Every species of life has evolved and is here because they successfully adapted to change and had more offspring. The human population explosion presents risks we’d all like to avoid, such as global economic collapse, famine, and epidemics, but it is caused by having more offspring, exactly the success pattern that got us here in the first place. We can’t evolve or adapt our way out of this – we will run out of energy and food sooner or later – so we need to reduce our birth rate to a sustainable level by using our brains and being creative – instinct won’t do it for us. More advanced technologies, conservation, and everything else we are doing today will unfortunately only enable people to have more children, worsening our problems. Politicians and the media won’t talk about this problem, so we need to. It is the toughest problem we’ve ever face, and millions or possibly billions of lives hang in the balance. Here are some more in-depth thoughts on this most important topic.
In the face of the population explosion, I was thinking recently about microorganisms and other life forms, and how they evolve. Current living organisms are here because they have been particularly successful. Though luck might play a part for some, it’s probably not responsible for long-term success. They have succeeded by adapting at every scale, from the molecular level up, with the primary goal shared by all life, to increase the species’ numbers. It is the pursuance of this goal, built into our nature, that creates the population explosion we face, and which threatens our existence. But does survival always mean expanding the population as fast as possible? Are there normal regulatory systems built into nature and, more importantly, do those controls apply to us? If there are no built-in controls regulating the numbers of humans, how can we avoid having our demand overshoot our available resources in the next few decades with potentially disastrous results?
Looking at other species, it appears that the food chain plays a big part in population regulation. Nutritious molecules, sometimes a part of another living organism, are consumed by larger microscopic creatures. These microscopic creatures are consumed by other larger creatures, and so on, all the way up to the top predator. Top predators are typically large and have a lot of complex biological systems that can break down as well as much higher energy needs, so they are fewer than prey life forms and have fewer offspring over time. More importantly, population numbers are usually resource dependent, and a smaller number of available food-critters in a particular season inevitably leads to a smaller number of predators in that and succeeding cycles, though that may mean some of the predators starve to death. Still, some species adapt to worsening environmental conditions by having less offspring. Humanity doesn’t seem to have that mechanism, however, or, at least, the mechanism appears to be obscured by the distraction and confusion that comes with functioning in a global civilization. We don’t have such control mechanisms … yet.
Key motivators for population control may be absent from humans. Research has shown that we humans need an emotional/psychological reason to change our behavior. Interestingly, our detection of our most serious problem ever (overpopulation) has been reached through intellectual and not emotional channels, and this may explain why the overpopulation threat lacks the gut-level impact that would get us to recognize it, take it with the seriousness it deserves, and do something about it. In short, the problem may be that overpopulation doesn’t have a “face” that will be remembered, associated with the problem, and serve as a reminder of the problem and its seriousness. Unfortunately, without a face most threats are ignored or not taken seriously until too late.
Do some species self-regulate, have fewer offspring, and have them over longer spans of time, so that they don’t exceed the resources in their environment? Or is population control typically a matter of where one is on the food chain, with control of the top predator species mostly falling to food shortages or the microorganisms at the bottom making them get sick? That makes me wonder, too – could we identify species that do regulate their own numbers, by whatever mechanism, and study them to learn how they find and maintain a balance between their population and available resources, and what it means to their lives?
If we accept that the purpose of evolved life is to procreate, and that we can’t think and act differently, then we have a big problem and it is us. We may be intelligent enough to see, understand, and change our behaviors to mitigate the problems, but if thinking for ourselves creates enough confusion and disharmony among us to obscure the population issue, or if our political nature blocks efforts to do something constructive about it, then we have an even bigger problem. (And, yes, it is still us.)
So far, humanity appears to be like any other species. We have been successful through adaptation, much of which happens on very small scales such as the development of new capabilities in the brain. Now, however, with every part of our being aimed fundamentally at increasing our numbers, like a bacterial culture in a petri dish we are facing a point where our numbers exceed available resources. Key point: Since our basic nature is to have more offspring, we will have to defy our basic nature to reduce our birthrates to levels that will allow civilization to survive.
Given the current population explosion, we have no time to evolve our way out of our problems, so we must “evolve” ourselves much more quickly through intellectual as well as physical activity. Even if we had the time, it is not clear that we are capable of evolving naturally to manage our population given that it requires going against our deep-set nature to procreate. That means it is up to us as thinking beings to think, plan, and act to avoid disasters we are creating and establish a sustainable existence.
I am still considering the ramifications of all this, and I intend to write more as I learn and think more about overpopulation. The population explosion is the greatest threat ever to humanity and, by dint of our power over the environment, to all life on the planet, in large part because addressing it requires denying our fundamental drive for procreation. Can we do this before it is too late? We will see.
Our challenge as humans is to regulate our population so we avoid the coming die-off period that many expect to occur in this century, and that appears to require us to deny a fundamental part of our nature. Based on current evidence I am not sure we are capable of doing that, though I am encouraged to hear rare mentions of the population issue, which I never heard a few years ago. There is still hope, but we need to communicate this issue widely, face the facts, and act on it quickly.
Thanks for reading. I welcome any comments. — Tim