Throughout the twentieth century, and to the present day, man has increasingly followed this biblical directive to a fault, to the point where our very presence is an ominous threat to all other life forms on the planet, including our own.
In the years between 1950 and 2000, an already swelling population of humans on the earth multiplied by 240%. Think about that for a moment. In all of man’s time on earth a growth spurt of that magnitude, in those huge numbers, was never even considered to be possible. (Malthus, of course, thought otherwise.) It is now predicted to increase 30% by the year 2025.
Moreover, from 1950 to the present time, over 25% of animals and plants on the earth became extinct. Most authorities on extinction agree that a far larger percentage of the remaining species are in danger of the same fate over the next 20 to 30 years. There is already abundant dialogue about the eradication of species in the wild that we have always taken for granted: elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, sea mammals,
large fish (and the fish they eat), and polar bears. A conservative estimate of the full number in peril is as much as 50% of all the species now living on the earth. “The current extinction
event is due to human activity, paving the planet, creating pollution, many of the things we are doing today,” said Bradley J. Cardinale, Assistant Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at UC Santa Barbara. “The earth might well lose half of its species in our lifetime. We want to know which ones deserve the highest priority for conservation.”
The fact that scientists are even considering species priorities for survival is in itself alarming.
Is man responsible for this precipitous decline? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The human race generally
has a long history
of callous disregard of other life forms on the earth in favor of its own. An old but striking reminder of this indifference can be found in the accelerated extinction of a bird species in Audubon’s time: the passenger pigeon. It is widely believed to be the most prolific bird ever to inhabit the planet. Audubon wrote of flocks of billions of the birds darkening the sky in flight. It was the most common bird in North America in the early 19th Century. (One flock was roughly measured to be a mile wide and 300 miles long!)
A loss of habitat due to immigrant Europeans settling inland began their decline, but the primary cause originated with the commercialization of pigeon meat as a cheap food for the poor and for slaves, which resulted in hunting the birds on a massive scale. (Profits were there to be made, after all.) There was a slow decline in their numbers from 1800 and 1870, followed by a precipitous decline over the next thirty years. The last remaining bird died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
In a little over 100 years, one of the most common, most populous birds on the planet was willfully removed from it by human greed and callousness, and most of this decline was precipitated by man without the benefit of the killing methods later provided by the Industrial Revolution.
Fast forward to the present
Today, in our oceans alone, ninety percent of the big fish are gone. We have overfished the oceans to such a shocking extent, that according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, the maximum wild-capture fisheries potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached. Already severely depleted: the Mediterranean bluefin tuna, the Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and most species of shark.
There is also growing concern over the smaller species -- so called forage fish: herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, crucial to the sustenance of the larger fish, are also decreasing rapidly. It is noteworthy that the biggest consumers of these smaller species are the agriculture and aquaculture industries. Almost one-third of these caught-in-the-wild smaller fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish, pigs, and cattle. By itself, aquaculture uses up nearly 53 percent of the world’s fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil -- an alarming statistic. As if those statistics aren’t a red flag, as much as 25% of the total wild catch is thrown back dead, termed “by catch”.
Further, feeding fish meal to farm-raised fish is incredibly inefficient. It takes 3 kilograms of forage fish to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon, 5 to 1 for cod, and shockingly, 20 to 1 for tuna, claims John Volpe, Assistant Professor of Marine Systems Conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Yet for all of this available information, the process goes on, since it provides jobs for those who are part of the industries who have created the problem. Add to this the fact that most people’s overall perceptions are of the oceans as a vast, inexhaustible supply of fish and seafood, readily available at your favorite seafood restaurant or supermarket.
Water, Water Everywhere Except Where Needed
Now to the most basic necessity on earth: fresh water, which is seemingly most accessible and plentiful. It has also been a principal source of conflict, and doubtlessly will again, perhaps sooner than we realize.
By 2050, the population of the earth will be 9 billion people, most of them in developing countries. There is enough water for everyone, even in those numbers, except for the fact that it doesn’t rain in the places where it is often needed the most. India, for example, has to sustain almost twenty percent of the earth’s population from four percent of the earth’s water. China has forty times more people than Canada, but less water than Canada.
The great civilizations of the world, by and large, were built around great rivers, which brought great prosperity to the cities and their civilizations. Ancient Rome had its aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, modern New York has the Hudson, London the Thames, Rome the Tiber.
