Environmentalists often identify our growing population as a major threat to the health of our planet. The presumption is that more people we have at any given time, the more water, food, coal, land, wood, steel, oil, and animals we consume. Coterminously, our heightened levels of consumption result in dangerous levels of waste—the more people the more trash, CO2 and pollution we create:
Most ecologists consider human population growth to be one of the greatest problems in global ecology and a major driving force in environmental degradation. They see excessive consumption as and equally important cause of pollution and environmental deterioration. Most agree that the two factors work and in hand to threaten the world’s ecological integrity. (Southwick 1996: 159-60)
This analysis, concurrent fear, of our potential danger to the environment is based upon the premise that humans’ presence is necessarily invasive to “nature” (a nature in which, oddly, we seem to have no place) and assaults the environment: the more people the more degradation. While it is arguably easier to ecologically integrate into a habitat in smaller communities—who because of their size are limited in how great of a negative impact they can have on an ecosystem—I think that the correlation between population and environmental degradation is not as simple as more people--> more needs--> more consumption--> more waste; large populations do not inherently increase environmental degradation, it is rather the particular organization of a populous that causes humans to behave harmfully. I suggest that large un-localized communities cause unnecessary competition between individuals that redirects human activity away from a holistic way of living, to an over specialized and developmental-rather-than-static way of life that is effectively harmful to our natural habitat.
In today’s expansive communities, a smaller and smaller proportion of the population can provide the necessary services. As a result, humans are forced to create new apparently-valuable roles for themselves in such communities. That is to say, in a small town there may be one doctor, one tailor, one butcher and so on. According to the idea of economies of scale, as that town grows, the number of people each of those professionals serves increases, yet the manpower needed to support this rise in demand increases at much lower rate. As a result instead of having one doctor for every ten people, there is, lets say, two for every thirty, and one potential doctor has no job. While this is an over-simplified model, the general principle may be applied in various degrees throughout the global economy.
Technologies further enable relatively few individuals to provide a large population with its necessities. The notion of a symbiotic community—where everyone contributes a necessary component of the group’s survival—has been exhausted yielding a pressing problem. The community’s dead weight, those who have no apparently necessary contribution still need to participate in the economy—they still need to do something and thus must find (or create) something that is needed by others. As a result, individuals need to create new opportunities. They need to create new economic space that will reinstate their necessity, and thus ability to survive (make money).
There are two main ways through which people can create new intra-community niches: either to develop a newer, faster, “better” way of doing something or, super-specialize and create many sub-niches from one niche.
If there is already one doctor in a community and another comes along, the newcomer must develop a way to be better if he or she hopes to purloin any of the original’s patients. In response, the first doctor will have to develop a way get even better, and in this manner a competitive cycle commences and self-perpetuates. Many conservative economists argue that this type of market behavior benefits the consumer, for it yields better service and lower prices. These advantages may be significant in the short term, but from a broader perspective, such competition can be harmful. The immediate goal of outdoing the contestant squelches the goal of sustainability. The two competitors become so myopically focused on providing a competitively advantageous product, that they loose sight of other factors. Competitors rely on what David Orr defines as cleverness rather than intelligence. Cleverness gets us immediate accomplishments or short term advantages without illuminating a long term and big picture perspective: “Intelligence, as I understand it, has to do with the long run and is mostly integrative, whereas cleverness is mostly preoccupied with the short run and tends to fragment things” (Orr 2004: 49). The dangerous side effects of their developmental endeavors can be disregarded as not immediately relevant and are allowed to continue unimpeded in the name of the “betterment” that comes from competition and “development:” “It is no accident that the modern, efficient and productive technologies created within the context of growth in market economic terms are associated with heavy ecological costs…” (Shiva 1989: 7). In light of this, we are most certainly accomplishing things that may actually seem like maldevelopment (a term coined by Shiva in Staying Alive to express what she considers to be the true effect of what the West considers development 1989: 4). In Orr’s words again, “We are capable of doing many more clever things than intelligence would have us do” (Orr 2004: 48).
In addition to developing and pursuing a competitive edge, specialization is another effective way to create opportunity, but one with equally devastating consequences. What I mean by specialization, is myopically focused on one craft or skill, and thereby being less widespread and “better” in that one particular area. For example, if there is already one do-it-all doctor in a community, one could open a dermatology office. Because he or she would not have to know as much breadth, he or she would be better informed than the doctor when confronted with skin problems. While to a certain degree this type of specialization is necessary to ensure adequate expertise in increasingly complex fields or procedures, it can easily get counterproductive. Over specialization leads to a hyper fragmented understanding of the world that overlooks interconnections and interdependencies. It deems an action insignificant to any large picture or ecosystem, isolating it as a single unassociated occurrence. The goal is to effectively perform a very certain task, without regard to how it may affect or be affected by the greater web of existence:
Yet, the world is not this way (disconnected), and except for the temporary convenienceof analysis, it cannot be broken into disciplines and specialization without doing serious harm to the world and to the minds and live of who believe that it can be… Now more than ever, however, we need people who think broadly and who understand systems, connections, patterns, and rots causes. (Orr 2004: 23)
Furthermore, specialization limits one’s knowledge and training to a single highly focused field and does not allow for a broad and practical how-to-live-well education. Learning how to perform brain surgery takes away from learning how to cook a meal, build a fire, or construct a house. We thus render ourselves “worse at living” and almost entirely dependent on others, who these services are demanded from in unsustainable quantities.
Even with the large populations of our current world, communities could re-localize. That is to say, even though our cleverness enables us to serve the entire globe’s clothing need from practically one location, for example, let us limit our development and rely on a neighborhood tailor rather than a multinational sweatshop-based textile corporation. And as David Orr suggests in his call for a refashioning of our education system, let us also, educate ourselves and our children in basic common sensibilities: to understand networks, interconnectedness and interdependencies, and likewise, to be able to maintain a certain degree of self-sufficiency to limit the degree to which we rely upon hyper-specialties (2004: 51-2). While such a transformation would not be simplistic, especially in urban, densely populated areas, I think that it is one of the only ways which we can sustain such a large population on this planet without continuing to exacerbate the current stresses our masses our putting on our habitat.
David W. Orr. 2004. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington DC: Island Press.
Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. London: Zed Books.
Southwick, Charles H. 1996. Ch. 15 from Global Ecology in Human Perspective. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
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