disobedia : editorial
are we just over-glorified parasites?
[pondering the issues of human overpopulation]

issue 6.1 | winter spring 2001

We humans are suffocating from the fumes of our own self-importance. I am stunned by the sheer number of people who are convinced that we are the superior species of the planet and that we have been charged by some higher power with the unfettered right to exploit all that the planet has to offer without question, limit or consequence.

Our knowledge and our technologies may have won us the power to control many things, but it is arrogant to think that we are so grossly entitled. The sad truth is that we are mere participants in a complex system, still subject to most of the rules set forth well before we became so progressed. Despite our supposedly impressive ability to think, we remain vulnerable and mortal. And our great advancements notwithstanding, our foremost imperatives continue to be staying alive and perpetuating our genetic code.

Just because we have made a few clever gadgets, have unlocked a few of the world's secrets and are now tampering with the formula of life, does not change the most fundamental aspects of being alive. We continue to require food, water, air, and shelter, and we continue to need our wastes recycled.

Even at best, if you believe that our exceptional power to create and to control has raised us unusually high from the primordial sludge, that barely renders us as nothing more than the guardians of this dominion. And as such, we have only as much right to take from it as we accept the responsibility of maintaining it. There is no zoo if the zookeeper kills all the animals; there is no garden if the gardener kills all the plants. And there is little denying that everything on this planet is interconnected. What harms the planet endangers us. Whenever we directly or indirectly compromise the health of the planet, we only serve to injure ourselves.

That is why I find myself dumbstruck. We are squeezing this planet to its breaking point, slashing and burning everything in sight, on an ill-conceived rampage which can only trigger our irrevocable demise -- tell me: how exactly does that make us superior? So much science and technology -- was the goal to reduce suffering or to speed up our extinction?

As quickly as we solve one problem, we create a whole score of new ones. Meanwhile, our numbers are exponentially growing. And if the consumption of the current population wasn't already burden enough, the unchecked increase of persons is further straining the global ecosystem.

Modern human beings are simply over-glorified parasites. A parasite is any organism in nature that reproduces rapidly while draining the resources of its host, taking but giving nothing back in return. Once the host is sucked dry, the parasite either dies off along with it or is forced to go in search of a new host. Unless we re-evaluate our current attitude, this too shall be our fate.

what's wrong with people?
issue 6.1 | winter spring 2001

Up until the twentieth century, the mortality rate of humans around the world had been quite high. To have only a few children survive, it was necessary to have many offspring. Sometimes, upwards of six to eight births yielded only two children to reach adulthood and replace their parents in the population pool.

By the time humans worldwide had adopted an agrarian lifestyle, the importance of having children went beyond the need to carry on your genetic line, thereby perpetuating the species. Children also served as an economic asset. As early as age six, a child could work thereby adding to the productivity of a family. And since children comply with the responsibility of caring for their aging and debilitated parents, having a large family also provided a form of social security. It is easy to understand why survival and success has historically depended on the notion that people should "be fruitful and multiply."

In recent centuries, however, our growing understanding of science (and our subsequent development of technology based on that science) has dramatically altered human life and the course of all life on this planet. These improvements have greatly impacted the mortality rate of humans. Vaccinations and basic sanitation have cut the death rate. Moreover, through science, people have not only managed to reduce premature deaths, to lengthen their life spans and to maintain a reasonable quality of health, but they have also inadvertently increased the biological capacity to reproduce. To put it mildly, things have changed.

For thousands of years, disease and drought asserted a ruthless and effective control of the human population size. The edict, balance. The equation, simple. And I am sorry to report that modern science and technology do not exempt us from the balance exacted by nature. When the resources run short, people have and will still die off. This planet is of fixed size and it affords us a fixed amount of usable resources to maintain ourselves. Though we currently stretch those constraints and believe ourselves capable of stretching them infinitely and indefinitely, at some point, that which is stretched will snap, and our experiment will collapse. We are foolish if we do not recognize this inevitability.

