The Limits of Conservation

| 7/18/2008 5:29:34 PM

bigbend canyon

We could take this philosophically, I suppose. A few decades or a few centuries after we disappear there will be a healthy planet here. Or we can see it fatalistically. The damage we are doing is part of a natural process. Our awareness doesn’t change that essential fact. We can even salve our guilty consciences by resorting to the geologic perspective. Eventually this planet will suffer some sterilizing galactic calamity. Scientists tell us our sun will, eventually, burn out.

But it’s not our nature to sit around complacently waiting for the asteroid, not while we have this miraculous opportunity to preserve and enhance our planet. Just as we once visualized the first irrigated field, invented the first wheel and dreamed of machines that fly, we can visualize the earth as a beautiful and productive garden where millions of species thrive. Then we can build it.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that we, as a species, are training our attention on the middle of the decreasing-circumference curve in which we find ourselves. We are not visualizing the successful outcome – a healthy planet. Conservation has captured the human imagination lately and some great new inventions have come from this new fascination – the gas-electric hybrid engine; photovoltaic solar energy, wind-powered electric turbines, the hydrogen fuel cell. This is cool stuff. But it’s stopgap stuff.

The best product of our fascination with conservation is that it has captured people’s imaginations. And it’s the key component in a new human philosophy that values other living things. If we consume less, we leave more room for our biological neighbors. That’s a great thing.

On the other hand, short-term thinking distracts us from the underlying problem. At current rates of population growth, there will be 10 billion people on the planet in about 60 years. When there are 10 billion people on the planet it won’t matter what they drive or if they’ve all committed to vegan diets. The planet will be under human assault in a battle where everyone loses. We could hit that guardrail.

Richard J Schneider
9/1/2008 2:52:51 PM

Limiting to one child as the "responsible" thing to do merely passes judgment on all the rest of us who "irresponsibly" had more than one child. I had four, which balances me out with Heather at 2.5 per family - slightly above the Zero Population Growth suggested replacement birth rate. Today's demographics challenge our left-leaning beliefs (and I have many). I'll just mention one - the least educated and least capable are reproducing at the highest rate. The poor and uneducated are forced into living low-impact lives. The wealthier and more educated do it by choice, only very few of us make that choice. But before we limit everyone to a single child (which should be the choice of the parents; not a judgement rendered on all the rest of us) I'd like to see how little we could all actually live on - before the asteroid hits Earth. We don't need 6,000 square foot houses, but we build them like mad. Do we need a two-child tax policy? Maybe we do. But I'd like to see educated and thinking people like Heather have more than just one child - because we need thinking, educated people to spread the word on conservation and appropriate technology. It's starting to happen, but very slowly. With expensive fuels, Americans are finally rethinking how they live their day-to-day lives. This is such a complex issue - thus the rambling argument - but I'm not sure deliberately dropping below the human replacement birth rate is necessarily the best way to go.

9/1/2008 11:11:40 AM

My husband and I have chosen to limit our reproduction to one child. We feel its the responsible thing to do as part of the greatest consuming population on the planet. Education is what led us to our decision and I believe sharing the message of conservation with our fellow Americans is the best way to change minds. There is an amazing mantra of "you must have 2" among well-educated American women. When I talk to American fathers, they are all happy to have just one. Figure out a message that will reach American child-bearing women that one is enough and conservation will follow.

8/26/2008 4:40:02 PM

There is yet another alternative that often seems to be overlooked in these discussions and that is to go elsewhere. Historically, humans, like other animals, have either migrated wholesale or in partial populations when the demands on local resources become too great. Colonization of other bodies in the solar system (the moon, Mars, etc.) could very well be economically viable at some point in the medium-term future (say the next century) and would be an excellent, if partial, solution to this issue. Moreover, it would remove the common-mode-failure threat to the species as a whole--the fact that we are all on one and only one planet.

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