The Copulation Bomb
by Michael I. Niman
A Valentine’s Day message on procreation and global survival
Humanity is tied together with the common belief that the world is in trouble—politically, economically, and environmentally. Our problems, however, are bound together with a common thread. Whether we’re talking about resource depletion, as in running out of oil, fish, forests, arable land, and rare earth minerals, or whether we’re talking about the overproduction of wastes, as in carbon, chemical waste, nuclear waste, landfill wastes, or ocean trash vortexes, we’re talking about one issue—overpopulation. There are too many of us consuming too much stuff and turning it into too much garbage.
If the earth is alive, than we’re the pathogens that arrived relatively recently, spread exponentially, and are wreaking biological havoc. We’ve bred beyond the carrying capacity of the planet—beyond a climax population. For its part, the earth is running a fever, just like we do when we get sick. We’re seeing this in climate change, with the world turning both wetter and more arid, with wild weather making it colder and hotter. The earth is slapping us where we eat and sleep, making it more difficult for us to live and multiply—like a fever combatting a virus.
More people also means more political pressures as more of us fight over fewer resources. In American cities, yuppies are using financial weaponry to fight working families in an ongoing war over limited urban real estate. The result is gentrification-driven housing bubbles for the wealthy, or formerly wealthy, and homelessness and mortgage-induced poverty for the poorest among us. Too many rats fighting for too few nests.
Around the world we’re starting to see resource wars—nations organizing militarily to combat each other over energy and fresh water. Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really a war over two bands of bearded zealots arguing over how to worship the same god, or is it more about two civil organizations fighting for control of the same aquifer upon which both states depend for their daily survival? (It’s under the West Bank.) Expect intrastate water wars as well, as burgeoning desert cities in the US move to pump the Great Lakes into ecological oblivion in coming decades.
And expect wars and massive social disruptions as environmental refugees fleeing population-linked environmental devastations compete for scarcer resources and land. Think ocean level rises depopulating 13 of the 15 largest cities in the world—places such as Miami, Mumbai, Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, London, and Manila. Then think about cities depopulated due to fresh water depletion, such as Miami (again), Mexico City, Las Vegas, Delhi, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles.
Now think about the burgeoning market for pollution credits, as wealthy nations, like urban yuppies who displace the poor, try to buy their way out of a crisis—in this case trading money for the right to pollute, buying conceptual pollution rights from those too poor to pollute, in a neoliberal dance of eco-insanity.
All of these problems come back to one issue that we’ve known was festering for millennia: overpopulation. The earth—or, in Buckminster Fuller’s words, “spaceship earth”—is finite. And it’s full. We can burn it up into ash, but that ash isn’t going anywhere, and there won’t be anything else to burn. There’s too many of us. This is at the root of most of the problems that threaten the survival of life as we recognize it.
In 1900 there were 1.6 billion of us moving into the final stages of our romance with fossil fuels. By 1950, when we started splitting atoms and creating poisons with million-year lifespans, there were 2.5 billion of us. Last year, when we hit our stride buying “green” products like hybrid cars, there were 6.8 billion of us—with our proclivity for breeding seemingly knowing no bounds.
If society wanted to consume like there was no tomorrow, and actually have a tomorrow, perhaps we could have pulled it off with, say, 100 million of us spread across the planet driving our Priuses, eating cow burgers, and sipping Fiji Water from tiny plastic tanks emblazoned with iconic images of paradise. But even those 100 million consumers probably couldn’t go on forever consuming voraciously like Americans or Canadians do—think plug-in disposable plastic air-fresheners.
So what does it mean to be “pro-life” in a world populating itself to death? Or what does it mean to proclaim a belief in a God, and then breed this God’s creation into oblivion—because each life, but not all life, is sacred?
These are uncomfortable questions. Two people birthing two children more or less maintain a population, in our case, at unsustainable levels. The same couple birthing no children, or one child, contributes to lowering the population. Or conversely, a family that gives birth to three children has produced one additional 70-plus-year span of heating, cooling, driving, shopping, shitting, and eating. A feverish planet cannot survive with self-indulgent breeders craving children in much the same way children crave puppies. But most conspicuous breeding isn’t about self-indulgence. In lieu of any social safety net, it’s about survival. Maybe one of more of these kids will be able to care for you in your old age, in a state that won’t. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
The only way to address the most pressing issues that threaten our global survival is to address the population explosion that’s behind them. Interestingly enough, many developed nations have done this, with birthrates well below ZPG (zero population growth), extending into NPG (negative population growth) territory. European Union families now breed a responsible 1.51 children per family, with Canada breeding 1.58, Cuba 1.61, and Puerto Rico 1.71. The US is holding a steady statistical ZPG at 2.05 children per family.
The US population, however, has climbed at a much faster rate than the global population, jumping from a roomy 76 million in 1900 to a current 310 million or so. This growth is due to immigration, not procreation. Again, this is a thorny issue. Think of the country as a crowded movie theater with no empty seats. Everyone would like to let more people in. More of your friends can enjoy the film, hence there’s social good here. The owners can sell more tickets and make more money, so there’s economic gain to be had. But there are fire codes enacted to protect health and safety—as in survivability.
Like I said, immigration is a thorny issue. Liberals tend to support migration rights, because they’re liberals. Neo-conservatives support immigration because a growing population swells the workforce, raises unemployment, and drives wages down for corporate industrialists. Many other Americans aren’t too far removed from their own family’s immigrant experience and hence empathize with the newcomers. Most Americans are good people and don’t want to turn their back on those in need. And of course there are yuppies who like the exotic new restaurants immigrants spawn. So the door is open, despite the theater being full, and Atlanta being out of water.
On one level, we could sustain immigration if it was balanced by emigration. There are people who move here for the culture or scenery, and others who move away for the same reasons. In reality, however, the population flow from poor to rich nations is exponentially higher than from rich to poor, with developed nations seeing a large number of immigrants who would rather stay in their own native lands but fled for economic or political reasons. Life is difficult, and sometimes impossible, in poor, undeveloped countries. Without the social safety net enjoyed in developed countries, people breed their own net—someone to care for them in their old age, as mentioned earlier. The result is that the poorest countries in the world have the highest birth rates, with Haitian women birthing an average of 3.81 children, Guatemalans 3.47, and Afghanis 6.53 children. This is complicated by the tribal zealotry of demographic warfare, where xenophobes try to breed themselves into a position of dominance over neighboring ethnic groups—witness again Israel and Palestine. Unable to feed their burgeoning populations, poor countries, in effect, export their citizenry, mostly as economic migrants who suffer the painful experience of a diasporic detachment from their families and culture.
Where living standards rise, however, breeding rates fall. The problem is that the high living standards enjoyed by consumers in developed nations are balanced on the backs of impoverished wage slaves and hungry farmers in poorer countries. Hence, domestic struggles for social equality in population-exporting countries are often put down by those who enjoy advantage in these disparate relationships—witness the history of US interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean. So without global social equality, we’ll continue to see our population swell with immigrants.
My point? You can’t divorce environmentalism from the struggle for social justice. Our hedonistic, consumerist lifestyle isn’t just boring and intellectually and spiritually stifling—it’s killing the planet because of the natural and human resources that must be exploited to sustain it. We can survive, but the more of us there are, the less we can each consume. And the more we move toward global social equality, the less resources the greediest of us can hog for ourselves.
Something’s got to give—hopefully it won’t be the planet. We’ve got to get both our population and our imperialism under control.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.blog comments powered by Disqus
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