Monday, February 26, 2007

In a bubble and in trouble

It was 20 years ago that Paul Simon crooned, "the Planet groans every time it registers another birth." (Graceland, 1986) That year we were a mere 4.9 billion-people planet. The latest figures (2005-2006) estimate the global population at 6.4 billion.

Now, reluctantly scientists involved in the global warming discourse have added population growth to the list of contributors. Al Gore, Bill McKibben, The Washington Post and others in the environmental community list population growth among the top ten issues we must tackle.

I have yet to see or hear, however, any approach that can reconcile a couple's profoundly personal decision to procreate with the impersonal bureaucratic approaches to population control. Nor have I seen, outside of China's long standing policies, any government advocate control of its own population. Rather the trend seems to be that industrialized countries focus on stemming growth in developing countries, reflecting paternalistic and nationalistic sentiment about curbing new births.

We are in such a bubble of denial. I wonder what event will precipitate a paradigm shift in the Nations' approach to population growth. It will not be reaching 7 billion or 8 or 9. It won't be a great famine or weather-related disaster. It won't be a flu pandemic. I wonder what will burst our bubble.

I wonder if it will be a photograph.

In 1969, we first saw the Earth. No longer did we depend on imagined artist's conceptions. We saw the real thing through a lens. As many have recounted, the real image of the earth brought out truths no mathematical or literary descriptions could.

Today, we depend on huge numbers, statistics, and analogies to envision our population. It would be impossible, in fact, to actually count the people on the Earth or to see them all at once. Perhaps some smart person can overcome these challenges and illustrate in a meaningful way --perhaps using the wonders of digital photography and video, peer networking and the (Semantic?) Web--how our Planet groans. If we can indeed all come to understand the same truth (just how big is 6.4 billion?), then we might have a starting point for this conversation.

1 comment:

Arthur Tucker said...

I'm not quite so worried about these issues myself. It's true that we, as a small planet, are becoming increasingly over-crowded, but I hold faith in two things:

1). Most countries, as they become industrialized and economically more healthy and self-sustaining, show a drop in birth-rates. Take for example Germany or England. I hold faith that this trend is part of some natural law of societies.

2). Perhaps linked to the first point is my faith in nature to self-correct itself. As populations of any animal get too big for their environment, using up the resources available, nature pushes back with disease, stresses, inter-population conflicts (schisms, wars, tribal conflicts, etc.) until the drain on resources is no longer their. This could mean either a leveling-out of population growth through some natural means or a plummet in population size, likewise through some natural means.