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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 759)...

    A while ago a friend of mine and I spent some time discussing our ever-growing planet-killing population. We parted as perplexed as before, but he continued to mull the problem and came up with something to talk about—more a sort of "thought experiment" than a plan anyone could actually put into operation. Suppose, he said, that someone developed a highly deadly, highly contagious air-borne virus and was able by some means to spread it very rapidly throughout the world, reducing the human population to three or four billion. If a decimation of our population could be achieved by such means, would you endorse it?

    ...and the response:

    No, I wouldn't endorse it, but not just on humanitarian grounds. Your friend's idea doesn't fully take in the process by which ours became an "ever-growing planet-killing population." The populations of the millions of species on this planet (including our own until the birth of our culture) are all regulated by a very simple feedback system. It works this way: As a species' population increases, its food supply decreases (by being eaten). As the species' food supply decreases, its population decreases as well (by having less food). As the species' population decreases, its food supply naturally begins to increase to its former level. As the species' food supply increases, its population begins to increase to ITS former level. Then the cycle begins again: As the species' population increases, its food supply begins to decrease, and as its food supply decreases, its population decreases . . . and so on and on, with food availability and population constantly balancing each other for each species, so that lions neither overrun Africa nor disappear, so that sharks neither overrun the seas nor disappear.

    About ten thousand years ago, our ancient ancestors in the Middle East found a way to defeat this balancing system. They did this by becoming agriculturalists. By growing their own food, they could increase their food supply AT WILL. When their food supply became inadequate to feed their growing population, they simply INCREASED FOOD PRODUCTION. And when soon their food supply again became inadequate to feed their growing population, they once again INCREASED FOOD PRODUCTION.

    As so on; for 10.000 years we've incessantly increased food production to feed our growing population (in other words, to support our population explosion). This year you'll find general agreement: We must increase food production this year to feed our growing population­and next year we'll do the same thing.

    And what would happen if some dread disease decimated our population? It wouldn't be just our population that disintegrated­the elaborate machine that we've built to feed our giant population would disintegrate as well. We would immediately have to restore our food production capability to halt the decline­and then, as always, our population would begin to grow again. It wouldn't suddenly just miraculously become stable and unchanging. It would once again begin to grow—and unless we were prepared NOT to renew this catastrophic process---we would once again blindly increase food production to feed our growing population. And the year after that again increase food production to feed our growing population. In 50 or 100 years, we'd be right back where we are right now, at seven billion---and increasing food production every year to feed our growing population.

    By defeating the natural feedback system that kept our population stable for millions of years (by continuously balancing it with its available resources), we're in the process of defeating our own survival as a species. If the zealots of your story were cognizant of this fact (and prepared somehow to deal with it), then their plot to decimate the earth's human population might make sense (if one ignores all ethical objections to it). Otherwise I'm afraid that, as it stands, it would just be a genocidal exploit that would only postpone our extinction for a few generations.

    I'm afraid that, ultimately, the only thing that's going to work is the abandonment of the unwinnable Food Race between population and food production--every "win" in population being answered by a "win" in food production and every "win" in food production being answered by a "win" in population. Nothing less than ending that race is going to give us a hope for a human future measured in more than decades.


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