Human Population Through the Looking Glass

I can’t avoid this topic forever, not under the headline Peace with Nature. It is the intractable, controversial matter of the teeming numbers of human beings. How many more of us can the Earth sustain in this Anthropocene?

Only the most pig-headed science denier can dismiss environmental challenges that threaten our future, even our survival. Among the obvious are food insecurity and infectious diseases, soil erosion and desertification, air and water pollution, fossil fuels and global warming, animal and plant extinctions. It’s hard to dwell on them for long because our responses at best are puny against the tide. Besides, pessimism is not an attractive outlook.

Much can be blamed on world overpopulation. We are doubling every 49 years and will soon reach 8 billion. That is ratcheting up the impact of our insatiable appetites for consumption, which are reflected in an obsessive drive to constantly expand economies (as if no ceiling exists).

If everyone consumed resources like a medieval peasant, we would be far behind the curve. Billions of us still live that way, though never by choice. Wealth is not distributed in a bell-shaped curve. Raising prosperity for everyone to, say, an American level is unattainable on this finite planet: for some to be rich, many must stay relatively or absolutely poor. If this present state is manifestly unjust (who can deny it?), would a smaller population shrink the gap in wealth?

Population control is the hottest of hot potatoes. The liberty of choosing to have children and how many is a cherished human right. Woe betide the institution that coerces people into contraception or mandates sterilization.

Sanjay Gandhi tried during the 1975 ‘Emergency’ in India. The son of a prime minister led an aggressive program of shoddy vasectomies and tubal surgeries for mostly poor subjects in exchange for trivial incentives or were forced to comply. People pushed the policy back and his family became a tragic story. An authoritarian government succeeded in curbing growth of the Chinese population by limiting families to one child after 1979, but that policy relaxed too.  A distorted age pyramid had huge socio-economic implications and many girl babies were ‘missing’ before birth. Fortunately, family planning methods are freely accessible in many countries, although not enough. Private decisions in bedrooms have a bigger effect on birth rates than any government diktat or contraceptive.

As a young reader of Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, ecology and population created a frothy amalgam in my head. At that more idealistic age, I believed that the pair together with nuclear weapons made a triumvirate that threatened civilization. I then leaned into a career in reproduction research, hoping to help discover new contraceptive targets. To disable the sperm or egg before fertilization seemed (still seems) preferable to hormones for blocking ovulation or the more elusive goal of knocking out spermatogenesis. I became a Population Council (NY) research fellow, but drifted to profertility technologies, like my mentor Robert Edwards who pioneered fertility treatment with  IVF.

This is no small irony since I still fret about the ‘population problem’, although my original fear of human numbers and hopes for a technological fix were naive.  Family sizes in the West started to shrink at the end of the Victorian period when bumper crops of kids were grown. This shift occurred in tandem with declining infant mortality, revealing that people had the know-how to make reproductive choices before highly efficient contraceptives were developed after WWII. Men have traditionally called the shots at home but as women gained more authority and education, they chose smaller families, or started later, or remained childless. A trend that began in the West continues to spread globally.

The population anxiety of fifty years ago when the UN and grant agencies plowed money into research and fertility services has switched from fear of too many babies to too few for replacing people who die. Some countries, notably Japan, will have half the population by the end of the century, with huge social implications. They now try to hoist birth rates above the replacement threshold of 2.1 by offering incentives like free childcare services, and will welcome more immigration to offset population decline.

And yet the world population continues to climb while other countries catch up with the demographic shift. A recent paper in the Lancet offers a more optimistic forecast than the United Nations’ official projection. Instead of peaking at 10.9 billion by 2100, it reckons there will be only 9.7 billion of us in 2064. This small mercy doesn’t quash concerns about overpopulation, and there are no quick remedies, barring a global catastrophe. But sometime next century I believe new institutions will guide us through a painful and dangerous demographic transition to a much smaller population and more stable than ever in history.

That kind of flourishing worldwide requires peace between people and with nature. A more equitable society rolling over the lottery of being born rich or poor can offer a peace dividend and deliver environmental justice. A smaller population should draw from Earth’s limited bounty more sustainably with a lower impact on the environment. It will avoid impoverishing posterity and generational injustice.

Technology has been called a bane for conservation, but it also helps to live more gently with nature. But it can’t do the heavy lifting of giving 8-10 billion people a fairer share of prosperity. With a smaller population there is more to go round, but how much smaller for everyone to have a generous slice of pie that doesn’t cost the earth?

Ballpark averages of rich versus poor populations (or nominal GDPs per capita) show a 5-to 10-fold difference in wealth. Hence, for sustainability the world population should be no greater than a tenth of the present, about one billion or close to the number alive in the year 1800.

