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Sunday, July 11, 2010

This post is turning out to be much longer than I intended and actually I'm making up the title about an hour into writing it just because I need a br

[Apparently I reached the title character limit. The last word was meant to be "break."] [First post ever to start with a (bracketed) parenthetical (or two?)??? Go number 197!]

A few weeks ago, just before heading off for the Vipassana course, I wrote a post called "Two Images," speaking briefly about the well-documented, oft-cited mismatch between developed countries' population and their levels of consumption. (Actually, it occurs to me now that maybe the most general definition of "developed" is indeed something like "capable of making use of or consuming great amounts of resources"). The maps had no time element and so didn't indicate the following, though I'm nonetheless reasonably sure it's true: consumption is increasing just about everywhere, and population is too. There are some exceptions, but in this case they mostly prove the rule.

This is clearly a problem, because our total impact on the earth =s the number of individuals multiplied by the amount each one consumes.

Long aside: (Well, technically, it should be times the difference between what each individual consumes and his or her positive contributions to the environment, but that fact is that we don't contribute anything anymore. Maybe our food waste (though we often through it in landfills and cover it with stuff so that it doesn't decompose properly, and even when it does, it's all mixed up with plastic can't help anything grow anyway), or our carbon dioxide when we exhale (but we've already created a CO2 problem), or our pee (except it's flushed more or less directly into water sources rather than being deposited on the ground where plants can absorb some nitrogen), or our poop (except we dump that into the ocean too, rather than leaving it out where bacteria can work on it and turn it back into soil), or our dead bodies (but we embalm them and put them in wood or metal boxes, so that we can't even give our flesh and bones back to the fungi and trees and bugs that would otherwise much on them), and anyway the last three are probably so full of chemicals and antibiotics that nobody would want to consume them anyway. Come to think of it, that may also be true about the first one as well.)

In the West, we often like to focus on the population part of the problem, since that way we can boss other people around rather than accepting the blame and shame that are rightfully ours and then change our lifestyles accordingly.

That's not an entirely fair characterization, though. Maybe not even a half-fair one. There are lots of people doing good if incredibly difficult, confusing, and ambiguous work. I admire them from my comfy apartment in Korea where I grow my own Basil and Chocolate Mint and pretend that my armchair rants are productive and complain that my students aren't interested enough in syntax. Among said people is Laura, another close friend's girlfriend turned my friend turned my friend's wife (I wonder if any language on the planet expresses this in just one word, the way Korean has separate words for both "my father's older brother's wife" and "my father's younger brother's wife", [I think, don't quote me on this]), whose comment made explicit one thing that I think about from time to time, but didn't mention in the post itself, which is the tension inherent in our usual proposed method of reducing population growth rates: increasing the standard of living through encouraging integration with the global economy. A quick look at the formula above makes this tension clear: decreasing future population by increasing current consumption has an uncertain effect on a society's environmental footprint. This is a serious issue, since it pits two worthwhile, even necessary goals against one another.

Having spent a fair amount of time traveling, I am, like most of us, convinced that there are good reasons to want to improve the standard of living of the truly unfortunate. A few days in Chennai, formerly Madras, was enough to drive me into near total despair and eco-guilt and what-the-hell-have-people-like-me-done-to-the-world self-detestation and what-the-hell-have-people-done-in-my-name antipatriotism and anticorporatism (see my post about my time there, though I'm not sure how detailed I got about my mental state), and I think even there people are about twice as "well-off" as in Africa. I believe that anyone with any amount of sympathy at all should have a hard time arguing against the goals of reducing population growth by increasing income.

But how can that be reconciled with the ecological ramifications of increased income, wealth, and consumption? Why care about the welfare of the poor if helping them hurts everyone else (include non-humans, if you want), and may even hurt them in the long run? Then again, what's the ecosystem worth if people have to be kept in misery to maintani it? Is there anyone unbiased enough to answer?

Certainly not me. But it occurs to me that maybe we don't have to answer those questions. Maybe they're the wrong questions, based on the some bad assumptions. Please hear me out. And help me out.

At first glance, the proposal makes sense - there's a definite trend for inhabitants of rich countries to voluntarily control their own population growth, whether because they're more concerned about the costs of raising a child, or because they're less concerned about needing support in their old age, or just because it's no longer regarded as strange not to have any progeny. See below:
But is that all there is to it? Are those the only reasons people might choose smaller families over larger ones?

Have a look at the following graph:

Clearly, for most of human history, population growth has been close to nonexistent, or at least stable, or maybe just slow, and certainly not explosive. Certainly improving technology (nowhere near the rates in today's developed countries), increasing standards of living (same), and considerations of the sacrifice children require and benefits they may bring had little to do with this (since if this had been a consideration, growth rates should have been more similar to those in modern developing nations). So there must be some other factors that play into human population growth rates.

It's tempting to look outside first - external limits such as predators, disease, high infant mortality, short life spans, etc. We often imagine that people used to live in a harsh and hostile world, just barely scraping by, leading a brutish, "animal" existence. Threatened at all times by forces seen and unseen, understood and not understood; unsure where the next meal would come from; chronically uncomfortable, exhausted, and miserable.

Where do these images come from? In my case, I imagine cartoons (tigers mauling Tarzan), TV shows (poor survivors on Lost!), movies (10000 BC, 300, maybe some without numerical titles too), books (Lord of the Flies), and even textbooks (Life is competition! Survival of the fittest is nasty business!) and museum exhibits (Whoa, the wax models only have loincloths and spears!) have something to do with it. Even the ones that aim/ claim to be realistic strike us as pathetic or pitiful.

