The Dalai Lama has said, “There are too many precious human beings on this earth.” This statement, coming from a spiritual teacher with a high level of authority, ought to be emblazoned on the foreheads of everyone who is trying to solve the world’s many problems, but for some reason it is not. I don’t often see it mentioned in discussions of climate change, for example, as an obvious solution. Those discussions seem focused on political and technological fixes. I have read that some experts think that the ideal carrying capacity of planet earth is 500 million people—which was the world population perhaps 1,500 years ago. Others say no, with the right mix of carbon capture technologies and food source innovation like “miracle rice,” we can safely expand to 20 billion or more. I tend to think the smaller estimate is closer to being right.
Population growth is not straight line, it is more logarithmic—which means that not only does it keep growing as people have more and more children, but that the rate of growth is accelerating too. For all other species, nature has a built-in solution to the problem of overpopulation. When the population exceeds the source of available food, there is a die-off and the population goes down. Voila. So far in human history—except for periods of famine or plague—that hasn’t really happened. We are too clever at ways to increase our food supply and cure rampant disease as our population goes up. Maybe climate change will finally do it. If the planet really becomes too hot, the equatorial regions may become unhabitable, and people will need to retreat to Canada, Greenland, and Antarctica, and try to grow their food there. Maybe we should all buy land on the cheap in northern Saskatchewan and wait for the inevitable. James Lovelock, the originator of the so-called Gaia Hypothesis—which posits that the whole earth is a single, interconnected living organism—actually suggested this scenario in an interview he gave shortly before he died. As I recall, when asked about the warming planet, he sighed and said, “Yes, well perhaps a remnant of humanity will be relegated to live at the poles for a few thousand years.” He said it matter-of-factly as he spoke quietly over a cup of tea.
Another aspect of our population growth is that we are one of the few mammals whose females do not have an estrus cycle—in other words they are always susceptible to being impregnated by men whose sexuality is continuously in the “on” position. Why the sexuality of human men (as opposed to dogs or elephants) is designed that way is unclear, but this means that having a large family is a normal state of affairs wherever contraception is not a factor. In the old days, when infant mortality was high, large families may have been necessary just so a few children could survive to adulthood. J.S. Bach, for example, had 20 children, only a few of whom lived to adulthood. That was then.
Add to this the religious or cultural prejudices against birth control and you have yet another factor for growth. I once read a piece by Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times about the time he visited a group of bravehearted nuns in a remote African village, who were working to educate the populace about AIDS. When he asked the nun’s leader what she thought of the Vatican and its policies, the nun replied straight-faced, “Well, if it were up to me I’d turn the Vatican into a condom factory.” Her quip would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Her group of nuns was concentrating on AIDS, but her comment could just as easily apply to birth control.
Suppose there were an all-knowing, compassionate spirit looking down on planet earth from his or her perch in the sky, and who wanted to maximize our chances to live happy, well-nourished lives for untold future generations, in a world with clean air and water and beautiful pollution-free sunsets. Based on the 2 or 3 main causes of overpopulation, it wouldn’t be hard for that all-knowing spirit to mandate a few simple changes to gradually bring the world population down to the planet’s comfortable carrying capacity. In fact, there is one country in the world who tried that—China—by instituting a strict one-child family policy. China’s long history—even in recent times—is replete with periods of terrible famine, so they were highly motivated, and they have the kind of government that can simply order things to happen. While that policy was in force their population was better controlled. So it can be done–theoretically. But If there is an all-knowing compassionate spirit in the sky, I think he or she must be on a long vacation—perhaps to another planet where the dominant species isn’t quite so clever (and stubborn) as we are.
All musing aside, what I find so frustrating is that the changes we need to make to avoid climate, overpopulation, and similar catastrophes are well known and well understood. We could fix them. But we are not doing that, or at least not urgently enough to make enough of a difference. Maybe James Lovelock is right, and in the natural course of things we will make the planet largely uninhabitable until a remnant of our current vast multitude of precious human beings will indeed huddle at the poles—which by that time might have quite reasonable weather—with plenty of time to contemplate what could have been. I like to say that theoreticzlly there are two ways to learn hard lessons: the easy way and the hard way. But practically speaking, it is usually the hard way.