Problems and Solutions: Over-Population, Pollution, and More

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Photo by Fotolia/Zatsepin
Author Gary Snyder warns people to change their lifestyles now, lest they face a decayed world.

With the Earth in a seemingly steady state of decline, Gary Snyder offers up a few tips for problem-solving. An extended version of this piece was later published in the underground press.

I. The Problem of Over-Population

The Condition

Position: Man is but a part of the fabric of life — dependent on the whole fabric for his very existence, and also responsible to it. As the most highly developed tool-using animal, he must recognize that the evolutionary destinies (unknown) of other life forms are to be respected, and act as gentle steward of the earth’s community of being.

Situation: There are now too many human beings, and the problem is growing rapidly worse. It is potentially disastrous not only for the human race but for most other life forms.

Goal: The goal would be half of the present world population or less.


Social/political: Legalize abortion; encourage vasectomy and sterilization (provided free by clinics), remove income tax deductions for more than two children above a specified income level, and scale it so that lower income families are forced to be careful, too. Take a vigorous stand against the Catholic church and any other institutions that exercise an irresponsible political force in regard to this question; work ceaselessly to make all political problems be seen and solved in the light of this prime problem.

The community: Explore other social structures and marriage forms, such as group marriage and polyandrous marriage that provide family life but produce fewer children. Share the pleasure of raising children widely, so that all need not directly reproduce to enter into this basic human experience. Let no two persons produce more than two children. Adopt children. Let reverence for life and for the feminine mean also a reverence for other species, most of which are threatened.

Our own heads: “I am a child of all life, and all living beings are my brothers and sisters, my children and grandchildren and, there is a child within me waiting to be brought to birth, the baby of a new and wiser self.” Love, love-making, a male and female together, seen as the vehicle of mutual realization, where the creation of new selves and new worlds of beings is as important as making babies.

II. The Consequences of Pollution

The Condition

Position: Pollution is an excess production of substances which cannot be absorbed or transmuted rapidly enough to offset their introduction, thus causing changes the cycle is not prepared for. All organisms have wastes and by-products, and these are indeed part of the total ecosystem; energy is passed along the line and refracted in various ways, “the rainbow body.” This is cycling, not pollution.

Situation: The human race in the last century has allowed its production and dissemination of wastes, by-products, and various chemical substances to become excessive. Pollution is directly harming the ecosystem. It is also ruining the environment in very direct ways for humanity itself.

Goal: Clean air, clean clear-running rivers, unmuddied language, and good dreams.


Social/political: Waste and by-product quantity must be reduced. Strong legislation controlling DDT and related pesticides with no fooling around. Direct exposure of the collusion of certain scientists, the pesticide industry, and agri-business in trying to block this legislation. Strong penalties for air and water pollution by industry. “Pollution is somebody’s profit.” Phase out petroleum fuels, explore all possible energy sources of a non-polluting nature: solar power. Tell the truth regarding atomic waste disposal and the threat it represents. Stop all germ and chemical warfare research and experimentation. Laws and sanctions encouraging the use of bio-degradable substances; and sanctions against wasteful use of paper, etc. which adds to the solid waste of cities. Determine methods of recycling solid urban waste; and recycling as a basic principle should inform all waste disposal thinking.

The community: Don’t use DDT. Rely less heavily upon cars. Cars pollute the air, and one or two people riding lonely in a huge car is an insult to intelligence and the muse. Share rides, pick up hitchhikers, legalize hitchhiking, and build hitchhiker waiting stations along the highways. Also — as a step toward the new world — walk more. Look for the best routes through beautiful countryside for long-distance walking trips: San Francisco to Los Angeles down the Coast Range, for one. Learn how to use your own manure as fertilizer if you’re in the country as the far East has done for centuries. There’s a way, and it’s safe if proper precautions are taken.

Solid waste: Boycott wasteful Sunday papers that use up trees and add vastly to the solid waste of the city. Refuse paper bags at the store. Organize park and street cleanup festivals. Don’t waste.

Our own heads: Part of the trouble with talking about DDT is that the use of it is not just a practical device, it’s almost an establishment religion. There is something in western culture that wants to totally wipe out creepy-crawlies and feels repugnance for toadstools and snakes. This is fear of one’s own deepest natural inner-self wilderness areas, and the answer is, relax. Relax around bugs, snakes, and your own hairy dreams. Again farmers can and should share their crop with a certain percentage of buglife as “paying their dues” — Thoreau says “How then can the harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquish all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.” In the realm of thought, inner experience, consciousness, as in the outward realm of interconnection, there is a difference between a balanced cycle, and the excess which cannot be handled. When the balance is right, the mind recycles from highest illumination to the stillness of dreamless sleep — the alchemical “transmutation.”

III. Eliminate Excess Consumption

The Condition

Position: Consumption is also a matter of balances and the problems that arise with excess.

Situation: Man’s use of dozens of “resources” and his total dependence on certain of them (like dependence on fossil fuels) exhausts certain presences in the biosphere with incalculable results on the other members of the network while rendering mankind vulnerable to the consequences of the loss of major supplies. In fragile areas animals and birds have all but been made extinct in pursuit of furs or feathers or fertilizer or oil. The soil is “used up” and all of this to feed outrageous excesses such as war, or a phony consumption-oriented economy.

