Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Population Bomb?

Sure, we can use cloth instead of disposable diapers.  We can avoid using bottled water.  We can walk or bike instead of drive, and buy hybrid or electric cars when we do have to drive.  We can eat organic foods low on the food chain, install low flow showers and regulate our toilet flushing behavior (if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down).  Sure, we can think, act, and live ‘green’.  But, the bottom-line is that, at least according to most staunch environmentalists (myself included), no matter how much we curb our own wasteful activities, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and human overpopulation is the primary cause!  (By the way, what in the hell is a hand-basket anyway?)

Thomas Malthus first told us of the impending doom that would arise from the unbridled growth of the human species in the 1700s. The core of Malthus’ idea was that there was some carrying capacity to our species.  There’s only so much corn and potatoes and rice and wheat and beef and pork and chicken and apples and oranges and carrots and peanut butter and butternut squash and M&Ms and beans and fish and chips (for you UK readers), and well you get the picture-- out there in the world.  Once we have so many people that we’re eating all of the food that we can produce--not to mention use all of our fossil fuels, clear all of our forests, and use all of the silicon out there for our laptops, iPads, and Game Boys--we’re full.  We’re at carrying capacity, and we can’t add another person onto the planet without causing severe hardships for others.  Malthus’ ideas were revolutionary, and provided the foundation for understanding how populations of species are regulated; they even gave Darwin the fundamental insight he needed to derive his initial theories of evolution by natural selection.  Malthus is often championed as a hero in the environmental movement. 

Turns out that Malthus wasn’t quite the environmental hero that I always imagined.  He was kind of a creepy dude who used his ideas, which were fundamentally sound, to push a rather dark agenda, not the least of which led to the brutal starvation of thousands of Irish during the Irish Potato famine.  They had to starve, you see, because we humans had exceeded our carrying capacity, and all would suffer if they were given aid.  Sound familiar?  It should. Very similar reasoning has been used to justify such lovely parts of our human past as Eugenics and the genocide in Rwanda, among others. 

Fast forward a couple hundred years, and one of my personal heros, Paul Ehrlich, a butterfly ecologist, and his wife Anne, wrote an impassioned plea for people to stop having so many kids in the ‘Population Bomb’, making a series of stark predictions that helped  to spark the environmental movement of the 1970s .  While very influential, and certainly not as dark as their Malthusian predecessors, the Ehrlich predictions also were criticized for a series of errors in calculation, primarily because their predicted disasters, famine, and pestilence never came true.

In all of these cases, the biggest error people have made in their gloomy predictions was in assuming that carrying capacity did not change.  The industrial revolution occurred just after Malthus and the green revolution just after Ehrlich.  Human ingenuity is always increasing our carrying capacity, our ability to extract and create resources, and all the while increasing our own standard of living and longevity (for the most part). 

So, why the heck am I droning on and on about overpopulation and environmental problems?  This blog is supposed to be about a wonderful little baby named Jack, and me, his SAHD, trying to figure out just what life is all about.  Right?  Shut up already, and show us some cute videos or pictures, or at least talk about the baby.  Well, I’ll tell you why I’m droning on and on about populations. It’s because Jack’s a year old now, and I'm starting to think I could do this again.  I could have another baby.  We love Jack so much.  He’s getting more and more fun.  He’s walking now, he’s interacting and playing and pulling out the computer cord when he wants me to pay attention to him rather than whatever I’m working on. He's even started to dance a little bit (stay tuned for a post about that as soon as I can capture his funkiness on video).  But, both his mom and I have started to talk about how much we miss the helpless little baby he used to be.  We miss his smushed face and fat legs.  We miss cuddling with him while he slept.  We even miss the spit-up and the sleepless nights—well, maybe not that much, but seriously, these love/parenting hormones are powerful powerful things.

Maybe it’s not an accident that siblings in the U.S. are on average 2.5 years apart.  Sometime between the first and second year of a child’s life, the parents decide to go for it all over again.  Of course, sometimes it’s not necessarily a decision but an accident, and sometimes religion and/or culture certainly play a role on the intervals between kids and the number of kids.  Monty Python’s take on this issue can be seen below in one of the all-time best musical satires ever.

I’ve said before that I was pretty reluctant to have kids.  I just didn’t think I could squeeze it into my already full life of doing nothing but science.  I justified this because there were already too many people in the world.  And, after Jack was born, I was pretty certain he was all I wanted.  I could barely manage my life and my career was taking a huge hit. Not to mention how much our carbon footprint skyrocketed by bringing a new life into this world. That’s it, that’s all I want…no more kids.  Who needs siblings anyway?  Older ones at least.  They are better than you at everything you try to do, sports, school, girls; they hold you down and threatened to spit on your face; they steal your parents love and affection.  Only children can grow up just fine.  They can learn social skills and sharing and such without having that sibling dynamic.  Right?   

Or at least, that’s what I thought until about 3 months ago.  Now I think we have this kid thing figured out. Now I’m addicted to giving and receiving unconditional love. Now I could totally do this again.  In reality, we might not have more kids for a variety of reasons, but I’m totally up for it, and in fact, really want it.  And in doing so, I guess I’ll increase my carbon footprint even more, and leave this planet more in the shitter than it already is, right? 

Well, maybe not.  Maybe we can be a bit more optimistic.  I have to be honest, I’ve always been rather pessimistic about our species, about its impact on this planet, and about our future.  But now that I can see the world through Jack’s eyes, I’m starting to think about the world pretty differently.  I think Jack, and maybe even a younger sister or brother, will live long and happy lives. They’ll see things that we can’t even imagine now, but it’s still worth bringing them into this world.  Life is a gift and even though there are many more lives on this planet now than there ever have been before, there’s reason for optimism.  In fact, the growth rate of the human population is declining, having peaked in the 1960s.  There’s an interesting new book that Jack’s mom turned me onto that discusses the possibility—even likelihood—of our population declining in numbers very soon (The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred Pearce).  Europe is already seeing these trends, and in Singapore, people (especially women) are working and enjoying their lives so much that their birth rates are drastically low; so low, that the government has initiated their own matchmaking service to get people to hook up and make some more babies (so romantic!).  Of course, with fewer young people overall, the economy and society as a whole suffers as us old farts continue to age and suck off the proverbial teat of the younger generation. 

So, what’s this mean?  Should we all go out there and have more babies?  Should we counter the declining trend?  Who knows? This is tough stuff at the interface of sustainability, demography, economy, agriculture, sociology and politics—way beyond my comprehension to derive a simple answer.  At least until I get myself another double espresso.  But it’s a much more complicated problem then Malthus or Ehrlich thought, and certainly much more complicated than I ever thought before Jack entered my life and I realized that having kids wasn’t evil planet-killing behavior, but rather the expression of our love, the living of our lives to their fullest, and the passing on of a bit of who we are to the future world. 

Maybe someday Jack will have a little brother or sister to play with, to spit upon, and/or to watch over and protect.  Or maybe he won’t.  But regardless, I no longer feel guilty about bringing a child (or children) into this world, and hope that Jack, along with the approximately 130 million other kids on this planet who are 1 year old, figure out how to live happy, healthy, and prosperous lives without driving this planet to hell in a hand-basket.

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