Awareness of population overshoot is a process, not a revelation
Seeing that the volume of humanity has quadrupled in the past century with the addition of more than 5 billion more consumers, it continues to be a source of amazement to me that the majority of people I encounter do not see the obvious necessity of rapid human population decline (RPD). More amazing though, is that those of us who are passionate in our conviction that it is RPD is both a necessity and an inevitability proceed to argue as if our audience is already reconciled to our position. We forget that most of us arrived reluctantly to our unhappy conclusions after going through several mental decompression chambers until finally, we were able to burst upon the surface and see the broad visit above the water.
Don't assume that people know the basics
It is as if we were teaching a class of undergraduates, and began with the fourteenth lecture rather than the first. We assume that those we are attempting to reach come equipped with a rudimentary ecological literacy, but we are mistaken. Even most environmentalists come to a discussion without knowledge of Boulding’s Three Theorems, Hopfenberg’s law, Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, Abernethy’s axiom, the Jevons Paradox or any of Bartlett’s laws of sustainability. These are the building blocks of ecological understanding and the sine qua non of informed debate. Without them we find ourselves having to reinvent the wheel in response to the clichéd criticisms that resurface over and over again.
Common ideological obstacles
How many times must we defeat the Demographic Theory of Transition or send the Replacement Rate Fallacy packing? How many times must we counter the promise of tech fixes and more efficiency with a lesson on efficiency paradoxes? How many times must idiotic Monbiotisms be refuted with the simple observation that economic growth requires people and that if climate change is a consequence of human activity then the number humans must be part of it? How many times must we point out that without the “P”, the IPAT formula is rendered meaningless and incapable of achieving any comprehensive ecological understanding? How many times do we have to demonstrate that smart growth palliatives, land use strategies, green living guides and conservation measures in the context of continued growth are futile?
Radical change requires patience
The truth is, as alarmist as environmentalists are accused of being, they are still the soft soap salesmen of delusional optimism, cornucopians with a green conscience. No wonder Malthusians and those with apocalyptic visions come across as wild-eyed extremists --- our audience or readership does not see that our predicament is extreme and the environmental movement has done nothing to sufficiently enlighten them. Extreme predicaments call for extreme measures, but if we shout fire in a crowded theatre when no one but us can even see smoke, we become instantly marginalized. We must step back and appreciate, as urgent as our agenda is, those beyond our circle are unprepared for it. We must rewind and re-evaluate. We must proceed one step at a time, as impatient for change as we are.
Step one, in my view, is to convince them that there is a fire. Clugston, Heinberg, Ruppert, Goodchild,---any one of a cluster of doomsayers can make that case more effectively than we can. Step two is to present them with options on how the fire can be put out. Here is how I frame my position, in riposte to the human rights coalition. There are four stages to ascend before the right mechanism for RPD can be found. Each stage is a platform to climb to the next. This is not a process of “balance” and trade-offs, but of following steps in the right sequence. The survival of our species cannot be balanced off ethical inhibitions. Ethical considerations must wait their turn, not muddy the waters at the beginning.
Four stages to finding the right mechanism for RPD
1. Stage One--- Base camp. Before beginning the climb we must ask, is RPD necessary? If it isn't, fine. Proceed no further. Climb cancelled.
2. Stage Two—Coming to a firm resolution. If RPD is necessary, it is necessary. It must be effected. By hook or by crook. By hook if possible, but by crook if necessary.
3. Stage Three---The realization that since RPD is necessary, the question as to whether it can be effected humanely is irrelevant. It must be effected regardless. If my leg is infected with gangrene, it must be amputated immediately--with or without an anaesthetic.
4. Stage Four----Therefore only one question remains. What is the least inhumane of effective options?
I would prefer that you use an anaesthetic before amputation, but if none is available, then you must do a cost-benefit analysis. Is allowing me to die in agony over the next 48 hours more humane than chopping my gangrenous leg off without the benefit of drugs so that I may live on? It is only at this juncture of the discussion that competing ethical perspectives can be entertained. Before swinging an axe, perhaps first clubbing me into unconsciousness would be the least inhumane of effective remedies. I am open to suggestions. Mount your high horse and be as ethical as you want to be, but get it done.
Before swinging an axe, perhaps first clubbing me into unconsciousness would be the least inhumane of effective remedies. I am open to suggestions. Mount your high horse and be as ethical as you want to be, but get it done.
Morality has little utility for an extinct species
The mistake that most environmentalists, humanists and theists make is to attempt to "balance" ecological and biophysical imperatives off against some sacrosanct ethical code—be it the tenets of Judeo-Christianity, Islam, Scientology, Wiccan , humanism, Socialism or Democracy or anything else on the ideological buffet . But sustainability and species-survival cannot be a question of "balance" but of priority. After all, what can be more immoral than to allow the extinction of our species--together with the millions that we take down with us---in order to remain faithful to an "ethical" standard? What good is morality to an extinct species? Critics say that we must not lose our "humanity" in an effort to achieve a sustainable population level. What they really mean is that we must not lose a set of ethical principles that evolved in the last few thousand years of human history---a relative eye-blink compared to the eons of our hominid existence.
