Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Mastodon in the Breakfast Nook

I am 60 years old. In my lifetime, the human population on the earth has more than tripled. As of today, August 12, 2008, it stands at 6,716,344,516.

If we were algae, we’d be a red tide. If we were locusts, we’d be a pestilence.

It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary human problem that isn’t exacerbated or even caused by overpopulation. Despite that, we don’t talk about it. We don’t even whisper about it. We certainly don’t think about it.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who died in 1968, laid out the problem: “What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.”

The population has doubled since he said that.

Population explosions of one species or another are common, and nature has its ways to counter them. In our case, it will probably be disease that cuts us down to size. We’re overdue for a pandemic influenza or other virus.

Every human being born on this planet has needs: space, water, food, energy, dignity, education, employment. Worldwide, governments do a poor job of providing these needs. They are based on money and power, not on people.

As a consequence, billions of people live without clean water or adequate food. They are vulnerable to disease, and disease will come to them.

And then it will spread. One freshly-infected passenger on one international flight could bring a plague that would be distributed across the nation before he noticed he was sick.

I’m not making a Malthusian argument. In 1798, Thomas Malthus suggested that human population growth would exceed the ability to raise enough food. So far, that hasn’t been the case. There is enough food to go around. The problem is that it doesn’t go around.

The current energy “crisis” is inextricably linked to overpopulation, as well. We seem to have sucked up about half of the easily recoverable oil in the world. That means the second half will be harder to get and continuously more expensive.

Let’s look at one baby boy, born today in some backwater like Darfur or Patagonia or Lapland. He is going to need a certain minimum amount of energy during his lifetime. He, and about seven million others who are born each month, will need to obtain water, cook food, wear clothing, have a place to live, and so on. I think we’d agree that he will need to go to school, have access to medical care, and get a job.

All of that takes energy, and what that one baby will need over his lifetime is both his energy “footprint” and his basic human right.

Our current system is depriving so many people of this right. If we continue, many of them will die, many will have their intellects impaired by malnutrition, many will get sick – and many will turn to rebellion and terrorism.

China has seen this looming disaster and is doing something about it. Childbirth in China is severely limited. But no other country I know of is confronting the problem. In most countries, anyone proposing any limit of any kind on reproduction would be subject to castigation. Such a proposal also challenges more than one religion, wherein “be fruitful and multiply” is considered a command of deity.

Some countries are actually losing population. They would be logical candidates for immigration, but the people who come from somewhere else are always different, and thus frightening, at least to some.

Around 2012, there will be eight billion people in the world, if trends continue. We’ll reach nine billion about 2040. That’s a lot of footprints.

I have no doubt that we humans have the wherewithal to solve the problems we face. When England ran out of firewood, coal mining began. We’ll find new energy sources, better methods of food production, new ways to purify and conserve water. But will the distribution of such advances be equitable?

We need to start thinking of each birth as a moral commitment to provide that child with basic human needs, or at least access to them. We should have started thinking that way a long time ago.

I’m not arguing for communism, either. Individual enterprise should be encouraged, and people deserve to be paid well if they do good work. But there are certain minimum needs, such as potable water and adequate food, the provision of which is an essential duty of government.

That’s a demand-side response, and it gets harder and harder to achieve while we continue to ignore the supply side. Increasing population is the biggest problem our species faces at this time.

If we don’t solve it, nature will do it for us. It won’t be pretty.