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Friday, November 2, 2007

We're the problem, OK?

What is the greatest threat to the world today? Is it the stockpile of nukes? Global Warming? Fundamentalist, fanatical religious zealots bent on world domination and/or forcing an Armageddon? Destruction of the rain forests? Yes, these are all horrible things, but the greatest threat facing the world today, is, US. Specifically, it is the number of us that are present on the face of this earth, and growing.

According to this website
, in 1804 there were 1 billion people on this planet. In 1927, there were 2 billion people, 3 billion people in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, and 6 billion in 1999. Today, there are almost 7 billion people, and there are projected to be 10 billion by 2050. As you can see, since 1800, the human growth rate has been exponential in nature.

In nature, there exists a thing called a “carrying capacity”. The carrying capacity is the ability for a particular ecosystem to support a certain number of a specific organism, given things like food, water, habitat space, and general land area. For the following example, I’m pulling numbers out of thin air for examples sake. Imagine a wooded area taking up approximately 10,000 acres. There is a pond in the middle. Several pairs of breeding deer move in and, seeing no other competition for the resources, breed prolifically. Eventually the deer numbers reach 1000, and resources start running out. The deer would eventually all die off, because they had kept on breeding and ate all of the food. The deer level off at 1000, because at that time, a pack of wolves enter the area. Seeing all the deer around, they gorge themselves, and quickly increase in number. Soon the wolves are about 100 individuals, but they cannot sustain any more then that, due to the number of deer present. Soon, they have hunted too many deer and start dying out due to lack of food. The deer soon become populous again due to the decrease in wolves, and the cycle starts over.

In that way the deer and wolves obey the natural carrying capacity of the land at 1000 and 100 respectively, dipping slightly below and going above due to the natural fluctuations in the populations.

Humans too used to respect natures carrying capacity. The land area, and resources would limit their numbers to no more than the carrying capacity would allow. Having big brains and opposable thumbs, humans decided they would try to outsmart nature. “This corn we find growing about is good” they think, “but what if we could get it to grow all and only in one big piece of land? Imagine how much food we would have then!”. So agriculture was born. With agriculture, the amount of food that was available in one particular piece of land increased exponentially, and with it, the number of humans. Trade increased the numbers even greater, as resources could be shared, therefore the carrying capacity was increased even further. That brings us to the 19th century.

The industrial revolution, along with a money based market rather than a trade based market, sent the human carrying capacity skyrocketing. Now, people could buy whatever they needed and pack themselves into tightly crowded cities, making the carrying capacity for a particular piece of land, for humans and humans only, soar. The cities expanded with the population, and the farmland expanded at the cost of the habitats of every other animal and plant nature had provided. Man had become master of his planet.

Since 1804, the human population of the world has doubled first in 123 years, and doubled again 33 years later, and again 14 years after that, and again 13 years after that, and doubled again 12 years later. The population in total, shows no signs of slowing down.

The world is a closed ecosystem. NOTHING comes into this planet except solar radiation and a bit of space dust. While the population keeps climbing, the amount of resources available to that population remains static. Remember what happened to the deer that ran out of food?

The ecosystem in general requires many species to survive. The ecosystem is a big web of animals and plants. If too many animals and plants are taken out of the picture, the entire web falls apart. When humans raise their own carrying capacity, they do so at the cost of every other indigenous species around. Vast areas are paved for human cities. Huge numbers of trees are razed for wood and farmland. Fields are ploughed over for even more farm and grazing land. The only things that can survive in the human planet, are things that the humans need for their immediate survival. Humans cannot think too far past their own stomachs.

In general, the energy passed on from one trophic level to the next is about 10%. That means that out off all the energy that plants gain from the sun, they pass on about 10% to herbivores, and so on. With the planet being paved over and razed, you will eventually nock the bottom level of the trophic period down to a point where the pyramid will fall over and nothing but the cleverest scavengers will survive until the ecosystem rights itself.

Of course, the problem of humans doesn’t stop there. The population is growing exponentially, as I’ve mentioned, and the hunger for resources is growing right with it. That means burning of fossil fuels at exponential rates, filling the air and the soil with toxic by products. The industrial process’s that make all sorts of chemical by products are then flushed away into the environment. Ton after ton of garbage, waste, and crap, just tossed into giant piles taking up even more room and filling the groundwater with poisonous leachate.

I don’t know what would be a good carrying capacity for humans. I don’t think anybody does, I’m sure there are theories by scientists, but I don’t think anybody knows for sure. In my opinion, its way less then what we have now.

A lesser population helps in many, many ways. It gives habitat back to the other species that call earth home. Let’s face it - it is human arrogance to assume ownership of this planet. There will be way less waste produced, and all of the sudden, technologies such as solar and wind power become much more viable when there is a much, much less energy demand. With a smaller sustained human population, food supplies can be plentiful and available for everyone’s needs, not just the rich. That’s right, a socialist system that would work!

I don’t know how to achieve a proper population, but if it can be done, many, many problems would go away. Solving other problems would suddenly become easy.

So there we have it. The greatest threat, in my opinion, is simply the ever increasing numbers of people. We have to whittle ourselves down, we have to maintain a proper balance, because if we don’t, nature will eventually do it for us, and perhaps it will raze us more than we bargained for.

3 keen observations:

Hungry Mother said...

Very good exposition of this big problem. It's hard to figure out a solution, however, that doesn't lead to other problems. Suppose a group of people decide that it's important for them to limit their reproduction, and another group either decides to keep reproducing like rabbits, or just does it without deciding. What does that situation do to the overall "quality" of the population? I don't want to dwell on "quality" and end up sitting in a pool of urine ala "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", but, for the sake of discussion, suppose "quality" means caring about the environment. I think that, in this case, the overall "quality" goes down. So, rather than volunteering, do we limit by law? Very thorny issues with no easy answers, but thanks for your good discussion.

Mike said...

It's funny, first world populations are actually declining. The growth in the population is from immigration, and there is no limit to the babies third world people can churn out before the mom dies of a birth related disease and the husband remarries and starts it again.

I think that a possible solution would be to mandate laws, not that it's worked so well for china, mind you.

The population would be sustainable as first world in it's entirety if we had a lot less people.

That being said, how is that done without infringing on humanitarian rights?

Miss Milk said...

I got this very idea into my head at a young age. No idea what brought it on - probably too many children's enyclopaedias or something. Anyway, my solution then was that I wouldn't have any kids. And if I had to, I'd adopt. I figured I'd be a bad mother anyway.

There you go. That's my contribution. Happy?