Population is a long, long line

-A A +A
By John Bartlit


Picture every part of the environment having a string tied to it. The strings lead to concerns spaced in time and distance.

At one end the strings all meet in a tangle of knots.

That mighty tangle is world population.

The tangle is worse than it seems at first sight. Think about the mountains of population numbers, demographically sorted into ethnic, economic and geographic groupings.

Population affects almost everything, whether the environment, religions, wars, commodity prices, employment tides or money supplies. Yet, the subject is largely ignored in public.

We know why this happens ­— the central knot is too tight to pick open.

But it can be poked, so let’s poke.

Human populations have strings of needs that must be dealt with. Some of the most basic needs can be summed up as “engineering needs,” which include securing a sufficiency of food, water, shelter, materials, energy, transportation and sundry lands. As we know, securing this basic bundle of needs is enormously difficult on a global scale.

The term “engineering” suggests these needs are more or less calculable. And they are.

Ranchers and ecologists use the term “carrying capacity,” for number of animals that they calculate to be able to thrive continuously per acre of land. The number can be determined and it varies with the type of land and animals in question. An arid acre supports fewer sheep than grassland. One sheep needs less land than one steer.

Demographers debate how well the human “carrying capacity” can be gauged for sectors of the Earth or the planet as a whole. The answer is not nearly as straightforward for people as for sheep.

People do things sheep never do. We cut trees, plow fields and pump aquifers. We invent ships, sulfa drugs, herbicides and nuclear reactors. We desire steel, coffee, self-worth and trips to exotic places.

All these factors complicate the Earth’s carrying capacity for people. Perhaps we can estimate it within an order of magnitude but maybe not even that well.

Now for the briar patch. What keeps the world’s human population related to the Earth’s carrying capacity?

Nature controls animal populations by food, water, mix of habitat, predators and disease. Though we fall short, our nature seeks to rid us of all these limitations.

In their place, humans work with language-based concepts that bear on population growth. Language-based controls draw on features such as ethnicity, fashion and creed. Some concepts crank the population level up. Others crank it down.

For example, a central concept is the inestimable value of human life, summed up person by person. This focus cranks population higher.

A related concept is the “quality of life,” which is highly variable from one group to another. Depending on how “quality of life” is used as a focus, it can either raise or lower population levels.

Add the concept of “dominion,” or domination and any sense of a fixed carry capacity for people or animals is up for grabs. But again, there are many ways this can play out among different populations.

Other concepts relate to family groups more than individuals.

During times when age and disease could easily cut down a family’s size, larger families assured the farm could be kept running. Data from some African countries suggest birth rates fall as health care or the economy improves.

China’s government wrestles with overpopulation. In the tug-of-war between more mouths needing food and larger markets to sell to, China opts to encourage smaller families. Ideas of many shades swirl around this policy and component values.

In contrast, Russia struggles with a shrinking population, which gives rise to worries about loss of economic or military strength.

In the grand scheme, peoples, tribes and nations seem to associate added population with added clout. Larger numbers imply an advantage, whether in fighting or voting.

The outlook for the human population involves all the most particular traits of humans and any conclusion we reach leaves out more than is said.

For insight, we might start with ourselves and our own private languages.

John Bartlit represents New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water