Book Review of 'Human Population Competition' by Jack Parsons)

By Leon Bouvier
Volume 9, Number 2 (Winter 1998-1999)
Issue theme: "Secure identification and immigration enforcement"

Human Population Competition A Study of the Pursuit of Power Through Numbers

by Jack Parsons

Lewiston, NY The Edwin Mellen Press

803 pages in 2 volumes, $225.00

In this excellently written (in English and not in "Demographese!) English demographer-author Jack Parsons has outdone himself. In its 800-plus pages, Human Population, literally, to use a baseball analogy, covers all the bases. His overarching theme is that competition between groups (either within a country or across international boundaries) makes it almost impossible to achieve what Parsons considers (and I concur) to be the ideal demographic situation for Planet Earth - a stationary population no larger, but ideally smaller, than our present 6 billion people.

Parsons is definitely not parochial in his approach. One might expect him to concentrate on the United Kingdom. This is definitely not the case. Not only does he cover most of the planet, but he also goes back in time to include some very interesting anthropological information showing how some ancient tribes actually had zero population growth societies. As one reads through these handily-sized two volumes (plus the best index I have ever seen), the reviewer becomes increasingly amazed at the immensity of Parson's knowledge and background. Human Population is undoubtedly his magnum opus, as well it should be.

One's first reaction to this information is "everybody knows that." It soon becomes apparent that "everyone doesn't know that." To Parsons, population competition includes religious, political, military, racial and ethnic, economic, environmental, and sexual competition - and, given the length of the book, I may have omitted a few! But the point is obvious because of the desires of Group A to outnumber Group B, increased fertility (and sometimes immigration) is the only solution.

Parsons does not limit himself to the question of population competition. He also examines related issues such as the view of "cornucopians" like the late Julian Simon (for whom he has little respect) and Ben Wattenberg (ditto!). He looks at how censuses are counted (and miscounted?) and how they are used to the advantage of certain groups (or suppressed altogether if that suits those in power).

On reading this monograph, any one concerned about over-population (as is Parsons and this reviewer) can become quite discouraged. How do you convince a minority group (for example) not to advocate larger families so as to become the majority? Parsons stresses that within the next two decades, Hispanics will outnumber African-Americans in the United States - at current demographic rates. Does that suggest that African-Americans should increase their fertility to make certain that this does not happen? I would prefer that they join many others in arguing for stringent controls on immigration. But that is another story.

While this may be a biased statement coming from one who feels strongly that world population (as well as that of the United States) is already too large, I must confess to be in agreement with most of Parson's positions. Early on (p.14) Parsons makes his own preference obvious

'Perhaps we should work towards a world with the maximum-sized human population at an acceptably high and preferably universally shared quality of life, but it is not self-evident that this is the ideal. If we do pursue this, it must surely be with a very long-term perspective that will steer us - bearing all sorts of environmental exigencies in mind - towards optimisation rather than maximisation.'

He then continues (p.194)

'If the world's 198 countries could all agree that an average of 20 million is big enough, while some of them might grow appreciably in proportionate terms, world population, at 3.7 billion...would go down by around one-third from the mid-1997 figure, about 5.84 billion. Even at the highest present per capita levels of pollution, this would surely give a dramatic improvement in the average quality of life.'

I could continue citing excellent examples from the book, but I leave that up to prospective readers. I hope they will be numerous, not discouraged by its length.

On the negative side, Parsons, as I indicated earlier, probably considers this his magnum opus - and rightfully so. This means he is determined to include everything possible. That can lead to some problems. First, we learn much more of the author's personal life than is ordinarily expected. He is English but lives in Wales, in a suburb of Cardiff. He is a political Liberal, but with some reservations, and, especially important, he is a dedicated humanist. Unfortunately, this leads him into some troublesome areas.

