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Apocalypse Soon : The latest overpopulation alarm has a twist: Not only lives but lifestyles are at stake

New York journalist Michael D'Antonio's last article for this magazine was "Golden Oldies," about America's WWII generation

Henry W. Kendall moves through the halls of the physics department at Princeton with grad students trailing him like stardust behind a comet. Even here, where Einstein’s presence still reverberates, Nobel Prize winners attract attention. As Kendall strides along, the students practically cling to him like groupies. A tall, handsome, silver-haired man, Kendall is as glamorous a figure as the physics department is likely to see.

Once inside a crowded lecture hall, the 66-year-old MIT professor quickly makes it clear that he has come not as the 1990 Nobelist in physics. Today he is appearing as the scientific world’s prophet of gloom. Overpopulation and environmental catastrophe are closer than we think, he declares.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 19, 1993 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 19, 1993 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
In “Apocalypse Soon” (Aug. 29), the Earth’s approximate annual population increase was incorrectly noted. It should have been 90 million.

“The bulk of the misery will be visited upon the Third World,” Kendall predicts as charts on population, land-use and food production flash on a screen behind him. In parts of Africa, Asia and South America, poverty will increase until nature itself curbs the human population with mass starvation. “It will occur brutally,” he says, “in the way we have already seen in Somalia.”

Although his message may seem extreme, Kendall is not an isolated Cassandra. In the past year, thousands of elite scientists have joined what amounts to an international campaign to convince us that a global disaster is impending. But since similar warnings were raised in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and the apocalypse never came, Kendall worries that the public may be numb to his message. To overcome this resistance, he practically assaults his audience with statistics and projections:

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* The Earth’s population is growing by nearly 900 million every year. Today’s total of about 5.5 billion is expected to grow to about 10 billion by 2050. Most of the increase will occur where hunger and poverty are already widespread.

* After decades of steady increases, world per-capita food production has recently declined. “The green revolution seems to be over,” Kendall says.

* Deforestation and pollution threaten agriculture worldwide. About 11% of the planet’s “vegetated surface"--an area the size of China and India combined--is already damaged.

* Eighty nations now experience water shortages. Some American farmers are pumping “fossil water” out of the ground faster than it can be replaced.

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If nothing is done, these problems will converge in the next 50 years and plunge the world into terrible suffering, Kendall says. He describes a level of pain--starvation, disease, anarchy, a scarred landscape--more horrific than anything humanity has seen before. As he speaks, it is easy to imagine hungry people piled atop each other in Third World countries where the rivers are polluted and green valleys have become desert.

And then he brings his vision home to the budding scientists in the audience. “In the United States, we think these problems affect people living far away in breechcloths,” he says. But overpopulation may spread suffering and chaos to the developed nations as well. “If we wait until we see the damage here,” he warns, “it will be too late.”

When he finishes, Kendall invites listeners to sign on to his campaign, which intends to make population the life-and-death political issue of our time. Indeed, now that the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation have receded, overpopulation may replace the atom bomb in our collective nightmares.

The specter of overpopulation has made for best-selling books and disturbing talk-show interviews since the 1960s. But today, there’s a difference: The scientific elite seems almost unanimous in its fear. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences and Britain’s Royal Society issued a rare joint statement on the dangerous trends in population and environmental degradation. The campaign gained further momentum last November, when the Union of Concerned Scientists published a “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” on the same topics. Signed by more than 1,500 experts, including 104 Nobel Prize winners, this document warns that humanity faces “spirals of environmental decline, poverty and unrest leading to social, economic and environmental decline.”

As chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists--which he helped form in 1969 as an anti-nuclear organization--Kendall drafted the warning and used his influence to obtain the signatures of Desmond Tutu, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Nadine Gordimer and the heads of scientific societies from London to Beijing. He is using their names to create a global movement that will try to persuade governments to limit population, stop environmental destruction and reduce consumption of everything from water to oil.

Kendall is by no means the only scientist speaking out on the dangers of population, but he’s the only one with the stature conferred by the Nobel Prize as well as the resources of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which has 30 full-time staffers and claims 100,000 members. Kendall is using both these assets to recruit scientists for his crusade. But he is not promoting research for “some bit of scientific magic that will cure everything,” he says. “We’re beyond that.”

Kendall has no doubts about the enormous threats of global warming and explosive population growth in the underdeveloped world. As more and more people crowd the planet, they produce more of the “greenhouse gases” that can cause global warming, and they strain ecological resources such as tropical forests and water supplies.