Maybe this speculation is pie in the sky. Optimism is in short supply and we are blind sighted by the narrow window of our own experience. But each successive generation experiences the world differently and sometime in the future people may look back aghast, wondering how their ancestors living in our time managed to muddle through. I think we will, just as people did in pandemics and wars of the past, because humans are experts at surviving and Earth is our only home. Gaia will be relieved when a post-Anthropocene era emerges with human numbers and appetites she can comfortably support.

Next Post: About Nostalgia

 

 

The Naturalist Spirit

Does any vocation have a more open and welcoming door than natural history? To be a naturalist, you don’t need a high school diploma or a university degree; there is neither an age barrier nor a physical fitness test. Plenty of societies exist for fostering interest, but membership is optional because it is okay to belong to your own club of one. It helps to have keen senses and a memory for identifying species, but curiosity and passion about nature are the defining characters of a naturalist. No higher qualifications are required.

“There’s a bunch of naturalists,” someone exclaims at the sight of one straining through binoculars for a bird or flipping through a field guide to identify a plant or butterfly. But they can be recognized in countless other ways and places too. Some volunteer for conservation work, some express their love of nature through art or photography, some compose essays or poetry to celebrate it, while others choose the simple joy of a country walk. Everyone is welcome at nature’s table.

It’s a mystery why this passion germinates in some people but not in everyone. Nature casts its spell over the human psyche at every age, but in childhood it is often nurtured by parents, friends and teachers, and nourished by visits to wildlife parks and the spectacle of museum dioramas. Summer camps may bring it to full bloom in adolescence, but what next? There are jobs for naturalists as conservation officers and rangers, but for most of us it is a lifelong hobby, and there’s the rub.

In an age that prizes academic qualifications and technical know-how, natural history is often regarded as little more than a casual pastime. It deserves greater honor. All the early naturalists were amateurs, but many of them plowed personal wealth into their endeavors, and sometimes took great risks. Naturalists like Alfred Wallace was famous for trotting around the globe describing, collecting, and illustrating specimens; others like Charles Darwin never ventured further than his home turf after disembarking from the Beagle, yet he laid the foundations of modern biology and geology. Some of the greatest minds in history starting with Aristotle were naturalists, and the scientific disciplines most closely-related to natural history today—ecology and evolution—are intellectually rigorous.  Aristotle has been called the first naturalist and the first biologist, but are those labels interchangeable? Not exactly.

Naturalist was coined around 1587 whereas the closely-linked words, biologist and scientist, were Victorian inventions. This vintage word is sometimes muddled with metaphysical naturalist (someone who holds a materialistic philosophy), or with naturist (nudist) when someone goofs in a spelling bee!

There is more confusion because of the broad dictionary definition: “the study of living and non-living things, and of how plants and animals are adapted to their environment.” A list of American naturalists expanded the meaning even wider by including the astronomer Carl Sagan, perhaps because he speculated about “little green men” in other worlds! So much diffusion of meaning usually diminishes the value of a word, but I argue the opposite.

The contributions of amateurs to ecology, geology, and astronomy are more important now than ever before. Unlike heroes in fashionable biomedicine who have deep pockets for research and can win Nobel Prizes, amateur naturalists go uncelebrated as they step forward for voluntary conservation work with the satisfaction of “making things good” as their only reward. Last month, our local chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program celebrated the graduation of 23 new members. There are 28 other chapters in the State and similar programs nationwide that are growing rapidly. It is quite inspiring to watch these naturalists quietly giving their time and sharing expertise as they survey wildlife, improve habitats, and monitor weather patterns. These unpaid services help to improve the biological quality of nature parks and waterways and make huge contributions to knowledge in an era of environmental stress.

Virginia Tech Naturalists
Virginia Master Naturalist program celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2015

Amateur naturalists and professional biologists look like natural twins to outsiders because they have so much in common. But like twins, they occasionally fall out. The Romantic Poets who idealized nature were early critics of science before the Industrial Age got underway and before the storms over animal vivisection and so much more to come.

Wordsworth_Tables Turned

Naturalists who regard their role as defenders of the planet can turn scornfully on developments that threaten biodiversity, spread pollution, and release genetically modified organisms. Activists have launched hundreds of environmental organizations—the Ocean Conservancy, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, and the R.S.P.B. to name a few. Those who straddle as biologists by profession and naturalists by vocation feel uncomfortably dissected, like chimeras with two talking heads. This is not a clash between sentimental naturalism and hard-headed science, but about values and attitudes. Care, respect, even love, characterize the naturalist, whereas honesty, patience and caution are watchwords for the professional biologist.

