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[Chalice] Too Many Humans [Chalice]

Presented March 1, 2015, by Paul Miller

-- Timothy Egan, New York Times

(This is from a story about the author's mother's decision to use birth control, in defiance of church doctrine, after having had 7 kids.):
Religions are at their best when they deal with the theological realm or big global issues. Religions are at their worst when they muddle in sex, and question whom you can love. Many interpretations of Islam, regarding women, are an abomination. Mormons, until about an hour ago, had long made gays feel immoral and inferior - this from a religion where the founders were men who had 50 wives. Strict Catholic doctrine about sex, still on the books, could not be preached by Pope Francis with a straight face.

-- U Thant, UN secretary general, 1969

I do not wish to seem overdramatic, but I can only conclude from the information that is available to me as Secretary-General, that the members of the United Nations have perhaps ten years left in which to subordinate their ancient quarrels and launch a global partnership to curb the arms race, to improve the human environment, to defuse the population explosion, and to supply the required momentum to development efforts. If such a global partnership is not forged within the next decade, then I very much fear that the problems I have mentioned will have reached such staggering proportions that they will be beyond our capacity to control.

(with noise) -- "Locomotive Breath" - Ian Anderson

In the shuffling madness
Of the locomotive breath,
Runs the all, time loser,
Headlong to his death.
He feels the piston scraping
Steam breaking on his brow
Old Charlie stole the handle and
The train it won't stop going
No way to slow down.
He sees his children jumping off
At the stations one by one.
His woman and his best friend
In bed and having fun.
He's crawling down the corridor
On his hands and knees
Old Charlie stole the handle and
The train it won't stop going
No way to slow down.
He hears the silence howling
Catches angels as they fall.
And the all-time winner
Has got him by the balls.
He picks up Gideons Bible
Open at page one
God He stole the handle and
The train won't stop going
No way to slow down.
No way to slow down.
No way to slow down.

Welcome to Domesday! The Domesday Clock has been ticking between quarter to twelve and midnight for as long as I can remember. I have talked, maybe too much, at this pulpit about the dire state of our planet. Today I shall not dwell on such problems as pollution, resource depletion, desertification, deforestation, climate change, nuclear fallout, war, terrorism, and pandemics. Today I want to talk about the one problem that causes or exacerbates all of the above: too damn many people on too small a planet. I want to talk about the hope for solving the population problem, and about what the world could be like if we succeed.

Some folks still insist that overpopulation is not, and will never be, a problem. They also insist that 7 billion people could not possibly alter the climate, just as surely as the sun rotates around our big, flat earth, as it has done since time began, 6000 years ago.

They point out that all the people on Earth could fit into the state of Texas with a density comparable to New York City. Perhaps so, but it would take the whole rest of the Earth to provide food, water, fuel, and raw materials for their Texas-sized city.

You and I live well on this over-crowded planet because we had the good sense to be born in America. The average American consumes 30 times more resources than, for instance, the average poor farmer in Burkina Faso, Africa. All the people on Earth combined consume one and a half times the resources that the Earth can sustainably provide. We could sustain more than 7 billion people if we all agree to surrender our amenities and live on a 3rd world starvation diet. Alternatively, perhaps a robust capitalist economy could elevate the whole world to an American standard of living. All we need is 5 more Earths to supply the resources.

But wait! Look at Singapore, for example. This tiny urban country has an extremely high population density, and they are very prosperous. Yes, Singapore prospers by trading with the rest of the world. Build a wall around Singapore, or any urban area, and stop importing food and stuff, and pretty soon they will be eating each other. This has happened many times in the past; Easter Island, for example. Isolated small civilizations with sparse population generally do fairly well. They may lack manufactured amenities, but they usually eat well enough and live happily. Isolated societies with high population density tend to deplete their resources and collapse catastrophically. The whole world has become essentially one large isolated society, and the world is going the same way as so many smaller ancient overpopulated societies.

Yes, but with rapid technological development, we will colonize other planets, and there will be plenty of room and resources for billions more people. Right... When I was a kid, I eagerly looked forward to the year 2000, when I could hop on a shuttle flight to the Moon for a weekend. I'm still waiting. And do you really want to live on the Moon or Mars? If you think you do, try living in Antarctica first. It's easier to get there, the cost of living is lower, and the weather is better. I will be staying right here on this rock until the end, thank you.

