The outer limits

Where are the conversations about our apocalyptic population growth?

The census of 1920 revealed that California had a population of 3.4 million people. Now, going on a century later, Los Angeles alone has about a half-million more people than that. As of last year, the Golden State had 39.54 million living and breathing souls. When I came here in the early 1960s, there were fewer than 16 million people from San Diego to Eureka. Barring some enormous calamity, natural or manmade, we will have exceeded a population of 40 million by 2020.

In 1920, the estimated human population of the entire planet was under 2 billion. By 2020, we are expected to have nearly quadrupled that number to 8 billion people, a population that will grow by roughly 20 million additional people each year.

We’ll be engaged in a presidential election when that year arrives. The last time we had one of those, there was no discussion of population growth. We heard from the eventual winner that manmade global warming was a hoax. We heard his determination to bring back the coal industry. But we heard nothing about the impact of rapid and ultimately unsustainable population growth.

By mid-century, we will be nearing a planetary population of 10 billion inhabitants. I won’t live to see that, but you will if you’re young or middle-aged, and I don’t think you’re going to like it much. By the end of the century, our numbers will have reached nearly 12 billion. Though there is no clear scientific consensus on the matter, it is widely believed that those numbers exceed the outer limits of a sustainable human population.

This isn’t sci-fi dystopia and it’s not “fake news.” We are already awash in refuse. The Pacific Ocean has an expanding island of floating garbage bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined. Plant and animal species are going extinct at an alarming rate, mostly due to loss of habitat. Clean drinking water is becoming harder to find for growing numbers of our fellow human beings. The growing gap in wealth has resulted in ever more millions of people living marginally, with lives as “poor, nasty, brutish and short” as they were in 1588 when Thomas Hobbes concocted his famous phrase to describe the human condition.

Stanford professor Paul Erlich warned us about apocalyptic population growth back in the late ’60s. He and his wife wrote a book—The Population Bomb—foretelling the consequences to come if we continued to ignore the accelerating growth in our number. He appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and a range of other popular television shows. His ideas were discussed at scientific conferences. For a year or so, the phrase “population explosion” was in the mix of thought and concern most everywhere.

However, since our species has the attention span of a gnat, we turned to other matters—the ’70s disco craze, to cocaine, to wars and rumors of wars. There was plenty to worry about, and Erlich’s anxieties were a bummer, man. Besides, we were told there was a “green revolution” that would save our asses, with miracle synthetic fertilizers and other innovations that made Erlich’s doomsday prognostications seem hysterical. Now, even in the deluge of writing and thinking about sustainability, the subject of overpopulation seldom comes up.

Am I unduly pessimistic? Perhaps. We’re still being reassured that technology will save us. But no matter how you imagine it, such growth in the number of hungry mouths, all in need of roofs and infrastructure and living space, is unsustainable. And since our species seems incapable of or unwilling to curb the growth in its numbers, it is inevitable that nature will take a corrective course and limit those numbers with a pandemic or two, a global calamity.

Or, alternatively, the growth in our numbers will lead to greater environmental degradation and famines that are sure to follow. Already, the ocean’s fisheries are exploited, in danger of collapsing. Beyond those mounting perils, the planetary overcrowding is sure to increase human strain, tension and desire for territory. That will almost certainly lead to a series of wars—or one big one—that will reduce population in an orgy of death and suffering.

Our species has never shown much capacity for peace and harmony, and we get nastier when we are too many. Way back when I was in college, I read of studies being done on rat populations. As their conditions became more crowded, their tendency for violence grew exponentially. They began to eat their young.

In a somewhat less literal sense, we humans have been eating our young, too. We are consuming nonrenewable resources at an astonishing rate, despoiling the future home of our progeny like there’s no tomorrow, turning forests into deserts, rivers into sewers, oceans into cesspools. As we divert ourselves with sparkly tech toys, as we elect politicians intent upon expediting the looming disaster—ignoring global warming, pulling out of environmental accords, deregulating polluters, extending the tyranny of fossil fuels, stockpiling ever more weapons of mass destruction—we are also ignoring the biggest elephant in the room, which is too many of our own kind.

We are procreating ourselves to death, a human plague upon the planet. No amount of recycling or organic backyard farming will be enough to offset this oncoming rush of additional human beings, a species of parasites busily devouring its host, where growth is seen by far too many as an unmitigated good thing.

Will those children of the future look back on our well-meaning but modest efforts to curb our impact on the planet? Or will they, like half the human population in our own time, be too busy trying to survive to give much thought and blame to the ways we failed?

So, what is to be done? We might start with reducing corruption by reforming campaign finance laws, by doing a better job of educating our young to the dangers that await them and to their duties as citizens in a democracy. We could stop electing people who play fast and loose with our delicate ecological balance. We could insist on leadership—locally, nationally, internationally—that puts sustainability ahead of growth. We could stop applauding when people boast about having lots of kids. We could do countless things, small and large, even as we fear that whatever we do may be too little and too late.

What we cannot do is stare into smartphones while remaining stupid, diverting ourselves with empty distractions. What we cannot do is continue to elect people who fail to factor population growth into every policy decision and program being planned. Most urgently, what we cannot do is do nothing at all.