|II. Overpopulation: Defeat of the Lernean Hydra
Myth and Introduction
No more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.
—1,600 scientists, including half of the living Nobel laureates in science, in a 1992 declaration to the world. (Within 17 years of this declaration, the world population had grown by 1.3 billion, equivalent to the population of China.)
The ancient Greeks usually depicted the Hydra as having an amorphous squid-like body from which sprang a varying number of tentacles. Each of the tentacles ended with a repulsive snake-like head that hissed breath so deadly it would kill anyone foolish enough to approach. Hercules’ stepmother Hera raised this multi-headed creature under a sycamore tree at the spring near the town of Lerna. The Hydra was so unappealing that even its surrogate mother could not love it. After the slithery baby beast had grown into an even more loathsome adult, it took residence in a cave near the spring. Soon thereafter, it became a public nuisance by feasting at will on all living things in the region. Stories about the Hydra eventually reached King Eurystheus in Mycenae. Eurystheus consulted with Hera, who gleefully suggested the king order Hercules to battle the Hydra for his next labor.
Hercules accepted his duty without complaint. Still clad in the impervious hide of the Nemean lion, he proceeded to Lerna, where he discovered a midden of half-eaten corpses marking the entrance to the Hydra’s lair. Hercules fired arrows into the cave to drive out the Hydra. As soon as the beast emerged, Hercules caught a whiff of its breath and instantly fainted into a fennel bush. Fortuitously, the aromatic smell of fennel immediately revived him. Hercules realized the power of the plant and grabbed a handful of the seeds to eat. Thus fortified, he leapt at the beast with his axe. He sliced off several heads, but retreated when he saw that two new heads sprang forth for every one that he cut off. While Hercules ate more fennel seeds and masticated over what to do next, Hera was watching and scheming from Olympus. She sent a giant crab named Cancer to sneak up and bite Hercules on the heel, thus forcing him to do battle with the crab while the Hydra grew a few more heads. Hercules defeated Cancer but the crab still earned a place in the zodiac.
This problem of the multiplying heads rather vexed Hercules, but he got an idea. He called out for one of his nephews to bring a burning torch. Without thinking it through, his nephew set a tree on fire and then broke off a burning branch. As the nephew brought him the torch, the fire spread from the tree and a whole forest was destroyed. Hercules, armed with the axe in one hand and the torch in the other, went back into battle against the Hydra. After the heads were sliced off, Hercules used the torch to cauterize the stumps, thus preventing the heads from growing back. The Hydra was ultimately defeated when the hero cut off its central head and buried it under a rock. Hera boiled with anger from the Olympian heights while Hercules calmly collected the blood of the Hydra to use later as poison for the tips of his arrows.
On a cold, rainy December day, I retraced the journey of Hercules from Nemea, where he defeated the ferocious lion, to the ruin of the storm-battered citadel at Mycenae. It was here that Eurystheus is said to have given Hercules his marching orders. After the defeat of the Nemean lion, Hercules had the impervious lion skin for protection as he entered the palace to receive his orders from the king. As for me, I had a borrowed umbrella with a broken rib that offered scant protection from a torrential rain that belied every tourist poster I had ever seen of Greece.
I approached the three-thousand-year-old citadel and its imposing stone gate, which was still topped with a lintel stone bearing two lions. Small waterfalls cascaded over the ancient stone steps and swirled around my sodden shoes as I explored the ruins. A gust turned the umbrella inside out and a few more ribs broke. As the wind blew, and the clouds swirled around me, the elements seemed to grow more substantive than the stones, and the myth began to come alive. I thought about the spineless Eurystheus, the last and most dishonored king of a mythological dynasty founded by Perseus. I also thought of our hero trudging through his labors, like Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, on his way to his apotheosis.
I returned the dripping, broken wreckage of the umbrella to the frowning ticket saleswoman and made a run for the rental car. Continuing to follow the steps of Hercules on that sodden day, I arrived in Lerna hungry enough to eat a Hydra. I pulled up to the only place in town where I could get food. The sad, miserable little Maruti automobile shook like a wet dog as it shuddered to a stop. I splashed across a puddle paved with dead sycamore leaves and ducked into an austere, under-heated café. At a dimly lit table in the corner sat huddled together the only other patrons, a group of four men in dark coats. They were drinking beer and seemed to be plotting a conspiracy. There was only one dish on the menu. The oil-soaked plate of cold spaghetti was almost instantly produced, as if they had been saving it all day for the right victim. As I ate, I imagined the Hydra living in the dumpster out back by day, working in the kitchen by night, blow-drying the plates with its acidic breath while planning its dominion over the world. After I finished the spaghetti, it sat suspiciously heavy in my gut. I thought of the movie, Alien. The plotters watched me from the shadows. I imagined that I had followed the path of Hercules across the Peloponnese only to have a Hydra larvae chew its way out of my chest.
