Saturday, September 29, 2007

Early Draft, Science Essay #1

When there are too many deer, it’s easy. You shoot them. If too few natural predators – bearded men with rifles – can be found, you recruit some more. “State’s Next Hunters Sought; As Deer Season Nears, Experts Wonder if Future Herds Will Be Kept in Check,” a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel headline declared on Sept. 9.

By some accounts, it’s a good time to be a deer – food is abundant and winters mild. Some baby-boomers are growing too old to hunt, the Journal-Sentinel said, and new hunters are either too befuddled by the state’s tome of regulations or too soft to grab a rifle and thin out the herd. But make no mistake – the American Nordic male hasn’t gone metrosexual. Late autumn comes to Wisconsin with the understanding that life is going on hiatus. Men will be gone for the weekend. Not just NASCAR rednecks and construction workers, either – Madison lawyers, students and insurance salespeople. Liberals with guns. They simply haven’t shot enough deer.

But population excess is bad for deer and people. Too many deer cause too many car accidents; they eat too much foliage and spread disease too easily among their compressed ranks. Even someone unsure about taking an innocent animal’s life for sport, like Eric Forman in a “That 70’s Show” episode, has an extra push besides the cultural pressure of his father’s hand. Conservation runs deep in Wisconsin; many natives have grown up spending their holidays “up north,” as cabins in the deep Northwoods.

Humans take a “positive” approach to deer population, in the words of Thomas Malthus, the combination political economist and theologian of Britain circa 1800 and the intellectual godfather of human population anxiety. He’d have been hard pressed to pick a bigger misnomer than “positive,” however – by that he meant war, disease, famine and any number of things that kill someone once they’re already alive.

Say what you want about the ills of civilization; if nothing else, it keeps us from using “positive” solutions on one another, usually. But humanity has to confront the population boom in some manner. You may have heard some of the facts and figures by now. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world population on October 1 to be 6,621,694,717. Our head count increases 20 million by the end of the year. Presuming good health or good medicine sustains me until 2050, the United Nations projects I’ll be sharing the good ship Earth with more than 9 billion fellows.

In 1800, when Malthus was 34 and two years after he published the essay that made him famous, fewer than a billion people scattered across the surface of the Earth. Small wonder that some scoffed at him as a doomsday prophet – a bunch of two-legged mammals still building wooden ships looked like a long shot to move beyond the limits of a lush and large world. Actually, Malthus’ point was a pretty simple one: the Earth doesn’t get any bigger, so our ability to grow food improves only incrementally. But population can boom in a big damn hurry, because as Malthus notes in his prudish prose, “the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” His metrics have been his critical undoing in some circles; without accounting for the 20th century revolution in agricultural production he predicted a worldwide famine, even in industrial countries, that has not occurred.

Skeptics have their moment to gloat, but being right about this particular item doesn’t get humanity out of the woods. Billions of sedentary vegetarians might be able to get along in perfect harmony with the Earth. However, that is not our situation. European and American countries, despite being a minority in global population, have managed to contribute much more than their share to global pollution and resource depletion. Ecological-interest web sites like and American Public Media’s “Consumer Consequences” already calculate that a world-full of people living the American lifestyle would need 4 or 5 earths to keep it going. With much more heavily populated countries like China and India coming into their industrial own, it’s an uncertain picture. For some, it’s no big deal – humans may be bound by the same finite Earth and laws of physics as deer and bugs and bacteria, but our big brains saved us from Malthus’ catastrophe once and they can do it again. Maybe they’re right. But one thing is pretty clear: our manifold problems would be greatly lessened if there were fewer of us.

The human race has taken kicks to the ego before. Science lifted the earth from its perch at galactic center. It dashed humans’ descent from the divine -- natural selection, given a different palate of happenstance, would have brought forth something totally different than man. But population control, that humans need to be thinned out like the deer, is a step further than many people are willing to consider. After people succeeding so completely at God’s command to go forth and multiply, the last shot at our specialness is that the bloodline and birthright – children – threaten their own prosperity before they’ve even been born.

It has to be with dignity, which is what’s it’s been lacking. The popular images or mental pictures of population control tend to be draconian – forced sterilization on the very extreme of disgust, or less abhorrent but still off-putting, the generation of Chinese people with no practical experience of the world “sibling.” The language is riddled with overtones of stopping, but often with overtones of state control or shudders of morality. Malthus himself opposed the use of contraceptives even in marriage because it violated “the mores of his time,” according to scholar James Huzel. Two centuries later President George W. Bush pursues a policy of encouraging abstinence in Africa, which has the world’s highest birth rate, in response to the mores of his time.

Women who are allowed to work have fewer children. Families with health care, who can be more certain that the children they have will survive, have fewer of them. There are options out there, some of which probably haven’t been thought of yet. They simply involve looking past the mores of your time.

People aren’t deer. Show some dignity.

1 comment:

Elissa said...

You're right: it's definitely not as bad as I imagined it could have been (given the topic "deer hunting and human population control").