A Mass Extinction Of Humility?
I’d like to begin 2023 with a question.
How much has the Earth’s human population grown from 1950 to today?
The 1950s were only three generations ago, so it can’t be that much, right?
Try 2.5 billion to 8 billion humans in 72 years, more than a threefold increase.
In 1800, 223 years ago, humanity first reached a global population of 1 billion. It took several thousand years of civilization to reach that number.
The last few billions have been little more than a decade apart from each other. Furthermore, Pew Research Center estimates that when human population growth levels off around 2100, there will be 10.9 billion humans.
What could be some negative side effects of such rapid, massive growth?
Sort of like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, a corresponding rapid decline in Earth’s biological diversity, prompting many scientists to call the time we are living in a sixth ‘mass extinction.’
What is a mass extinction, as opposed to a singular extinction? The former is “when species vanish much faster than they are replaced. This is usually defined as about 75% of the world’s species being lost in a ‘short’ amount of geological time- less than 2.8 million years” according to the National History Museum.
“Too many people, too much consumption and growth mania.” Legendary Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich argued as part of a 60 Minutes segment from this past Sunday. (3:12–3:18)
Professor Ehrlich is well-known for the 1968 book The Population Bomb, written with his wife and colleague Anne Ehrlich. The work had a doomsday, Malthusian tone, its first sentence arguing “the battle to feed humanity is over. in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”
This prediction did not come to pass. The latter stages of the Green Revolution, along with other technological and organizational improvements such as the Digital Revolution allowed humanity to monitor, plan and make enough food to avoid the Ehrlichs’ worst conclusions.
Nevertheless, as 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley notes, “in the 50 years since Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, humanity’s feasting on resources has tripled. We’re already consuming 175% of what the Earth can regenerate. And consider, half of humanity, about 4 billion, live on less than $10 a day. They aspire to cars, air conditioning and a rich diet.” (11:30–11:54) and “Today, humans have taken over 70% of the planet’s land and 70% of the fresh water.” (4:42–4:49)
Mr. Pelley does not give sources for his statistics, but the most likely seem to be Earth Overshoot Day (which I covered in my 2022 Earth Day Reflection) and a UN published report from 2022.
4 billion people living on less than $10 a day. Imagine that! In the United States, less than $10 is extreme, abject, unthinkable poverty. Understandably, these individuals aspire to how wealthier citizens, such as the writer and readers of this blog, live. Unfortunately, humanity managed to take over or contaminate almost three quarters of the planet’s land and fresh water with less than half of the world’s population living in a developed country.
Perhaps the Ehrlich professors focused on the incorrect effects of overpopulation in the 1960s, while correctly pointing out humanity’s growth was then and is now unsustainable, at its current rates of consumption.
In Sunday’s interview Professor Ehrlich argues that to maintain a United States standard of living for the world’s population, we would need five more Earths. His estimate matches with others that have been made, although they are not without controversy.
How can the billions already here and the billions to come, without killing all the other flora and fauna?
Professor Ehrlich’s colleague Tony Barnosky estimates that due to “rock-solid data”, today’s extinction rate is “100 times faster than is typical in the 4 billion year history of life.” (5:16–5:22) His wife, biologist Liz Hadly, adds: “It is a horrific state of the planet when common species, the ubiquitous species that we’re familiar with, are declining.” (5:58- 6:06)
I am not an expert in biology, conservation, population growth, or related fields. I do not have a systematic, data driven solution that a crisis like this requires. (For a glimmer of hope, pay attention to what Gerardo Ceballos, a Mexican scientist, is doing to revive jaguar population, in the 60 Minutes segment)
Yet, permit me to ask another question.
Of what do you think when you hear ‘humility’?
Merriam-Webster defines it as “freedom from pride and arrogance, the quality state of being humble”, defining humble as:
1. Not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive.
2. Reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission. ‘A humble apology.’
3. a. Ranking low in a hierarchy or scale. Insignificant, unpretentious.
b. Not costly or luxurious. ‘A humble contraption.’
For most of you, I assume humility is brought up in relations with fellow humans. That was certainly my case, growing up in a religious part of the United States. I often heard Biblical interpretations of putting others first, not being selfish and the like. From my secular friends and associates, I heard similar notions.
In spite of how valid these goals are, they lack something crucial.
Where was the mention of humility towards flora and fauna? Or the building blocks of creation which lead to humanity?
A quick Google search of “the Bible’s definition of humility” found no shortage of sites, but once again, no mention of the natural world. Christianity.com has a long, detailed article on the topic, including the Merriam-Webster definition I used above and plenty of Bible verses, but not one mention of animals, plants or anything environmental. Google searches for “secular definition of humility” were inconclusive, with a handful of sites treading water akin to their religious counterparts, discussing about human to human relations.
Being humble to our fellow man is important. But can we be considered humble if we are not to the other life on Earth?
Think of someone with a loving family and/or a great career. When not at work or with loved ones, they volunteer to various causes both by means of time and money. Few dislike and most like them. It sounds like they have achieved the American dream, no?
But let’s consider the environmental impact of their behaviors. Their diet is riddled with food and drink that cost considerable resources to produce, such as avocados or meats. Or, when not cooking or preparing food, they get takeout that produces considerable throwaway plastics. For vacations, they take long trips via car or airplane for business or pleasure, using a lot fossil fuels. They take great pride in their house, making considerable remodels.
From a human perspective, this person has a strong argument for being humble. From an environmental one, they live like a monarch, taking and discarding as they will for their own comfort and enjoyment, seemingly unconcerned with the consequences.
Yes, we need data, statistics and methods to combat this problem, but we need a different worldview, too. We need to become more critical of those who are nice enough to their fellow humans yet neglect everything else.
Humility’s root word is humus, which can mean earth. How can someone possess humility, truly be humble, if they lord over the majority of life and substance on the planet, with no regard to its fate?
I argue they cannot. In order to save ourselves, it is imperative that humanity reevaluates its relationship with the environment and starts to live within it rather than bastardizing it. Yes, we need data, statistics and methods to combat this problem, but we need a different worldview, too.
One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to cultivate this larger sense of humility, that extends to the most impressive creatures to the smallest grains of sand. It is all necessary to support us, and it has beauty in and of itself.
How can you in your daily life, live more harmoniously with Mother Gaia?
I would love to exchange ideas.
For a better, more environmentally sound 2023 and beyond.