Sunday, September 25, 2011

Zero Population Is the Answer?

Recently, when I told a friend that I wanted three or four children, I was brought up short by her immediate question: "Why?"

No one had ever directly asked me that before. I suppose many feel it's too personal a topic, meddling in another person's familial choices. Also, I suspect that to my family and in the church I attend, three children sounds like a reasonable or even modest number. After all, it's half the number my parents had.

But my friend with the question was expressing concern for the environmental destruction and lack of resources around the world. Her solution, in part, was lessening the children because she sees a direct causal link between human numbers and the horrors of ecological havoc and third-world poverty.

So, is overpopulation destroying our world? From an ecological perspective, absolutely not. From an anthropocentric perspective? Maybe, but indirectly and it doesn't have to. Lemme explain.

Today, humankind simply does not have the power to do irrevocable harm to the natural world. Even if we wanted to. Even if we doubled the output of car and factory pollution spewing into the air, dumped twice the amount of toxins into lakes and oceans, and poisoned the soils and watersheds far more than we presently do, nature would survive. In fact, even if we detonated our combined nuclear arsenals all at once, nature would trundle along oblivious (as all non-sentient forces do). Don't believe me? Visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and see for yourself. Or look at another example, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. This one-time no man's land, pitted and scarred by war, now having been left alone for decades due to a frosty standoff is a 160-miles-long accidental nature preserve. Nature is resilient, far more than we give "her" credit for. We can bloody her nose, but if we were to all die tomorrow, she would reclaim our cities, dismantle them, fill them with flora and fauna, and feed our bodily nutrients to her spawn.

What people mean when they say we hurt mother nature is that we damage small parts of her. Through deliberate overhunting and habitat destruction or thoughtless use of poisons and pollution, we can outright annihilate some species. And that should be of concern to anthropocentric people. In other words, to all of us. While it's true that extinction is natural, Professor Will Steffen estimates that current extinction levels are at 100 to 1000 times the normal level. Make no mistake, I deplore species extinction. I believe it to be literally evil. We are not waging war against nature so much as we are committing genocide. But nature will weather even this. It's not the first extinction event natural life has overcome. It's the sixth.

Others worry about climate change. And we should. The science is in; the earth is heating up. Most likely cause? Human activity. But this too isn't much of a problem to nature. The world is actually much cooler today than it normally is. Presently, we're in a short interglacial phase of an Ice Age. (Or, we were until very recently). That means that even if the earth really heats up, it's nothing our world hasn't experienced before.

So, if nature will recover just fine no matter what we do, why should we be concerned? Because it's our own hide at stake. We're just one species on this planet, a species adapted to live in specific conditions. If we're responsible for climate change, all we're really doing is making life more difficult for ourselves. Modern humans, whether you believe in evolution, creationism, intelligent design, or panspermia, were designed to live on a colder planet. Today's average surface temperature is 59 degrees. How would we fare in a world where it's ten degrees warmer than it is now? The earth's most extreme climate change in prehistory, the PETM, gives us clues, possibly a worst case scenario: Coastal flooding. Jet stream reversal. Ocean acidification and anoxia (oxygen-depleted seas). Mass extinction of 35-50 percent of species. That's a bleak future, one we'd be hard pressed to live in. Even if we could survive such conditions, we'd probably not possess the same creatures comforts. Welcome to the post-Apocalypse.

So even if we're not all tree-hugging hippies, most would admit that humanity's survival and well-being are fairly important.

And if I thought that having more than two children contributed to a bleaker future, I'd cease and desist all baby-making activities immediately. But, for me, the following equation does not compute: Fewer Humans = Future Utopia.

One day in class, my students and I were analyzing an essay called "Lifeboat Ethics." In it, Garrett Hardin argues that the earth is not a vast spaceship with limited resources we must share, as some had argued, but a stretch of ocean with a single lifeboat atop. The raft represents the world's privileged nations. There are also a number of people treading water, each one a less developed country. Hardin's idea is that it is impossible, and detrimental, to welcome all into the lifeboat. It's swamped. Everyone drowns. The horror, the horror.

Neither can we invite only a select few of the world's poor in the lifeboat. Which few do we select? And where does that leave the other 90% of the poor countries? In other words, Hardin imagined a world that had already maxed out its ability to sustain the current population. And he wrote his essay in 1974, when the world had three billion fewer people.

Hardin's argument has several subtle flaws. For starters, it is profoundly nationalistic, even xenophobic. He endorses closed borders and a cessation of international aid of any type. That should naturally keep the poorer populations in check, he claims. For some reason unbeknownst to me, an American's life is more valuable than a Mexican's life because of an imaginary line some dead guys drew on a map long before any of us were born. Given that logic, it beats me why he's concerned about even other Americans.

