Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


The Earth will have its Revenge

March 15, 2016

One of the major drivers of global warming is the greenhouse gases we emit by burning fossil fuels. Another major driver of global warming and one of the ways in which we are making our earth unsustainable for human life is the population explosion. When I was young the earth’s population was around 3 billion. It has more than doubled. When we talk about the growth of population, the crucial issue is about the time it would take to double. Population can double in as little as a generation. We are on the way to an earth with 12 billion people and counting. The devastation that is causing and will cause is incalculable and will make the earth inhospitable in short order, contributing to the overuse of water, the over fishing of the oceans, the deforestation of the jungles, the overuse of carbon based fuels even while we try to flush them out of the atmosphere and every other form of damage to the earth we depend on.

That makes population policy a tremendously important issue worldwide. Years ago we used to talk about ZPG, zero population growth. The idea had been talked about for centuries but a best-selling book, The Population Bomb, written by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, helped make it a movement in 1968. Just a few years later, the movement was hijacked by the national battle over abortion. But population growth did not suddenly become unimportant. It remains at the root of the unsustainability of the world we inhabit.

We have a choice, we can curb the growth of population voluntarily, or an angry earth will do it to us, reducing our children and grandchildren to refugees, beggars, and marauders and leaving them to die of thirst and starvation or gasping for oxygen, if they are not killed by armed bands looking for the scraps of the earth.

Naysayers like to point out that Malthus’ prediction of worldwide starvation has not yet come true. But the evidence that Malthus’ prediction is coming true is all around us. Lands once fertile are becoming deserts. Trees once crucial to a sustainable atmosphere are being chopped down at alarming rates in the southern hemisphere with worldwide consequences. Fish stocks have been shrinking and even more important, the coral reefs that are at the base of the oceanic food chain are dying. May Malthus rest in peace, but we are seeing what he feared. Human beings have never been good at listening to prophets. Those of us living now can’t claim we were not warned. We can only claim that too many people scoffed as they scoffed at the prophets of old. The earth will have its revenge.

I do not want to treat abortion as part of this problem because it raises so many separate issues and debates. But I do want to treat almost every other method of birth control as very much part of the issue. Whatever your faith, we have an obligation to life, to treat our world with the respect it deserves. Religious proclamations about populating the earth made thousands of years ago have been accomplished, and must now be subordinated to religious and secular claims about life, about treating each other as required by the Golden Rule, about protecting the soil and the air and the water that give us all life. There is no escape from that injunction. Or the earth will have its revenge. Make sure the people you elect start protecting us from world-wide disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 15, 2016.

Refugees and the Impact of Immigration

December 1, 2015

Two things have been capturing our attention, the plight of Syrian refugees, and the environmental summit in Paris. They are in fact closely connected.

First, immigration is valuable to us. Immigrants bolster national power – it matters that China and India have a billion people each. Immigrants grow the economy and make it easier to sustain what’s left of our social safety net because they work and contribute. They are productive  partly because they are new blood, and look at things with new eyes. This country has been at the forefront of innovation since it was founded because mixing peoples from different countries and parts of the globe consistently stimulated and refreshed the American economy. With globalization that is even more important. So for national security, economic health and continuing the path of American innovation, immigration is a big plus. In the case of refugees, generosity is also a big plus, good for our hearts and good for making America the world’s destination.

Immigration is not without problems. In the short run, the impact on jobs seems to be a wash – immigrants compete for existing jobs but create new ones by expanding the market. There is reason for concern that some supporters of DAESH (also called ISIL) could get in, but DAESH now has American supporters with passports. So the problem is much broader and needs to be dealt with in a broader way – Americanizing immigrants by reaching out, welcoming and including them in our activities.

But there is a problem. World population has tripled since I was a youngster. That’s an explosion. Chinese authorities understood that China could not sustain population growth and slowed it precipitously. Immigration initially doesn’t change world population. But the ultimate impact will result from improved health, cultural change, and rising living standards. Americans consume far more than our proportion of the world’s resources and we produce far more carbon dioxide and other toxins than our proportion of the world’s population. That is ground for concern. And immigration will stress the environment of some states and communities.

We can enjoy the benefits of immigration IF we can limit and reduce the environmental damage. It means that we should, must, continue to invest in ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and increase our use of passive solar heating and solar and wind energy. We must control our overuse of water, and invest in better ways to use it. We need to rethink our national land-use policies – irrigating deserts for farmland and building suburbs on productive lands with an abundance of water is wasteful, leading to drought, salinization of the land, and making many places unlivable.

Ultimately both our goals for immigration and our goals for America, our children and grandchildren must be driven by concern for the people who will inhabit it. That means care and concern for the immigrants and all of us, expressed through environmental policies that can keep the earth habitable. In that effort we have to be willing to share and accept effective regulation. There is no other way.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 1, 2015.

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