Wordsworth’s poetry contains faint echoes of pagan deference to nature, but it also nods towards the New Age movement that emerged more recently. There have always been people for whom nature is spiritually refreshing, and some found joy in it when the rest of their world looked desperately bleak.

The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.”  Ann Frank writing from a secret annex, February 23, 1944

Since mainstream religions always claimed to be guardians of spirituality and morality leaders, I wonder where they were in the debate about care of the environment. They were stuck in medieval theology for a long time.

When Darwin enrolled in Cambridge University, his intention (at least his father’s) was to enter the priesthood where there were many parson-naturalists. The Church of England offered a comfortable living for gentlemen, and enough spare time to pursue nature studies. Charles’ circumstances changed so he could pursue his first love full-time, but what were the attitudes of his contemporaries who took up holy orders? They rarely used the pulpit to preach stewardship of the creation, nor would Charles had he donned a cassock and surplice because apocalyptic visions of environmental collapse would have sounded bizarre even to ardent naturalists before the 20th Century. The long struggle of civilization to tame wild nature and meet human needs and wants was not yet over. Nature was scary. Besides, both Saints Paul and Augustine had elevated the doctrine of Original Sin to the center of theology, and the whole environment was caught up in this theological “corruption.” Much less attention was paid to the God of Genesis I, who expressed joy in his creation which was “very good.”

So many years later when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was published and a Green Movement was sprouting, there were young naturalists sitting in the same church pews who wondered if the church had at last a change of heart. It hadn’t. The clergy found so much more biblical exegesis for instructing us on the care of our fellow humans that it forgot to say anything about caring for the natural systems that support us. Perhaps the Commandment Thou shalt not steal comes closest to an environmental ethic, if it is construed as a call to responsibility for the sake of future generations.

Church of Scotland magazine
Young naturalists look out on a changing landscape – and to an uncertain future. From Life & Work 1989

As nature and church were dear, I found the clerical vacuity embarrassing and alienating. My frustration exploded in 1989 when I published “What on Earth does the Kirk think about Ecology?” in the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work. Of course, a layman cannot stir up the church hierarchy, but there was a consolation when invitations to speak at the Women’s Guild meetings rolled in.

There has been dramatic greening of churches since those days, and thoughtful books from writers representing all the Abrahamic religions. This late flurry looks like a rearguard action to critics who suspect that churches are struggling to gain authority on a vital topic, but the new focus is nonetheless welcome. There is even a “Green Patriarch” heading the Orthodox Church, and an encyclical about climate change is anticipated from the Vatican where Pope Francis has already brought fresh attention to the subject.

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.” March 19, 2013.

Judging by action and behavior, most of the public is deaf to calls from governments, scientists and activists to live more carefully with nature. A Canadian environmental psychologist, Robert Gifford, calls our excuses the “Dragons of Inaction,” which include: “I’m only one, so my effort is a drop in a bucket/ Why should I bother when richer folk don’t/ I’m tired of the publicity/ I’m too busy in my job…” and twenty-seven other excuses where the pronoun “I” is dominating.

There is plenty of speculation about the future legacy of Pope Francis, but his call to be “protectors” of the earth could be the greatest. It is an appeal to people who have faith and others who have none, to those who are heads of state and industry and others who are powerless. Its scope is global because we face an uncertain future together, although the rich world still insulates itself from disasters that affect others, such as rising sea levels forcing emigration from oceanic islands, depletion of fishery stocks, crop failures, drought and desertification.

We have low expectations of progress or agreement between nations because of the drag of vested interests. When science, our best hope, fails to persuade or is befouled in politics what hope, what straws, are left? Perhaps only spiritual ones.

I hope the Pope will remind us of collective guilt for generations of aggressive handling of this wonderful heritage. If shaming is the first lesson, the second must be preaching the stewardship of care. He needs to inspire spiritual zeal that breaks through the old cynicism and the apologies of the Dragons of Inaction to a vision of a world order that is kinder to the environment, more just to the powerless, and considerate of human needs not only in his flock, but all.

The early church fathers had a Greek word, koinonia, which roughly translated means “communion.” They had in mind a fellowship of believers, but it is an apt expression for the “protectors” who Pope Francis is calling for.  There is something deeply spiritual in this idea. At the beginning of this post, I defined the word naturalist in a broad way, not restricting it to a clique of birders or voluntary conservationists, but embracing everyone who loves nature, even if they live their whole lives in the city. My definition includes the ladies I met in the Women’s Guild though they never strung binoculars round their necks, and Ann Frank who never hugged her chestnut tree. Everyone who cares about nature has the heart of a naturalist, because they share a passion for the earth.