His anti-Catholicism is obvious. (Interestingly, as I re-examined the book and looked into the Index, the references to "Church of England" - except for a note about accepting women into the priesthood, "Episcopalian", and "Anglican" surprisingly were missing.) Now, as a practicing Catholic, I agree with much of what Parsons has to say about the pro-natalist position of the Roman Church. For example, he quotes reports of John Paul II speaking in Africa (of all places) "During his 1985 tour of Africa [he] ... urged Africans to ignore ideas from the developed world on limiting the size of families by contraception and abortion. He praised the high value Africans traditionally place on children and warned that these were threatened by a ‘powerful anti-life mentality.'" He also cites reports of Mother Teresa (the late, highly-publicized, "saintly" nun) saying in Egypt (again, of all places) "According to the Observer, in her 1981 tour of Egypt, whose number were then over 43 million and doubling every generation, she was urging all mothers to ‘Have lots and lots of children.' It is hard to find words for such mindless irresponsibility." This reviewer agrees entirely with Parson's objections, not only to the teachings of the Catholic church on family planning but to its undue influence in world affairs, such as at the recently concluded Cairo conference on Population and the Environment. However, when the point is made over and over, one is tempted to add "Enough already!"

However, Parsons occasionally strays beyond his own area of knowledge, even about religion. For example, in reference to the miracle of transubstan-tiation, basic to all Catholics, he derisively refers to it as "symbolic cannibalism." He simply refers to it as "eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ via the mechanism of transubstantiation." (p.237). He simply does not comprehend the true meaning of a miracle. And for that matter, neither does any other human on this planet. It is simply accepted on faith. Such an inconsiderate statement is insulting to millions of Catholics. (Aside to Jack I receive Communion a few times every week; does that make me a cannibal, or even a symbolic cannibal? I would hope not!).

In another religion-related area, Parsons is fond of quoting the Bible, almost always in a negative manner, and without detailed explanation. I am not a Biblical scholar (and I suspect, neither is Parsons). I do know that numerous theologians of various faiths from all over the world have tried to better understand its sometimes arcane language. It seems strange that Parsons can quote whatever suits him best from the Bible in a very off-handed manner.

To his credit, however, Parsons admits his anti-Bible viewpoint and gives the Bible its due as appropriate to his work, as on p.713

'This book contains a number of biblical quotations, some in a none-too-flattering context, but this epic document also contains much sound ecology and demography. ...As well as telling local humankind to ‘increase and multiply', Genesis states firmly ‘And the Lord God took the man (Adam) and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to protect it (italics in the text). The word ‘cultivate' itself strongly implies taking good care of the land, as any half-competent gardener or farmer knows, and the injunction to ‘protect' it strongly reinforces the message.'

Parsons concludes from this passage

'We might reasonably read into this the implication that the Garden of Eden must not be abused or unduly exploited, its carrying-capacity must not be diminished over the longer term (p.713).'

Parsons introduces many neologisms - perhaps still another might be added by this reviewer. Is it not time for the development of an"ecological theology" that would look at both the environment and population growth?

One final criticism. As I read through the book, I eagerly anticipated its conclusion, but refrained from "cheating" and looking at it ahead of schedule! Frankly, the conclusion is somewhat disappointing. Apparently, the author is convinced that the concept of "optimum population" can save the day as will the determination not to allow too many immigrants into a nation, so as not to encourage population competition. Little is said about the few successes that have occurred (Bangladesh, for example); next to nothing is said about the very low fertility of Italy, Spain, and Ireland (all Catholic countries, by the way!), and how their experience can be utilized by others. Frankly, I expected more from his final chapters.

Nevertheless, in sum, this is a truly excellent book. I do have one recommendation however. The publisher should be commandeered to have Jack Parsons prepare an abbreviated, one-volume, paperback edition of this monograph. Far too often, brilliant pieces (like this one) are read only by those who are already in agreement with the thoughts of the authors. What is desperately needed is a quantity of shorter (and much less expensive) books that can be read by a much larger audience. The people of this planet still need to be educated to the problems associated with overpopulation. By cutting out certain parts of this book and limiting a smaller edition to, say, 300 pages many more people would read it and learn from it. Then Jack Parsons would really be performing a great duty for our movement.

About the author

Leon F. Bouvier is adjunct professor of demography at Tulane University, School of Public Health.