Population Stress Index, ranging from purple (extremely high) to white (moderate)

One of the hallmarks of the recent US election campaign was the way in which the two parties defined ‘strength’, which to most people seemed to mean protecting Americans (and their valuables, more than their values). A surprising number of Americans appear to see no great need for America to take a leadership role in the world — isolationism has a long tradition in the US, dating back well before their reticence to take on their allies’ enemies in the two world wars. Most, it seems, are content to own the world and let others run it, if it needs running at all — there’s a strong libertarian streak in America as well, at both ends of the political spectrum.

Strength, then, comes down, for most, to looking after Americans and American interests. No Kennedys or Clintons needed for that. To conservative Republicans, ‘strength’ would seem to mean taking action: Launching pre-emptive wars, passing harsh new laws to prevent anyone swarthy from getting in, clamping down on gays and women and liberals and other un-American-thinking minorities because someone has to be to blame for everything that’s going wrong and it sure as hell isn’t us. We can always disguise our homophobia, gynophobia and xenophobia by saying these threatening groups ‘don’t share American values’.

To more liberal Democrats, ‘strength’ would seem to mean something very different — taking responsibility, not taking action. Kerry’s war experience and Bush’s draft dodging in Vietnam matter to them, because Bush’s behaviour reflects an unwillingness to take responsibility. But to Republicans, that’s an unaffordable political luxury — who cares if he takes responsibility (the churches that now dominate Republican thinking believe, remember, that you can always be forgiven for irresponsible acts if you confess), as long as he takes action. After 9/11, they didn’t care if it was al Qaeda or Saddam or the Taliban or anyone else that attacked and threatened them — they just wanted Bush to do something. The UN sought to work with America to act responsibly (most of the core members of the UN have long liberal traditions) in response to the attack. Bush, and most Americans, would have none of this — any action, no matter how irresponsible, was better than no action. No action, or cautious, considered action, would ’embolden the enemy’, it would be a sign of weakness. Attacking Saddam, who hated and feared the Islamic fundamentalists who actually perpetrated the attacks on America, was a sign of strength, resolve, and made Bush a man of action in the minds of conservative Americans.

Realizing how important ‘action as strength’ was perceived by the American majority, Kerry ended up compromising his own positions and talking almost as hawkishly as Bush on Iraq, but by then it was too late. Kerry had spent most of the campaign talking (quite rightly) about Bush’s irresponsible behaviour — in Iraq, in mismanaging the economy, in dropping the ball on health care and education and the environment. But most Americans didn’t care — the conservative credo, steeped in most of America’s religions, is that your only responsibility is to yourself and your family, and if people are unable to look after themselves and their families, then fuck ’em, it’s not the government’s job to be responsible for them. The job of government, to conservatives, is to be responsive, not responsible.

It’s interesting that these two words with such different meanings and consequences, have the same root.

What does this lack of responsibility (beyond the immediate family) say about America and our times? This ‘every family for itself’ ethos is common in third-world countries whose religions originated in the Middle East. It is exemplified by weak or non-existent social security nets, staggering disparity between the rich and poor, and rampant crime rates. The US is behaving more and more like this every day. It is precisely the malaise of stress and fear that Edward Hall describes in The Hidden Dimension — the aggressive-psychopathic behaviour of a population in psychological crisis. In nature this is a rare phenomenon, a last-resort, adrenaline-driven breakdown in social order and demeanor wrought in situations of catastrophic overcrowding to quickly cull numbers to bring population back into ecological balance.

But while the Middle East is vastly overpopulated relative to available resources, and has the highest population growth rate in the world, America isn’t overcrowded, is it?

It all depends how you look at it. The aggressive-psychopathic behaviour that Hall describes, natures ’emergency brake’, tends to be very humane — not only does it only kick in when less violent rebalancing mechanisms have failed, but it tends to anticipate the inevitability of catastrophic overcrowding, and begin gradually, rather than waiting for that catastrophe to occur and then kick in belatedly. The adrenaline surges that are evident in the chemistry of all population- and resource-stressed creatures start slowly and increase until they work.

The map I show above (from this earlier post) attempted to diagram what I’ve called the Population Stress Index (population per arable hectare of land times annual population growth rate) — what I think could be a surrogate for the degree of adrenaline-surge that produces aggressive and psychopathic behaviour. In the same post I included a map by Matthew White showing death rates from violence by country that showed almost an exact correlation with the Population Stress Index.

