“The limitless world view will have to be abandoned” – Garrett Hardin
“New growths of any kind … involve an increase in the number of some kind of cell and, hence, a corresponding increase in the size of the organ or tissue involved…. In all but one instance, organs and tissues in their growth seem to “know” when to stop. The exception, of course, is … cancer.” – Alan Gregg, A Medical Aspect of the Population Problem, 1955
“In a finite world, high growth rates must self-destruct. If the base from which the growth is taking place is tiny, this law may not operate for a time. But when the base balloons, the party ends: A high growth rate eventually forges its own anchor.” – Warren Buffet
Before I dive in…
I know many of you reading won’t share my views on this. I’m pretty sure a good portion of you will consider me an elitist and heartless prick by the time you’re done reading. I was considering holding back on this post until I read a few more books on population — to date I’ve only read one devoted entirely to the subject: Living Within Limits by Garrett Hardin — but I believe I’ll deepen my understanding of these issues faster if I just write what I currently think and allow other minds to chime in with different perspectives and tell me where I might be going astray.
I’m prepared to be wrong. I’m willing to be embarrassed. I figure we learn faster this way.
So, my views here are by no means correct or finalized. This is just what I’m thinking about these issues now, and I’m throwing those thoughts out there, for better or worse.
The biggest root cause of human suffering
I believe that there are too many people in the world, that overpopulation has been the biggest root cause of human suffering for the past several decades, and that if our numbers continue to increase at their current rate, well, we’re all pretty much screwed.
I got to thinking about population while I was passing through India a few months back, seeing how crowded the cities were, sleeping bodies lining the streets at night. India’s population is currently increasing by approximately 17 million people a year (that’s how many people live in the Netherlands, by the way), and shows no signs of slowing (sure, the rate might be slowing, but that’s misleading).
I subsequently learned that the world population is increasing by more than 200,000 people per day.
Too dominant for our own good
There are seven billion of us now, and I believe that’s way too many. Optimists, if they acknowledge the issue at all, say that overpopulation isn’t worth worrying about. Mostly, they’re comforted by the belief that technology will save us.
I’m not so sure. In fact, I think technology is a big part of the problem. We’ve found ways to stave off nature’s three primary control mechanisms for the population of a species: predation, disease and starvation.
Humans no longer have any predators worth worrying about. Even the weaker among us are surviving childbirth and living longer than ever thanks to constant improvements in healthcare. And we have charitable armies working on solving the starvation problem.
I’m no longer sure these are good things. Especially the last one. I’ve stopped supporting charities that focus on feeding starving nations or providing desert dwellers with clean drinking water. All I see happening there is that we’re helping people — people living on barren land unfit for humans — live long enough so they can have more kids and thus continue the cycle.
Heartless? Depends how you look at it.
I used to be very compassionate towards individuals, but I’ve moved more towards a general compassion for humanity. I think the former often conflicts with the latter.
The ancient Greeks had two different words for life: bios and zoë. Zoë-life is life in the bigger sense. Consider it the life of a species, or, better yet, the entire ecosystem. What the Greeks understood was that for Zoë-life to continue, bios-life must be regularly sacrificed.
The case of St. Matthew Island helps explain what I’m getting at here. From Wikipedia:
In 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to the island by the United States Coast Guard to provide an emergency food source. The coast guard abandoned the island a few years later, leaving the reindeer. Subsequently, the reindeer population rose to about 6,000 by 1963 and then died off in the next two years to 42 animals. A scientific study attributed the population crash to the limited food supply in interaction with climatic factors (the winter of 1963–64 was exceptionally severe in the region). By the 1980s, the reindeer population had completely died out.
If there had been natural predators on that island, such as wolves for instance, the reindeer population would have suffered the regular loss of a Bambi momma. And while each individual death would have been sad and brutal from a Disney perspective, there’d likely still be a thriving reindeer population living there today. Their numbers would have been kept in check, preventing overgrazing, and thus preventing a population crash. The regular loss of bios-life would have allowed zoë-life to continue.
Earth is all we’ve got
I believe what happened on St. Matthew Island should be seen as a cautionary tale for humans. That island was a closed system. The reindeer had nowhere to go. Once there were more mouths to feed than food to feed them, they were in big trouble. Likewise, Earth is a closed system. We have finite resources. If population growth continues, we’ll eventually get to a point where we have more mouths to feed than food to feed them. It might take fifty years, it might take two hundred years, or even longer, but we will eventually arrive at that point if our numbers remain unchecked.
And for those of you who believe we’ll escape into space, please. Since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space back in 1961, only 527 more humans have been there, and none of them have made it very far or stayed for very long. To balance out the current level of population growth, we’d need to be shipping 528 humans into space every four minutes, never to return.
That’s just to point out one absurdity of the interstellar migration solution to overpopulation. Hardin gives many more in Living Within Limits.
Chains that bind us
I don’t believe the real solution is as simple as “stop having kids”, but that’s a start.
As you may have noticed, I’ve been man-crushing on Sebastian Marshall a lot lately, but I disagree with him completely when it comes to his views on population (from Ikigai):
“I’m for population growth, and more people… Y’know how hard it was for people to have and raise kids throughout history? When I hear people saying they don’t want kids, not because they’re working on world-changing stuff like Albery Einstein, but because they think they’d be happier without kids … I don’t know man, it shocks me. There’s been a chain of people brutally struggling and striving forwards throughout history, and you’re comfortable breaking that chain? That’s … that’s … well, that’s something I’m not comfortable doing.”
The way I see it, if nobody breaks that chain, we end up with too many people, and nature eventually breaks the chain for all of us.
The problem with the “stop having kids” advice though is that it’s usually only the most educated of people who heed it. Population growth is highest among the poor and uneducated. You might have seen that movie Idiocracy. It’s set in the year 2505, and the premise is that stupid people have outbred intelligent people and thus inherited the Earth. Sure, it’s a comedy movie, but it does get me thinking. If it’s the most educated and responsible of us who choose to stop reproducing, we inevitably become less educated and less responsible as a species.
The best solution I can think of to all this
One: If you want to be a parent, adopt from the third world and raise those kids to be educated and responsible adults. If you feel strongly about continuing your bloodline, have just one kid of your own. Real, individual sacrifice has to happen.
Two: Support charities and non-profits focused on education, and especially the education of young girls. One Girl is such an organization. The girls they educate in Sierra Leone end up having fewer, healthier children. This is a very good thing.
To wrap this up…
Listen, I’m a big fan of humanity. I would like the human race to continue and prosper indefinitely. When I talk about feeling less compassion for poorer nations with lots of poverty and massively high birth rates, it’s not because I hate humanity. It’s the opposite.
I’m all for the reduction of needless suffering. And I believe the best way to reduce that suffering is to reduce our numbers, allowing the vast majority of us to live comfortably and in harmony with nature. The alternative is to have an ever-increasing population with ever-increasing suffering and ever-diminishing resources, the end result of which will likely be a massive population crash and the end of the human race.
What are your thoughts?
Note: I’ll be doing a bit of trekking in Nepal this week, so comment replies and moderation may be a wee bit slow. Thanks for your patience.