The twin dangers of population and pollution are the most important scientific problems of our time, he insists, and because these problems are created by people, their solutions are inherently political.

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The political aspects of the population-environment debate are more inflammatory today than they were in the 1970s because world migration patterns have made Kendall’s audience aware of how their own lives might be affected by population growth elsewhere. Kendall knows that some of his statements--particularly those envisioning the dire effects of population pressures in America--may fuel the arguments of groups that advocate restricting immigration, so he is careful to distance himself from any anti-immigration sentiment; he sees himself as moderately liberal when it comes to politics, and he believes that severe restrictions would create a backlash against immigrants and violate America’s democratic spirit.

But the radical edge of the population-environment movement has no such concerns. Garrett Hardin, an emeritus professor at UC Santa Barbara, for example, argues for zero population growth paired with tight immigration controls, which could be paraphrased, “Protect the world, protect our way of life.” In his new book, “Living Within Limits,” Hardin even goes so far as to oppose sending food to hungry people in places that may be overpopulated. “Every time we send food to save lives in the present,” he writes, “we are destroying lives in the future.”

As Hardin’s tone indicates, the current population campaign has a more strident quality than previous crusades. This time, the warnings about fertility rates are joined with deep concerns about the fragile ecological balance on planet Earth--and American lifestyles. This time, the panic is closer to home.

KENDALL’S ARGUMENT FOR RE-EXAMINING THE POPULATION question begins with the assumption that the Earth’s ability to sustain life--its carrying capacity--is finite. It is possible, he says, to use up the planet’s farmland and water, even materials like iron and copper.

This problem can be seen in parts of Texas and Arizona, says a Kendall ally, Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel. In those areas, farmers have pumped out the ground water at a rate that far exceeds nature’s ability to replenish it. “Some places have simply been pumped dry and cannot be farmed,” he notes. “This is what happens when you put too much pressure on a resource.”

Human beings can also alter nature in unexpected ways. At Princeton, Kendall described this phenomenon with a graph tracing fish stocks in the North Atlantic. It showed how the decline of many species, due to overfishing and pollution, led to a rise in the number of inedible “trash fish” such as spiny dogfish and skates. Even if fishing was curtailed now, it’s not at all certain that the desired species would be able to compete with the occupiers who have filled their little corner of the sea.

More serious, says Pimentel, is the effect of chemicals and modern farming techniques on production levels in the overall agricultural environment. Monoculture--growing single crops over a wide area--has contributed to erosion so severe it has ruined 100 million acres of what was once the richest farmland in the United States, he says. Misguided farming and scavenging for firewood have allowed so much topsoil to be washed away in Haiti that large areas have been reduced to infertile bedrock.

Kendall points to Haiti as an example of how all the problems he describes--Third World poverty, ecological disaster and overpopulation--can culminate in massive immigration. Political chaos and environmental problems also have made life so hard that tens of thousands have tried to emigrate to the United States. Many have lost their lives making the passage to Florida in small boats. Others have tried to use official channels, applying for admittance as political refugees. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, more than 35,000 Haitians sought asylum in the United States in just the last six months of 1992.

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No matter where refugees originate, Kendall says, when they arrive in large numbers, they will threaten Americans’ quality of life. “But it’s not all in the future,” he adds. “It’s starting already. If you look along the U.S.-Mexican border, from Texas to New Mexico, Arizona and California, there are already difficulties.” Indeed, shantytowns on the Texas border have been compared by some local activists to Third World slums.

“Today, Mexico is producing on the order of 2 million or 3 million people a year that try and get into the United States,” Kendall says. “Mexico’s growth rate, while it’s not out of control, is still pretty damn large. They are going from 88 million people now to 125 million people in about 15 years. Mexico’s got deep pollution and environmental problems. Their agricultural base is not in great shape. With all that, there will be at least a doubling of the flow (of illegal immigrants) in five or 10 years.”

Although Kendall resists connecting his overpopulation theories to any effort to restrict immigration, there are activists who do just that. Dan Stein, director of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says that overpopulation in the developing world “will lead to explosive immigration pressure between now and the year 2020.” Stein is especially critical of immigration regulations that have led to a steady increase in the numbers of immigrants since 1965. “A huge wave of immigration is going on now,” he notes, “a wave that appears to have no end.”

