Humankind's survival is in its numbers

Jean-Michel Cousteau

October 12, 1993|By Jean-Michel Cousteau

AMONG the challenges to the viability of the human species, none seems more daunting or immediate than our growth in numbers. Whether it is the simple story of too many people and too few resources, or the more complex interactions through which a life style slowly degrades the ability of the environment to sustain life, population growth continues its patient, relentless assault on the habitability of the planet.

Ironically, it is the very success of our species that now threatens to drive us over the edge. Evolution is powered by diversity, and diversity is made possible by numbers. Adaptation depends on the widest imaginable pool from which to select. In the raw terms of species survival, there is indeed strength in numbers.

But it is no longer strength that reveals itself to us through the lens of our expeditions. It is rather the visage of desperation, tinged with bewilderment at the inefficacy of traditional practices and ways of thinking. What saved us in the past is now the engine of our doom.

In Amazonia, the rate of rain-forest destruction has increased by 50 percent in the last year -- since the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio -- as more and more people try to hew a year or two of ranching or farming prosperity out of the region's notoriously poor soils.

In Haiti, fishermen labor all day for the most meager of catches, while juvenile conch shells piled into immense mounds along the beaches attest to the indiscriminate and uninformed hunting that feeds today at the expense of tomorrow. With a per capita GNP of around $400, Haitians can afford little, and even that which is free, like water, is in short supply. Only 41 percent of Haitians have access to clean water, and then they have to fight over it. The rest drink from the gutter or polluted canals. In Vietnam, the rivers and canals are trawled relentlessly for fish, and the government works to reclaim vast reaches of marginal land for cultivation, truly uninhabitable, damaged land bleeding red with acid sulfate seepage. Here, the homesteaders depend on shipments of drinking water from the outside.

Madagascar, 30 years ago a paradise for me, has seen 75 percent of its rain forests lost to the timber trade. Its estuaries now push outward with the ruddy hues of mountain silt, and its growing population desperately looks for new options.

According to Population Action International, 73 percent of the

world's population, nearly four bil lion people, live in conditions of high to extreme suffering, measured on a quality-of-life index that includes factors ranging from daily calorie supply and the prevalence of inoculations to the rate of inflation and the extent of civil rights. And this percentage can only grow as our numbers increase.

So much depends on how we choose to reflect on and discuss the population issue. Is it a development issue? Is it a question of women's health care? Is it cultural in nature? In fact, it is less, and more, than any of these.

Population is an economic issue in the widest sense, for it has to do with how we structure the productive human units of society, starting with the family, and leading up to the larger communities town, state, nation and even international bodies. The idea of family is inseparable from the division of labor. As the real purpose of economic structures is survival, our maintenance of population balance is the key to the success of our species.

In 1994, the United Nations will convene a worldwide conference to address population and environment issues in Cairo, Egypt. As in Rio last year, the myriad perspectives of conference participants will likely be reduced to one basic question: Which comes first, poverty or population?

The question was sidestepped in Rio because the significance of population itself was largely underestimated. In addition, the manner in which poverty and population were pitted against one another as rivals in the search for development dollars caused the debate to degenerate into a stalemate between rich and poor, donor and debtor.

This will not be the case in Cairo. Addressing this question honestly and courageously would be a bold step for the United Nations and its leading members, who find themselves embroiled in more and more "security" missions that are in fact rooted in the relationship between colonialism, population and poverty. Are there meaningful jobs for everyone? Can permanent growth be sustained, and should it?

What will it take for population issues to receive a fair hearing? As always, a wider perception of what is at stake. Even ordinary living in the future world our vast numbers are currently creating will require leaps in our behavioral evolution. For us, the challenge is whether we wish to shape that future based on a high environmental quality of life and broad political freedoms, or evolve, socially and politically, according to the harsh dictates of factors we choose not to influence.

Jean-Michel Cousteau writes a syndicated column on the Earth's environment.

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