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Let’s go back to the beginning. Humans were pretty much behaving admirably. We’d gather a few nuts and wild onions, maybe hit a deer in the head with a rock and have dinner. Life was good. As hunter-gatherers we found our balance, our place in nature.
Then about 12,000 years ago we figured something out. We were able to actually plant a few crops and eat them. We had a more stable food supply and — at the time — how could you not think that was good? Today we call that time the Neolithic Revolution. It was also called the agricultural revolution. Back then, we probably didn’t call it anything, as long as you didn’t call us late for a dinner of lentil and barley soup.
Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe noted that many facets of modern civilization can be traced to this moment. We began living in communities. It was all because of farming.
Most of us would likely say this was a very good thing for our species. We settled down. And began to grow our numbers. I wouldn’t be so generous. Frankly, I now look at this farming thing as the beginning of the end. Why? Because farming is likely the single biggest factor that has led to our population explosion. So, technically it’s not really undrinkable water, disease or a petulant Trump that will do us in. Those are simply the symptoms of a much larger problem: Overpopulation.
As a race, we’ve gone pretty far down this rabbit hole when it comes to overpopulation. It’s going to be real difficult to figure a way back out.
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But back to that 12,000 years ago time when farming began. The world’s population was 4 million. Today — as noted — it’s about 8 billion. We should wrap our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains around those numbers. And there’s really only one conclusion: Our world can’t handle all of us.
Of course we humans — being human — felt we always had a solution. Not enough clean water? Build water-filtration plants. Not enough energy? Drill oil wells. What about food for 8 billion people? Things were getting grim. Invent the reaper. We need more sardines? Pack them into tin cans. More meat? Pack cows into stockyards … like sardines.
Graduate more doctors, create stronger medicine, discover more answers, all in an attempt to stay one step ahead of our problems, only to find we’re two steps behind. It is never-ending.
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In my younger days when I worked in upstate New York there was an ongoing story about gypsy moths. There were a gazillion of them decimating the forests. Then, they were suddenly under control. What solved the problem? Well, in part, it was the gypsy moths themselves. There were so abundant, so packed together, when a parasite eventually attacked them, they did themselves in. Apparently they weren’t practicing good social distancing.
You see where I’m going here, right? When gypsy moths had too much of a good thing, they were their own undoing. Mother Nature had had enough and millions died. And in a very real way, Mother Nature did what Mother Nature always does. It created natural social distancing.
Too many antelopes on the savannah? More lions appear because their food source is so plentiful. The lions then decimate the antelope population and then the lion numbers are reduced because there isn’t enough food. Nature keeps checking itself to keep the numbers of most everything in good working order.
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So now we’re facing the novel coronavirus. We’ll put our best minds on it to save us from ourselves once again. But when we succeed, we essentially are just tricking Mother Nature into believing our out-of-control population numbers are fine. But our time is coming. Soon. Eventually we’ll run out of tricks.
As I was researching this column I ran across an article that quoted Paul Ehrlich. He’s a population analyst and professor of population studies at Stanford University. He spoke about what the optimal human population should be on Earth.
“We came up with 1.5 to 2 billion,” he said.
Not interested in an optimal lifestyle? You’re OK with a minimum standard? Ehrlich said 4 billion or 5 billion people could survive.
If you’re paying attention you now know we’re at about twice the numbers to support a minimum lifestyle.
And eventually, Ehrlich said, we’re all likely to pay a heavy price.
“The question is: Can you go over the top without a disaster, like a worldwide plague? If we go on at the pace we are, there’s going to be various forms of disaster. Some may be slow-motion disasters like people getting more and more hungry, or catastrophic disasters because the more people you have, the greater the chance of some weird virus transferring from animal to human populations. There could be a vast die-off.”
Ehrlich concluded, “I have a grim view of what is likely to happen to my children and grandchildren. Politicians don’t have control over the systems of the planet that provide us our food, our welfare. Those are deteriorating and it will take us a long time to turn it around if we start now. It’s hard to think of anything that will pop up and save us. I hope something will, but it really will be a miracle.”
Now if Ehrlich had said this a few weeks ago or even a year ago it would be pretty impressive. But here’s the chilling thing. The article was written eight years ago this month, in 2012. And in case you couldn’t guess, population numbers continue to explode. Since 2012 the world has added another 700 million people. For context, that is about twice the population of the United States.
When it comes to trying to slow down the coronavirus with social distancing, what we’re really doing is trying to simulate Mother Nature. A healthy world is one that naturally creates social distancing, not duct tape on a grocery store floor.
So what to do? My suggestion is we put our best thinkers to work on the population problem. Sure, we can continue to devote our researchers to putting out the next massive problem that’s waiting in the wings. But remember, we’re not that different than the gypsy moths.
If we cannot figure it out, Mother Nature will do it for us.