A Lesson from COVID-19: Growth is Part of the Problem | Opinion

This is a good week to ponder the dynamics of human population growth, and how it relates to the coronavirus pandemic, which is surging in the U.S. and globally, driven in part by population density. World Population Day, which highlights the importance of issues like family planning for sustainable development, is this Saturday. Meanwhile, this week the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Trump administration could let employers opt out of mandated contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act.

Does the pandemic demand a rethink of our attitudes toward growth, both demographic and economic? Is perpetual growth really a guarantor of human well-being? Can we create by fiat an endless future of unlimited human numbers and activity? At what point should hubris make some concessions to humility?

"We are as gods," Stewart Brand wrote in 1968 at the opening of his Whole Earth Catalogue, "and might as well get good at it." Half a century later, we are no better at it. The more apt metaphor today might be drawn from Shakespeare's King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,/They kill us for their sport."

With new cases of COVID-19 hitting records daily in the United States, the global caseload nearing 12 million and the global death toll well above half a million, the virus is making sport of human pretensions to godlike agency, and turning up the volume on a message that until now we've consigned to the faintest of whispers: growth itself could be part of the problem.

Environmentalists understand that humanity is part of nature and not its master, but most have shied away from connecting our growing numbers and footprint to the growth of infectious diseases. Public health experts and some science journalists, however, have been ringing the alarm bell for decades.

In 1992, the Institute for Medicine published a landmark report, Emerging Diseases, which discussed how population growth, density, and distribution can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague, has long warned that population expansion and density raise the statistical probability pathogens will be transmitted.

As human population grows, we intrude more into natural habitats and consume more wildlife, giving deadly viruses more opportunity to jump from animals to humans. As human-to-human transmission evolves and accelerates, and travel and trade expand, epidemics sometimes become pandemics.

The scourges of Ebola, HIV/AIDS, Zika, Lyme, West Nile, Mad Cow, SARS, and now COVID-19 came seemingly out of nowhere. But they all have deep and intricate connections to the expansion of human interaction with the natural world. Even if COVID-19 disappears quickly, other new diseases will likely wallop us with increasing frequency and force in the years ahead.

Between 1940 and 2004, as the global population soared from 2.5 billion to 6 billion, over 300 new infectious diseases emerged, and the rate of emergence increased. Those rates are likely to continue rising with population growth. Today, the global population is 7.8 billion and growing at an annual rate of about 80 million—the equivalent of adding three New York City metro areas each year. UN demographers project population will reach 10 billion by mid-century and 11 billion by 2100.

As human numbers grow, so does density. Urbanization is bringing us into closer contact with one another. Now, when social distancing is the most important bulwark against COVID-19 contagion, it's easier to see how density can cause trouble. We can't escape the confinement of our homes for the occasional foray into fresh air or friendly companionship without raising our risk of contracting the virus. Wherever we go, there we are—in large numbers, with people masked and unmasked, coming up behind us or walking towards us, talking, coughing, and sneezing. Someone posts something about their secret, unpeopled spot in nature, and when we arrive there, hundreds of others, all potential carriers of disease, have already shown up.

If population and density growth declines, infectious diseases may follow suit. Fertility rates were already declining when the pandemic hit, but the coronavirus pandemic cuts two ways in that regard. It temporarily shut down major condom factories, disrupted contraceptive production and distribution and undermined access to safe, effective family planning services, sparking fears of a "COVID baby boom." The Trump administration's attacks on family planning could compound the problem. On the other hand, the pandemic has also prompted many to reconsider or postpone childbearing. Despite the concerns of some economists, that's a logical response and a positive development.

As a matter of human rights as well as public health, it's increasingly important for every woman to be free to make childbearing decisions herself. We need more education and autonomy for women and girls, and more innovative ways to deliver voluntary family planning services everywhere despite the pandemic.

Contrary to Steward Brand's view, we are not as gods. We are human beings, doing the best we can in an increasingly crowded and challenging world. We might as well get good at being human.

Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at the Population Institute and former president of the Worldwatch Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​