August 8, 1989

A Plague of People

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they aught to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.

Ambrose Bierce

Several years ago I watched a TV program on the California condor. It pointed out, among other things, that the major competitor for the condor's food supply was the golden eagle. When food was put out for the condors, the eagles usually ate it before the condors could. It was obvious that if these people were really interested in preserving the California condor in the wild, the solution was to shoot golden eagles. That, of course, was unthinkable, just as it is unthinkable to let animals or people starve to death; natures solution to overpopulation. Elk and bison are starving to death in Yellowstone Park. The managers propose to let nature take its course and thin out the overpopulated herds. I doubt that we have heard the end of this one. GOOD people are not going to let animals starve to death. Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb received good reviews, lots of attention, sold well and was widely read --then was ignored, except in China. When I watched a program on what was going on in China, where they are limiting couples to having one child, it went against the grain for me. I thought that this could happen nowhere else in the world; certainly not here.

The traditional solution to human overpopulation is to export, as Ebenezer Scrooge called them, "the surplus population". This is a perfectly acceptable solution when there is some place to export them to. There's lots of room for people here and in Australia and Siberia. If every country sends its surpluses to places which now have the room, it is just a matter of time before the whole world will be like Europe: buildings, automobiles, busses, trains and people, with an occasional park where one can find a place to play tennis, baseball, or chess. It's not a bad life, if you don't know anything else; if you have never seen the stars at night or smelled the air in a forest or known the sight of a wild animal crossing your path. I admit to liking the odors that emanate from an Italian restaurant or a bakery, but I would prefer it as an occasional thing rather than all the time

But, you say, man is a reasoning animal. It is not necessary for people to reproduce like an elk herd and then have to starve to death. Of course it isn't necessary, but to date I have seen no evidence that man's behavior is too different from the rest of the natural world. Reasonable people are exceptional rather than the rule.

The big difference between the current crop of environmentalists and me is that some believe that people can do something significant about pollution and wilderness, without doing something about the root of the problem: human overpopulation. Sure, there are lots of things that can be done; but over the long haul it is a losing battle. If you cut the amount of air pollution put out by an automobiles by half and double the human population, what has been gained? You can preserve parks, open space and woodland, but where are you going to put the people and where are you going to get the stuff to feed them? There are limits to how much you can vertically stack housing and to how much can be gotten out of existing farmlands. True, we are not near those limits now, but it won't be too many more generations.

An optimist will point out that, as the economic level of a country grows, its fecundity diminishes. He will also point out that as the need for farm hands diminishes, that rural fecundity also decreases. It is also true that as the percent of infants who survive increases, the number of children born decreases. Will a state of equilibrium be reached before this country looks like Europe? When our country is filled up, will our cities look like the hell-holes of Bombay or Lagos, Los Angeles, New York or Coppenhagen?

Periodically there are movements to "develop" Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. So far, the developers have been stopped. But does it really matter? Is a park worth much if it is so full of people on a weekend that you might as well be riding a train during rush hour? People get used to it. They can adapt to anything. People even breathe the stuff that passes for air in Los Angeles. Isn't man the most adaptable species known. Witness how many people drive to and from San Francisco five days a week and then get into their cars and join the continuous line of traffic going to Tahoe for the weekend.

This beautiful place that we and our children enjoy cannot endure so long as man is what he is, and he is not likely to change. There are still places where one can escape from this plague of people. Enjoy them! Your children will also be able to enjoy them as will your grandchildren. But not for too many more generations.

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