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The Environmental Threat in the Living Room

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This month’s Wired Magazine cover story says, “Keep your SUV. Forget organics. Go Nuclear. Live urban. Crank the A/C. In the age of climate change, what matters most is cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.” The story makes a sensational case for this thesis, then prints a brief rebuttal by Alex Steffen that says, “We don’t need a war on carbon. We need a new prosperity that can be shared by all while still respecting a multitude of real ecological limits.”

In arguing whether to fight one environmental threat or many, both sides list “a multitude of real ecological limits,” but neither side pays any attention to the biggest threat of all: too damn many people. Limiting population is the environmental elephant in the living room: everyone pretends it’s not there. Just a single generation of couples world-wide with an average of one child each would help the environment far more than all other efforts combined. Doing this, or even cutting the world population in half wouldn’t solve our problems completely, but it would sure make them solvable. Why don’t we do it, then? Because too many groups object. Object strenuously; object rabidly.

Religious sects object, Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, and all who think our primary purpose is to manufacture as many new souls for God as we can. Who cares how bad it gets down here? This world is only a brief trial before a glorious immortality, up There.
Power grabbers object. If our tribe gets bigger than your tribe, we can beat the tar out of you (or erase you altogether) and steal your wealth, space, and resources.

Farmers (read: most of the world) object. Kids grow into farm hands faster than trees mature enough to bear fruit, and many hands make work light. You pay them with the food you grow, and if there’s not enough, too bad. They just die off and you make more of them.

Most pervasively of all, males object. No matter how civilized we are, we still respond to the ancient Darwinian imperative. Survival of the fittest means survival long enough to reproduce, and the more reproductions we make, the stronger our species. Less delicately put: big families demonstrate big cojones.

This is the paragraph in which I’m supposed to lay out my solution to the problem – only I don’t have one; I don’t know what to do. Totalitarian regimes have sometimes enforced family limitation, but that kind of government is unacceptable. Agencies world-wide have labored at population control for at least a century, without any detectable effect overall.

But maybe population control can take a lesson from global warming. That is a truth so inconvenient that many still won’t accept it and no one wants to make the sacrifices necessary to deal with it. Nevertheless our noses have been rubbed in this inconvenient truth so long, so loudly, so forcefully that we are at least coming to acknowledge it. We are admitting, however reluctantly, that yes, there is an elephant in the living room after all. We are starting to deal with global warming because it has been publicly discussed and discussed and discussed so much that we can’t avoid it. That is what we must do for population control. We must stop hiding it. We must talk about it, argue it, bring it to the top of our civic agenda. Otherwise, Earth’s swarming billions will kill us off much faster than carbon dioxide.

Wired magazine says, “Screw organic. Screw the spotted owl.” And however you may feel about that, at least don’t screw humans unprotected. We can no longer cope with the results.

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A career writer and media maven, Jim Stinson is the author of four mystery novels and a college textbook, Video: Digital Communication and Production. His newest novel, Tassy Morgan's Bluff, will be out from Penguin Books in June 2011. He lives with (more...)
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