Too Many People

By Cyberquill 01/04/20164 Comments

For the mother of all looming calamities, all but guaranteed to put paid to civilization and mankind as we know it in the not too unforeseeable future, compared to some of its ineluctable side effects like environmental destruction and mass migrations, the global overpopulation disaster itself appears to cause surprisingly few tongues to wag and scant ink to spill by way of sounding the ground proximity warning system in humanity’s cockpit.

One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most popular aphorisms may provide the most plausible explanation for the universal reluctance to call a spade a spade, as it were, when it comes to global overcrowding. Gandhi famously decreed that “we must be the change we want to see in this world.”

In other words, if we think there are too many people in the world, we’re obviously one of them. It follows that the most intuitive measure to take in keeping with Gandhi’s dictum would be to self-terminate.

You can probably count the seconds between your decrying overpopulation aloud and the quickest wit among your listeners suggesting that you might consider doing your share in alleviating the situation by being the change you want to see and offing yourself. How do you counter that logic? How do you argue with a straight face that you just happen to not be among those extra billions that are putting a precarious strain upon our planet and its resources?

Sort of awkward to bewail the size of a crowd of which we ourselves are members, especially as Westerners, whose environmental and otherwise exploitative footprints dwarf those of other humans on earth, most of whom are so unlucky as to have been born into infinitely more humble environs.

And so, since we won’t have a good comeback for the most obvious of responses, we are apt to refrain from broaching the subject in the first place.

Moreover, parents, actual or aspiring, i.e., most people, are unlikely to take kindly to the implicit accusation of having recklessly exacerbated, or planning to exacerbate, an unfolding catastrophe. After all, the compulsion to procreate—attended by all manner of rationales, from the philosophically dogmatic “creating life is what life is about” to a litany of pragmatic and economic considerations—resides at the very root of homo sapiens’s ever accelerating beeline voyage to the edge of the cliff.

And once religion comes into play and the scriptural injunction to be fruitful and multiply is invoked, all remaining bets are off. You’ll stand a greater chance of convincing Richard Dawkins to accept Jesus as his Savior than to get religious folk to consider the hypothesis that God may actually approve of man applying his free will toward putting a cap on human reproduction.

Of course, doomsday predictions about human population growth were already uttered hundreds of years ago. World population has septupled since, and we’re still here. The fact that the population sky appears to have not yet come crashing down completely is seen by many as proof that to anguish over too many people is just a bunch of crying wolf over nothing.

Given the unspeakable misery in which a steadily increasing number of human beings must eke out their daily existence because the more habitable areas in their part of the world are crammed to capacity, and given the precipitous depletion of natural resources—prime among them our ever dwindling supplies of fresh water—no serious person, however, could argue that the world as we know it might actually survive another doubling of human population, let alone another tripling or more.

And yet, barring some left-field miracle of unknown etiology, that’s precisely where we’re headed. At the present rate, it takes about 13 years to add another billion people. What’s the endgame here? Twenty billion? Thirty? Fifty? A hundred?

Think about it: It took a hundred or so millennia for homo sapiens to hit one billion in the 19th century C.E. Now, barely 200 years later, all it takes is a mere baker’s dozen years just to add another billion to the existing billions. That humanity is digging its own grave with this kind of unconstrained proliferation ought to be plainly manifest to even the most casual of observers.

On a positive note, conventional wisdom has it that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t go on forever. Short of an all-out apocalypse, though—a nuclear winter, a stupendous asteroid strike, or some catching bug that wipes out billions of people at a crack—it’s hard to fathom a non-cataclysmic event or development that may realistically drive down human population to manageable levels such that humane living conditions would obtain for more than a ridiculously small minority of people.

One thing known to reduce populations is a higher, i.e., western-style, standard of living. Apparently, the more stuff people can afford, the fewer children they have. Unfortunately, to manufacture all that extra stuff for billions more people than already have access to it would require a multiplying of world economic output, and we’re already hitting serious limits in terms of natural resources left for us to squeeze out of the ground and the amount of energy that can be produced without pumping so many additional gazillions of CO2 into the atmosphere that it would cause Earth to venusify.

Occasionally, we are confronted with what at first blush sounds like good news on the population front—assuming you believe, as many clearly do not, that humanity is indeed fruitfully multiplying out of control.

