Seven Billion Peeps: Thank You Jesus — and Oh, Shit!

[ Still feeling like hell, but I couldn't keep away ... ]

Here’s a personal reaction to a recent bit of news:

(And look at this BBC Where Do You Fit In? calculator. )

When I was born, there were 2.6 billion humans on the planet. Today there are 2.6 TIMES more.  World population is expected to tip over 7 billion in the next few days.

Speaking as an environmentalist (someone who cares about the ecosystem of Planet Earth), and a humanist (someone who loves human beings, and wants them to do well) I do not see any way in which this is happy news.

EVERY environmental problem you can name is, at base, NOT an environmental problem but rather a population problem. We have around us an entire planet full of resources, energy, healthy ecosystems, and food. But that one planet is OVERfull of humans consuming same.

The action of NOT dealing with population is, to me, literally insane.

The stand you’re expected to take on the issue of overpopulation, lest you be labeled a tinfoil-hat-wearing crazy or, worse, a “pessimist,” is one of optimism. “Sure it’s bad, but hey, we’ve got science! And education! And smart people making wise decisions! There’s still time! Something wonderful will happen!”

But …

I think I’ve said it here at least once: I met a climate scientist a few years back, and jokingly asked “Tell me the truth: Are we fucked?” And he said, in a non-joking voice: “Yeah. We’re fucked.”

Ongoing optimism has gotten us here. And we grab at any little straw of hope: Population growth is slowing. Educated women have fewer babies. We’re developing better, more productive crops. Technology will provide solutions.

All of that translates, in MY head, to what I call the Modified Thelma and Louise Scenario:

We’re driving toward a cliff, fast. We’re close, and getting closer. However, we appear to be decelerating … slightly.

But to me, the fact that we’re going 95 mph now instead of 100 is cause for very limited rejoicing.

Why is all this happening? My guess is that we’re just not up to solving the problem. I half-jokingly say that humans are about half as smart as they need to be for the species to survive.

I do hope I’m wrong about that.

But for humans, irrationality has been the base norm. I think we naturally desire reason and rationality, but in every early-human-society situation, there have been sharp limits on how much of reason and rationality we could work out on our own.

Plus, we’ve never really been allowed to see what unfettered rationality could do. We’ve had the immense disadvantage that unreason/irrationality can be made to pay, for certain individuals, certain predatory social groups.

In my view, the craziness has always been opposed by reasoning individuals, but that opposition has itself been very successfully opposed, for all of history and pre-history, by an entire class of social predators who don’t give two shits about what happens to people long-term as long as they personally can be enriched and empowered short-term. Given a choice of providing universal education or golden robes and cathedrals, they have opted throughout history for robes and cathedrals.

By no means do I think the greedy deeds throughout history have been carried out only by churches. But the underlying gullibility among the human population that allowed each victimization to take place … that has been formulated, taught, sold, defended, by ONE organized force.

Religion.

Religion has been humanity’s Crazy School, humanity’s Lawyer for the Defense of Crazy, for its entire lifetime.

The craziness that got us here, that keeps us from stopping or reversing overpopulation, is absolutely a side-effect of the history-long reign of religion. The craziness that gives religion its power over us is the same craziness that prevents us from dealing with all of these real-world problems. Given a history of craziness, a society filled with it but comfortably familiar — in the same way a cat creeping oh-so-slowly up on a pigeon is comfortably familiar — we mostly can’t even see the dangers.

Up to now there’s been world enough to absorb the crazy.

Now, there is not.

I’d like to say I think we have 100 years to grow up and be sane, or 50 years, or even 10. But I think we have zero time to grow up and be sane. Actually I think we have minus 50 years – we’ve already been, for decades, breaking the world in ways that likely only geological ages can repair.

All of this is one of the many reasons I’m an atheist, and a cheerleader for atheism (and all other forms of reason and rationality, actually, but this is the one I know something about).

So we can survive? No, that’s not what I want.

Bare survival is a pitiful goal, it seems to me. I want to live in a world that allows more than survival. A world where there are African lions roaming free, where there are mountain gorillas and black bears and whales, and wide, beautiful spaces for them to live in. And yes, I want us to be there too. I want there to be people with leisure and wealth enough to create art, and write blogs, and build cities in space.

It seems to me that push has come to shove, kids. It’s past time to rip the world out of the hands of the crazies, and let sane people see what they can do.