While wryly nursing this paranoia, I considered something far worse than any Hydra. It was the way in which the tentacles of my own species have spread over the Earth, and that our numbers were then approaching 6 billion (and are now approaching 7 billion!) Like the heads of the Hydra, two people (2.25 to be exact) replace every person cut down by death, for a net increase of about 71 million people per year. The effect of exponential population growth on our planet dwarfs the monster myths of antiquity into insignificance. The Earth’s population increases 2.25 people each second, 135 per minute, 8,105 per hour, and 194,520 per day. The world has approximately 70 times as many people as it did in 500 B.C.
The human death toll from the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was roughly equivalent to the number of people added every single day. So even if 194,520 additional people were lost every day, (on top of the 156,164 who already die every day) the world’s population would stay the same. War, or let’s say a viral plague, on this scale would be an almost unimaginable tragedy, yet it would be mild compared to the real-life, ongoing tragedy of human overpopulation. The effects of this insidious disaster are cumulative and spread over the entire globe—so while the alarm has been sounded by a few—the vast majority have ignored it. We are genetically programmed to respond to obvious short-term dangers, but it takes intelligence, organization, and imagination to see the big picture. It will take a Herculean determination to act.
I was feeling cold, wet, and depressed as I paid my bill and got back into the car. I had to drive through the rain and the gloom back to Athens that evening in order to catch a plane the next day. As I drove on a wide, dark, crowded freeway without lane markings, I dwelled upon the effects of overpopulation in modern Greece. Except for the magnificent archeological sites, Athens is an ugly, polluted sprawlscape of five million people, filled with cars, noise, and filth. In other words, it is just like modern cities all over the world. Most people in Athens, and the rest of Greece as well, now live in hideous, multi-storied, reinforced concrete apartment buildings with flat roofs and balconies. Jet airplanes spew contrails across a polluted sky that is framed by utility lines. Tankers and oil refineries dot the shoreline. Motor vehicles, and everything related to them, now dominate the sounds and smells of nature. The population of Greece, like the rest of Europe, has almost stabilized because of migration, education, improved economic conditions and changing values, but Greece is still left with the continuing effects of the 20th century population boom.
Some of the smaller towns have architectural review boards to preserve the charm of old Greece, but were it not for the expectations of the tourists, virtually all Greek towns would today probably be metastasized cancers looking much like the ailing mother host, Athena. The forest that covered ancient Greece is nearly gone, with only a few mangy patches still clinging to the mountains. Most people now assume that Greece has always been a barren desert.
I drove back to Athens that evening, fighting the traffic on a crowded toll road all the way from the Isthmus of Corinth. As soon as I reached the outskirts of Athens, I pulled into a well-lit Burger King to consult my map. I was confronted with a poster for the animated Disney feature, Hercules. The Hercules posters had greeted me in many languages as I traveled around the world that winter, cheerfully reminding me of my task. I kept meaning to see the film.
After I got back in the car, I drove until I happened to come across a theater where Hercules was playing. A parking space almost miraculously appeared directly in front of the theater and I pulled in. A crowd jostling for tickets consisted mostly of rowdy kids and their mothers. During the show I wondered if any of them found irony in how Hercules was being returned to Greece after having being made over by Hollywood into a sanitized English-speaking superhero. For that evening I suspended my judgment of Disney for re-writing the myth. It was good to get out of the weather—and the sad reality of modern Athens—and escape into the cartoon version of Hercules’ labors.
It seems that overpopulation problem is so unpalatable that many, perhaps most, would rather escape into the G-rated version of reality that insists there is plenty of space left to fill with people. The evidence, however, shows that there is no single problem on Earth more pressing than this one, and if those preaching otherwise are wrong, the result could get very ugly. Human overpopulation in some way compounds every other problem, thus perhaps making it the most important labor before us.
Ilya Prigogine, who won the Nobel prize in 1977 for his work on the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems, warned us of the unpredictable effects of systems that are far-from-equilibrium. Futurist Alvin Toffler, writing in the forward to Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ book Out of Chaos gives the example of population in a primitive tribe. If the deaths and births, as well as the surrounding forest, are in ecological equilibrium, then a few extra births might have little effect. However, if the birthrate suddenly climbs, the system would be pushed into an unstable condition. Suddenly small additional inputs can cause the system to dramatically reorganize itself in bizarre, unpredictable ways. By analogy, it appears to many scientists that we have already pushed the living system of the Earth into a far-from-equilibrium condition.
Like the nephew of Hercules who set a forest on fire while trying to get a burning stick, we are continually burning down the forests to feed and house more people. But instead of cauterizing the stumps to keep the heads from growing back, we are just letting the heads proliferate. In the myth, Cancer the Crab is battling with Hercules while Hydra is putting on new heads and polluting the air with its poisonous breath. Today cancer (and countless other maladies) caused by overpopulation-enhanced pollution, are nipping at our heels and threatening us. The solution is same one that Hercules applied to the Hydra—we must prevent extra heads from replacing the ones that fall.
