Population Boom or Bust?

Since 1798 when Thomas Malthus published "An Essay on the Principle of Population", the causes and consequences of a steadily increasing human population have been studied by society's elite and have influenced government policies, cultural institutions, and family norms.  During his time the debate waged between whether or not we had a population problem.  Does human population really grow geometrically while food production grows arithmetically, leading to inevitable starvations, wars for scarce resources, and other sources of misery?  Or is this an imaginary problem?  Can technological advances in agriculture keep pace with human population growth?  If not, can individuals limit their collective growth to not exceed the scarce resources on this planet without the heavy hand of government?  Or why look to this planet as the limit, is exponential growth our glorious destiny, with this planet just being the first stop to Alpha Centauri and beyond?

Today the general consensus to these latter questions is no.  There are too many people, and those people can't be counted on to live sustainable lives on their own accord.  For every thousand specialists combating the social problems of crime, poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and child abuse, you have one that sees these symptoms as branches, and unsustainable population growth as the root.  But a tree needs soil, nutrients, water, and sunlight to live - so what feeds this tree of misery?  Is it the human condition itself?  Are we destined to breed beyond the earth's capacity to sustain us, always resulting in a society of haves and have-nots?  Or is there something else feeding this problem?  If so, what?

Human Beings as the Problem

In the movie The Matrix, Agent Smith says that human beings are a disease.  Many of our intellectual and government elite share that sentiment.  They say we are a plague.  Prince Henry fantasizes about being reincarnated as a deadly virus to thin the human population.  Are they right?  Does the earth have a bad case of the "humans"?  If so, then blasting off to other galaxies would just delay the inevitable.  Einstein called compound interest the most powerful force in the universe, and we've all heard the legend of the mathematician's challenge to the king concerning rice and a chessboard.  Starting with 1 grain of rice and doubling it for every square on a chessboard results in 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains - a heap the size of Mount Everest.  So if humans cannot live any way but through perpetual, exponential growth, assuming we live in a finite universe, then we would end up filling the stars until we've consumed every last resource - and then we'd all die.

If human populations grow exponentially in a finite universe, then the anti-humanists are right.  Let's hope we can challenge one of those assumptions.

This is a pretty grim picture, and there are only two answers to this scenario.  The first is to challenge the assumption of living in a finite universe.  If we could create free, limitless energy through cold fusion, taping into the zero-point field or other methods, then perhaps the next advance in technology right around the corner will solve this seemingly insurmountable problem.  Or do we live in a far uglier world, where free-energy devices have been suppressed by shadowy conspiracies as described in the documentary Thrive?

If we discount free-energy and assume that humans cannot naturally limit their growth through voluntary means, then an ends-justifies-the-means argument that most would find abhorrent becomes debatable.  Should powerful governments use their monopoly on violence to force their captive citizens to limit their growth?  Starting with the least objectionable means, governments could use "soft power" to promote zero-growth behaviors by offering free contraceptives and education to those that would otherwise go without.  In the novel The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess, the governments in a world plagued by overpopulation resort to similar means, such as promoting homosexuality and sterilization while criminalizing families that have more than one child.

Unfortunately, we don’t need to look to fiction to find examples of the "hard power" available to governments in their fight against population growth, and China's one-child policy is not the only illustration.  The United States of America was the first country to forcibly sterilize tens of thousands of people when pursuing the pseudo-science of eugenics.  As documented in Edwin Black's scholarly work, War Against the Weak, Hitler wrote love letters to American eugenicists while he sat in jail for the Beer Haul Putsch.  And the praise went both ways.  American eugenicists wrote letters to each other describing their mutual admiration of Nazi Germany for taking the necessary steps that Americans were just not ready for.  Needless to say, they kept their mouths shut when their dream of eugenics was exposed as a nightmare of crematoriums and concentration camps to the horror of the American public.  As Michael Crichton writes in his essay Why Politicized Science is Dangerous, all of a sudden "nobody was a eugenicist, and nobody had ever been a eugenicist."

When governments get in the business of managing human  populations they may have noble sounding reasons.  Whether it's for improving the genetics of the human race or saving the earth, the ends do not justify the means.

