Saturday, July 11, 2015

What is Progress?

At this time of year the baby birds are leaving their nests and flying around confusedly. Yesterday an unkempt-looking little chickadee landed on the deck followed by its anxious parents, as if it were out trick-or-treating on Halloween in a dangerous neighborhood. The day before that, a baby goldfinch landed on the watering can that I was carrying and looked at me curiously for a minute before flying off. The babies of many species can be quite trusting before they learn the importance of fear.

By feeding the birds I am disrupting the local ecosystem. The goldfinch population, which constitutes the majority at the feeders, has grown over the last four years, and the trees in the vicinity are currently filled with bright yellow dots at certain times of day. They wait their turn at the feeder, and over time some of the branches have been denuded of foliage by the traffic. I'm going through about 320 pounds of sunflower kernels and 30 pounds of nyjer seed per year. The changes to the environment aren't that noticeable to me. There's now more prey available for hawks and cats, but small birds are hardly worth a hawk's effort, and there aren't many cats around. However, there are probably thousands of minute changes that you could detect if you did an in-depth study.

I don't think human populations behave all that differently from goldfinches. If you provide them with the essentials for living, all things being equal, their populations also increase. This is a phenomenon that the unpopular Thomas Malthus noticed over two hundred years ago. In current political thinking, talk of controlling human population growth intersects with racism, communism and any number of politically incorrect positions. I consider this one of the great paradoxes of our time: human population growth contributes to poverty, crime, political instability, war, pollution, climate change and mass extinctions, yet no one can discuss it without being labeled a racist, eugenicist or elitist of some sort. Illegal immigration to wealthy countries has become a fact of life, and few countries are currently able to deal with the problem effectively within their political systems.

While in some ways I am a liberal (e.g. I support Bernie Sanders), I often find this group collectively naïve about human nature. Specifically, it is a taboo to refer to people as animals even though they clearly are animals. Science increasingly shows that we are more like than unlike our fellow mammals. As I have remarked before, there is a denial of this fact embedded in our culture; it is associated with Christianity and Romanticism and oddly belies our professed belief in the separation of church and state. There seems to be an unrecognized assumption in society that man is better than nature despite the massive evidence to the contrary: man is nature, or, more precisely, part of it.

A little observation demonstrates that in broad biological terms humans aren't much different from goldfinches. Under the right environmental conditions both goldfinches and humans increase in population until factors rebalance their ecosystems. Both goldfinches and humans tend to exhibit the same basic behavior before and after population increases. Goldfinches continue to build nests, lay eggs, etc., and humans continue to build houses, have children, etc. Somehow in all of this humans are supposed to be making progress, and that is what I'm questioning here.

To be sure, there has been some progress within developed countries in terms of quality of life, health, longevity, education and knowledge, but at a more fundamental level there has been little change at all. The ideals and goals that people have now are hardly any different from those who lived during the Bronze Age. Agamemnon wanted a big house in a good location with protection from intruders, so did William the Conqueror, and so does Bill Gates. I am struck by what many wealthy people do with their money now: they build big houses in attractive locations just as wealthy people did three thousand years ago. Although it is never stated exactly as such, the American Dream implies that everyone has a right to own a large house in a pleasant location, and that is exactly how many people see it. This is easy to spot here in Vermont, to which about half of the population has moved from densely-populated regions in the Northeast, and many of them bought large retirement homes. In other words, the American Dream wouldn't quite work for them in Bayonne, Brooklyn, Bridgeport or Boston. In what way is this model an improvement for humanity, and is it sustainable?

This is sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" post. If you live in the U.S. and absorb the ideas in circulation you may get the idea that this is a free country that encourages everyone to own a large house in a nice location and have as many children as they like. Has anyone, other than a few environmentalists, thought much about the impact of population growth? What will Vermont be like in fifty years if ten thousand new people move here every year? On a small scale I can simply stop feeding the goldfinches if they get out of control, but little attention is being paid to the much more significant problem of human population growth, which is already straining us with countless burdens.

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