It could be argued that in countries with a high Population Stress Index, the consequence of the resultant adrenaline-induced aggressive-psychopathic behaviour is a shift from a propensity for responsibility (taking care of, and nurturing, the entire community and ecosystem) to a propensity for action without concern for the consequences i.e. irresponsible, unduly violent, psychopathic action. The only problem with this theory is that the Population Stress Index for the US is only moderately high, not significantly higher than that of the liberal European nations, Canada and Australia.

But what this map does not take into account is that not all people on Earth make an equal demand on the planet’s resources. We live in a world where, at least in the West, much human consumption of food, oil and other resources is imported, not produced domestically. If you were to replace ‘population per arable hectare’ with the ‘footprint per habitable hectare’, and replace ‘annual population growth rate’ with the ‘footprint growth rate’, I think you’d see a picture that more accurately reflects the true population stress that each country is facing. While the US population is growing quite quickly (due to immigration, and new immigrants’ propensity to have larger families), its footprint, already the largest in the world, is also growing at an astonishing rate (four times the rate of its population). So while the US could well have a population of one billion by the end of this century, its consumption of land and resources could be the equivalent of what four billion Americans, at today’s per-capita consumption level, would consume. That would (and will, barring some drastic changes) mean no room for wilderness, no room for outdoor agriculture, no room for open space of any kind — just ocean-to-ocean suburban sprawl.

And while that’s almost unimaginable, it’s not at all inconceivable to me that Americans are feeling the stress of this in their bones, that they instinctively, subconsciously, ‘know’ that they are facing the end of open space, the end of oil, the end of an economy of waste and exploitation of the third world, an end to everything they know and love. They don’t know it in their heads, but their adrenaline is rising, fast. Just like the mice in the catastrophically overcrowded laboratory, they are fearful, stressed out, screaming at their alpha males to do something. Screw responsibility, we’ve got to attack someone, kill, steal, take. Time for irrational, anti-social, insane behaviour. Time for a dynasty of Bushes. Time to start eating our young.

Europeans, more by good luck and learning from grim failures than any advantages of character, have discovered that by taking responsibility, and reducing both population growth and footprint growth to substantially zero, they can manage the ghastly population stress that produced the plague, centuries of brutal wars, horrendous famines and unimaginable deprivation on that continent. Whether it is too late for the US to learn that lesson and start to take responsibility for the misery, suffering and collapse it is now causing worldwide, is a matter of opinion. Earlier this month, by a margin of 51% to 48%, Americans told the world it was.

(it will take me a while to find the time to pull together the Footprint Stress Index data and make the map, but I’ll post it when it’s done)

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  1. Gary says:

    Very provocative, as usual. I’m looking forward to your Stress Footprint map. I’m also wondering if a map indicating a country’s propensity for using capital punishment might look similar. There could hardly be a greater poster child for “screw responsibility and take action” than America’s willingness to put convicted wrong-doers to death in the face of progressives’ astonishment at how a civilized country can engage in so barbaric a practice. While governor of Texas, GW Bush oversaw the premeditated killings of 131 individuals, and the majority of Amercans approve. We’re all on a bus, and fear is the driver.

  2. gbreez says:

    Sitting in my little cottage in the woods, this all seems impossible and far away. But, I too am like the little mouse whose adrenaline is flowing. I am afraid. Not of terrorists. I am afraid of Bu$hCo, the driver of the bus, who is insane. We should be working together to slow down the ride, take away the fear, change this made rush to perdition. We need to join with our neighbors and those friends we still have across the pond, to figure out ways to work towards our mutual health and welbeing, as all sane people would do. Alas, I am still shaking my head.

  3. Ken Hirsch says:

    Since the residents of lower-density, rural counties overwhelmingly voted for Bush, and the residents of the teeming cities for Kerry, I guess it was actually the Kerry voters that were in a panic-stricken “let’s eat our young” mood.Leaving aside the meaningless “footprint” statistic, let’s look at that actual population densities if the U.S. had 1 billion people. Excluding Alaska completely, that would be 337 persons per square mile. By contrast, Delaware and New York now have about 400 persons per square mile.New York state, with large cities, is 85% rural, with 56% forest land, 17% crop land, and 9% pasture. Delaware, with more suburban sprawl, is only 64% rural (23% forest, 32% cropland, 10% pasture/other).Not exactly “ocean-to-ocean suburban sprawl”. In your earlier post, you said you were going to calculate the correlation coefficient between your PSI construct and the death rate from war and atrocities. What was it?

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