We might hear or read, for instance, that world population nowadays grows at a slower percentage rate than it used to; or that the average global woman today bears, say, 2.8 children as opposed to, say, 6.6 children x number of years ago. All this means beans, of course, since the population base from which these shrinking numbers are derived keeps growing. Today, there are multiple times more women that bear 2.8 children than there used to be women that bore 6.6; and a slightly smaller percentage of more people still works out to more people, in absolute numbers, than a larger percentage of billions fewer.

Bottom line, the downward trend of a few select figures notwithstanding, the world keeps adding more people in ever shorter periods of time.

Perhaps the most naive and disconnected-from-reality reason all too often put forth for why we shouldn’t get our knickers in a wad about overpopulation is that it goes on in faraway parts of the planet, whereas our occidental habitats are suffering from the reverse affliction, namely population shrinkage.

First of all, I don’t see any shrinkage. The U.S. population currently stands at roughly 310 million people versus 75 million in the year 1900. In my dictionary, that’s a tripling, not a shrinking. And from what peak, pray tell, may the population that resides in the area that comprises the modern-day European Union have come down to a mere 502 million souls? (Rhetorical question.)

For sure, the West is still sparsely populated (although it may not seem that way when you walk the streets of Manhattan during a subway strike) relative to places like Bangladesh (a country about the size of Iowa and with higher soil fertility, yet a disaster zone in every respect on account of people practically living on top of one another), which means there’s a lot more room for a lot more people over here, a fact we cannot expect to go unnoticed by the downtrodden masses in other corners of the globe forever.

No fence, no wall, and no ocean can stop a mass of desperate people, as we’re being told every time some European politician of right-wingish persuasion proposes the erection of a physical barrier to stem the influx of Middle-Eastern refugees.

If that is true, and if, some day, hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of people set their collective mind to cutting out of their overcrowded-to-the-rafters and famine-stricken, war-ravaged, or rising-sea-level-flooded hellholes and heading for greener pastures out west—you certainly can’t blame them for wanting a better life—then Iowa plus every other state in the Union plus every European country will eventually turn into Bangladesh, and this demographic redistribution won’t even make a dent in those places of origin, which will fill back up just as fast as people leave.

So this blinkered notion that overpopulation is happening over there but not over here, wherefore all we should worry about is to secure our pensions by producing more offspring so as to offset our own aging population, totally ignores the specter of massive mass migration into our less populated parts of the world as an inevitable consequence of intolerable living conditions elsewhere.

If China and India can fit a billion plus people each, so can Europe and the United States.

Barring the aforementioned left-field miracle, that’s what it’ll come to, sooner or later, if not from autochthonous reproduction, then as a result of immigration, invited or otherwise—how could it not? Why would the desperate masses remain mannerly packed like living sardines in their assigned confines for good? (Of late, Europe has been getting a taste of what happens when a paltry million people refuse to stay in their neck of the planet. Imagine the chaos once multiple times as many start breaking out.)

Not even Trump can build a wall strong enough to withstand tens of millions of people (or more) pushing against it from the other side.

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  • Richard

    Here are the UN predictions for population growth, gleaned from the Wikipedia article on Malthus:

    You deal with a subject of much controversy. I imagined Malthus had been discredited, but apparently not.

    • Cyberquill

      As this graph shows, there seems to be no basis upon which to make reliable predictions about future developments. All we know is that population has been exploding for quite some time and that the precipitous upward trend shows no signs of slowing down. So I guess we’ll just have to abwarten und Tee trinken.

      The first 5 1/2 minutes of this concluding lecture of a 24-part Yale lecture series on demographics and population growth provide the probably creepiest visualization of the problem:

      • Richard

        It took me a while to catch on to the first 5 1/2 silent minutes but, yes, it is creepy. I now feel unable to comment further until I have watched all twenty-four hours, plus, of the lecture series.

        The text on the graph, however, does prefer a Malthusian “oscillation”, whatever that is, while about ten minutes into the lecture we’re told that no particular projection is preferred.

        • Cyberquill

          It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. At some point, though, some sort of correction will have to set in, although no one knows when this will happen and what form it will take.

          I watched all 24-plus hours. Fascinating discussion, in a rather depressing kind of way.

          Many years ago, a high school teacher of mine put it something like this: If you have a glass filled with bacteria, the bacteria will multiply until they become too many, and then they’ll all die off.

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