Home' Technology Review : May 2005 Contents 62
Take population growth. For 50 years, the demographers in
charge of human population projections for the United Nations
released hard numbers that substantiated environmentalists
greatest fears about inde nite exponential population increase.
For a while, those projections proved fairly accurate. However,
in the 1990s, the U.N. started taking a closer look at fertility pat-
terns, and in 2002, it adopted a new theory that shocked many
demographers: human population is leveling o rapidly, even
precipitously, in developed countries, with the rest of the world
soon to follow. Most environmentalists still haven t got the
word. Worldwide, birthrates are in free fall. Around one-third
of countries now have birthrates below replacement level (2.1
children per woman) and sinking. Nowhere does the down-
ward trend show signs of leveling o . Nations already in a birth
dearth crisis include Japan, Italy, Spain, Ger many, and Russia---
whose population is now in absolute decline and is expected to
be 30 percent lower by 2050. On every part of every continent
and in every culture (even Mormon), birthrates are headed
down. They reach replacement level and keep on dropping. It
turns out that population decrease accelerates downward just as
ercely as population increase accelerated upward, for the same
reason. Any variation from the 2.1 rate compounds over time.
That s great news for environmentalists (or it will be when -
nally noticed), but they need to recognize what caused the turn-
around. The world population growth rate actually peaked at 2
percent way back in 1968, the very
year my old teacher Paul Ehrlich
published The Population Bomb.
The world s women didn t sud-
denly have fewer kids because of his
book, though. They had fewer kids
because they moved to town.
Cities are population sinks. Al-
though more children are an asset
in the countryside, they re a liability
in the city. A global tipping point in
urbanization is what stopped the population explosion. As of
this year, 50 percent of the world s population lives in cities, with
61 percent expected by 2030. In 1800 it was 3 percent; in 1900 it
was 14 percent.
The environmentalist aesthetic is to love villages and despise
cities. My mind got changed on the subject a few years ago. Ur-
banization is the most massive and sudden shift of humanity in
its history. Environmentalists will be rewarded if they welcome it
and get out in front of it. In every single region in the world, in-
cluding the U.S., small towns and rural areas are emptying out.
The trees and wildlife are retur ning. Now is the time to put in
place per manent protection for those rural environments. Mean-
while, the global population of illegal urban squatters---which
Robert Neuwirth s book Shadow Cities already estimates at a bil-
lion---is growing fast. Environmentalists could help ensure that
the new dominant human habitat is humane and intr udes on less
of the surrounding environment.
Along with rethinking cities, environmentalists will need to
rethink biotechnology. One area of biotech with huge promise
and some drawbacks is genetic engineering, so far violently re-
jected by the environmental movement. That rejection is, I
think, a mistake. Why was water uoridization rejected by the
political right and "frankenfood" by the political left? The an-
swer, I suspect, is that uoridization came from government
and genetically modi ed (GM) crops from corporations. If the
origins had been reversed---as they could have been---the posi-
tions would be reversed, too.
Ignore the origin and look at the technology on its own terms.
(This will be easier with the emergence of "open source" genetic
engineering, which could work around restrictive corporate pat-
ents.) What is its net e ect on the environment? GM crops are
more e cient, giving higher yield on less land with less use of
pesticides and herbicides. That s why the Amish, the most tech-
nology-suspicious group in America (and the best far mers), have
enthusiastically adopted GM crops.
There has yet to be a public debate among environmentalists
about genetic engineering. Most of the scare stories that go
around (Monarch caterpillars harmed by GM pollen!) have as
much substance as urban legends about toxic rat urine on Coke
can lids. Solid research is seldom reported widely, partly because
no news is not news. A number of leading biologists in the U.S.
are also leading environmentalists. I ve asked them how worried
they are about genetically engineered organisms. Their answer is
"Not much," because they know from their own work how robust
wild ecologies are in defending against new genes, no matter
how exotic. They don t say so in public because they feel that en-
tering the GM debate would strain relations with allies and
would distract from their main focus, which is to research and
The best way for doubters to control a questionable new tech-
nology is to embrace it, lest it remain wholly in the hands of en-
thusiasts who don t see what s questionable about it. I would love
to see what a cadre of ardent environmental scientists could do
with genetic engineering. Besides assuring the kind of transpar-
ency needed for intelligent regulation, they could direct a power-
ful new tool at some of the most vexed problems in their eld.
For instance, invasive species. About 80 percent of the current
mass extinctions of native species are caused by habitat loss, a
problem whose cure is well known: identify the crucial habitats
and preser ve, protect, and restore them. The remaining 20 per-
cent of extinctions are coming from invasive species, with no so-
lution in sight. Kudzu takes over the American South, brown tree
snakes take over Guam (up to 5,000 a square kilometer), zebra
mussels and mitten crabs take over the U.S. waterways, re ants
The best way for doubters to
control a new technology is
to embrace it, lest it remain
in the hands of enthusiasts.
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