In case you didn’t know, we’re fucked.

The reality of the inevitable decline of humanity in the face of insufficient natural resources is described, with much more eloquence than that, in this fascinating excerpt from Wasted World:

In “The Limits to Growth,” Dennis Meadows and others concluded from one calculation that the number of humans could crash suddenly rather than stabilize gradually. But none of the other calculations showed this effect; their results suggested that the numbers of humans on Earth had to be reduced gradually, and with them, the overuse of natural resources. It seemed that this single result was anomalous and could be ignored, although its cause remained unclear.

Twenty years later, however, in their 1992 follow-up book “Beyond the Limits,” on the basis of calculations using data from the intermediate years, the authors reported that such crashes were no longer exceptional but had become the rule. Results without a population crash had become exceptional; crashes appeared to be normal and seemed not easily avoidable. This was a very different story. Without knowing the underlying causes, population crashes were now being attributed to delays in the fine tuning of interactions within the system and to the exceeding of limits of irreversible degradation.

So I’ll amend my opening statement.  If we don’t stop both consuming and reproducing at the current rate, we’re fucked.

Generally the focus is on consumption because, as the author notes earlier in the piece, discussion about population decrease is a major taboo.

It’s not taboo because people see anything fundamentally wrong with reducing human footprint(s), quite literally, on the planet.  It’s taboo because the ways of doing so in the expedited fashion necessary fall, arguably universally, under the category of eugenics to some degree or another.

If they do not fall under eugenics, most strategies are at the very least socio-economically unfair in some way or another.

So we preoccupy ourselves with the consumption portion of the equation.  It’s less morally and ethically troublesome.  Easier to pontificate upon.  Easier to run a campaign about.

Whenever I end up in discussions about climate change–what it is, what it means, who or what is responsible for it–I always, somehow, through the bramble and tangle of politics and moving pieces, arrive at the same conclusion:

It hardly fucking matters if we don’t, as a species, at the very least stop increasing our numbers — and preferably decrease them.

That statement, perhaps understandably, usually signals the end of the conversation.  What else, after all, is there to say?

People prefer to stick to questions that are compatible with their politics and have apparently obvious answers.  People like questions that don’t challenge their most basic beliefs and assumptions about human rights.

But if there are 14 billion apples, and even if we all eat only one apple a day and consume nothing else, if there are 15 billion of us, there will not be enough apples.

End of story.

The end of the metaphorical apples is in sight.  It is not as far off as you might imagine, and certainly not as far off as you hope.  Probably.  Increasingly probably.

In fact, as the excerpt states, the longer we go without having the conversation, the faster the end of the apples comes.  As with anything exponential, it actually increases in relative speed:

Moreover, system collapse follows from almost any simulation experiment based on relatively recent data—data that are now already twenty years old and are therefore too optimistic. In those twenty years, it has become even more likely that the conditions theoretically leading to system collapse will occur.

So.  When will the mainstream, public conversation about human reproduction and population — the exceptionally difficult conversation and the one that truly, actually, matters when we’re talking about finite earthly resources — actually begin?

Or, as I’ve been told before, is it better to focus elsewhere, not to risk infringing on human rights, and to simply lean into our fate, heroically swinging our organic fruit-laden, upcycled Dorito wrapper tote bags at the beast that will, unquestionably, devour us anyway?

Should we go into that good night, but not gently, so we can at least say — to whom, one wonders, if the collapse is utter — that our conscience is clear?  And to whomever has to salvage what is left of the human world, will having done so appear as integrity or selfishness?

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

20 responses to “Will We All Go Together When We Go?”

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m fully in favor of the population conversation. What makes it a frustrating topic is that whenever it’s brought up, the discussion almost invariably goes straight to the China extreme. That’s when I throw my hands up and tell those people to go ahead and have 10 stupid kids for all I care. Problem A doesn’t lead straight to scary solution Z. Take a deep breath and back the fuck up. There’s plenty of room for rational thought and discussion.

    It is a conversation that needs to be had and people that don’t “believe in” overp0pulation boggle my mind. But, whatever.

    I have two kids – one boy, one girl. I know that by my husband and I having virtual replacements for ourselves we are not helping the gradual decrease of the population but we discussed it and decided that we were worth replacing. Other people should be gradually reduced and therefore only have one or better still zero offspring. Yes, it’s a touchy subject and raises the question of who decides who gets to reproduce and how many kids they should have. In an effort to do my part to help save the planet, I selflessly volunteer to decide who gets to reproduce and who doesn’t.

