We are the Problem
For much of human history, the population remained relatively constant, growing at a slow and steady rate. Pre-historic populations never exceeded one billion souls and usually remained fairly constant at less than 5 million people.
Early humans lived lightly on the earth in hunter-gatherer societies. They had an impact on the environment by consuming resources, burning fires and creating waste; however, primitive societies did not engage in impactful activities at a pace that exceeded the natural environment’s ability to repair itself. Resources were not used up faster than the earth’s ability to regenerate them, and the wastes created were organic and were reabsorbed into the ecosystem for reuse. Earth’s blanket of vegetation greedily consumed the carbon dioxide produced by simple cooking fires, and wood and plants harvested for consumption were quickly and sustainably regenerated by nature.
Some speculations suggest early hominids may have had some long-term negative impacts on the planet resulting from over-hunting of particular species including mammoths and may have caused the extinction of those species. However, the overall natural extinction rate of the planet, which is a normal byproduct of evolutionary change, remained relatively constant during prehistoric times and was affected more significantly by natural changes such as the great ice age. Contrasted with today’s human activities, primitive man’s environmental impacts were negligible.
We have come a long way since our days as cave dwellers. Advancements in technology and industry have been a boon for our species but have come at a great expense to the planet. Often the cause of the harm we do is not what we think. When people in the developed world, sitting in cozy, climate-controlled homes and reading up on the latest diet in order to lose the extra tire of fat around their middle think about the environmental problems of over population, minds and consciences inevitably end up thinking about the developing world. We believe that the problem lies there, not in our backyard.
We look at the numbers: China has 1.3 billion people and India has 1.2 billion. Combined, these two countries have over a third the world’s population. Many developed countries actually have declining population rates. Over population is, we believe, someone else’s problem. Our firm beliefs even border sometimes on feelings of resentment for the world’s overly-fecund poor. How dare they burden our planet with their excessive procreation? Unfortunately for our smug attitudes, the impoverished are not the problem. We are.
The 2.8 billion people who survive on earth on less than $2/day are leading frugal lives with minimal environmental footprints. Under consumption, rather than over consumption is a daily reality for one third of the earth’s population. While the average person in Mozambique or Bangladesh is worrying about where their next meal is going to come from, Americans own more cars than there are people to drive them (1). The United States is home to 4% of the world’s population, yet we use up 25% of the fossil fuels consumed, and developed countries including the United States and Western Europe make up 12% of the earth’s people, yet we account for 60% of consumer spending. If all the world’s people were to live as we do, the earth and her resources would be rapidly used up.
We look at China and India with trepidation and fear. Their huge populations are a wake up call about the finite quantity of resources on the planet. If their massive populations were somehow able to rise to our level of affluence and subsequent resource consumption, there simply wouldn’t be enough stuff to go around. Our fear is not unreasonable. As oil reserves dwindle, China’s lack of enthusiasm to punish Iran for nuclear violations becomes clear. China is the leading purchaser of oil from Iran. China needs Iranian oil and can’t afford to piss Iran off. Another question is why do we think we are more entitled to the earth’s goodies than the world's poor?
As usual, our policies approach the growing crisis from the typical self-centered, winner take all American attitude. We’ll just take the oil we need through war, political manipulation and propaganda. Unfortunately, for us, these methods are becoming less and less viable as our economy and public support will no longer sustain them.
Instead of worrying about what will happen when China and India are like we are now, we should be paving the way as a shining example of how to live in sustainable balance with the environment. When their economies allow for it, they too can sustain themselves and their environment. This is a win/win solution in which everyone gets what they need without competing with others for resources. It is also the only way that we will be able to endure and maintain our current quality of life in the global decades to come.
The US has lost its competitive edge when it comes to manufacturing goods (China) and providing services (India). We need a new role for ourselves, and that role can and should be developing services, utilities, products and goods that have a net positive or net neutral environmental impact while helping developing countries to improve the quality of life for their people.
We are now fortunate enough to be able to make a choice. We have the knowhow and the technology to change our own destructive course. With our current level of technological advancement, if we cannot create a world in which every living human being can enjoy a basic standard of living and quality of life without poverty or destroying the environment and using up all of earth’s resources, then there are simply too many people on the planet. The masses of humanity that are being produced by our fruitful multiplications are destined for suffering.
The world has changed a great deal since Yahweh issued his dictate on the sixth day for humankind to fill up and subdue the earth. Yahweh should be pleased we have fulfilled His demands entirely. The earth is filled with people, and we have subdued Nature utterly. Fundamentalist Judeo Christians believe it is a sin to restrict reproduction and that we need to continue to fill up the earth according to God’s dictates even though the planet is clearly already overfilled. The Bible does not say, “Reproduce like rabbits until all of the earth is used up.” Nor does the Bible anywhere say, “Do whatever you want to the planet, and if you screw it up, God will save you.” As with many skewed interpretations of God’s words, the belief that it is morally correct to be reproductively irresponsible at the expense of all other life on earth is simply mistaken.
1- The Worldwatch Institute, 2004. State of the World – 2004. W. W. Norton & Company Publishers, New York.