Next Post: Pantry for Paleos

A Zoo-to-Go

For kids growing up in London during the austere decade after WWII, it was a special treat to be taken to the zoo by parents or school teachers. The zoos were crowded. Children had to be hoisted on the shoulders of grown-ups to see the big cats pacing in their cages, and catch the eye of Guy the gorilla across the moat. We had no guilty feelings then about their cramped quarters, because we assumed the animals were there for our entertainment. Nor did we learn much about their wild nature or the habitats from which they were taken. We thought it would be cool to be zookeepers pushing joints of meat under the bars for tigers, tossing herrings for sea lions to catch, and locking our school ma’am in the reptile house at the close of day. But, in hindsight, there wasn’t much difference between the zoo and Wormwood Scrubs prison, except for the species incarcerated.

There were no parklands for those animals to roam, except outside London at Whipsnade.  But zoos have come a long way. The naturalist and author, Gerald Durrell (1925-1995), was regarded by the Establishment in those days as a maverick for calling on zoos to change into centers for captive breeding of endangered species instead of being public exhibitions of unhappy creatures. As is the way of pioneers, he is now celebrated as a visionary and memorialized at the Durrell Wildlife Park for conservation, but there was one thing he never changed. You still had to go to his zoo to see animals.

New Quarter Park, Virginia
Clyde takes his traveling zoo to a public park

One of our master naturalist friends, Clyde, is also a zookeeper, but not the kind I ever imagined. He was more radical than Durrell when he created a portable zoo that could be taken to children in their classrooms and to public parks. The critters were collected in his neighborhood or the local churchyard under state collection and exhibition permits. Reptiles and amphibians were returned to where they were caught a few days earlier, while other creatures were cared for at home. His zoo is transported in shopping bags in his car trunk and, although none of the big predators and venomous snakes beloved by children can be included, his small critters have been tremendous hits. Since it was launched in 2007, he has entertained and educated over 13,000 children and adults across five school districts in south-east Virginia.

The mission of this zoo is education instead of conservation. Clyde was concerned that most children are less connected with nature nowadays than when he was growing up. Few of them grow up on farms or want to visit city zoos or are allowed to roam the countryside unsupervised, and their days are brimful of organized activities and screen time. The writer, George Monbiot, worries that, Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.

We can hope the newly-minted generation will be more caring about the environment than their predecessors, but I think the chances are much greater for those who have met Clyde and seen his menagerie. Watching how they respond to his lessons warms our hearts, the lower grades 2 through 5 especially. When Clyde and his “zoo cru” of helpers transfer critters from Tupperware boxes and glass jars to trays on the front desk, there is plenty shuffling as boys and girls strain to identify the collection of beasts—beetles and butterflies, mantises and millipedes, slugs and snails, salamanders and skinks, toads and turtles. There are a few skins, scales and shells for creatures that are too rare or too dangerous for live ones to be let loose. The boldest kid steps forward to ask if a giant hissing cockroach could rest on his sleeve. Even those who stood nervously behind the front row eventually want to tickle a roly-poly or poke the leaf litter to make a centipede scurry. Giggles and questions go in circles like whirligigs. Some questions from minds full of innocent curiosity are disarmingly penetrating.

Virginia Master Naturalists
“Want to stroke the spotted salamander in my bucket or the Madagascar hissing cockroach on my sleeve?”

Clyde explains that every species has its own life history, then tells their stories. One of his favorites is about the community that lives under logs, where he finds many of his critters. He asks the class what they expect to find when they roll a log over. A short arm shoots up with an answer, usually its “beetles” or “spiders.” He then spins nine yards of ecology, and I doubt any other lesson that day captures more attention.

Leaning forward to the class, he tells them dark secrets about beetles. They feed on the wood rotting on the underside of the log. He shows them a little bag containing brown, granular material. “It’s beetle poop,” he confides (more giggles). “It will be made into healthy soil particles by tiny things called decomposers.” But life under the log is not all rosy. There are predators just as voracious as on the African plain. Beetles, slugs, and spiders are eaten by salamanders, frogs and toads, and occasionally a long black racer winds under the log to gobble all of them up. “After we looked under the log, we must roll it back,” he tells them. “We have to care for nature because all things are connected, including ourselves.”

praying mantis
Amen – the praying mantis

Clyde loves to quote the wisdom of American Indians, but it was Rachel Carson who expressed his role, If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder … he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Most children in this district only have one opportunity to see his zoo, so you might wonder if they will remember his stories in the future. Surely, their memories will gradually sink in their unconscious minds and become overlaid with hosts of new stories and experiences. But they won’t die. I think they will linger underground, maybe for years or even decades, like fungal hyphae which, when fertilized by soil, season, and time, will suddenly sprout above ground into the light as toadstools full of fruitful spores.

Clyde is now a retired zookeeper, but others are continuing his mission.

Thank you, Clyde, for life lessons!

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