    You’re welcome, world.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      In an effort to do my part to help save the planet, I selflessly volunteer to decide who gets to reproduce and who doesn’t.

      You’re welcome, world.

      Right. Ditto here.

      But all joking aside, it’s entirely likely that if not us, our kids will witness one or many of these population collapses. That’s what blows my mind.

      The end is, like, actually nigh.

      But because deterioration has been so gradual leading up to it, we probably won’t recognize it as THE END until there’s some totally catastrophic 11th-hour event–that evening we realize that the metaphorical pond (the one from the excerpt) is set to go from 50% to 100% coverage in the next 24 hours.

      Like, the collapses might already be happening in little pockets here and there.

      • Sarah says:

        It really is scary. I make light of it only because it scares the shit out of me and I can’t do anything about it. I can’t force anyone not to have kids and I can’t convince anyone that wants zillions of babies not to have zillions of babies.

        What scares me the most about the whole thing isn’t the collapse of the whole world but what natural selection and the evolution of the population will turn the world into. I’m thinking Idiocracy here. Like, who will be the people who study the population problem, listen, think, discuss, and consciously either don’t reproduce or have one or two children versus the people who have an unsustainable amount of children?

        I guess this is the real problem I have with the population conversation, as I have a really, really hard time blurting out what I really think: All the stupid people will have all the kids and all the smart people will die off.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I guess this is the real problem I have with the population conversation, as I have a really, really hard time blurting out what I really think: All the stupid people will have all the kids and all the smart people will die off.

          If we wanted to maintain any kind of diversity within our own species, we’d have to curate it.

          Regulate it.

          Which is the unfortunate reality that invites eugenics into the conversation. Of course, eugenics doesn’t mean genocide or ethnic cleansing. It is essentially a neutral term meaning only conscious control/manipulation of a breeding population.

          Since WWII, though, the word has been making most self-respecting humanists shit bricks.

          The idea that humanity could be treated like any other animal population that is out of balance with its environment and threatening its own existence (and the existence of other animals around it) is deeply unsavory. If we are unexceptional as a species, then WE ARE UNEXCEPTIONAL AS A SPECIES.

          It’s fucked up. I mean, we don’t have a lot of options here, and among the ones we do have, there doesn’t appear to be an appealing one.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Except colonizing the moon. That’s kind of appealing.

  2. “heroically swinging our organic fruit-laden, upcycled Dorito wrapper tote bags”

    Haha. My tote bag’s made from upcycled Costa Rican coffee bags… does that count? 🙂

  3. Art Edwards says:

    Great points, Becky. These are the right questions, as far as I can tell.

    “It hardly fucking matters if we don’t, as a species, at the very least stop increasing our numbers — and preferably decrease them.”

    Yes, please. Population discussion.

    I have no idea if my and others’ focus on the consumption end helps, and I suspect we’ll never know, but there’s something that strikes me as moral and right about trying to consume less. I think it was there in me long before I was concerned for the environment. I hope it helps.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well that’s just it. Helps to do what, exactly?

      While, for reasons that don’t make much logical sense at all, I will probably go on recycling whether there is any attempt to combat population growth or not, I do so knowing that it is, in the big picture, not much more than a gesture without the population piece in place.

      At worst, it could be viewed by history as a self-preserving stop gap. One that will get US by, complacent in our feelings of having done something, future generations be damned.

      • kristen says:

        Hmm. For me, re: “helps to do what exactly?” there’s an honoring-the-Earth component in there. Connection w/ the non-human, treading (relatively) lightly et al. Not a helping-things matter per se; more of a recognizing-what-feels-true-and-inherently-of-value deal. That said, I recognize full well that the greening actions of a narrow slice of individuals have/will have little impact on the state of things. I think it’s only through a much, much wider recognition of and appreciation for the value of connection to the land that we can hope to get anywhere (even if anywhere is only equivalent to a few feet farther than where we stand now). Which brings me to ask: adopting a completely illogical scenario whereby everyone on the planet suddenly started living by conventional sustainable principles (ha), would we stand a greater chance of enduring much longer than we otherwise would/will, or are we, at our current and exponentially expanding population, fucked no matter what?

        I’m feeling really ignorant re: all this, which lets me know I need to expand my reading list.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, you know, I’m no expert either.

          I mean, I’ve been interested in this from a theoretical perspective for a long time, and am well-acquainted with the theories that feed into it, but from a raw data perspective, I can’t say much.

          The point at which this all gave me a sort of macabre theory geek boner (baby Jesus, forgive me) was when they started talking about the uncertainty of what was sustainable.