Unfortunately, human beings on the whole have been slow to assess the situation and make changes to their behavior and values to achieve the requisite balance. The cultural and religious mores of the past stubbornly refuse to reconcile with the modern world we ourselves have created and so readily accept.

Is our technological development moving too quickly? Or is our ideological development too slow? I don't know, but it's clear we're headed for disaster because they are not in sync. If we choose to embrace science and technological advancement, we must recognize that our current religious and cultural values are in conflict with our survival. It is time to question our moral doctrines.

And therein lies the problem. On the one hand, there are the moral formalists who strictly follow basic unchanging principles which are applied equally to all situations without exception. Their morality is rigid and unbreathing. On the other side are the moral utilitarians who believe that the rightness of any action depends on the circumstances surrounding the particular action. They measure morality by weighing whether the action benefits the most number of people or at least hurts the fewest. The population problem is one of many issues torn to shreds on the battleground between these two perspectives.

The formalists are clinging to their old tenets. Until this century, humans have been racing to produce enough babies to ensure the replacement of adults before they die. The idea that organisms should voluntarily limit population runs contrary to what people have always known as the method of survival. Entrenched cultural and religious institutions defend the old ways even though we live in a new and improved world.

Utilitarians oppose these moral absolutists and object to groundless inflexibility. They desperately seek to point out that humans have long since destroyed the naturally occurring situations that necessitated fervent reproduction. If we do not modernize our thinking, these new lives we lead will not be an improvement. Survival in this era depends on the population not outrunning the resources necessary for life; survival, in part, depends on population control. We can choose to limit the population humanely by design or inhumanely by accident. After all, isn't our true motivation for turning to science and technology a desire to reduce suffering? Shouldn't the moral code we embrace do the same?

didn't your mother ever teach you to share?
issue 6.2 | summer 2001

Imagine if you were to measure every person -- not by an immediately tangible characteristic like height or weight -- but by a fairly accurate assessment of the total amount of resources that person would likely consume in a lifetime.

Now make a simple visual representation of these resources. Place each person in the center of a parcel of land, the respective area of which is determined by the actual amount of land required to produce all those resources as well as the amount of land necessary to house all of the waste and by-products. When you attempt to place all these parcels side by side across the surface of every continent, you can begin to judge population issues in a whole new light.

In my opinion, the world currently suffers from two distinct categories of overpopulation: that of the world's rich and that of the world's poor. The measure of each may be different, but they elicit equal concern and horror.

Only 25% of the earth's surface is above water, and of that, only 10% is available for growing (the rest is either too cold, too dry or too rocky). So about 3% of the earth's surface is suitable to grow things for consumption. That's it. Six billion people inhabit this earth and they are all expected to share this "usable" land. Meanwhile, the land is being treated as if it were expendable -- alarming amounts lost to construction, pollution, erosion, desertification, and overgrazing. Once destroyed, the land is difficult to revive, often impossible to restore. Without out it, we will die. And land isn't the only thing in short supply. Potable water and breathable air are other precious resources in peril.

To survive, human beings must share the world's resources. In addition, they must not further tax the supply by increasing their numbers -- not only because non-renewable resources cannot be replenished (that's obvious) -- but because when you overburden any renewable resource base, you run the risk of destroying it all together. It's like putting too much weight on a pack animal; once you break its back, it can no longer carry anything.

Easier said than done. As would be expected, there are certain people who want, and therefore feel it is their right, to take a larger share than is fair. Also unfortunate is the vast body of the population, who not knowing any better, are reproducing at a staggering rate. Interestingly, it is the extreme poorest and extreme wealthiest which in tandem are causing the bulk of the massive environmental plundering that may destroy us all.

When it comes to the world's poor, it becomes quickly obvious that most "parcels" are too small to support a healthy person. The truly poor, of course, are primarily living in under-developed Third World nations. These individuals do not consume much alone, but their cumulative needs exceed what they are capable of producing or purchasing. You've seen them... their gaunt faces and distended bellies grace your tv screen on occasion. They are the ones who are suffering the first effects of human overpopulation.

