The Problem of Population

“One should not mistake Malthus for nature.”  – Nietzsche

Ever hear of James Lovelock? If not, read this biography by John Gray in the New Statesman. Lovelock is an environmentalist who runs against the grain of conventional “green” thinking. He’s pro-nuclear-power, pro-fracking, and pro-city. He also thinks that the planet acts as a large comprehensive living organism, one that can correct for any imbalances to maintain equilibrium, like a dog shaking a flea out of its fur.

“It was during his time at Nasa that Lovelock had the first inklings of what would become the Gaia theory,” Gray explains, “according to which the earth is a planet that behaves like a living being, controlling its surface and atmosphere to keep the environment hospitable to life.”

As Gray also explains, Lovelock thinks we should use all available technologies to ease the descent, i.e. slow population growth until human numbers are within a sustainable range of carrying capacities. Lovelock even professes a certain kind of agreement with Malthus:

When I suggested to him that the perennially unfashionable Thomas Malthus may in the long run be shown to have been on the right track, he responded: “Yes, John, I agree strongly with you that rising population is probably the greatest danger. If we had stayed at Malthus’s numbers, one billion, there would be no climate problem.”

To say that Malthus’ answer to overpopulation isn’t exactly politically correct would be a gross understatement. As to Lovelock, he’s in quite a privileged position to not care about the effects of dumping toxic waste into the ground and water, having never gotten cancer or birth defects or other illnesses from it. Still, ridding environmentalism of its usual human-centrism is a worthwhile endeavor, and at least Lovelock recognizes the importance and volition of all members of each ecosystem (for example: he refused to burn the skin of rabbits for testing, and instead volunteered for the experiment himself).

Whether or not the Earth does correct for imbalances, it might be a worthwhile hypothetical exercise to wonder what kind of actions would be moral or even helpful if it were true that it does.



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