Reflecting on this example, we know the evils that governments are capable of when pursuing eugenics and its seemingly noble goal of "improving the qualities of future generations either physically or mentally".  Given this recent history, it's not without precedent to suppose that future governments could resort to similarly genocidal means in the equally serious fight against overpopulation.  Some will argue that it's already happening right before our eyes, the only difference being the transition from Hitler's iron fist to a technocratic elite's velvet glove.  Is this the Brave New World we have to look forward to?  Is this truly our predicament?

One Culture as the Problem

At least one man says no: Humans qua humans are not the problem.  Instead, it is only one human culture that is inherently unstable and plunging towards disaster.  Unfortunately, that is the dominant culture compromising 99.99% of the people on planet earth.  The man identified by this lone voice is Daniel Quinn, and he calls this a positive message.  From his unique perspective it is very positive.  After all, if human beings are truly the problem then the only solution to saving the planet consists of submitting to a scientific dictatorship, killing ourselves, and seeking happiness in the afterlife.  But if it is just one culture that is the culprit, one particular set of rules, customs and way of thinking, just one culture out of the tens of thousands that have existed, then at least this can be changed.  There is at least the possibility of hope.

Quinn's worldview is explored in a quasi-trilogy consisting of three philosophical novels: Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael.  All three are sub-titled "An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit" and they truly meet the definition of adventure as each book leads the unsuspecting reader through completely unknown territory via a Socratic dialogue that challenges our holiest beliefs and our most sacred cows.  Whether or not you walk away converted by his message you will be changed.  Unable to view our institutions and cultural norms through the same unquestioning eyes, you will hear the voice of Ishmael challenging you and pointing out the other way.

So what is this new way of looking at the world, and how does it relate to the cause of our assumed population problem?  The basis of this vision is the relatively new but seemingly unremarkable fact that the history of humans on this planet is not 10,000 years old, but approximately 3 million years old.  This claim is considered uncontroversial stuff for everyone except the most die-hard bible thumpers, those who would claim that the earth itself is only a few thousand years old and dinosaur bones were placed by the devil to test our faith.

8,000 B.C. does not mark the creation of the earth or the birth of humans, but it does approximate the event we call the Agricultural Revolution, which is the primary factor that unites our superficially different cultures both east and west.  We are taught to view the Agricultural Revolution as the zeitgeist that lifted humanity out of the mud and set us on a journey that would eventually put us on the moon.  Our evolutionary story is progressive and linear, always moving forward, never backward.  From single-celled organisms that evolved into human's prehistoric ancestors, it was all leading up to the discovery of agriculture so that man could leave his animal brethren behind and take his rightful place with the gods as master of all he surveyed.  It was only with the Agricultural Revolution that we started truly being human.  Only with this milestone could we realize our vision that "the World was made for Man, and Man was made to conquer and rule it."

Quinn's revolutionary doctrine posits the existence of a contrary world vision, one that is out of fashion today, but prior to the agricultural revolution was the world vision shared by the thousands of distinct human cultures that had spread to every continent on the earth at that time.  This 3 million year old vision, still held by the 0.01% of the population that haven't joined us, like the Bushmen of Africa or the Alawa of Australia, says "the world is a sacred place and a sacred process, and we are a part of it."

Leavers vs. Takers: not as a linear and evolutionary progression, but as a short-term deviation from a stable way of living that served us for millions of years.  Will we survive it?

For lack of a better term, Quinn calls the peoples that lived and still live by this radically different world view as "Leavers" while the rest of us are categorized as "Takers".  The takers believe that humans own the world, while the leavers believe humans are part of the world.  The takers live by the same law that regulates every other creature that we share this planet with, what Quinn calls the law of limited competition.  This law says, "You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war."

