Since British demographer Thomas Malthus published his “Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1826, the world has seemed both concerned about and destined for an overpopulation apocalypse. The sharp wisdom of Malthusian ideas has involved nearly every sector of the, yes, population in a dialogue about its own growth patterns. Followers of Malthus, including Paul Ehlich, the influential author of “The Population Bomb” (1968) and “The Population Explosion (1990), predicted that by now, hundreds of millions of people would have starved to death “in spite of any crash programs embarked upon” (Ehrlich, “The Population Bomb”).
However, while few today would argue that the overpopulation crisis is anywhere close to being solved or even solvable, the large-scale calamities that Malthusian models so ominously predicted have not come to pass. Rather, recent studies are showing that population growth is, for the first time in human history, beginning to level off. Predictions that the fertility rate will fall, worldwide, to about 1.85, and that the world population will “stabilize well before ten billion” (Joseph Chamie, U.N. population division director) have led some to argue that “reduced economic inequality” and an “altered balance of power among nations” (Wattenberg, “It Will Be a Small World After All) will result.
But what about humanity’s effect on the world’s natural resources? Will declining birth rates have any impact on the already-ravaged landscapes and seascapes of the planet? In his 2007 book Connemara: Listening to the Wind, cartographer and environmentalist Tim Robinson explores the history of human consumption from the perspective of just one small district in the west of Ireland. His book, heralded as “an intense evocation of place that has no equal” (The Irish Mail), explores the way that human ingenuity has shaped a history as complex and layered as the ancient bogs of Connemara itself. Robinson argues that sweeping statistical studies of population and climate change pale in comparison to the slow, human experience of coming to understand and appreciate a specific landscape. In order to explain the environmental history of Connemara, then, he says, “I prefer to imagine walks across it, enmeshing he reader in its textures, letting the generalities emerge when the pressure of detail compels them” (21).
The generalities that “emerge” throughout the book are shaped two major forces: “Time, the tailor of all things” (Robinson, 21) and the concurrent human population growth and expansion. The bogs of Connemara were formed during the end of the last Ice Age, and as Robinson goes to great lengths to describe, “a bog is its own diary; its mode of preservation is its past. The current page is the brightest and fullest, but whatever grows and dies on the surface, together with whatever is blown onto it from neighboring areas, will be pickled in the acidic waters and added to the layered record” (47). The bogs of Connemara tell the story first of an astoundingly complex and diverse faunal jungle. Even now, with agricultural settlements threatening the very existence of the Connemara terrain, it is home to some of the most unusual species of “woody plants” and herbs. Resourceful parasitic and carnivorous plants draw nutrients from the bog bottom despite residing in layers “impermeable peat.” New varieties of heather are found growing in surprising places every year.
The changes that are happening in Connemara are slow and almost imperceptible from a short-term perspective. They are not as drastic or immediately obvious as those that my classmate Ben Staplin discusses in his paper on Iceland. Industrialization is less a problem than the simple presence of people—agriculture, namely the domestication of animals, and over-fishing are what Robinson and other scholars see changing the diverse natural landscape. In 2003 in The Journal of Ecology, P.D. Moore says of Connemara,
“From the beginning… settlers clearly brought a totally new kind of impact and the story now develops into one of timber extraction, hard-won arable agriculture, soil erosion, land drainage, and the establishment of the “cultural landscape” that now exists over much of the area. These considerable changes have been accompanied by faunal impoverishment… but the effects of the European settlement were perhaps most severe on the larger mammals and also upon the fish communities of the aquatic ecosystems.”
When humans first entered the area, the rich natural resources of Ireland’s west coast seemed infinite—when Roundstone Bog, a particularly rich ecosystem, was first connected to the world through a bridge and a port in 1836, it entered what Robinson calls its “heyday” of fortune. The seas around Connemara were “teeming and undepleted.” “Cod, ling, whiting and turbot were taken from December to March; sunfish in May; oysters from March to November; and lobsters and crabs were abundant” (180). The seemingly endless supply of food meant one thing: “hungry bodies flocked to the village to be fed” (183). For the first time, the bog-lands were occupied by settlers who were not only hungry but also cold, wet, and multiplying. People, and all of the basic needs they carried with them, were enough to change and endanger the natural biodiversity of the land.
Although his book centers largely around the problem of people, Robinson remains optimistic and anthropological in his studies. He is as concerned with preserving Ireland’s cultural and linguistic traditions as he is with preserving its environment. He sees a “guilty self-consciousness” as a “gift of human intellect” (57), and embraces his doubts. He constantly questions his own presence within Connemara, and wonders at the seemingly dichotomous fragility and strength of the landscape. But the book is not without a concrete environmental argument; for all the philosophical beauty of his writing, Robinson comes down harshly upon the human “addiction” to consumption and doubts the effectiveness of the “tech-fix” to solve problems as overlaid as those of western Ireland:
“Our civilization is addicted to energy, increasingly dependent upon it and vulnerable to any shortfall supply. Instead of entering into deep engagement with the struggle against this craving we have invented a whole new industry, as polluting and energy-thirsty as many another, that denatures landscapes by the square mile yet dresses itself in green and is heavily subsidized because it offers comfort to our environmentalist consciences.” (126)
Rather than what he sees as the “energy-thirsty” but conscious-soothing green movement, Robinson advocates a kind of back-to-nature ramble similar to those that inspired his writing; in other words, he hopes that through exploration, humans can learn (at least partially) the imprint that their every small decision leaves in the planet’s layered history. Although I do not share Robinson’s revulsion of green technology, I do share his conviction that experience, rather than the sterile claims of pure data, is what can ultimately propel our bursting population towards a more meaningful and healthy relationship with the environment.
Ehrlich, Paul. The Population Bomb. Sierra Club-Ballantine Books. 1968.
Robinson, Tim. Connemara: Listening to the Wind. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2007.
Wattenberg, Ben J. “It Will Be A Smaller World After All.” The New York Times. March 8, 2003.
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last updated 5/13/2008