Whatever you can do to help that happen, whether it’s outspoken atheism, defense of fact-based education, voting for the best available candidates in every election (or maybe BEING one of the candidates), manning the lines at Occupy Wall Street, choosing a career in the sciences, or just talking up the real need to limit population growth … it’s all worth doing.

Otherwise, in fact, I don’t think we’re going to make it.

  • ohioobserver

    As much as I know that what you say is true, I can’t help but find it…disturbing. Depressing. Fatally demoralizing.

    I have done many of the things you prescribe: “defense of fact-based education, voting for the best available candidates in every election, choosing a career in the sciences, talking up the real need to limit population growth.” And I’ve done this for many years, trying to influence young people to think about the future realistically. Yet I wonder how much good it has done. As I reach the point in my life where there are fewer days ahead than behind, I find it harder and harder to believe that “I left it better than I found it”, as my dad used to exhort. Can we really stop the slide. I love people, I love what humans are capable f. I just wish we could be capable of it more often.

    OK,end of sad sigh. On with the real work. Because…what else is there?

  • CanadianSteve

    So many things wrong with the world, so little we can do about it.
    I’m a pessimist about the ability of the rational people of the world to influence the less rational. If you take the next step and say we should enforce rational politics you’re only one step from totalitarianism. Note that China is the only country in the world that has a population control strategy; no democratic country could ever implement it. Further, population growth occurs almost exclusively in populations that can’t support it, from poverty stricken areas in our own country to African nations to rural Asia. All of these regions are essentially no-go zones for rational policy (largely because of the education issue you mention). The modern world hasn’t reached these places yet; the levels of wealth/technology/productivity such that only one child is needed just don’t exist. If you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, or if your children have barely better than a 50-50 chance of making it to adulthood you probably aren’t too worried about there being too many people on the planet.
    The policies from our own government makes the situation much worse as well, and no-one is willing to take these on. Oppose the way foreign aid is run and vested interests from both the coporate and humanitarian sides will tar and feather you. Oppose the way poverty is dealt with in your first world country and the same thing happens…
    A guy could get depressed thinking about it too much.

  • CanadianSteve

    So many things wrong with the world, so little we can do about it.
    I’m a pessimist about the ability of the rational people of the world to influence the less rational. If you take the next step and say we should enforce rational politics you’re only one step from totalitarianism. Note that China is the only country in the world that has a population control strategy; no democratic country could ever implement it. Further, population growth occurs almost exclusively in populations that can’t support it, from poverty stricken areas in our own country to African nations to rural Asia. All of these regions are essentially no-go zones for rational policy (largely because of the education issue you mention). The modern world hasn’t reached these places yet; the levels of wealth/technology/productivity such that only one child is needed just don’t exist. If you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, or if your children have barely better than a 50-50 chance of making it to adulthood you probably aren’t too worried about there being too many people on the planet.
    The policies from our own government makes the situation much worse as well, and no-one is willing to take these on. Oppose the way foreign aid is run and vested interests from both the coporate and humanitarian sides will tar and feather you. Oppose the way poverty is dealt with in your first world country and the same thing happens…
    A guy could get depressed thinking about it too much.

  • Jeff Thompson

    I agree that over-population is at the root of all of our environmental problems. Unfortunately, it is the classic example of the tension between individual freedom and societal responsibility. Yeah, we’re fucked.

  • davidct

    The bad news is that we might not make it. The good news is that we won’t be missed.

  • davidct

    The bad news is that we might not make it. The good news is that we won’t be missed.

  • Hank Fox

    Ohioobserver and CanadianSteve, yeah, it is depressing, demoralizing, demotivating, all of that.

    On the other hand, you DO have to hear about the cancer before you can set about figuring out the best way to deal with it.

    If I was an alien outsider, hovering in orbit and watching this period in history, I think it would be absolutely fascinating to see what humans do.

    As it is … whoo.

    Here on the cusp of Halloween, it’s like the best theme park ride ever imagined by some alternate world Dark Disney:

    The Haunted Planet.

