Dodging Intensifying Crises: Environmental Degradation, Global Rescues, Mass Immigration, Extinctions.
Virginia Deane Abernethy, Ph.D.
I was primed early on to speculate that humans, homo sapiens, could go extinct. A prominent scientist pointed out that the specialization that made a species dominant was the very trait likely to lead to its demise. Think dinosaurs. They depended on a lush food supply; when that vanished, the most enormous and fierce died out fast.
We humans have big brains, making us dominant over ever larger parts of the Earth’s resources and systems. We exploit more of the space and more of the resources, leaving a decreasing share for other species. Innovation has elevated millions of people around the world from poverty. More people around the world enjoy a better standard of living, consume more, discard more garbage, emit more CO2 and, incidentally, appropriate more niches from other species.
The big brains give humans the power of imagination, making us problem solvers and innovators, and enabling empathy. Some say that our innovations including monstrous weapons will be our doom. But perhaps we are doomed because of empathy with our fellow man. Shocking? I am not the first to wonder.
Western culture and particularly American culture elevates preservation of human life above almost every other value. Modern technology, including healthcare and agricultural production, allows us to actualize that value. Nature, which throughout human history knocked back population numbers after each surge of prosperity and growth, has largely ceded control to human agency and decisions to rescue.
While many in the world have rapidly reduced family size, and those in developed countries have reduced fertility rates to below the level where they even replace themselves, the global population continues to grow. The rate of growth has slowed, but global population decline is not in sight. In 1930, the human population was approximately 2 Billion people; less than a century later, we are on the cusp of 8 Billion.
No estimate of the total human number that can be supported sustainably has been attempted for decades, although it is acknowledged that most fisheries are depleted, more areas have been desertified, depletion of aquifers continues, topsoil erosion is critical in many areas, and many major rivers no long reach the sea. Several estimates of limits to human population size were made in the 1970s, among the most notable being a Club of Rome publication authored by Dennis and Donella Meadows followed by Donella Meadows’ 2004 sequel, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, and Wiliam R. Catton’s 1982 volume, Overshoot.
These warnings detail species and habitat loss as well as feedback loops that amplify destructive processes, ultimately heading toward the destruction of human life. Such studies regularly make headlines. They are just as regularly forgotten. One hopes that Professor Philip Cafaro and co-authors P. Hansson and F.Gotmark’s June, 2022, contribution in Biological Conservation meets a more consequential fate.
Cafaro et al.’s article leads with, “Overpopulation is a major cause of biodiversity loss and smaller human populations are necessary to preserve what is left”. The authors continue, “Here we stipulate that overpopulation exists where 1) people are displacing wild nature so thoroughly that they are extinguishing numerous species; 2) people are degrading ecosystems so thoroughly that future human generations likely will have a hard time living decent lives; and (3) one or both of these environmental catastrophes cannot be avoided without significantly decreasing the size of the human population.”
Further, “Many conservation biologists would agree with E.O. Wilson (2016) that our goal is to shepherd biodiversity through a high population bottle-neck in the 21st century, preserving what we can for better times. But biologists' sense of how quickly and how much human numbers must decrease to sustain substantial biodiversity remains just that—a vague ‘sense’. This astonishing lacuna is unacceptable. Every conservation biologist should know how many people her or his country can support while also supporting viable populations of all its native species.”
Cafaro et al. conclude with recommendations that incentives for reducing family size and family planning assistance become available, and that governments consider financial arrangements that would reward low fertility. In fact, governments worldwide and countless international aid initiatives have done just as Cafaro et al. advise. But are these policies up to dealing with the momentum of population growth and the harms of overpopulation? Are they enough? Or a dollar short and a day late?
We are a hopeful species and do not take kindly to apocalyptic warnings. As stated, we have empathy. Rescue of populations at risk of local disasters continues. No famine, no pestilence, no large-scale natural disaster goes un-remarked. Individuals, non-profit organizations, and governments rush to send help or admit economic refugees. Deaths that could run into millions are postponed, and reproduction continues apace. Empathy motivates good and trusting people to rescue populations around the world.
It appears likely that only direst consequences affecting our own bit of the Earth must emerge in order to change Americans’ long-standing habit of sending missionaries, technology experts and resources; not to mention continuing generous immigration policies which increasingly displace the neediest Americans. Should we miscalculate the ecological cost of our policies, and deceive ourselves regarding our margin of natural surplus, future attempts to save ourselves may fail.
Prudence requires that now, before Americans join those on the edge of environmental calamity, Nature should be left to do its work. Regard for fellow Americans and all our children’s futures demands that we stop the global rescues.
Population-Environment Balance addresses one aspect of the effort to stop, and eventually reverse, world population growth. Balance can mobilize friends and supporters throughout the country to advocate reduction in all categories of legal immigration. With a policy of limiting legal immigration to an all over number of Zero NET, approximately 150,000 immigrants annually, economic refugees would be almost inevitably screened out of the immigrant stream.
Opening people’s minds to recognize scarcity and the gradual, but steady, decline in standard of living is the best contraceptive.
P. Cafaro et al., Biological Conservation 272 (2022) 10964633. E-mail addresses: email@example.com (P. Cafaro), firstname.lastname@example.org (F. G ̈otmark).
Dr. Virginia Abernethy is Professor Emeritus at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and author of Population Politics and [her latest] The Vanishing American Dream.
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