For Quinn, this law of limited competition regulates the lives of lions, toads, and wombats.  Indeed, all creatures that fly in the air, swim in the sea or slither on the ground must obey this law or face extinction, and the great folly of our culture is that we do not believe this law applies to us.  If Quinn is correct, and humans aren't exempt from this law, then we may be in the same situation as the would-be pilot who is pushed off a cliff and trying to operate a flying machine that was not built according to the laws of aerodynamics.  As our delusional pilot plummets to the ground he may believe he is flying, but that fantasy will be short lived as he rapidly approaches the consequences of disobeying a natural law.  Similarly, since our culture does not obey the natural law that allowed our ancestors to live in harmony with the world for 3 million years, our last 10,000 years of history is a mere blink of the eye in the proper perspective.  We may think we're flying, but we're really accelerating towards the destruction of all life on this planet, or at least the destruction of our own lives.

Agriculture as the Problem

Now that the necessary background of leavers vs. takers has been introduced, we can visit Quinn's ideas concerning how agriculture contributes to the population problem.

In Ishmael, Quinn seemed to argue that the Taker worldview is directly manifested through their form of agriculture.  If man's destiny is to conquer and rule the world, then man's duty is to decide what lives and what dies.  So we kill the wolves and the lions because they eat our sheep.  We kill the grasshoppers and other insects that eat our crops.  The Takers decided that rather than eating from the Garden of Eden like their Leaver brothers they would only dine on their most favorite foods and declare war on anything that got in their way.

While it is much harder work to toil in the fields than to live as hunter-gatherers (Kalahari Bushman worked 12-19 hours a week for food, Tanzania Hadz nomads about 14 hours), it does create greater food surpluses than any other method.  And here we come to Quinn's next radical claim: the food surpluses caused by adopting agriculture will result in a population increase, which will require more forests to be plowed over to plant our favorite foods, which will always lead to a further increase in population, which will require more land put to the plow, which will yet again enable an increased population, ad infinitum.

In The Story of B, Quinn calls this an inevitable consequence of the ABCs of Ecology, where "A" represents "food" in its most general context.  Food includes every creature in the community of life.  Plant food, swimming food, flying food, crawling food, even humans - we are all food.  The "B" represents how populations rise and fall depending on food availability, and he states this as a unbreakable law.  "There is no species that dwindles in the midst of abundance, no species that thrives on nothing."  It's hard to argue with that logic.

The ABC's of Ecology: As food populations increase, feeder populations increase. As feeder populations increase, food populations decrease. As food populations decrease, feeder populations decrease. As feeder populations decrease, food populations increase.

Not only is this law of ecology plausible on the surface, but it seems to have some empirical evidence behind it as well.  In Ishmael, Quinn walks us through our forgotten history as he plots the estimated human population from 3,000,000 B.C. to today.  His point seems inescapable.  For 3 million years man and his ancestors spread to every continent on the globe and developed a stable population with their environment.  Even going from 200,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. gives us an estimated doubling rate of once every 19,000 years.  But once you hit that 8,000 B.C. mark everything changes.  All of a sudden that stable and slow growth starts looking exponential.  The doubling takes 5,000 years, then 2,000 years, then 1,600.  1,400 years later we're at 1 B.C. and the human population has reached 200 million.  It took us 1,200 years to reach 400 million, then just 500 years for 800 million.  By 1900, 200 years later, we're at 1.5 billion.  1960 takes us to 3 billion, and by 1998 we've reached 6 billion - a doubling in just 36 years.

For Quinn, these data points are fundamentally no different than what you'd see running an experiment with a population of rats as you increase their food supply and widen their cage.  Our species is governed by the same laws as rats and deer and mountain lions, and we ignore this at our own peril.  Our form of agriculture is unsustainable.  We will never feed the whole world.  For those in the 3rd world, their bellies will forever be empty.  Any increase in food production will not feed them, it will just result in more damn people.  It is was a losing battle before it ever began.

Libido Dominandi as the Problem

After reading Ishmael I estimated that I was about 90% supportive of what he had to say.  I enjoyed looking through his unique worldview.  I found his arguments interesting and his Socratic dialogue engaging, but I wasn't ready to jump on the blame-agriculture bandwagon.  I definitely agreed that our world is headed for disaster and that our culture as opposed to humans themselves require some major changes - but putting it all on agriculture didn't make sense.  There were too many counter-arguments and counter-examples, some of which admitted by Quinn himself.

