The dead elephant in the living room


Taboo! Subtle and not-so-subtle cultural conventions keep us from considering the single most significant cause of ecological devastation: overpopulation. We’re faced with a kind of unconscious conspiracy in which folks tacitly agree not to address the earth’s swollen human population as a critical environmental issue. Even avid conservationists publicly shy away from this dead elephant in the living room. The whole host of impending ecological disasters—global warming, resource depletion and pollution, water shortages, violent conflict—are all profoundly intertwined with the demographic explosion of modern humans.

It is verboten for those in influential positions to address the subject in public forums. Most religious, political, social and media authorities will not risk the backlash of suggesting we have too many people on the Earth and that something must be done about it. Woe be to those who offer the perception that our future sustainability requires establishing mechanisms to reduce the unsustainable impact of seven billion bodies all struggling for a middle-class lifestyle.  

This conspiracy of ignorance traces to a variety of sources. A biological mandate rooted in our DNA propels living things to procreate to the maximum. Familial, religious, social, political and economic pressures also impel us to constantly expand our numbers. These cultural forces act in concert to eliminate any serious discussion about the need to limit our population—or, god forbid—to somehow reduce the present numbers. 

For hundreds of thousands of years, our hunter-gatherer forebears lived in small mobile communities and survived by following the golden rule of sustainability: never expand beyond the carrying capacity of the environment.  Then, in the past few millennia, a new paradigm emerged. I would suggest its individuals represent an entirely new species in the genus Homo. No longer can we be classified as Homo sapiens—wise humans. The new tag, Homo dominativus, or dominating humans, could describe those of us who have come to live en masse in sedentary communities, to develop agriculture and to invent a sophisticated technology bent on exploiting and controlling the natural world. Rather than having an intimate, spiritually grounded relationship with the Earth, we set ourselves above living things as master to slave.

Reasonable arguments can be advanced regarding the positive and negative contributions contemporary human evolution has provided for its members. On the one hand, we—at least, the most privileged—have all the material and medical benefits science provides, along with the gifts of music, literature, art, education and the many other perks of civilization. On the other hand, we are faced with mounting ecological degradation, which could spell our own doom and that of many other forms of life. The most extreme critics describe humanity as an uncontrollably metastasizing cancer on the face of the Earth requiring radical intervention.  

Regardless of these arguments, one inconvenient fact continues to rear its ugly head: the planet can’t sustain the impacts of the currently projected 10 billion mouths to feed in the near future. So why are so few willing to step up and deal with the dead elephant?  Population Connection magazine is one respected institution that has dared to tackle this delicate issue. Its April 2015 edition presents the possibility that the “Earth’s population could hit 12 billion by 2100.” Not a pretty picture.

No discussion of overpopulation would be complete without some effort to suggest intervention. Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, kicked up quite a storm with their publication of “The Population Bomb.” When their dire predictions of mass starvation did not immediately materialize, however, critical attacks marginalized the conversation. But the Ehrlichs suggested some reasonable remedies that might be implemented. In addition to educating and empowering women, which has been the most effective approach, a worldwide tax on more than one child could provide a mechanism for reducing future births.  

Barring effective intervention, increasing world conflict, rising seas, resource exhaustion and massive refugee migrations coupled with xenophobia may be the wave of the future. Like the studies in which too many rats in the cage produce carnage, it might be that the flood of human beings triggers the kind of slide into chaos we’re now witnessing in the Middle East. On the brighter side, perhaps a worldwide awakening will arise that allows us to take control over our impulses in order to provide a truly sustainable future for our planet and future generations. Ignorance is indeed not bliss. As a first step, we need to break the taboo and discuss this pivotal problem. If the followers would lead, the leaders will follow.

To wax philosophical, one might recall how massive extinctions occurred in our planet’s past, and how life in innumerable forms sprang right back. Perhaps modern humanity and its impacts represent a fleeting experiment in the long-term evolution of existence—fated to come and go like so many countless species before. And while human hubris cherishes the illusion of choice, perhaps the universe is governed by a set of laws that mandates how it operates and how it is destined to unfold. Perhaps all is as it must be.  


John Littleton is a longtime Point Reyes Station resident and a retired educator.