          In the excerpt, they mention that beyond a certain point in the progression of their research, there was no truly consistent set point where sustainable became unsustainable; an element of chaos emerged out of their otherwise organized mathematical models.

          Given the right circumstances, 10 billion might be sustainable. Given other circumstances, 7 billion might already be too many, regardless of our consumption practices because other factors come into play–proximity and mobility, for example, which could contribute to disease.

          So, when all other things are consistent, it’s common sense to say, “Well, reducing consumption should buy us some time on the population front” but it sounds like they’re saying that’s not necessarily the case.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    As someone who will not reproduce herself – this is an interesting subject.

    I also find it interesting that people who have chosen to have children, and who support the notion of some form of population decrease, have ready formed arguments as to why they should be the exception…

    Surely, if would-be parents were serious about this subject they would actively choose to NOT have children? Or if they wanted to experience parenthood – adopt children?

    I think it’s a dangerous idea, because as is mentioned in the comments here, who gets to choose? “All those who hold different views to me shouldn’t have more than two children?”

    Maybe I am being overly harsh here, but I can only really respect the views of non-reproducers, on this subject.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      So, what you’re saying with regard to the “Who gets to choose?” question is: Non-reproducers get to choose. In fact, they get to decide whether or not we even have the conversation at all.

      I mean, I’m hearing that, right? People who have children and therefore have a different lifestyle and perspective than Zara Potts (in this respect) get no say, despite having an at least equal and potentially greater (by virtue of having kids) stake in the future consequences of our actions (or inactions).

      I mean, you demonstrate your own point. And it’s a valid one. Things can go awry quickly even with the best, most principled intentions.

      There are no easy answers, and that’s certainly one perspective.

      Though I’m not entirely clear on what about having children renders people’s ideas on the topic invalid or unhelpful. You exclude an awful lot of very smart people from the discourse with a rule like that.

      It is uncharacteristically cynical of you, though, to assume that the people who choose will be of a particular perspective and that they will necessarily choose not to let people of other perspectives reproduce or reproduce more than them, or whatever. Does it have to be that way?

      And, as you note, it’s not a matter (at least necessarily) of having zero children. It’s not as if the only option is to rob some people of the experience altogether while others procreate to their heart’s content. Or, maybe that’s the only foreseeable outcome–or the outcome we fear most in the current socio-political climate. Maybe the worst thing we can think of is some kind of reproductive 1% that holds 80% of the world’s baby wealth.

      Maybe to us, that kind of reproductive lopsidedness is an even less appealing outcome than a massive population crash and the deaths of potentially billions of people.

      That’s a major part of the question I’m asking here. Is that a reasonable set of priorities?

      That reproductive policies might be unfair is possible–even probable. That lots and lots of people will die terrible deaths if we remain on the current trajectory is absolutely certain.

      • Zara Potts says:

        No, I’m not saying that non-producers get to choose. I’m actually saying nobody should get to choose.

        I am uncomfortable at the thought of anybody, seemingly good intentioned or not, directing other people’s choices and decision making in any regard. Particularly when it comes to reproductive rights.

        What I am saying is, there is a vast ocean between the intellectual and the personal.

        It is one thing to rationalise the argument on a purely logical or philosophical level, but quite another to apply the same logic on a personal level, which is what I was meaning in regards to people making themselves, and their children, the exceptions.

        I apologise if I wasn’t clear – but at no point in my comment did I infer that anyone with a different experience from my own should have no say – quite the opposite.

        What I said, was that I find it a genuinely frightening concept because people will always see themselves as the exception, while advocating that ‘others’ should do as they say, not as they do.

        This might be overly cynical, but in my experience, it is very hard for human beings to ever see themselves as the problem – it’s always someone else that’s the problem.

        I find it only too realistic to believe that this would happen in terms of the conversation about who should have children or how many children each person should get. Should people with lower IQ’s not be allowed to breed? Republicans? Hippies? Evangelicals? Criminals?

        It’s an idea, in theory, that on the face of it, I would support, but in reality? Not so much.

        Because when I stop to really think about it, who am I to assume my viewpoint is the ‘right’ one? I am obviously coloured by my own experiences and circumstance and am unable to effectively disconnect my personal viewpoint from my intellectual one. As is the case for all of us.

        Again, I raise the point that if over population is such a serious issue (and I agree aboslutely that it is) for an individual, then surely logic would dictate that adoption or a conscious decision not to reproduce is a more rational (and humanitarian) choice. But of course, it’s never that simple. Human’s are not rational. Emotions and instinct play a massive part in our choice to procreate.

