I am featuring today a great article by Samuel Alexander, author and a research fellow of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at University of Melbourne and a founder of the Simplicity Institute. You can read this very informative article here: If everyone lived in an ‘ecovillage’, the Earth would still be in trouble. Believe me, pretty much everything it says is worth reading.
It outlines what are called “the defining questions of our time”. Unfortunately, like so many other informed voices in the arena of humanity’s present and future predicament for avoiding a messy and unpleasant extermination of our species, it does not even mention the real problem or issue, the proverbial elephant in the room, that towers in an over-shadowing way above and beyond every other consideration.
Let me say the dirty word that ‘nice’ people, even concerned academics, never mention (I haven’t mentioned it either recently, but it is never very far from my mind) –
There. Now, it is out of the bag and you can either switch off like everyone else does, or you can think about what that means for a while. Everything else, every other possible ‘solution’, every other ‘plan’, ‘scheme’ or ‘practice’, pales into insignificance in comparison to the impact of this single, one, unitary, thing.
Why can’t the world see that? Why can’t even those who expend so much time and effort to try to get us to change our ways, see that?
“There Are Just Too Fucking Many Of Us Living On The One Planet”
I give up. It’s hopeless. Nothing else matters. May as well drop everything else (I won’t, of course).
There’s a further step backwards you may not have made and that’s what caused human population growth in the first place and the answer is agriculture. When we lived as tribal hunter-gatherers, our population stayed relatively stable at numbers that were controlled by food availability. When we learned how to manipulate the environment to provide more of our food, our numbers started to grow, albeit very slowly at first and then skyrocketing when the fossil fuel revolution made intensive agriculture more easy. The so-called ‘green revolution’ did all the damage we see now. Basic ecology says that when a species can access more food than its environment can naturally provide, its numbers will grow.
When you try to point this out to people they will say “but people are hungry; there’s NOT ENOUGH food. We HAVE to grow more to feed the starving millions. But people are ‘made of’ food. What else is there to grow populations? Of course there’s a distribution problem too, but even in poor areas foodwise, women must be getting enough to initiate ovulation, conception and birth. Only when a female is truly starving will ovulation be inhibited, or if conception does take place then spontaneous abortion will happen if there’s not enough food to feed both the mother and the developing fetus. Nature knows best, as we will eventually learn to our dismay.
Yes, you’re right of course, except that a form of agriculture and cultivation, without which we would have none of the plant based heritage food forms that we know and love today, was practiced successfully without large scale population expansion for some 5,000 years or more until the necessary workforce to keep that practice going was recruited for other things. Things like building industrial machines to replace those re-deployed workers and concocting devastatingly harmful chemical formulations to augment and supplant the ancient natural processes and materials used previously. These, together with the introduction of broad-acre farming practices to make effective use of those fiendish and unnatural new inventions, are what brought us to where we are now.
Those changes occurred quite suddenly, mostly during the 18-19th centuries, and that was the time at which population growth began to spiral out of control. By the time that you or I came on the scene, or I at least, around the middle of the 20th century, the population had grown by two and a half times to what it ever had been for millennia previously. We must have been doing something right in those earlier, pre-industrial times, so I don’t necessarily bag agriculture per se. It is what we have moved on to within the last couple of hundred years that has become the causal problem for pretty much all of our current dilemmas.
I would personally like for everybody to go back to living as folk did in those times. Something like the Amish do now (but without the religious overtones). I am confident that will eventually happen, although there is much turmoil, distress and heartache to endure before we have any hope of getting there, and a distinct possibility of utter failure and wipeout along the way.
Thanks for commenting.
Yes, fossil fuels have a lot to answer for! And yes, I agree with your last paragraph.
The five thousand years of agriculture “without large scale population expansion” was five thousand years of high birth rates and high child mortality. *And* the population was actually growing the whole time as well … exponential functions do start out slow.
Any step shift in the rate of growth between the 18th and 20th centuries, can be attributed as much to improved infant survival rates via sanitation and better health care as to increased food production (of course food production has to increase *with* an increasing population, but so long as arable land is not the limiting factor, and all else being equal, more people are capable of producing more food).
