HOW MANY IS TOO MANY, OR HOW OLD WILL YOU BE IN 36 YEARS?

By Paul

Climate change is in the news once again. And well it should be. The Huffington Post has reported that May, 2014 was the hottest May in recorded history, almost a degree and a half warmer than any previous reading for that month.

The good news, and there is a little, is that the Obama Administration has begun to take action. The President himself gave a speech over a year ago in which he laid out his own action plan. This was in part because efforts to get Congress to move in any positive way to make changes that would benefit the earth have come to naught. Many members of Congress, Republicans chief among them, deny either that the globe is warming at all, or that, if it is, the reasons for its warming have anything to do with human activity. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), for example, is on record as saying that “man-made global warming is a hoax.” Broun is also the same individual who said: ‘All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” And Rep. Broun, it should be noted, currently serves on the House Science Committee!

Small wonder, then, that the Administration has taken matters into its own hands in making attempts to mitigate climate change. Just this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others from the White House are meeting with Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson, co-authors of a new report entitled “Risky Business,” which addresses the economic costs of climate change. Steyer is a billionaire activist and Paulson was Secretary of the Treasury under Pres. George W. Bush. Steyer has also pledged to spend 100 million dollars of his own money supporting politicians who take on issues related to the warming of the globe through his political action group NextGen Climate Action. Additionally, Secretary Lew, along with Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are holding talks with insurance company representatives regarding the anticipated impact and cost of atmospheric warming. The Environmental Protection Agency has also issued new guidelines related to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permitted from power plants, and the Supreme Court has recently determined most of these rules to be constitutional.

But while this may be the good news, unfortunately, plenty of bad news continues on unabated. I have recently been reading an interesting book called “Countdown” by Alan Weisman (also author of “The World Without Us,” which imagines the world, and its resurgence, after human beings become extinct). Weisman has a lot to say about where we are and where we are headed in regard to the effects of out-of-control population growth on climate change. What follows references just a small part of that report.

One essential question to investigate is: what is the optimum human population of the earth? This sounds simple enough, and to an extent it is, but it requires examining several other considerations before coming up with an actual number. The first of these prior questions has to do with the kind of lifestyle we are talking about for these earth inhabitants. And how, in fact, do we even measure something like lifestyle? One way that scientists have devised is by determining how many “terawatts” we use. A terawatt is a measure of how much energy is consumed by human beings (one terawatt equals one trillion watts). In 1993, a total of 13 terawatts of energy (13 trillion watts) were used by the earth’s 5 and a half billion people. In order to put this further into perspective, on average 7 and a half kilowatts of energy per person were used that same year by individuals in industrialized countries, and 1 kilowatt was used by each person in developing countries (all figures cited reflect standard forms of energy production, such as oil, natural gas, etc.). If these numbers are extrapolated and we assume continued current population growth, sometime this century (projected at the moment to be around 2082) there will be 14 billion people on the earth. Just for fun, go to www.census.gov. and take a look at something called the World Population Clock. You will note that right now we are at 7,174,896,000 people, and counting. It’s amazing, not to say daunting and even frightening, to see the numbers fly by on this clock, as you sit and watch.

But let us take a smaller number, say 10 billion people, and let us posit as an average 3 kilowatts per capita of energy usage. This still puts us at 30 terawatts (again, 30 trillion watts). At this level, and possibly even before, world systems begin to teeter. Indeed, some scientists predict a complete breakdown of the ecosystem. When will we reach that 10 billion number? No one knows precisely, as there are so many variables to calculate, but estimates put us somewhere between 9 and 9.7 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That’s just 36 years from now. How old will you, or your children, be in 36 years? This is a question each of us should be asking ourselves, and we ought to be wondering what kind of world we will be living in at that date. And remember, these figures are relatively conservative, in that they posit a decrease of energy usage by some 4 and a half kilowatts per person for those in industrialized countries. This number is, however, actually achievable, if we continue, as we have, to work on ecologically friendly alternatives to energy production.

