“My heart daily grows new foliage, always adding people, picking up new heartaches like a wool coat collects cockleburs and beggar’s-lice seeds…Sometimes there is no leaving, no looking westward for another promised land. We have to nail our shoes to the kitchen floor and unload the burden of our heart. We have to set to the task of repairing the damage done by and to us.”
Janisse Ray raised this sentiment when considering the thousands or hundreds of thousands of Georgian long-leafed pine trees that were slashed and logged by her ancestors. She takes that gruesome logging history upon her own heart. It was also a counterpoint to her great-grandfather’s quote: “Don’t take more on your heart than you can shake off on your heels.”
Like Ray, I subscribe to the land ethic, and there is one consideration that I can neither shake off my heart nor my heels. And that is human overpopulation. Even DeJardins, ethics master, labeled us an “invasive species” (somewhat tongue-in-cheek). Either way, its an issue that I think is deeply intertwined with Leopold’s “land ethic.” The law he proposed is this: if we manipulate anything in our ecosystem, it needs to be in support of balance. The whole is greater than its parts, and a long-term perspective is paramount. Overpopulation may be indirect, unconscious manipulation…but it is manipulation nonetheless. My friend Heath and I would often talk about this while hiking, enjoying a scarcity of humans that is rarely found elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an environmental fascist looking to start a game park for shooting humans. In fact, when I thought more about the issue of population growth (we just reached the 7 billion milestone last October), I realized that overpopulation is tied up with global economic inequalities. Duh. Not only does overcrowding disproportionately affect the developing world, but some of the crowding happening inland is spurred by rising sea levels – which is tied to climate change. (Bangladesh and its capital city Dhaka are case in point). Those emitting live elsewhere, but Bangladeshis bear the weight of other countries’ emissions. Forced to move inland as real estate along the coast erodes, capacity and general space likewise erode. So, are the problems I associate with burgeoning crowds in urban metropolises really driven by rising fertility rates, or are they simultaneously driven by overconsumption by some and inequality for others? What is actually putting our ecosystem, and fellow human beings, at risk?
Those hiking trips are an undeserved luxury, especially when I think about every-day life in Dhaka. Bangladesh, apparently, “is a place where one person, in a nation of 164 million, is mathematically incapable of being truly alone.” Even in the countryside, your neighbor is but a wall – or slab of corrugated metal – away.
As a poorer, sea-level country, Bangladesh is more stressed by climate change and overpopulation than most. The former begets the latter.
Bryan Walsh wrote, “It’s not sheer population growth that is stressing out the planet — it’s what those people are producing and consuming.” And which people? 1% of the world’s adults control 43% of global assets; 10% control 83% of global wealth. Guess where? It’s a skewed distribution. Even the IMF and The Economist admitted, in various reports, that inequality to this horrific degree will have disastrous environmental consequences. But because redistribution (or even revamping of trade regimes and financial institutions) is not “politically feasible”, what kind of policies can we realistically hope for? One estimate of our planet’s human carrying capacity was 13 billion, assuming the cornucopia of beings all use up the same (and low) rate of earthly materials. Some people have to stop driving SUVs so others can raise cattle and eat meat. Unlikely.
So what measures do we take? How have our consumption habits and the maintenance of West-over-Rest along dimensions of trade, economic growth, and investment diminished the carrying capacity of the earth, where the risks and consequences fall disproportionately on those who consume less? And if we don’t do anything, we should expect immigration en masse – thousands of people seeking a better life (seeking space) by crossing borders. Hopefully we will not simply respond in the ways India has – by building a 2,500 mile-long security fence to slow the influx of displaced Bangladeshis. Will policing our borders or making them less porous solve these issues? I don’t mean to make an irresolute, doleful point but its something that I consider in my land ethic. As Janisse wrote: “We have to set to the task of repairing the damage done by and to us.”
Even if Jack A. Goldstone is correct in noting that global income will increase at a larger rate than the global population rate, I wonder what that distribution will come to look like. If it were more even, perhaps having more people wouldn’t matter so much.