On Oct. 31, the United Nations announced the birth of Planet Earth’s 7 billionth human. Later that day, the United Nations admitted that “no one can know the exact number of people on the globe,” noting that perhaps the 7 billionth human might be born sometime during the next four months.
In other words: United Nations demographers pretty much know what they’re talking about, give or take about 28 million human beings.
Many human beings take these bureaucratic pronouncements as gospel (ironically, while ignoring the actual Gospel, which instructs humanity to “be fruitful and multiply.”) Like the 73 members of the U.S. Congress who signed a letter on Dec. 10, 2009, urging the White House to spend $1 billion on “slowing the [human] population’s rapid growth.” Or the “one in four Britons [who] would like to see the [human] population reduced by up to a third.” Or Prince Philip, past president of the World Wildlife Fund, who said, “If I were to be reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to the Earth as a killer virus, to lower human population levels.” Or the Sierra Club’s first executive director, the late David Brower, who said, “Childbearing [should be] a punishable crime against society.” Or President Obama’s so-called “Science Czar” John Holdren, who co-wrote a book that discussed “a Planetary regime” to reduce the number of human beings, including “compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion,” “involuntary fertility control,” a “program of sterilizing women after their second or third child” and “adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods.”
These “anti-human” humans make an important distinction: They do not think that all life should be reduced on Planet Earth, just the lives of Earth’s most powerful creatures—human beings. Why? So that less powerful life forms, such as plants and animals might thrive.
From an evolutionary perspective, how could human beings develop a belief system that overrides our will to survive, thrive and reproduce? To find the answer, let’s go back to a time when there were far fewer humans on Earth.
Thomas Malthus’ seminal 1798 anti-human tome, An Essay on the Principle of Population, gave us the “Malthusian catastrophe,” which is “a strong constantly operating check on population” caused by an “inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth.” Malthus was not, however, the first to fret about overpopulation. In 210 A.D. (when the world’s population was a mere 190 million—roughly 2.8% of the world’s population today), the Roman philosopher Tertullian wrote: “What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint) is our teeming population. Our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us … in very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”
Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, brought anti-humanism into the mainstream. In it, Ehrlich wrote, “There are only two kinds of solutions to the population problem. One is a “birth-rate solution,” in which we find ways to lower the birth rate. The other is a “death-rate solution,” in which ways to raise the death rate—war, famine, pestilence—find us.”
History has not been kind to the dire warnings of anti-humanists. As Slate editor Daniel Engber noted, “Ehrlich and his fellow Malthusians were discredited” largely because reality failed to match up with their doomsday predictions of famines, plagues and water shortages. As Ehrlich himself admitted in 2009, “Their failure to occur is often cited as a failure of prediction. In honesty, the scenarios were way off, especially in their timing (we underestimated the resilience of the world system).”
Not only did the “population bomb” fail to explode, it may not have been a bomb to begin with. As someone who has driven across America several times—most recently last week—I can share with you an inconvenient truth that seems to have eluded those humans who believe we have too many humans: In America, one of the most developed countries in the world, trees and open space vastly—vastly—outnumber human beings. Anyone who thinks the world is suffering from overpopulation has obviously never been to Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, most of California—or even traveled half an hour west of New York City, where tree-covered rolling hills and open space dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. Some of the most beautiful parts of America are so sparsely populated that hundreds of highway miles can pass before you receive a single a.m. radio station. Or a city. Or a restroom. And those are the places where interstate highways exist. Not exactly “off the beaten path.”
Contrary to the preaching of anti-humanists, the world has more than enough space to comfortably fit all 7 billion of its human beings. As Prof. David Osterfeld noted, “If the entire population of the world were placed in the state of Alaska, every individual would receive nearly 3,500 square feet of space, or about one-half the size of the average American family homestead with front and back yards.”
And yet the myth of overpopulation persists, perhaps because so many of us experience overpopulation first-hand on a daily basis. Seventy-seven per cent of Americans choose to live in cities or in suburbs, shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. Is that an unnatural way for human beings to live? I had a conversation about this with John Snobelen, past Minister of Natural Resources in Ontario, Canada. He and I were talking about row houses, the type of semi-detached homes favored by many suburban dwellers. I wondered aloud why people would want to live so close together, suggesting that maybe it was due to a lack of space. Snobelen replied, “Explain Venice then. Was Italy overcrowded in the Middle Ages? Was the world overcrowded? Maybe folks just like to live near other folks.”
Human beings are social creatures. It makes sense, then, that they would choose to live near “other folks.” Or, at least near enough to “other folks” to sustain a Whole Foods in the neighborhood. What makes less sense is that some humans (programmed, as we are, with the biological instinct to survive, thrive and reproduce) believe that we humans should not survive, thrive or reproduce.
This anti-humanism is a fundamental shift in how we view our place in the world. Anti-human humans fail to recognize that the belief that we do not belong here, that humanity is somehow a cancer that needs to be wiped out in order to save nature—goes against nature itself by going against our biological instinct to survive.
Human beings are an indigenous species on Planet Earth. We belong here.
There is more than enough room in the world for plants, animals and human beings—even those human beings who call for sensible solutions to real environmental concerns, such as Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, and best-selling author of Cool It and The Skeptical Environmentalist. I interviewed Lomborg for my book Underdogma and asked him about the anti-humanist movement. He said, “I don’t subscribe to that view myself. I think that mankind is worth preserving, I think people are worth preserving. If you actually believe that people are a blight on the planet, it would seem logical in some way that you would also make sure that you don’t live yourself.”
In other words: If you are a human who believes that there should be fewer human beings on Planet Earth: Fine, you go first.