingenuity, time and resources in order to develop, advance and, practically, evolve?

But, you will ask, what do all of these have to do with Romania, when we are facing a population drop? Which is a completely understandable question under the current circumstances, when both the politicians and the public opinion in Romania are focused on the economic aspect and, mainly, on welfare. Not to mention that we also have the occasional utterly terrifying statements, like the one Mr. Mircea Geoana made in 2009, if I’m not mistaken, when he said that, considering the negative population growth in Romania and the effects this has on the ratio between the people who are active on the labor market and those who depend on welfare, it would be time for some serious debates regarding the issue of abortion to start, suggesting that perhaps it should once again become illegal! In other words, he was suggesting, practically the state should be able to force a person to have a child despite that person not wanting it, for economic and, considering his opinions, religious reasons, but not the other way around as well!
Well, the connection has to do with the fact that the whole world is connected and no country is some sort of island floating alone through space. You will immediately notice what I mean to say if you will look around a little and read some labels. What countries do the products that are currently in the room you’re in come from? Where were the clothes you are wearing produced? Where was the food you ate today produced? And, though this is more of an exercise of imagination, how many other countries do you assume those producers acquired their raw materials from? Therefore, how many areas of the world does even a country like Romania leave a mark on, through consumption? How many of those areas aren’t currently suffering as a result of this consumption, the pollution generated by the production of these goods or the mistreatment of the workers who need to deal with this worldwide demand? And how dependent is Romania on other countries’ resources?
In addition, Romania covers about 0.16% of the world’s land mass. Considering a maximum sustainable population of three billion, it would result that Romania’s population shouldn’t exceed 4.8 million. But of course we can’t compare a relatively fertile area like Romania with areas of desert or tundra, therefore it is reasonable to double this number, to 9.6 million. More than that would not be reasonable anymore, because fertile areas are more important to other species as well, not just to humans, and either way Romania faces plenty of problems from this point of view, such as the relatively low fresh water resources and the natural desertification tendency of the country’s south. Therefore, even Romania’s population is more than double compared to the maximum that could be sustainable, and I want to stress that those numbers really are maximums, so the recommended values would be even significantly below them. Of course, the current downward trend is encouraging, but it is still too slow.
But, you will ask, how do we actually solve that economic problem that we hear about every day if so few children will be born? We do this by solving the real problem, which is the current money-based system, the situation of those who rely on welfare being only one of its symptoms. In other words, on the one hand we offer people opportunities and make them more responsible, and on the other we move from a money-based economy to a resource-based one. This move is necessary to solve many other problems, so it can be said that it’s not necessary to do anything just because of dropping birthrates.
Discussions about a new economic order are not the purpose of this message, but I find myself needing to provide a few of the basic ideas of this concept: We should start by clearly stating the fact that the tax paid by each employee “for retirement” is not for their own retirement, but is practically a “solidarity tax” through which those who currently require such assistance are supported. From here we move on to making people more responsible, making them understand that, if they can work and have an income, it is their responsibility to make savings and investments in order to be able to support themselves when they will no longer be working. But this policy also requires a different approach from the state, which would need to offer citizens the opportunity to make a living in such a manner, on the one hand, through guarantees and strict controls, raising people’s confidence in the savings and investments institutions and directly investing in educating people regarding these possibilities, and on the other hand easing the way for those who try to live more or less independently from the rest of society, which means the people who would desire to obtain a large part of their food from their own yard, produce the required energy through their own means, preferably through “green” methods, travel by foot or bicycle and so on. Which can be directly connected to the resource-based economy, this concept meaning that, regardless of the available amount of money, what matters are the available resources, products and services, which will be directly distributed to those who need such assistance. The concept is complex and really can’t be discussed here, but the basic idea in this situation would be to directly provide these people with the products and services they require in order to live decent lives, which would be acquired by the state directly from the producers, in sufficient quantities to avoid those demeaning crowds that we currently see when such products are handed out to pensioners, and then distributed to those who need them. This way local producers are encouraged and at the same time all intermediaries, which as we all know inflate prices even several times, are eliminated, which means both that the people who rely on welfare will be able to benefit from products and services both in higher quantity and of better quality than the ones they can currently afford, and that the state will spend less for this than it currently spends on welfare.
So this problem only exists because some interest groups currently desire for it to exist. Realistically, a Romania with, shall we say, eight million inhabitants could look extraordinarily well. It would mean a Bucharest with, probably, around one million inhabitants, few other cities with one hundred thousand or more and in general a much more relaxed life. Of course, some localities would be abandoned, some of those areas later being greened and returned to nature and others being used to build new settlements, as modern as possible. It would mean eliminating the need to build new roads and parking spaces, as the existing ones would be more than sufficient. It would mean that, instead of every remaining piece of green space being destroyed for new buildings, green spaces inside cities could even increase in size and the current buildings would be sufficient, people even ending up acquiring homes without paying anything, as those would already be built and unused, even if some apartment buildings would be torn down in order to build houses in their place. It would, of course, mean less pollution and less dependence on imports. It would mean more space for organic farming, which means a health bonus for the inhabitants. Considering some massive investments in education, research and technology, which are required anyway, it would mean an improvement in the quality of local production, which is currently often harmed by the need to ensure jobs for as many people as possible although they wouldn’t be really needed. It would, also, mean the chance to develop a truly student-centered educational system, as there would be fewer students, which would significantly improve the quality of education. In general, although it would indeed mean an overall negative economic growth, it would mean the chance to significantly improve each individual’s standard of living in a completely sustainable way, which is what truly matters.