In recent years, immigrants have settled mainly in California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Florida. In certain locales, “schools are already overcrowded, and there’s increased demand for social services,” Stein says. By expanding the labor pool, immigrants also push down wages, he says. “If you don’t intervene, the pressure won’t stop until the standard of living here equals Bangladesh.”

The available statistics do suggest that immigration is on the rise worldwide. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a private, nonpartisan organization, the worldwide refugee population has climbed steadily, from fewer than 8 million in 1983 to more than 17.5 million today. But while industrialized countries may be bracing for an onslaught, it has yet to materialize. It turns out that most of the world’s refugees do not travel from one continent to the next. Instead, hungry Third World people travel to neighboring underdeveloped states in search of relief. Tom Argent, a policy analyst for the committee, says that poorer countries bear the real brunt of refugees, who migrate en masse and can seriously overburden resources.

“For example, there are just over 1 million Mozambicans in Malawi, a country that itself has just 9 million people,” notes Argent. “You can imagine what a country goes through when it suddenly has 11% more people.” Considering the refugee problems already endured by smaller, poorer countries such as Malawi, Argent is not sure the time has come for Americans to be alarmed about refugee hordes. The committee, which considers itself a human-rights organization, opposes efforts to restrict legitimate applications for asylum. “In the U.S. and Europe, people talk about being overrun,” Argent says. “That’s not happening now.” The State Department reports that 132,000 refugees were settled in America last year in addition to about 970,000 legal immigrants. The INS estimates that more than 1 million undocumented immigrants also arrived last year. Argent argues that these figures are not large for a country as big as the United States, but he does agree that Americans should be prepared for more immigrants.

Kendall knows that by emphasizing population’s effect on First World quality of life, he may be appealing to groups such as Stein’s, which has been criticized for advocating stringent immigration limits. Similar restrictions have recently been proposed in Germany and across Europe, where violent attacks have been made against guest workers and asylum seekers. Kendall predicts that an anti-immigrant movement will grow in America, generating support for legal sanctions against newcomers. But he is careful to explain that where anti-immigration groups focus primarily on limiting the effects of migration from poor and overcrowded countries, he is concerned with root causes. The problems of immigrant pressure can only be solved in humane ways by controlling population growth and raising the standard of living in developing countries, he says. “You stop the flow at its source. By making it unnecessary to migrate.”

IF THE ALARM SOUNDED BY KENDALL, HARDIN AND OTHERS SOUNDS FAMILIAR, it is because we have heard this siren before. But as the critics like to point out, 25 years have passed since Stanford ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” and it has yet to go off. Nearly 20 years have gone by since Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, in “The Limits to Growth,” predicted that we would run out of oil in 1992. And it has been almost 200 years since Thomas Robert Malthus, the grandfather of the population prophets, predicted that humanity’s numbers would outstrip the food supply, leading to worldwide starvation.

As far as University of Maryland economist Julian L. Simon is concerned, we should all be more than a little skeptical about the current crop of doomsayers. According to Simon, Henry Kendall is no more correct than Chicken Little. “The problem is that he is probably a total amateur with respect to the fields he’s talking about,” says Simon. “I wouldn’t expect a physicist to know about these issues, but people from the hard sciences often can’t seem to resist thinking they are experts in everything.”

For anyone who has heard Kendall or considered the works of Ehrlich, Hardin and a host of others, Simon’s views may seem, at first, almost ridiculous. In the world according to Simon, global warming is not a proven problem, and natural resources such as water, energy and land are not dwindling. Overpopulation is not threatening us with famine and strife. And immigration promises the salvation, not the destruction, of the American standard of living. Simon’s ideas can fall so strangely on the public ear that some of his audiences often laugh out loud.

“It happened recently at Colorado College,” he recalls. “I said that today we have more food, more trees, more parks, than 100 years ago. This is all factually true, but when I said it, they acted as if they couldn’t believe it.” The world’s resources are practically limitless, argues Simon, because of humanity’s boundless ingenuity. Genetic engineering and super-efficient farming could easily provide more than enough food for 10 billion people, he suggests. And history tells us that as economic conditions improve in poorer countries, fertility rates decrease naturally.

It turns out that experts at the United Nations more or less agree with Simon. “It’s assumed that world population will stabilize at 11.6 billion people by the end of the 22nd Century,” says Armindo Miranda, senior population analyst at the U.N. in New York. Some countries will experience serious problems due to overpopulation, Miranda predicts, but he does not foresee a worldwide crisis. “I am concerned,” he adds, “but a catastrophe is not impending.”

