"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," — Eli Siegel
Overpopulation and Contempt for the Earth & People
April 23, 2007
In 1950 the world population was only 2.5 billion—today it’s 6 billion. That's more than double in less than 60 years.
In 1950 the U.S. population was 150 million. Today it’s 300 million. Twice as many people have to fit into the same U.S. landmass. More than twice as many people have to fit on the same earth. And of course we're losing land as the oceans rise.
In three more generations, what do you suppose will happen?
Today, there is enough food and land in the world for everyone. The one thing stopping it from reaching ALL people is our profit-driven economy, and the hogging of wealth by comparatively few people. But in 20 years—as the planet heats and sea level rises—and the population increases by another two billion as anticipated —how can there be enough for all?
So why isn’t population control a conscious, top priority worldwide?
I will give the answer as I see it. For the moment I am writing only about population and not much about the unjust profit-driven economic system under which we live, although the two are connected. Nor am I writing about global warming here although it is connected to the other two.
So then--why isn't population control, which means birth control, a worldwide crash-priority issue?
I became aware of the underlying answer as I attended classes in the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, taught by its founder--the distinguished poet and critic Eli Siegel. Although population wasn't discussed in these classes the reason it has become such an overriding issue today, was.
Contempt: the cause of injustice
Controlling the world's explosive population growth is crucial in being just to people worldwide. But people have for the most part put aside thinking about justice to other people. This is a personal tendency which is multiplied by whole populations. In the first Aesthetic Realism class I attended--in 1968--I learned that fairness to anyone but myself was not a priority to me. I learned that people set aside the justice other people deserve--to our sorrow--because it gives us a victory to have contempt for our fellow human beings. We feel big and everything else looks piddling.This is Eli Siegel’s classic definition of contempt: “Contempt is the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He wrote: "I have implied before that the having of contempt is easy. All you have to do is stop thinking about something before you really know it--even think that you know it--and contempt has won" (Self and World, p. 3).
The pleasure of not thinking about the consequences for one's actions--carried on for generations--can make for an overpopulated world with scarcity of food, with species extinctions, habitat destruction, and starvation.
We’re close to that right now. Have you ever tried to get through the Holland Tunnel in time for an urgent appointment, but you had to wait an hour in a line of cars because there were more vehicles than the roads were built for? With double the U.S. population comes multiples of cars. So, as we curse traffic for making us wait, it was us all along who created the traffic we’re cursing.
Instances of expanding populations hurting earth, animals, people:
1) How many more people can fit into the landscape of China without competing with each other disastrously--and with the unlucky pandas--for living space and natural resources?
2) Because the population of California is expanding, and the land area isn’t, profit-seeking developers build houses on ecologically unstable land. After some years of comfort many houses have disappeared into sliding mud or were consumed in wildfires. The tragic is constantly dogging our ever-growing population as huge profits are being extracted from it.
3) Expansion into wild Far Eastern Russia is affecting animal populations, including a beautiful, nearly extinct leopard. “Environmentalists have urged the Russian government to introduce tighter controls on its national parks in the Far East to crack down on leopard hunting. They also want more done to protect the animal's natural environment and food supply, which they say is being destroyed by human development” [Yahoo News http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070423/sc_nm/russia_leopard_dc 23 April 2007].
4) In East and West Africa, as population grows and the land can’t sustain it, habitat for lions, elephants, zebras, the great apes, is disappearing: for people take that land to grow food on—and are also eating these irreplaceable creatures, calling them bush meat.
5) I believe that expanding populations--often landless people looking for a better life--are migrating into the Amazon rainforest and cutting it down to make family farms at a frightening rate. They not only have destroyed thousands of unique species but are displacing and degrading the human beings who live in, and need, the rainforest for their very existence: tribal people whose cultures are ancient and whose medicinal and spiritual knowledge is exquisitely valuable.
The drive for unreasonable profit is another form of contempt.
Then there’s the drive for voluminous profits. --And the contempt for life that underlies it. The fact that we have an unethical, profit-driven economy, in which a few rich owners make money from many, many poor workers, intensifies every ecological danger and has already caused major ones.
At rock bottom, the profit-based economic system interferes with a rational population policy. First, as long as there are many more people than jobs, people will compete for bad jobs, accept less pay for their work, accept less benefits, and this makes more profit for the boss. That’s why the stock market tends to fall when there are fewer unemployed and rise when there are more.
