Birth control is the most urgent issue we must solve

By Donald A. Collins | 6 May 2021
Church and State

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The May 2, 2021 issue of the New York Times Magazine is devoted to a careful history of how our huge scientific and managerial skills have changed human longevity so as to create the population explosion now endangering human livability on Earth.

You might even, as I did, read this seminal article out loud to a family member to fully capture its power and complexity as fashioned by its author Steven Johnson so as to leave no doubt as to why birth control becomes the most urgent issue we must solve or destroy ourselves!

Earlier articles posted on this site by such luminaries as E.O. Wilson and Sir David Attenborough have so eloquently made this case, but the Times issue explains so sharply at the end of this long piece the ultimate irony of our triumph over disease as having created a certain path to our own human self-destruction!

Here is the article’s author Steven Johnson’s take on what our progress in combating disease has produced.

All those brilliant solutions we engineered to reduce or eliminate threats like smallpox created a new, higher-level threat: ourselves. Many of the key problems we now face as a species are second-order effects of reduced mortality. For understandable reasons, climate change is usually understood as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, but had we somehow managed to adopt a lifestyle powered by fossil fuels without reducing mortality rates — in other words, if we had invented steam engines and coal-powered electrical grids and automobiles but kept global population at 1800 levels — climate change would be much less of an issue. There simply wouldn’t be enough humans to make a meaningful impact on carbon levels in the atmosphere.

Runaway population growth — and the environmental crisis it has helped produce — should remind us that continued advances in life expectancy are not inevitable. We know from our recent history during the industrial age that scientific and technological progress alone do not guarantee positive trends in human health. Perhaps our increasingly interconnected world — and dependence on industrial livestock, particularly chickens — may lead us into what some have called an age of pandemics, in which Covid-19 is only a preview of even more deadly avian-flu outbreaks. Perhaps some rogue technology — nuclear weapons, bioterror attacks — will kill enough people to reverse the great escape. Or perhaps it will be the environmental impact of 10 billion people living in industrial societies that will send us backward. Extending our lives helped give us the climate crisis. Perhaps the climate crisis will ultimately trigger a reversion to the mean.

No place on earth embodies that complicated reality more poignantly than Bhola Island, Bangladesh. Almost half a century ago, it was the site of one of our proudest moments as a species: the elimination of variola major, realizing the dream that Jenner and Jefferson had almost two centuries before. But in the years that followed smallpox eradication, the island was subjected to a series of devastating floods; almost half a million people have been displaced from the region since Rahima Banu contracted smallpox there. Today large stretches of Bhola Island have been permanently lost to the rising sea waters caused by climate change. The entire island may have disappeared from the map of the world by the time our children and grandchildren celebrate the centennial of smallpox eradication in 2079.

What will their life spans look like then? Will the forces that drove so much positive change over the past century continue to propel the great escape? Will smallpox turn out to be just the first in a long line of threats — polio, malaria, influenza — removed from Jefferson’s “catalog of evils”? Will the figurative rising tide of egalitarian public health continue to lift all the boats? Or will those momentous achievements — all that unexpected life — be washed away by an actual tide?

Clearly the enlightened among us are encouraging implementation of obvious steps to be taken but facing ourselves as the enemy is the ultimate blind spot.

The safe and benign and surest avenues to the reduction of human numbers is providing complete contraceptive choices to couples who contemplate parenting.

Now it would seem the most powerful and extensive birth control methods we are offering are widespread killing through wars generated by greed, ethnic hatred and racism!

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
ASIN: B00MA40TVE
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