If you were born around 1960, you came into a world populated by some 3 billion people. Today nearly 6.5 billion of us reside on the planet. When you die you’ll likely leave about 10 billion behind. Human population causes desertification, deforestation, extinctions, and climate change.
It’s easy to blame industrialization and point an accusing finger at gas-guzzling automobiles and unscrupulous multinational corporations for our environmental mess. Yet the planet somehow weathered 200 years of coal smoke, robber barons, and fossil-fuel locomotives with relatively mild, comparatively isolated consequences.
So why, despite the presence of international watchdogs, hybrid cars, and clean-coal technology, is a global meltdown closer than ever?
To quote the sage (a cartoon possum named Pogo, speaking to his friend Porky Pine on Earth Day in 1971): “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Maybe it will take 75 years to reach a population of 10 billion. Maybe the planet can accommodate 12 billion frugal human beings. Someone recently pointed out that the world’s entire population could be housed in high-density skyscrapers on a piece of land the size of Virginia. In Macao, China, the population has already reached about 17,000 people per square kilometer. If the entire current human population lived in the same conditions, we would occupy about 150,000 square miles, a piece of land slightly smaller than California, slightly larger than Montana.
OK. But who would want to live there?
We’re the only species on the planet that can conceptualize its own impact on its habitat. Every other thriving species just keeps on spreading until it starts starving, at which time disease and evolution bring things back into balance for a little while.
I believe we’d prefer to manage the situation ourselves. I also believe we are responsible. Call it “dominion over the earth,” or call it a sacred trust. Both logic and morality call on us to protect our habitat.
A good first step would be universal access to birth control and a firm resolution to raise the entire human race out of poverty. So far every affluent nation on earth has seen its birth rate drop to between one and two children per family. Why? There are lots of theories, none of them proven. We don’t need to know why. We already know that economic justice is desirable, particularly if it results in a healthier planet.
Before we can have thoughtful debates on how to curb our population explosion, though, we must first learn how to talk about it rationally. I’ve been writing and speaking on the subject for about a year. It’s not a real popular topic.
I’ve been accused of a variety of moral failings that range from supporting eugenics to hating babies. No matter how you come at it, population control is all but taboo in polite conversation. So let’s try something new. Let’s start the conversation in a different place. Let’s settle on a destination before we embark on our journey. Let’s try to visualize the world where we want to live.
A little over a year ago I nearly died from poor visualization. I tried to slow my motorcycle down in the middle of a curve on a mountain road. You can’t do that. I wasn’t confident that I could complete the maneuver successfully. In the parlance of racing, I lost my “destination fixation” and allowed the guardrail to momentarily absorb my attention. In retrospect I know that if I had simply kept my attention focused on a successful outcome I could have leaned the bike over a little farther and pulled through. Instead I ended up face down in the middle of the highway.
I’m concerned that our leaders—particularly environmentalists—are focused on the guardrail of conservation when they should be visualizing a less populous, more sustainable habitat. What if we begin imagining, right now, the world where we want our great-grandchildren to live? What if we trained our attention on clean air and water, wildlife, wilderness, and beauty? Then maybe we could begin to talk about the real cultural and economic implications of population control, which are too complex and profound to tackle on this page.
Conservation alone cannot save us from ourselves. With the right combination of imagination and common sense, though, we can begin to address a hard reality: that although the world can always get better, it’s not going to get any bigger.
Bryan Welch is publisher and editorial director of Ogden Publications, publishers of Utne Reader, Mother Earth News, and Natural Home.