If we don’t halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity – and will leave a ravaged world. ~Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall
Recently I wrote to President Obama about two topics that I think need leadership to prevent our ultimate doom on this planet: overpopulation and veganism. I am for the second and fear the first. Decades ago, I was the Ventura County Coordinator for Zero Population Growth. Living in a large metropolitan area, I could see how quickly things were changing due to an ever-increasing growth of human beings. China had instituted repressive techniques to control her population, but no other nations seemed concerned with the growth. Science Daily calls overpopulation the world’s top environmental issue, followed by climate change. Yet even with my ear to the ground, I rarely hear much dialogue about it. It is quietly unpopular.
It was a frustrating experience back then, and what a contentious bunch we were! I recall creating a library display in conjunction with another advocate, only to return and find my co-advocate had destroyed my half of the contribution. After an insulting meeting with a young organizer from corporate, I decided it was time to quit in disgust and use my energies in other environmental ways. I was a vegetarian back then, a fan of Friends of the Earth and living close to the land. Later, another population growth non-profit emerged, Negative Population Growth. This seemed appropriate, since the population had grown so rapidly that Zero was hardly the answer any longer. ZPG is now renamed Population Connection. They carry on their work with some source of hope that is hard for me to fathom.
One of my vivid memories of that time was a film I kept for many years. It showed in time lapse photography the geometric growth of the human population by showing a model of Earth viewed from space, and then showing in proportional time a light for each million people. It takes quite a while before the first light shows up, than a bit before the next, but somewhere near the end of the film, the lights start going off like fireworks until the whole thing explodes. Poof! We blew it because we would not deal with controlling growth. I remained friends with some of the ZPGers but it was always a painful group – frustrated people who were making the hard choices, not having families or severely limiting them, working to educate peoople, trying to live green and simple; basically, being totally out of step with the 80s and the growth of out of control spending and greed that followed. The hope many of us had in the 70s, with the environmental message began to wane steeply in the materialistic 80s. During the 70s I had lived in the Wine Country in northern California, right on the Russian River. One friend of mine became despondent just before the 80s. He was suffering from a clinical depression, although I was not a therapist at the time and did not, sadly, recognize the signs. He had very dark (and later accurate) visions of what the future portended. He envisioned the poisoning of rivers, overpopulation, rise in greed and destruction of the peace and love of the dying hippy era. Someone told me at work one day (I owned a small business at the foot of the mountain just off the town square) that he had set himself on fire in the park at the center of the square. He was a kind and gentle human being, a good-looking fit young man with whom I had gone on bike rides and eaten his homemade mulligatawny soup. He survived the intial burns and tragically died a couple of days later. It was horrible to think that anyone would destroy themselves rather than take some form of action; but it is what we human beings have continued to do. Like the Earth in the film, the end was a conflagration of pain and destruction. I hope the rest of us will take note, but it is not looking too good at this point.
Now that it is the twenty-first century, I find myself working more on that second issue that seems so critical: veganism. It is something I can do whereas not multiplying further is a choice I have already made. Overpopulation is such an unpopular topic, but all of the energy and food demands, even the climate problems, get right back to the sudden growth, doubling of populations, straining the capacity of planet earth to support us all, to deal with our trash and waste products. We have overfished the oceans and used her for a trash can. Did we really think we could get away with such wanton irresponsibility for long? Even things that do not seem to go together, often come back to this. Why are our ship in the waters off Somalia? What are native people supposed to do when we steal their water for designer bottled water over here or steal their fish for markets in the richest countries? I would think that in countries with only 20% of the population using 80% of the world’s resources, their population above all others should be contained, as it is the most destructive. Yet reading some population video comments online, I noted several who believed it was the third world that was out of control, not us. They truly have no idea how many countries give up their resources to feed, water, and clothe the richer nations. It is abominable.
Too Many Animals, Too Little Habitat
Correspondingly, right alongside human overpopulation, is the overpopulation of some animal groups. Domestic cats and dogs are killed in the millions every year, despite a wealth of spay and neuter programs. Only last week I was speaking with a classmate in my photography class at UTA, who related she just made a bunch of money by breeding her AKC dogs. Ten more in, ten more dead at the shelters, the breed dogs valued, the mutts not so much. And there is always one animal population or another that is supposedly “out of control,” usually because we have decimated their habitat. Our best chosen way to control them seems to be to shoot them. I recently published an article about feral donkeys on the island of Hawaii who were getting onto the roads and causing people to fear collisions. The first comment someone made (on Veganacious fan page) was to shoot them. Too many deer? Shoot them. But people? Go ahead, have all the kids you want, take all the habitat you want, eat all the animals you want. Billions of animals are killed each year, treated their entire lives as if they were mobile objects who then have to be immobilized for maximum production in minimal space. It is an Orwellian nightmare, those factory farms. They are so incredibly cruel and callous that I feel deep grief knowing that any of my species could participate in such horror, yet most of us do participate and passively accept it. And some of us refuse to believe that allowing human population to grow out of control is a causative factor in any of the environmental crises we have created. What hubris!
One day many years ago I received a list of animals nearing extinction that unfolded from my arms to the floor with several folds more to be shown. Now that list would be even longer, yet the minute a species gets off the endangered list, there is a human somewhere wanting to shoot it. We human beings demonstrate so little regard for animal life, for human life, for our own planet. How did this happen? The exploitation of animals continues as does the exploitation of human beings. While humans are not suffering the nightmare of factory farms (except the factory workers), there are plenty of humans being trafficked, even in industrialized nations. Humans are being and always have been commodified. There was a recent chilling exhibit of human bodies that had been shipped from China, showing healthy young humans in various athletic poses, with skin removed, muscles exposed, to demonstrate the human form in action. These were actual human beings, preserved via plastination, and someone was getting quite wealthy on the money collected from the exhibit throughout the world. There were a lot of questions about where the people came from, and some evidence that they had been killed and tortured as prisoners, and their young bodies were being displayed without their prior consent. Some concerns were raised that these bodies came from a black market in human organs and bodies. It was a horrifying example of callous behavior that extends beyond animal flesh and into human flesh, leaving ethical questions in its wake. Everyone seems to have a price these days.
I wrote this article because I have been wondering for so long why no one is talking about overpopulation. I realized I had grown quiet, too. It is time to talk about this important issue. Many years ago, this country had controlled her population and things were encouraging, but we have slipped back into complacency and behaved as if there were limitless resources for us to plunder. We have already plundered this nation and have plundered others as well. We have racked up huge debts as individuals and as a nation. We need to mature and begin living responsibly; we need to consider other peoples, other nations, other species. Changing and letting go of the past and the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed is frightening for many of us. But change must come, for the course we are on is not sustainable. If we grip too tightly on what we expected life to be, we might miss how much better it could become.