Population, Consumption and the Universal Moral Code

In the comments section of Julia Whitty’s Mother Jones article, “Population: The Last Taboo“, the pioneering ecological economist, Prof. Herman Daly, is reported to have said that arguing whether environmental degradation is caused by overpopulation or overconsumption is as pointless as arguing whether a rectangle’s area is caused by its length or its width. The area of the rectangle that he is referring to is, of course, total human resource consumption, while its length is the human population numbers and its width is the per capita consumption. According to the Global Footprint Network, this total human resource consumption is now 40% larger than the renewable capacity of the planet, meaning that humans are already plowing into the Earth’s ecological capital year after year, diminishing it inexorably.

If this attribution is correct, Prof. Daly missed the point entirely.

Ever since Prof. Paul Ehrlich wrote his best selling book, “The Population Bomb,” academics have zeroed in on overpopulation as the root cause of human induced environmental degradation, while ignoring consumption – mainly due to its cultural underpinnings. In this context, Prof. Ehrlich said, “More than a billion people are now hungry according to the UN, even though enough food is produced that, if equitably distributed, could give everyone a decent diet. Unhappily, people have never distributed anything equally and in much of the world, the trend is in the other direction. Saying such things is like saying if the lions would only eat grass, the Serengeti could support many more of them.”

The trouble with this analogy is that while lions are not known to survive as plant eaters, there are around 4 billion human beings who are living mainly on plant based diets today. As such, they are living examples demonstrating that it can be done. The overconsumption of world resources is occurring mainly due to the top 2 billion affluent human beings sprinkled throughout the earth, but concentrated in developed countries and urban areas in developing countries. These are the people who are consuming as if they are lions in the Serengeti. As the primary meat, fish, egg and dairy consumers of the world, they are also responsible for most of the energy and materials consumption as well. Unfortunately, it is the goal of corporations to increase their number and affluence in order to swell their profits. As long as humans aspire to climb up this consumption ladder, these corporations would be eager to facilitate their ascent, despite the near certainty of triggering a global ecological collapse. Given the demonstrated profit potential of micro-financing, many large banks have now become eager to finance this mass ascent.

According to the UN, the world population is projected to stabilize at between 8 billion to 10.5 billion by mid century, if all goes well. It is probably futile to argue what the optimum human world population should be – it depends on the consumption level that the estimator is comfortable with and ranges from
1 billion to 4 billion – as there are no peaceful means to achieve the required draconian reductions in population. Instead, it is much more practical to consider what the optimum human lifestyle should be given the population projections of the future – and work on finding a pain free path towards it. This is why Saul Griffith said in the New Yorker magazine, “the world’s most urgent environmental need is not for some miraculous scientific breakthrough but for a vast, unprecedented transformation of human behavior.”

It is virtually certain that the behavioral transformation that is needed would include repudiating the current abuse of Life, especially by the affluent community. If affluent humans begin nurturing Life instead, the earth will begin to heal from these self inflicted wounds. While the recent Gulf oil spill is an egregious example of this abuse of Life, the average American routinely consuming 4000 animals in his/her lifetime is a far, far worse abuse of Life. The latter results in the killing of over a TRILLION animals and fishes to support just the current American population over its expected lifetime! Just think of the enormous wastage in the photosynthetic output of the planet to raise all those animals; and the opportunity cost of the marine life and terrestrial forests that could be nurtured with that photosynthesis, not to mention the carbon sequestration that would be accomplished in the process. This is the crux of the matter, not some peripheral issue that would be nice to address at some unspecified future date.

If we manage to make animal consumption taboo as part of a behavioral transformation, then there is little that corporations can do to overcome it. They will either change or perish. On the other hand, if the affluent community doesn’t make this change and proceeds with the paradigm that human nature is fundamentally egotistical and destructive and needs to be centrally manipulated to achieve a desirable outcome for survival, then humans are probably heading towards extinction. This is because such humans will always find loopholes to wriggle out of their shackles and will have access to powerful tools that cause incredible damage – a la the Gulf oil spill. Furthermore, Nature, that exquisitely designed, self correcting, life support system, abhors imbalances and mass extinction is her last ditch mechanism for correcting them. This mass extinction is well underway.

At some point during this mass extinction event, humans will change and begin nurturing every life form that’s left alive because humans are not such a terminally stupid species after all. Therefore, it is not a question of whether each and every one of us will make this change, but when. And then, we will truly be implementing the universal moral code of the Abrahamic faiths, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

For, nowhere in that line does it specify “humans”.

Gandhi once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the ways of truth and love have always won. …Think of it – ALWAYS!” It is change and the triumph of truth and love that is constant in the universe, not culture and traditions. This is why we no longer burn slaves at the stake in order to illuminate our evening parties as the Romans used to do two thousand years ago, why we no longer measure our worth in the number of slaves we own as was fashionable two hundred years ago, and, why we no longer witness drunken Englishmen auctioning off their wives and children in the town square as was customary a hundred years ago. Instead, we now shudder at these barbaric, “uncivilized” practices. Likewise, I imagine that future generations of humans will shudder at our violent treatment of animals as documented for posterity in Earthlings.

But, I hope that these future generations will simultaneously celebrate our generation’s metamorphosis that gave them the gift of life on Earth, their Garden of Eden.

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