Northern Wilds Magazine
Shawn Perich
Points North

Points North: Why do we ignore the elephant in the room?

Recently, I had an ongoing email conversation with a friend in Great Britain on topics ranging from fly-fishing to Brexit. He believes a majority of UK voters approved Brexit as a response to a world with too many people. He wrote:

“Now, when we were born there were roughly 2.5 billion (UK billion) people on this earth. Today, 55 or so years later, we are at 7.43 billion and rising at over 1.15% per annum. The wrestling of a whole pressure of accommodating that growth must send out shock waves of disturbance. Manifest in the forms we find now….It’s been a long enough time running…for us to understand what’s gonna happen sooner or later.

“Q. Does Niger need 4% population growth per year, there’s bugger all there in the Sahel as it is? Does all Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.? (wholly rhetorical). I, maybe we, have different perspectives…and so it is.”

My friend is not xenophobic or racist. He doesn’t believe such characteristics define a voting majority of his countrymen. His point is the world population has nearly tripled in a half century. Brexit is an expression of Great Britain’s angst as a rising tide of humanity sweeps against the island nation’s shores. A similar American angst is expressed in U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s declaration that he will build a wall along our nation’s southern border. In both situations, a sizeable portion of the citizenry seeks to deter a mass influx of people coming from places where, for a multitude of reasons, there are more people than those places can support.

This column is not about politics. It’s about population. But never will you hear politicians, the media or anyone else explain situations of human catastrophe as the consequence of overpopulation. Instead, they’ll talk about political unrest, poverty, civil war, crime or other so-called catalysts for human mass migrations. While it is true that such migrations require catalysts, the underlying cause–overpopulation–remains the elephant in the room. For some reason, simply talking about overpopulation is taboo.

Just today, I chatted with an older fellow about all that is going wrong with resource conservation in our corner of the world. Far older than I, he had watch the state’s population nearly double in his lifetime. He made an astute, but unpleasant, assessment of what was and what is regarding the quality of Minnesota fishing and hunting.

“It isn’t coming back,” he said.

The problem is that all of us are making ever-increasing demands on ever-diminishing natural resources. We seek to grow enough corn and soybeans to meet increasing world demand, thus we plow up grasslands to raise more crops. We need more copper to feed our own technology habit and to supply a higher standard of technology to the developing world, thus we contemplate copper mines in wilderness watersheds.  As we take up more space to accommodate our needs, fish and wildlife habitats disappear.

Not so long ago, in the late 20th Century, it seemed we had turned a corner, at least in the U.S., where we placed a priority on healthy lands and waters, and sustainable resource use. Then along came the 21st Century and a boom in domestic energy production—petroleum, wind and ethanol—which led development projects ranging from fracking to wind farms to increased row cropping. Much of the progress made to protect and restore healthy landscapes, such as erodible land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, has since disappeared. Wild places from North Dakota to Pennsylvania are dotted with oil rigs.

On a worldwide scale, natural resource losses range from rain forest destruction to oceans emptied of edible fish. In order to replace what we’ve depleted in the natural world, we are farming everything from shrimp to salmon. Many of the world’s energy-producing countries are enveloped in political turmoil and war. Elsewhere, wars are fought to claim new territory for growing populations.

Closer to home, I live in a community that takes great pride in being a self-defined model of “sustainability.” Yet that sustainability is dependent upon continuous growth in tourism and second home development. Never does it seem that we have enough. Success is defined as more tourists and more new construction every year. My livelihood is tied to this economic formula just like everyone else, but I also understand that every year we’ll squeeze a little more out of the wonderful natural resources that define the North Shore and attract people to this place.

So whatever we had, even last year, isn’t coming back. You’d think this would make us all the more determined to hang on to what we’ve got. Unfortunately, doing so doesn’t align with our political and economic realities. Maybe it’s just the American way. After all, they didn’t save the bison for us. Maybe we won’t save the moose or the monarch butterfly for coming generations.

This is a gloomy way to view conservation efforts, but conservationists seem as unwilling as politicians to address the elephant in the room. This is frustrating, because all of our challenges regarding habitat loss and declines in fish and wildlife are symptoms of an expanding human population. Those challenges are certain to become more daunting in the future.

There is no easy solution to human population growth. While populations are stable or even decreasing across much of the developed world, worldwide there are more of us every minute. While better education and a higher standard of living can slow population growth, bringing about such changes to the Third World won’t happen overnight.

In the back of my mind, I wonder if Nature will eventually make a correction to address the overabundance of people. Perhaps humanity will be subjected to pestilence or epic natural disaster. It may be a situation of our own making, such as a biological experiment gone awry or nuclear war. Or it may be a natural occurrence, such as a flu outbreak or the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera. Either way, it won’t be pretty. Maybe that’s why we choose to ignore the elephant in the room. It is easier to build a border wall than to fully comprehend the ultimate consequences of overpopulation.

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