Finally – a conservationist willing to talk about what it’s really going to take to save the world’s wild places and wildlife. Dave Foreman, one of North America’s most creative and effective conservation leaders and wildlife heroes, is a folksy, jovial man in his late sixties. After shaking my hand, he unbuttoned his dress shirt, revealing his undergarment – a T-shirt of a wild cat. “This is my true love,” he said, “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Although Dave Foreman is someone who makes everyone comfortable within seconds of meeting him, his subject matter is one of the least discussed, most uncomfortable topics in wildlife conservation today.
As he told Santa Barbara California’s Channel City Club‘s luncheon audience recently, “You may be expecting me to talk to you about large, wild, furry creatures. Instead, I’m going to talk about naked creatures without much fur that stand on two legs. Namely, human beings, and the fact that there are too darn many of us.”
Overpopulation occurs when a population of a species exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecological niche. Despite the fact that overpopulation is the most important component in any conservation effort, most conservationists aren’t addressing the issue. Instead, the subject is couched within discussions of resource depletion (water), land degradation (famine), and political, social and economic unrest (war).
Mr. Foreman calls this kind of thinking upside down.
He says, rather than worrying about how we will feed and house the world’s increasing number of humans, we need to focus on how to stop the swell before we reach carrying capacity.
So, why aren’t conservationists talking about population stabilization?
The answer has to do with the immigration reform bill passed in 1966 in the United States. The extraordinary thing about that bill is the residual devastating effect it has had on wildlife and wild lands.
Because after it went into effect, opening the US to an influx of newcomers, conservation groups based in the United States, like the Sierra Club and other Conservation organizations with worldwide reach, banned the topic of overpopulation in their discussions about saving wildness. The subject was too political, wrought with sensitivities and tension, to be included.
Since then, conservationist’s efforts to save wildlife have been missing a main ingredient. Trying to save wildness without addressing overpopulation is like trying to make lemonade without lemons.
If we don’t figure out how to stabilize the world’s population growth, we won’t have any wild places and wildlife left to save. There have been five major extinctions since animals have been on this earth. According to American biologist E.O. Wilson, we are currently in an age of mass destruction as devastating as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But this one, the 6th extinction, is unique. It’s the only annihilation caused solely by one of it’s animals. Us.
We alone are responsible for destroying all the other species. And we are doing it at an unprecedented rate simply because there are too many of us. It’s not necessarily what we are doing, it’s that there are way too many of us doing it. Too many of us who need food, water, and shelter. Too many of us driving cars, flying places, consuming things. Too many of us giving birth to too many more of us.
When humans first inhabited the earth, there were 12 species of tree and ground dwelling great apes. Our species was the smallest in number compared to the other eleven, which included gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and other species resembling Homo sapiens.
“Today, for every wild tiger on earth there are 1 million people,” Dave said, pointing out, that we have added more humans to the earth during the past 40 years, than during the past 3 million years. “At this rate there will be 10 billion people by the year 2100.”
Homo sapiens are covering the world at a staggering rate, leaving no room for other creatures. “Whatever happened to restraint, and responsibility?” Dave asked the audience. “Don’t we have a responsibility to our forefathers who put wildlife protection acts into place? Don’t we have a responsibility to future generations to preserve our wild wonders?”
Aldo Leopold once said there are those people who can live without wildlife and those who cannot. I’m in the camp of those who cannot and would not want to live in a world without wildlife and wild places.
What about you? Which camp are you in?
Who will we be if we decide (it is a decision), there is no room on earth for leopards, elephants, frogs, songbirds, iguanas, and wolves? Nothing we do will save any of them if we refuse to take courageous, selfless and necessary steps to stop hogging all that room for our own needs.
But how are we going to stabilize population growth?
Dave Foreman outlines some practical ways in his newest book, Man Swarm.
He says conservation and family planning groups need to work together. Overpopulation must be included in any discussion about saving wildlife and wild places.
Recently I took what I thought was a brave (some would say rude) step. After a 34-year-old mom of four, acquaintance of mine told me she and her husband were trying to get pregnant again, I asked incredulously, “Don’t you worry about the costs of raising so many children?” And then I broached the subject I really wanted to talk about. “I worry too much about the rate at which we are populating the earth.”
Smiling, she said, “Mark and I just love kids and we’ve always wanted a big family.”
I don’t doubt the parenting abilities of both these loving people, but things have changed. We can’t afford to continue to think only of ourselves and what we want. There are others creatures to consider, and if we don’t start taking them into consideration it will soon be too late for all creatures, including ourselves. If we continue to not talk about overpopulation, we are doomed.
I hope you will risk having conversations about overpopulation with others, and will spread this post via social media and email so we can keep the conversation going.