Reflection 24: Population

November 17, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

At the moment I start to write this blog, the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,025,062 (POPClock, U.S. Bureau of Standards, Population Division, 3:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, November 10, 2008).

 

The world population reached some 300 million in Y0K (that’s a zero representing the millennial turn from B.C. to A.D.), reached its first billion about 1830 or earlier, its second billion in 1930, third in 1960, fourth in 1974, fifth in 1987, sixth in 1999, and is predicted to hit its seventh billion by 2017.

 

What makes these numbers so scary to me is, 1) the human population has more than tripled since I was born, 2) in my lifetime per-capita material consumption in the U.S. has shot up by a factor of six, 3) average life expectancy in the U.S. has stretched from 60 to 80 years over the same span, and 4) we have achieved all this at the expense of the Earth. I am mixing apples and oranges here, but only to make the point that during my brief tenure on Earth there are vastly greater numbers of us living much longer and consuming far more than our human ancestors did from the origin of our species to the 1930s.

 

We know all this. We also know that this horde of hungry hominids (namely, us) is eating away the habitats that give it a homeland on planet Earth. We are depleting the very species and ecosystems we depend on for life support. The forests, wetlands, grasslands, waterways, estuaries, oceans. We are changing the climate, the acidity of the seas, storm frequency and intensity—there are few aspects of our planet we haven’t impacted and destabilized to our peril.

 

Yet we do little about it. Red lights are flashing, sirens wailing, klaxons honking, flares igniting, bulletins alerting, headlines glaring, seas rising, bluffs eroding—and it’s all business as usual with us hominid types and our lifestyles that are fast turning into deathstyles.

 

Consciousness is given us so we can make appropriate responses to unprecedented life situations. So why aren’t we doing anything? Is it because we aren’t really conscious of what’s happening? By way of a contrasting example, I offer the time in Nespelum, Washington, when I went into the bushes to urinate, met a rattlesnake crossing the path in front of me, turned, walked away, and I no longer had to go. I was fully conscious and as a result clamped my bladder tight for over an hour. That’s consciousness leading to appropriate action.

 

But now we act like we’re in a deep sleep or coma: Let them take care of it, whoever they are. I didn’t do it. Besides, I can’t fix it. So individually and collectively we do nothing. Or worse than nothing, we keep multiplying, consuming, growing older and older, depleting the Earth. Every day we wake up and the problem is worse. In the past twelve years, more than a billion more people have been born than died. Consumers have rampaged through markets and malls, going deeply into debt, having their way with the Earth. And still we do nothing.

 

What’s wrong with our consciousness? With our exploring our options? With our prioritizing? With our acting and following-through? With our using our know-how and experience to get us out of this fix?

 

Like, we don’t have to live our full span of years, splurging the bulk of our life-long medical expenditures on a terminal spree during our last six months of life. Living for a shorter time has the same effect as cutting the population. We consume less, and yet enjoy ourselves more because we are in better health. Check that: no heroic efforts to gain a few extra months of “life” hooked up to expensive machines. No, not even if the medical establishment entices us (after all, they make a killing on forlorn hopes and end-of-life theatrics). Not even if our loved ones don’t want to let go.

 

A few years ago, my beloved cousin fell and injured her hand. Which got infected. Sending a clot to her heart, then on to her kidneys. Her lungs were already kaput from a fifty-year career of smoking to keep herself thin. Now it was quadruple bypass surgery, dialysis to detoxify herself, lying in bed for a year because standing and walking were too much effort. She and her daughters believed they could will her kidneys to heal themselves. But it didn’t pan out. After a year with no lifestyle at all she died, leaving a portfolio of unpaid hospital bills as her legacy. Is that how we want our loved ones to go, with a stifled (and costly) whimper, not a bang?

 

Conservation is the key to squandering fewer of Earth’s natural “resources.” I mean using fewer resources, not developing alternative technologies to sustain us at the same level of consumption. We can contribute to the resolution of our predicament by restraining our appetites, reusing what we do take, recycling, sharing, and weaning ourselves from dependence on petroleum-guzzling machinery by slowing down and relying more on our own labor. Think what that would do for our epidemic of obesity.

 

But then there’s the trail of toxic pollution we dribble behind us as we consume our merry way through life. Water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pet waste, farm waste, industrial waste, military waste. We keep facing ahead so we can’t see the puddles swamping our footprints. The wasted soils and aquifers. Or the dead zones downstream.

 

Nothing new here. We know all this. But “knowing” a fact in the abstract is not the same as experiencing it in full frontal awareness. There’s a great pit opening at our feet, and we pretend it’s not there. I don’t see anything. Me neither. Let’s keep our eyes closed and run as fast as we can.

 

When you look straight at something and don’t see it, it’s called denial. Or suppression. Or blindness. When you look straight at something, see it, and don’t act appropriately, it’s called ignorance. Or stupidity. Either way, it bodes ill for survival. We have seen the damage a C-minus president can do once in high office by elevating party loyalty and secrecy above wisdom and justice. We put him there, and kept him there, so we got the president we deserved. He’s slipping out the door now, but we’re still here, doing our thing. Hoping Obama’s the man to make the bad dream go away. Will we do our part when he asks us to? Remains to be seen.

 

Consciousness, where art thou when we need you? As always, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Only our collective consciousness can heal Earth, its peoples, and our nation—along with our personal judgment, motivation, and ultimately our actions.

