Plenitude on Any Terms

Oak Ridges Moraine
In today’s NYT, Verlyn Klinkenborg laments the lack of attention to the fact that California’s population (like Canada’s) is expected to nearly double to 60 million by 2050 (both populations, barring crisis, will reach 100 million by 2100, with US total population expected to remain about ten times that amount, one billion by 2100). Klinkenborg notes that, even with a moderation in the growth of consumption and average house size, the increase in total use of land and resources, and waste produced, will increase at a considerably faster rate than population. He concludes:
This population forecast is a vivid reminder of the assumptions that make meaningful change so hard. We can’t help believing in growth. We can’t help believing that the way to create change is simply to buy different stuff, so growth doesn’t stop. And we refuse to think seriously about the number of human beings on this planet, a kind of growth that somehow seems “natural” to us. It makes no difference how little each of those 60 million Californians will consume in 2050. It’s nearly impossible to imagine how they could meet their water needs alone.

And then there is the impact of all those people on the other species with which they might have shared the Golden State. In 2007, we remain blindly impervious to the life-claims of almost all other forms of life ó to the moral stipulation that their right to life is equivalent to ours. How it will be then I do not know, but if there are indeed 60 million people living in California in 2050, there will be nothing meaningful to be said on the matter, except as a subject of nostalgia.

We like to take it for granted that we’re moving ahead in environmental consciousness. We like to hope that the curve of our environmental awareness will catch up to the curve of our economic growth and things will somehow come into balance. But faith in our progressive enlightenment seems a little misplaced to me, especially when I remember a speech that James Madison gave to his local agricultural society nearly 190 years ago.

Madison said, simply, that we have no reason to suppose that all of Earth’s resources, which support so much living diversity, can rightfully be commandeered to support mankind alone. It seems incredible to me, in 2007, that a former president could articulate such an environmentally sound principle of conscience. But it’s a principle that should move to the very center of our thinking. It should cause us to re-examine not just how we shop and what we drive and who we elect but also how our species reproduces. It should cause us to re-imagine that once and future California, which lies only 43 years away, and make sure that it isn’t barren of all but us humans.

Population growth of 1-2% per year is so slow that we tend to ignore it, and assume that it can be simply or naturally absorbed. But 1% growth compounded adds up to 60% in 50 years and 170% (a near-tripling) in 100 years. And 2% growth compounded adds up to 170% growth (a near tripling) in 50 years and 620% (over seven times current population) in 100 years — that’s what’s (still) occurring in most of the world’s struggling nations. It’s the proverbial ‘boiling frog’ situation – nothing seems to be happening, but suddenly you wake up and the place you love is gone.
I live just outside the Greater Toronto Area, in an area, the Oak Ridges Moraine, that is, for now, supposedly, protected wetland and greenbelt (see map above). The GTA, home to half of Canada’s new immigrants, is growing by more than 2% per year, so even if this slows somewhat, we’re looking at a population of six million today exploding to 15 million by 2050 and over 40 million by 2100. Since most of the new residents want single-family homes on private lots, we’re talking about a quadrupling of built-up area by 2050 and a ten-fold increase by 2100. This is precisely what has happened in most of the cities in the struggling nations in the last century. The New Yorker has chillingly described what urban life is like there.
A recent post by my friend Joe Bageant explains the sense of fatalism, disbelief, denial and indifference that most of us feel when we look at such forecasts. He likens us to ants who, up until the day their colony dies off suddenly from lack of water, continue to do what they have always done, unaware or unresponsive to the pending disaster. Do they sense, know it is coming, and just shrug their thoraxes that these troublesome signs are not their business, something in the Queen’s or the Ant God’s hands? Joe writes:
We begin too late to “make better choices.” Grim choices that do nothing but postpone the inevitable, which are called better ones and sold to us to make ourselves feel better about our toxicity. Burn corn in your gas tank. Go green, with the help of Monsanto. But not many can be concerned even with the matter of better choices. Few can truly grasp the fullness of the danger because there is no way they can get their minds around it, no way to see the world in its entirety…
All the green energy sources and eating right and voting right cannot fix what has been irretrievably ruined, but only make life amid the ruination slightly more bearable…
So we postpone transformation through truth, and stick with what has always worked — empire and consumption. And we twiddle our lives away thorough insignificant fretting about mortgages and health care and political parties and pretend the whole of Western culture is not a disconnect…
We allow ourselves to imagine the worst is somewhere in yet another future so we can continue without owning decision. Love of comfort being the death of courage, we continue the familiar commoditized life, the only one we have known…

Some few of us are in a hellish limbo, simply waiting for total collapse because it is easier to rebuild from nothing than to change billions of minds not even remotely concerned with the looming catastrophe. A minority of the world, the six percent called America, suffers the mass self-delusion of endless plenitude. A much larger portion is less concerned with the moral aspects of consumption because they are brutally engaged in trying to find enough to eat and a drink of clean water. So plenitude on any terms looks damned good. Escape to America because those fuckers over there don’t seem to be suffering at all.

