Pushing the Limits

Until we find a new habitable world, we are stuck on this planet, so it would be handy to learn how to live and thrive on this one. Thrive, as in improving security, well-being, quality of life, and giving everyone equal opportunities to learn and express themselves to their full potential. However, nowadays, “thrive” is easily confused with constantly increasing numbers.

There is one huge problem with increasing numbers in a Petrie dish, as each object occupies some volume, regardless of how small it is. Eventually, by increasing numbers, we will run out of the space.

Oddly enough, humans do not fill a lot of space, in terms of our body size. If the entire human race would gather in one square field and stand shoulder-to-shoulder, that square would be 27 km * 27 km (729 km2), which is not a whole lot, considering the size of the planet. But, in this arrangement, no one could move; we could just stand there and do nothing.

In a more operational, active mode, we require more — much more. We need air to breed, land to move, habitats to protect us from the elements, food to eat, and much more, and each of these needs requires space. Plants and algae that convert CO2 back to oxygen, allowing us to breed, require space as well. Crops and animals we grow for our dietary needs require a portion of land and water, as well. Everything adds up quickly.

For each biological species, it is possible to calculate the maximum population size the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment. This maximum number is called “carrying capacity.”

It is possible to calculate the carrying capacity of the Earth in regards to humans, but that number largely depends on the combined habits of the global population.

    For instance, to feed a single person, in regards to type of diet, the following space is required:*1
  • 1/6 acres – vegan diet
  • 1/2 acres – vegetarian (dairy and eggs)
  • 3 acres of land – meat (red, white), dairy, and eggs

With the same amount of land we need to feed one omnivore, we can feed 18 vegans, increasing the carrying capacity 18 times. Also, having better agricultural techniques, irrigation, and plant management can increase the yield we get from those fields.

The question is: should we do it?
Should we live on this planet with maximum population size?

Humans, with their brains, have risen to the top of the food chain. At the same time, however, with our increasing numbers, we are making a huge, detrimental impact on the environment.

We have not yet fully understood all the nature’s cycles, importance of biodiversity, and interconnections between different organisms; while acting carelessly we have destroyed their habitats and directly caused extinction of many.

We are terrible at learning lessons; we fail to act beyond our selfish needs, and we fail to act intelligently on a global scale. Even by raising the topic of population growth, many will start screaming about the violation of human rights and freedoms, eugenics, Malthusianism, planned depopulation, etc., giving the overall topic a negative connotation and preventing a much-needed debate.

Somehow, collectively, we are failing to see that the human population cannot grow anymore, and the reason is simple: with this attitude, we are growing straight into our graves, at least for a majority of the population.

The conclusion of many studies about global warming is that, in order to slow it down, we should stop eating meat, which will lead to reduced emissions of methane. But, that also means reducing the numbers of lots of domestic animals, which would increase the carrying capacity for human species and buy us more time. But, maybe, we do not need more time, as an ever-increasing carrying capacity for humans on this planet is not the solution.

Some calculations are saying that, if we would all become vegans, we would have food for 15 billion people. But should we do that?
Should we allow ourselves to double the current population number?

In India, 40% of the population is already vegetarian*3, but did that help them manage their numbers? No, it did not.

Since the Second World War, India’s population has sharply risen from 400Million to 1.3 billion.*2 In just 50 years, they more than tripled their population number.

Did being vegetarian prevent them from multiplying? No, they just filled the available space.

Has being vegetarian stopped them from cutting down all the forests and killing all the wildlife?
No, it did not; in fact, deforestation is becoming a huge problem in India.

They, as everyone else in that sense, will unfortunately continue to multiply. With a lack of an any designed population management approach, humans will multiply at an unsustainable rate, until natural forces, famines, drought, natural catastrophes, and diseases take their toll.

For quite some time, we have been driving our car at a constantly-increasing speed. Every time we reach the maximum, we find new ways to drive even faster, unaware that our tires are flat, brakes are not working properly, handles are missing, hull is falling apart, and above all — we do not know how to drive. If anything jumps in front of us, we are done.

The simple fact of life on a finite planet is that the larger the population is, the sooner it will run into large-scale population reduction. The question is whether we feel we are lucky enough to survive, so that we can have the luxury of not doing anything.

We do not need more time; we need to learn how to live sustainably, how to manage constant population numbers that will also allow other beings to live and thrive and evolve, as diversity is the key to our long-term survival.

When considering ways to solve problems, people are very creative, and, as the current economic system requires population growth to maintain sustainability, the only thing we can impact is the carrying capacity of the planet. It is no surprise that most of our thinking has been dedicated to finding new ways to increase this capacity.

Among many ideas, there are some pretty wild ones: genetically modifying humans to be shorter; changing human vision, so we could see during the night and therefore save electricity; or introducing meat allergies to reduce meat consumption, which largely impacts methane emission, energy, and water consumption worldwide *5. As changing human DNA is largely controversial, scientists usually turn to modifying the DNA *6 of those who do not have their own voice to protest. Scientists also are working on advanced genetic tools to boost crop yields and feed billions more people.

This is exactly what is wrong with the system: we are trying to find ways to increase carrying capacity, but what we really need is to abandon that entire concept. We should start looking into ways to manage the population for the long-term, at a sustainable number, until we find another habitable planet.

Finding another planet would be convenient, as it would also give us ability to create a “backup” for life on Earth, in the case of some unforeseen interstellar event, but for now we have only this one.

Although active population control of humans sounds like an idea that limits our freedom, we have to realise that we are not simple animals anymore; if we want to act intelligently, we need to act intelligently in every aspect of our lives. It is not possible to be both a civilised intelligent being in some aspects — actively controlling nature and other beings — and then, in some other aspects, act like lower animals, because that is something we do not like to talk about or rationalise, as it suits us better.

If we want to act like the other animals, then we need to accept the consequences without complaining, regardless of that it is: life or death. Living like the other animals has many pros: it is possible to live freely and do whatever we want, without the restraints of society or laws, but, living like this also means a scarcity of fresh water, food, or shelter. It also means living a life without health care or compassion for those who are starving or for elderly people who cannot work anymore, like many ancient tribes did a long time ago *4. Whatever nature brings us, we have to accept it without complaining. Animals do not complain about their circumstances; in order to be consistent we shouldn’t either.

Half a century ago, we did not have the means to create mathematical models that would simulate large populations and predict growth or decline, but, back then, we also did not have the problems we have now. Nowadays, when we have those issues, we also have the necessary computing power and technology to solve those problems. It should not be difficult to simulate mathematical models that would give us the best way to control population growth by varying the numbers of people born in combination with all other necessary variables, so that the pressure of an aging population would not have an impact on the well-being of the overall population.

First, we need to fix a system that inherently is causing population growth, and this can be fixed only by design.

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