During the colonial period, explorers and settlers took over most of land in these regions. The remaining land, which also happened to be the least productive land, they so generously permitted the natives to occupy. After the various colonies achieved independence, the majority of the population remained trapped on these unproductive lands and stayed poor. Their leaders not only maintained the inequitable landholding patterns, but also borrowed huge amounts of money from international lending institutions to fund various agendas. Money was loaned to "stable" countries (that is, ones ruled by dictators, rather than democracies governed by the people). At the same time, do-gooders trying to improve the quality of life for these people introduced basic medicine and sanitation, lowering their mortality rates. However, with little change in their reproductive behavior, their populations exploded and continue to grow.

More people require more resources: more land, more water, more education, more medicine. Unfortunately, the borrowed monies were mostly mismanaged by ignorant or corrupt leaders. So, while the vast majority of those countries' citizens received little or no benefit from these loans, they were still obliged to repay them. Worse still, most of the loans were based on variable interest rates and the rates had no ceiling. Under pressure from lending institutions, debt repayment was placed above priorities for health, education and welfare. Any chance for economic growth and improvement was hampered since little money could be reinvested into the nations -- everything went to debt servicing. Indeed, much of the money was going to cover just the interest on the loans.

Austerity measures imposed by these banks continue to force desperately poor countries to use more and more of their land to grow cash crops for export in order to pay back the debt, rather than growing food crops for local consumption. Any profit ends up lining the pockets of corrupt leaders and of the rich in these disadvantaged nations, while the people, ever growing in number, starve. The citizens of these nations remain largely uneducated and continue to fall further behind the rest of the world's technological advancements. And, their poor land management practices persist in causing environmental damage of incredulous proportions.

Can we blame them? It's a normal human reaction to want to survive. Their plight can only be described as desperate. Without food and money, deprived of information and education, nothing better can be expected of them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the citizens of industrialized nations. By comparison there seem to be far fewer people, but do not be tempted to minimize the situation. The consumption patterns of these affluent citizens demand a gargantuan "parcel" size. Each individual in a developed nation consumes anywhere from five to fifty times what any other inhabitant of the planet does. Accordingly, each such person puts five to fifty times the amount of stress on the environment. Consequently, a slight increase in the population of an industrialized nation ravages the planet in much the same manner as an under-developed nation's population in radical expansion.

While billions starve, one-third of all the grain grown and half of the fish caught feeds the rich countries of the world. It is estimated that 6 billion people can be supported on a vegetarian diet, but only 3 billion can be sustained on a diet where 25% is compromised of animal products. Cows, pigs and sheep should be feeding on pasturelands that are unsuitable for crops; instead, they are eating grain that could be fed to people. Farm animals now eat 10 times more grain than American people do. In addition, animals do not make efficient use of the grains. 145 million tons of grain fed to animals only yields 21 tons of meat. What an extraordinary waste of soil, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and energy -- and for what return? an increased amount of heart attacks, strokes and obesity?

Furthermore, to offset the damage of driving too much and driving fuel-inefficient vehicles, grain is taken from the hungry to be used as a fuel additive. Ethanol uses grain to create alcohol for fuel. The conversion of grain into alcoholic beverages is even more wasteful. Alcoholic drinks have no nutritional value and are harmful to most of people who consume them. This grain should be used feed to people. Instead, in the US, we spend $59 billion to get drunk but only $15.9 billion on foreign aid.

The behavior of people living in affluent nations is despicable. When these poorer nations sell their cash crops, who do you think is buying them? We are. Who do you think is collecting the interest on these loans? Our banks are. At every turn, we are literally taking food out of the mouths of the starving. The fact that annually we here in the United States add 2.3 million people who then go on to perpetuate this deplorable legacy is even more frightening.