And his lifeboat metaphor is full of holes as well. He assumes, for some reason, that the privileged nations hold all the resources quite naturally. Apparently he forgot that our gold is from Africa, our oil from the Middle East, our silk from Asia, and 15 percent of our food imported from abroad. In one way or another, many of the resources in our raft actually belong to the people in the water. Either we traded or stole them away. If countries actually kept what the land gave them, Peru, South Africa, and Russia would have the most silver, gold, and diamonds respectively. Brazil would have the most drinkable water. China the most cotton T-shirts. And the U.S. would only win in wheat and corn. (However, China and the U.S. win in every category, if we look at resources consumed.) Slimmer pickins' at the grocery store, but at least we wouldn't starve.

Furthermore, he completely ignores renewable resources. These are those that cannot be saved up, but wash over us with every wave and beat down at us from dawn till dusk. As long as the sun shines, the earth has energy. Let's focus on the cruse of oil which is everlastingly available, instead of the oil and coal that is fleeting.

Instead, Hardin suggests we have fewer kids. That's our problem, he says. Smaller families, the number of people treading water drops, and then everyone can climb aboard the lifeboat and share the bounty. If a smaller population were the answer, we would just have to look back in time, before 1974 even, to get a glimpse of this utopia. It's estimated that the global population reached one billion in 1805. Any poverty then? Yup. Millions of destitutes. 200 million on the planet in 1 AD. Poverty then? "Ye have the poor always with you." Ancient Greece. Babylon. It seems that in every age, poverty haunts our steps. All along the way, we rationalize our self-centeredness by convincing ourselves there is not enough for everyone to have a fair share. It is my belief that our ecological and socioeconomic problems are not causally linked to overpopulation, but to our own inhumanity.

Greed, ignorance, mismanagement, shortsightedness. These are the environmental killers, the misanthropic characteristics of humankind that threaten us all.

What's my solution? In part, I'm going to go raise some kids who live sustainable, simple, charitable lives.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Mormons Vote Republican

A significant majority of U.S. Mormons vote Republican and tend politically conservative. In fact, we are the most Republican-voting religion in the country, beating even evangelical protestants. It's surprising, given that ours is a faith with no official political affiliation.

To be forthright, I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Neither really represent my political views. So, in a way, I wish for a third party (not Libertarian) and look on in wonder at those who find either one a good political platform. But more on that later.

Now I want to address the question that keeps spinning through my mind: Why are most Mormons Republican?

It's not like on their surface one is evil and the other righteous. Certainly politicians and candidates from both sides can demonstrate unchristian behavior. The high road is universally the road less taken. Furthermore, one could argue that both parties have their good moral stances. Democrats want to reduce poverty, fund research, promote equality and champion civil rights. They struggle to give power to marginalized minorities and the forgotten.

On the other side, Republicans exalt in personal liberties and are often unflagging patriots. Most are people of family and faith. They want to eliminate corruption and waste in government.

Democrats are forward-looking visionaries; Republicans revere the bold beginnings of this country. And both sides (barring any conspiracy theories) want more jobs, better schools, domestic security, safe streets, clean air and water, and personal rights.

After thinking about it for some time I came up with a theory that sheds some light on the decision most Mormons have come to. It revolves around this question: Shall we force morality onto the people (Democrats) or are they moral deep down and it'll come out if we let them govern themselves (Republicans)?

This theory requires a little Mormonism 101 to make it clear. Mormons believe that our spirits did not wink into existence at birth, but that we lived a premortal life with God, an existence that now we cannot remember. We chose mortality to prove we would obey God on nothing more than faith. But along came Satan--yeah, he lived there too--and said he would force everyone to be good. Conversely, God and Jesus' plan would allow us to freely choose good or evil.

How does this translate into politics? Democrats want to pass laws that make us good: Hate crime laws. "Wealth transfer" laws. Gun control laws. Gay marriage laws. Civil rights laws. Equal opportunity. Tuition grants. US AID. Republicans want to keep government out of our lives and schools. They champion personal liberties to the point that government looks very bad. Given that, I guess it's easier to equate forced goodwill with the devil and freedom to choose with Jesus.

This simple view isn't always accurate though. Republicans want fiscal freedom but often come down hard on controversial moral issues like abortion and sex ed. Both try to legislate morality. It's just that Republicans rhetorically emphasize personal freedom more than Democrats. Freedom to do whatever the heck I want.

Am I right? half-right? Anyone have any other ideas? Stay tuned: A few more blog posts on politics coming your way.