The Population Bomb, written by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, in 1968, predicted that overpopulation-induced global famines would boil up well before the end of the 20th Century. At the time Earth had 3.5 billion inhabitants. Since then population has doubled, to 7.8 billion. While there have been localized deprivations, in Cambodia and North Korea, and many people subsist on just a single daily meal – more during the present pandemic – fifty years later the foretold fam-demic has yet to occur.
We humans have proven to be clever monkeys, expanding and intensifying agriculture to meet the needs of ever more mouths. When starvation occurs it’s almost never the result of too little food, but because access to it has been blocked, by war or bizarre government behaviors. In addition to supporting multiple repasts a day, plus snacks, for most of us, over the past two hundred years we’ve vastly improved our material lot. In 1820 a tiny elite lived almost as well as the average San Franciscan does today, with everyone else mired in unimaginable poverty. Since then the share of extremely poor people has steadily declined.
In 1950 two-thirds of the world’s population subsisted on the equivalent of less than two bucks a day. Life was a relentless struggle with hunger and physical maladies. When the sun set it was dark, electric light an unaffordable luxury. In the United States 29 out of 1,000 babies died. Those who survived could expect to live 68 years.
Last year fewer than one out of ten Earthlings scraped by on the equivalent of just $2 a day or less. American infant mortality rate had dropped to six out of 1,000, while average life expectancy ballooned by more than 10 years, to 79.
This extraordinary growth in health and wealth has come at a cost, though. Social connections have frayed, as people dispersed to single-family homes or solo apartments and replaced communal gatherings with single-serving consumption of media. Our relationship with time was bent by the 17th Century invention of the clock, and then essentially mechanized by ensuing industrialization. Ancient, comforting and grounding seasonal and spiritual rhythms have been largely replaced with commercially televised holy days. Things happen faster; our attention spans clipped short. Youth is fetishized; the elderly closeted into parking lots of death.
Ecosystems have been bludgeoned to death. Species extinction rates accelerated at the same time economic growth started to pop in the 19th Century. The oceans are now saran wrapped with plastic pieces, tiny and large. Any adult can recall verdant fields, wetlands, and forests, now buried under what’s called progress.
It is hard not to see the last two years as a metaphor for nature’s pained, angry roar or even death rattle. Wildfires have consumed large chunks of Australia and California, forcing people into electrical outage darkness reminiscent of a century ago. A “megadrought” appears to be emerging, leavened with regular extreme worldwide heat waves. And there’s the present pandemic, which has killed more than one-third of a million people worldwide and chased much of the population inside. Global climate and disease cycles substantially reinforced or created by human behavior has turned the eco-system cudgel on us.
Some embrace this mix of blessings as totally worth it. Vastly reduced risks of baby death, with an additional decade of life, lived by most far more comfortably than our great grandparents, in exchange for even the complete annihilation of rainforests and coral reefs is a tradeoff well worth making.
It’s possible, though, that we can retain our health and a chunk of our wealth – especially if it’s measured differently and spread more evenly – without having to throw away nourishing social-cultural-spiritual lives and eco-systems. Healthy house arrest has reminded us of things that matter, things that don’t. Working at home is a blessing for many, recreating domestic closeness that dissipated with the rise of the nuclear family. Sheltering is made more peaceful when extended kin, comrades and friendly neighbors are within walking distance, able to easily gather – even if masked and an arm’s length away – to laugh about life.
Nurturing these types of clusters will make us happier. It’ll also seed conditions for thriving neighborhood merchant communities, creating comfortable jobs for those whose occupations require leaving home. Formal and informal cottage industries – booze purveyors turned into hand sanitizer producers, with a shot on the side; bag manufacturers sewing face masks along with the cases to carry them in; 3D maker labs manufacturing shoes and household goods out of garages; backyard “victory” gardens; families baking bread, mixing spices and distributing homemade chicken soup, the bird harvested from the community grange – can repatriate extended, distended, supply chains.
We can’t turn back time and wouldn’t want to if we could. But we can re-energize our relationship with it. During shelter-in-place the days of the week blurred; sleep patterns changed. On many nights, applause broke out a 7 p.m., reminiscent of church bells ringing, a call to prayer, deep gratitude for keeping us safe. Liberated from centuries-old obsolete subsistence agricultural and industrial patterns, we’re free to reimagine time, to recreate grounding spells tied to work, rest, contemplation, community, and family.
Working-in-or-near-place reduces the need for motorized travel, lowering polluting air emissions, muffling human-induced climate change. Public health lockdowns triggered global reductions in air pollution; particulate matter emissions declined by upwards of two-thirds in cities throughout world. The air is crisp, colors stunning.
During shelter-in-place my family received multiple gifts, dropped off without adieu: homemade cookies, donuts, and granola. Coffee purchased from a friend’s favorite small roastery. We met neighbors, distance-mingled at block parties. We too engaged in spontaneous acts of generosity, the giving far more satisfying than the receiving.
Kindness reverberating throughout the land: artists provided with local government stipends, the unemployed made eligible for federally enlarged weekly payments. The human impulse to help one another flourished during these hard times. We should make this kind consciousness, more often muffled by our capitalistic impulses, our dominate paradigm. No one need go to bed hungry, worried that they can’t afford to see a doctor, or won’t be able to access opportunities to be educated and productive.
There’s a better world around the corner. We just need to create it.