But we still have not answered our initial question, namely, what is the optimum world population? Again, we must make certain assumptions, the most important of which relates to the kind of lifestyle we wish to live. The 3 kilowatt per person figure mentioned above is not a bad one for such purposes, in that it is probably achievable, and it evens out energy usage between the industrialized world and the developing world. And surely we must assume that billions of people in the developing world (e.g. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, just to name a few) are going to want, even to demand, more and more of what people in industrialized countries have for decades been enjoying.

For us to use 3 kilowatts of energy per person in order not to irreparably damage the ecological systems of the planet, that is, for us to expect a sustainable future for ourselves and our children, the optimum world population has to be about 2 billion people. This was approximately the number of people on earth in the year 1930.

In that year, the world used 2 terawatts of energy. But, we should bear in mind, it was also a world without all of the gadgets modern people have come to expect as part and parcel of a modern lifestyle: televisions, computers, cars and air travel for the masses, smart phones, tablets, central heating, air conditioning, and on and on. All of which are enormous energy consumers.  Calculating all this together, we reach an even smaller sustainable number of individuals on the earth. In other words, if we wish to continue using our cars and our computers and all of the rest listed above, the number of kilowatts needed gets raised to 4 and a half per person. And at 4 and a half kilowatts per person, the sustainable population of the earth drops to 1 and a half billion people!

How we are to bring the earth back to such numbers, particularly with the Rep. Paul Brouns of the world in charge, is another question. But clearly something has to be done. China started that process decades ago, and has made great progress with its one child per family policy, but is the rest of the world willing to put up with this kind of social engineering?   And religions abound which label it as sinful to “artificially limit” the size of one’s family.

Yet another question we have not explored is, if we presume that we will not reach this sustainable world population of 1 and a half billion people, or at least not any time soon, and if we continue on more or less as we are, what will human dominance of the planet look like in terms of space for other species? And here’s a self-centered question, if ever there was one, although it’s equally germane to human survival: if we have to say that some species on the planet “must go,” which ones go, and which ones do we allow to live, precisely because they are beneficial to human life? These are not just hypothetical questions at this point in history. They are real queries that will need to be answered, and answered before too long.

It is also true that the figures given by Alan Weisman are not necessarily the only numbers that scientists can spin. Even so, it does not take an advanced degree in demography to be able to see that more people means more demands on a limited number of resources. At some point, whether it’s in 2050 or 2082, or a bit sooner, or a bit later, some kind of tipping point will be reached. Maybe you will not be living at that time. I think I can say pretty surely that I will not be. But what of your children, and their children, and what of the other creatures on the planet, who have done nothing to contribute to the current mess we are in?

What can be said probably without much doubt is that, absent an almost inconceivably disastrous population reduction due to war or plague, a day of reckoning will finally come. And would it not be better to take steps now, while we still can, to stave off what none of us wants to see our offspring have to deal with?

EARTH: HOW FAR CAN IT BE PUSHED?

By Paul

The earth is alive.  It is a conscious being.  It suffers and rejoices and feels, just as you and I do, just as any animal or tree or other plant does.  That does not mean that it has consciousness in exactly the same way that human beings do.  It is emblematic of our human arrogance, and our ignorance, that we believe that only we have consciousness, that only we can feel and reflect.  That is not so.  All sentient beings, as the Buddhists say, are capable of doing these things, even if we all do them in very different ways.

Human consciousness is brilliant and glorious, if limited most of the time.  Plant consciousness is also limited, but plants are more than capable of feeling joy in the movement of the breeze or the falling rain.  Plants move and sway and feel and breathe, and, in a very real sense, they are quite aware of their surroundings.  They love their rootedness, their ability to continually grow and reproduce, and in cold climates they sleep, bear-like, for the winter months and awake to the warming touch of the spring sun.  They feel a kind of happiness, or at least an exhilaration, in being able to continually grow and produce offspring.  Each type of animal, too, has its own kind of consciousness.  Predators, for example, do not kill out of anger (unless they have somehow been tortured and tormented and rendered “crazy” through pain and confinement), but instead they do so out of a desire to survive and to feed their young.  It is also true that the preyed upon feel fear in the moment of the chase.  They do not, however, feel the same type of fear of death that human beings normally do, but experience it more as a continuation of the cycle of being.

