Saturday, July 4, 2009

human containment and the 11th tablet

Human population growth, of course, is the core urban defect. The defect isn't that there are cities, or big ones. Really, most of us should be living in cities - urban existence is essential to the human experience. No, the problem is that there are already more than enough of us to fill enough cities, and we don't have sufficient self control to stop making more.

Here in 2009 the informed consensus is that world population tops off around 10 billion by the middle of this century and begins settling back from there. This isn't a generally held belief, and may not play out quite so predictably. But given that our population is 15x larger than it was in 1500, it should come as welcome news that a plateau is in sight.

But wait. Ten billion? Isn't that number a bit, um, heavy by any kind of objective assessment?

It would be responsible, kind of adult, if we had some target in mind - some ballpark sense of an appropriate human quantity we'd like creeping over the earth's surface at any given time. In a perfect world, I mean. Just as a benchmark. Crazy talk, right? Crazy to even suggest some sense of limit and load balancing of our raw numbers. But it would be a good exercise, wouldn't it?

Perhaps we could bang around on the stats, talk publicly amongst ourselves, discuss, debate, make maps, then maybe let the dust settle and start naming four billion, or three billion, or one billion as a target to get down to.

Think of the pressure this would take out of the system. Think of the relief this would introduce for food security and energy use. And if you look a few generations forward, encouraging small family sizes, nucleating our settlements more sensibly, it could be strikingly easy.

Think of the terror in the corporate, grow-or-die gerbilwheel mindset this would engender until the concept of technical and cultural evolution without numerical increase became internalized into our overall day-to-day operations. The horror.

So it would be a challenge. It is a challenge. But the current situation is embarrassing, a farsical failure of self control, a massive incontinence that's destabilizing global climate and extincting thousands of animal and plant species.

Humor me a little more though. Think about the situation this way: Imagine that a higher intelligence - let's call it God, for lack of a better name - imagine God wants to hand a great secret over to humanity. He's getting old and just has to unburden himself. This is the natural order of things, an event that's been in the works for a long time. And God wants to bequeath this gift, let's call it the Eleventh Tablet, as an earned inheritance to humanity. It requires a lot of control though - it's a heap of responsibility to bear and God won't just dump it into the clumsy paws of some young bungler. He has no wish to pass the secret to a reckless, hormonally drunk teenager. In fact, he can't. The very act of the hand-off requires incredibly stable hands on the part of the recipient (on God's part too, and old age is starting to make him more than a little shaky).

On one side there's humanity, uncontrolled and undisciplined, incapable of getting its shit together; on the other is God, straining against age and patience to hang on to the Eleventh Tablet a little longer until his understudy settles down. But God's still dealing with this hot headed kid who has immortality delusions and spends all day drinking beers and dreaming about getting laid.

What's God gonna do? Will he hand the secret over? Or will he die still clutching it, break the chain, and let humanity sink back into the swamp?