Creating Sustainable Populations Humanely
Space. The final frontier. But this is a planetary, not interplanetary tale. Here, on every surface of Earth, man has planted his foot, physical or otherwise. We have morphed from quest to conquest with frightening success, as our numbers increase exponentially, mindlessly spreading. Earth's cornucopia of plants, animals, and fungi is melting into oblivion before us, mocking the name we gave ourselves to distinguish us from them: Homo sapiens -- Thinking Man. Clearly, we are not.
Ironically, galaxies of information divert us from hewing to a core, ancient tenet of survival. Consider biblical Eden: was the lesson of our exile "Obey God or else"? Or "You've been greedy, but I'm giving you another chance"?
If the latter, then "go forth, be fruitful and multiply" means that we do so as we let the rest of life also be fruitful and multiply- ie, SHARE. If your greed harms the environment that sustains you, paradise will disappear, as it is doing today -- the paradise of clean, safe water, air, food, shelter and climate that allowed humanity to expand over several millennia. As we selfishly expand over the rest of life, the consequences are becoming our ultimate undoing.
Change is happening fast. Historically, we were islands of humanity surrounded by seemingly infinite green ecosystems. Within the space of a century, though, the situation has reversed: we are seas of humanity, surrounding ever-dwindling island ecosystems essential for our paradise. Within these seas, we are increasingly insulated from understanding how much we depend on these systems. Indeed, most of us never experience them, save through illusorily complacent nature films.
The reality? Time is limited. Let's look at forests. About 70% of our forests are now so fragmented that no part of a forest is farther than 3,000 feet from its edge, beyond which is land controlled by human activities. Up to 75% of the diversity of plants and animals living there can be lost to fragmentation. Such recent findings shocked even study researchers.
Human-induced climate change is starting to cut our food production and water supplies even as demand rises. Our aquifers are emptying. Finite resources are bigger obstacles to hunger than distributing food - as are lifestyle choices. Most of us spend more on nonessentials (pets, vacations, etc.) than feeding the hungry poor.
Climate change is accelerating. It is linked increasingly to violence worldwide, and collapses of past civilizations. Indeed, the U.S. General Comptroller noted recently that unsustainable U.S. policies are strikingly similar to those that ultimately brought down the Roman Empire.
Technology alone can only delay these problems briefly, as the Green Revolution has for global food security. Most political leaders are not acting adequately to spare our children from a worsening future. Most policy experts still believe in the tragic fallacy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet as integral to our well-being, even as 25,000 children younger than 5 die daily from inadequate resources.
Can we change before our civilization deteriorates much further? Both toxic levels of consumption in developed countries, especially the U.S., and the sheer numbers of people in all countries are destroying our resource bases. So, the answer lies in developing a worldwide cultural ethos that accepts the need to turn our global population counter backwards, and minimize resource consumption.
The choice for humanity is stark: living sustainably and ultimately rebuilding our resources, or living miserably and dying inhumanely, with slow or no recovery of a decent life.
Building that cultural ethos is challenging. Desire is encouraged and reaches deep into our collective subconscious, as is the highly emotional desire for children. Even U.S. students of our unsustainable growth often separate theory from practice, often planning to have two children, not the needed sustainable choice of one or none; the discrepancy isn't seen or acknowledged. Yet, if we let emotions rule our reproduction, the survival of all our children is threatened - a bitter paradox.
But history shows that we are capable of great beneficial social change, when properly educated and motivated, and this cultural ethos is beginning to take root in diverse ways.
Regarding consumption, recognition grows of the need to show and define that beneficial economic growth is sustainable growth, not increasing numbers: the stock dividends of today benefit no one if they rob us all of a viable future. We increasingly value how to minimize material consumption, via recycling, and more.
We are developing new ways to increase conservation and efficient use of energy and resources. Recognizing the economic, environmental, and social benefits of developing clean, renewable, and accessible energy sources has fueled the explosive growth of U.S. solar power, for example.
OO "We only want one kid anyway," most Chinese couples say. Source: Grist.org
Population attitudes are evolving. With its often tragically flawed one-child policy, 1980s China recognized how social benefit must trump individual desire to prevent destabilizing overpopulation.
Americans are increasingly educating themselves and others about family planning, shown to be tied to economic prosperity. One child families are the fastest growing US family unit. U.S. awareness that a child-free life can be happy and fulfilling is gaining acceptance, even as studies link children to U.S. family poverty. Although the current ageing global population creates anxiety about an increasing elder social burden, many recognize that children are a far greater burden, requiring far more resources.
United Nation experts recognize that 200+ million women worldwide need access to family planning materials and information, and not simply improved reproductive health. Melinda Gates found this out, when a poor Indian woman tried to give Melinda the unwanted baby she could not feed - the baby that the Gates Foundation had helped her to bear, but not prevent. The good news? The cost of providing access is relatively cheap; the challenge is granting women worldwide the right to access them.
Acceptance of family planning is increasing in many countries via radio serial dramas imbedded with population messages created specifically for their targeted cultures, from the U.S. to Nigeria. That it can also be done via motivated leadership was illustrated by the successful 1990s population program developed by the Muslim leaders of Iran.
Ethics are also evolving. Pope Francis stated how humans are ethically bound to protect the environment, even adding that humans do not need to breed like rabbits. The Episcopalian Church head recently stated that it is unethical for Christians to ignore God's gift of knowledge about climate change; the same can be said for the knowledge of how unsustainable human populations harm the rest of life and humanity's future.
More pragmatically, African religious leaders are promoting sustainable family planning. After watching how changing climate and dwindling resources ravaged his local community, an African Malawi Muslim leader stated that "God commanded" family planning; he now promotes it.
Yet the grim reality is that in 2012, 85 million pregnancies -- 40% of all pregnancies worldwide -- were unwanted. Clearly, far more needs to be done.
Ultimately, how we vote impacts how nations will act. Our choices should be based on how rapidly and capably our leaders act to bring our economy and populations to humanely sustainable levels. Doing so addresses our current voting priorities, i.e., economy, national security and health. Thus, we need to examine closely how prospective leaders plan to do so, and their record of experience, and then re-align our choices accordingly.
We can win this race of bringing our population to sustainable levels before a declining civilization prevents us from doing so humanely: Are we willing to act fast enough? Over 100 children have died since you began reading this article. The fate of the rest depends upon our choices.
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