In the first place, Quinn gives examples of Leaver cultures that practiced agriculture in various degrees.  Some, like the Plains Indians, just devoted a fraction of their time to promoting the crops they enjoyed while still using the majority of their time to hunt and forage.  He gives other examples of Leaver cultures that seemed to have experimented with heavy-duty agriculture but then apparently decided to abandon the practice and return to an easier way of life.  If just one Leaver culture can practice agriculture without turning Taker, then clearly agriculture cannot be the defining characteristic of Takers nor the sine qua non of our population dilemma.

In The Story of B Quinn introduces the term Totalitarian Agriculture, and defines it as "the style of agriculture whereby its practitioners destroy all competition and assume all resources are made only for their own use".  But again, this is a matter of degrees.  At what point are you merely promoting the crops you enjoy most versus declaring war on all life?  That line is too fuzzy.

In my mind, the key to what defines the Taker culture is revealed by Quinn himself as he describes how the Agricultural Revolution started in the fertile crescent and from there expanded until it eventually filled the world.  The key is that the Takers would not let the Leavers live as they wanted to.  The Takers either exterminated their Leaver competitors through war or assimilated them.  The Takers did not agree with the philosophy of "live and let live".  This is what puts the Totalitarian in Totalitarian Agriculture.  The Taker's lust to dominate their fellow men is the key to this puzzle.  Their insatiable desire to rule others is the real culprit, not agriculture.

To be fair, this does introduce a chicken or egg scenario.  Did the use of agriculture and the concomitant increase in population necessitate the conquering of neighboring tribes to capture their land?  Or did the lust to dominate and rule other tribes give the first Taker the idea to put their captured slaves to work in the fields in order to feed this new ruling class?  Where is the original sin?  And just because one came first, does that make it the true cause of our problem?

At the risk of appearing as one that sees a world of nails because all he has is a hammer, I believe libido dominandi, the lust to dominate, is the true issue.  Agriculture can be practiced sustainably and with respect to the environment without introducing the spiraling chain of events that have led us to this unenviable position.  The problem is not agriculture, but the desire to rule others, i.e. government.  If the culture of governing is the problem, then a new culture of anarchism is the solution.

Even the population problem?  That's the way it looks...

Although he never says it, Quinn gives plenty of supporting evidence to this claim.  In My Ishmael, Quinn focuses mainly on our social institutions - how we raise our children, how we educate them, how we deal with conflicts, how we live as people.  He compares our current methods with those employed by Leaver cultures, and points out that humans had ways of living peaceably for 3 million years, but we lost that knowledge over the last 10,000 years during "the Great Forgetting".  The point that seemed obvious to me was that every leaver culture he described operated in a state of anarchy - there were no rulers.  Now there were leaders to be sure, people voluntarily followed because of their wisdom or other qualities, but you never found a separate class of individuals with a monopoly on violence that lorded over everyone else.

But more important than who started this fight, the question we must answer is how to fix it.  Again, for every problem we currently face that Quinn described across his trilogy, I could always think of a government intervention as the cause.  We're producing too much food? Look at the government subsidies to agriculture that distort market signals and cause entrepreneurs to grow more food then they otherwise would.  Too many people?  Look at the government programs that incentivize the very people that can least afford to have more children.

Let's revisit the ABC's of Ecology through a more critical lens.  The first challenge is against the claim that humans follow this law just like all other creatures on this planet.  All of Austrian Economics is predicated on the action acxiom.  The defining characteristic of human beings is that they act, they engage in purposeful behavior.  We are not billiard balls in an physics experiment that always act predictably given certain stimuli, we have the capacity to choose one thing over the other.  And this choice could include the decision of whether to have children or to abstain from procreation.

Quinn addresses this challenge by arguing that even though you don't see the population increase in the same vicinity as the over-production of food, that food still causes the increase in population in other countries.  It's like a steam valve that must find some place to let loose the excess pressure, and in this case the North American bread basket is responsible for the population nightmare in the 3rd world.  But there seems to be a much more obvious cause for these high birth rates.

