November 2009

Why is population a forbidden subject?

B y Galen Larson

Over the last few months, I’ve been asking friends, relatives, and strangers what they think of when they hear the word “save.” The answers were varied; some made reference to one’s soul, while others talked about saving money for the future. Money and material items were at the top of the list.

Only a few mentioned the environment or natural resources, but think about it. What use are money and material goods if we destroy this planet? All my life I’ve been hearing about conservation, but so far the efforts seem to have made little headway. We have clean-air laws, but pollution blows over from China. We have laws about clean water, but then people in the West drink from their wells and discovers they’ve been contaminated by nearby natural-gas-drilling.

Across the country there is a call for more and more power plants, even while it becomes obvious that burning fossil fuels is heating up this old globe at a rapid rate. Rain forests are being mowed down to make room for crops. The Sahara Desert grows as poor people chop down vegetation to build fires. Animals go extinct due to loss of habitat. We are losing our precious food source from the oceans thanks to over-fishing and pollution.

What’s the common thread in all this? A thinking person might say, “Eureka! It’s the population, stupid!”

What matters may not be how much we throw away but how many throw away how much.

But wait! you say. Isn’t it taboo to discuss population? Doesn’t it amount to the closed-gate theory: “I’m here, so I want to keep out others”?

Well, no. I’m not concerned about keeping out others in order to make room for me. I know my time will come. But I have left behind a multiplier of three. We best take a good long look at the facts. Two-thirds of this planet is covered by water. Of this, only a small portion is potable. Much of the land is mountainous or desert, not the best for human habitation. That leaves only a small portion of this earth that can provide food and habitat for human beings.

Why is the idea of limiting our population so shocking? We know that game animals in the wild must be culled, whether by four-legged predators or humans with guns, or they would cover the earth. We know that pasture lands will sustain only so many domestic animals at a time. And yes, we are animals too, no matter if one believes we fell out of a tree, slithered from under a rock, washed ashore or were driven from the Garden of Eden.

Why, then, have we not realized that we cannot sustain an ever-growing human population? “Go forth and multiply” is no longer the road to survival. Centuries of wars, famine and disease have done little to stem the tide of overpopulation. Nor has abstinence ever caught on. Only education about birth control and the consequences of overpopulation will suffice. We can get as “green” as we want and conserve as much as we can — recycle, monitor air and water, buy organic — but until we confront the real polluter, human overpopulation, we are just spinning our wheels in the sands of time and throwing up a dust screen.

In my short 80 years, the United States has grown from about 125 million in the 1930s to more than 300 million today. China, despite horrifically strict laws about birth control and reproduction, numbers 1.3 billion and counting. Then there is India, which cannot feed its people or provide them with centralized sewer systems.

Clean air, clean water, and open space to grow food: Without these, King Midas himself would be a poor man. But the more children we raise, the less room, water and food each will have. We have found ways to squeeze more crops out of farm land through the use of chemical fertilizers, but how long can that go on? And what about water? No technology has been found yet to efficiently and cheaply de-salinate ocean water. It’s pie in the sky to believe that technology will always find an answer and that the population can just grow forever.

People say that anyone who worries about overpopulation must want others to die, but that isn’t the case at all. The fact is, if we just keep growing, more people will die prematurely from starvation, wars and disease. The more children we raise, the less room, water and food for each of them, which only leads to more war and starvation.

I want the people who are here, plus our future generations, to be able to live full lives with all the food and clean water and space they need. There is no technology that can make the earth larger and give us new continents to spread onto. “Fly me to the moon” is a love song, not a road map to a new frontier.

Galen Larson writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.