In his cubbyhole office across the street from the General Assembly building, Miranda reaches for a report that shows fertility rates have declined in recent years in much of Asia. Around the world, he says, “most of the countries with high fertility rates are taking steps to reduce the growth.” Miranda notes that Sri Lanka has nearly halved its once-exploding population growth rate through education and the wider availability of contraceptives. Public education and contraceptive distribution have had similar results in many other countries, he adds. Worldwide population growth has been reduced from 2.1% a year in the late 1960s to 1.7% today.

Although the U.N.'s data are widely used to predict an imminent disaster, Miranda insists that a more sophisticated analysis should include factors that reduce the effect of Third World growth. People born in undeveloped countries actually put less pressure on the planet because they use fewer resources and cause less pollution, says Miranda. A baby born in the United States, he says, uses five times more energy and other resources--and also generates more tons of waste in a lifetime. Because countries like the United States and West European nations are expected to soon stabilize and may even decline in population, Miranda believes the planet can handle the growth of the Third World.

This doesn’t mean that explosive growth is not a problem in some countries. “If you look at the suffering in some places, you have to be concerned,” Miranda concedes. “But Asia used to be a great source of concern. There were predictions of famine every year in India, and it never happened. Basically, I am optimistic.”

Economist Simon is similarly optimistic about the world’s ability to supply a growing population with life-sustaining resources. He points out that many basic goods and services--copper, electricity, even petroleum--are less expensive and more readily available today than they were in the distant past. This is largely because of improvements in the way we find, extract, substitute for and use the Earth’s wealth. Simon cites an example of this process involving West Texas oil. In the 19th Century, some farmers were annoyed by the goo that lay so close to the surface that crops could not be grown. When it was discovered that the petroleum could be refined for high-quality fuel, landowners were able to convert a pesky problem to cash. Technological advance had made some of them rich.

Simon does not oppose efforts to conserve resources, when they make sense, but he says that exploiting one resource can compensate for depleting another. He agrees that high population density can create suffering in local areas, but he sees more danger than benefit in the dire message that Kendall is bringing the world. He fears that the warning will encourage morally suspect policies in the name of a global emergency, policies like China’s zealous population-control campaign, which includes legal limits on family size and, allegedly, forced abortions.

Simon also fears that the dire warnings about population pressures will encourage racist, anti-immigrant sentiment in America. “It’s not only morally repugnant,” he says, “but it also keeps out the new workers and new thinkers the country will need to maintain its economy.”

When Simon has appeared in debates with opponents, such as UC Santa Barbara’s Hardin, they usually get most of the attention. Simon believes this is because frightening predictions appeal to some basic human need to fear the future--even though they are almost always wrong. “But these prophets of doom, people like Kendall and Garrett Hardin, have always been with us, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Bible. The only difference,” he adds, “is that Ezekiel and Jeremiah were much better writers.”

DESPITE THE ARGUMENT offered by Simon, Miranda and other critics, the weight of scientific opinion rests heavily with the prophets of gloom. Julian Simon has precious few allies who will stand with him in public, but thousands of leading experts have added their names to the campaign to warn of overpopulation and environmental degradation. It is this combination of threats-- destruction of plant and animal species, rain forests and ozone; depletion of water, topsoil and fish stocks--not simply population growth, that makes this particular crusade different, Kendall argues.

So far, Kendall and the Union of Concerned Scientists have declined to present a formal plan for averting the crisis they describe. Kendall expects to spend many years simply making speaking appearances to try to educate the public and world political leaders. Ever the rational scientist, he is certain that public skepticism will be overwhelmed by his facts. And when public concern about the emergency coalesces, says Kendall, scientists will play a major role in developing the political and technical proposals to end the destruction of important ecosystems--like the ozone layer--and reduce fertility.

Any proposal would have to accommodate a host of political, cultural, economic and even religious concerns. For example, any effort to limit global population through birth-control devices will inevitably run up against the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes birth control and abortion. And a few countries--Iraq and Saudi Arabia are examples--actually promote population growth, presumably for economic or national security reasons.

Some models for controlling world population are already in place. The members of the U.N. reached a general agreement on population issues in 1974, calling for wider education and availability of birth control, and many countries have been able to slow growth since then. Between the early 1960s and early 1980s, birthrates in east Asia and Latin America declined by more than 30%, and in Africa, overall fertility rates have declined slightly.