        I personally, did not have a choice in my being childless. However, now I am forty, I have made a deliberate choice to remain so. I have worked this decision over in my head for many, many years and have had to absolutely question my own motivations in wanting to have children.

        In the end, my motivations seemed selfish and I felt that these were not good enough reasons, for me, to reproduce.

        But let me be clear – In my own experience of not being able to have children, I understand absolutely the desire and need of other people to conceive and have babies and I would never deny anyone that right or privilege. Just as I am not denying your right to have a say on this topic, nor am I denying your right to assert that this is a topic that needs to be discussed.

        But for all my opinions, I confess I haven’t got a clue as to where the discussion should start. That’s a whole other can of worms.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I think you do an excellent job of itemizing the concerns people have in general when it comes to this conversation. Or one set of them.

          I don’t think you’re alone in these concerns or that they’re unreasonable. That’s exactly what the piece is about.

          These concerns and the deeply unsavory nature of having to think about confronting them is exactly why this conversation isn’t happening.

          But my question still stands, and it is theoretical to a degree, insofar as it is an ethical/philosophical question, but it can also be a deeply personal question, one about actual individuals who will fight for their survival one day because we lacked the intestinal fortitude to confront the real-world implications of a grim reality.

          So, you know, the question is still: Is it better to avoid the conversation or the action of population control, come what may? What if that means that we have simply protected ourselves from difficult decisions and left future generations to deal with the mess, wherein “mess” potentially means widespread famine, disease, war, death, suffering, etc.?

          I think your ideas about people simply choosing for themselves not to have kids assume that there is a fair amount more time than there seems to be. As mentioned to Kristen above, we don’t really know how much time there is.

          And, just as you don’t trust people, on the honor system, to make fair decisions about who should have kids, I think it’s fair not to trust people to, en masse, simply decide not to have any kids. That doesn’t strike me as much of a plan.

          And I don’t think it’s necessary for people not to have ANY kids, so I continue to be somewhat perplexed by your adhesion to ideas about people with kids being somehow disqualified from respectability in the conversation or denying people the joy of parenthood, etc. And of course, it’s not as if having biological children and adopting are mutually exclusive. People can do both. I’m looking for a middle ground here.

          If we’re using your adoption paradigm, my question is whether or not someone should have the authority to say to people, “Look. If you want more than two kids, you have to adopt them.”

          • Zara Potts says:

            I think that’s the perfect compromise. In fact, I was discussing this with my husband-to-be(!) last night and that was his take on it also. As you say, the two shouldnt be mutually exclusive.
            As for how much time there is – you are again right. There is no better time than now to be applying such (whatever they may be) methods. But as history has shown us, human beings only really react at crisis point. We are not a proactive species, and theory may make us think, but it doesn’t make us act.
            That inertia may very well be our ultimate downfall.
            I think there is a widespread feeling that the planet will take care of itself- natural disasters etc – but I am inclined to see that as lazy thinking and a kind of hand-washing approach. As you point out, if we don’t act now then we are leaving a potential cataclysmic inheritance for the next generation.

  5. Sarah says:

    I’ve been thinking about this whole thing off and on since you posted. Not reading or researching (which I hope to do when I have some time), but just thinking. I don’t know, maybe I *am* a hypocrite because I’ve made a mini-me and a mini-my-husband. And maybe I am trying to rationalize my reproducing.

    But I need data. Facts. Charts. Birth rates and death rates. I mean, if everyone on earth replaces him/herself, will war, famine, and disease do their thing and reduce the population? Will it reduce it but not fast enough? Is it people having five, six, 15 kids that’s the problem or is only having one destroying the planet? I need answers before I can feel justified or guilty about my offspring.

    Even with all the data in front of me, however, my kids fucking rock and I can’t imagine life without them. So, if need be, I’ll proudly wear the selfish/hypocrite label if it turns out I actually am killing the planet. After all, maybe one of my kids will grow up to solve the world’s overpopulation problem.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, that’s kind of the deal. Whether someone has kids or not has zero bearing on the reality of the matter.

      So while you or I might be accused of saying “no more!” once we’ve got ours, it has zero implications for the necessity of the conversation. It may mean we’re dicks or hypocrites or whatever, but the problem remains regardless of my character or yours.

      That’s why arguments ad hominem are fallacious.

  6. kristen says:

    Mostly I just figure we’ve got some terrible and widespread natural disaster in store soon here that’ll take care of all this.

  7. kristen says:

    Related, a friend recommended this book to me the other day: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1577319729/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_UFeMpb11ZJ9W4. I plan to check it out.

    Thanks again for the post, B. Made for a rich recent therapy session. 😉

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