I don't think these perceptions and responses are accurate. At least, not according to what little I've read from anthropologists, linguiststs, and others who spend their time and energy researching these things. Rather, a growing part of me, has been coming around to an idea that these images are mostly fantasy. Or worse, self-deception. Or worse yet, intentional deception by others. In order to justify our choice to live with 40+ hour work weeks, crushing mortgages that necessitate them, and dependence on our government or on Pepsi/Aquafina to provide us with clean water (since almost all natural sources have now been ruined by fertilizer runoff and other forms of pollution), we need to believe that our situation is, on the whole, better than what came before. This belief sustains us through difficult times (no matter how hard life is now, how much harder it must have been in the year 0. Or 1000. Or 1500. Or 1900. or 1950. Or 1980. Or 2009, before the IPad came out.), and insulates those in power (e.g. Pepsi) from a population that might be more disgruntled, if only they were less dependent. Actually, writing on autopilot just there, I used the word "sustains," but that's a little too positive. Rather, it makes us (ok, I'm imagining and projecting here) feel like we (again) need to accept what we've got, because to live in the other arrangements that most readily occur to our imagination would be...well...unimaginable.

OK, so if that's not it, if the external limiting factors aren't important, or if they're not all important, or at least aren't all-important, if that image is just propganda whose purpose, whether intended or self-generated, is to defend the status quo, then what's left? What kept population growth so low?

My answer is (wow, it took forever to get here): an awareness of place. When you actually live in one place for an extended period of time, when you depend on that one place for everything - for sustenance, for housing, for entertainment, for satisfaction of spiritual needs - you have the biggest incentive imaginable to know and understand your environment. Of course, some societies aren't up to this task - read Jared Diamond's Collapse if you want to know more about this. (Actually, I guess those that fail, die, which lowers the population growth rate somewhat dramatically.) But the ones who do succeed almost certainly have some idea about what their surroundings can support. They understand when animals populations are thinning out, when forests are growing sparse, when the land is losing fertility, and when water supplies are drying up, because they go out hunting themselves, cut down their own trees, maintain their own gardens, and take trips to the river themselves. Problems can be recognized as problems; the inconvenience they cause is experienced, not intellectualized, not abstract, and thus it requires some sort of response. So inhabitants know, more or less, whether children will bring hardship or assistance. They can see where their own interests lie.

We, on the other hand, aren't really connected to any place, even if we live in the same house for 30 years. Does it even make sense to say I live in Daegu when the food that sustains me comes from the USA, Egypt, Malaysia, China, and some other cities in Korea? When my clothes are from Southeast Asia, my bike from Japan, my neighbors from Europe? We are worlds away from everything we use and produce and have come to need. I can't name where more than 5 percent of my possessions come from, let alone what they're made of. I consider myself to have a relatively highly developed sense of sympathy, but I have no connection at all to the people who assembled my laptop or stitched my shoes. I'm a lot better about knowing the provenance of my food, but it's a superficial sort of better. I don't know what the farms look like, what gets spread on the ground, where the runoff goes, how much power and water are used by the irrigation systems, how the food gets to me. I probably don't even know the extent of the things I don't know. And what little I do know, I know intellectually. From pictures, and articles, and logic, and extrapolation. Despite the tone of my eco-posts, the seriousness and urgency that I feel and try to convey, still, none of my knowledge is visceral or direct.

Because of this disconnection between what we cause and what we experience, we are able to regard problems as "externalities," even though they're inherent in the processes of production and distribution. They don't affect us directly, or we don't see how they do, so we can pretend they don't exist. However, if not now, then at some point, there will be people for whom the externalities turn back into realities, painful and destructive and immanent ones that won't disappear when the TV is turned off.

So, in terms of the whole first 70 percent of this post, I don't think the answer to the question can possibly be to try to free the poor from the restrictions imposed on them by their locale; that amounts to exporting the problems to somewhere else, the way Korea and Japan maintain their beautiful forests by exporting their deforestation to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Making them dependent on foreign consumption will encourage degradation of the immediate environment as well as willful ignorance of damage done elsewhere. There's no way this stuff won't come back to hurt them eventually. Maybe there's some way to encourage constructive, non-exploitative interaction with the international economy while also encouraging stewardship of and dedication to the local environment.

Then again, it doesn't make much sense to try to encourage people to develop a sense of "place" if their environs have already been ravaged by foreign industry, short-sighted and misguided policy, and uncontrollable environmental change. So, in the end, I am not sure what I'm suggesting. A post this long never fails to let down. I've been at it for too long. Commenters, to the rescue, please.

*This idea of "place" will figure into my upcoming post about a book I just finished, Neill Evernden's The Natural Alien. Wow. Exciting blogging days ahead. And I still have that Vipassana post to get to, too.

**Or maybe it's all just about the geometry of the curve? Maybe it's entirely natural to start slow and then accelerate. That's how geometric a series progresses, right? Maybe the last 2.5 or 3 hours have been a total waste.


thesnowleopard said...

We just need a few dilithium core reactors and replicators man...then we can turn nuclear fusion into infinite chicken nuggets, but then I guess you'd have nothing to write about on your blog.

sarah said...

As for your last comment...I'm no mathematician but my intuition is that it makes sense for the curve to become exponentially steeper.

I enjoyed the thought-provoking post, though, and my bigger concern is that most people don't question or think about these things. Moreover, when you try to show people a different perspective or encourage them to dig a little more deeply, they often become defensive and angry.