But the pace of change is gradual, and many poorer countries are still expected to double in size in 30 years. Within the population-control movement there are wide differences of opinion about what can and should be done to improve the prospects for the future. FAIR’s Stein, for example, believes it is almost too late to prevent suffering on the level that Somalia experienced last year from spreading to many other countries.

What America can do, he says, is protect itself by imposing a temporary moratorium on immigration and reforming the laws and regulations that determine how and why many newcomers are admitted each year. This is necessary, he says, to preserve a high standard of living and avert the intolerant, even violent backlash against immigrants that can occur “when people feel they are losing control of their future. The pressure forces them into intergroup conflict. It’s human nature.”

Such conflicts are already brewing in Western Europe. In Germany, skinheads have killed Turkish immigrants with a firebomb. Attackers have said they were motivated by the belief that the outsiders take away jobs, drain funds from social programs and erode their country’s standard of living. In recent years, the number of asylum seekers--who are eligible for free housing, food, medical care, education and other services--from Eastern Europe has placed a burden on the German government. With nearly 250,000 asylum seekers arriving just this year, the Parliament recently made it easier for the government to send some of them back to their home countries.

Stein says America should follow the European example--toughening the immigration process--while at the same time sending more development aid abroad. He wants industrialized nations to spend billions on worldwide family planning, literacy training and direct business investment. “The best we can hope to do is help sustain them while they solve their own problems,” he says. “At the same time, national security will require that we keep them from marching into the developed world.”

In California, politicians have sensed increasing public concern about immigration. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are calling for increased funding for border patrols. Just this month, Gov. Pete Wilson, noting that immigrants consume $3 billion of the state’s services each year, advocated a plan to deny citizenship to children born in this country of illegal immigrants.

Stein says the ideal U.S. population, now about 255 million, should be less than 200 million, a level at which a high standard of living could be matched by a clean environment.

While 200 million may seem extremely low, it is still double the number that can be sustained once readily available supplies of energy are depleted, says Cornell ecologist Pimentel. If Americans wish to continue their high-energy, high-consumption lifestyle, he wrote recently, “then its ideal population should be targeted at 40 million to 100 million people.”

Ideas such as drastic limits on immigration and cutting the U.S. population by as much as half evoke immediate and vocal opposition. FAIR’s agenda for controlling immigration has been opposed by those who see a racial bias in efforts to close the door at a time when Asians and Latinos compose the largest immigrant groups. The connection between population control and anti-immigration efforts is “an unholy alliance that can lead to eugenics,” says Vibiana Andrade, director of the immigrant-rights program for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Strict border controls limiting crossings from Mexico would disrupt the economy and political structure of that country, she says. “Given the population growth in Mexico and the economy, they cannot sustain the number of wage earners that will come of age in the near future.”

Likewise, any suggestion that the nation’s population be cut as drastically as Pimentel proposes stirs immediate concerns about how such a goal would be reached. Would the government try to limit the number of children a woman may bear? What kinds of sanctions might be imposed against those who break the rules?

AS HE TRAVELS THE COUNTRY, Henry Kendall tries to avoid this kind of explosive question. Instead, he says, governments must get more serious about using the tools “that are already well known"--economic development, education, conservation and pollution-reducing technology.

The first priorities must be economic development, so that poor countries can improve conditions, and education, especially for women of childbearing age, he adds. Analyst Miranda of the U.N. points out that even in poor countries, education for women, which provides them with alternatives to traditional roles, always seems to lead to reduced birthrates. Next year, delegations from almost every country in the world will attend a U.N. population conference in Cairo to discuss ways to reduce the threat of overpopulation by improving the social status of women.

The U.N.'s efforts, the scientific appeals and growing media attention give Kendall reason to hope. But he is by no means optimistic about mankind escaping the self-inflicted pain of overpopulation. After his Princeton lecture, Kendall is traveling the New Jersey Turnpike toward Newark airport. Gazing out the window, he sees bumper-to-bumper traffic and an industrial landscape of petroleum tanks and chemical plants.

“There’s no question but that the quality of life in the United States has decreased,” he says. “Real incomes have decreased. Many in the younger generation very clearly know they cannot aspire to the living standards of their parents.” Americans are not yet aware of the connection between population pressure and the quality of their lives, he adds, “but they are certainly seeing the symptoms. And at some point maybe they will connect cause and effect and begin to listen.”


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