In the end, what do all of these mean? They mean that the population growth rate must be strongly negative and that perhaps we should start advancing down that path specifically in the areas where it already is negative, as is the case of Romania, later acting as an example for the other countries. But, of course, all must be done with great care, as a negative population growth can very easily be achieved by increasing mortality, which is certainly not desirable. Therefore, it is necessary to enforce some drastic measures meant to reduce birthrates and select potential parents, respecting some very exact and objective criteria, in order to allow both the standard of living and the average lifespan of the people to continue to improve in a sustainable manner, without being required to fully use our ingenuity, time and resources only to somehow preserve the current situation.
Very simply put, not having children really is a completely personal decision, but having children is perhaps the most public act that most people will ever be capable of. Therefore, society, the state and, in general, the world should in fact get involved when it comes to this. In the end, driving a car has an infinitely lower potential to cause harm than giving birth to a child, and yet people need driver’s licenses…
Of course, any such initiatives are met with an extreme amount of hostility, either simply due to selfishness, due to religious beliefs, due to being associated with certain contemptible events observed throughout history, or due to various other reasons. But somebody needs to look at the situation as a whole as well, as rationally as possible, and see what actually needs to be done, in the interest of the whole world. Not that such an overall view is needed to understand that the entire population should benefit from easy access to a wide range of modern contraceptive methods in complete discretion, as well as from real and comprehensive sex education, which should also include information regarding the overpopulation problem and the advantages of significantly reducing population, even from an early age. Equally obvious should be the fact that people who suffer from illnesses that could be directly passed on to their children, or in whose families a significantly above average incidence of some serious ailments is noticed, shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce under any circumstances. And, seeing as such a reduction can’t be achieved in due time unless most people will not have any children, it should also be understood that those who simply have no special talent, no ability that is not strictly the result of education and intensive effort, can’t currently justify the desire to continue spreading their genes.

Discussions on this topic are very long and extraordinarily difficult, and also extremely unpopular. It was just because of this extremely negative popular reaction that the scientists who alerted the world regarding this issue in the ’70s, in the countries that were sufficiently advanced even then to provide them with the opportunity to correctly analyze the situation, were silenced. That way an important opportunity of solving the problem more easily, with fewer sacrifices and, to put it bluntly, without resorting to draconian measures, was lost. But perhaps the chance of solving the problem somehow, even if now it will be extraordinarily difficult and will require some extremely harsh measures, is not lost. Still, extremely difficult does not mean impossible, and either way nothing worthwhile’s ever easy…
This message does not have a specific recipient, but is addressed to all people who are intelligent and rational, capable of seeing the situation as a whole, thinking in the long term and making the required decisions, no matter how difficult or unpopular they may be. More exactly, through this message I intend only to draw attention towards the problem and, though I’m practically convinced that I will completely fail in this endeavor, encourage others to take this reality into account when they make plans for the future as well. Though this is only the first step, necessary but by no means sufficient, only by solving this problem, preferably strictly by drastically reducing birthrates, without increasing mortality in any way, do we have a chance to offer a sustainable high standard of living to all. Of course, any such endeavors appear utopian, simple dreams at best, and generally are seen as illusions of dangerous insane people, but I will ask you again to look around and will ask how much of what you see wasn’t at some point one person’s simple dream or a simple illusion of a person considered by the others to be insane, in a more or less dangerous way?

1 Comments

  1. Liz Rowe says:

    Ans THIS is exactly why I want to live in a sustainable manner – repurpose some building into a “green” home, work on having a proper garden (although finding earth that hasn’t been mucked over by pesticides is going to be a right pain) – and taking what is available and caring for it – even, dare I say (I dare, I DARE!) nurturing the planet that has given us so much. Limiting the population is long past due – and there’s just no denying it. Much as I hate to admit the apocolyptic movies of the 60’s (Solyent Green comes to mind) have things right. We are out of control, and unless we act NOW, the wake up call is going to be much more intense than anything our puny little minds can imagine.

    February 16, 2011 @ 10:36 PM

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