November 20, 2017

Sire of All Crises

"The Blue Marble" is a famous photog...

Our world’s travails and torments (Image via Wikipedia)

Today’s guest post is from John Davis, a wilderness explorer and writer, former Wild Earth editor, and Fellow of The Rewilding Institute. John’s previous post, “Why Five Cats?“, took a lighthearted look at the merits of nulliparity and cat ownership. Today’s post is excerpted from an essay that will appear in a forthcoming population anthology, Apply the Breaks! Environmentalists Confront Population Growth, edited by Eileen Crist and Philip Cafaro, University of Georgia Press. We’re hoping to review the anthology on Why No Kids? when it is published.

Virtually every major problem in the world today is caused or exacerbated by human overpopulation.  From famine and disease to war and extinction (the overarching crisis of our time), the main driving force is the exploding human population.  Planet Earth is being wrecked by too many people consuming too much of the natural world through technologies too harmful.

The litany of overpopulation’s problems is the list of the world’s travails and torments: habitat fragmentation and destruction, species extirpation and extinction; air, land, and water pollution; global climate chaos, extreme storm damage, killing droughts; unemployment, declines in social services, poverty, starvation, disease, epidemic; degradation of natural and cultural amenities, such as trails, parks, and gardens; loss of individual meaning, influence, and opportunity; ennui, angst, and mental disorders; congestion, noise, traffic, road rage, crime; exploitation, imperialism, war …   If our civilization is to have a prayer of persistence, we must face the huge challenge of humanely, peacefully reducing our numbers – probably several orders of magnitude, over many decades – to within biological carrying capacity, to a level compatible with the long-term well-being of all our fellow denizens on this sensitive planet.

With good reason, the hot topic of the day is just that – global overheating.  Obviously, the problem is not just that we drive gas guzzlers, overheat our poorly insulated houses, and waste too much paper.  The problem is also that too many people are driving; too many people are heating their homes with fossil fuels; and too many people are consuming natural resources and supplanting natural, carbon-storing habitats with crops, cows, lawns, and houses.

In the United States at least, demographic and economic trends of recent years strongly, if surprisingly, suggest that fertility is more amenable to reconsideration than is consumption:  People will apparently more easily accept a smaller family than they will a smaller energy budget.  Americans would rather have fewer children than stop driving their cars and running their air conditioners.  So, while we must also confront the problems of excessive consumption and harmful technologies, we will likely make the greatest strides toward saving the world from disaster by instituting educational, financial, and cultural incentives for lower birth rates.

A central tenet of sensible population planning is the education and empowerment (social, political, and financial) of women.  From my recent experiences out exploring North America’s endangered but not lost wildways, often guided by great naturalists, let me humbly suggest a complementary strategy, one already being promoted well but not widely enough by environmental educators: immersion of young people in wild Nature.  Get kids out roaming the woods, paddling the creeks, snorkeling the ponds, looking at birds and flowers and trees and frogs and butterflies …  Help them see how wondrous and exciting and beautiful our wild neighbors are and help them understand the connections between land and wildlife, between land and people, and between the actions we take as people and the consequences to the land and wildlife.  Go forth and don’t multiply, young people!

The Inconvenient Truth of human-caused planetary overheating may best be met with the more convenient truth that by peacefully and voluntarily reducing our numbers, we not only help stabilize the climate and abate the extinction crisis, we also treat virtually every ecological, social, and cultural ill in the world today.  Then, rather than our many descendants cursing us for condemning them to a world of poverty, pestilence, and war, our small number of offspring would thank us for recognizing just in time the moral imperative of ending humanity’s march against the natural world, for rejoining the biotic community and celebrating our connections with land and wildlife.

John Davis is a wilderness explorer and writer, former Wild Earth editor, and Fellow of The Rewilding Institute. A longer version of this essay will appear in a population anthology, Apply the Breaks! Environmentalists Confront Population Growth, edited by Eileen Crist and Philip Cafaro, University of Georgia Press.