Saturday, September 22, 2012

The ABCs of biology

I have just finished reading 'The Story of B' by Daniel Quinn.  Some escaping or inescapable thoughts:

Population and food Quinn argues are intricately linked and that all this fuss about birth control and education and democracy and less babies in industrialised society or western world etc is nonsense.  We have a human population problem, for 2 million odd years there were 10,000 humans on Earth the population starting doubling with agriculture and increase in food supply, first it doubled in 7000 years, then in 5000 years, then in 2000 years and now it will double to around 14 billion in 40 years, omg.  Quinn provides a simple example of 2 mice in a cage provided 2kg of food each day, the population grows until it reaches a number that can be sustained by 2kg of food and then fluctuates between 280 and 320 with an average of 300 mice.  The second experiment involved providing the mice what they could eat plus an additional 10% after time the cage was expanded but the population continued to grow and grow and grow.  Quinn argues that humans, not as individuals but as a species exhibit the same behaviour as we grow more food our population increases regardless of every other factor (birth control, efforts to reduce population, etc).  Quinn calls this the ABCs of biology.  He uses the saying you are what you eat and until we can eat dirt, icicles, air or anything else population will follow food.  Increasing and better production methods leads to more people.  Will this sort itself out with time?  Quinn argues that if you are living in a building with known structural flaws it maybe fine for you to continue living in that building for your life, however your children are going to be pretty upset when that building comes crashing down in their lifetime...

Quinn also offers some optimism as he reminds readers that the way we are currently living, our current culture, practiced in 99.9% of the world, is not the way that humans lived for millions of years.  He argues that tribes survived in balance with other species for millions of years on planet earth.  So that just because it seems like humans are programmed for over-consumption, pollution and wiping out other species, this is only in very recent, the last 10,000 years of history and that humanity is actually programmed much differently than this current trend.

Quinn argues we need to stop seeing ourselves as the pinnacle species on the planet, "we are just the same as ants, spiders, bears and elephants" and we need to live like that again.  I once heard someone say that once we care about the plankton in the oceans, not the dolphins or the whales that we will have finally figured out what is really important.

So what to do with this new knowledge?   To breed or not to breed, is that one of the questions?  Should we be putting more effort into land conservations and trusts and protecting forests and not turning every last bit of space into agricultural land?   How can we stop producing more food or will this just happen naturally and we don't have to worry about it...  Maybe the world eating more and more meat will end up being a good thing because it is so much more resource intensive and will mean ultimately less people...  Pretty big questions for an individual... All I can finish with is read the book, start the dialogue, tell someone... :)

Wikipedia also has a great summary here:

1 comment:

  1. I listened to a podcast (I think CBC Ideas) about feeding 7 billion people and in it they said, I believe, that human population will stabilize around 8-9 billion. So I wonder where he gets 14 million from? In most industrialized societies, birth rates are dropping (i.e. Canada) which is why we have to work so hard to encourage immigration because we simply don't have enough people and as you raise the overall wealth (in theory) of the world presumably birth rates will drop, especially in countries where the population is out of control.

    But beyond that, because I don't have the facts in front of me, is that it is an enormous question and I'd be willing to say that perhaps it is too big. Too big for any individual and the affect you, in North America, will have by introducing another life would be minimal.

    Honestly, I wrestled with this question and the ethics of bringing life in to this world for a long time and never really came to any satisfactory answer---other than it's beyond me. And I have come to have some peace over it.

    As you say, I am no different than any other species on the planet and as such am beholden to my animal instincts, one of which is to breed. I found very easy to sit back and intellectualize all of this, but I felt disconnected to life itself, being an armchair theorist. Thus, I decided I needed to lean into life and trust my instincts, both animal and intellectual. Pretty soon after that, Leah was pregnant. Actually, way too soon. But I digress.