“Nobody gets there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Relentless defense of unsubstantiated optimism is bad behavior that rarely seems to draw the sort of criticism it deserves. On the other hand, relentless defense of unsubstantiated pessimism is also bad behavior, if amply criticized. People who are at their best crusading to raise awareness of serious problems live in times when there is no shortage of serious problems being met with inadequate public response. That makes it all the stranger that some should choose instead to disengage from reality and spread doom and gloom for its own sake.
Fear of global overpopulation may be as old as the first suspicions that the world is round. Yet as a widespread preoccupation it seems to have emerged from the role bad math and worse pontification played in adding “Malthusian” to the vocabularies of educated people. The old argument was simple enough — population was expanding geometrically while food supply was not. Therefore, “humanity is doomed!!!!!”
The math was lousy because it presumed neither increased demand for food nor increased capacity for human intellect could bring about changes in the nature of agricultural growth. Yet that shoddy thinking amounts of a relatively minor blunder compared to the alarmist conclusions Thomas Malthus et al. reached. Even the best apologists for this sort of work still seem to begin with the assumption that a human being is some sort of despicable entity inclined far more toward destructive acts than creative acts.
Presumably these general misanthropes are not bereft of affection for friends and family. Yet somehow those good feelings fail to translate into a broader goodwill. Even if any other signs of affection should be lacking, clearly their own ideas generate great amounts of it. Somehow this fondness for the mental processes of one human fails to extend into a fondness for an entire species populated by people inclined to think as freely as social context will permit. This combination of intellectual vanity and contempt for “the masses” is evident even today.
Rather than the racism and classism of Victorian England, it seems to be fueled by a political divide. I have no objection to characterizing ignorant people as ignorant. To do so is more correct than to do otherwise. I even have little objection to characterizing ignorant people as stupid. Though crude and pejorative, that approach is not necessarily misleading. However, to suggest that people lacking a certain degree of ecological or political savvy are not fit to live is profoundly unethical as well as profoundly misleading.
Before elaborating on factual problems caused by this sort of discourse, it is only fair to dismantle the underlying fiction. Many different factors drive population growth. At this point in history, the data is fairly solid holding that birth rates actually tend to be low in societies where effective educational policy marginalizes religious interference in family planning while effective retirement security policy eliminates the perceived economic need to raise many children.
Insofar as it is a reality at all, it makes no sense to take a long view of overpopulation. In a span of one or two generations, political and economic reforms that have already occurred in many nations can create conditions where internal population growth is minimal or even negative. This would involve facilitating strong economic growth in presently underdeveloped regions of the world, but it is downright myopic to argue that such development must entail making ecological mistakes of the same type or magnitude other societies made in less-informed times.
Too often, discussion of our planet’s capacity to support human life rests on the assumption that the negative environmental impact of that life is a fixed value. Clearly this is not the case. Yet establishing this involves establishing to what extent environmental impact is acceptable. Clearly there is no reason to anticipate that the activities of a modern civilization could become ecologically neutral without substantial change. If we possess enough sanity to stand against voluntary human extinction, then by extension we ought also possess the means to support some sensible compromises.
Building an unbroken fence along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border would have a serious ecological impact. Animal migrations across that line would be impeded, opportunistic species (e.g. rats) could spread and displace wildlife as they benefit from the structure and support services required for its maintenance. Yet all in all, the damage would probably not exceed that caused by the construction and upkeep of the Interstate Highway System. For a tremendous amount of economic support, cultural exchange, security enhancement etc. it seems like the level of damage is acceptable. On the other hand. increasing profits for human traffickers and self-satisfaction among xenophobes hardly seems like justification to do so much damage.
To persuade others against supporting a border fence, the ecological argument is almost certain to be ineffective. People who might be concerned about wildlife destruction are less likely to act on that concern when they are still afflicted with false concerns about immigration (or false beliefs about the effectiveness of walls as international problem-solving tools.) By the same token, an apocalyptic approach to environmental advocacy will tend to fall on deaf ears. Rather than stirring up emotions with exaggerated tales of doom and gloom, much better compromises can be forged through focus on relevant realities.
I compare highways and border fences because ultimately leaving a better world to future generations requires a keen sense of selectivity in tolerance for environmental distress. Humanity without industry is simply not a reasonable option. “Zero footprint” industry, while an admirable ideal, remains an impractical pursuit. Yet having no regard for resource depletion, declining biodiversity, industrial emissions, et al. also manages to be unreasonable and impractical.
Those enamored with modern day Malthusian thinking would do well to recognize that the “soft approach” of moderating population through political and economic reforms is proven viable. Hardships such as plague or warfare historically do not so much resolve Malthusian “problems” as they turn back the clock briefly. In the absence of stable secure prosperity, fear of the future conspires with lack of education to make large families commonplace. In many nations where the social order reflects modern values, large families occur as the result of a rare personal choice. Reproductive restraint and the will to exercise it are not at all incompatible with widespread human happiness.
By engaging with that reality it then becomes easier to avoid a “ships passing in the night” phenomenon when dealing with resistance raised against sound environmental policies. Industrialists and their passionate cheerleaders cannot be expected to make compromises based on the kind of warped thinking that leads to a “humanity is doomed!!!!!” conclusion. While the worst of dollar-worshipers are themselves so far detached from reality that no compromises could be expected, most proponents of robust economic growth are not misguided in any absolute way. Avoiding hyperbole about what is at stake may inspire some to recognize real risks and show support for really sensible initiatives.
Promoting a particular sort of development in underdeveloped regions of the world is part of a sensible response, but so to is drawing lines between economic activity that is genuinely useful and economic activity that is useless or even counterproductive. Developing a polio vaccine put a serious dent in the sales of iron lungs, but is any society better off for greater levels of paralysis simply to support the iron lung industry? So many human needs could be fulfilled at present or even superior levels with alternate methods that consume fewer resources or generate less work. In the end we must ask ourselves, should we define our economy by what improves the quality of our lives, or should we define the quality of our lives by what improves our economy?
Resolving the tension between environmentalists and economic conservatives is not about building consensus for a better tomorrow — that consensus already exists. Building consensus about the definition of a better tomorrow is the real challenge here. A national effort to update metrics and modernize industrial practices could simultaneously serve the agenda of those consumed by desire for greater prosperity and accommodate the concerns of those fearful of ecological crises. Yet the first step in reaching this middle ground involves embracing reality. Those who dwell on neo-Malthusian scenarios retard themselves from the beginning just as surely as their counterparts locked into false narratives of ecological optimism.