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The Last Taboo

There are 7 billion humans on earth, so why can't we talk about population?

Eden Hospital is a 19th-century marble marvel hidden behind spindly bamboo scaffolding at Kolkata's Medical College. Its threshold is swamped by an outpouring of families, each shielding a mother and a swaddled newborn. It takes me a while to ford the flood. Inside, up an ancient, dark, and gritty central stairway, down a veranda lined with multi-bed wards and separated by jalousie doors hanging from rusted hinges, my mother was born 80 years ago, as were many of my relatives before and after her.

Eden Hospital was founded in 1881 as a maternity ward for Europeans—and for the Eurasian offspring of British colonialists and Indian women.Eden Hospital was founded in 1881 as a maternity ward for Europeans—and for the Eurasian offspring of British colonialists and Indian women.Eden maternity hospital was a wonder in its day, opened optimistically in 1881 to accommodate some 80 women, primarily Europeans and Anglo-Indians: the biracial Eurasian community sired by the Raj. In 1881, there was an understanding that human population was growing, thanks to the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus' 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus, a political economist, argued that humans were destined to grow geometrically, while food production could increase only arithmetically, guaranteeing that famine would cinch the growth of humankind within the scarce purse of resources.

And so it did. For 150 years after Malthus, hunger killed millions: perhaps 50 million Chinese in multiple famines of the 19th century; upwards of 20 million Indians during a dozen major famines in the latter half of the 19th century; a million in the Great Famine of Ireland between 1845 and 1852; one-third of the local population in the Ethiopian Great Famine of 1888 to 1892; 3 million in Bengal in 1943.

Malthus' mathematical concerns about population growth developed inside an 18th-century moral framework we still wrestle with today. According to him, poor people grew their numbers irresponsibly and were kept in check by their own bad habits and addictions: "The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation." He opposed government assistance to the poor on the grounds that it enabled more people to reproduce without the means to support themselves. He advocated that the surplus population be allowed to decrease of its own accord—a suggestion that reportedly inspired Charles Dickens to pen the tale of misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge.

In later editions of his essay, Malthus suggested a solution to the growing numbers of impoverished people he considered poor specimens, a eugenics-like answer popular in his time, based on animal husbandry and designed to "upgrade" the human race: "[B]y an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement similar to that among animals might take place among men," he wrote. "Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt; but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and, perhaps, even longevity, are in a degree transmissible."

My grandmother gave birth to six children in the airy rooms of Eden Hospital, exactly half the number born to her grandmother, who delivered 12 in half a dozen military outposts across India. These Eurasian children worried the leadership of imperial Britain, which oscillated between contradictory official policies allowing, discouraging, or mandating marriage between cohabiting British men and Indian women. Yet none of these early efforts at population (or complexion) control succeeded in stemming the flow of biracial children.

Part of the failure derived from a paradox in Malthus' moral framework. The reverend believed families needed to limit their numbers of children, yet he opposed contraception, and many agreed with him. Only the "temporary unhappiness" of abstinence was acceptable. Other methods of birth control "lower, in the most marked manner, the dignity of human nature," he wrote. "It cannot be without its effect on men, and nothing can be more obvious than its tendency to degrade the female character."

Malthus' suggestions that the 'surplus population' be allowed to die off from disease or improved via eugenics reportedly inspired Charles Dickens to pen the tale Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yet what Malthus put in motion could not be stopped. Fears of overpopulation spawned by his essay, combined with fears within families of too many hungry children, drove a 19th-century technological boom in contraceptives (including the invention of the first rubber condoms), known for a time as Malthusian devices. These were hardly the first attempts at birth control: Hieroglyphic instructions in ancient Egypt described vaginal plugs of crocodile dung; two millennia ago, a wild abortion-inducing fennel of the Mediterranean was harvested to extinction; a Greek legend described a female condom made of a goat's bladder (for protection against the serpents and scorpions in King Minos' semen); medieval Islamic physicians listed 196 contraceptive substances. (See "Masters of the Uterus.")

