To read more recent thoughts on this topic, check out my Human Population page. (12/6/2011)
First, I want to thank Anna at Walden Effect for offering great arguments in this debate, and thus provoking me to look a little more closely at my own opinions and assumptions. Second, I want to post my most recent response to the ongoing subject of overpopulation so that I might clarify my position a bit. The last post I made on my blog was rather hasty when I re-read it and I think I’ve since gained a better perspective
ETA: I don’t intend to discredit any opposing sides, because I agree with much of the science that is presented. I wish only to offer some hope that we can change our impact on the environment, and to express my belief that wise management of the environment will be followed (not preceded) by a stable population based on reproductive freedom.
So here we go:
I am not arguing that the population isn’t out of whack, and that it is okay at the level it is. I am only arguing that the methods we might use to force the population to an acceptable level will be very risky and may border on infringing of human rights and cultural indoctrination, the consequences of which might be worse for humanity (look at China’s one-child policy) than the problem we intend to solve. This is often the case when humans go after symptoms rather than causes of what we perceive as problems.
The causes can be simple seen: Green Revolution and industrialization have been the latest major promoters of population growth. This growth has been stunning and terrifying for some. However, it came about as a result of an attitude where humans took it upon themselves to improve what they saw to be problems in humanity (food scarcity) and it has since invested us with confidence in our own sciences that is arguably beyond what that technology deserves, especially when we consider the unforeseen consequences.
Birth control has been practiced by many pre-industrial cultures, but often not with the type of absolute control that is possible in a post-industrial society. Many women reject chemical birth control for health reasons, many women are allergic to condoms and barrier methods, and many women are not resolved to never have children and will not opt for surgical sterilization. Birth control cannot solve all of the problems, although it is useful for women who are willing and able to use one of the methods available.
The fertility awareness method offers a great alternative, but the fact exists that people still want to have babies and though we can all fight to overcome this, whether all or most of us should be obliged to do so for the greater good is precisely where one religion becomes another.
Because wikipedia and Mirriam-Webster have different definitions of religion, I’ll offer another:
” Definition of RELIGION
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”
This better describes what I mean when I use the term. Where one set of beliefs replaces another set, which have been passed down from a recognized religion, I think the result is a new religion. Values and ethics all come from our deeper beliefs and we should not be too quick to deny this. [Therefore, taking it upon ourselves to specify an ideal population, and following through with population control practices would depart from traditional religious beliefs, and lead to the adoption of a new institution of beliefs-- or a new religion where we put faith in ourselves for controlling our destiny.]
I accept that this is a major ethical dilemma, but the population is a symptom and not necessarily a cause, and the cause in my opinion has been management. We have not globally changed our system of management and so we do not know if our population really has reached or exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity.
Here is where the cattle analogy comes in. When people attempted to alleviate damaged caused by improper cattle management, their response was to reduce the sizes of the herds. The result of this reduction was further degradation, to everyone’s disbelief. The reason population didn’t solve the problem was because the management style had to be changed, and when it was, ranchers realized that the “ideal” population size they predicted under the old management scheme was much lower than the actual carrying capacity of the land. The land could hold many more cattle than we predicted, but we were so frightened of the damage witnessed under poor management that we assumed reducing numbers was the solution.
I would never argue to pack more and more individuals of any species into any area simply because that many creatures could be born. However, I will continue to advocate turning away from number management, and focusing most intently on changing our path and insuring that those people who are alive today and their offspring, however many, can reach a new model of society that works more effectively for them than ours does today.
Much of the degradation of this Earth is the result of far smaller populations of humans than we have today (especially those of the 19th century). America’s land was nearly stripped of forest because of greed and enthusiasm and a lack of restraint, not because of necessity or a large population. We no longer have virgin land to abuse and degrade, and I find it very unlikely that we will see any growth in our populations in the future that look much like those we’ve seen in the past as a result of society’s excesses.
Growth is reaching its end, I believe. Though it was scary and brought about tremendous world problems, many of these problems can be corrected by restoring a natural process to humanity. In the end, we’re not like cattle because our needs can be so creatively accommodated. For as long as a family of four can produce 7,000lbs of food on 1/10th of an acre in arid southern California, I think we can afford to find creative solutions to the problems at hand without panicking and culling our herd, so to speak.
If you’re interested in how we might go about accommodating our current population, check out “Cities and Natural Processes” by Michael Hough, “The Granite Garden” by Anne Spirn and take some time to explore the topics of landscape architecture, human ecology and city planning that tackle the need for sustainable living in an urban setting and on a much larger scale than an individual homestead.