“We have met the enemy and he is us.” That famous quote I first read in Walt Kelly‘s great 20th century cartoon strip Pogo has stayed with me ever since. I have come to realize that, if we are to minimize the suffering from the convergence of the population explosion and the exhaustion of fossil fuels, it will require an effort such as my parents experienced in World War II, involving government-enforced rationing, “victory gardens” for every household, people working together and living together in poorer conditions than their forebears, and businesses forgoing profit until the “war” is over. This will not be easy to achieve, however, for reasons I will discuss.
I expect that big corporations will obstruct, or at least not contribute to the levels of coöperation humanity will need. Certainly the political climate of the 21st century does not suggest they will forego any profit voluntarily for the “war on overpopulation”. The fundamental principle of corporations, to make profit, will cause them to most often oppose change as a risk to their bottom line. The corporation, a human invention originating in organizations like the British East India Company, has proven to not only shield its owners from liability, but it has created a class of entity without a conscience but with a drive for survival as strong as that of any living organism. It also has an ability to accumulate knowledge and power that far transcends that of any person. This combination has made corporations both a source of economic growth and jobs, and an often-hidden political force responsible for wars, pollution, poverty, and death on a massive scale. World War II, which involved the most widespread conflict in written history and the largest human-initiated reduction in population (approx. 60 million), saw increased profiteering and concentration of corporate power in spite of popular intentions otherwise. The only power capable of restraining corporations has typically been governments, but they are themselves highly corruptible, and they can have a drive for survival that transcends the welfare of their citizens. Since the early years of the corporation the U.S. government has had a poor record of preventing the destruction businesses create in the name of wealth, power, and self-preservation. A new, global populism, enabled by communication potential of the internet, will be necessary if corporate, religious, and nationalistic resistance to global coöperation are to be overcome and terrible disasters are to be averted or at least mitigated.
Massive education campaigns will be necessary to reduce ignorance worldwide. It has been shown that increased education leads people to not only better lives but a reduced need to have large families. The first attempts at real mass education have already begun in the form of the MOOC, or Massively Open On-line Class. Beyond that, the high rates of invention and innovation we will need will require millions more scientists, engineers, and planners, and heightened levels of education, knowledge, and understanding by everyone.
Cooperation between people and organizations with different, often opposing views and religions will be necessary. Pain and desperate need will drive people in many directions, both physically and conceptually, and change the way people think. As in past challenges to the survival of humanity, coöperation on the largest possible scale will be the key to solving many problems. It will be necessary for everyone to transcend social and political divisions for this to occur, even though some of the division extend back to the beginnings of human civilization, but the less coöperation that occurs, the more people who will die needlessly and young. How bad will things need to get before people completely understand the need for such unprecedented coöperation?
Nobody will be unaffected. The wealthy and powerful, holding the majority of the world’s resources, will need to see that their own long-term survival will depend on the success of the global effort. Everyone will need to recognize that a society is no better than the least of its citizens, and we are a global society whether we understand or accept it or not.
Conservation measures will need to go much farther. To limit the impact of resource exhaustion, besides researching new sources of energy and materials, we will need a lot more innovation in reducing our needs for resources and our impact on the planet. This will undoubtedly mean less comfortable lifestyles for most people in the future, but the sacrifice must be understood as offsetting worse problems and sharper declines with more painful consequences. Along the way there will be resistance, as conservation measures will directly conflict with corporate goals and many people’s current opulent lifestyles. The work of communicating our issues and inspiring popular support will be of great importance.
Family planning including birth control will need to be a global priority. It is problematic that family planning is opposed by authorities of several major religions. Some in the ranks of these religions, however, who have fought poverty for many years, are aware of the realities and working quietly to increase support for positive action. It is interesting to ponder if conditions will become so traumatic that new interpretations of the most important religious works will emerge, enabling support for family planning and other important work that can mitigate the effects of the population bomb.
Initiatives and policies designed to cut public education must be reversed. Basic research will require huge increases in funding as well as education and applications research, and that will require a great many more scientists. Technological change will need to happen even faster than today, but with lower costs and less disruptive effects than ever before. The spirit of invention, driven by necessity, will need to reach unprecedented heights.
Militarism will need to be subjugated to the needs of the global community and populism will need to replace nationalism, though there are many political and business forces working hard to oppose such coöperation, specifically for their individual gain. The resources national militaries consume are typically enormous, and those resources will be needed for peacetime purposes: to deal with the poverty, famine, and epidemics that come with overpopulation while pushing education and family planning on a global scale.
Waiting to act will only allow things to get worse. The more of these things we can do, and the earlier we can do them, the fewer people will starve to death or die from pollution and epidemic. Right now, if we continue on our current course unchecked, we are heading for a world in which the population will be reduced by nature, in spite of our best efforts. To get a sense of the magnitude of the change consider the following scenario: world human population could change from a projected high of over 9 billion to a possibly-sustainable number of under 3 billion in a century, which means it will be reduced by an average of 60 million people per year (plus the normal birth rate). Of course, it currently appears that this is unlikely to happen gradually. More probably population will decline in large and small drops, some or most of which will be catastrophic. I believe everyone will want to avoid or at least minimize the catastrophes.
Previous natural and human disasters have had little impact on population. Compare the average reduction in the overpopulation scenario with natural and human disasters of the past. No war has taken more than about 60 million lives (example), and that was spread over multiple years, not in every year of the conflict. The plagues of the middle ages were responsible for significant population reductions, but the numbers can’t easily be compared with the present because the total population in those regions was so much smaller. Still, that may be an indicator of how things could go for humanity in the late 21st century, only much worse in terms of total loss of life.
If we are to mitigate the problems ahead of us and minimize human misery we need to be building infrastructure like the Incas and Romans – to last for a century in which we will see our natural resources increasingly and severely limited. We need to be educating everyone in the world, connecting them with communications networks, bridging language barriers, and doing anything else to ensure everyone understands what is happening to humanity and what we are doing to the planet. The generation and sharing of new ideas will need to be maximized and carried out at the speed permitted by the internet so that every small improvement can be carried out everywhere, and that will bring a new risk: that an idea that at first seems good will turn out to be wrong with widespread and possibly disastrous results.
Fortunately we have some of the needed tools already, the internet being primary among them, and some experience with major national efforts like the war effort during WWII that can be applied globally. Right now we are fighting the battle of awareness and acceptance. The world will go through the stages of grieving at the loss of our relatively newfound prosperity – the stages of denial, anger, bargaining are already happening to some of us.
The denial and anger of some people can be seen in internet articles and public statements, but articles like this one encourage me that common sense is prevailing because they list the large number of public figures who now see our potential for future disaster and are actively speaking out and working for positive change. Some people persist in seeing conspiracies (I have little faith in notions of huge conspiracies – humans don’t keep secrets that well) and others are driven by short-term profits and believe too much in the words of powerful reactionary groups, but these in my opinion are expressions of denial and anger. I hope they will continue to learn and move through the process of facing the fact that humanity, like many species before it, has simply become too successful for its own good, and then join the rest of us in working to achieve a sustainable planet for our descendants.
Sustainability is inevitable. The question is how much suffering and degradation of the planet we will create in the process of getting there. I hope we can do better than appears currently likely, but that will require a lot of mind-changing on the part of a lot of people, curbs on corporate behavior that are rare outside of certain first world countries, and other changes, many not yet thought of.
Thanks for reading. – Tim