At the end of a conference a couple of months ago,
I was sitting idly looking at the blackboard where the first speaker had
written some of the major issues facing us - population, over-consumption,
our inefficient use of resources. Later speakers had returned to the
diagram, underscoring what they were talking about, adding details and connections.
Suddenly I saw that within those writing tracks all over the board there
was a glaring total absence of marks around the issue of population.
Almost as if a force-field kept our thoughts and our scribbles on the board
away from the subject, the area around the word itself stood out like an
expanse of untracked snow amidst the comings and goings of our minds and
We were clearly avoiding the issue - consciously or subconsciously - but why? Our own population growth rate is minor compared to that of other regions of the planet. And, yes, it is vital and our first responsibility to concentrate on our own over-consumption and waste. But there was something nagging about that aura of untouched space around the population issue. It was as if we knew that once we really looked at it, we would find it reflecting back on ourselves, requiring some unavoidable action we feared to take.
What was that inner problem? The population problem seemed to be someone else's problem. But is it? What right do we have to demand that other's stabilize their population, even if we have reduced our resource use to sustainable levels? The population issue is a commons kind of problem - one where we all share the impacts, regardless of who does and does not stop expanding. So what use is individual action?
What do we gain from more people? We gain more hands to work and more minds to search for wisdom, yes - but we employ poorly those we already have. We gain more mouths to feed and bodies to shelter, and lose diversity and stability of our ecosystem in the process of diverting resources to these demands. And we move ever closer to the collapse point of overpopulation.
Increase in economic markets (ignoring similarly increasing competition for those markets), and therefore sales, and profits, is an apparent "benefit". Yet that benefit vanishes when we look at the exponential and increasingly impossible costs of growth from this point forward.
Fear may exist in our hearts that if we don't increase our numbers as fast as others, "they" will outnumber us, demand more of our space and resources, or defeat us militarily or culturally. Or we may perceive that demands to limit population are thinly disguised attempts at racism. Yet increasingly we are learning that in terms of global carrying capacity, there is no "they" - only us, and that the real solution is both interaction and joint action to prevent an unaffordable future.
More people means increased crowding and competition for resources; extinction of other species, declining health, increased irritability, friction and other social pathologies. Yet we seem to have unquestioningly accepted continuing growth in both numbers and appetites as if it were either good, inevitable and unavoidable, or an untouchable issue. It is none of these.
Exponential growth is mathematically impossible to continue within a fixed or shrinking resource envelope. It is now reaching the red-line area globally for all measures of impact, where another doubling of population or demand would exceed the limits of possibility. And at the same time, the subsidy from fossil fuels underlying our growth is rapidly running out and can no longer support our demands.
How do we fit in to others' population growth? To answer that, we need to look into why our populations grow beyond their support base. What role has introduction of medical care lessening infant deaths played in population growth? What role has our cultural annihilation of traditional cultures and their restraints on growth and contribution to emotional and spiritual health played? What role does our economic exploitation of the people and resources of other regions of the planet play in their own self-determination, sense of control over their own lives, and will to maintain sustainable conditions?
What role has our mythos of endless growth and seemingly powerful and magical technological fixes played in the problem? How can we set the example of meddling in the death side of the population equation through medicine and through "loans" of food to the starving, without taking a balancing responsibility towards the rate of births? In a culture without old-age security, affordable and equitable health care, what other security exists beside children? In a culturally repressed and economically exploited region, what other salves for the soul exist than sex?
Then we come to the hard questions - what role have we played in these factors influencing the problem? And what roles can we play in resolving them?
We can begin to see already that other people's population problems are at root as much problems of our causing and aggravating as they are caused by others. And they are problems within which we have a responsibility and capability to act and help resolve.
* * *
Whether we initiate it or not, the point is imminent when all peoples will have to address their population levels relative to their resource base. And when they do, the issues of our roles in their problems will not be left out of the discussion. Much is to be gained if we initiate the discussion, acknowledge our past roles, offer assistance and initiate action towards rectification of the problems.
We may end up drawing new lines concerning famine relief and global trading. We may decide to give stronger support to birth control aid, empowerment of women, and education. We may need to speak out concerning the global impacts of soil loss and desertification; population growth vs. resource depletion; disease, population and social collapse from exceeding carrying capacity. Whatever action we take inevitably raises the question of our own role in generating or exacerbating the problems.
It seems, therefore, impossible to raise any issues without offering solutions based on:
A. Equity - both globally and locally.
B. Concerted action and progress in resolving our own excessive numbers, appetites, and exploitation of resources and people.
C. Attaining emotional, social, spiritual and economic health for all life.
D. Adopting cultural values and institutional patterns that ensure sustainability, security, responsibility, giving, and sacredness.
Whatever we do, we must acknowledge to ourselves
that globally we are a minority in numbers, and declining in real
economic power as other nations industrialize and we deplete our own resource
While we still, today, have the ability to create great military havoc for others, the rest of the world is unlikely to long continue to acquiesce in such actions. They will soon recognize their ability economically and otherwise to attain a more equitable balance of power. The terms of that negotiation will be strongly influenced by our attitudes, self-initiated actions or resistance, and the leadership we show or fail to show in the process.
Our leadership, once abrogated through resistance to demands for a move to equity and sustainability, is unlikely to quickly or easily be regained, if ever. The years are rapidly coming to a close in which we can successfully resist a concerted economic embargo by other nations, or even just an embargo on oil imports. Were we able to resist such censure even long enough to take military control over sources of Mideast oil, it is inconceivable that we could long resist the inevitable response of outrage from other nations to such an act of desperation.
* * *
Where the trackless silence around population takes us, once breached, is to the necessity for us to take responsibility for all our actions and chart a new path into the future. It takes us to the urgency of our taking action to most rapidly and compassionately cross the bridge to sustainability for ourselves and for the entire planet.
To do that, we need to stabilize or reduce our own numbers, through the most compassionate and humane means, and reduce our resource demands to globally sustainable levels. In the process, we need also to deal with equity, opportunity, and diseases of the spirit in our own culture.
We need to pioneer adoption of new values, new bases for science and economics, and a new culture based on sustainable values and life-enhancing institutions. This involves at minimum, acknowledgment of the cultural power and rightness of other traditions, initiating a dialog developing cross-cultural learning, cross-fertilization and development of a new integration of cultural beliefs and patterns. It involves our leadership in letting go of a culture based on materialism, greed, and the violent taking from others. It must include acknowledging both the successes and failures of our cultural values, and development of new ones appropriate to a new era.
We need to provide leadership for getting everyone across to a sustainable society, and to remove our pressures that are preventing other people from resolving their own problems and meeting their own needs. Enforcement power, without our self-interest veto, needs to be given the UN and other institutions of global consensus.
We need to find avenues to share with the rest of the world what knowledge and other gains have come from our past consumption of global resources so all can share the benefits. Free movement of people from one country to another needs to be established if we continue to allow free movement of capital and resources. Minimum economic and environmental standards need to be established for imports and trades, and patterns established to restore and ensure the continuing self-reliance of different regions of the world.
* * *
A totally new vision of the meaning of our lives, our relationship with the rest of the universe, and the values, patterns and institutions we adopt is now needed. A part of that is seeing that population is not someone else's problem, but one which leads us to wiser actions that are in both our own self-interest and that of others.
Individual action sets precedent. It breaks the credibility hold that our current beliefs have on our minds. It demonstrates vision and leadership, and initiates a new momentum. It illustrates commitment and action rather than just talk. It says we are doing our part of the bargain, and asks others to fulfill theirs. It shows concern for others, not just for ourselves. It is where all change must begin.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© November 1996