Monday, March 08, 2010

Lemmings

I've been thinking about kids lately.

Now those of you who have been with me for a while understand that when you have shared responsibility for these little people it's nearly impossible not to think about them. They pretty much dominate that portion of your life that isn't occupied with work or sleep.

I love my children, but I do not confuse them with "free resources" like air. Instead they are something like food and drink; critical for life but with a debt you incur for needing them.

But for the purposes of this post I am thinking of children in general, rather than mine in particular. So I apologize in advance for those of you who were impatient for the next installment of Pure AdorableTM from little Missy or more Boyish Antics from the Big Peep. You're going to have to be content with the snapshots.

This one is going to be about people having kids in general.

Or, rather, this is about humans as the global apex predator.

Didn't used to be this way, of course. My understanding is that our proto-hominid and hominid ancestors were about where the large apes are in the food chain, a multi-level consumer but also prey for large carnivores.When you think about it, being pulled down and devoured by another animal may be perhaps the oldest and most untameable human fear.How many bad dreams involve being pursued by something fearsome? Why are we so fascinated by the otherwise-predictable deaths involving human keepers or trainers and large animals, especially predators?Why are the stories of toddler dog-maulings so appallingly well reported?

We still think like prey. We still have some of the atavistic reflexes of our distant ancestors the monkey-boys, and dimly fear the death that watches us with inhuman eyes from the shadows under the trees.

But it has really been a long time since we were in danger of predation. The only animal that can prey on humans is human; ecologically, we are our only real population control. For all that we often act like sheep, we're the wolves, or, rather, we're the predator that the wolves WISH they could be. I'll bet if you gave a wolf voice for a day and turned it loose on the works of Man it'd go for our killing technology in a big way. Would a wolf with a cluster bomb unit do the kind of damage to caribou that we do to each other?


The mind reels.

Of course, the sorts of population controls that have probably always killed more humans than other animals still cull us; cold and heat and drought (and the associated starvation and diseases) and the various epidemics from influenzas to plagues. We're never safe from something. But the combination of industrial agriculture, scientific medicine, political stability and general education has done much to broaden the sunny, clear portions of human lives, pushing back the frightening things that made our existences so frighteningly brief and tenuous.We live longer, breed more successfully, and die less agonizingly - generally - than we ever have.

I'm not sure at this point what CAN limit human ability to reproduce. We are pretty fecund creatures, able to pop out about one offspring every year to eighteen months (dear GOD! but still...) from about fourteen years of age to somewhere in our forties or even fifties. Most of us don't, naturally, but the trend since the first human tribes has been a slow increase in population until about the late Middle Ages.

Improvement in things like sanitation, the understanding of the germ theory of disease, inventions as commonplace and simple as chemical fertilizers and vaccinations...all these have made the Earth circa 2010 an extraordinarily safe and healthy place for humans. We've responded by doing what we've always done; finding another human (usually of the opposite sex, but, whatever...) and a flat piece of ground (which we can do without if needs must) and putting Tab A into Slot B and the next thing you know the place is swarming with brats...

Which brings me to my point, which is, that I cannot think of an organism or a species of organisms that thrives without some sort of population control.

Producers need consumers or they will exhaust the non-organic resources - air, water, soil nutrients - and the population will crash. Nastily. All natural populations that don't recieve a thorough culling tend to be designed to boom and crash. So deer, freed from natural predation and turned loose on suburban gardens full of browse, multiply until they become nuisances and, regularly, suffer from apalling die-offs during hard winters. Lemmings run to the sea, voluntarily doing the work that cold and starvation do on the deer. Predators suffer the same effect; too many and the prey is depleted. The predators seek food elsewhere, or die.

So far we seem to be overwhelming any sort of natural controls on our population. Since the dent the Black Death made in numbers back in the 15th Century it's been all uphill for us hairless monkeys. The only systematic control on human numbers appears to be, well, us.

I'm not really talking about predation of the war-and-disease type. I'm thinking about kids.