Ethical codes are expendable---but our species is not
We can indeed lose our traditional set of ethics. Culture is dynamic and ethical standards are a work in progress, as Baby Boomers can attest in reflecting upon the changing mores in their lifetime. Civilized conduct itself is a thin veneer that is easily stripped off in an emergency of short duration. Katrina should have taught us that. But civilization does not define our "humanity". We have always been "human". We were human when we practised cannibalism, infanticide and ritual human sacrifices, or waged wars of tribal genocide. We have always been both selfish and altruistic, empathetic and cruel, compassionate and callous, aggressive and passive. All of these traits are part of the human make-up, and will endure even if we return to a hunter-gatherer state. As long as we survive as a species through the coming tribulations, we have the potential to recapture the best of our nature and rebuild an ethical system more to our liking. But the priority must be on sustaining our race, not on sustaining the number of people who happen to be alive now thanks to unsustainable agriculture and to our unsustainable consumption of non-renewable energy resources. We can lose our civilized manners but we cannot afford to die off as a race. For some reason, even many of those in our own movement cannot grasp this difference. Lester Brown is a classic case in point. Our project should not be framed by the question he poses, by asking "How can we feed 9 billion people" but rather by asking, "How can we save the core of humanity that is necessary to establish a viable population base before an imminent population crash denies us that possibility?”
Playing God by Not Playing God
The lifeboat is more important than any of its passengers. A callous statement perhaps, but not any more than the proposition that we play God by not playing God, that is, by not taking doing what is necessary---no more, no less---to reduce population rapidly. A passive spectator to the unfolding sixth extinction is a silent partner to the crime of our epoch. The institution of coercive population control measures that are effective and necessary are no more the mark of someone playing "God" than is the intervention by anyone of us to stop a mugger from killing a stranger or brandishing a pistol to stop a crowd from trampling hundreds in their panic to escape that which panics them. "Leaving it up to God" is a bizarre position for anyone who claims to be motivated by the conscientious attachment to ethical principles. Consistency should require that they follow through with their logic and advocate the abolition of law enforcement and the judicial process. We can’t have judges, juries and policemen “playing God”, can we? Who are they to make decisions that affect the fate of others? Who are we to judge, or to intervene? After all, isn’t intervention of any kind contingent on presumptions? Who am I stop that mugger? It is not my job to “fix” anyone is it? Let God---or karma---sort it all out. Justice will come in the next life. Some kind of ethical system that.
Wanting omelettes without breaking any eggs
Passivity is a pathology, and it comes in many forms. One form is the position taken by many so called “activists” and armchair revolutionaries would espouse the attainment of a utopian order or a radically different economy or social structure than the one that is killing us, but qualify their support for these goals by insisting that it must be done “democratically”, or non-violently, or respectfully, or with sensitivity, or in accordance with the UN Charter on Human Rights, or some Holy Text. They believe in making an omelette, but are morally opposed to cracking an egg. In practical terms, theirs is a de-facto laissez-faire posture. Announce your determination to fight for a New Jerusalem but attach ethical conditions to that commitment that ensure that it never comes about. Again, these caveats belong to Stage Four of the process. Park your democratic or Christian sensibilities until then-- then weigh in.
All options must be on the table
Those organizations and blogs which promote population reduction, are quick to insist that they advocate “voluntary” family planning, or “reproductive” rights for women, or mutual coercion “mutually” agreed upon. And if ever one of them entertains my argument, they are careful to dissociate themselves from it with a disclaimer. This may be a political necessity. We are presently stuck at Stage One, and until the need for RPD is broadly accepted, the methods required to achieve it must take a back seat—especially if the mere mention of seemingly unsavoury alternatives carries the risk of chasing away potential supporters or presenting a big fat target for the Christian right and the birth-dearth lobby anxious to smear them with the brush of misanthropy. Nevertheless this should not foreclose consideration of draconian measures when the time comes. A Plan B or C must be on deck.
Does that mean that I would favour dictatorship, violence, disrespect or insensitivity in the pursuit of the necessary? Absolutely---if necessary. But I am not there yet, and neither should you be. I would prefer that things be done democratically, but I do not make a fetish out of democracy---or the Ten Commandments or the pronouncements of the Pope or the Delai Lama, for that matter. My support for any means to achieve RPD is provisional. As it happens, I believe that the success of most revolutionary change depends on wide, grassroots support. But failing that, all remaining options must be on the table. The job must get done. I would naturally prefer that it be done democratically, peacefully, rationally, justly and humanely--- but only if that works. I suspect however, that we have run of time. Building a constituency for RPD policies is a tortuous process, and electing a politician who promises to shrink the economy is about as fanciful as finding a mob who would riot for austerity. Quite possibly we haven’t the luxury of waiting upon democratic verdicts---or anaesthetics. Time will tell.
September 22, 2009