We invented our way into this situation. Many of our past inventions made life easier, food more plentiful, etc., and enabled population growth. When anything threatened to kill us off, we fought it with creativity and developed technologies to deal with it. Except for those inventions specifically aimed at killing people or managing our birthrates (the Chinese “One Child Law“, for example), our inventions have permitted us to thrive and propagate more and more effectively, and to increase our numbers at faster and faster rates. The problem we perceive now is that sooner or later the needs of our unchecked population will exceed available resources. This would seem a normal pattern for any life form, but there are plenty of examples where animal birthrates slowed inexplicably in the face of food shortages. That makes it seem that humans have lost the instinct for avoiding population-driven catastrophes (if we ever had it), which leaves our fate up to us. It also suggests the population challenge will require types of creativity we haven’t used before, or often. So just how smart are we?
Other species haven’t been as creative as humans. If we were lemming-like creatures with no self-limiting instincts, we would periodically pass through a population number above which food shortages would weaken and slow many of us, making it easier for predators to prey on us, reducing our population and enabling their own population explosions in the following years. During this period our food sources would regrow and become more abundant again until we took advantage of them by having bigger families, only to then repeat the cycle.
Humans are more resourceful than other animals. Since we’re not lemmings, and have practically eradicated our natural predators (including many microorganisms), our numbers are growing almost unchecked. As a new disease threatens us we develop medical means to deal with it. As a new pest threatens our food supplies we invent new insecticides. As we start to run short of food or energy, we invent ways to get more although there is almost always an increase in risk due to the increases in system complexities involved – having to bring food from farther away, use more hazardous insecticides, or find additional water deeper underground, for example.
Our inventions have brought increased risks, both in frequency and impact. Risks have been climbing, evidenced by higher and higher death tolls from both manmade and natural disasters, and our global civilization has continued to grow and increase the rate at which we use up the earth’s resources, as well as the risk that something systemic will go wrong on a grand scale. We bring food, tools, and other things we need from the other side of the world if needed. We build amazing infrastructures to extract energy and material from the earth and move them quickly to where we are using them. The supply lines get longer and more tenuous. One example of this is the fact that most of the world’s petroleum has to pass through one of five narrow passages in the ocean shipping lanes. Anything that closes off such a passage could potentially choke off a fifth of the world’s petroleum and cause serious problems over large areas of the globe.
Humans may be dumb, but they’re not stupid. We are very perceptive and smart, though, so we invent ways to avoid most of those risks and resulting hardships. At the same time, however, we enable the population to grow even faster. Can you see where this could end up? We keep inventing more, increasing our population and risks, and then inventing more to deal with the increased population and risks, ensuring the population will grow still more and the risks will become even worse. Are we in a “runaway condition” that will lead to a huge collapse of civilization? It would seem so. Are there smaller-scaled parallels in the collapses that occurred to such people as the southern Mayans or the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization, for example?
We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. Hard technology, the science of materials and machines, and of the systems that manage and deal with them, has only gotten us deeper into trouble so far. The path we’ve been following threatens mass die-offs never seen before in human history. (See my article on “the simple math“.) If sustainability is at 3 billion people, we hit 9 billion people as predicted around 2045, and we are lucky enough to be able to spread out the decrease in population over perhaps the following five decades, that means reducing the population by 120 million per year every year for fifty years, or more than 328,000 per day not counting those added as new births. In the face of this scenario, do you want to wait until we are already 9 billion before trying to do something about it?
Since the old approach works against us, what new approach can we take? A good solution would be one that reduces birthrate and population without unprecedented numbers of deaths. Perhaps the solution doesn’t lie in technical invention, but in social invention. Will meaningful cultural changes that reduce birthrates come about as a result of those risks realized as major disasters? Will we reach this understanding early enough to reduce birthrates, slow the explosive increase in our numbers to a stop, and mitigate or avoid some of the disasters certain to occur as risks are realized? Or will we continue to invent remedies that only enable faster and longer population growth, possibly to numbers higher than those currently predicted? Such a scenario would be disastrous, even worse than the one we face now if we fail to limit our birthrate and population before we run out of cheap fossil fuel supplies.
Politics is always involved when problems and solutions are large. Our political leaders, usually late to adopt new understandings, could do something about our current and future problem, if they had the understanding and will. They haven’t shown much of either in the past, but this problem is so big it can scare anyone into the five stages of grief, starting with denial.
You and I can do things to help. We all need to tell our leaders, often, about this key, central problem to most of our big problems: the population explosion. Some of them are both concerned and responsible, but they won’t know what we’re concerned about unless we tell them. We need to be persistent, to keep patiently explaining the problems we see and suggesting solutions, to keep looking for better ways to be heard and promote understanding of this mother-of-all problems. Conservation is good, but it’s only a small part of the puzzle and will not do enough. A tight focus on birthrate as a global concern is needed, and until our government officials start planning for the next century with a clear focus on the population explosion we will not be actively addressing this problem. There will be many naysayers as everyone goes through the grieving process, but we need to get through it, make meaningful long-range plans, and begin working specifically on this, the biggest problem humanity has ever faced. Our leaders won’t know until we help them understand. Please tell them.
As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim