Human behavior is controlled by habits. These are short routines with which we automatically direct our inner thoughts and outer actions. We learn these habits as part of growing up; they are very resistant to change and generally are best controlled by controlling the environments we place ourselves within. This of course is a habit also, but there are occasional moments of consciousness of what we are doing when we can voluntarily change our future behavior. However, these moments are rare and are usually associated with a complete change of circumstance, and pain if we continue what we were previously doing.
Whole societies, and humanity itself, are a vast collection of habitual responses to perceived inputs. Generally, this all works out for the maintenance of people and their institutions, but in the modern world we approaching some inescapable limits to which we will be forced to respond. For example, we have clearly exceeded the permanent carrying capacity of the Earth, by consuming quantities of one-time-use materials for which there is no substitute. It took natural processes millions of years to create the coal, oil and gas that we have consumed half of in the last one hundred years. Our food supply is largely dependent upon these mineral energy sources for their creation, and when they are gone most of the food supply they provide will also be gone. When the food supply drops to ten percent of the present supply the population will also drop to ten percent of its present size. If we cultivate the land as done back in 1600, our population would drop from seven billion to one billion. Fortunately we have better equipment and more productive crops but, unfortunately, the land itself has been mined of nutrients, so its natural productivity would be much less. Also, much soil has been washed away into the sea by erosion, so there is less land to cultivate than there used to be. People will not know what the food carrying capacity of the Earth actually is until all these factors are in play, but in about two hundred years these will be known and adaptations will have been made. That seems like a very long time, certainly much longer than we will live, but it is a very short time when measured by historical standards.
The time of population collapse will occur before that date, because when food starts running out there will be social turmoil such as we have never witnessed, and so we have no conception how our social institutions will hold up. But it seems unlikely that population reduction will be an orderly process controlled by human laws. I am not recommending population restrictions at the present time, because it is obvious that we have already overshot Earth’s carrying capacity and with a life expectancy of seventy plus years people already alive will witness the end of abundance and the days not just of scarcity but years of near absence of necessities. Even if there was not a single new child born for ten years this collapse will be upon us because the people already alive will eat up all of the consumables. It is a grim picture, and I hope I am wrong, but with the population already existing able to consume what remains, the hope of an orderly solution seems forlorn, and with the population still doubling in forty years and refusing to even consider it as a problem, let alone confront the issue, there seems little reason to expect anything but nature to intervene and solve the problem of human success and excess.
The basic problem is that individuals have been seeing humanity’s problems as a ramped-up example of personal problems. They have poisoned their habits of thinking into a mind set where there will be solutions found to these problems, because their experience has shown that, in a well ordered society, problems always have a fix. Up until 1800, when Malthus was developing his famous population theory, humans had been living in a dynamic balance where periodic famines weakened the population and then the people succumbed to diseases which were usually accommodated to by a healthy body. Then with diseased people around to form a reservoir for the various diseases to sustain themselves, there would be a great die off from the period of exhaustion and loss of spiritual vigor. Then as things got better the survivors would repopulate the land as quickly as possible, before some other group of people came in and took over.
Periodic famine is a natural condition, but it’s one which Americans haven’t even come close to since 1816, the year without a summer. The world in 2011 has such good food distribution systems that the only famines have been essentially war caused, a way of killing opponents, and the victims might be considered battle causalities. But in a large self-contained literate culture there are written records of numerous famines. One emperor was quoted as saying, “The worst thing about being Emperor is that during a famine, I must decide which large group of good people among my subjects are to get food and which must be left to starve.”
The poison in modern thinking is that everyone has the absolute right to have as many children as they want, and everyone has the absolute right to all the food they want. If that were up to a vote I would be for it, but Mother Nature says no. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous consultation with his cabinet, where they all voted against some proposal. “Twelve Nays one Yea, the Yeas have it.” In this case with Mother Nature standing in for Lincoln, it would be
“Seven billion Yeas and one Nay, the nays have it.”