The Drop Off

Among other topics, Jordan Peterson is well known for his feelings about human population levels and dynamics. Jordan frequently comments on what he feels is disturbing rhetoric emulating from the academic, environmental, and social activist communities. As humans continue to expand across the planet, consuming resources, polluting water, soil, and air, driving other species to extinction, it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, common to hear opinions that the species Homo sapiens are “overpopulated” – a notion that Peterson finds horrifying. Even worse, in his view, are the metaphors and comparisons of human growth patterns to virus’, cancers, and other plagues. So is he right? What is he missing?

I think Jordan’s aversion to this kind of language is more than justified, which he says implies an obvious suggestion – there are too many people. This in turn suggests that we need to find a way to get to less people, and ultimately, how exactly do we mean to achieve this? He’s not shy about pointing out the logical jumps from here to genocide, forced birth control, and other horrific prospects. But is this really what people mean when they talk about overpopulation? Whether or not they do, Jordan is wise to highlight the danger of these ideas. The road to hell is paved with good intentions after all…

Dr grant(you stole raptor eggs??)

Still, it is worth not dismissing the issue entirely. People are biological entities. That’s not all we are, in my opinion, but we still must acknowledge that we are consumers, we take up space, and we are capable of causing damage. We must also acknowledge that any ecosystem has a finite carrying capacity. Its true all species are adaptable, our adaptations are unpredictable and often surprising – so we should never presume to know exactly what this “capacity” is, especially when it comes to the ingenuity of humans, but at the end of the day there are only so many pounds of organic material to consume, only so many gallons of water to drink, only so much space to occupy etc. I’m tempted to presume that the limit does exist. One could write a book about human defiance of “limits”, theorizing about innovative solutions for the above problems. Terraforming mars and nuclear fusion come to mind. But for the sake of this discussion, lets say that for now earth is all we have, and consider the very real possibility that we may soon come up against the constraints of ecological carrying capacity that other species often reckon with.

The notion of “too many” is subjective, but in biology the concept of carrying capacity is simply a number. Let’s reel it in before we go down this road too far ourselves, because no one should ever support population control, or entertain the idea that their are “too many” people. Surprisingly though, it seems we will soon be faced with a different problem – as it turns out populations around the globe are plummeting all on their own.

Across the world, many countries (mostly “developed” ones) are experiencing alarming population declines, and the rapidly “developing” world is already seeing its population boom slow dramatically. It is now apparent that when people are no longer living on sustenance with the new prospects of higher education, “careers”, and the other perks of developed life, they have less kids. On paper, kids become an expense, rather than an asset on the farm or for other labor contributions. Culturally speaking, developed societies tend to value experiences like travel, flexibility, and material pursuits more than family life and tradition.

From one perspective, this could be described as a decline in the values fundamental to humanity- we seem to be losing the bonds that defined us from the very beginning of tribal society as a cooperative species. A disturbing prospect indeed. Jordan takes the idea a step further, pointing out that the people you’re likely to hear talk about “overpopulation” tend to have a very negative view of humanity – that we are a corrupt, viral plague on this planet. It is not a surprise someone with this view wouldn’t want to “bring a child into this world”.

There is certainly an element of this, especially in western cultures, but interestingly, we see population decline across cultures worldwide in any place where similar socio-economic conditions are met. One of the countries with the most significant population decline is Japan, where family values are still strong relative to western countries. It seems that a relative degree of affluence simply reduces ones inherent motivation to multiply beyond the replacement rate. This is to say, what is happening seems “natural” in a sense.

Population booms followed by busts are commonplace in biology – typically as a result of carrying capacity checking the growth of any one species. Population growth or decline each have positives and negatives. For humans, the contraction will be a painful adjustment. With economies built on growth, we will have to rethink how businesses are funded and how commerce can be maintained. On the social level the elderly will experience a shortage of care. Teachers will have to find new professions. Buildings will go empty. Thankfully though, this is not happening through genocide or forced sterilization, people are simply choosing to have less kids, and in and of itself there is no horror in that.

The innovations of agriculture and more recently industrialization have brought upon us new adaptations, a leg up in the world against our competitors and nature itself. Naturally, a boom followed, but now the arena of nature may simply be finding a way to accommodate us that is sustainable (sustain-able). In this regard, a stable (not increasing or decreasing) population is likely the most humane solution long term, and the earth is still figuring out where that is, so that it, and we, can breathe a little easier. I’m not rooting against us, just for a world that functions peacefully. Shortages of resources are almost always the impetus for the very things Peterson fears.

Personally, I cannot wait to bring children into this world, and I wish the same blessings upon anyone else who would also like to pass on the experience of life on earth. Our future following the coming population peak is uncertain, but I can also embrace the excitement of a world with a little more adventure left in it, and little more space for the people still here to appreciate its gifts and be healthy.

People are a part of this world – we belong here. We belong in the cities and towns, and in the forests and mountains. We are every bit as entitled to it’s gifts as any other organism. If the nature of the universe ultimately steers us towards a smaller population that doesn’t mean we are “bad”. We don’t need to be cut to zero like a virus or excised like a cancer, and we won’t. The cool thing about humans is we can figure out how to live at 7 or 8 billion, and we can figure this out too. Humans are the ultimate adapters, we’re in this for the long haul, and until that next meteor or super volcano comes around you’ll find Homo sapiens living out the magic of the human experience on earth, and that is a beautiful thing.