Sunday, January 24, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Four

The Problem with Sacred Cows

Another structural problem that undermines any significant approach to the environmental problems is that any significant attempt to deal with them can only do so by threatening two pillars of human society that are so fundamental that they are treated as sacred cows: the family and the economy.

Human Reproduction

Evolutionary theory tells us that there is no more basic urge than that of reproduction. It is, from the biological point of view, the only really important thing that human beings do. And as such, we are programmed by our very DNA to have children. That is why people have the instinct for sex that causes us to get into so many problems. It is also why most of us feel our hearts “melt” when we see a baby. It is why so many women without children go more than a little crazy when they approach menopause and they start to hear their biological clock “running down”. Human beings are not just rational beings, we are biologically “hard wired” with instinctual urges that control an enormous amount of our day-to-day lives. (If anyone seriously doubts this, take a look at some advertising and think about how much of it is attempting to link into and take advantage of our sex drive.)

Unfortunately, it is an inescapable fact that there are simply far, far too many people on the planet earth and the human race needs to limit its fertility. In fact, there are so many people on the earth that we really should cut the number of people we already have by a very great deal. How much it should be cut comes down to a number of assumptions that people start out with. If we want to pull all the people of the earth up to the standard of living something like the people of Europe, we will have to cut it very drastically indeed, to probably a lot under one billion. If we want to pull down the industrial West to the standard of living of an Indian peasant, then perhaps we could continue get by with three billion. If, in addition, we are willing to give up on trying to preserve certain wild animals and let the grizzly bear, tiger, whale, etc, go extinct, then perhaps we can get by on what we have now (although I think most ecologists would take issue even with that.) But no matter how you slice it, the human race simply has to stop having children and that means a lot of women in our lifetime should really go to their graves without having had any at all.

The above is not terribly controversial amongst experts in the field. But the quickest way to create an angry and bitter battle within even the most radical of environmental groups is to state the above and suggest that substantive policy be crafted to make the human population shrink down to a sustainable level as soon as possible. This opposition takes several forms.

The first is a type of denial that suggests that human population is already declining. This is not true at all. The rate of increase is reducing, but that doesn't translate into a decrease in population, just a reduction in the rate at which it is growing. With the Earth already under tremendous stress and the human population well beyond its carrying capacity, we simply do not have the luxury of time to simply wait until the rate eventually cuts itself down to a sustainable level. (Indeed, to be completely accurate, the human population issue is self-correcting because if it continues much further along its present trends it will simply result in a population crash as billions of people die through things like starvation and disease; or a nuclear war created by the social stress. The point of environmentalism is always, ultimately, about trying to prevent misery in the human race. Mother Nature can take care of herself.)

Another sort of denial says that the Western countries are already going through a period of population decline, so we simply need to develop the economies of the Third World nations and their populations will spontaneously decline. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the issues of footprint, immigration and our declining window of opportunity.

With regard to ecological footprint, it doesn't matter to the earth one whit whether we have one person consuming 100x of the earth's resources or 100 individuals consuming 1x each. The net result is still 100x. In effect, we could still have a population problem if the population were in fact declining but the rate at which each remaining individual was using up the world's resources was still increasing faster. And indeed, both of those factors are at work with regard to Western population. There are fewer people being born in Europe, but each individual is consuming even more than their parents did.

More to the point, this argument ignores the fact that the countries that consume the absolute most per capita, the USA and Canada, both are still experiencing significant population increases. The USA is bucking the trend of the rest of the developed world by actually having a high birth rate. And Canada increases its population through immigration---and all of those immigrants almost immediately change their consumption patterns to those of native-born Canadians. Finally, even if the population were slowly declining---which it is not---we only have a limited amount of time to deal with things like climate change before things like positive feedback loops become initiated and our problems become much greater.

A third response is not argumentative at all, but mere sophistry. That is to shut down debate by immediately kicking into some sort of emotional temper tantrum and spouting wild accusations whenever population issues are raised. And if you try to engage people in discussions about immigration, someone almost invariably will suggest that anyone who wants to limit it is a racist. It is also very common to hear people suggest that any person who raises the issue of population control is suggesting that parents should kill their children. These responses are not meant seriously, of course, but instead are primarily ways of signifying to all present that the issue is too emotionally charged to be discussed seriously and instead should be ignored. And since that is exactly what happens in almost all environmental organizations and mainstream politics, people learn to “bite their tongues” and the issue disappears from the radar.

The thing to remember about these responses is that they are not rational arguments. Instead, they should be understood for what they really are: instinct-based reproductive behaviour. In a real sense, when someone responds with an illogical negative response in order to “short circuit” discussion about population control they are doing much the same thing as when someone goes into “protection mode” when a member of their immediate family is threatened. There is no rationality at all to human reproduction---yet we all have to deal with these instinctual urges in one way or another. Political discourse about limiting human population is saturated with this biological imperative and unless society learns to limit the power of this instinctive drive, it will lead us all to catastrophe.


Anonymous said...

What would happen if Canada stopped immigration, or reduced it by 50-75%? Its population would steadily and immediately decline, which would be a tremendously positive thing as all we are doing is stealing professionals, doctors and entrepreneurs from countries that are in far more desperate need of such people than Canada (and they paid for their education through public institutions only to have another country confiscate this benefit). So I think it is legitimate to say Canada does not have a population problem, only an immigration and theft problem (we are kleptomaniacs for poor countries doctors and professionals - essentially creating poverty, hardship and injustice for those societies, compounded by our 'free trade' policies).


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


The point that I'm trying to make is that immigration is a "sacred cow" in Canada. This means that it is impossible for any politician to deal with it. That is to say, insofar as a politician every seriously talked about what you are suggesting, she would have any power to actually do it taken away from her.

Whether or not this is "right" is besides the point. It is a fact and has to be accepted instead of railed against---.

Anonymous said...

I think if the Greens put forth a policy resolution to this effect (rather than a blanket, global population control resolution) that it would be supported in the party and widely accepted among the Canadian public.


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Well my experience tells me that you are simply wrong in your assessment. People have tried to raise the issue of immigration at Green Party conventions and the organizers either use administrative means to keep the item from being discussed or the resolution gets voted down.

That's the problem with sacred cows, they are so emotionally charged that people will not even discuss them.