As I write, significant swaths of New York and New Jersey remain uninhabitable more than a month after Superstorm Sandy churned ashore. Sandy followed in the footsteps of Hurricane Irene, which savaged much of the same territory just fourteen months earlier.
Sandy seems to have marked a turning point in the way most media commentators treat climate. At long last, most have stopped focusing on the controversy of whether human action drives climate change, fixing instead on the reality that intense storms are becoming more frequent and ocean levels are rising. Climate change is a given; human action as a significant cause is widely (though still not unanimously) accepted.
This was long enough in coming. It was 2000 when the Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen published an influential article popularizing “Anthropocene” as a proposed label for a new geological era in which human activity would be acknowledged as the most powerful force driving atmospheric composition and the evolution—or extinction—of life-forms. In 2008, the Geological Society of London agreed to study a formal proposal to add “Anthropocene” to the official roster of geological epoch divisions, the Geological Time Scale. This process is still ongoing.
If human action is a primary driver of environmental degradation, it stands to reason that population—sheer human number— is a large part of the problem. As Cornell University scientist David Pimentel has observed, every environmental challenge is more pressing when human population rises and more tractable when fewer people vie for finite resources.
We cannot meaningfully address questions of climate change or human action as its cause without acknowledging that human numbers exacerbate the predicament, imposing often-unsustainable demands on ecosystems. Yes, we must reduce our carbon footprints, but we must also reduce population. At the very least, we need to curb its rate of growth.
Not everyone has gotten the message. Another New Yorker— Ross Douthat, one of two “house conservatives” on The New York Times op-ed page—writes repeatedly that Europe’s plunging birthrate augurs future economic calamity, while America’s steady or rising rate promises prosperity. In a December 1 column actually headlined “More Babies, Please,” Douthat made his point with typical bluntness. “[T]here has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century,” he wrote: “We have more babies than the competition.” Immigration and higher net fertility brighten the nation’s future because “Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs.”
What Douthat omits from his optimistic calculus is that today’s babies are also tomorrow’s users of natural gas and electricity, tomorrow’s drivers and airline passengers, tomorrow’s agricultural consumers, tomorrow’s drinkers and befoulers of water. Sooner or later, an economy that depends on limitless growth will run aground. Sooner or later air, land, water, or some other natural resource will sustain no further expansion—yet if nothing is done, the people will keep coming.
Though November’s election results generally merit celebration (see my editorial), I am less than sanguine about its prospects for U.S. immigration policy. As I argued just over a year ago (“A Discussion Long Overdue,” Free Inquiry, December 2011/January 2012), America’s immigration controversy is not best understood as occupying the continuum between nativist bigotry on one side and multicultural inclusiveness on the other. Beyond accusations of racism and calls for fairness, the environmental dimension is too frequently neglected. If human numbers are overburdening the available resources or triggering unsustainable flows of effluents, then America might be, well, full. If it is, immigration may need to be sharply restricted, considerations of ethnic justice notwithstanding. If we are at or near such a tipping point—or as many observers suspect, already tragically beyond it—then what the election portends for U.S. immigration policies is ominous indeed.
Free Inquiry has considered these issues on several previous occasions. In the Spring 1999 issue, Lewis Vaughn, my predecessor as editor, offered a cover feature titled “The Population Bomb: The Fallout Continues,” with an article on “India’s Population Time Bomb” by Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz. In August/September 2004, we presented a cover feature provocatively titled “Too Many People?” (In my introduction to the feature, I dispensed with the question mark.) Most recently, an April/May 2009 cover feature demanded, “Is the Population Bomb Finally Exploding?”
With this background in mind, and the uneasy prospect of an Anthropocene future before us, we are pleased to present biologist Paul Grogan’s “What Biology Can Tell Us,” a thorough—and thoroughly disturbing—catalogue of the dilemmas humanity now faces.
If the idea of the Anthropocene is accurate, we finally are the stewards of the living world. Before we can be its stewards, we must stop working so hard at being its destroyers.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.