Kids are work. Often good work, occasionally fun work, typically productive work, but many times grinding, frustrating, repetitive work. Work enough that the stats appear ro show that we're often happier as couples without them. Work enough that when medicine, nutrition and industrialization free people from the need to pop out a half-dozen or so (either to ensure that half will survive or to work the family goat ranch) familes tend to decline in size precipitously. Two kids aren't twice the work of one - they're more like three or four times. Six? Eight? I can't imagine.You'll notice that nearly all the population growth in the past 100 years has been in the "developing world". It's these folks who still need the big families to survive...or are still living in a culture that pushes you to have kids, whether you still "need" them or not.But these kids, their parents, their cultures don't want to be herding goats forever. They want what I have: the sturdy house, the car and the truck, the bank account, the computer and the clean clothes and the fatty foods.

Clean water. I take it for granted here in the rainy Northwest, but clean water - or any water at all - is a huge issue for much of the planet. What would it take to ensure access to sufficient clean water for every person on the planet? How much would it cost, both physically and politically? How likely is it that instead of cooperating to secure it people would, instead, fight over it, expending even more resources in the process?

The point is that all of this stuff fucking costs. It costs in the materials consumed to make it, to maintain it, to heat the house and fuel the car, light up the basement, and storybook the little Girl and soccer ball-and-cleat-and-uniform the big Boy. I am, we are, damn expensive to produce and maintain; one of me could feed and support a dozen or a score of men my age in a Lahore slum or in a village in Shensi. One of my family unit "costs" probably as much as an entire little settlement in the Sudan, or a nomadic encampment in Mongolia.

I would imagine that once the men in Lahore, Mongolia, Sudan and Shensi acquire their own wood-frame homes, cars, computers, washer-driers and little lawns they'll be ready to cut back to my own 2.25 kids (the cats are about a quarter-of-a-kid-pain-in-the-ass...).Some of them.

But where's the safe "stopping" point? What's the top-end human load that the Earth can sustain at my lifestyle? How long? What will that mean for the rest of the creatures on the planet? How do we know?

I'll posit this: we don't. And we won't. We'll find out the limit the hard way - by crossing it.

Because there's another factor at work here.

The simple answer would seem to be to slow down right now. Why not? Let's say that if we all get things down to about five kids per four adults that we will be able to slowly bring most of the world up to some approximation of a Western European/North American middle-class lifestyle. Okay, lower middle class lifestyle. Can we do that? Without strip-mining the planet, I mean? How about just providing every single person on the planet with scientific medical care, clean water, a sturdy home and a reliable supply of food? IS even THAT possible, if we stabilized the human population at today's numbers?

Because there's a real worm in that apple.

I can tell you that I'm a patriotic American, that I love my country, that I'd fight to defend it.

But what if my son had to defend it? Or my daghter? Or both?

I don't have "spares" - I know that's a callous way to describe it, but there it is. If my son dies in war my name dies with him. I have no further biological stake in my home, my state, my nation other than my own intellectual one. A nation whose reproduction drops to near replacement level is in the same position as I would be personally; there's no slack, my neighbor's death really does lessen me. A war, an epidemic, a famine...anthing that hits the public hard could result in a catastrophic drop in the ppulation.

And war here is the particularly menacing prospect. Kids, old people, disabled...these folks can't fight. Nobody yet has found a way to dispense with a man or woman with a rifle, and only the relatively young and relatively fit can fight as infantrymen, tankers, artillerymen.So taking this as a need for ensuring survival, the survival of the various groups and nations would seem to preclude there ever being a "stable" human population on the planet. We can't afford to stop reproducing if another group has excess young people to throw at us to take us down, no?

Thing is, I don't think this is a "solveable" problem; that is, I don't think there's a social or technological way to evade it or do more than defer it. I think that the human population will continue to grow, and that human needs and wants for the ever-more complex and costly goods and services that First Worlders like myself take for granted will grow with it. And that a combination of desire for offspring among some and a fear of being overrun by a competitor that is outbreeding them will prevent anyone from even making a real run at this. I think that we will see ever more people on Earth for the forseeable human future.Some technologic means, a "leap" such as the Green or Industrial Revolutions, might help defer the moment that we begin to overwhelm our natural resources. Or we as a species might figure out a way around this "reproduce-or-fail" trap. I just can't think of anything. I see a narrowing gap between that we have on Earth to sustain us and the number of people - and the way those people live - consuming it.

