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The Economy of Nature and the Ecology of Man

Bill Meredith

"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."
Phillips Brooks, 1868.  Psalm 90.

(Dec, 2011) It is a strange feeling to realize that international politics are controlling your life, but that is what happened to me in 1960. Three years earlier, Russia had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and our government realized that the country was not producing enough scientists and engineers. The National Science Foundation started giving grants to college teachers to improve and update their education, and I received one of those grants to attend a six-week program at the University of Colorado. There were field trips and intensive lectures by nationally known ecologists, but the most influential thing for me was the opportunity to get together and talk to these people informally each evening. I did not realize it at the time, but that was to become the first step toward my doctoral studies.

Some of the lecturers were formal in personality, even to the point of being stuffy; others were so informal they could have been mistaken for tourists who had wandered in by accident. One of the oddest was Marston Bates, who taught the unit on Human Ecology. He had the unusual background of both a Master of Arts and a Ph. D in Zoology from Harvard. He had made his reputation studying the mosquitoes that transmit yellow fever in Columbia, where he had lived among the natives for many years, and he looked like he might have just arrived from there that morning. His usual garb consisted of a t-shirt, shorts and sandals; the frame of his glasses was mended with adhesive tape, and combing his hair was not high on his list of priorities. If it had been a decade later, he would have been called a hippie, but back then we thought of him as eccentric. He had just published a book called The Forest and the Sea: the Economy of Nature and the Ecology of Man, which became an influential force in the ecology movement of the ‘60s. His lectures were somewhat rambling, but each evening he would sit with the group and talk for hours about applying ecological principles to practical problems. It was those sessions, more than anything else, that made me aware that we humans are subject to the same laws of nature as all other organisms.

Dr. Bates was concerned with the growth of the human population in the ecosystem, which he compared to the growth of malignant tumor cells in an organism. Man, he wrote, is acting like a cancer on the biosphere: "The multiplication of human numbers certainly seems wild and uncontrolled... four million a month - the equivalent of the population of Chicago. We seem to be doing all right at the moment; but if you could ask cancer cells, I suspect they would think they were doing fine too. But when the organism dies, so do they; and for our own, selfish, practical, utilitarian reasons, I think we should be careful about how we influence the rest of the ecosystem."

"The moment" Bates referred to was 1960, and the world’s population then was about 3 billion. Today, in 2011, the U. N. population agency estimates that there are about three births each second, which comes to nearly 8 million a month. It is estimated that the total passed 7 billion on October 31. Each time another billion is added, the U. N. calls attention to the event by designating a child born wherever the Secretary General happened to be on that day as the honorary next-billionth person. This year it was a girl, Danica Camacho, born in the Phillipines.

At first glance it seems arbitrary, even a bit silly, to designate someone as Number Seven-Billion; nobody can really comprehend a number that large. But it does give the matter a human dimension, for everyone who has held a newborn baby has had the sensation of being present at a miracle. Each time I held a new grandchild, that line from the Christmas carol about hopes and fears ran through my mind. Whether it was sleeping or crying at the top of its lungs, I could imagine it growing up strong and healthy and doing great things; but simultaneously, I was aware of all the things that could go wrong if just one of its 30,000 genes didn’t work. I know an obstetrician who wrote a poem about delivering a beautiful baby with one nose, one mouth, two eyes, two ears, ten fingers, ten toes… and no kidneys, and he had to tell the mother her perfect child was going to die.

Counting people has always been important to governments; they need to know how many citizens are available to pay taxes, build pyramids, serve in armies, and, more recently, to demand benefits. The reason Christ was born in that stable in Bethlehem instead of in Mary’s bed in their own house was that the Roman Emperor required each man to be present in the town of his birth for a census. No one really knows what the world’s population was at that time, but estimates suggest that if the United Nations had existed then, Christ might have been the honorary 300 millionth person. Over the next 1300 years, the population grew slowly; birth rates were high, but deaths from famine, war and disease kept it in check. It is estimated that in 1350, after the Black Death epidemic, the population was only 370 million. Then a growth spurt began, which I can grasp only by putting myself in the picture. The population reached one billion around 1800, the year my great-great grandfather, William Meredith, came to America from Wales. It passed two billion in 1927, five years before my birth. I saw it reach 3 billion in 1960, four billion in 1975, five billion in 1987, and six billion in 1999 (a year after my retirement). And then Danica Camacho arrived this year. So after taking the whole span of human history to reach two billion, the world’s population has more than tripled in my lifetime.

Little Danica made the front page of the Washington Post, and journalists wrote about the significance of her birth for a few days; but then our attention returned to unemployment numbers, political debates, the failure of the supercommittee, the national debt, the economy of Greece, the revolution in Syria, famine in Africa, floods in Bangladesh, the emergence of China, …and on and on. These are all important matters, but somehow the politicians and policy makers are unable to see that the root cause of all of them is the Ecology of Man. There are already more people than the earth’s ecosystem can support, and another billion will be here before my 90th birthday.

It is a cruel dilemma, and again it appears most clearly in personal terms. To achieve a stable population, each couple should have two children. I have three, and instead of the ideal projection of four grandchildren, I have six. I understand the mathematical consequences, but which child and which two grandchildren would I give up in order to achieve a stable population? I can answer in less than a millisecond: none of them. So I have framed a question that I cannot answer. Meanwhile, it is December; another year is almost gone, and that holiday based on the birth of a child is approaching. As Pogo said, "The gentle journey wanders on." Maybe if I concentrate on that child for the next few weeks, an answer will come. Merry Christmas.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith