Like the crazy aunt at the family gathering who goes around saying things that make everyone uncomfortable, I'm always going on about the fact that there are too many people here on planet Earth. Whenever I bring it up, there's usually an awkward silence in the room (meat or silicone) and then someone says, "Hey! How 'bout them Yankees!" or something very similar.
I understand the discomfort. Issues related to procreation go straight to the heart of human liberty, of what it means, for many people, to be fully human. No one wants Big Brother in their bedroom, telling them who they can have sex with and when and under what circumstances they can procreate. The potential for abuse is almost 100%, and every minority group on Earth worries that they'll be targeted. Gays worry that as soon as a "gay gene" is identified, no one will have gay children any more, especially if couples are limited to one or two offspring. African Americans can see who'll (blondes) be allowed to reproduce and who'll (people with kinky hair) be edged out. Women just know that they'll be marginalized and controlled as they are everytime that any issue related to sex or reproduction is decided by a society that is (still)patriarchal to its core. Just look at China, where the one-child policy actually meant the one-son policy. And on, and on. I do understand what it is that makes people uncomfortable.
But discomfort won't change the basic fact. There are already too many people on the planet. Yes, Europe has begun, to the consternation of wingnuts everywhere, to reign in its population growth. But we're headed for a cliff and we're headed there pretty fast. This article
, which Prior Aelred sent to me, does a very good job of explaining the problem.The Population Bubble
by David Bacon
In the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons there is usually a scene where Coyote, chasing Roadrunner, runs off a cliff. He continues on a horizontal line for a couple of seconds, looking increasingly puzzled and concerned, until he realizes his predicament, tries vainly to reverse course, and falls to the desert below.
This is symbolic of the situation ecologists call "overshoot." Overshoot is when a species reproduces to a number that its environment can't sustain.
In 1944, for example, 29 reindeer were introduced onto St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. With few competitors, no predators and plenty to eat, the herd increased to about 6,000 by the summer of 1963, consuming almost all available food. That winter most of them died. The surviving population in 1966 numbered 42.
And now the species with the unique ability to change the environment on a colossal scale appears on the verge of making for itself a St. Matthew Island worldwide. At the end of the 19th century the human population was 1.6 billion. It is now 6.5 billion.
The food that made this amazing increase possible -- there's also sanitation and modern medicine, but food is the base -- came primarily by boosting crop yields with petroleum. With fertilizer from natural gas, with crops bred to capitalize on that fertilizer and with petroleum-powered machinery and irrigation wells, we can produce huge yields -- more than 7,000 pounds of corn per acre, for example. Just one lifetime ago, corn yields were one-fifth of that. Wheat yields have almost tripled. Similar comparisons can be made for other grains.
But, this can't last. The aquifers, oil and natural gas that made possible a fourfold population increase are finite. Over the coming decades petroleum will become harder and harder to find, extract and put to use, until eventually it becomes unavailable for agriculture in any significant amount. Meanwhile, another 2 billion people are predicted worldwide by 2050.
Increasing attention to the so-called peak oil problem focuses on its impact on airlines, car makers and the stock market. These will suffer, but not on the level of malnutrition and starvation for many, and a continuous struggle over decreasing resources for all.
Is the situation really this dire? Agriculture accounts for a fraction of petroleum use in industrialized countries. We might reduce use elsewhere -- more efficient cars, less plastic -- and use the savings to keep crop yields high enough to feed everyone.
But to make that work, short-term and local self-interest must yield to a long-term, global consciousness -- a tall order. Increased efficiency and alternative fuels might for a time fill the gap left by petroleum's decline. But we have yet to devise an alternative as versatile as petroleum that can fill its huge role -- especially in the face of relentlessly growing demand for energy. And whatever we do to support population growth will only make overshoot worse in the end.
In addition to unique abilities, we have a serious shortcoming. We are unwilling, perhaps unable, to see ourselves as subject to the same constraints as Earth's other inhabitants. But in our dependence on the environment for food and water, we most certainly are subject to those constraints. Without a solution, we will die just as surely as the St. Matthew reindeer.
Given Earth's limits, there already are too many of us for the long run. But the day of reckoning is many years away, and it is notoriously difficult for political leaders to seek moderate sacrifice today to prevent terrible sacrifice tomorrow when there is too little general recognition of the trouble ahead.
Can we be wilier than Wile E. Coyote? It's hard to be optimistic. There is probably no real solution to this problem, only halfway measures to lessen the eventual impact. But every little bit will help.
David Bacon is a physician and retired Army colonel living in Aspen, Colorado. He wrote this for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.
I disagree with Mr. Bacon on several points. I don't think that the day of reckoning is nearly as far away as he imagines, especially as global climate change makes more and more land uninhabitable and as more and more people (think China) outside of the U.S. demand, as they have a right to do, living standards that equal those of people living in the U.S.
Finally, I disagree that there is no real solution to this problem, although I'd agree that there's likely no ONE solution to this problem. But we could, within five years if we wanted, turn this bus around and get it headed in the right direction.
Free, safe, effective birth control for everyone should be a focus of government spending, even if it means no more trillion-dollar wars. Actual sex education that includes education about the danger of population explosion must replace the nonsense, half efforts, and abstinence bullshit that we currently impose on our children. Tax incentives for those who don't have extra children and increasing taxes on those who have more than one child, in order to stop those people from externalizing the costs of their reproductive choices onto the rest of the planet, may be needed. Large lump sum payments for those who agree to be sterilized, especially after only one child could help. Beyond that, an attempt to change public attitudes, as we've done about everything from smoking to drunk driving to discussing cancer, has got to start now and has got to be a serious social priority -- a Manhattan Project or a race to the Moon level of social commitment is needed.
As the article notes, population problems tend to solve themselves -- it's just that they do so in particularly ugly ways and, I'll note, in ways that hurt children. We can do nothing and then face our own Winter of '63. I'll simply note that the St. Matthew Island reindeer didn't have nuclear weapons. I know what I think we should do and I'm willing to be the embarrassing aunt who makes everyone uncomfortable if that will help us to face this problem. Maybe it's the Bene Gesserit
in me, hoping that we'll someday become human beings. Perhaps population overshoot will be our Gom Jabbar