So I suspect that we're in for a shock when those lines converge. I don't know what that will mean in detail, but in general I suspect that means something bad; some long years of iron and blood, for my children, or their children, or their children's children.I hope I am not here to see it.

(Cross-posted to MilPub)

10 comments:

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

This is an interesting post for me, because I spent the bulk of my early adulthood feeling no need to reproduce, but bearing a strong fear of overpopulation and its consequences. When we first brought Q home, I wrote a post about how she was "the perfect predator". I was actually giving a nod to a much more lowbrow form of media...the Twilight series, in which the author describes vampires as the perfect predator because (in her lowbrow fantasyland) they were created to be in every imaginable way irresistible to humans (and yes, I'm ashamed that I ever even read one of those books). At the time, halfway between singlehood and motherhood, I felt that irresistible charm and draw that the Q was beginning to exert over me, and yet I still saw her as something that could potentially tap all my resources, creative time, and energy. Since then I have been completely and utterly consumed by the charms of the Q. I no longer feel any regret for the loss of time, energy or resources. I am 150% under her spell, and I feel only the joy of it. THat said, I am still terrified of the ramifications of overpopulation. I'll just leave it there. It's neither wrong nor right, but thanks to the fact that I have only one (and no designs on having more) and that that one came from the existing pool, without adding to it, I am able to indulge myself completely and without guilt in my utter submission to her innate charms, predatory as they may be. I'm a goner. I have submitted without hesitation to the parental imperative. I have given over all sense of self-preservation. I would take a bullet for her without a single regret. So be it.

Lee said...

This is why, although it is noble for Bill and Melinda Gates to try to save a million children from malaria, I have to wonder what happens when all those children who now die from natural causes grow up and need to be fed and housed and then start reproducing themselves. It's wonderful to save an individual child, from the parent's point of view, but from the planet's point of view it could be a disaster. Are Bill and Mel planning for that? Same for those who want to prevent abortions. Who will care for all those children? Is it logical for every conceived child to grow up?

On the other end of the scale, I don't see the logical reason to extend every human life as long as possible. If a disease comes for me, so be it. Once my kids are grown, I've done my part to keep the species going, and my presence here for the next 40 or 50 years will use up lots of resources and not contribute much. Maybe it's my total lack of spirituality (much too Asperger's like for that), but we are just another set of animals on this planet and way too many of us are simply consuming and not returning anything. Oh, and turn what's left of me into compost after you donate any useful bits once I don't need them any more.

Red Sand said...

I wish I even had the brainpower to enter into this discussion but since I'm still on the debt side of the addiction to little ones and have few clear thoughts on anything these days, I'll just let your words (in this post and in others) percolate in my brain and hope that my own thoughts might emerge again someday as the fog dissipates.

FDChief said...

WD: One of the enormous issues with dealing with the question of "how many people can we support" is that most of us feel the same way about our littlies (and our biggies, when they get there...). The insane fecundity of people like the Duggars appalls me, but beyond the religious side of it I do believe they honestly love kids and love THEIR kids enough to take a bullet for every one of them.

And every other parent - or at least, every other decent parent - feels the same way. So how do you tell people "You can't have more than two...or one!" If you're China you do it by fiat and could care less about the resulting human sorrow and unhappiness, but I'd imagine that few of us outside Tom Friedman would be throughly satisfied with the Chinese way.

While I personally feel that we're helping to do our bit by our family one-bio-kid policy, I don't know if it helps with the bigger picture...

FDChief said...

