I am an amateur futurist. Ever since I saw my first episode of the Jetsons in 1962, I have wanted my own flying car, Rosey the robot maid, and a wind tunnel that would do your hair, wash, and dress you while you did nothing (I am not a morning person). None of those have come true yet, but the Jetsons’ future bewitched me, enticing me into a lifelong fascination with what the future might bring.
The ‘60s were manic-depressed when it came to the future. The Seattle World’s Fair predicted technological nirvana and built the Space Needle as a lasting tribute to a future not dissimilar to the Jetsons—after all, George and Jane were living in a Space-Needle-like home. But while many were promising a glorious future, dire warnings of a future filled with overpopulation and environmental disaster were prevalent. Many predicted the earth would suffer horrible calamities in 50 years if we did not control our population. Hunger, drinking water shortages, and people living in overgrown rabbit warrens prone to crime and despair were all part of the portrait of the future.
It’s now 60 years later; have the warnings of the 1960’s come true? Overpopulation is a moving target, depending on the amount of people the earth can maintain without causing environmental deterioration and an impaired quality of life (see Webster for this definition). Most contemporary estimates put the carrying capacity of earth under our current conditions somewhere between 4 and 16 billion. Current population is over 7.3 billion…so are we there yet?
One of the most fascinating books on population basically says the earth will take care of itself. Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague (1995) supposes that the natural environmental forces that govern the existence of life on the planet will take over when human population overstrains the environment. Garrett provides the science behind the correlation and causation of a wide number of diseases and overpopulation. Whether it’s malaria, tuberculosis, hantaviruses, or Ebola, she makes a case for humanity’s numbers being curbed by our own infections.
So when I read articles on the current typhus epidemic in Los Angeles or the growing number of cats in Wyoming who are dying from bubonic plague, I think back to Laurie Garrett’s work and wonder if nature isn’t striking back—again. [And yes, bubonic plague is contagious between cats and humans. Fleas and rodents are not your friends!]
The environment may be overstressed, but human overpopulation is the cause. While we work to clean up the environment, Mother Earth is working on the root cause—as is the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation. But few in our leadership talk about overpopulation directly, because if you think politicians are too scared to deal with the environment, try overpopulation with its corresponding issues of birth control, abortion, and equal access to health facilities and insurance. Those issues are enough to scare us all. But Mama Earth does not respond to lobbyists, folks, so she’s going to take care of all of us, whether we like her approach or not.
Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague. Worth a read.
“Typhus epidemic Worsens, While Los Angeles’ Response ‘Too Slow, ’” NBC News, Los Angeles, Oct. 11, 2018.