Secondly, a big population competing for increasingly scarce goods makes for more profit. Gasoline is a prime example today. Corn is an up and coming example. It's why fish costs more than beef although it was once a cheap food. A big population of powerless people--a market ready to be suckered--is seen as paradise by a corporate executive.
Third, there are corporate executives who don’t care about destroying species as long as profit is maximized. For example, as is known, species of ocean fish (like the cod in northeastern waters of North America) are virtually gone in vast tracts of ocean because of irresponsible use of radar and bottom-dragging nets that take EVERY LIVING THING in the water and thereby make more profit per hour.
In another horrible example, the Borneo rainforest is being cut for lumber profits; and, along with it, an important and rare species is being cut from the earth, a great ape closely allied to us: the orangutan. There is only one place in the world where this intelligent beast lives, and profit from lumber is more important to some than the continuation of that species.
A sane economy and a rational population control plan is what we need.
Unless there is a sane economic policy in which all people rationally and kindly share the wealth of the world—instead of a few rich folk gobbling up thousands or even millions of times the wealth any normal human needs to live—and this economic policy includes a rational population control plan, we can hardly imagine the disastrous consequences.
We already see that as humans penetrate the territories of forest animals, which formerly were isolated in wilderness retreats, microorganisms and viruses cross over into the human population (like the bird flu) and threaten human lives on an unknown scale.
It is clear that a vast ill will, a vast uncaringness, a vast contempt has begun to show it has consequences. I haven’t even begun to talk about the destruction of habitat that we call global warming. It is hard to imagine that we have allowed our gaseous waste products to foul the whole earth to the point of changing the global climate and unstablizing it. Yet, it has happened. It is even harder to imagine that, knowing this, we have not bent every effort to reverse it. Yet, we have not.
WHY? There is only one answer. We have valued our complacent contempt--we have sat back and dismissed any effort of our own to be fair to something outside our precious selves. And in so doing, we have endangered ourselves and future generations.
Learning about contempt is a privilege and an absolute necessity.
In the Aesthetic Realism class I spoke of—it was an Ethical Study Conference—Eli Siegel asked me what I had most against myself:
Eli Siegel. I have to ask you a regulation Aesthetic Realism question, Mr. Perey: What do you have most against yourself?
Arnold Perey. My self-consciousness. [I went on to talk about my lack of confidence.]
“What makes people unsure of themselves?” he asked; and said that this was one of his favorite subjects. And he showed me that the reason I was so self-conscious, the reason I had “a tendency to condemn myself,” was that I felt ashamed of the fact that I wasn’t interested in being fair to people. He asked: “Are you interested in what things outside of Perey deserve?”
I thought back through my life, and considered whether I was interested in what my mother deserved (she had called me a “selfish kid”); what my brothers deserved; what my teachers deserved (I often tried to contemptuously correct them); what my friends deserved; what my girl friends deserved. Once I heard Mr. Siegel’s question, it only took a moment’s recollection to realize, with a sharp and regretful insight, that getting what I wanted from people far overshadowed my concern for anything they deserved from me.
“You talk about what you are suffering,” Mr. Siegel said to me; and he made it clear that my lack of concern for what other things deserved is what caused my suffering in the first place. “The reason the self suffers,” he said, “is because it’s hoggish with what’s not itself.”
Being hoggish with the earth has caused suffering and must stop.
We, as a species, are suffering because we have been hoggish with the earth and one another.
In India, in the 1950s I believe, an attempt was made to distribute condoms to encourage birth control. They were rejected: village people said, "We know what to do in order not to have babies." And they explained, "We like to have a lot of children around us. And beside, if we don't have a lot of children, who will take care of us when we grow old?" There was no social security in village India, no IRAs and no 401k plans. The feudal economy and in the US today the selfish profit economic system means people grow old with insufficient support. Who can help? The children help. As long as there is no rational social security system which older people can rely on unfailingly there will never be population control. For population control means (1) having one child per couple, and in doing so, decreasing the overabundant population of earth. And (2) having a rational, kind economy--without a few rich folk making exorbitant profits by robbing and thereby impoverishing others.
There is still time to change. The planet can recover, and so can we.
There is only one solution: the study of justice via the Aesthetic Realism method.
Aesthetic Realism is the only complete study of how to be a just, a fair human being. It is the one thing that explains the force in oneself which historically has stopped people from being fair: the desire to have contempt. It is the one thing that thoroughly explains the way our own dismissing of justice to earth, people, things, weakens us. And it is the only study of the strength, the pride, that being just will bring. Therefore it is the knowledge that can bring about the fairness to the earth and people on which our survival depends.