Goal: Balance, harmony, humility, the true affluence of being a good member of the community of living creatures.


Social/political: Seek out new self-renewable energy sources — and it must be taught ceaselessly until it sticks that a continually “growing economy” is no longer healthy, but a cancer. Restructure business corporations so that they can function without presenting a continually growing profit; stress responsible, controlled production. Soil banks, open space, phase out logging on federal land. Protection for all predators and varmints. Absolutely no further development of roads and concessions in National Parks and Wilderness areas; build auto campgrounds in the least desirable areas. Develop consumer-boycott and consumer research power in the areas of irresponsible and dishonest products. Thus expose the myths of capitalism and the Cold War and Communist myths of growth and production by the by.

The community: Share, conserve, and boycott the wasteful. The inherent aptness of communal life, where large tools are owned jointly, and personal objects are private. If enough people refused to buy a new car for one year, it would permanently alter the American economy. Recycling clothes and equipment. (Goodwill and Salvation Army are useful, although they should perhaps be confronted and straightened out on their pricing and wage policies.) Support local handicrafts in shoes and clothes. Learn to break the habit of too many unnecessary possessions, but avoid a self-abnegating anti-joyous self-righteousness. Simplicity is light, carefree, neat, and loving — not a self-punishing ascetic trip.

Don’t shoot a deer if you don’t know how to use all the meat and preserve that which you can’t eat; to tan the hide and use the leather — to use it all, with gratitude, right down to the sinew and hooves. Simplicity and mindfulness in diet is perhaps the starting point for most people.

Our own heads: It is hard to even begin to gauge how much a complication of possessions, the habits of “ownership” and “use” stand between us and a true, clear, liberated way of seeing the world. To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, starts with concrete acts, but the inner principle is the insight that we are interdependent energy fields of great potential wisdom and compassion — expressed in each person as a superb mind, a beautiful and complex body, and the almost magical capacity of language. To these potentials and capacities, “owning things” can add nothing of authenticity. “Clad in the sky with the earth for a pillow.”

IV. Await the Transformation

The Condition

Position: The unbalance in man’s relation to nature and himself is partly an inherent existential question with biological and ultimate roots — birth, suffering, old age, death, and partly a cultural problem. In approaching questions of being and emptiness we have the wisdom, traditions, and some emerging sciences to help us. In transforming culture, we must augment the philosophical perceptions with a deep study of history and anthropology.

Situation: Our civilized — and probably most other — societies of the last three millennia have functioned well enough up to this point. But they no longer have survival value. They are now anti-survival.

Goal: Nothing short of total transformation will work. What we envision is a planet on which the human population lives harmoniously and dynamically by employing a sophisticated and unobtrusive technology in a world environment which is “left natural.” Specific points in this vision: A healthy and spacious population of all races, much less in number than today.

Cultural and individual pluralism, unified by a type of world tribal council. Division by natural and cultural areas rather than arbitrary political boundaries.

A technology of communication and quiet transportation: Land use being sensitive to the properties of each region. Allowing, thus, the bison to return to much of the high plains. Careful but intensive agriculture in the great alluvial valleys. Computer technicians who run the plant part of the year and walk along with the elk in their migration during the rest.

A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property-seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like healing songs, flute-playing, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, and all the other possible ways of authentic being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family — responsible, but more festive and relaxed — is implicit.


Social/political: It seems evident that there are certain social and religious forces throughout the world that have worked throughout history toward an ecologically and culturally enlightened state of affairs. Let these be encouraged: Alchemists, hip Marxists, Anarchists, Third Worlds, Teilhard and crypto-Gnostic Catholics, Druids, Witches, Taoists, Biologists, Yogins, Quakers, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Sufis, Amish and Mennonite, American Indians, Polynesians — all primitive cultures, all communal and ashram movements of all persuasions, etc. The list is long. Because it doesn’t seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve anything. It would be best to consider this a continuing “revolution of consciousness,” which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatology and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one’s on the side of transforming energy.

Our community: Without falling into a facile McLuhanism, we can hope to use the media. New schools, new classes — walking in the woods and cleaning up the streets. Let no one be ignorant of the facts of biology and related disciplines; bring up our children with natural things and a taste of the wild. Let some groups establish themselves in backwater rural areas and flourish, let others maintain themselves in the urban centers, and let them work together, a two-way flow of experience, people, money, and home-grown vegetables. Investigating new lifestyles is our work — as is the exploration of ways to change one’s inner-world — with the known dangers of crashing that go with such. We should work where it helps with political people, hoping to enlarge their vision. And with people of all varieties of politics or ideologies at whatever point they become aware of environmental urgencies. Master the archaic and the primitive, as models of basic nature-related cultural styles, as well as the most imaginative future possibilities of science and technology, and build a community where these two vectors cross.

Our own heads is where it starts. Knowing that we are the first human beings in history to have all of man’s culture and previous experience available to our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity. We are the first members of a civilized society since the early Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our selfhood, our family, there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are — which gives us a fair chance to penetrate into some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe, and to go beyond the idea of “man’s survival” or “the survival of the biosphere” and to draw our strength from the realization that at the heart of things is some kind of serene and ecstatic process which is actually beyond qualities and beyond birth-and-death.

Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from.

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