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Are we, the human animals, on the verge of devouring the earth?

Hal Crowther 

Friends of the Earth

I once wrote an essay about the tragic fall of the raccoon, his descent from a lovable woodland scamp to a detested suburban scavenger, from a jaunty Walt Disney character to an infamous sort of well-dressed rat. The raccoon's only sin is that he was adaptable and flourished wherever human beings flourish, until his numbers and larcenous lifestyle began to offend the good people who made him possible.

Numbers seem to be the key to any creature's reputation. I used to rescue ladybugs from swimming pools, when I was a boy, because they seemed to be the most harmless and appealing of insects, deserving of a second chance while hornets, spiders and ugly beetles were summarily flushed into the filter system. I used to scoop up the cute little boogers in my hands and dry their wings by blowing on them. But ladybugs, commonly rendered on ladies' aprons and refrigerator magnets, have become a plague in certain parts of the United States. For some reason they've begun to infest people's houses in such alarming numbers that only prolonged assaults with vacuum cleaners can eliminate them.

It's a familiar story. Whitetail deer were considered picturesque and desirable until there were so many that interstates were littered with their bloody corpses. Now every state where deer thrive is expanding its hunting season and responding to constant complaints by property owners. A herd of at least a dozen frequented my neighborhood in Chapel Hill, less than a mile from Franklin Street.

Even our beloved domestic companions suffer devaluation and persecution where they multiply too rapidly. The mayor of Bucharest, Romania, ignoring international protests from Brigitte Bardot and other dog lovers, is deploying an army of dogcatchers to impound and exterminate the city's 300,000 strays (who are charged with biting an average of 23,000 humans each year). The writer Mark Helprin rescued a damaged street cat in Rome--as his friend tells it--and took it to a veterinarian for critical repairs. To his amazement, the veterinarian was genuinely offended. Cats breed in such multitudes in Rome, the vet told Helprin, this was like asking him to operate on a cockroach.

A species is precious only when it's threatened with extinction--a hunted nuisance becomes an international cause c&233;lèbre when it's down to its last dozen breeding pairs. None of this fluctuation has anything to do with the virtues of the individual animal, or its claim on our tolerance and respect. Only one animal is exempt from the rule that overpopulation breeds contempt. That lucky animal wears eyeglasses, sometimes, and needs them because he spends so many hours staring at glowing rectangular screens like the one where this sentence is coming to life.

Compared to the human population "explosion"--a clich&233; no other word can replace--nothing that's occurred in my lifetime is worth a long footnote in the chronicles of the planet Earth. Nearly all of what we conventionally call history is the history of the human race. And with all due respect to our distinguished historians, human history is a kind of intramural history, a fairly parochial account of an unusual species whose reign at the top of the food chain has been pure hell for most of creation.

In a history written by any nonhuman--by God, by aliens, by a literate leopard--the proliferation of the human species and its calamitous effect on the biosphere is a tragedy so overwhelming that all our wars, monuments, migrations and technological miracles reduce to footnotes, to filler. It's dismissive to call birth control a critical issue. In the long run, it's the only issue.

"There isn't much time to save this planet," Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute warned an international environmental conference, a decade ago. "And it all depends on a revolution in human reproductive behavior."

Without a sane population policy, Peter Mathiessen warned the same assembly, "the human animal will devour the earth."

T

he population of the United States was set at 281 million by last year's millennial census, which means it's doubled since I was born, at the end of World War II. It's tripled since my father was born, at the beginning of World War I, and multiplied nine times since my great-grandmother was born in 1863, the year the Civil War was decided at Gettysburg.

In human history we count from war to war. Perhaps the compulsion to slaughter each other is something we can't help, something Nature built into us to keep us from overrunning and destroying the planet in less than a blink of an eye, as eternity measures time. But in spite of all the wars and plagues and natural disasters, Homo sapiens multiplies like the locust and the ladybug, nearly quadrupling during the 20th century to a recent estimate of six billion individuals. In the 17th century, when the first Englishmen were settling the American colonies, the population of the planet Earth was less than twice the current population of the United States.

That's a sturdy, well-framed statistic, easy to grasp and retain. But statistics don't persuade like anecdotes, like the testimony of citizens who remember when the world was bigger and the human presence dramatically smaller. I often asked my great-grandmother about Disraeli and Tennyson and about Queen Victoria, whom she remembered well. I never asked her how she felt coming as a young woman to a country that was by English standards almost empty. But I myself, several years short of three score, can clearly recall when there were no strips, no malls, no fast-food jungles devouring farmland in every direction; when there were few interstates, large developments or significant suburbs. I remember when small towns and family farms were the prevailing American arrangements. I have a couple of friends who can remember when automobiles were still uncommon.

People are so adaptable, for the most part so memory-challenged that the teeming human landscape of the past several decades seems to them normal and eternal. It's only natural instinct to valorize our own species and protect our own young; an anthropocentric worldview is inseparable from the mythology of most world religions. Yet to hold human life, even potential human life sacred and all other life expendable is to embrace biocide and geocide. Biology teaches that life is a chain--destroy enough links and you perish. No responsible scientist will deny this first principle of deep ecology, which still provokes resistance from many political progressives.

"How can we talk about saving the trees when we can't even save all the children?" a Belgian writer anguished at one environmental summit. American eco-theorist Kirkpatrick Sale, exasperated, answered, "If we don't try to save the trees before we can save all the children, we'll never save either."