But wait. High tech agriculture will provide an ever-increasing food supply to feed the growing population. Fifty years ago we called it the Green Revolution. Agricultural yields increased dramatically. America now has so much food that even the poor people are fat. The well-fed people of the world made more babies, and the population went from 2 billion before the Green Revolution to 7 billion now. There are more hungry people on earth now than before the Green Revolution.

There was a prehistoric green revolution about 10,000 years ago, when humanity transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers. They didn't change because farming is easier than hunting and gathering. In a thriving natural ecosystem, it is easier to find free wild food than to grow it yourself. They changed because agriculture produced more food per acre, which was necessary to feed a growing population. Humans gradually occupied most of the world, and the population grew slowly. People made lots of babies, but population growth was restrained by high infant mortality, occasional famines and plagues.

In 1600, world population was about half a billion. In 200 years, the population doubled to one billion in 1800. With the industrial revolution came machines to efficiently clear forests and till hard ground, and to pump water for irrigation and drinking. Jethro Tull developed row planting and invented the seed drill. It appeared that Malthus may have been wrong. We grew more food and more people. By 1920, the population had doubled again, to 2 billion. 3 billion in 1960. 4 billion in 1980. 5 billion in 1990. 6 billion in 2000. Over 7 billion today. If this exponential trend continues, in a few hundred years, the mass of human bodies will exceed the mass of the earth. Obviously, this can't go on forever.

How did we get into this mess? Babies are a natural, often accidental, result of boys' and girls' natural desire to enjoy each other's company (if you know what I mean). Most people who have experienced both will confirm that contraception is easier than childbirth and cheaper than child-raising, so why is it so hard to slow down the baby factory?

People instinctively want kids. Ask young adults what they want in life, and most will put raising a family high on their list of life priorities. Most of us are here because our ancestors wanted kids; lots of kids. People with a genetic propensity to have lots of kids had lots of kids who had lots of kids, and so on. As an individual who never wanted kids, I am an aberration, and my aberrant tendency not to pro-create will be eliminated from the next generation. The rabbits win the evolutionary race.

In the brutally competitive ancient world, a high birth rate was beneficial or even necessary for the success of a tribe or nation. When two nations bumped into each other, the usual result was for one side to kill or conquer the other. The side with the most men on the battlefield usually won. If you didn't want your family to end up as slaves or dead, you better have lots of baby boys to make future warriors. Patriotism and religion encouraged procreation; as nations, tribes and religions sought supremacy by out-breeding each other.

Thus, we have evolved to want kids, and to love our own kids, no matter how much trouble they cause us. As a father of 3 succinctly told me, "I wouldn't give up my kids for a million bucks, but I wouldn't give you a nickel for a dozen more just like 'em."

A close friend once asked me why Sam and I never had kids, thinking perhaps we were cursed with infertility. I explained that we opted out of parenthood because we had other things to do than change diapers. "You greedy bastard!" was his reply. Fortunately, we are good friends who don't take offense at such frank and earnest comments. His blunt response helped me understand that in many people's minds, having kids is the best thing for one's self and for humanity. In my mind, having kids and raising them well is good, but in this crowded world, having no kids is good, too. Children may be a blessing, but the earth is being blessed to death. The birth of a baby may seem like a miracle, as we are instinctively programmed to feel so, but 7 billion miracles is enough. This greedy bastard loves not having kids, and I don't feel even a little bit guilty about it.

Pope Francis recently took a step in the right direction when he said we should not reproduce like rabbits. This pope knows poor people in his native Argentina, and understands how hard it is to get ahead with a litter of kids to take care of. He has back-pedaled on his not-to-breed-like-rabbits comment. No doubt he got some push-back from the rabbit coalition. Still, it is encouraging that he took a step in the right direction before stepping back.

Will we continue to multiply until we push each other off the edge of the earth? Perhaps a catastrophic plague will kill us off, leaving a few million hardy, happy survivors to enjoy a bountiful, depopulated paradise. Or maybe malnutrition and mortality will stabilize the population at 10 or 20 billion hungry miserable souls efficiently sharing a crowded desolate world. I hope not.

What would it take to reduce the population before war, famine, and plagues do it for us? Will we have to enact desperate measures like China's one child policy?

