Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Is the World Over Populated? Or Who Ate my Toast?

A friend just asked me whether I thought that the world was really overpopulated.

"Overpopulated for what?"  I asked.

He replied, "Oh, you know what I mean.  Our whole life we were debating whether the world had too many people, whether we were going to run out of food."

"That's true," I said, "but have you noticed that the longer that we debate this, the bigger our population gets and the more food we have to eat?   What's the problem?"

"But," he protested, "Don't you remember the warnings of  Rachel Carson when she wrote Silent Spring? She tried to show us that there are repercussions to all those pesticides we were using to finesse our food supplies.  What about the arguments of Robert Malthus about overpopulation?"

"Oh yeah, I get what you mean, now" I said.  "You're talking about those hysterics who told us we had too many people on earth.  Way back when the US was a quarter of its current population size, people argued that we should reduce our population growth to zero, work toward a stable population.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we quadrupled our population, increased our GDP,  our food production went through the ceiling and we added a minimum of 20 to 30 extra pounds just around our waists, without even estimating what we added to our legs and our behinds.  Is that what you are talking about?"

"Yeah, something like that".

"Well, I never believed in overpopulation." I said, "Not even for a minute.  We are not overpopulated. 'The more, the merrier', that's my motto  More people means more growth.  That is what keeps our economy chugging. "  

"But what about all these people I keep running into, right when I don't need them" he protested. "I get stuck in traffic every single day, at least twice.  Once on my way to work, and once on the way back.  Isn't that overpopulation?  Wouldn't it be easier if there were fewer people to contend with on the highways?"

"Heck, no" I replied. "That's because we don't have a mass transit system!  What are we doing all riding around in cars?  What happened to bikes, to walking, to public transit?"

"So, you don't think its as simple as slowing down on population growth?  Listen", he said. "When I was born in 1940's, the United States had 130 million people. In 2046 , when I am 100 years old, we will have around 400 million.  I'm just guessing, of course, that I will make it to the ripe old age of 100, now that we have these newly improved life expectancies.  Don't you think that all these people will negatively affect our public spaces, our national parks, our school systems and waiting times in doctor's offices?  How many people does it take before we are overcrowded?"  

"Try to be alone!" he added, woefully. "Just try to find a place outdoors where you can sit there for an hour and not see anybody.  Just try it.  See what happens.  It is clear to me that we have taken over all the habitats on earth,  plants and animals, ours and theirs.  There is no place left to hide!" he exclaimed.

"Sounds pretty boring to me."  I replied.  "Why would we want to be that isolated from people?  I love people."

"Well, you might feel differently if you were a bird or other animal," he said..  "How often can an animal  find a spot where they can sit down in a quiet place and munch peacefully on a carcass or take a drink from a stream without running into one of us?  They must have permanent indigestion from all our commotion."

I replied to him, "That's not because of overpopulation.  We don't have to spread out like that.  We could cluster our living arrangements more densely, like bees or ants, and take less land from other animals, give them more space.  Blame that experience on our spreading suburbs.  That's not overpopulation."

"Okay, then, help me out here." he said. "If every time I bring up an example of overpopulation, you make it sound like the problem is something else.  Is there, then, no such thing as overpopulation?  Shouldn't we slow down population growth?"

"Nope," I said. "We could keep growing forever. Relax! Let things happen naturally.  It doesn't have to be orchestrated.  There's no need to overreact. Nature knows how to take care of things, just you wait and see.  One untreatable infectious disease brings down our population size a whole lot faster than any slow, complicated policy change.  All it takes is a couple of unexpected food and energy shortages to do the trick without any need for intelligent action on our part.  And I haven't even brought up the important impact of the inevitable war yet."  

And with that, I walked away, fully confident of my position in this argument.

The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See  was produced several years ago by Greg Craven.  I find his video very compelling and pertinent to this discussion. 

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