Considering sunflowers, and a proposal for survival: population control

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This week I spent some more time with the sunflowers at Dix Park.  There were a lot of pretty ones, including some at least eight feet tall, and others that had passed their prime.  I learned from signs there that sunflowers are the only flowers with flower in their name, and that they point themselves toward the sun during the day.  

Dix Park was formerly the site of Dorothea Dix Hospital, North Carolina’s first institution for the mentally ill, which was progressive when it was opened in 1856 and not so much so when it was finally closed in 2012.  The sunflower field is on top of a former garbage dump (officially, a “landfill”). The sunflowers are grown as an industrial crop that provides fuel for city vehicles.  

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The connections between mental illness, institutions, garbage, and urban transport take us in one direction, but sunflowers take us in another.  They stand up tall and shine, and without any effort, cheer us up.  I put one on my phone for a new screen saver.

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Last night Sally and I watched The Inventor, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.  Holmes recruited investors with promises of revolutionizing medical testing with new technology. It turned out that the technology was not actually in existence.  There were hundreds of employees, including some trying to build a testing machine that corresponded to Holmes’s idea, but they never made a successful model.  

In the documentary, we see Holmes presenting herself and her idea, and she’s undeniably attractive and impressive.  It’s easy to see how a lot of successful and sophisticated people believed in her.  It isn’t altogether clear what she herself was thinking. The human mind has an amazing capacity for self delusion, so Holmes may have believed a lot of her own baloney.  It may be that she started out as a cockeyed big dreamer and, as the impossibility of the dream became clear, ended up as a wanton fraudster.    It’s an interesting psychological puzzle.Sunflowers-0431Speaking of puzzles, I finished Christine Korsgaard’s important  but sometimes difficult book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.  Korsgaard is a brave soul. She challenges the almost-never-questioned assumption that humans have a right to do whatever they want to non-human life.  If there is no such right, what humans are doing to non-human life is monstrously evil.  For example, we kill more than 50 billion farm animals a year.  It’s not an easy subject.

Korsgaard suggests that the earth would be much better off without so many humans, which is almost certainly true.  I was surprised, though, that she doesn’t press more on the issue of restraining population growth as a bridge to a less broken world.  

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Our politicians’ ridiculous fearmongering over immigrant invasions is a distorted-mirror reflection of a real problem:  there are too many people on the earth, and many more are coming soon. There are not enough natural resources to sustain all the people that are here with their existing and hoped for consumption patterns.  Those consumption patterns are already disrupting non-human life on a massive scale, including widespread extinction of entire species. At the same time, resource conflicts are disrupting various countries, creating millions of refugees, and undermining governments.

And the problems are getting worse.  The population, which is now around 7 billion, is still growing.  For all our current global population to have the American level of consumption would require the resources of 4 earths.  And we’re expecting 4 billion more humans by the end of this century, so we’ll be needing almost two additional earths.  

But we only have the one.  Climate change and other environmental problems, such as air pollution, fresh water loss, and soil erosion are all exacerbated by increasing populations in a negative feedback loop.  

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Here’s a simple example:  as there are more people who need more food, a changing climate and environmental degradation will make it harder or impossible to grow enough food for all.  And industrialized agriculture, already a major contributor to climate change, in attempting to produce more food, will likely further degrade the environment.  For a fuller accounting of very possible near term environmental destruction mechanisms, read The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells.

At present, our default mode for addressing this population problem is to pretend it doesn’t exist.  There is, to be sure, a sense in which it could take care of itself: people in excess of the earth’s carrying capacity will likely die by the millions or billions.  However, adopting this solution would be horrible, not only for humans, but for all the non-human life that the desperate humans would extinguish in their losing struggle to survive.  

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Beginning with better education on family planning, we could slow the pace of population growth, and eventually arrive at a population that could exist without irreversible planetary destruction.  Korsgaard suggests the possibility that reproduction might be regulated with some sort of licensing scheme. As she notes, we don’t let people drive cars without demonstrating the necessary skill set, but we have no skills requirement for parenting.  

Any change like that would be controversial, of course, and perhaps we’d conclude that’s not a good approach.  But if we’re hoping to avoid horrendous destruction of human and non-human life,  we need to get creative and get to work; there’s no time to waste.  At present, our governments aren’t working on the population problem, or even talking about working on it.  How can that be OK?