Long before Malthus, humans sought to accommodate promiscuous intercourse without the entanglements of pregnancy. Even prior to the European discovery of rubber in the New World, men wore condoms: Chinese of oiled silk paper; Japanese of fine leather or tortoiseshell (both doubling as dildos for their women in their absence). Gabriele Falloppio tested linen condoms tied with ribbons on 1,100 Italian men in 1564 and claimed them to be 100 percent effective for men against the new plague of syphilis. Someone, though not the mythical Dr. Condom, discovered the intestines of goats, sheep, calves, and fish were prophylactic against both disease and pregnancy.

When all else failed, self-control helped. The men of Elizabethan England knew of and successfully practiced coitus interruptus, while the men of 18th-century France were so proficient at withdrawal that family size declined until the baby boom following World War II. The utopian Robert Dale Owen, attempting to promote coitus interruptus to prudish 19th-century Americans, labored through 48 pages of a profusely apologetic argument called Moral Physiology before zeroing in on what the French did so well: "It may be objected that [coitus interruptus] requires a mental effort and a partial sacrifice. I reply, that, in France, where men consider this...a point of honour, all young men learn to make the necessary effort."

Even in Malthus' time, pamphlets describing female contraceptive methods were circulating widely—though illegally in America, having been labeled pornographic. Informational leaflets such as the "diabolical handbills," advising how to make and use vaginal sponges, were in high demand by European and American women who did not wish to rely on condoms or men. In 1871, writer Annie Besant and future English parliamentarian Dr. Charles Bradlaugh republished the underground American book, The Fruits of Philosophy, with advice on how to prevent pregnancy by douching after sex. Their showy obscenity trial—in which Charles Darwin refused to give evidence, and a conviction was overturned on a technicality—catapulted sales to 100,000. Soon after, many disparate fronts in the fight for the legalization of birth control coalesced around a new group catchily misnamed the Malthusian League.

No one knows how the Reverend Malthus managed to limit his own family to only three children. His teachings, however, sired countless errant progeny. For 25 years, he lectured at Britain's East India Company College, where his ideas inspired a generation of male Britons to go forth and build a colonial empire. But since India was mostly bereft of European women, they also quickly peopled it with Eurasian offspring. Among the empire builders was a young Sir Ashley Eden, for whom the largest obstetrics and gynecological ward for Europeans and Eurasians in all of Asia would be named—leaving the vast majority of Indian women to Malthus' version of nature's ruthless devices.

India today prides itself on being the world's largest democracy. But it's also the hungriest, only recently and barely liberated from "the most dreadful famines" Malthus wrote of. One of every two underfed people on earth lives here. Forty percent of Indian children under the age of five are underweight and stunted. More than 4 percent of the 26 million babies born here every year die within their first month of life, a neonatal mortality rate surpassing even India's war-torn neighbor, Sri Lanka. Worse, India's underfed are not decreasing, as one might expect from one of the world's fastest growing economies, but increasing. India's economic boom has surged past most Indians, leaving 53 percent in poverty, according to the calculations of one Indian government commission. In the state of Bihar, next door to West Bengal, 9 of 10 rural children are anemic, a telltale marker of hunger and malnutrition.

In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted inevitable mass starvation as early as the 1970s and 1980s—notably in India, which he claimed could not possibly attain food self-sufficiency. Instead, American agronomist Norman Borlaug's "Green Revolution" brought dwarf wheat strains and chemical fertilizers to increase India's crop yields 168 percent within a decade. This monumental achievement defused the bomb and earned Ehrlich the dismissive title of Malthusian: just one more in a line of pessimists forecasting phantom famines. Ever since, the subject has been largely taboo. Scientists from a variety of fields privately tell me the issue of overpopulation is simply too controversial—too inflamed with passions to get funded, too strong a magnet for ideologues. Those who've tackled it tell me of harassment, even physical threats, from a frightening fringe.

