A critique of ‘Overpopulation Is Not the Problem’: bursting the ecological bubble.

Quite recently I read an opinion in the New York Times with the remarkable title ‘Overpopulation Is Not the Problem‘. In this article the author—a trained ecologist—argues that there is no such thing as a carrying capacity for mankind on this earth. He begins his argument by stating that humans have always altered ecosystems, and thereby increased the planet’s carrying capacity for mankind. Furthermore, the use of tools, domesticating animals for consumption, agriculture and the practice of cooking food to optimally obtain nutrients are also cited as historic examples of mankind using his unbridled ingenuity to increase the amount of resources at his disposal, thus making larger human populations possible. As a biologist myself, I always thought that the actual carrying capacity was a very difficult thing to determine. In fact, as far as I know scientific literature tells us that the actual carrying capacity is pretty much unknown (see for example the research of J.E. Cohen). I was therefore intrigued by this provocative statement and interested to learn on what profound insights and evidence this bold claim is based.

But I am soon disappointed. Because the author then simply begins extrapolating aforementioned historic achievements far into the future, and that’s where it all goes wrong. He begins by writing that the world population now stands at roughly 7.2 billion people, and that by the year 2050 this number is estimated to increase to 9 billion. But then he quotes the United Nations’ estimate that if—and boy what a big ‘if’, in fact it’s so big it deserves to be written in capitals and bold font—IF rich countries invest a huge amount of money in foreign infrastructure, trade, anti-poverty and food security, then the earth will be able to sustain this number. I just have to laugh at this point—just look at the current state of affairs on our planet! Going from that mess to a global end to poverty, universal fair trade, food security for all and nice roads for everyone to drive on in less than 37 years seems to me nothing more than a fancy for naive dreamers. But even if this all did succeed somehow, and I really hope it does by the way, then I still don’t see how that implies there is no final limit to the carrying capacity of our planet.

The article continues by claiming that future improvements in the social and technological systems will probably triumph over limiting environmental factors. But how can anyone be sure of that? How do past successes guarantee future successes? I would say that sounds suspiciously like an economic bubble—or should I say an ecological bubble? And what kind of living standards are we talking about here? What is to be done about the increased risk of catastrophic pandemics, due to the increase in population density? And growing beef  for untold billions of people hardly seems sustainable, so must we all become vegetarians? How do we make sure there is enough fish in the sea for an infinite number of people? The whole article seems to entirely bypass the question of what kind of quality of life people will have as the population increases. People are also in this regard nothing like bacteria on a petri dish—just enough resources to survive and reproduce is quite simply not good enough for humans. Beyond the bottom-up factors that limit the carrying capacity, such as food and water, the author also seems to ignore the top-down factors such as infectious diseases. Or is as yet uninvented technology always going to be able to take care of that as well?

Some resources are simply finite, once we use them up they are gone. At the moment, mankind is consuming resources at an unsustainable rate and this problem is only exacerbated by a growing global population. That is an issue our ancestors neither faced nor solved, so simply declaring that we will always be able to find ways to increase the carrying capacity just because our ancestors managed to do so in the past, is patently something no one can say with certainty. Another lesson history has taught us is that putting your faith in science and technology to solve all the world’s problems is not only the height of hubris, but may also have catastrophic consequences for our world, as was for example illustrated in Rachel Carson’s classic book ‘Silent Spring’. We don’t merely shape ecosystems, we also destroy them. So indeed the author is quite right when he concludes the last sentence with ‘…the environment will be what we make of it.‘ The article ultimately makes no reference to convincing scientific evidence in support of its main claim and fails to provide truly compelling arguments to justify such an extremely optimistic and rather arrogant Anthropocene outlook. I think a problem as big as overpopulation deserves better than that.

 

The verdict, the outcry and the law—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting by George Zimmerman has stirred up a lot of emotions in the USA. But while I understand how a verdict of not guilty in this particular case might provoke intense reactions, agreeing with some of these reactions is another kettle of fish altogether.

For example, there are many who will say that Zimmerman could have avoided the fatal confrontation. In fact he had been told by the emergency services not to confront Trayvon Martin, but Zimmerman chose to ignore that advice. So prima facie this point seems to have some merit, he was in his car and could just have stayed there to avoid the whole thing. But that fails to take into account that Zimmerman is a member of the neighborhood watch of the gated-community where he lived, a community that had seen a number of burglaries, thefts and even one shooting in the year prior to this case. So staying in the car would have been a pretty lame thing to do, if you ask me. Besides, what’s wrong with just asking what someone is doing in the area? This is not exactly a public road after all, but a residential area surrounded by a big fence and monitored with a camera surveillance system. And also there is no solid evidence to suggest that Zimmerman intentionally confronted Martin anyway.

Then there are others who will have you believe that the fatal shooting would have resulted in a murder conviction if Trayvon Martin had been white, or even that the whole shooting wouldn’t have happened altogether if that had been the case. Well firstly, it’s not really fair to base conclusions like that on hypothetical scenarios. If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, wouldn’t we all have a Merry Christmas? Secondly, I might have understood this argument if George Zimmerman had been a white man who was in the habit of baking swastika shaped cookies on Sunday mornings, greeting people by shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ at them and spreading neonazi propaganda. But no, Zimmerman is in fact of Hispanic ethnicity and even appears to have dated an African American girl at some point in his life. Not exactly the kind of background easily associated with someone nursing a penchant for racialism. Furthermore, the recording of the call made to the police by Zimmerman shows that he made no reference to Martin’s race until the policeman on the other side of the line asked for that information. So there is simply no concrete indication that racism was a factor in this tragic case. What’s more, we only need to remember the outcome of the infamous O.J. Simpson double-murder trial to see that as far as racial factors influencing justice is concerned, the American legal system has much improved. I think it is now widely believed that O.J. Simpson was guilty of the double homicide, and if that is true we are actually talking about an African American getting away with murder! See? What more could you ask for?

No, the heart of the matter here is that George Zimmerman was legally licensed to own a gun. Not only that, he was also legally licenced to carry his deadly weapon concealed, fully loaded, on his person, out in public. And then finally there is the so-called ‘stand your ground‘ law which says that in any sufficiently serious conflict a person is not required to first try and retreat to safety, but instead is justified to shoot first and ask questions later. Apparently Mr Zimmerman’s lawyers did not even use the stand-your-ground law in his defense, because they argued that Zimmerman never had the opportunity to flee. But nevertheless I feel it is worth mentioning here—even if he could have fled, he would still have been well in his right to shoot. So what we have here then is a deadly set of laws that combine to effectively set the stage for wild-west situations. What evidence there was clearly suggested that Zimmerman simply exercised all his rights, and he was therefore quite justly acquitted of the charges brought against him. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to say it’s ok to carry a loaded gun everywhere and start shooting as soon as you feel threatened, then you are also going to look pretty ridiculous if you start complaining when that actually happens. Yeehaw!