I’ve just finished reading two books on population issues. Overpopulation is what I see as the number one issue we face, since virtually all of our dire problems stem from the issue of too many people on too small a planet.
The second of the two books focused on overpopulation in the US—a problem I have to admit was barely on my radar screen before. After all, 300 million sounds puny when you compare it to population issues in other countries, especially China and India. And I was really skeptical of the authors’ thesis that we not only need to reign in fertility rates here, but we also need to drastically limit immigration.
That raised my hackles right off the bat because I’ve always been pro-immigration on humanitarian grounds. What right do we have to close our borders and insulate ourselves from the suffering in the rest of the world? After all, borders are ultimately imaginary. We are a globally-dispersed species and how can anyone be more deserving to occupy a certain place on the planet than anyone else? If there were no borders, of course people in marginal lands would move in droves to more productive places, which would then in time become over-exploited until people moved on to the next best place and so on. There would still be suffering but (if I can claim such a thing) more equitable suffering.
What I had never really thought through until now is this: in these extremely dire times, closed borders (which is not at all what the authors were proposing) might be our only hope, not just for the US, but for the planet. If we stop immigration and lower fertility, ultimately decreasing our population, we will be able to preserve groundwater, forests and other vital environmental resources, keep more species from going extinct and perhaps a still green America (relatively) might offset some of the massive environmental degradation elsewhere. A green America could potentially stave off a total environmental collapse worldwide—maybe. After all, Americans consume something like twenty to forty times more resources than people in third world countries so each person you add to our population in the US has a huge negative global impact. Limiting our numbers could be doing a great service to humanity.
Maybe every country everywhere should close its borders temporarily until population growth is stopped. Of course that would mean very intense concentrated suffering in certain places. The thing that’s clear is there’s no happy solution left at this point.
If we don’t ourselves come (at the very least) to the brink of extinction it will be utterly miraculous. What is going to happen this century seems poised to be nothing short of cataclysmic.
How is a person supposed to live in times like these? That’s the question I keep coming back to. Our situation is totally unprecedented. It seems to me what’s required is an extreme maturity in the individual, so that he or she can freely sacrifice the majority of his or her personal desires and ego-gratifying whims. We don’t need more monuments and mansions to the self.