The Works of Tammie Painter

Tammie Painter works as a research scientist by day and writer by night, weekends, and any other spare moment. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and an attack rabbit.

All Nonfiction © Tammie Painter

Making Space

          Loss of habitat, overuse of fertilizer, strained sewage facilities, declining sources of fresh water, our seas’ depletion of fish – a number of environmental problems we face come to focus on one prominent factor: the ever-increasing numbers of humans on the planet. As Steve Jones, head of University College London’s Biology department, states, "Humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be according to the rules of the animal kingdom." Were we any other organism spreading at the rate we do and gobbling up resources without foresight, our numbers would have been culled or checked years ago. We've spread to every corner of the globe and are now considering "colonizing" our own uninhabitable satellite we once revered as a goddess for its beauty. Our numbers have become so great we are causing the extinction of over 100,000 species per year mainly due to our inexhaustible demand for land for habitation and agriculture.

          To put it simply, human overpopulation is a problem.

         And yet it’s a problem that is rarely discussed. When environmental issues are raised we tend to describe what we shouldn't be doing or how to improve the way in which we do things. It is difficult to find a "call to action" speech that addresses the underlying truth that, were there fewer humans, many environmental problems would either not exist or would not have reached a level where they became problematic.

         But what happens if we do try to raise the issue?

        When Mother Earth News ran a short editorial in December 2008 (“Three Mountains We Must Climb”) arguing for slowing population growth, the response was fanatical. While, several responses were favorable, there were a disconcerting number of readers so angry over the mere suggestion we slow population growth they cancelled their subscriptions. Illogical rants ranging from which of their children should they kill off first to implications that Mother Earth News was suggesting a Nazi-like breeding control program showed a vehemence and ignorance toward the subject. Meshed in with many of these statements was the ever-present religious argument that it is our duty handed down by God to be fruitful and multiply. And this was from readers of a magazine that promotes earth-wise practices.

        The issue comes down to facts versus emotion – a similar problem seen in other scientifically factual or personal issues that become religion-based arguments such as teaching evolution in public schools or abortion. The undeniable fact is there are more humans on the planet today than at any other time in history and the exponential increase in our numbers matches the pattern of most any graph pertaining to environmental problems. Observing the sudden jump in carbon dioxide levels, topsoil loss, inorganic fertilizer use, habitat destruction, or available fresh water it's impossible to turn a blind eye to their equal pace with a human population chart.

       And there's only going to be more of us. Each year we add almost 80 million to the worldwide population. The sobering reality is that within the next ten years, if we don't begin to discuss this issue and take action, there will be, at minimum, 10 billion people swarming the planet.

Making The Case

         Carrying capacity is defined as the maximum population that can be supported with available resources. In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus identified that a great deal of human suffering came as a result of our population increasing faster than our food supply and other resources. He wrote 150 years prior to the Green Revolution that would cram fields full of monoculture, ignore the time-honored tradition and logic of crop rotation, and fill fields with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides while losing topsoil and the nutritive value of our food, but Malthus’s theory still holds true. Most of us in the first world have plenty to eat these days, but at what cost? Our need to eke out as much as possible from overworked fields has resulted in basic foods like fruit and vegetables providing fewer nutrients. While thinking we are eating well, our food is becoming less able to nourish us. Our food resources are, as Malthus pointed out, indeed finite unless we learn to give the fields a rest and to grow crops less intensively. The only way we can afford to do this is to slow our population growth to a point where fields don't have to be continuously farmed and more natural cycles and sustainable growing methods can resume.

         It's a matter of debate what the Earth's carrying capacity for humans could be, but we aren't the only organisms on this planet and it is absolute arrogance to say the Earth's resources are solely for us to increase our numbers unchecked. It is possible the Earth can support, through intensive agriculture, 20 billion people, but the question remains of how this will affect other species. A planet full of people and our limited array of crop and livestock species would severely limit the number of resources available for other species. Even now, as we approach 7 billion there is a devastating loss of variety of life due to mass extinctions. Variety of life is part of what makes this planet a special and enjoyable place to live. The argument that it is immoral and inhuman to expect to control our numbers needs to be countered with the argument for leaving space and resources for other species; in essence, to sustain a variety of life on Earth, not solely human life.

         Even if it is possible, through technology, to push ourselves to the brink of Earth's carrying capacity, we need to ask ourselves, "Is that what we want?" Already, in modern cities and third world nations, we are seeing both the psychological and physiological effects of our numbers. Crowding stress affects humans the same way it does other animals. Crowded populations are more likely to be violent toward outsiders (war) and their own group members (gangs, domestic violence), depression levels increase, immunity decreases while diseases spread more easily, cortisone levels rise leading to hypertension, and individuals – especially children – are less mentally and physically robust. All these problems are being seen around the world and this is while we are still under 7 billion people.