 

So what do we do now? As I see it, we’ve been on cruise control for too long. It’s become a habit with us. But we’ve come to a village and have to slow down—rethink our life situation. The trick to effective use of consciousness is to see it as a kind of time machine. The meanings we put on events all come from concepts and experiences laid down in the past. The sensory phenomena of today are the face of the present. What we’ve been doing is mapping past meanings onto present images, treating the now as an extension of the way things used to be. But that isn’t good enough because our life situation has changed. There are too many of us now, living too high on the hog, outlasting our dreams, abusing the Earth.

 

The question is, where do we find guidance to take us into the future? That’s where imagination comes in, providing a vision of the way things might turn out if we did things differently from before. Like slowing down when we drive through a village because of the risk of hitting a child chasing a ball into the street. If we don’t see the child behind the car, we have to imagine her there and drive accordingly. That vigilance is part of consciousness, too.

 

Let me give an example. I once snowshoed up Cadillac Mountain Road in Acadia the day after a big snowstorm. It was Saturday, and all the snowmobilers were out. That road is one blind curve after another. What I noticed was the difference between how solo riders took those curves compared to riders with their ladies sitting behind them. The young Turks all commandeered the center of the road and sped around the turns with no thought that unseen riders might be coming the other way. Those with ladies slowed, kept to the right, and watched for coming traffic they couldn’t yet see.

 

When judgment selects which of our options for action to support, it considers the likely consequences of each option and goes for the one with the highest probability of getting us where we want to go. That is, all things considered, consciousness recommends actions for their future effects, not their adherence to outmoded traditions, habits, or sentiments. When old ways no longer prove effective, consciousness takes a fresh look at novel behaviors.

 

Novelty is our key to appropriate action that will bring in the world of the future. In Maine, everybody stops at yard sales to scan the tables for good stuff, cheap. Not necessarily brand-new stuff, but stuff new to us. Shopping sprees are satisfying because they renew the human spirit with colorful, bright, shiny stuff. Think of the possibilities opening out of a box of new Legos in red, white, and blue. Dinosaurs. Skyscrapers. Robots. With enough of these building blocks, you can make anything you want.

 

So applying consciousness as a time machine for building a new future, we have to reconsider the meaning of our growing population, our level of consumption, our life expectancy, and our relation to the Earth. Old ways have gotten us where we find ourselves today. We have to learn to look around the curve ahead to see what may be coming at us. No more backing lost causes or forlorn hopes (think bundled mortgages). We have to fit ourselves more appropriately to the now situation rather than blindly keep on as we’ve gone before. I’m talking about finding novel ways of doing and living. About being ourselves differently—and loving it because it accords with our expanded awareness.

 

Throughout the industrial era, buying stuff has kept the global economy going year after year. Now we have to see such “stuff” as gifts from an Earth that can give only so much on a sustainable basis. Taking more than Earth can afford leads to collapse of natural systems which govern themselves. We see that now. Outdoing ourselves year after year in turning wealth into goods, we’ve managed to undo the source that keeps us alive. There are simply too many of us, living too long, consuming too much stuff, giving too little attention to where our wealth comes from.

 

Our goal now is to provide a truly sustainable situation for every person on Earth, along with each of Earth’s other plant and animal inhabitants. Our planet (we belong to it, not it to us) has a limited capacity to tolerate and support us. Collectively spending beyond our means has bankrupted the planet, our ultimate repository of wealth. The debt we owe is not to banks but Earth itself.

 

How many of us can live sustainably on Earth, at what level of consumption, for how many years, with what attitude toward our planetary host and benefactor? We must wrap our consciousness around these questions and come up with answers in short order. That is the challenge to which we were born, and cannot escape.

 

After writing for a spell, going to the post office and the store, after cooking dinner, after eating, after reading and listening to the news, as I finish this blog at 9:36 p.m., the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,076,770.

 

That’s 51,708 more mouths for Earth to feed than when I sat down to write five hours and thirty-nine minutes ago—over 152 added every minute. T i m e   i s  w a s t i n g   a w a y. If we forgot to set the alarm, let this be it. If we are the problem, let us be the solution as well. Sleepers AWAKE!

¦

 

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4 Responses to “Reflection 24: Population”

  1. Steve Perrin said

    Pete, I’m glad to provide a platform for your response. If you prick any one of us, our current consciousness flows out.

    I arrived at my current views by several different routes. What shocked me the most was the tripling of the human population IN MY LIFETIME. If growth continues at that rate, my children are doomed.

    I have done a lot of work on sustainable fisheries, which I now view as unobtainable because there are too many mouths demanding to be fed from world oceans.

    I also have a blog on sea-level rise, in which I trace the cause of global warming to–you guessed it–too many people living too high on the hog while living too long without enough sense of the natural environments that support them.

    The current economic collapse is exhibit four. I see too many people trying to make too much easy money at too fast a pace. With the result that no economy can keep up with the demand. Hence the collapse. Which I think may be our last warning. Instead of looking for new places to invest, we need to manage our collective demands.

    That is the opportunity provided by our current economic situation.

    Your take is different, but it flows from your life experience, as mine does from my experience.

    I say, the more we get people to look at the facts, the sooner we will get this show together and start acting appropriately.

    –Steve from Planet Earth

  2. “Full Frontal Consciousness” What a great way of putting it. Steve, I’m just starting to read your blog from the beginning. I was referred to you by Tom (Davis) Beal for, of all things, examining your website as an example of wordpress.com to use in my new website. But I am blown away by what I have found. I hope to share with you my ideas as I go along in the form of comments on your previous blog entries. Friend, we are all alone, but we can be alone together and, in this way, we are not lonely.

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