Half of the world’s people live in cities, and there will soon be 500 cities with urban area populations in excess of a million. In 2003, the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area surpassed 31 million, which is the equal to the entire population of Canada. The New York area approaches 30 million. Mexico City had 21 million residents. Sao Paulo, Brazil had about 18.5 million. Both Mexico City and Sao Paulo each added about one million new residents each year during the 1980s, and each city by itself is more populous than Australia. Most agree that these cities are overpopulated, but someone driving across sparsely populated areas in Canada or Australia, or looking down from an airplane, might conclude that there is plenty of room for more people.
Unfortunately, having enough standing room is not what overpopulation is about. Overpopulation is a violation of the Earth’s carrying capacity. This refers to the capacity of the Earth to carry a given population indefinitely without degradation of the biosphere. An important variable in this equation is the standard of living of the world’s population. Simple carrying capacity is the number of people who can be supported at subsistence level. At subsistence level, which is approximately equal to the standard of living in Bangladesh or Haiti, the Earth could probably continue to support current population levels.
The cultural carrying capacity would be the number of people the Earth can support, while maintaining a certain standard of living above and beyond what it takes to survive. A team of Cornell University researchers published a study in 1994 that assessed the world’s resources and consumption. They concluded that the Earth could not indefinitely support more than 2 billion people at the same standard as the industrialized world. Since most of us aspire to have a Western standard of living, it appears from this study that the world has been overpopulated since 1930. Dale Allen Pfeiffer, a geologist, also estimated in late 2003 that because of various environmental factors, including the fact that we are literally eating fossil fuels (which not only drives food production but provides fertilizers and pesticides) population would have to be reduced to 2 billion to be sustainable. Agriculture used to be solar driven, but now it is more and more driven by fossil fuels being used as fertilizer to augment depleted soils. He points out that it takes 500 years to build one inch of topsoil and that water resources are being squandered. People used to simply move on when they had depleted the local resources. Now there is nowhere else to go.
Others count on stretching the carrying capacity through conservation, increased efficiency and technological innovation. How efficiently we handle our resources and the care we take with our ecosystem will determine the actual carrying capacity. Despite optimism (or denial) there is a growing consensus that, at present consumption levels, we may have already overshot it, and if we wait to find out for sure we will have blown it.
In the span of half of a human life, the population of the Earth has gone from two and half billion to almost seven billion. If serious family planning measures are not taken soon, a person who is middle-aged today could easily live to witness a world with nine billion people. This is a frightening run-up in population during one human lifetime. Here is a graphic illustration of population growth from 2000 BC to 2009, and projected growth to 2050 AD:
Human Population Growth from 2000 BC to 2050 AD
The population of the Earth went from an estimated 100 million in 500 BC to a projected 7 billion in 2012, a 70-fold increase. Almost 70 percent of this exponential growth occurred in the last 70 years! With an extraordinary international effort, beginning immediately, we might stop population growth before it reaches seven billion, and then begin to gradually reduce our numbers.
It took over 3.5 billion years from when life began on Earth to evolve hominids; then it took 5 million years for Homo sapiens to evolve and then proliferate to 1 billion. The second billion took only 130 years. At this point the growth spike became nearly vertical as a graphic illustration of how exponential growth starts slow and ends fast. The third billion took 28 years. The fourth took 15 years. The five and sixth billion each took 12 years. The seventh billion will take 13 years. Even with ongoing efforts to slow the growth rate, most demographers believe that we will add another two to three billion before leveling off, but none of their estimates take into account the likelihood of radical life extension through the accelerating development of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Once the human life span becomes extended, only by some global disaster or by the elimination of parenthood for most people would human population growth stop. We have largely squandered our opportunity to have a sustainable population or prepare for the increase in life expectancy, but it is not too late to do something.
Curbing population growth pays tremendous dividends and buys us time to solve the numberless problems that previous population growth has created. No amount of charity, food relief, economic aid, education, nature conservation, energy efficiency, pollution control, money or anything else is going to be as effective as reducing the world’s human population. Scientists sometimes talk about the 20 to 80 rule, which is the idea that 20 percent of the problems cause 80 percent of the negative effects. A good deal of that 20% is the overpopulation problem.
Consider for example the attention given to Mother Teresa’s work with the poor in Calcutta. When I was in India a few months after she died, I spoke with Indians who said that whatever good work she did was many times cancelled out by one very harmful problem she caused. Because of her opposition to birth control, which led to the birth of thousands of unwanted children into lifetimes of poverty and disease, she actually helped create far more misery than she ever alleviated. Mother Teresa was obeying the authority of the Catholic Church, where the ultimate blame for the ironic policy lies. The case of this well-intentioned nun, who was beatified by Pope John Paul after she died, vividly illustrates what many demographers have pointed out. No matter how lofty or worthy your cause may be, without population control you are pursuing a lost cause.
To find out how to slay the hydra-headed problem of overpopulation with an equitable, choice-based, marketable birth license plan, click here. If you’re too poor to order the book and want to read a little bit about your condition, click here for the next labor.