Saturday, June 6, 2015
The Question We Dare Not Ask
There are over 7.2 billion people on this planet with U.N. projections of 9.6 billion by 2050. We are losing landmass due to rising coastal waters, and much of the landmass we retain is changing dramatically by reason of climate change. Half the species on earth have died off since 1970. The pressure on potable water resources, agriculture and all forms of non-food-based commodities are rising, not just from the rise in the sheer numbers of people but from the growing expectations and consumption patterns from rising middle classes in places like India and China.
Nature seeks balance, to introduce predators, pestilence and disease to counter excesses when one species increases to the detriment of the environment. My most simplistic vision of this reality is the rising of squirrels on my local golf course, followed by a large movement of hawks to the area, to the disappearance of the hordes of squirrels, followed by the departure of the hawks, etc. We notice what happens when a foreign species is introduced to a lake or other water system, where there are no natural counters, and how long it takes those water systems to restore balance.
But what do you do with the species at the top of the ecological food chain, one which conducts medical research to destroy or prevent disease, and scientific research to counter pestilence? Without predators, and with disease devastating only where science is simply not available, human beings are raging out of control. The natural struggles of virtually every other species (99% of animals die violent deaths in nature’s harsh plan) don’t generally draw our innate sympathies, but we are aghast at human losses.
Scarce resources and utter desperation among humans leads to the rise of extreme religious beliefs and ultra-violent responses where both these factors are at their highest levels. The long-term droughts in Syria and Iraq, mostly in Sunni-held lands, have exploded into war. Whether you look at refugees escaping violence in Asian Myanmar (the Rohingya) or heading to Europe on leaking boats from their native northern Africa, there are desperate, life-ending threatening forces pushing on the edge of humanity. Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali add to the list of Africa’s violent misery.
Throw in the rash of HIM, Ebola, dysentery, locusts, water borne parasites, etc. from bottom-of-the-economic-ladder people of Africa and Asia, and you see the story of suffering that seems to dominate the news these days. But you may also be witnessing the cruelty of nature, grappling with the spread of one, environment-destroying dominant species with insufficient checks and balances.
No senior predators? No problem. We’ll just have people turn on themselves. Call it violent crime, insurrection, war, repressive regimes killing opponents, civil war or, most evil of all, genocide. It reduces the number of people on the planet. Is this just nature doing her job? And if we don’t figure out how to reduce our own population, is it inevitable the nature will simply do it for us, using our own violent proclivities against us.
Tom Butler is editorial director at the Foundation for Deep Ecology and editor of a book entitled Over (pictured above), an assembly of photographs representing overpopulation, explains that population control, a seemingly forbidden topic today, wasn’t always so taboo. “‘The bestselling environment-related book of the '60s and '70s was not Silent Spring, it was Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb,’ says Butler. ‘So this was a huge and integrated topic of conversation decades ago, and then it fell off the radar screen.’
“Part of the challenge is that the topic is now politically fraught both for the right and left. ‘On the right, if we're talking about the demographic trajectory of the human family, inevitably, this brings up questions of sexuality, abortion, immigration, women's rights, gender equity—all kinds of hot button issues,’ he says. ‘And then on the far ends of the left spectrum, there's a radical fringe that has tried to portray family planning as equal to coercion.’
“There's also the challenge that the numbers for projected population growth are so large that they tend to become abstract and meaningless. ‘I think part of the reason we don't talk about population problem is that demographic data is boring and people can't imagine what those numbers really mean, unless you put it in a way that's understandable to a normal person,’ Butler says.
“But, he argues, addressing population could be one of the most straightforward ways to tackle other issues like climate change—unlike transforming the energy economy, for example, the solutions are relatively simple and cheap.
“‘In terms of slowing population momentum, we know what works,’ he says. ‘If you elevate the status of women, educate girls, and make family planning tools and information universally available, birth rates come down rapidly. This happens across cultures. It can be done in a way that is culturally appropriate, that empowers women and their partners to make free choices. It's a victory for human beings that can reduce suffering.’
“It's a change that would require political will more than a massive budget—maybe a mere $3.5 billion he estimates to provide family planning for all women on Earth who don't currently have access. ‘That's less than 4% of what Americans pay for beer every year. It is a trivial sum to solve that unmet need gap in family planning,’ he says.
“Some argue that technological solutions can rise to meet the needs of another few billion people on the planet—just as advances in agriculture helped defeat Malthusian predictions of running out of food. But Butler believes that technology alone isn't sufficient to address problems like climate change and plummeting biodiversity.
“‘I absolutely do not believe that the innovations in technology will solve all of these problems, as if by magic, if you don't solve the underlying issues,’ he says. ‘You can't treat the symptoms and not the underlying root causes and hope that the patient will get better. The patient may not die as quickly, you can buy time, but the fundamental reality is that you cannot grow perpetually on a finite planet.’” FastCompany.com, May 26th. So if we do not act, will war and genocide escalate, new superbugs prosper like never before and environmental damage simply increases its toll against human life. Do we have a choice? I’d like to think we do.
I’m Peter Dekom, and will humanity act rationally to rein in nature’s mandate to contain our numbers?