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.


  1. I enjoyed reading this, Adam. Interesting and thought provoking, definitely. Nice.

  2. 17 For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.

    18 Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.

    -Doctrine and Covenants 104: 17-18

  3. It's true - there always have been poor and there always have been some powerful types who will take advantage of others. I agree that this speaks more to our nature than to population itself. If we look at some societies that arguably did achieve that utopia, it was reached by changing the way they viewed and treated others. Those systemic, deep changes allowed them to have all things in common with each other.

  4. "[i]f we were to all die tomorrow, she would ... feed our bodily nutrients to her spawn."

    Thank you.