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"Cities in the Sea"

On (the grossly inflated human) Population

The gorilla in the closet

October 2009

There's not one serious environmental issue that is not exacerbated by human overpopulation, among them the problem of global climate change.  For decades world leaders have been loudly warned, and have ignored this fact, and now it has come home with a vengeance.  Are there still measures that can be taken, or are we just along for the ride?
In 1798, a 32-year old English clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus, published a piece that caused astonishment as well as condemnation in England.  In "An Essay on the Principle of Population", Malthus argued that the English welfare system ("poor-laws") of the time did more harm than good, and that there would always be a destitute underclass which it would be useless to try to raise up.  This, coming from a country parson, flew in the face of the awakening public concern for the "new poor" in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  Today we would say that Malthus clumsily overstated his case with respect to the early English welfare efforts, but we would give him credit for being the first to show an understanding of the problematical potential of human population growth.

The essential truth that Malthus was the first to raise publicly, and that holds true to this day, is that populations of organisms – any organisms, including humans – when allowed to grow unchecked, will tend to multiply according to an exponential growth curve.  This means that the growth rate maintains a consistent percentage.  The upshot of this is that if you have a population of two million organisms, growing at 2 percent per year, they would be adding 40,000 individuals to their population per year.  But after a few years, when their population reached, say, six million, they would be adding 120,000 individuals per year.  In other words, although the growth rate – in percent – remains the same, the larger the population gets, the faster it grows, from a numerical perspective.  This is compound interest.  In your bank account that's a good thing.  With biological species, it may or may not be.  (The potential to grow exponentially is really there as a resource, to facilitate recovery when the population is nearly decimated.)  Now, no biological population can grow "unchecked" for more than a short time.  It quickly runs into constraints, such as food availability, climatic changes, predators, competition, space, etc.  And when that happens, some species respond by having fewer offspring, thus reducing growth or contracting the population size.  Other species do not so respond, but continue to push the "carrying capacity" of their environment.  No matter; they will also be reduced in population – if not by their own choice, then by environmental circumstances.  The most common of these are food/water and habitat scarcity, predation, and disease.  In other words, mass death.

The human species, an animal species – Homo sapiens – is subject to the same constraints on population as any other organism.  We're limited by food and water, by habitat, and by our interaction with other organisms and the physical environment.  Humans have, over the past several thousand years, systematically invaded and destroyed the habitats of our compatriot species, both plant and animal, and we have, quite successfully, attempted to reduce most of our fellow species on Earth to relict remnants.  We are now the undisputable lords of the Earth.  Or are we?  Indications are strong that we have grown to the point where a very unpleasant population crash may be in the offing.

When I was a kid (I'm not giving away when that was) there were just over 2 billion people on the Earth.  The world's annual population growth rate was nearly 2 percent, which meant that about 40 million souls were added each year.  That was incredibly impressive – about the population of France at the time!  But now the Earth's human population is over 6.7 billion, and although the growth rate has been reduced to about 1.2 percent per year, that still means we're now adding more than 80 million people each year – twice as many as in the 194...oops, I mean, as long ago!  Or, to put it perhaps more dramatically, we're adding a new China with each decade!  The lesson is that even though we've somewhat reduced our growth rate in terms of percentage, we've doubled our growth rate in terms of persons per year.  The number of new mouths we have to feed each year has doubled, at a time when we're unable to feed the mouths we have.

I present for your consideration some gentlemen who have one thing in common:  They were all hired to solve our nation's problems, and they all completely failed to deal with our most serious issue:  D.E.Eisenhower, J.F.Kennedy, L.B.Johnson, R.M.Nixon, G.R.Ford, J.E.Carter, R.W.Reagan, G.H.W.Bush, W.J.Clinton, and G.W.Bush.  And this "issue" was...?  This issue was and is the population explosion, which might have been dealt with meaningfully by our presidents up through Ford, and which might still have been dealt with, though with less results, through Clinton, but which now appears to have placed us on a track to destruction.  None of these presidents appared to care at all, nor did they do anything useful, about the Earth's greatest problem:  human population growth,

I recall, while in high school in Chicago in the 1950s (Eisenhower's era), when the world human population stood at about 2.5 billion, trying to explain some simple math to a fellow student who thought that if we ever got too many people on Earth – which he doubted could ever happen – we would "somehow" find a way to deal with it.  His favorite solution was rocket ships to other planets.  I explained to him – while he cared to listen – the nature of interminable growth:  Unless we made an effort to slow and eventually halt our growth rate we would wind up at untenable population levels, which would displace and extinguish other life forms on the Earth, and eventually run up against resource limitations.  I mention this to point out the fact that the hazard of population growth and limitation of resources was well known in the 1950s.  It was understood by scientists, by the literate public, and by reasonably bright high school kids.  But our Presidents and Congress either didn't understand it or they chose to ignore the problem.