The earth itself has a vaster, more all-encompassing consciousness.  It is quite aware of all of the transitory beings who live and walk and crawl on its body, and has a kind of love for these creatures, made from its own body.  This is why many people feel a natural tendency to refer to the earth as “Mother,” because we can, if we attune to it, feel that love.  But the earth takes what might be called the long-term view of things.  A few thousand, or even a few million years, as humans reckon time, represents only the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the earth.  As such, the death of an individual insect, or a tree, or a wolf, or a rabbit, or a man, or a woman is not a cause for sadness to the earth.  The earth knows that all life is born, matures, and eventually passes away.  The same is true for its own life, just as it is and will be for the star of our galaxy, the sun, or for our galaxy itself, or for the entire universe for that matter.  There is no escaping this universal law, which all manifest creation must abide by.  Therefore, a great storm, or a fire, or an earthquake, or the eruption of a volcano, which wipes away “all life” in its path is recognized by the earth as part of this unfolding of creation, in a similar way to the death of a rabbit in the jaws of a coyote.  It is not a tragedy (as much as it may seem to be in our eyes), but a continuation of the change that must always move forward.

The earth strives always for balance.  It is balanced in its daily rotation and its revolution around the sun.  It spins for a reason, so that it experiences constant movement and with it an ability to go through its own set of regular changes, those of day and night, winter to summer, year to year, millennium to millennium, age to age.  It could also be said that the earth loved and rejoiced, that it felt something akin to pride even, at the emergence of the first tentative signs of “life” on it.  There is no need to attempt to define when life, as we normally speak of it, began on the planet.  The earth is already – has always been – alive.  What we usually think of as life is merely the culmination of certain processes that lead to movement or reproduction and to a different kind of consciousness of the self.

Initially, this desire to live was mostly manifest in the need to reproduce, first of all non-sexually, and then later through sexual means.  The first bacteria had their own awareness, not self-awareness exactly, at least not in the self-reflective sense in which we usually use that term, but a consciousness whereby they knew they had a desire to keep on living.  Life, again as we normally think of it, was snuffed out more than once in various ways, most of which had to do with the crashing into the earth of fragments of the primordial universe.  However, the evolution of life was strong, and continued to show itself, and eventually to advance and expand.  Life is a glorious reflection of the aliveness of the Divine Spirit, and mimics that ability to go on and on, no matter what.   That is why it is foolish, and yet another example of our arrogance and ignorance, to maintain that there is no other life in the universe.  Of course there is, and its forms are vast and beautiful and almost unending.

Just as any parent has to sometimes discipline unruly children, so too the earth sometimes brings its own brand of discipline to the creatures that it supports.  While it is part of what it means to be alive in the usual sense of that term to grow and to propagate, there is also what could be called a kind of natural selfishness in that desire.  This impetus  is, in fact, so strong that one life form is quite willing to push all other life aside in order to take over, if opportunity arises.  However, the innate wisdom of the earth to maintain balance has so far always come to the rescue in such cases.  Otherwise, one species, or one animal, or one life form, whatever it may be, might utterly dominate all else on earth, leading in its most egregious form to the elimination of the others.  Additionally, the earth knows that life, which has evolved so beautifully and with such incalculable variety upon it, must have that variation in order to continue to grow and prosper.  As such, the over predominance of one single life form on the earth can ultimately result in the death of all other life forms.  This cannot be tolerated, inasmuch as that result could eventually signal the demise of all life forms on the planet, ironically including the life of the one species that had taken over.

This is the predicament in which we, human beings, currently find ourselves today.  And it is not completely unfair to harken back once again to human arrogance and ignorance as a cause.  Even so, as noted above, any life form would do the same thing, any one would take advantage just as humans have, if they had the strength and resources to do so.  It is in the very nature of what is meant by the overpowering urge to grow and to propagate.  There is clearly a kind of selfishness in our desire to exist at all cost.  But again, for the most part, over the course of millennia the earth has been quite able to maintain this balance, with periods of excessive heat, or cold, or long stretches of flooding, or drought maintaining the equilibrium whenever one life form, or a few of them, threatened to take over.  So, too, may be the case today with human beings.

