I've been thinking about kids lately.
I love my children, but I do not confuse them with "free resources" like air. Instead they are something like food and drink; critical for life but with a debt you incur for needing them.
But for the purposes of this post I am thinking of children in general, rather than mine in particular.
Or, rather, this is about humans as the global apex predator.
Didn't used to be this way, of course. My understanding is that our proto-hominid and hominid ancestors were about where the large apes are in the food chain, a multi-level consumer but also prey for large carnivores. But it has really been a long time since we were in danger of predation. The only animal that can prey on humans is human; ecologically, we are our only real population control. For all that we often act like sheep, we're the wolves, or, rather, we're the predator that the wolves WISH they could be. I'll bet if you gave a wolf voice for a day and turned it loose on the works of Man it'd go for our killing technology in a big way. Would a wolf with a cluster bomb unit do the kind of damage to caribou that we do to each other?
The mind reels.
Of course, the sorts of population controls that have probably always killed more humans than other animals still cull us; cold and heat and drought (and the associated starvation and diseases) and the various epidemics from influenzas to plagues. We're never safe from something. But the combination of industrial agriculture, scientific medicine, political stability and general education has done much to broaden the sunny, clear portions of human lives, pushing back the frightening things that made our existences so frighteningly brief and tenuous.We live longer, breed more successfully, and die less agonizingly - generally - than we ever have.
I'm not sure at this point what CAN limit human ability to reproduce. We are pretty fecund creatures, able to pop out about one offspring every year to eighteen months (dear GOD! but still...) from about fourteen years of age to somewhere in our forties or even fifties. Most of us don't, naturally, but the trend since the first human tribes has been a slow increase in population until about the late Middle Ages.
Improvement in things like sanitation, the understanding of the germ theory of disease, inventions as commonplace and simple as chemical fertilizers and vaccinations...all these have made the Earth circa 2010 an extraordinarily safe and healthy place for humans. We've responded by doing what we've always done; finding another human (usually of the opposite sex, but, whatever...) and a flat piece of ground (which we can do without if needs must) and putting Tab A into Slot B and the next thing you know the place is swarming with brats...
Which brings me to my point, which is, that I cannot think of an organism or a species of organisms that thrives without some sort of population control.
Producers need consumers or they will exhaust the non-organic resources - air, water, soil nutrients - and the population will crash. Nastily. All natural populations that don't recieve a thorough culling tend to be designed to boom and crash. So deer, freed from natural predation and turned loose on suburban gardens full of browse, multiply until they become nuisances and, regularly, suffer from apalling die-offs during hard winters. In popular fable lemmings are said to run to the sea, voluntarily doing the work that cold and starvation do on the deer. Predators suffer the same effect; too many and the prey is depleted. The predators seek food elsewhere, or die.
So far we seem to be overwhelming any sort of natural controls on our population. Since the dent the Black Death made in numbers back in the 15th Century it's been all uphill for us hairless monkeys. The only systematic control on human numbers appears to be, well, us.
I'm not really talking about predation of the war-and-disease type. I'm thinking about kids.
Kids are work. Often good work, occasionally fun work, typically productive work, but many times grinding, frustrating, repetitive work. Work enough that the stats pretty definately show that we're often happier as couples without them. Work enough that when medicine, nutrition and industrialization free people from the need to pop out a half-dozen or so (either to ensure that half will survive or to work the family goat ranch) familes tend to decline in size precipitously. Two kids aren't twice the work of one - they're more like three or four times. Six? Eight? I can't imagine.You'll notice that nearly all the population growth in the past 100 years has been in the "developing world". It's these folks who still need the big families to survive...or are still living in a culture that pushes you to have kids, whether you still "need" them or not.But these kids, their parents, their cultures don't want to be herding goats forever. They want what I have: the sturdy house, the car and the truck, the bank account, the computer and the clean clothes and the fatty foods.
Clean water. I take it for granted here in the rainy Northwest, but clean water - or any water at all - is a huge issue for much of the planet. What would it take to ensure access to sufficient clean water for every person on the planet? How much would it cost, both physically and politically? How likely is it that instead of cooperating to secure it people would, instead, fight over it, expending even more resources in the process?
The point is that all of this stuff fucking costs. It costs in the materials consumed to make it, to maintain it, to heat the house and fuel the car, light up the basement, and storybook the little Girl and soccer ball-and-cleat-and-uniform the big Boy. I am, we are, damn expensive to produce and maintain; one of me could feed and support a dozen or a score of men my age in a Lahore slum or in a village in Shensi. One of my family unit "costs" probably as much as an entire little settlement in the Sudan, or a nomadic encampment in Mongolia.
I would imagine that once the men in Lahore, Mongolia, Sudan and Shensi acquire their own wood-frame homes, cars, computers, washer-driers and little lawns they'll be ready to cut back to my own 2.25 kids (the cats are about a quarter-of-a-kid-pain-in-the-ass...).Okay, well, maybe some of them.
But where's the safe "stopping" point? What's the top-end human load that the Earth can sustain at my lifestyle? How long? What will that mean for the rest of the creatures on the planet? How do we know?
I'll posit this: we don't. And we won't. We'll find out the limit the hard way - by crossing it.
Because there's another factor at work here.
The simple answer would seem to be to slow down right now. Why not? Let's say that if we all get things down to about five kids per four adults that we will be able to slowly bring most of the world up to some approximation of a Western European/North American middle-class lifestyle. Okay, lower middle class lifestyle. Can we do that? Without strip-mining the planet, I mean? How about just providing every single person on the planet with scientific medical care, clean water, a sturdy home and a reliable supply of food? IS even THAT possible, if we stabilized the human population at today's numbers?
Because there's a real worm in that apple.
I can tell you that I'm a patriotic American, that I love my country, that I'd fight to defend it.
But what if my son had to defend it? Or my daughter? Or both?
I don't have "spares" - I know that's a callous way to describe it, but there it is. If my son dies in war my name dies with him. I have no further biological stake in my home, my state, my nation other than my own intellectual one. A nation whose reproduction drops to near replacement level is in the same position as I would be personally; there's no slack, my neighbor's death really does lessen me. A war, an epidemic, a famine...anthing that hits the public hard could result in a catastrophic drop in the ppulation.
And war here is the particularly menacing prospect. Kids, old people, disabled...these folks can't fight. Nobody yet has found a way to dispense with a man or woman with a rifle, and only the relatively young and relatively fit can fight as infantrymen, tankers, artillerymen.So taking this as a need for ensuring survival, the survival of the various groups and nations would seem to preclude there ever being a "stable" human population on the planet. We can't afford to stop reproducing if another group has excess young people to throw at us to take us down, no?
Thing is, I don't think this is a "solveable" problem; that is, I don't think there's a social or technological way to evade it or do more than defer it. I think that the human population will continue to grow, and that human needs and wants for the ever-more complex and costly goods and services that First Worlders like myself take for granted will grow with it. And that a combination of desire for offspring among some and a fear of being overrun by a competitor that is outbreeding them will prevent anyone from even making a real run at this. I think that we will see ever more people on Earth for the forseeable human future.Some technologic means, a "leap" such as the Green or Industrial Revolutions, might help defer the moment that we begin to overwhelm our natural resources. Or we as a species might figure out a way around this "reproduce-or-fail" trap. I just can't think of anything. I see a narrowing gap between that we have on Earth to sustain us and the number of people - and the way those people live - consuming it.
So I suspect that we're in for a shock when those lines converge. I don't know what that will mean in detail, but in general I suspect that means something bad; some long years of iron and blood, for my children, or their children, or their children's children.I hope I am not here to see it.
(Full version posted at GFT)