         We also need to take into account the quality of human life, not just quantity. The Earth hasn't reached carrying capacity for humans yet. The question remains is do we want it to? Considering that were everyone to eat in the manner the wealthiest nations do, the Earth would only be able to support around 3 billion people, less than half our current number. We can't deny the poorest of nations live meager lives, but how will first world nations be forced to live if human numbers double or triple? Do we want to live at a complete tipping point where one harsh summer or winter destroys a key link in a stressed and weak chain of dependence? Already we're too reliant on fossil fuels for energy and to produce the fertilizer necessary to feed our compromised soils despite knowing petroleum is a finite resource and the inherent problems in its use.

         When other living organisms increase in numbers to the point of overcrowding and overwhelming their resources we see this as negative and as something we must "manage". Take for instance the wild Mustang population in Oregon. Every few years the herd's population soars to the point that, if human intervention doesn't occur, the animals will starve to death over the winter due to overgrazing. The Bureau of Land Management culls the horses – most are corralled and auctioned off to be domesticated – to prevent a suffering population. Likewise, our growth cannot go on indefinitely. No population can grow indefinitely and for most species natural processes (disease and starvation mainly) control or prevent overpopulation. Humans, however, have another option: social change. We have to realize that, unless serious rethinking about our numbers occurs, humans will eventually have to face the same natural laws as other organisms. The question remains, do we change our thinking and behavior or do we continue as we are and push ourselves, the planet, and all other species to the tipping point of disaster?

Making an Effort

        Humans are one of the few organisms who will continue to reproduce even in the face of food and clean water shortages, spreading disease, homelessness, and even mental or physical inability to care for our offspring. However, we are also the only one with access to birth control and the mental capacity for voluntary contraception. This ability to voluntarily control our reproduction means we don't need government regulations to force people to have fewer or no children, as many fear will happen when population growth control issues are raised. We need to increase awareness and be able to talk about the problems our ever-increasing numbers are causing without knee-jerk, illogical rants. There is no viable argument that we need more people on this planet, but there are numerous logical and scientifically factual arguments for us to begin to actively limit our growth rate.

         The good news is we have begun to do so. Currently, of the wealthiest nations, only the U.S. and China still have a growing population rate, while forty-three other countries including Germany, France, and Japan have succeeded in zero population growth efforts. It would be difficult to say these countries that have reduced their growing numbers are lacking in personal freedoms due to government control. These aren't places that mandated birth control or enforced a one-child-per-couple law; their citizens were merely willing to face the issue and act on it.

         How does a nation go about slowing their population growth? Typically through education, open discussion, and easy access to birth control.

         One of the most inspiring is also one of the least expected cases: Iran. Within ten years this country dropped from having a record population growth to one of the lowest in "second world" countries. Family planning was a common feature in Iranian life until Ayatollah Khomeini banned it and encouraged large families. The population soared and it became obvious the country's resources couldn't handle the growth. In 1993, the government passed a family planning act, clinics were set up in rural areas to provide family planning services, television broadcasts and even soap operas raised awareness of the consequences of overpopulation, and religious leaders encouraged their followers to aim for smaller families. Part of the government act was to require couples to take a class on contraception before marrying (a revolutionary step in a country where contraception can be a taboo subject), all forms of birth control were available for free, and vasectomies were made an option - something no other Muslim country had done before. In addition, a strong effort to educate women and increase their literacy aided, as it usually does, in allowing them to make reproductive choices. The result? By 2006, Iran's population growth had decreased from 4.2% to 1.3%. And this was in a country where religion typically dictates not discussing sex or contraception.

         Other countries have begun the work of slowing their population growth and have shown that educating their citizens, especially women, and providing easy access to birth control works. Their studies have shown these measures cost one-tenth the price of social services needed for unwanted births. In places where women fear and resent yet another pregnancy, these measures are welcomed, not shunned.

         It's time to not cancel subscriptions when a magazine mentions limiting our numbers or to write angry letters accusing the editors of devaluing human life or promoting Hitler-like use of eugenics for reproductive control. It's time to realize the Earth isn't solely for human occupation and exploitation and that if we don't begin to slow our growth, future generations may come to fruition, but their quality of life will be minimal. It's time to pull our heads out of the sand and begin the discussion of one of our most basic actions.