A while back, I was at an international fair, looking at the display in the Pakistan booth. I commented to the elegant Pakistani lady tending the booth "Wow, there are a lot of people in Pakistan!" (Pakistan has half as many people as the USA in a small fraction of the land area) She replied "Yes, there are too many people in Pakistan." She continued to explain that poverty and ignorance lead to high birth rates, which leads to more poverty, and more ignorance, and so on.

The population explosion is particularly dire in the Middle East. Not only are there already too many people living in a region with too little water to grow food for everyone. The fertility rate is very high. Fertility rate is the average number of children born per woman. Replacement fertility rate is 2.1, because some children don't grow up and have babies of their own. Fertility rate in the USA is 2.06. In most of Europe it is less than 2. In Pakistan it is 3.7. Here are fertility rates for some other Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia 3.0, Syria 3.2, Iraq 4.4, Yemen 4.9, Afghanistan 6.3, Iran 1.9. One point nine? What's up with Iran? Iran has achieved an even steeper population drop than China with their one-child policy. How did Iran do it?

In the late 1980s, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini reversed a pro-natal policy meant to produce soldiers for the war against Iraq. When you clear mine fields by making kids run through them, you need lots of kids. After the war ended in a stalemate, the Ayatollah saw that the Iranian economy could not handle the bloated population, so he issued fatwas making contraception available for free. State-run TV broadcast information about birth control, and health workers educated patients on family planning. The fertility rate fell from seven births per woman in 1966 to fewer than two today. Even if you think the Earth can support an infinite number of people, there is a bonus to this slower birth rate. More women postponed childbirth to attend college, and now the country's universities are 60 percent female.

But in 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempted to halt the decline, calling the family-planning programs a "prescription for extinction". He urged Iranian girls to marry young, offered cash incentives per child, and outlawed permanent surgical contraception. But it hasn't worked. Iranian women are not going back.

The "Iranian Miracle" is not an aberration. The world over, giving women control over their own fertility has the same result. For example, in Bangladesh, in the 1970s, women on average had more than six kids. So the government made contraception free and distributed it widely. In 1975, 8 percent of Bangladeshi women used contraception. By 2010, the number was over 60 percent. Women who had an average of six children in the 1970s have roughly 2.2 children today. Evidently, many women prefer reading books to changing diapers.

In 2000, less than half of girls in Bangladesh enrolled in primary school. In 2005 it was 90%. Women's literacy was 27 percent in 1981. In 2010 it was 78 %.

It works here in the good ol' USA as well. Making contraception free and readily available causes teen pregnancy rates to drop, while abstinence-only programs are a bust. No matter what you tell them, boys and girls still tend to get together. Changing from a rapidly growing population to a slowly declining one is simply done by giving women control over their own reproductive systems. No coercion necessary, and it doesn't cost much. How much does it cost? Less than nothing. A dollar spent on birth control saves a dollar and a half in medical expenses. If you count the cost of raising a large family, the payback is many times more. But it gets better than that, which brings us to the last part of this essay. What could the world be like if we had a slowly shrinking population? Tidy Didee Diaper Service would take a hit, but there would be few losers and lots of winners.

Some say the economy will crash. There won't be enough workers to take care of unproductive retirees, like me. Baloney. When was the last time unemployment was too low? The problem is not too few workers, but too few workers with the necessary skills. Fewer kids coming into the school system means more resources available per student. Want more money for education? Spend money on contraception and family planning.

Conservatives don't often endorse subsidies for contraception, but it is a subsidy the right to lifers could love. Every abortion starts with an unwanted pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 40 percent of all pregnancies -almost 20 million a year-are unintended. Of those 20 million pregnancies, 10 million result in unplanned births, 3 million in miscarriages and 6 million in abortions, most performed in unsafe conditions. Providing access to contraception for every woman in sub-Saharan Africa who wanted it could prevent 5 million abortions a year, and save the lives of 48,000 women, and cut infant mortality by 22 percent. Would Pope Francis have a problem with that?

Worldwide, it's estimated that 20 million women have unsafe abortions every year because they lack better options. Over 5 million of them end up needing urgent medical attention, and 47,000 die in the process. Want to prevent abortions? Help women prevent unwanted pregnancies.

When women can have fewer children further apart, they have more time to pursue education and get jobs, earning money that they are more likely to invest back into their family and community than their male counterparts do. They lead healthier lives and have healthier children.

