Human population reduction is a difficult topic. We can understand logically that reduced reproduction will create an economy-wide lessening of greenhouse gas emissions, as it will scale back consumption patterns. But how can we emotionally discuss overpopulation of humans and the resulting overwhelming demands on the planet without inciting moral agita? Are there population-sensitive approaches for valuing human well-being that might coalesce population assumptions with an array of social objectives?
A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future by Jonas Salk and Jonathan Salk outlines a vision of the future in which population reduction comes about as a direct response to new social customs and conventions. The book gives us the tools to safely broach the potential problems of population growth alongside ethical ways to respond to it.
A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future by Jonas Salk and Jonathan Salk is a small, meticulously designed book. Filled with clean-lined charts and varying font sizes that reinforce important textual concepts, the book makes 2 points abundantly clear:
- “We are moving from an era dominated by limitless growth, competitive strategies, short-range thinking, and independence to one characterized by awareness of limits, cooperation, long-range thinking, and interdependence” (p. 21).
- “We face the challenge of understanding and facilitating a slowing of human population growth and, ultimately, adapting to conditions associated with a relatively constant population size at a level far beyond anything we have previously experienced” (p. 63).
Salk the elder envisioned the book as a type of vaccine where words and images would inoculate people with hope while “immunizing them against stasis, rigidity, and despair.” He wanted more than anything else to allow all “human beings to live fuller, more creative, and more productive lives” (p. 24). (Note: The 2018 edition of A New Reality is a posthumous revision of an earlier 1981 version that Jonas released.)
As O’Neill and Wexler have discussed in regard to the climate externalities of having children, “in general, comparing welfare across different population sizes introduces profound theoretical issues.” Our current era is one of rapid climate change, and, from a combined biological, psychological, and social standpoint, human beings may be better adapted to conditions associated with less rapid change than we are to those we are currently experiencing, the authors concede.
Why has the world’s population increased to such self-damaging levels? How do the Salks model ways that we can, indeed, have the oh-so-important conversations about population reduction and also move ahead in a united way to solve climate change?
21 Centuries: From Level Population Growth to the Current Extreme
Although the 1st-16 centuries of humans on Earth grew gradually if progressively, a sudden, steep rise in the next centuries occurred as a “consequence of the scientific, technological, industrial, and agricultural revolutions” (p. 42). Suddenly, society was able to sustain a human population far larger than ever before. The tendency toward extremes also led our species to become out of balance with nature.
By 2100 nearly 90% of human population will be living in what are currently developing countries. Even if we slow growth, the Salks remind us that enormous challenges still exist.
- Providing for more people than ever before
- Adapting to limitations in terms of resources — “a set of conditions different from any we have faced in our history” (p. 92).
But there is hope. A population is affected positively by improvements in health care, lowering of infant and maternal mortality, and availability of education — particularly for women. When these complex variables are in place, overall economic development happens, and so does an interesting phenomenon: people defer the birth of the first child and end up having smaller families.
Contrary to prevailing thought, adding in social solutions leads to slower population growth.
A New Equilibrium to Lead to Population Reduction and Climate Solutions
A New Reality acknowledges that each of us is responsible for guiding our society and species to a new equilibrium. Yes, there will be conflicts and uncertainties as humans try to reconcile opposing tendencies, but obstacles can be seen as part of an “orderly if somewhat difficult process of nature” (p. 151). The emphasis, the authors say, can be expected to shift to emphasis on quality:
- the quality of care of children
- the quality of each child’s experience
- the overall quality of human life.
But how can we get to this place of moderation and understanding about human impacts on the environment with the necessary corollary of population reduction?
The future the Salks envision will be a time of integration. Local, small-scale organizations — which provide for the political, cultural, and material needs of the individuals — will be balanced by large-scale, centralized organizations that provide communication among groups and the necessary global coordination of efforts to meet the needs of societies throughout the world.
“It is essential we start now,” the authors implore, even though “there will be conflict between differing systems of values. A difficult period of transition lies ahead” (p. 130).
Distinctions and even divisions between science and art, intuition and reason, emotion and cognition will likely occur as unfamiliar ways of existence are contested. Yet new relationships, new communities, and new modes of interacting will emerge and be integrated with developments in science, technology, economics, the arts, and international relations. Solutions, the authors forecast, will come through the “increasing integration of previously distinct disciplines” (p. 186).
- Social/ political/ economic
- Molecular/ cellular
Importantly, changes in human thought, feeling, and behavior are accompanied and mediated by changes in cellular and molecular interaction in the human brain and the entire human organism. Changes and adaptations will take place not just at the social level; they will involve, affect, and be affected by biology “at the level of molecules, cells, and tissues — of all of us and our descendents” (p. 191). Our physical, psychological, and culture ways of knowing our worlds will be different in this future where population reduction aids in climate solutions.
A New Reality May Be Already Underway
There are small hints that needed social value shifts toward population reduction may be already happening around us, albeit slowly. We are in the midst of change “from seeing the world as limitless in terms of growth to seeing it as limited” (p. 128). Increased density of population and increased production of waste are so evident around us now that we are starting to step back and look at the effects of population on the planet.
The Salks envision a new paradigm where values of cooperation, interdependence, collaboration, and win-win conflict resolution will have to be incorporated into family life, early education, and school programs. They argue, “This basic shift must take place if we are to survive” (p. 195). An example that such a shift is already starting to occur is the “collaboration and consensus in the accord signed by 1919 nations with respect to climate change” (p. 118). Indeed, some of the most creative and intelligent women and men of today are confronting the human issues of conflict resolution, poverty, and paths to sustainable development with dignity and perseverance.
Incorporating values from a new paradigm will produce “richer, more complex social networks in terms of mutual support, sharing of child care, setting community goals, and responding to diversity” (p. 197), the authors envision.
An Integration of Values Framework
“This integration will occur in ways that will differ according to local culture, history, and ecological conditions, but it must occur,” (p. 214) the Salks state. Creativity, human and social variation, and a process of social evolution will prompt the scientific and technological developments of recent centuries toward reconciliation with the values essential to human survival of the planet.
- First, balance + moderation + conservation + sustainability awareness emerges.
- Next, long-term consequence of actions + understanding wholeness of the ecosystem in which we exist becomes evident.
- Ultimately, cultural + economic + political + international institutions adopt practices that reflect awareness of oneness.
Moreover, the Millennial generation may be the key to a new awareness of how population and climate are interrelated. This generation “from the time of their birth,” has experienced a reality “of awareness of limits, the need to conserve, and the sense of the planet as … an integrated whole. Thus, their attitudes, values, and behaviors have been shaped by and are adapted to a reality very different from that experienced by any generation before them” (p. 144).
Long-term population reduction to ecologically sustainable levels will help to solve the global warming crisis and move us to toward a healthier, more stable, clean energy society. We should not hesitate to prompt discourse around actions that are ethically permissible to facilitate a stable level of population growth. Additionally, we must bring in diverse constituents across social strata, ethnic groups, and religious beliefs — among many others — into this conversation about ethics, population, quality of life, and climate change. We must offer voice to the places and people most affected by poverty and environmental degradation.
Let’s leave the last words to the Salks from the conclusion of A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future.
“We are at a point in the course of human social evolution when the demands of survival converge with the higher ideals of humankind and the well-being and flourishing of human society. It is up to us to see that we navigate this transition, adapting to and emerging in a new reality” (p. 225).
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