Sailing down the decades, my sweet little boat and I have witnessed some amazing meteor showers while alone at sea. During those nights I always listen to Debussy’s lyrical masterpiece “Reverie,” while lying on my back and marveling at the falling stars. And what makes it even more sublime is being the only human presence in that sector of the planet. It reminds me of how utterly tiny Homo Sapiens is in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, back on land the dominant perspective is just the opposite. Humanity considers itself the Grand Actor in the center of the cosmic stage, and Nature is merely the backdrop.
But my almost visceral understanding of just how miniscule our species is, inspires me to view our human project in a radically different manner. Spend as much time alone at sea as I have, and you too might find yourself transformed from being an Accepter to a Questioner. In this essay I will discuss a topic that is almost universally embraced and yet never challenged. That subject is Growth. How can somebody argue against Growth you might wonder? Well, hopefully I can do so calmly and convincingly.
Even a sixth grader understands that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. This is not an “economic issue” to be debated. It is an ecological fact that must be addressed. Our planet has limited resources and our survival hinges upon our ability to allocate and preserve them. The two great enemies of sustainability on Earth are Runaway Population Growth and Conspicuous Consumption Growth. Together they are a recipe for biological botulism.
Population overshoot has been fervently debated ever since Thomas Malthus first introduced it back in 1798. In the 1960s, Paul and Anne Ehrlich reignited the discussion with their cautionary book, THE POPULATION BOMB. The timeline of their predictions did not come true, because they had not foreseen the Green Revolution that massively expanded industrial agriculture. But now food output HAS peaked while population expansion continues to accelerate. So a significant population decrease is essential.
But there is a huge force in the world which will not allow this to happen. That obstacle is Big Religion. The major monotheistic churches want their membership to grow as enormously and rapidly as possible. But they never admit to such selfish motives. Instead, they claim that they are merely following god’s edict that birth control shall be forbidden and that the flock shall go forth and multiply.
If you doubt the truth of this indictment, consider this. If the Catholic Church injunction against birth control is not just designed to increase their enrollment, then they will not object to this suggestion: Let every other child that is born to a Catholic parent be raised as a Muslim. Observe how the church fathers respond to that recommendation, and you will quickly understand that their birth tyranny edicts are not about god’s will, but are instead about increasing their membership and their power.
Another more subtle impact of Big Religion’s dictatorial population stance is how it affects education. There is a direct link between a higher level of education and a lower birth rate. The least educated segments of society tend to be the most religious. And so women who are forbidden by the church to use birth control devices soon become birth increase devices. Since they are burdened with almost constant childbirth, they have little time for education or for the widening of their personal horizons and opportunities. They become slaves to reproduction and to Big Religion.
Besides the bishops and mullahs and rabbis, there are other factors contributing to out of control population growth, and I will deal with them thoroughly in a future essay. But one thing that I can’t emphasize enough is the fact that this issue does not even get discussed in any meaningful way. If you think that bringing up politics and religion is a sure way to derail a conversation in polite company, just interject the issue of population control and notice how almost everyone considers it a taboo subject. And yet overpopulation is a major element – if not THE major factor – in the history of every single civilization that has collapsed.
The second type of growth that is so hazardous to our planet and all of its creatures is our lust for stuff. Although the USA is largely innocent when it comes to causing population problems, it is unmistakably guilty when it comes to promoting rampant consumerism. The American Way of Life is worshipped and imitated around the globe. Through its movies and television and product saturation, the American Empire spreads its own religion with missionary zeal – The Church of the Mall. The message of that gospel is that happiness is achieved by owning things. The corollary to this is that more stuff equals more fulfillment. Embracing such a vapid worldview has dire consequences for the Individual, the Society and the Planet.
For people, it means that values such as the affection of friends, the solidarity of community, the appreciation of beauty are all subordinate to the less meaningful and often endless craving for more stuff. I contend that the world is not better off with cars that talk to us or 671 types of “yogurt products” or phones so expensive that one has to take out a loan to purchase them.
Many of my sea gypsy years have been spent in Third World countries. I have carefully observed that there is a direct correlation between personal happiness and owning a lot of things. But it is an inverse relationship. Only 30 yards from where I am now typing, I will often marvel at Indio children playing joyously for hours with just a coconut and a stick. And yet just down the dock, first world kids will be miserable because their electronic game console is not the latest version.
Aside from the damage that insatiable consumption inflicts on the individual, it also has extremely harmful consequences for the larger society. When a person fixates on buying more things and interfacing with more machines, they forget to exercise their power of critical thinking. They are so mesmerized and distracted by the latest iEverything, that they don’t even notice their slide into consumer slavery. A society with a colossal wealth discrepancy between the rich and the poor, with meaningless work that is numbing and degrading and with a tyrannical police/surveillance grid should be cause for code-red alarm. But instead, most people barely notice it because there is an enormous plasma TV in the way.
But our addiction to more and more stuff is not just harmful to individuals and to societies. It is utterly catastrophic to our one and only life-supporting planet. Our constant-growth consumerism pollutes the air, decimates the ocean fish stocks, poisons the rivers and blows away the topsoil.
This combo platter of increasing population growth and unceasing consumer growth is a recipe for societal suicide. Too many people and too much stuff are ravaging all of the support systems that keep us alive. We need breathable air, clean drinkable water, fertile land, plus renewable and non-renewable resources. But we are decreasing all of these vital necessities and at the same time we are increasing all of the waste products that our excesses are generating. This cannot end well! But it CAN end horribly!
P.S. For excellent information on how to steadily decrease population without coercion, visit Bill Ryerson’s site www.populationmedia.org. He has nobly dedicated 40 years of his life to this unpopular cause.