Why?  Perhaps in the 50's, Eisenhower was too busy with the Korean war and the following cold war.  In the 60's, Kennedy and Johnson were too busy with the Viet Nam war.  In the 70's, Nixon wrapped up the Viet Nam war, Ford wrapped up Nixon, and Carter had Iran's act of war on his mind.  In the 80's, Reagan was wrapping up the cold war, and Bush I made Iraq War I.  In the 90's Clinton was busy with getting sex, and in the 00's Bush II made Iraq War II and then the Afghanistan war.  Foreign wars and sex.  Who had time for our most serious problem, the long-term, existence-threatening problem of overpopulation?  While most of our Presidents simply ignored the problem, some actually spoke out about it, like Reagan.  He was proud of the growth in population!  And frankly, other world leaders haven't done any better.  That least sensitive to human suffering of all world leaders, the President of Vatican City, has proclaimed that God's will is to "bring more souls to the table of life."  That is to say, to get more miserable souls to put pennies in his offering plates.

Today, of course, everything is different, isn't it?  Now we all finally understand.  We grasp that too many humans on the planet have decimated natural ecosystems, have extinguished animal and plant species that, without us, would have lived on.  We understand fully that our pollution of the planet is driving us toward planetary responses where the Earth, – which, if it has feeling, must think we hate it – will strike back with a vengeance.  We've seen the proofs that our coastal cities may be inundated because we built them in the ocean's right-of-way and, our agriculture may dry up because we abused the water the Earth gave us, and our vaunted civilization, now totally dependent on artificial supports, such as electricity and fossil fuels, may collapse into bands of survivalists, no wiser for the experience.  So now that we understand the crisis of human overpopulation, our legislators and the UN are surely working to resolve it?  Not at all.  The issue is nowhere on Congress' radar, and the UN, which has a "population program" of sorts, is mainly engaged in sending out hopeful reports about how the problem will, perhaps, correct itself in time.  No need for action.

Much can be said for the view that the Earth is suffering a disease, a cancerous growth, and that it's called Homo sapiens.  For more than 500 million years, no single species had affected the Earth system as a whole, until the last few thousand years of human history.  We have not only affected the Earth, but for the first time in 500 million years a species has actually managed to damage the Earth.  And the "forcing function" for the damage is simply human population growth.  In short, there are too many people on the Earth, and we need to reduce that number.  There's only one acceptable way to achieve that: Reduce the number of births.  How to do that is, of course, a key question, but it's a question that can be resolved once world leaders have understood how serious this problem is.

You may think that our first world-wide priority is "climate change" AKA "global warming."  Sure, but that problem is made up of two basic elements:  1.How much each of us adds to greenhouse gases, and 2.How many of us there are.  These two factors are multiplicative – each factor is as important as the other.  You'll find this same pattern in all our major problem areas.  Hunger and food shortage?  1.How much food each of us needs, and 2.How many of us there are.  Energy needs? 1.How much each of us uses, and 2.How many of us there are.  Get the picture?  Crowding and city slums, poverty, health care, immigration issues, water shortage, territorial disputes.  Issue after issue is exacerbated by our growing population; they would all be relieved by stabilizing and then diminishing our population.

How do we get our politicians to understand this?  I wish I could tell you; I've been trying for 40 years with little luck.  Many politicians have been seduced by the "pro-population" lobby:  those who argue that in order to provide funds to support an ever-growing older population we must have an ever-growing base of working younger people.  This argument is false, pernicious, and frankly stupid.  You need only think for a minute about the meaning of an ever-growing base of the population pyramid to understand that it implies an eternally growing population, obviously a design for disaster.  It is really a pyramid scheme, and would eventually crash violently, like all pyramid schemes.  It's like the tyro gambler who thinks he can beat the roulette wheel by simply doubling his bet when he loses.  That would work if he could double his bet more often than his longest losing streak.  But suddenly he runs into a limit, either the table's or his wallet's.  His strategy crashes, and he has lost all he had.  This result is guaranteed.  Just like the roulette table, nature sets limits on populations.  And if we hit the limit, nature will cash in our chips, in her own way.  In her own brutal way.

That result is guaranteed, too.

© 2009 H. Paul Lillebo

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