A shrinking population would not wreck the economy. On the contrary, it would result in more education, more productive workers, more equality, and more freedom, especially for women. Yes there would be some losers. This is bad news for oppressors in patriarchal societies. If women become educated and pursue careers, women might start to think they are equal. They might even expect the right to vote. Gosh, some might even want to become priests! Oops, there goes the patriarchy!

Even national security could improve for countries with lower birth rates. Wars used to be won by the side with the most bodies on the battlefield. Wars in the future will be won, or better yet, prevented, by the side with the best technology and the strongest economy. Booming economies used to be supported by abundant manual laborers. Now the grunt work is done by machines, requiring a smaller, smarter work force. Education and prosperity, not population booms, make nations peaceful and secure. In the future, nations with shrinking populations will out-compete nations with growing populations. Want to improve the economy? Improve access to contraception. Want a stronger military? Strengthen family planning services. Want to stop the proliferation of terrorist wackos like ISOS and Boco Haram? Give women control over their own bodies.

What would the environmental consequences be with fewer people? Obviously, fewer polluters mean less pollution. Of course, our current efforts at environmental protection would have to continue. As smaller families become more prosperous, each person would burn more oil and use more resources, but the total pollution and resource depletion would be less. Instead of urban sprawl invading forests and farmland, re-ruralization would allow nature to heal. It is easy to underestimate how our crippled biosphere could rebound if allowed to. It is also easy to underestimate the benefits of a healthy natural ecosystem.

A couple of accidental experiments have shown how nature rebounds when humans go away. One is the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and the other is the area around the Chernobyl nuke plant.

The DMZ is a strip of land 2.5 miles wide and 151 miles long between North Korea and South Korea. It has been without people since the shooting stopped in 1953. It has become an accidental wildlife sanctuary; a refuge for wildlife that might otherwise have disappeared. Asiatic black bears, Eurasian Lynx, musk deer, Chinese water deer, yellow-throated marten, Amur leopard, and goral mountain goat, and the nearly extinct red crowned cranes live here. Ironically, if hostilities between the two Koreas cease, these animals would also probably cease to exist, as the bulldozers move in to reclaim the DMZ for human development.

In 1986, an explosion in a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine released 100 times more radiation than the Hiroshima bomb, killing practically everything for miles around. Radioactive birds fell from the sky, and an entire pine forest died within days. It appeared that nothing would ever grow there again. But the following spring, birds returned to nest in the abandoned buildings. In the absence of people, mutated trees have re-grown, and the forests have filled with radioactive roe deer, wild boar, moose, lynx, and wolves. It will be interesting to see if wildlife thrives or dies in this radioactive wildlife sanctuary, and what mutations will result. Maybe our nuclear folly will stimulate a surge of evolution, creating new species to replace the ones we killed off.

A slowly shrinking population would not leave many ghost towns like Chernobyl, but natural areas would expand as urban sprawl retreats. Even for those who don't eat deer and pine nuts, nature provides many essential services for free. Marginal farmland could become forest and prairie again. Depleted aquifers could re-fill. Roots would hold the soil, preventing mudslides. Forests would catch water during rain events and save downstream homes and farms from flooding. Wetlands would recover and protect coastal cities like New Orleans from hurricanes and storm surges. Depleted fisheries would recover, and I could eat fish and chips without guilt.

As a tree-hugging nature worshiper, I could go on ad nauseum about the ecological benefits of a shrinking population, but, mercifully, I am out of time.

The threats to humanity and to the planet we depend on are many, and severe. If we continue our suicidal behavior until we kill ourselves off, the Earth will most likely recover after we are gone. Alternatively, our best hope for saving ourselves is to reverse population growth before the population crashes. This can be done at no net cost with universal access to birth control. The result will be more prosperity, more freedom, lower health care costs, fewer abortions, fewer dead babies, fewer orphans, a healthier ecosystem, healthier people, and a better life for all. I suspect the pope would agree, even if he is afraid to say so.

-- From The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Since some things we've done are likely irrevocable, what would remain in our absence would not be the same planet, had we never evolved in the first place. Yet it might not be so different either. Nature has been through worse losses before and refilled empty niches. And even today there are still a few earthly spots where all our senses can inhale a living memory of this Eden before we were here. Inevitably they invite us to wonder how nature might flourish if granted the chance.

©2015 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul 2015. Too Many Humans, /talks/20150301.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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