Look at the birth rates by country rankings compiled by the CIA.  Now take a look at one of the freedom indexes available.  A sub-replacement fertility rate is anything lower than 2.1, and in the 3rd world countries of Africa you see the highest birth rates of 4, 5, 6 and as high as 7.03 in Niger.  Western European countries have rates between 1.4 and 1.7 while America is just below the sub-replacement fertility rate at 2.06 and the UK is at 1.9.  The countries with the lowest birth rates are the Asian countries with Japan at 1.39, South Korea at 1.24, Hong Kong at 1.11, and Singapore at 0.79.  Notice that the two countries with the lowest birth rates are ranked as the #1 and #2 positions on the freedom index?  Is it a coincidence that the countries with the least amount of freedom have the highest birth rates?

Here's a theory: The freer a country is, the more prosperous it is.  With a more prosperous country, the people of that country have a higher propensity to plan out their lives and choose to postpone or completely abstain from life decisions like marriage and/or children.  As standards of living improve, people have a wider range of options for taking advantage of all the opportunities that capitalism provides with respect to both time and money.  The pursuit of things like higher-education, a fulfilling career, personal interests, and travel necessitate having fewer children than a person otherwise would.  But it doesn't have to be an all or nothing decision.  Merely postponing a family to enjoy the luxuries of life leave fewer child-bearing years for mothers, so instead of starting at 20 and having 5 kids, they may start at 35 and have 1-2.  This seems like a much more plausible explanation for the birth-rate difference while acknowledging that human beings have the power to choose their procreation plans.

The governments of the world are holding the people of the 3rd world hostage.  By oppressing them and denying them the benefits of private property and voluntary trade these governments keep the standard of living abysmally low and the population rate ridiculously unsustainable.  Humans do not have to follow the ABCs of Ecology like garter snakes, dolphins and wildebeests.  If the people in the freest countries can collectively choose to have a sub-replacement fertility rate and stabilize their population, then so can the people most oppressed in the 3rd world.  We don't have to submit to a scientific dictatorship, kill each other, or resort to hunter-gatherer lifestyles to save the planet, we just need to be free.


When trying to arrive at any serious concluding remarks on a topic like this, the term "pretense of knowledge" comes to mind.  Writing a post that contains everything I have to say about guns and gun rights is a pretty straightforward task: assemble all of the known view points, categorize them, and support or attack the various arguments in a logical flow.

But where do we start with the topic of our population problem?  Maybe half the people believe we have a population problem and have already concluded that it is up to the government to stop it, the other half have either not heard of this problem or deny it exists, and virtually no one is even familiar with Daniel Quinn's perspective on this issue.  Rather than claiming to write the definitive conclusion on the population problem, it seems much more honest to be one that merely spreads awareness that this topic exists and humbly attempts to add something of value to the ongoing conversation.

While I might disagree with the final conclusions that Quinn draws, assuming I have correctly understood his position, I still can't recommend his books enough.  I'm generally satisfied with a book if it teaches me something new, perhaps a re-branding of an old but forgotten insight, or a new argument that I hadn't considered before but am happy to add to my intellectual tool-belt.  Based on that criteria, this Ishmael trilogy should be at the top of everyone's reading list, as it is so rare to come across a book or any form of media that exposes you to a completely new world view - to ways of thinking that you've never come across your whole life.

Daniel Quinn explores the most important questions that we could possibly ponder, and we should all be exposed to his valuable perspective.  What I have covered here is just the tip of the iceberg.  His insights into our philosophies, myths, religions and social institutions are equally interesting.  But if you choose not to expose yourself to these books and some potentially uncomfortable truths, then I at least hope you'll give it a second thought the next time someone boldly states as unquestionable fact that we have too many people and governments must be responsible for bringing us in check.  Remember the following quote from Ismael, and challenge this very dangerous claim.  The consequences of remaining silent and allowing this myth to spread from common-sense "fact" to government policy could be very dangerous for all of us.
"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people.  Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world.  But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.  Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world.  And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."
Seriously, read these books.  Look - here's a guy in a gorilla suit.  He can't be wrong.
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