* Future figures based on UN projections. Sources: US Census Bureau, UN.Take the near-civil war within the Sierra Club—whose former executive director, David Brower, originally suggested Ehrlich write The Population Bomb. The Sierra Club had long supported population stabilization. But started in the early 1990s, anti-immigration activists spurred by John Tanton—who controls an array of English-only, zero-immigration, and nativist groups—stealthily twice attempted to take over the board. Perhaps naively, some Sierra Club stalwarts concerned with population joined their cause. The battle lasted for a decade, culminating when Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center ran for Sierra's board in an effort to expose Tanton's true agenda—and the fact that one of his groups had accepted money from white supremacists. Ehrlich's NGO Zero Population Growth then parted ways with Tanton (a past president), renamed itself the Population Connection, and embraced an end-poverty-to-curb-population approach. Ehrlich and his wife Anne, a conservation biologist, also left the board of Tanton's Federation for American Immigration Reform. Yet the scars between environmentalists and the development community are only beginning to heal. "When you talk about population," says Larry Fahn, Sierra Club president during some of the bitterest infighting, "the immigration people come out of the woodwork with their hate mongering. It's unfortunate that the subject brings out a racist agenda."

Abortion is even more toxically associated with population debates. "Many conservation and nongovernmental organizations that run on member support, even the big ones, shy away from the population issue," says Ed Barry of the Population Institute in Washington, DC, a nonprofit founded in 1969 by a United Methodist Church minister. "That's because it puts their funding at risk. Even if you're talking about population as a sustainability issue, there's often an automatic assumption you'll be talking about abortion."

Voiced or not, addressed or not, the problem of overpopulation has not gone away. The miracle of the Green Revolution, which fed billions and provided the world a sense of limitless hope, also disguised four ominous truths about earth's limits. First, the revolution's most effective agents, chemical fertilizers of nitrogen and phosphorus, are destined to run out, along with the natural resources used to produce them. Second, the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that grew the food that enabled our enormous population growth in the 20th century bore expensive downstream costs in the form of polluted land, water, and air that now threaten life. Third, crop yields today are holding stubbornly stable and even beginning to fall in some places, despite increasing fertilizer use, in soils oversaturated with nitrogen.

The Green Revolution's duplicitous harvest—giving life with one hand, robbing life-support with the other—also masked a fourth ominous truth. We're running out of topsoil, tossing it to the wind via mechanized agriculture and losing it to runoff and erosion. Geomorphologist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations and 2008 recipient of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, calculates that human activities are eroding topsoil 10 times faster than it can be replenished. "Just when we need more soil to feed the 10 billion people of the future," he says, "we'll actually have less—only a quarter of an acre of cropland per person in 2050, versus the half-acre we use today on the most efficient farms." Plus there's little new land to bring into production: "We could, with crippling environmental costs, raze the Amazonian rainforests and reap 5 to 10 years of crops before the tropical soils failed. But the fertile prairies of the Midwest, northern China, and northern Europe are already plowed to capacity and shrinking."

In India, the problem of peak soil is already acute. Nearly a quarter of its lands, more than 314,000 square miles, are desert or in the process of becoming desert, according to a recent Indian government report. Desertification will double India's current water usage by 2030, as more water is rerouted to irrigate an increasingly drier landscape to grow rice, wheat, and sugar for an increasing population, including the growing demands of a growing middle class. McKinsey & Co., the global management consulting firm, forecasts severe deficits in water—and, by default, food—in India by 2030.

Combine peak oil and peak topsoil with global warming, and a study in the peer-reviewed journal Science predicts a 20 to 30 percent decline in crop yields in the next 80 years. Alarmingly, the process of photosynthesis itself declines precipitously as temperatures rise above 86 degrees Fahrenheit, making it increasingly difficult to maintain—let alone increase—crop yields. (The European heat wave of 2003 that killed up to 50,000 people also slashed crop harvests by as much as 36 percent.) Rising temperatures and the resulting drier landscapes will put our major food crops in the lower latitudes (including all of India) at risk in the near future. "I grow increasingly concerned that we have not yet understood what it will take to feed a growing population on a warming planet," says Penn State biologist and lead author Nina Fedoroff. Furthermore, India's "atmospheric brown cloud"—the smog that fouls the subcontinent between monsoons—could undermine crop yields by up to 40 percent. Not only is there more smog in Asia, but Asian crops appear more sensitive to smog than crops in North America or Europe, even crops of the same variety. No one knows why.

The UN calculates that 36 million die of hunger and malnutrition every year—a person every second, mostly women and children. Famine is no phantom, and history may yet remember Paul Ehrlich as the premature prophet, not the false one, his predictions off by decades rather than degree.

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