I do not believe humanity will ever willingly accept a return to the “nasty, brutish and short” lives of pre-industrial agrarian societies, where parents might have six, eight or twelve kids and see only two or three of them survive to adulthood. Much more likely that we’ll do what we’re already doing, and indeed what industrialised nations had already achieved in the first decades of the 20th century before the Depression: voluntarily reduced fertility rates, such that families have one, two or three kids and see the vast majority of them survive to adulthood.
Half of the population of the world already lives in countries which have below-replacement fertility rates. (Most of those countries’ populations are still growing through filling out of the old demographic “pyramid” characteristic of rapid growth and high mortality, turning into more of a tall pyramid-capped column shape as younger generations no longer outnumber their parents). In the other half of the world’s countries, fertility remains in growth mode, but in most of them it has been falling. Only the most severely underdeveloped countries still have a fertility rate above 3.5 children per women, almost all of them either recently affected by war, located in sub-Saharan Africa, or both (even Bangladesh and India are among the ranks of developed countries by this metric), and even most of those have seen impressive reductions in both child mortality and fertility rates over the last 20 years.
In these few remaining high-fertility countries, however, there are still 17,000 children under the age of five dying DAILY. Bring good health to those children, or rather to their younger brothers and sisters, and make the choice to have fewer children an easy one in practical terms, and their parents will eventually make the same choices as those in the first half of countries, those like Australia, Iran and Brazil with below-replacement fertility rates, have already made.
The correlation between child deaths and high fertility rates is inescapable; it does not prove causation but talking to parents sure does: “I want to bring every good thing to this child, before I have another”.
Jonathan, you make good points, nothing that I would wish to argue with.
The problem with making statements, like I tend to do here and elsewhere about matters of global significance (while claiming no authority or qualifications for doing do other than a modicum of common sense), is that they are of necessity focused thoughts on one particular event or field of interest, a) because they need to grab whatever attention may be drawn to them and b) because it is not possible in a few hundred words to adequately portray how one views the subject and its place in the overall scheme of things. So, one does ones best, knowing that the words may be misunderstood, misconstrued, grasped as forming part of a bigger picture, or dismissed or even ridiculed by those who have little understanding of such things. My writings are designed to hopefully get people thinking independently about things I consider important and to not just accept whatever is fed to them. I am sure that you understand that.
So, while I consider the size of the human population just as much as its growth rate to be the governing factor behind all of our modern dilemmas, and something which ought to be considered in every discourse and conversation about those matters (which the article I was commenting on failed to do), it needs to be recognised and its effects need to be recognised as just one factor operating on and within the complete sphere of those great issues.
I think that you implied as much in your comment with some of the big ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ when you said “…but so long as arable land is not the limiting factor, and all else being equal, more people are capable of producing more food).” It is good that you see, taking the bigger picture view, that ‘limiting factors’ and other ‘things being equal’ do effect ‘capabilities’. Few people have yet come to terms with the idea that there are limiting factors, leave alone that we may be imminently reaching some of those, nor the growing likelihood that things may not always be equal. Either or both of which carry high potential for curtailment of our capabilities to do some or all of the things that are necessary for our continued welfare. I have deliberately attempted to word that assessment of our future prospects using terms which are neither inflammatory nor frantic but I feel that I could justifiably have done so. The need to facilitate this sort of understanding is exactly why I write these posts.
I just want to make one other point. You said: ‘I do not believe humanity will ever willingly accept a return to the “nasty, brutish and short” lives of pre-industrial agrarian societies…’. I entirely agree with your assessment. It is not in our nature to voluntarily reverse gains that we have made. However, the operative word here is ‘willingly’ accept. Our less than frantic efforts towards taking some sort of unified effort to reduce our industrial impact on climate and environment, not to mention our feeble efforts to curb population growth, are good examples of that position. Yet my own world-view and assessment of the factors pressing in on us in the years ahead is that our willingness to do or not do anything will be of little consequence to the outcome.
Thank you again for commenting.