In T.C. Boyle's novel A Friend of the Earth, his ecoteur protagonist, Tyrone Tierwater, marches to a more radical Green mantra: "To be a friend of the earth you have to be an enemy of the people."

No Green Party will ever earn a working plurality with that motto on its banner. Legislators court political disaster with the mildest rhetoric that attempts to balance the future of whales and rain forests against the human "right" to uninhibited reproduction. American politicians pander to zealots of the misnamed Right to Life movement and service them with gross displays of socially irresponsible policy. Any hopes for moderation or even cautious mediocrity from George W. Bush were dashed within the first few days of his presidency, when he cut off $425 million in U.S. aid to international family planning organizations--an act of such staggering stupidity, cynicism and political expediency that in a slightly saner world it might even eclipse the amazing Clintons and their pardon-mongering.

(Chronically misguided by the media's conviction that one obvious scandal is more lucrative than a thousand illuminating editorials, the public is seldom exposed to an environmentalist's comparison of the first two presidents of the third millennium: An incurably arrogant and corrupt individual who wasted many of his enlightened intentions--Green and otherwise--has been succeeded by an amiable cipher with close family ties to the Four Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse.)

And so the crew multiplies while the good ship sinks, and there are no lifeboats on this voyage. There's no vacuum cleaner big enough to cleanse the continents when the human biomass has all but smothered them, no planet warden to plug it in.

But blame for the earth's critical condition does not distribute evenly among the swarming nations of man. The United States, home to 4 percent of the human race, is responsible for 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that's the main cause of global warming. Smaller nations are perpetually outraged by America's stubborn addiction to fossil fuels and inefficient automobiles. Now they're dealing with a White House dominated by Texas oilmen ready to convert Alaska into a giant gas pump for six more years driving $50,000 SUVs. The stock Republican response to environmental crisis is to beat the bushes (no pun) for pliable scientists who can be enticed to disagree with the consensus. The same week that a panel of the world's top environmental scientists issued a dire U.N. report that global warming is real, well-advanced, human-caused and likely to kill millions within a few decades, the Bush administration secured a delay in the international negotiations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And for good measure proposed a 22 percent budget cut for the Energy Department's fuel efficiency and renewable fuels program--a clear signal that oil companies now dictate Washington's energy policy.

A week later the president reneged on his promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Even America's closest allies were appalled. An indignant editorialist for Britain's Guardian put it succinctly:

"The collapse of the United Nations negotiations on climate change at the Hague is a moment of inexcusable shame for the few nations, led by America, who refused to change their polluting habits for the sake of the long-term survival of the world."

Strong words, and not unjust. God-blessed America, accustomed to thinking of itself as the fortress of democracy and the favored citadel of the Lord's anointed, doesn't take kindly to the idea that it harbors the most lethal concentration of the earth's most lethal species. Our swinish character is symbolized by the gas hogs we drive, and now even more grotesquely by our epidemic of obesity. In a single decade, obesity has jumped 57 percent in America; a fifth of the population is now classified as obese, 60 percent as obese or overweight. Among children obesity has more than doubled since 1980. One in four American children is clinically obese, with corresponding increases in diabetes, hypertension and cardiac arrest among young adults.

Americans are literally as well as figuratively eating the earth. With at least a billion people starving or malnourished and half the world's population subsisting on less than $2 per day, it's surprising that anti-Americans don't point to the American population itself as the earth's greatest untapped supply of protein. If we continue to bloat, I can't imagine what else we'll be good for.

By 2050 there will be 9 billion human beings--one growth model claims 11 billion--90 percent of them in poor nations. Yet our president sabotages family planning in the Third World, and our darling children grow ever fatter, ever more plump and tempting as Africa's (and Asia's and South America's) children grow thinner.

Unless our political machinery disentangles itself from benighted pressure groups and ravenous conglomerates--faint hope indeed--the planet we leave to our inflated children will be so hot, crowded, polluted and barren that no living creature would dwell here by choice. As the ice caps melt, continents will be half-flooded and swept by outrageous storms. The concept of hell will be obsolete, even for the fundamentalists, because no one will be able to imagine anyplace worse than home.

In A Friend of the Earth, which doesn't read at all like science fiction, T.C. Boyle sets these desperate last days in 2025, when many of us and most of our children would still be living. The best current science is more conservative, but no reliable source offers us more than a century at the current rates of population growth, global warming, resource depletion and mass extinctions of species.

Is this, then, the final issue of Genesis 1:28, of our "dominion ... over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"?

Where's the preacher who takes as his text Jeremiah 9:10?:

"For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation, because they are burned up, so that none can pass through them; neither can men hear the voice of the cattle: both the fowl of the heavens and the beast are fled; they are gone."

Empty of wild animals, stripped of most of its forests and wild places, this earth, this once sublime and nurturing bio-paradise becomes a grim holding pen--a subway platform for the A-Train to oblivion. And still the ingenious monkey who engineered its extinction refuses to accept responsibility. Blindness and selfishness on such a cosmic scale seem inconceivable unless you truly understand market capitalism, which incorporates humanity's first principles of groundless optimism and strategic denial.

Where all nature has been supplanted by human nature, there's a subtle loss of spirit, of clarity, as if the daylight itself has been filtered and diminished. If what now passes for entertainment and even communication strikes you as alien, violent and repugnant, consider this quote from a letter written by Hannah Arendt:

"Culture is always cultivated nature. ... If nature is dead, culture will die too, together with all the artifacts of our civilization." EndBlock

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