Don't forget history when acting today

It is important to know our history, and perhaps especially that of the terribly violent 20th century (the most deadly period in human history), so that we can intelligently judge and take action to solve the problems we face today.  As we currently enjoy one of the most peaceful times in history, we must not become complacent about history's lesson that we face them with an eye to truth, human dignity, and human freedom.

This captivating New York Times “Retro Report” (see below) has been shared a few times on the site’s learning network, and recollects the population panic of the 1960s and 70s.  It is fascinating viewing for those, such as myself, not old enough to remember the historic news reports it shares.   

Adrienne Germain, President Emerita of the International Women’s Health Coalition and once a strong supporter of Paul Ehrlich, comments in the report that, if you start with the premise that children or people are a problem by reason of their very existence, then it is inevitable that governments will begin to devise coercive population control strategies.

Whether her statement is true or not, forcible sterilization policies were implemented in response to the population panic the report discusses.  It describes people being treated "like cattle".

The world is today, thankfully, much more cognizant of the many atrocities committed as a result of population panic.  It is easy to forget that in 1983 (36 short years ago) the United Nations gave its first ever population awards to both the Chinese minister for population and the Prime Minister of India for their work initiating family planning and sterilisation programmes which would go on to terrorize thousands of lives. That year alone a record number of birth control surgeries were performed in China, including 16.4 million female sterilizations and 14.4 million abortions, and the social costs continue today. 

(It is also worth considering that just a few short decades before, communism had swept the globe as a potential solution to the world's ills.  Western journalists in the 1920s and 30s praised Russia as a workers' paradise that the West could learn from.  Little did they know of the mass starvation and gulags the failed experiment in human progress had created.) 

While history moves on, human inclinations - both the good and the bad - don't change.

Development economist Gita Sen, of the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, adds that it was easier in the 1970s for the elite and middle class to believe that poverty lay with too many children, rather than an unequal distribution of resources or anything about their own lifestyles, and thus buy in to the population panic which spread through the world at that time. It is an all too common human narrative that the problem lies over there.  Some are more equal than others.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s well-known predictions were of calamity and starvation within a few short decades. However, he failed to take new farming methods, new food production technologies and a range of other factors into account.  Gita Sen comments insightfully of the former butterfly biologist: 

“there is a tendency to apply to human beings the same sort of models that may apply for the insect world. The difference is, of course, that human beings are conscious beings and we do all kinds of things to change our destiny.”

Conversely, the problems many countries now recognize they face today include loneliness, over-consumption, obesity, and too few young people to support a growing elderly population.  At the same time, there is increasing recognition of the need for each of us to play our part in protecting our fragile environment and find cleaner energy sources.

As Gita Sen says, we have the capacity to each make positive changes in our own behaviour and help to tackle the world's problems in our own small spheres of influence (which collectively are great).  But let's never throw out our babies with the bathwater (an idiom a little too close to historic truth for comfort).  

The New York Times asks the following discussion questions in relation to its report:

* Why do you think some scientists’ fears of global overpopulation found a receptive audience in the media, the public and even among world leaders? What evidence did the scientists have to support their predictions of mass starvation?

* Do you agree with Dr. Ehrlich that the rising global population still represents a catastrophic threat? Or any level of threat to human progress and sustainability?

* Or, do you think population stagnation or reduction, like Japan and Germany currently face, actually presents a greater challenge in the future?

Watch the report and consider them for yourself:


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