And that brings us back to 60 million and then 100 million Californians, a like number of somewhat colder, somewhat less drought-stricken Canadians (nearly half of them in the GTA), and a billion Americans, still looking for “plenitude on any terms”.

I know, you don’t believe it will happen. Previous neo-Malthusians, after all, have been wrong; their dire predictions never came about. Why should it be any different this century?

We’ll figure it out, you say. We’ll adapt. We’ll voluntarily reduce our fertility. We’ll close down immigration before it gets to this. Technology will allow us to live better with less consumption, to collaborate on solutions.

And what more can we do anyway? We’re already being more frugal, driving greener cars, having fewer children than our parents. We’re doing our part. So shut up about it already.

Like Joe’s ant colony, we don’t believe in Armageddon. And those who do also believe in salvation from a higher power. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, andthen we do what’s fun.

If only those needs, those comforts, those joys didn’t come with such a huge, and inevitable cost.

Category: Overpopulation
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7 Responses to Plenitude on Any Terms

  1. David Parkinson says:

    Well, we can only fight the battles we recognize and know how to arm ourselves against. It’s all too little too late, but it still beats doing nothing or staying ignorant. That’s about all the upside I can find in the picture.I keep running into surprising wisdom in unexpected places. There are so many people out there tuned in to the same reality as the one I’m in; and like me they travel incognito, stay low to the ground, work on their own little things, and prepare for the crisis times. Cos It’s all they know how to do.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks David. My hope is that this post doesn’t come across as hopeless, because I think we need to all get used to lots of bad news, and not get frustrated by it. I am very hopeful, not that we are going to save the world or find some way to continue living in the unsustainable way we have gotten used to (and too comfortable with), but rather that the challenges we face, and the awareness some of us have of these challenges, will cause us to do some remarkable experiments that will benefit those that come after civilization’s collapse, and in the process we will rediscover community, learn to be more human, and more loving, and more joyful, and more in-the-moment and more connected to all-life-on-Earth than anyone has been able to in millennia. Those experiences and daring experiments will be the things that mark our lives as extraordinary, and bring us meaning, and make it all not only worthwhile, but filled with ecstasy.It’s a terrible and wonderful time to be alive.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Ronald Wright’s A Short History Of Progress (I believe that you’ve mentioned in previous discussions between us that you have read it) suggests strongly that this time around any comprehensive systems collapse for humans may very well be the last time around, precisely because we have so many more people now than ever before and we aren’t really taking any cognizance of over-population as a critical factor in the operations of our human systems and societies. I offer that recall not as a call to exercise human control over the earth and nature but as an indictment of our messed-up socio-economic systems that make family planning and birth control politically, economically or socially unacceptable in many countries.And I know you consider over-population to be a meta problem, as do I.

  4. But how do we counter the accusation of hypocrisy? Here we all are living in our beautiful homes, brimming with technology, pontificating about the world’s demise. Joe Bageant quit consumerism as best he could. What is the moral position on owning so much when others have so little?

  5. etbnc says:

    I could help a relatively small fraction of our population by giving away all my stuff. I might help a few more by reducing my consumption to zero, which I could achieve by becoming dead. But as long as our culture marches on, neither my death nor my potential generosity would achieve my goal of a sustainable ecosystem that includes humans.I’ve looked at a lot of options from a lot of angles, and I keep coming to the same conclusion: the most good I can do for the most people is to wield influence, to persuade, to steer folks toward a tipping point so that the real cultural changes can occur.After we reach a tipping point of social change, then it may become helpful to give away my stuff. Or maybe my stuff won’t be helpful to me or to anyone else at that point. But that’s a decision for a later time, for a different culture.That doesn’t stop me from donating some of my stuff, some of my money, some of my time to short-term, purely tactical social causes. But I find I can be most effective if I spend the majority of my time and effort on persuading people toward a tipping point.(some related thoughts at this blog)Cheers

  6. etbnc says:

    Hmmm….that link seems mangled, so…take two. I meant to link to this:

  7. Richard says:

    I agree that population growth is a problem. I am no expert, but I wonder if it is somewhat oversimplified in the article you refer to. Some places like Europe and Russia have been without growth or actually declining for many years. I have read somewhere that Japan’s population will have actually been reduced by half (from 125m. to 60m.) in 100 years and apparently implicitly supported by government. The same process is occurring in China as a result of their “one child per couple” law that is rigorously implemented. Aside from the China situation, my understanding is that birth rates are increasing in mainly in the poorest regions of the world where public education is either poor or inexistent. Canada’s growth is largely due to new immigrants and the first generation’s inherited comportment that I submit diminishes with the following generation of educated offspring. But the U.S. seems to be a bit of both: immigration (legal or illegal) and inadequate public education. See on this topic Emmanuel Todd’s book “Après l’Empire”. I don’t know if it was translated into English.The projections for California remain projections. They may change just as world population projections have been reduced repeatedly over the last 30 years. That is not to say that population growth is not a big problem. And even if we do reduce the population growth in the most at risk areas (Africa, India, Pakistan, Central and South America) we must ensure it is not merely to create a greater number of “the American Dream” consumers. Does anyone else have view on this? I am new to this exercise so thanks for your understanding….:)

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