We are unfortunately not nearly as smart as we usually give ourselves credit for.  Or at least our ability to see, and even to imagine, is quite restricted.  By nature, we are barely capable of thinking of our own lifetime – some seventy or eighty years on average – as “the long term.”  Add to that the innate urge to propagate, and we have what is happening on earth today.  Demographers tell us that there are already well over seven billion people on the earth.  It is axiomatic to say that the planet is vastly overpopulated.  On top of all this, we have a great ability to create new technologies, and in doing so, we have pushed back the earlier limitations on lifespan, as well as on our ability to raise and care for offspring.  This combination of too many people, and not caring what their predation causes, has brought us to the brink.  To be more precise, it has brought us, humans, to the brink, though not necessarily the earth.  We do not yet have the power to obliterate an entire planet, as much as it is not inconceivable that such a day could at some point arrive.  But unless we radically change our ways and make new and different choices, it will not be long before the earth, our mother, if you will, will chastise her wayward children.  Imbalance can only be allowed to go on for so long before something must take place that will redress the imbalance.  It is true that humans have evolved beautifully, but we are not the highest life forms in the universe, as we normally think of ourselves.  And the earth is capable of making whatever changes are needed in order to rebalance itself.

In spite of this, all is not lost for humanity’s survival.  Not yet, at least.  The earth is a patient mother, and is willing to put up with wayward children, in a way similar to a mother bear, huge and powerful as she is, who willingly endures her cubs biting her ears and tail.  But she may occasionally give them a warning swat from time to time, just as a reminder not to go too far.  We have seen some of these warning swats already delivered by the earth, although so far with depressingly little effect in the longer term.  Many human beings consider it an impossible leap of faith to think that even animals have consciousness, let alone plants, and there are fewer still who can imagine the earth itself as having a kind of consciousness.

I understand that some may see these views I have expressed as being extreme.  Others may consider them utterly fanciful, or at best symbolic or allegorical.  To me, they are simple, straightforward, and truthful.  However they may be viewed, it seems clear enough that one way to unburden the earth is to lessen the population of human beings inhabiting it.  Let us hope that it will not come to a kind of radical cleansing, due to unpredictable weather patterns that could devastate large swaths of humanity, but that we can do so voluntarily by reducing the number of births.  As is so often the case, though, religions have not been of much help when they preach against and even outlaw reasonable forms of birth control.  It is a travesty, and a sin (to use their own language) to cite books written thousands of years ago, when the planet was far less populated, to justify an outdated belief that people ought not to limit the number of their offspring.  No matter what may have once been the case, these days no one couple should give birth to any more than one child, and the more people who produce no children the better.

Overpopulation is, of course, only one part of a long list of problems.  Overuse of fossil fuels, fracking, and other ways of pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere are others.  What I return to again, though, is the place of the consciousness of the earth itself in the equation.  The earth insists on balance, and balance will be achieved one way or another, with – as it were – or without our cooperation.  Morally, ethically, spiritually, even economically, however, it is our duty to make an all out effort to do what we can to help restore that balance.

Let us remember that humans have lived and bred and dabbled in life here for only an extremely short period.  In “earth time,” if it can be put that way, it is the length of an infinitesimally brief flash of lightning in the summer sky in comparison to the four and a half billion years lived by our mother planet.  We forget this, and mistakenly feel as though we have always been.  But it also behooves us to imagine a time when we might not to be here.  The great Creative Force of life would then have to carve out a new path, some new race perhaps, which might live and grow and prosper and reflect intelligently upon itself.  If that were to happen, all of the great inventions, all of the knowledge gained by science, all the most insightful books, all the deepest thoughts and most inspired art ever made by women and men would be utterly lost.

This is not what the earth wants.  It remains a loving mother, who has so far had compassion on her wayward children, but even the patience of the most loving mother can be pushed too far.  Therefore, the time for us to act is now.