Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: 7 Billion and counting

Late this month, some human baby will be the 7 billionth living human on the planet, according to U.N. researchers. Maybe there are just too many of us and we're doomed. Some think so. Others take a more nuanced view, even while recognizing that humans have caused climate change, mass extinctions and soil and water depletion.

Thinking about population increase reminded me of when I first encountered discussions of its implications for human society. In the early 1960s I read economist and historian Robert Heilbroner's account in The Worldly Philosophers of the Rev. Thomas Malthus' dire 1798 predictions human misery arising from our unstoppable instinct to procreate. Heilbroner's summation is still interesting:

... what [Mathus'] essay on population said was that there was a tendency in nature for population to outstrip all possible means of subsistence. Far from ascending to an ever higher level, society was caught in a hopeless trap in which the human reproductive urge would inevitably shove humanity to the sheer brink of the precipice of existence. Rather than headed for Utopia, the human lot was forever condemned to a losing struggle between ravenous and multiplying mouths and the eternally insufficient stock of Nature's cupboard, however diligently that cupboard might be searched. ... In one staggering intellectual blow Malthus undid all the roseate hopes of an age oriented toward self-satisfaction and a comfortable vista of progress.

... It was no small achievement for [Malthus along with economist David Ricardo] to convince the world that it was living in a fool's paradise. But they did; and so convincing was their proof that men sought to find a way out for society, not within the framework of the supposed natural laws, but in defiance of them.

By that last, Heilbroner is suggesting that recognition of the paradox of disastrous excess abundance (ill-distributed at that) led to the visions of early socialists and eventually of the communist experiment.

Malthus' recognition that all this growing productivity -- a capitalist society that allows a higher fraction of born humans to survive and consequently to disrupt all existence on the planet -- leads straight to our current need to realize we now live in the Anthropocene. It's up to us humans to organize ourselves and our environment -- for survival or for destruction.

As is often the case, the online magazine Grist, whose logo for a population feature I've cribbed above, offers some of the most thoughtful commentary on our predicament. Over and over, its authors insist that bringing human population numbers into harmony with the planet's carrying capacity is all about empowering women. Here's Laurie Mazur:

The difference between 8 billion and 16 billion is all about women's rights. Fertility rates have fallen in most of the world's countries, but they remain high where women's status is low.

Less than one-fifth of the world's countries will account for nearly all of the world's population growth this century. Not coincidentally, those countries -- the least developed nations in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and elsewhere -- are also where girls are less likely to attend school, where child marriage is common, and where women lack the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.

... The numbers remind us, also, that the sustainable, resilient world we seek is in the future, not in the past. We can't go back, nor would we want to. We can, however, go forward -- by curbing our environmental impact, by advancing the rights of women, and by unleashing the intelligence and creativity of every one of the planet's nearly 7 billion citizens.

Yes, forward is the only way we have. Check out the entire Grist feature on surpassing 7 billion humans.

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