Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by Flickr.com user Kevin Harber

7 Steps Toward a Sustainable Society - #1

A central problem of the human predicament discussed in The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment is that we're small-group animals trying to live in ever more gigantic groups - and not doing very well at it. If catastrophe can be avoided, we're stuck with gigantic groups for a century or more, and very large groups "forever." It therefore behooves humanity to start asking itself how to maintain the small group coherence and interests that make people comfortable while greatly damping down intergroup competition and substantially enhancing the intergroup cooperation desperately needed to solve the human predicament. Can human cultural evolution be directed away from its current trajectory toward disaster and diverted toward creating a prosperous and equitable long-term future for society? The answer is, "yes, it could" if the small-group animal "family" attitudes can be properly channeled. The basic requirements would be quite simple - a set of overlapping and intertwined ethical-environmental steps toward sustainability such as suggested below and over the next few weeks here at the "Eco-Compass" blog. Whether such steps will be taken is, of course, an entirely different question. But here's the first of the steps we should take: One: Put births on a par with deaths. Human beings have always fought against early death from accident, hunger and sickness, and in the past century or so have employed improved sanitation and the use of pesticides and antibiotics to good effect in raising life-expectancy. But given the horrendous potential consequences of the explosion of human numbers following reduction of the death rate, we must pay equivalent attention to reducing the birthrate as well. As been done in many family planning programs, the happy family should be promoted as one that limits its numbers. But the change should be in the motivation. Traditionally the small family was supposed to supply a higher standard of living - including more stuff for each individual. The new approach could be to promote it as a multigenerational unit that in each generation limits its size in order to maximize the chances of each following generations retaining a happy, sustainable life style. To move in that direction, humanity must rapidly expand programs to educate and give job opportunities to women, make effective contraception universally available, and develop public support of population policies. The goal must be to halt population increase as soon as humanely possible, and then start reducing human numbers until births and deaths balance at population size that can be maintained without irreparable damage to our life-support systems. What do you think? Leave us a comment. Check back next week for the second step we should take toward a sustainable society. ———- Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. He is the author of hundreds of scientific papers, and numerous books including The Population Bomb and Betrayal of Science and Reason (Island Press, 1997). His latest book is The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, which he co-authored with his wife Anne.