Thoughts About Population

Lately I've been thinking about the population explosion. It is apparent that we have a lot of people on the planet and more are arriving every day. All of our environmental problems are exacerbated by increased population. Our social structures are being strained to the maximum and gridlock and collapse are the order of the day. The stress of day to day living is causing an increase in poverty, crime, domestic violence, and job absenteeism.

It is easy to conclude a very pessimistic verdict for the human race. We are behaving like a cancer on the face of the planet, destroying the host which supports us in our uncontrolled growth.

But I don't want to accept so bleak a picture as the final and only verdict. I choose to believe that humanity is not an aberrant development of life evolution, a dead end, destined to a brief and consumptive part on this stage we call Earth. Instead, I choose to start with the idea that everything is unfolding exactly on schedule, toward some unknown conclusion, and then examine what assumptions must be change to support such a view.

One assumption which supports the dire world view is the evaluation of the world from the perspective of a human life time, encompassing at most a century or so. But if we shift our perspective to that of the evolution of life on the planet, so the we look at humanity as part of an unfolding drama spanning over 3 billion years, then a whole new picture appears.

The evolution of life on the planet has been one of increasing complexity of form and organization. At least two great organizational changes laid the foundation for the form we know as humanity. The first was a change from single celled life with no nucleus to cells with nuclear structure. The elements found within nucleated cells were once independent cells themselves, but the increased efficiency of a symbiotic structure, the first specialization and division of labor, provided a more efficient organizational form.

The second great change, multicelled organization, was of the same symbiotic nature. Once again, the efficiency of individuals working in harmony, allowing for specialization and division of labor, proved to be a powerful life form, which has transformed the surface of the planet. Humanity represents one of the more recent forms of organizing multiple nucleated cells. We, who think of ourselves as proud and independent individuals, are actually a massive collective of individual organisms, cells, which are themselves a collection of elements. When we are healthy, all these billions of individual elements work in complete harmony. Each is supplied according to its needs and each contributes according to its abilities. (Sound familiar?) On the other hand, when one part or group of parts begins to act out of harmony with the overall organism, we experience sickness and death.

This same kind of interaction is what is required if the human race is to survive on the planet. We are becoming aware of the interconnectivity of life. But the issue is how to make the jump from autonomous individuals to integrated harmony. In the case of the two previous jumps described above, the impetus to transform was the combined forces of population increase and resource depletion. Life was forced to evolve a more efficient form of organization. I suggest that the same thing is being acted out in our current dilemma.

One scenario for this evolutionary jump is presented in The Global Brain, by XXXXXX, which proposes that humanity is the evolving cortex of the living planet Earth. He points out that there are roughly the same number of neurons in the human cortex as there are humans on the planet today. Furthermore, the development of a human fetus from 8 weeks to 12 weeks involves an intense population increase in the neurons in the brain. From 12 weeks on, the population levels off and the rest of the physical development consists of interconnection between the neurons. Within human civilization we see that there is the beginning of a tapering off of the population increase and there is a profound increase in intercommunication. This is not conclusive proof of the emergence of a self conscious planet, but it is interesting speculation.

Another possibility is the concept of a critical mass of consciousness, such as The Hundredth Monkey. Certainly the phenomenon of critical mass is a powerful symbol of our times. When a sufficient quantity of refined material is pressed together with sufficient force, a fundamental transformation takes place. There has never been such a mass of human cortex as exists on the planet today. It is known that we use only a small part of our brain capacity, perhaps the jump to fuller utilization requires the kinds of pressure and stress that are manifesting today.

A third possibility involves the psychological conflict inherent in the individual contemplating infinity. Imagine the terror of the first self-conscious person trying to balance the simultaneous awareness of his finite sense of self and the vastness of the interconnected universe. The fear is a total loss of self into the infinite, a drop of rain falling into the ocean. The reaction is to cut my self off from the universe, which of course eliminates my context, and leaves me in a meaningless void. Civilization and cultural rules were set up to provide some framework of meaning, but they are shallow and unable to satisfy the deep hunger for harmony with nature. We see the dysfunctional results all around us. But since that first separation, we have expanded our numbers until there are billions of us trying to strike this balance of awareness between self and universe. Perhaps the mass of people are necessary to reduce the magnitude of this psychic burden to a level that is manageable for each individual.

There is ample evidence that such a transformation is taking place. Within the last century we have seen the development of psychology, the acceptance of a personal and collective subconscious, the explosion of self help and 12 step programs, and the changing of dysfunctional patterns that go back generations. These are profound changes which are all related to the relation between self and other, self and nature.

We are in unprecedented times. History is inadequate as a guide, for we are just now reaching planetary limits. All the old role models are bankrupt, foundering on the concept of absolute separation of elements in a world which is manifestly interconnected. But our fear and apprehension may only be manifestations of our limited perspective. What can a caterpillar know about butterflies? What does a chick experience when it has exhausted the resources of the yolk and has filled its egg to bursting, just before it cracks the shell and emerges to a whole new world of experience? We have no idea what is coming, which is scary, but the future evolution of life on Earth may have the same complexity and beauty as the world we love today. Perhaps we just need to trust life more.