It does not end there. Even though most of the world's people have always been poor and hungry, they can now visualize a better standard of living through the wonders of modern communication and the media. Poorer nations are minor contributors to CO2 pollution from fossil fuel burning, but a significant realization of their legitimate aspirations to develop will change that. They want what we have: cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, supermarkets, restaurants. Instead of helping them to curb their numbers and teaching them a healthy stewardship of the planet, we give them Big Macs and Coca-Cola. I bristle to think of a world in which several billion people would behave as selfishly, recklessly and irresponsibly as the few of us do. So what should we say to them? How can we justify ourselves? How can we say "don't act like us" while we sit here enjoying our excesses? Our affluence comes to us at the expense of others. How is that fair? We refuse to give up anything, so others will never have any opportunity at all... or they may attempt to seize the opportunity, as they tear down the last trees while blackening the sky.

Overpopulation has less to do with actual crowding and more to do with an overall shortage of resources as well as an ever-growing amount of waste. To save the human race, citizens of the developed world must consume less, utilize less polluting materials and stop their population growth. That's right: zero population growth, only producing enough people to replace those who are already here, and no extras. This could be done by eliminating unwanted pregnancies and by holding each family to no more than one child. (If you are interested in reading our radical suggestions on how to bring the US population down to zero growth, visit our addendum below.)

Equally important is the assistance we give to less developed nations. First off, Third World debt should in some cases be entirely forgiven and should in other cases be free of interest. Next, we should teach and encourage the governments and the peoples of these nations to care for the environment. That, of course, means we can no longer encourage them to rape the land for our benefit.

Furthermore, until these nations can get on their feet, we should subsidize an extensive global family planning program. All forms of birth control should be disseminated, encouraged and kept readily available to both women and men. We must also strive to help them further reduce their infant mortality rates. To truly achieve low birthrates, you must assure families that there will not be a negative cost. When they see that babies have a high chance of survival, they will trust that they do not need to make so many of them! Mortality rates would decline further if there were better nutrition, improved sanitation, and the expansion of basic healthcare. Lastly, much much greater emphasis needs to be placed on women's rights and education. Countries in which education is least accessible to girls have the highest fertility rates, and those where education is most accessible have the lowest. The reasons are numerous. Most fundamentally, education makes women more open to contraception and better able to employ it. An educated woman often delays marriage, which reduces the number of years that she is likely to become pregnant. Whereas men use their education simply to increase income, women will apply even a few years of schooling to improving the life of their families, which has profound long-term positive effects. With education, women have the potential to earn. When women have sources of income other than their children and are empowered to save money, family size declines. In these ways, we can help save each other, save the planet and save ourselves.

will you end up as one of the wretched?
issue 6.3 | 2002

I cannot believe there are people who suggest that we should start building colonies on other planets, rather than suggesting that we merely stop reproducing like fruit flies! How 'bout this... I'm given a perfectly beautiful house to live in, so I tear down all walls and shit all over the floor and ceiling. Then when I've rendered it completely uninhabitable, I'll just move somewhere else. What the hell kind of logic is that?

And how about the authorities who do not think overpopulation is a problem? They think that the term overpopulation merely refers to high densities of people, and then they cite the economic success of places like Hong Kong where people are stacked and packed together like sardines in a can or places like the island nations of England or Japan. These moronic experts should be shot for their shortsightedness. While you can cram a lot of people into a small space physically, the land necessary to sustain them is much larger. The populations of such densely occupied places require thousands and thousands of square miles abroad to feed them and to produce the resources they consume. Densely packed countries are simply exporting the environmental costs of such crowding by exploiting the forests, farmlands and mineral resources of other countries!

