The Elephant in the Room

There’s an elephant in the room! It is loud and it stinks, but no one wants to talk about it. I refer, of course to the explosion of human population since the turn of the nineteenth century that is threatening to overwhelm the planet. No one wants to talk about overpopulation, of course, because in the minds of a great many people overpopulation is closely tied to the issue of abortion — a topic that is very emotional and produces much more heat than light. But the two issues are not necessarily conjoined at all. Population control does not entail abortion; it can be accomplished in a great many ways that don’t conflict with deeply held beliefs.

Having said that, I would like to take a quick look at the issue because I would argue that the population explosion is the root cause of many of the problems facing humankind today — problems such as pollution of air and water, contamination and depletion of our water supply, nuclear proliferation, desertification, deforestation, world-wide violence, eradication of numerous animal species, and increasing numbers of  poor and destitute humans. These problems are almost certainly exacerbated by, if not ultimately caused by, the fact that there are simply too many humans on the planet. It is a problem that demands our attention whether we want to think about it or not.

Consider:  It is estimated that it wasn’t until 1804 that human populations on earth reached one billion. The human population then began to “explode” and was doubled by 1927. By 1960 it was three billion and is now at seven billion. It is projected to reach eight billion by 2025-2030. Human numbers on earth have grown by a billion people since 1999! Estimates by such groups as the Club of Rome have concluded that the earth may have already reached its carrying capacity, which raises the specter of increasing starvation especially when coupled with global warming that is causing widespread drought.  The Inter Academy Panel Statement on Population Growth, ratified by 58 countries in 1994, noted that the growth in human population at that time was “unprecedented,” which strikes me as an understatement. We are already unable to feed everyone on earth, even if we could solve the logistical problems of getting food from warehouses where it is stored to places where it is desperately needed.

The really curious thing about this problem is that its solution is so simple: family planning. It is something that is ready at hand and available to all, or nearly all. In fact, this country was very much involved in funding family planning efforts in Third World countries, and the project was making real progress, until a certain Republican president (who shall remain nameless) put a stop to it — on the mistaken grounds, once again, that it fostered abortion. One of the simple actions that was proving effective at the time was the production of TV shows in Third World countries that focused on the benefits of small families, with accompanying information about birth control. Those shows were discontinued when the funding from the United States was cut off.

In this country, even today, our popular TV shows like to focus on large families and the birth of a baby to a woman whose “biological clock” is ticking — even is she happens to be unmarried and has no means of raising the child once it is born — is sure to raise the ratings. Not long ago we made a hero out of a man who had just fathered his twentieth child by placing his picture on the front page of our newspapers, and applauding his manliness. In fact, his lack of social conscience does not warrant applause, it warrants derision. In this case more is not better. We need to be sending different messages at home and abroad. Even though the problem is not as great in this country as it is elsewhere, it affects us all and we need to reflect on the obligations we have to future generations. The elephant is getting restless.

Advertisements

The Elephant in the Room

There’s an elephant in the room! It is loud and it stinks, but no one wants to talk about it. I refer, of course to the explosion of human population since the turn of the nineteenth century that is threatening to overwhelm the planet. No one wants to talk about overpopulation, of course, because in the minds of a great many people overpopulation is closely tied to the issue of abortion — a topic that is very emotional and produces much more heat than light. But the two issues are not necessarily conjoined at all. Population control does not entail abortion; it can be accomplished in a great many ways that don’t conflict with deeply held beliefs.

Having said that, I would like to take a quick look at the issue because it has been said that the population explosion is the root cause of many of the problems facing humankind today — problems such as pollution of air and water, nuclear proliferation, desertification, deforestation, world-wide violence, eradication of numerous animal species, and increasing numbers of the poor and destitute humans. These problems are almost certainly exacerbated by, if not ultimately caused by, the fact that there are simply too many humans on the planet. It is a problem that demands our attention whether we want to think about it or not.

Consider:  It is estimated that it wasn’t until 1804 that human populations on earth reached one billion. The human population then began to “explode” and was doubled by 1927. By 1960 it was three billion and is now at seven billion. It is projected to reach eight billion by 2025-2030. Human numbers on earth have grown by a billion people since 1999! Estimates by such groups as the Club of Rome have concluded that the earth may have already reached its carrying capacity, which raises the specter of widespread starvation especially when coupled with global warming that is causing widespread drought.  The Inter Academy Panel Statement on Population Growth, ratified by 58 countries in 1994, noted that the growth in human population at that time was “unprecedented,” which strikes me as an understatement. At some point we will be unable to feed everyone on earth, even if we could solve the logistical problems of getting food from warehouses where it is stored to places where it is desperately needed.

The really curious thing about this problem is that its solution is so simple: family planning. It is something that is ready at hand and available to all, or nearly all. In fact, this country was very much involved in funding family planning efforts in Third World countries, and the project was making real progress, until a certain Republican president (who shall remain nameless) put a stop to it — on the mistaken grounds, once again, that it fostered abortion. Even now, our popular TV shows like to focus on large families and the birth of a baby to a woman whose “biological clock” is ticking — even is she happens to be unmarried and has no means of raising the child once it is born — is sure to raise the ratings. Not long ago we made a hero out of a man who had just fathered his twentieth child by placing his picture on the front page of our newspapers, and applauding his manliness. In fact, his lack of social conscience does not warrant applause, it warrants derision. In this case more is not better. We need to be sending different messages. Even though the problem is not as great in this country as it is elsewhere, it affects us all and we need to reflect on the obligations we have to future generations. The elephant is getting restless.

Can Reason Rule?