Today, however, no river can keep up with the demand of today’s mega-cities. In New Delhi, more than a third of the water from rivers and reservoirs is lost to leaks from deteriorating pipes and pumps. More is siphoned off by an aggressive water mafia, which sells it to poor people who should be getting it free. So, if the water can’t be had from the surface of the earth, there is no choice left but to dig for it. In India, China, and Africa, and a large part of the developing world, people are digging as if there is no tomorrow.
Almost two billion people get their water from wells, and many are easily accessible. More is available in rocks, or buried far below ancient shale. New drills and inexpensive pump technology have made much of that water retrievable, thus relieving millions from their reliance on rain. This all comes at a cost, however; when most groundwater is used up, it is usually gone for good.
Of course, in America, for the moment, we don’t have those concerns. In the 1970’s, in the middle of the last American crisis in food and gas prices, riots were common on the college campuses, but they were never about food or water. They were mostly about social, political and cultural issues, never about survival. Yet, in other countries, people were starving, often to death. Grain prices soared, rice tumbled. In Ethiopia and Cambodia, the standard of living was down to survival status, and food riots upended those in power.
It’s happening again. Food riots in Egypt, Bangladesh, and many African counties. China, Indonesia, and India, rice-bowl counties all, ship their export-restricted rice under armed guard.
Malthus’ basic theory stated that populations, which grow geometrically, will eventually outpace food production, which grows arithmetically. Many doomsday scenarios, real or imagined, have been based on this theory. Notwithstanding, over the last 200 years, Malthus has been largely discredited, due in part to the Industrial, Transportation, Green, and Biotech Revolutions. Today’s problems do not necessarily refute that judgment, but serious concerns emerge.
Competing for Oil
One of the most serious is, of course, energy. As population grows, so does the need to be fed, to be clothed, to be warmed, to be cooled, to travel, to buy, and to build. Oil is still the most affordable and accessible source of energy worldwide, but many regions and countries, particularly Europe and Japan, are working feverishly to develop alternate sources. A slowing of the population rate over the next 30 years would make these transitions more comfortable for all concerned.
As for food, in theory, the world has never approached the end of its ability to produce it. According to Joel E. Cohen, Professor of Populations at Rockefeller University, and the author of How Many People Can the Earth Support? “There is enough grain in the world to feed 10 billion vegetarians, but much of it is being fed to cattle, the SUV’s of the protein world, which are in turn guzzled by the wealthy.”
If one flies across the United States, and even across the world, one will see much empty land below. Right now, the entire population of the world would squeeze into the state of Texas, allowing for 100 square feet of living space for each person. Put them in skyscrapers, and they get even more room to spread out.
And what about water? When the price skyrockets, we can build pipelines to the polar icecaps, or desalinate seawater. Of course, the cost will be probably be outrageous.
So, if our economy recovers and holds, for the time being, we’re okay. Not so, in good times and bad, for 800 million people who are chronically hungry.
There is no denying that even in America, a burgeoning population has created many demands and periodic corresponding shortages: food, water, energy sources, healthcare, social services, maintenance, and transportation, to name a few. We have a high standard of living, but life has become increasingly complicated. In America, we talk about big banks, big oil, big auto, big med, big insurance, and on and on. Companies have gotten large and more monopolistic because America’s own swollen population has created larger economies of scale. In the 40’s and 50’s, corporations of the size and magnitude we see today were unthinkable.
The American happiness quotient has been going slowly but steadily downhill over the last forty years. This has culminated in an economic downturn that is unprecedented since the Great Depression. Impediments to recovery will be exacerbated by the enormous numbers of people who are now or will be out of work.
We need to take a hard look at how to curb further growth in our numbers, and how to help other countries who are in far worse shape than we are, if we can all survive this severe economic downturn. America must learn how to build an economy that is not based on population growth and consumerism. We must set an example for the rest of the world by curbing our historically voracious appetite for energy. We also need to put the wealth of the world to work more effectively and efficiently to make the quality of life more comfortable for people of all levels of income.
It is foolish and naïve of Americans to think that the problems of the rest of the world will not ultimately migrate to America.
And yes, just because all of the people of the world will fit into Texas doesn’t mean they’ll get enough to eat or drink, or that they’ll be happy there. With all the people, there will be no room for supermarkets, gas stations, hospitals, forests, lakes, open spaces, art galleries, museums, concert halls, and the like.
And how many of us want to spend the rest of our lives as vegetarians?
- John Burr