Just as compelling are those so-called experts who think that rapid population growth is a good thing. These people believe rapid growth creates new demand and is good for business and development. As you can imagine these people are economists or have economists as friends. They exalt that on the average, the world's citizens are better fed, housed, educated and cared for medically than ever before. Sure... if you average a few super rich people in with a million poor starving folks, then yeah, on the average, things are looking good. These business wonders, undoubtedly living in First World nations, are out of touch with Third World reality, where "needs" do not translate into "effective demand." Growth increases the need for various products and services; unhappily, many people are still too poor to buy them. These particular experts also explain that new technology is being invented to solve the food problem and that technology can outpace growth. They are not alarmed because they do not perceive that we may find the limits of our ecosystem soon. They refuse to acknowledge evidence that rapid population growth often retards an economy because money that could have been invested in long-term improvements is instead spent to keep new persons at subsistence level. Rapid growth also makes providing healthcare, transportation and education more difficult and costly because these new helpless young citizens instantly demand a larger infrastructure, leech the benefits, but contribute in no way to paying for it.

Stupidest are the experts who insist that while overpopulation is a bit of a problem now, it will work out in the end. They insist that as per capita incomes rise, there's a tendency to substitute consumer durables like cars and tv sets for children. It does not occur to them that if everyone in India were to consume as much as the average American so that their fertility rates would drop, it could lead to an environmental catastrophe!

When these sort of people begin to speak, I just want to scream! It is painfully obvious (at least, to me) that they are more concerned with their economic bottom-line than with fairness, compassion or long-term self-preservation. They could give a crap about the suffering of others or about the doom they are unleashing upon the whole of the planet. Their self-interested rhetoric serves to make them the obscenely rich top 10% of those aforementioned wealthy countries. They also give the other 90% an excuse to be confused about the population problem and indecisive about its urgency.

But nothing -- and I mean nothing -- could be more frustrating than religious leaders who ceaselessly block efforts to address the population problem. Roman Catholic, Muslim, fundamentalist Protestant, and Mormon ministries wage war on family planning with feverish pitch. It's not just the matter of abortion. They actually preach that contraception is contrary to the divine plan and encourage their respective congregations to propagate. Perhaps they secretly believe that the enlargement of their religious group gives them power. Or perhaps they have been so thoroughly indoctrinated about fixed notions of virtue that they are all but blinded to evidence, reason and practicality. Can there be no other interpretation of the scriptures they hold so dear? Would their God really want these poor people to live -- and to die -- this way? Fascinating that they can argue that contraception interferes with the will of God, but they do not believe that antibiotics and surgery, or for that matter any other technology like computers and cars, interfere with the will of God.

Their arguments may not be cogent, but their influence is far reaching. Religious organizations have been quite effective in restricting information about and access to birth control. The Vatican actually sits in the United Nations with observer status and interferes with family planning policies! It is worth noting that the Pope's stance against artificial contraception (any form of birth control other than abstinence and the rhythm method) inflates the rate of abortions worldwide. Increased use of scientifically developed contraception reduces the demand for abortions. Yet onward they battle.

Every unborn baby they save today is one more person who will later find himself wretched and deprived and dying a sad miserable death. At the rate we're going, the world population will double in our lifetime. Overpopulation cannot be ignored until the situation is unbearable. By then, it will be too late because growth cannot be stopped in a year. Growth is exponential. Over time, it keeps doubling, and each time it doubles, it doubles faster. To slow growth, the number of people born must drastically drop while we wait for others to die naturally. That would take decades and even generations. To stop growth, one person must die for every person who is born. Picture a brave new world in which every person is reduced to a token; when your grandfather dies, he bequeaths you the token permitting you to have your one child. To reverse growth, the death rate must exceed the birth rate -- it's difficult to imagine that being anything but ugly.

There are only two forms of population control: the merciful and the merciless. We can do it ourselves or we can let nature take its course. We can facilitate the deliberate and thoughtful management of birth and death rates, bringing far fewer children into the world and then working to ensure that they are healthier children, children who are wanted, children who will live long high-quality lives and pass on with dignity. Or, we can obstinately persist as we are and let the cruel chaotic arbitrary forces of war, famine and pestilence determine who lives and who dies, until finally the planet is exhausted and we perish forever.

To be or not to be. Symbiont or parasite? It is our choice.

radical suggestions for US domestic population policy
special online addendum | 2001

So what might be necessary in the United States to lower population growth? Here are some ideas. . .

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