There’s nothing like living through a severe drought accompanied by disastrous nearby wildfires and the hottest summer on record to get one thinking about climate change and access to water. So over the last couple of weeks I read Alex Prud’homme’s book The Ripple Effect. It provides an excellent overview on the water problems facing the world right now.
As I read, I kept coming back to one basic thought: This wouldn’t be such a problem if we didn’t have too many people on this planet.
My father just turned 93. When he was born, there were about 1.8 billion people on this planet. Today we’re pushing 7 billion — more than 3.5 times as many people. If he lives a few more years, the population will have quadrupled in his lifetime. Any way you look at it, that’s an extreme change in a short period of time.
Paul Ehrlich warned about this back in 1968, when his book The Population Bomb came out. It’s been fashionable for the last 20 years or so to bash Ehrlich for being wrong because some of his most drastic predictions didn’t come true.
As someone who sees the connection between overpopulation in everything from resource shortages to traffic congestion, I wondered why this was so, so I went down to the excellent Austin Public Library and checked out a copy.
Reading it was kind of like reading Golden Age science fiction for its predictive aspects: Some of the specifics were wrong, but the core point was right.
We may not have our jet packs and, alas, the space program has not made the progress we might have hoped for 60 years ago, but I’d be glad to argue that we’re living in the world predicted by the Golden Age writers.
Likewise, the disasters didn’t happen as Ehrlich and other population biologists predicted — I remember my freshman biology professor Michael Menaker telling us it was “too late” to do anything about India — but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had some terrible famines and other disasters, nor does it mean that overpopulation isn’t a major part of the crises we face right now.
Think about this: If the Earth’s population right now was the 3.5 billion we had when Ehrlich first published The Population Bomb in 1968, would we be putting such a strain on water resources? Would we be putting as much carbon dioxide in the air? Would we need as much oil? For that matter, would unemployment and immigration be such problems? With fewer people, we might have jobs going begging and need immigrants to fill them.
We have famine going on right now; it’s particularly bad in Somalia. As Rose George pointed out in her excellent book, The Big Necessity, 2.4 billion people on this planet do not have access to any kind of toilet — not even an outhouse.
Now it happens that I have a decent life. I’ve got a place to live, a car, a job, and enough money in the bank to not only take care of my basic needs, but also to splurge on books or high tech tools or art or travel when I get the urge. I even have time to spend on my own work.
It seems to me that everybody on Earth should have the opportunity to live as well as I do. But if all 7 billion had lived at least as well as I have for the past decade or so, climate change alone would have made the planet close to uninhabitable by now.
One of the rebuffs to Ehrlich has been that technology can fix things. And that may be true: there are certainly some technological solutions that will make life on an Earth with 7 billion people more feasible. But looking at the pace of population growth and the pace of technological change in such things as clean energy, mass transportation, and efficient use of water, I don’t see the technology changing fast enough to prevent either massive human suffering or significant changes to our climate.
As a rule, I’m not a believer in apocalypses, whether predicted by religious fundamentalists, ancient Mayans, or environmentalists. I tend to a belief that human beings will find a way to muddle along. But the more I look at climate change and overpopulation, the more I think there are going to be some major collapses over the next century, and maybe even for some centuries beyond.
I hope I’m wrong, because I also see the potential that human beings will actually make progress at becoming a civilized species. The possibilities presented by both the digital revolution and the growing understanding that all people on Earth are connected and that society works best when we cooperate give me hope even as climate change makes me despair.
As a writer, I’ve been approaching this subject by writing stories in which societies collapse and climate disaster happens, but civilization manages to survive — that is, we don’t send ourselves back to the Stone Age. “Or We Will All Hang Separately” is an example — one I hope to expand into a novel in the next couple of years.
I don’t know what the optimum population of Earth is in the abstract. For me, it’s a planet where the air is clean, we have plenty of water, there’s enough space for privacy, and there’s still some undeveloped wilderness out there for me to visit (not live in).
It’s a matter of perspective, though.
Crazy Horse thought there were too many people in the world — or at least, on the Great Plains and in the Black Hills — 140 years ago. Back then there were about a billion people on Earth, but an awful lot of them wanted the gold in the Black Hills.
Could be that whatever number of people we end up with will be too many so long as humans continue to be greedy.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.