The Story of Unsustainable Us

The Neolithic Revolution drew the curtain back for our species’ dramatic development and our rather limited run since has been called the Anthropocene. That is the epoc of human impact. Some say the age of substantial human impact started only recently, with the advent of nuclear fission, while others argue that the Industrial Age is the beginning (of the end). Regardless, the seeds of our swan song performance were planted with the first Stone Age agricultural attempts. That’s where the story begins.

While we were still paleolithic nomads, we understood for perhaps a couple hundred thousand years that only the right size clan meant sustainability. Too few and our tribe could fizzle out for want of enough able-bodied members skilled in leadership, hunting, gathering or nurturing. Too large and our defensible territory wouldn’t be able to support our resource needs. The tribal elders held the sanctioning authority over population growth to maintain sustainability. So, earliest patheolithic peoples lived in sync with other species within their own limited territory.

Since we first decided to domesticate animals, plant crops and settle down about 12,000 years ago we haven’t really practiced any truly sustainable habits. It could be argued that the “family farm” model that persisted into the mid-20th century was nearly self-sufficient and it could have been fairly sustainable, except for the fatal flaw of a single story element that goes back to the beginning. From the book of Genesis (and other ancient myths) we have been plagued by a basic math problem. Our story tellers invented the “divine” consecration to “…be fruitful and multiply”. In practice, unregulated procreation was ordained. The blessing on our fecundity was our curse.

Large families on the farmstead were an asset for operation. The assets (children) became liabilities, however, at the time the farmland was passed to the next generation. The youngest left the farm, and mostly moved to cities. Cities are places of concentrated consumption and waste, because that’s what humans do, whether concentrated or not.

Another fabled curse we’ve endured is a matched pair of flaws and is equally ancient: fear and greed. If a village has stores of food, the insecurity of adequately defending them also inspires an insatiable quest for abundance. Abundance is like insurance,you can’t have too much, right? Of course you can and that’s called waste. Humans are wired to waste resources because of deep seated fear and greed.

We could have prospered in spite of our curses and gotten away with almost everything we habitually do if we could have just held our species number in check. There is a theoretical range of numbers for a sustainable number of humans on this little planet. One scientific estimate put it at only about 1.5 billion, but we blew by that number early in the last century and now we’re asking earth to support five times that threshold number.

The theoretical analyses of our species problems are becoming increasingly academic and practically-speaking, moot. Just one of the ramifications of dramatic overpopulation is that societies stop functioning well. Organized enforcement of strict policies become necessary, traditional social contracts get questioned, and current politics become divided over basic facts, so governments are dysfunctional and corrupt. The media headlines list the most meaningful and obvious ramifications of our dilemma, most notably climate news. We are burning ourselves out of our home.

Saying so out loud doesn’t seem to matter much to the planet. What might make a difference is being able to say what no one wants to hear: give up your dreams of having children. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it when I was ready to start a family. I’m glad my parents decided to have children and that I did and that my children had their children. None of us are part of a sustainable population, though, and my joy is now mixed with ample dread. We are typically human: we all buy too much, eat too much, throw away too much and burn too many hydrocarbons. We all dream big and wake up to suffer the consequences of big dreams.

If my extended family shared a planet with only one or two billion others, we’d all be in good shape. So would the atmosphere, the water, the soil and other species. Our societies would still function, and there would actually be abundance, but somewhere in this idyllic scenario there would be a governing policy of population control. That’s unimaginable, because our stories weren’t written that way. We authored an unsustainable story of ourselves. Can we change our story before the last chapter is written?

artist, musician, retired teacher, retired handyman. Not retired from writing..