Population, pollution and politics

March 11, 1992

Healing the planet: Strategies for resolving the environmental crisis
By Paul and Anne Ehrlich. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1991. $US29.95
Reviewed by Craig Brittain

Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, a best-seller first published in 1968, got people thinking (and caused a furore in the Catholic Church). For many, it was the first book to bring home the full seriousness of the population explosion and the idea that the environment could be irreparably damaged. Though it was dismissed by some as too alarmist, it had a significant influence on the growing environmental movement of the '70s.

The message was simple and is repeated in this book: there are, or soon will be, too many people; the increases in population worldwide are putting an unbearable strain on the environment.

The statistics are frightening. When The Population Bomb was published, there were 3.5 billion people, increasing at the rate of 70 million per year; in 1990 there were 5.4 billion, increasing at 95 million per year; in 50 years, at current rates of increase, the population will be between 10 and 11 billion.

Healing the planet is intended as a companion volume to the 1968 book, concentrating this time on the environment. The Ehrlichs are in no doubt that population and environment are connected. For them, oil was the main reason for the Gulf War. And an oil war wouldn't have been necessary if (a) the US population had stayed at its 1943 level of 135 million, when the US could meet all of its own oil needs; and (b) if the conservation policies and alternative energy programs introduced by the Carter administration hadn't been scrapped by Reagan and Bush.

They believe that the damage being done to the environment is caused by a combination of population size and technological advancement: large populations and poverty destroy the environment; so do affluent societies with smaller populations — much more so per head of population. The rich produce a lot more rubbish, while the rest of the world scrounges for food, water and fuel.

Their solution is that population must be controlled in both the developed and the undeveloped world, and the developed world has to consume and waste less. Which is all very well, but ...

The Ehrlichs seem to have unlimited faith in "reason" — that scientists, economists, doctors and academics will undergo a green conversion, that business will mend its ways and that an enlightened capitalism will get us out of this mess.

I hope they're right, but there's no evidence to suggest that they are. I can't see the rich nations restraining themselves so that the poorer nations can even fractionally improve their lot, or the affluent sections of or society sacrificing anything for the poor — our own or anybody else's.

Capitalism has never been noted for its social conscience; its definition is profit. Ted Wheelright's excellent new book, Oil and Book Club, 1991) is the sort of book the Ehrlichs should have read, and leaves no illusion about the nature of capitalism. Oil companies and the governments that back them (
US
and UK) are self-interested and ruthless. They make and break governments, as the Whitlam government discovered to its cost, and they don't give a damn about the environment.

However, Healing the planet is a useful summary of recent research on the environment. There are chapters on the energy situation, global warming, the ozone layer, pollution, use of land and water, and sustainable agriculture. It also has a detailed bibliography. There's plenty of information; it's a pity, though, that they haven't thought more about politics.

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