Sunday, October 30, 2011

seven billion now

The United Nations tells us that the world population will reach seven billion on Halloween.  A few months ago, the date of this milestone was not yet clear; it then seemed the crossing would occur sometime after this summer and before the next.  A bit more number-crunching put the event in focus (see pdf) and pins the milestone crossing to October 31 or thereabouts.

This makes 2011 a significant year.  It is on par with 1999, when we reached six billion; 1987, when we reached five; 1974 (four); 1959 (three); 1927 (two), and 1804, when, for the first time in history, our numbers reached one billion.  Last month, there were 37 million people living in Australia and on the islands of Oceania; 740 million in Europe; 942 million across the Americas; 1051 million in Africa; and 4,216 million people, sixty percent of the total, in Asia, with 1,350 million of them in China  and 1,240 million in India.

A Time article spun the event in the usual even-handed mainstream fashion, to please breeders and environmentalists alike, wow, will you look at that, we're lots and lots of people now, which is entertaining in a scary sort of way.  On the one hand, the poor environment will be trampled underfoot (sigh), but then again, it's nothing really to worry about, for (I cite)
Is there room on the planet to support 7 billion-plus people?  Take a deep breath.  The answer is yes--and not just because you could fit 7 billion people in the state of Texas and it would only have the population density of New York City, which I can tell you from personal experience isn't that bad.  We're a long way from Soylent Green territory here.  As Joel Cohen of Rockerfeller University pointed out ... we have more than enough food, water, and other essentials to keep every one of the 7 billion -- and far more -- perfectly healthy.
That's nice to hear, no?  In fact, there are three reasons that should make your BS-detectors go off.  Yes, there are enough "food, water, and other essentials" to go around for everyone -- but only if we lived in a communist world with precise equality.  We don't. 

The second reason is climate change.  The powersurge that accompanies global warming is  the worst possible news for farmers.  Climate change is downsizing carrying capacity at the precise moment we are supersizing our numbers.

The third and most important reason is that the question of whether there's enough room for this many people is the wrong question to ask.  We are immature to think about this like the little engine that could.  Thinking about population growth in terms of capacity makes us miss a deeper dimension.  It tempts us to keep doing business as usual and to endorse reproductive values and sexual mores that have outlived their utility.

What we are missing here is the question of whether we actually should be so many.  It does not matter whether we can.  It matters whether being this many is good.  Don't think about the environment now -- going that route is obvious, and it can make you fall into the corporate trap of thinking that it is all about "us" versus "them"; culture versus nature; economy versus ecology; people versus the environment; and since we're people, of course we'll have to come out as winners and then feel sorry for the environment, the poor loser.

Neither is it necessary to think about the future, that we are the locust generation of history, eating everything up in narcissist bliss, and that the children will pay the price.  Just think about people.  Not people in the past, not people in the future, no; people right here, right now.  Think about people of some number living at a fixed space.  The space is the planetary surface, with all its land, mountains, forests, deserts, islands, and seas.  Given this space, is seven billion good for us?
That's the question to ask. 

Look around and consider what being-in-the-world means then.  Imagine what life could be for everyone if we left the space unchanged but altered the number.  Imagine we lived on this surface with one percent of the lot; 70,000,000 instead of 7,000,000,000, and not because of some terrible tragedy or horrible catastrophe.  Suppose we would enjoy normalcy, but at seventy million.  Imagine the return of a stable climate.

Imagine the biotic abundance.

Imagine the relief.

Sixty-two months left.

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