When hiking through a forest, it’s common to see a fallen tree that is being consumed by a combination of fungus, ants, and decomposition. The circle of life will eventually allow the tree to rot and turn into soil again. Xylophagy is a term used in ecology to describe the habits of an herbivorous animal whose diet consists primarily (often solely) of wood. This is an important role in most ecosystems.
You may have heard the story of Noah’s Arc — a big wooden ship that saved various species of animals from a worldwide flood. Imagine if termites were on that ship, eating it and expanding their population until the ship was entirely consumed. All the animals would have died, including the termites.
As humans we have a responsibility as we ride through space on this ship we call Earth. We are Apex Predators which means we kill and eat everything, or sometimes as with trophy hunters we just kill animals for sport. We are at the top of the food chain and thus our expansion on the Earth has no natural limitations.
Not only do we consume animals, we expand to consume entire habitats. What termites would be to Noah’s Arc we are to Planet Earth. If we don’t muster some collective will to control our all consuming ravenous expansion, we may eventually consume this ship we are traveling on and thus bring an end to all life on earth.
Here’s an example relating to our consumption of bird habitats:
Over the past half-century, North America’s bird population has dropped by 3 billion – a 25 percent decline – largely due to the urban sprawl and habitat destruction caused by a surging human population. And birds aren’t the only ones at risk. Thousands of species are facing endangerment or extinction due to our ravenous consumption of natural resources. If we want to preserve wildlife and wild places for ourselves and future generations, we’ll need to check the unsustainable growth of our own population.Source: “Backyards without birds?” by Karen Shragg, The Spokesman-Review, 10 Jul 2020. [View]
As humans we don’t eat sparrows, squirrels, and bugs from our neighborhoods. We consume the entire habitats they rely on to live. The result is the same.
The challenge with overpopulation is that it’s not a problem we can see in our individual lives at the scale we live on.
Going back to the Noah’s Arc analogy… Conscientious people making decisions to consume less may think smugly, “I only consumed 5 pounds of wood this week from the ship. That’s much less than what the Smith’s consumed, and besides, we’re not taking on water yet.” Those who will be eating holes in the ship and seeing water rushing in to sink the ship will come generations later.
So, overpopulation sinks the ship in a gradual and imperceptible way. Big data gathered by scientists over long periods of time, and played back in fast motion can depict our trajectory like a flip book, yet most of us don’t think about big data and even well produced animated videos can only hold our attention for a short period of time.
Even when we see the flip book that shows our past, present, and predictable future, we conclude “What can just one person do?” and “It won’t impact me personally.”
As animals, most of our instincts preserve us. They help us survive and help us thrive. Yet, our instinct to procreate as voraciously as possible is an instinct that threatens our survival.
For those people who belong to marginalized, threatened and diminished minority groups or cultures that are facing extinction, an emphasis on procreation is understandable. Indigenous people and underrepresented religious groups want to survive and preserve their ways.
For some groups of people who believe their ideology or religion is the only correct belief system, and all other groups should be outnumbered, procreation can be a strategic long-term political move to dominate and gain power over countries, entire regions, and one day the world. It’s a very practical approach to world domination, yet when there are competing groups taking a similar approach, all trying to win the procreation race, it can only result in a rapid population growth that isn’t sustainable.
Those who profiteer from large-scale economies of labor and consumption don’t really care who wins the procreation race. They sit at the top of vertical market pyramids and collect revenue from all consumers. They are agnostic. Or, if they have a belief, it is that more development, more growth, and larger populations are a very good thing that results in more sales and better quarterly earnings reports. Even to the extent that overpopulation creates environmental and climate situations that threaten the planet, such profiteers see circumstances of desperation as accelerants for the bonfire of financial profits they so desire to stoke.
The influence of massive and powerful ideological forces and profiteers will forever make it difficult to discuss population concerns. Those who express concerns about overpopulation are usually misunderstood, and often vilified or stigmatized. Expansionists and imperialists have often expressed concern about overpopulation, but their focus is usually on the need to reduce the population of indigenous people and those living in the land they wish to conquer. So, discussions about population control and birth rates are usually perceived as thinly veiled plans to wipe out entire people groups or outnumber them and control them.
When considering overpopulated regions or countries that are strained through shortages of land, food, water, jobs, or other resources, it doesn’t matter how the population grew in that area. High birth rates, migration, immigration — these all add up to having too many people to be adequately supported by local resources. Of course, any mention of immigration limits would be immediately viewed as racism, jingoism, or xenophobia. The assumption is that the term immigrants refers to ‘foreigners.’ Yet ‘immigrants’ to a certain state or city can be (effectively) ‘immigrants’ or ‘transplants’ from surrounding states. There are areas of California where an influx of people from other states has caused a population problem that results in a high cost of living, water shortages, wildfires, crime, and pollution. So, concerns about population and immigration are not necessarily about nationality, but about localized increases in population.
On a visit to Chicago many years ago, I was riding in a car sitting next to the driver of the vehicle. We slowed down to take a turn. Some impatient person became very upset that we slowed down for the turn and they shouted angrily, “Go back to Iowa!” They ascertained our home state from our license plate. There can be a universal rejection of people who have come from somewhere else and are taking up room on the roads, or otherwise perceived to be eroding the quality of life in an area. If I were black, I’d probably think that person was a racist. If I were Asian, I might conclude the person was xenophobic. If I were gay, I could assume the person was homophobic. As a nondescript bland Iowan, I had the unique opportunity to not second guess the person’s motives. I didn’t assume their insult was targeting some aspect of my identity. We could have just as easily been from Ohio or Idaho. It wouldn’t matter. They were just angry that some ‘outsider’ was on ‘their streets.’
Concerns about exceeding the occupancy of a conference room, an elevator, a life raft, a city, a country, or our planet are valid. Addressing those concerns and finding solutions will be very difficult for all the reasons described above.
We need a voluntary, spontaneous, global culture-shift on the issue of population. Here are some considerations that might help move our awareness in the right direction. We can individually seek to embrace, promote, and support smaller family sizes and be supportive of couples or individuals who choose not to have children. There are young single-people who build a sense of family through friendships or being part of existing families. Siblings can can vicariously enjoy the experience of parenting and the inspiration that comes from children when they become aunts or uncles. There are people who start a family through adoption. Life offers many opportunities to build ‘family’ other than having children. In addition to these things, we can be supportive of young people who intentionally take on the responsibility of parenting. Rather than assuming everyone will get married and have children, we can envision a world where parenting is something unique — a path less commonly chosen, and only pursued by those who are especially prepared for, called to, and equipped for becoming exceptional parents.