Lee: Several points well taken...with the exception that I would argue that you have a critically important function once your womb is no longer for rent. Just as I can see problems with the vitality of societies reduced to replacement level reproduction, I also see problems with the post-Bill-and-Melinda societies currently bursting with under-twenties, as all the "spare" kids survive and reproduce themselves. Frankly, the presence of men and women with no reproductive skin in the game, as smart as you are and with your (so far as I can tell) utterly rational and fairly objective outlook goes a long way towards offsettling the current popular affection for emotional infantilism and dogmatic irrationality.

Want to justify your next 30 years of consumption? Get elected to you local legislature on the "Not for Sale/No Bullshit" ticket and proceed to tell people inconvenient truths. If you have their ears for a single term you'll have justified the next 20 years of caviar and cabana boys...

FDChief said...

RS: awaiting your comments - please don't feel constrained or intimidated. Like blogging in general, this doesn't take awesome brainpower, just a willingness to air your ideas and take the resultant pummeling with grace.

Lisa said...

"I cannot think of an organism or a species of organisms that thrives without some sort of population control"

Right, and as you mention, the control is reduced forage or water, or microbes or war. The planet cannot outfit everyone in our current population (6.5 B) to the level of comfort you enjoy. I read today that this year may be the tipping year for more "minority" births in the U.S. than white. So the complexion (um) of the world will change, and probably general standards of living will also shift.

We are probably not at the apex of what frivolousness we might have, but we seem to be in a headlong rush to get there. I have the feeling that when do hit the penultimate end of our profligate consumption, there will be a spectacular crash.

I am not sure why most privileged people are unwilling to pare down. Then again, those on the ascendant are unwilling to be satisfied with their humble accouterments when they get a whiff of what's possible, too.

We're just greedy and can't equable share resources, so we'll only know the end when we get there, I s'pose. For all our religion, we're not brothers, and only really care about us and ours. We are lost, and have not been found.

Red Sand said...

Here goes, then. I'm not sure that there is a whole lot separating the N. American philosophy surrounding children with anything else lifestyle-related. And I do think to a certain degree that it is lifestyle and not much else, with a few religious exceptions. Our culture tells us that economies will continue to grow forever, that wages will increase forever, that fossil fuels and other such energy sources will always be there, that essentially, it's always going to get bigger and better. This feeds, I think into our approach to families - since the world can, we're told, support us, there's no personal responsibility associated with the impact of population on our society or on global society as a whole, just personal responsibility to provide for our children. Not to say that parental love isn't sincere, not at all, just that the impact of population growth is not questioned by all that many.

Regardless of this observation, I still longed for children (obviously), but even if I had the energy for more than my two, would not feel right going further than that. As you say, it's easy for me to say that - I don't need children as an insurance policy (at least under the current economic structure) or as a source of labour assistance in food production or whatnot.

I pessimistically think we're heading into much harder times, with only the first bump behind us, and I don't think it's going to be pretty. I wish I felt differently.

FDChief said...

"For all our religion, we're not brothers, and only really care about us and ours. We are lost, and have not been found."

Sadly, Lisa, this seems to be the story of the human race in general. We can manage to think of ourselves only as tribes and clans, and the "others" as, well..."others", and tomorrow as a neverland that may never affect us.

Now that we've developed the technological ability to alter our surroundings to such immense degree will we ever manage to transcend our monkey-brains to think wider and further than we ever have?

Sadly, my money is on no. I think we will go down into a nasty welter of poverty, sickness and war gibbering at fate and flinging our poop at each other. The indignity is almost as tragic as the suffering.

FDChief said...

RS: So do I.

I think that the impulse to love and want children is hardwired in a lot of us, perhaps most of us, for otherwise why would we do it?

What gets complicated is, as you point out, when that meets a cultural dynamic that demands we have more, faster, shinier, better...and considers things like air, water, food, minerals as "free resources", and doesn't ask that we pay the real price for consuming them. Some of this is human nature, but a lot of it is deliberate policy, so governments subsidize industrial farming, rapacious commercial fishing or dirty fish farming, wasteful mining...and kick the environmental and societal can down the road.

But how long a road do we have left?

I don't know. Like I said - I don't think anyone knows. But I have a nasty suspicion that it's not as long, or as wide and easy, as we think it is.