One of my first summer jobs as a teenager involved demolishing an outhouse in the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The still-functional structure was a relic of a bygone era. Nostalgia has its purposes, but I doubt anyone missed those treks across the yard to do what’s necessary.
When indoor plumbing was first installed in the White House during the tenure of our sixth president, some referred to the modern convenience as a “quincy” in his honor. In 1940, during FDR’s time in office, 45 percent of American homes didn’t have indoor plumbing. Today, nearly half the world still lacks access to modern sanitation. Despite that sad fact, we’ve seen improvement around the world. Combined with other public health advances, that has dramatically reduced infant and child mortality, which triggered the era of rapid population growth. A newer technology, modern contraception, could enable us to achieve zero population growth.
Indoor plumbing is but one example of how we can embrace change. We’re an adaptable species—but only within biological limits. Columbia University’s Professor Radley Horton reports that vast swaths of our planet, from Mexico to Southeast Asia, are racing toward levels of heat and humidity where “it’s no longer possible to be able to sweat fast enough to prevent overheating.” Death ensues.
We’re engaged in planetary anarchy by ignoring the rules of nature as we pack ever more people into Earth’s closed system. What’s truly maddening about overpopulation is that we know what to do: Remove all barriers that prevent women from choosing smaller families, and we could achieve zero population growth and then begin to lower our numbers.
Why are humans so willing to embrace some changes, from indoor plumbing to online shopping, yet so many actively oppose measures such as voluntary family planning that can reduce population pressures on our life-sustaining ecosystems?
When it comes to urgently needed changes, education is the key. The young are our last, best hope. When Covid hit, Population Connection’s dedicated professional staff shifted immediately to remote activity. Forced to cancel our annual in-person Capitol Hill Days program that brings some 350 mostly young activists to DC to learn and to lobby, we dramatically expanded our reach with an online Twitter rally which reached over 9.2 million people. This past summer, we participated in a record 151 Advanced Placement trainings (many remote) for thousands of high school teachers. Like so many others, we were able to respond to a sudden shift.
As for dramatic change, just imagine if, instead of adding 80 million people to the planet annually, we added zero. Medical staff now assigned to maternity wards could provide relief to those working with elderly patients. Schools could transition to less-crowded classrooms. In the poorest places on earth, families could have more food to go around so their children wouldn’t be stunted. And those children could become productive adults who choose to have smaller families.
From grassroots activists to the current occupant of the Oval Office, we deeply appreciate those dedicated to “changing the now.” We need more who see the wisdom in helping to tidy up the mess we’ve made on the one planet clearly blessed with abundant resources. Focusing on voluntary methods to uncrowd this jewel of the known universe seems like the challenge of a lifetime.