For the Birds Radio Program: Population Growth: Excerpted from The Moth Snowstorm
In his extraordinary book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, Michael McCarthy minces no words about human population growth. Today I’ll read from one chapter, “The Singular Window.”
Let us set it out. Our world is under threat, as it has never been before, from a malady previous generations did not anticipate: the scale of the human enterprise. Down the centuries, in considering human affairs, our attention has been fixed on their direction, on the implausible, wondrous journey from the flint hand-axe to the moon, via literacy and medicine and the rule of law; gripped by the exhilarating course of the venture, we have not noticed its sheer dimensions creeping up on us. We have been the casual watchers of the waterlily pond, that celebrated pond where the lilies, barely noticeable at first, double in extent every day; they may take fifty days to cover half the surface, but we have not grasped the fact that to cover the remaining half, of course, then takes but a single day only.
This is the sudden headlong rush of exponential growth. It took us all by surprise. After the long unfolding of the human story, after all the millennia of history and of prehistory, it happened in a mere four decades, well within a single human lifetime, indeed within my own: between my teenage years and my middle years, between 1960 and 2000, the world’s population doubled, from 3 to 6 billion. (Then it added another billion in the next decade, and will grow by a further 3 billion in the four decades to come.) And not only did the numbers mushroom, in the poorer countries especially; consumption exploded in the richer nations as they grew richer still and the baby boomers, the luckiest generation who ever lived, lapped it up; and while population doubled, the world economy in the same period grew more than six times bigger. Looking back, this now seems much the most consequential historical event of the second half of the twentieth century, of more fundamental import even than the development and spread of nuclear weapons, or the retreat from empires, or the Arab–Israeli conflict, or the failure of the socialist project.
When did humans, creatures of the genus Homo, first begin to modify the world in a measurable way? Almost certainly when anatomically and behaviourally modern people, that is, members of the species Homo sapiens, emerged out of Africa some time perhaps around sixty thousand years ago, and began to spread eastwards across the world, to Asia, then down to Australasia, then back north-westwards into Europe, and finally over the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia into the Americas. Formidably advanced through their possession of language, they –we –displaced and almost certainly annihilated the earlier species of humans which had spread out of Africa long before them, Homo erectus in Asia and the Neanderthals in Europe (who may not have possessed fully developed speech); and while they were at it, they visited a similar fate on the enormous animals which, over millions of years, had everywhere evolved as the top layer of the mammal and marsupial fauna which we still possess today. We do not accord much imagining to these vanished behemoths. We should. It was a massacre unparalleled. By the end of the Pleistocene, the long epoch of the ice ages, whole continental guilds of great beasts had been extirpated by humans, by the hunter-gatherers, such as the Australian megafauna with its two-tonne wombat, diprotodon, or the megafauna of South America with its colossal ground sloths whose fossils Darwin found, or the megafauna of Eurasia with its giant Irish elk whose ten-feet wide and ten-feet high antlers make you gasp in surprise when you encounter them in the atrium of the biological sciences department at the University of Durham. No one really knows what happened, of course, and some palaeontologists believe changes in climate may have been responsible, but the most persuasive arguments strongly suggest that humans took them out; we did it. Twenty thousand, thirty, even forty thousand years ago, we were already transforming the world around us, we were destroying on a grand scale; and our populations were minuscule. What must be the effect, then, when not only has the technology for earth modification advanced, in our stirring journey upwards, from the hand-axe to the chainsaw, from the deer shoulder-blade to the bulldozer, from the fish-hook to the mile-long driftnet and from the throwing spear to the automatic rifle, but when we ourselves have undergone an upsurge in numbers which can only be described as gargantuan?
It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth, as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history. We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports; grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at [it, shitting on] it. Already more than half the rain-forests are gone, pesticide use has decimated wild flowers and the insect populations of farmland and rivers, the beds of the seas are deeply degraded and most of the fish stocks are at danger levels, the acidity of the ocean is steadily rising, coral reefs are under multiple assault, 40 billion tonnes of climate-changing carbon are loading the atmosphere every year and currently one-fifth, and rising, of all vertebrates –mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians –are threatened with extinction. Many are on the brink, if not already gone.
That was Michael McCarthy, and I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the birds.