BEN BOVA: July 17, 2011 ... 'There are so many human beings on Earth'

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Nearly every problem that faces us today can be traced to a single fact: there are so many human beings on Earth.

With nearly seven billion people inhabiting our planet, we are straining Earth’s physical resources, driving myriads of other species into extinction, dangerously polluting our air and waters, and helping to cause global warming that could lead to catastrophic climate change.

Wars, terrorism, genocides stem largely from the inevitable conflicts that arise when too many people demand the same resources.

Our expanding human population turns natural weather phenomena into national disasters. Many of the homes that recently have been inundated by floods in the Midwest were built over the past couple of decades in areas where no had built previously precisely because those areas were subject to floods from time to time.

It’s ironic. Our very success as a species is the greatest danger we face today. There are so many of us alive and working today that human activities are beginning to rival natural climate forces. Our global climate is warming, and our activities are contributing to that warming, whether we want to admit it or not.

Just a few days ago the Associated Press reported that a 43-foot gray whale that normally lives in the northern Pacific Ocean was found cavorting off the coast of Israel. It apparently crossed the Arctic Ocean when the polar sea ice thinned during the summer, swam along the rim of North America, made its into the Atlantic and eventually to the Mediterranean Sea.

One whale does not a climate crisis make, but scientists are also discovering species of plankton that normally live in the Pacific are now invading the Atlantic. Like that whale, these tiny creatures have been able to cross the Northwest Passage because the Arctic ice cap has shrunk so much.

Seven billion human beings, with their fires and factories, their power plants and automobiles, are changing the Earth’s climate.

The truth is, though, that nobody’s being perverse, no one is deliberately trying to warp the global environment. We’re just doing what comes naturally.

All creatures, great and small, struggle to survive. Survival means having enough offspring to carry on your genetic lineage. Until very recently — the past century or so — it was perfectly natural for a human family to have as many children as it could support. More, in fact, because until the advent of modern medicine so many children died while still babies.

Our medical capabilities have vastly improved, our technologies have leaped ahead, but our inborn instincts are still pretty much the same as they were 10,000 years ago.

An anthropologist would say we’re suffering from “cultural lag:” behavior that was perfectly fine generations ago is now counterproductive. Even though birthrates have been declining, especially in the industrialized nations, we still face a problem of overpopulation. And in the poorer regions of the world — even among the poorer groups within our own U.S. — population growth rates are still high.

The problem with cultural lag is that powerful forces within the culture promote behavior that is no longer good for us. Conservative religious groups, for example, believe that abortion is murder. Be that as it may, they extend their opposition to all forms of family planning.

Talk about counterproductive behavior! If there’s one thing this planet has plenty of, it’s human beings. Yet many religious and political leaders are opposed to family planning of any kind. They use the idea of abortion as a stalking horse.

It’s hard to deny that abortion kills what one day could be a human being. But family planning is an altogether different thing. Intelligent family planning can help to avoid those circumstances where a woman is faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

Yet the religious taboos that were helpful centuries ago are hard to break away from, even when they’ve become dangerous to our well-being.

The history of any species is a story of adapting to new conditions — or dying out. Does the human race have the intelligence to understand that we must control our population growth?

Or will we allow the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse — war, famine, pestilence and death — to overtake us at last?

Ben Bova’s latest futuristic novel is “Leviathans of Jupiter.” Dr. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.

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