Tales Of Our Times: Population Is A Knotted Ball

Tales of Our Times
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Population is a Knotted Ball

Every part of the environment has a string tied to it. At the far end, the strings tangle into a giant knotted ball, which is world population. Population affects virtually everything, from the environment, religions and wars to commodity prices, the tides of employment and money supplies. Yet, the subject stays quiet as a mouse.

We know the reason—the central knot is too tight to pick apart. But we can poke at it, which is worth more than a quiet mouse. To begin, human populations have strings of needs that must be dealt with. The most basic needs are filled by “engineering services,” which include securing enough food, water, shelter, materials, energy, transportation, and sundry lands at some level. As we know, securing this basic bundle on a global scale is enormously difficult.

The term “engineering” suggests the needed resources are more or less calculable. And they are. Ranchers and ecologists use the term “carrying capacity,” for the number of animals that they calculate to be able to thrive continuously per acre of land. The number can be determined and it varies with the type of land and animals in question. An acre of grassland supports more sheep than an arid acre. One sheep needs less land than one steer.

Demographers debate how well the human “carrying capacity” can be gauged for sectors of the Earth or the planet as a whole. The answer is far more tangled for people than for sheep. People do things sheep never think of doing. We cut trees, plow fields and pump aquifers. We invent ships, trucks and airplanes; penicillin; herbicides and solar panels. We desire steel, coffee, self-esteem and trips to exotic places.

We have a briar patch. All these factors complicate the Earth’s carrying capacity for people. Maybe we can estimate it within an order of magnitude or two. Maybe not. What keeps the world’s population related to the Earth’s carrying capacity? Nature limits animal populations by supply chains of food, water, habitat, predators and disease, but not for us. Though we can never wholly succeed, our nature seeks to end all natural limitations.

To replace nature’s rugged means of control, humans turn to language-based concepts. Word-based controls rely on creeds and policy outcomes, which themselves are word products. Some concepts crank the population up. Others crank it down. A central concept is the inestimable value of human life, summed up person by person. This impulse cranks population higher. A related concept is the “quality of life,” which changes in ways still unknown, as it always has. Depending on how “quality of life” evolves, it can either raise or lower population levels.

Add in the concept of “dominion” and any sense of a fixed carrying capacity for people or animals is up for grabs.

Another concept relates to family groups in particular. In times when mishaps and disease could easily cut down a family’s size, large families assured the farm could be kept running. Data from some African countries suggest birth rates fall as health care or the economy improves.

China’s government wrestles with overpopulation. In the tug-of-war between more mouths to feed and larger markets to sell to, China opts to encourage smaller families. At least, the strings twine this way now. In contrast, Russia struggles with a shrinking population, which gives rise to worries about loss of economic or military strength. In the grand scheme, people, tribes and nations seem to associate added population with added clout. More of your kind implies an advantage, whether in fighting or in voting.

The future world population depends on all of the most peculiar traits of humans. Think how peculiar are the expressions of our own views. Add in the peculiar traits you’ve met with plus the lot described in world news. A large sum looms.