Pascal tells us that the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing about. David Hume added that reason is a “slave of the passions.” I used to think these men were simply wrong and I resisted their claims because as a philosophy professor I was determined to try to help young men and women think more clearly about complex issues. After all, what’s the point of thinking clearly if, in the end, a person is just going to be ruled by emotion (the “passions.”)?

But as I grow older I have come to the conclusion that these men were right. Ultimately, our decisions — the important ones — are determined not by what we think, but what we feel. We accept or reject claims not based on their reasonableness, but on whether or not they fit into our belief system. (Strictly speaking, our beliefs do not form a “system,” as George Elliot reminded us. They are a rat’s nest of conflicting feelings and hunches mixed together in chaotic fashion to protect us against a fearsome world.)

This is why even though it is certain that there will be an earthquake of mammoth proportions in California along the San Andreas fault, thousands of people insist upon living there. It is why thousands also continue to live in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, even though it is certain that there will be another eruption that will kill thousands. We believe what we want to believe, and while in extreme forms this amounts to denial, for most  of us it amounts to little more than ignoring the facts or looking the other way, keeping reason in neutral while being ruled by their emotions. Don’t hassle me with the facts, I want to live here!

I taught ethics for nearly forty years, including business ethics.  I realized even as I taught those courses that what I was teaching wasn’t really making a huge difference in the lives of my students. In the end I could teach them a few rules and we could discuss ethical principles and methods of approach to ethical issues, deontology or utilitarianism, for example. But in the final analysis, whether or not they did the right thing in a certain situation depended on the kinds of people they were. Hannah Arendt thought it was a matter of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. If a 20-year-old student was dishonest by inclination and character, taking a four-credit course was not going to turn him into an honest man.

In the end, I sided with Aristotle and determined that ethical choices are a matter of character and character is formed early in a person’s life and doesn’t change much as we grow older. But what a course in ethics could do, even business ethics, is to help us sort things out, work through our inclinations and sift through the mud of hunch and prejudice, and determine what ethical principles were at stake and what the best course of action might be in a specific situation. Whether or not in the end the person chooses to do the right thing, again, is a matter of character — or what Hume called “passion — but the path to that decision could be made smoother by careful thought. Reason may be the slave of passion, but without it we grope in the dark and stumble around from notion to hunch and frequently regret later that we didn’t think things through.

There are any number of key issues facing humans today and while it is certainly true that reason cannot dictate what choices we make, it can make clear which paths have been tried before and which are the most likely to prove fruitful in the future. Reason will tell us, for example, that whether or not we accept the fact that the human population is exploding out of control and heading us toward calamity, the continued growth of human populations, taken together with the finite amount of food it is possible for us to produce, will inevitably result in a clash at the intersection of these two trends. The earth has only so much carrying capacity. So even if at present we could solve the problem of starving people in Third World countries by figuring a way to get surplus food to them, at some point it will no longer be a matter of logistics. It will be a human tragedy. Which means, that reason would lead us to the conclusion that if we are to avoid a human calamity on a scale hitherto unseen on this earth, we should plan now and take steps to not only maximize food production and improve delivery systems, but also do what we can to reduce the number of mouths that will have to be fed.

Whether or not we choose to do that will not be determined by logic and reasoning. It will be determined by “passion,” or  “character,” the kind of people we are. But reason certainly demands that we start thinking about it now.

The Elephant in the Room

There’s an elephant in the room! It is loud and it stinks, but no one wants to talk about it. I refer, of course to the explosion of human population since the turn of the nineteenth century that is threatening to overwhelm the planet. No one wants to talk about overpopulation, of course, because in the minds of a great many people overpopulation is closely tied to the issue of abortion — a topic that is very emotional and produces much more heat than light. But the two issues are not necessarily tied to one another at all. Population control does not entail abortion; it can be accomplished in a great many ways that don’t conflict with deeply held beliefs.

Having said that, I would like to take a quick look at the issue, because it has been said that the population explosion is the root cause for many of the problems facing humankind today — problems such as pollution of air and water, nuclear proliferation, desertification, deforestation, world-wide violence, eradication of numerous animal species, and increasing numbers of the poor and destitute humans. These problems are almost certainly exacerbated by, if not reducible to, the fact that there are simply too many humans on the planet. It is a problem that demands our attention, whether we want to think about it or not.

Consider:  It is estimated that it wasn’t until 1804 that human populations on earth reached one billion. The human population then began to “explode” and was doubled by 1927. By 1960 it was three billion and is now at seven billion. It is projected to reach eight billion by 2025-2030. Human numbers on earth have grown by a billion people since 1999! Estimates by such groups as the Club of Rome have concluded that the earth may have already reached its carrying capacity, which raises the specter of widespread starvation. The InterAcademy Panel Statement on Population Growth, ratified by 58 countries in 1994 noted that the growth in human population at that time was “unprecedented,” which strikes me as an understatement. It will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to feed everyone on earth, especially in the face of climate change.

The really curious thing about this problem is that its solution is so simple: family planning. It is something that is ready at hand and available to all, or nearly all. In fact, this country was very much involved in funding family planning efforts in Third World countries, and the project was making real progress, until a certain Republican president (who shall remain nameless) put a stop to it — on the mistaken grounds, once again, that it fostered abortion. Even now, our popular TV shows like to focus on large families and the birth of a baby to a woman whose “biological clock” is ticking — even is she happens to be unmarried and has no means of raising the child once it is born — is sure to raise the ratings. Not long ago we made a hero out of a man who had just fathered his twentieth child by placing his picture on the front page of our newspapers, and applauding his manliness. In fact, his lack of social conscience does not warrant applause, it warrants derision. In this case more is not better. Even though the problem is not as great in this country as it is elsewhere, it affects us all and we need to reflect on the duties we all have to future generations. The elephant is getting restless.