    • ohioobserver

      @Hank Fox:

      Yes, knowing you’ve got a tumor is the first step in coping with it — agreed. But we’ve know about this “tumor” for a long time — I remember discussions about “overpopulation”in the 50′s and ’60′s, when I was a kid — Paul and Anne Ehrlich sounded the bell in 1968 and were roundly lambasted for their effort. We knew then, and we know now, that the planet can’t sustain an exponentially growing population — it seems that the majority just don’t give a damn. Even I contributed to it — I had two kids and didn’t die when they reached adulthood. We all do. It’s in our personal interest to do so. Who cares about the human race’s fate as a whole, when you’ve got a family to feed? Or when you need a family to feed yourslf?

    • CanadianSteve

      You know Hank, I like your analogy of cancer. As we see it progressing I hope we can treat it, however, the treatment for cancer can be just as bad as the cancer itself, and a large portion of the time the patient dies anyway. I can’t help but think that’s kind of where we are going.

  • tuibguy

    I even wonder what could have been done back in the 1960′s when the alarm at overpopulation was being sounded. How do you stop this crazy train? Scientific approaches to agriculture lead to more people again thinking that their children won’t starve and they have kids.

    People act locally and screw the world globally; like I have kids and am contributing to the problem, I guess with two additions. What do we do? If everyone stops having kids we are fucked in a couple of generations. If only a few people have kids then we can make this thing work, but who are the lucky parents? The Chinese thought they had it figured out, but now they are running into a gender imbalance because girl babies aren’t as “valuable” as boy babies.

    Don’t you think that Malthus’ rules will catch up to us, or will agricultural technology and life-extending medical technologies continue to give us false hopes that the population problem will be solved someday?

    Here’s an interesting site, now that you mention population

    http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/

  • tuibguy

    I even wonder what could have been done back in the 1960′s when the alarm at overpopulation was being sounded. How do you stop this crazy train? Scientific approaches to agriculture lead to more people again thinking that their children won’t starve and they have kids.

    People act locally and screw the world globally; like I have kids and am contributing to the problem, I guess with two additions. What do we do? If everyone stops having kids we are fucked in a couple of generations. If only a few people have kids then we can make this thing work, but who are the lucky parents? The Chinese thought they had it figured out, but now they are running into a gender imbalance because girl babies aren’t as “valuable” as boy babies.

    Don’t you think that Malthus’ rules will catch up to us, or will agricultural technology and life-extending medical technologies continue to give us false hopes that the population problem will be solved someday?

    Here’s an interesting site, now that you mention population

    http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/

  • Dunc

    I’m not convinced that reason is up to the task. The tragedy of the commons arises because everybody acts rationally in their own short-term self interest. No matter how clearly we can see that, no amount of reason is going to convince anybody to act against their own short-term self interest for the benefit of generations of people who haven’t even been born yet. For most definitions of “reason” currently in use, that would be entirely irrational.

    Your climate scientist friend was right: we are fucked. Fucked in so many intersecting and mutually reinforcing ways that I don’t see any hope of finding a solution. Solve the climate and energy problems, and that just gives us the breathing space to finally complete our total destruction of the biosphere.

    Of course, it’s not just population – it’s population times consumption. And on that metric, rapid consumption growth in those parts of the world which have already passed through the demographic transition is an even bigger problem than simple population growth in those areas which haven’t. And this is a major problem, as the usual solution proposed to population growth is to make people better off through economic growth…

    Yup. Fucked.

  • Dunc

    I’m not convinced that reason is up to the task. The tragedy of the commons arises because everybody acts rationally in their own short-term self interest. No matter how clearly we can see that, no amount of reason is going to convince anybody to act against their own short-term self interest for the benefit of generations of people who haven’t even been born yet. For most definitions of “reason” currently in use, that would be entirely irrational.

    Your climate scientist friend was right: we are fucked. Fucked in so many intersecting and mutually reinforcing ways that I don’t see any hope of finding a solution. Solve the climate and energy problems, and that just gives us the breathing space to finally complete our total destruction of the biosphere.

    Of course, it’s not just population – it’s population times consumption. And on that metric, rapid consumption growth in those parts of the world which have already passed through the demographic transition is an even bigger problem than simple population growth in those areas which haven’t. And this is a major problem, as the usual solution proposed to population growth is to make people better off through economic growth…

    Yup. Fucked.

  • CanadianSteve

    You know Hank, I like your analogy of cancer. As we see it progressing I hope we can treat it, however, the treatment for cancer can be just as bad as the cancer itself, and a large portion of the time the patient dies anyway. I can’t help but think that’s kind of where we are going.


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