Virtually all Problems Threatening the Biosphere and Human Society are Exacerbated by Population Growth

Scott Deshefy


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Great scenes define great movies. Should a Book of Lists be in my future, highlighting favorite poems and short stories to homerun hitters, music and singers, I would certainly enumerate 30 or so best-loved movie scenes. I never tire of watching Mary Philbin (as Christine Daaé) unmasking Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera; the Marseillaise and airport scenes in Casablanca; the closing sequence of warehoused possessions in Citizen Kane as the enormous furnace first reveals then obliterates Rosebud’s identity; the old dog, sensing danger, exiting the barroom just before Alan Ladd’s Shane outdraws Jack Palance’s Wilson. Shane calling Wilson “a lowdown Yankee liar” to avenge the murder of Stonewall Torrey, likeably portrayed by Elisha Cook, Jr. earlier in the film is classic, as is Edward G. Robinson’s death scene in Soylent Green (based on a Harry Harrison sci-fi novel). In it, Robinson’s character Sol Roth, an elderly ex-professor turned “Police Book” whom Robinson described in an interview as “a weak liberal who hadn’t done enough to stop the rot in society,” is about to become verdant canapés. As sedatives and euthanizing drugs slowly kick-in and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” 6th Symphony plays in the background, Sol is surrounded by archival footage of deer grazing in lush meadows, birds in flight, and floral and faunal vistas long-ago destroyed by human development, pollution and overpopulation. Tears stream down the legendary actor’s face, deeply immersed in Sol’s pining for such long-lost natural beauty, driven to desperate measures by a dystopian police state and food shortages. It was Robinson’s 101st movie, and the emotional resonance of his performance is stunning. Unknown to his fellow actors, even during an MGM cast party honoring his career and wishing him “another hundred” films, Robinson was dying of cancer. He succumbed to his illness just 12 days after shooting Sol’s death scene, his last screen appearance and consummate farewell to all.

When I was born, the human population on this planet was around 2.6 billion people. November 15, 2022, according to UN global estimates, we reached 8 billion. The U.S. population more than doubled during the same timeframe. Virtually all the problems threatening the biosphere and human society ─ global warming and climate change, pollution, depleted resources, mass extinctions, armed conflict and famine ─ are exacerbated by human population growth and global and regional carrying capacities we exceed. While unchecked population growth will continue to cause Malthusian instabilities which worsen human suffering, columnist Somini Sengupta is correct to assert, as he did in a recent article for the New York Times, that how we live as a species probably defines human overpopulation and carrying capacities more than sheer numbers alone. Still, I tend to side with Sir David Attenborough and other scientists, who cite a 1994 study at Stanford University which suggests the ideal Homo sapiens population for the planet is around 2 billion. Attenborough doesn’t mince words referring to our present demographic growth as a “human plague.” It wouldn’t be if most people, especially in industrialized nations, lived according to the moral tenets of the Bishnoi of northern India, the original “tree huggers,” who sacrificed their lives by the hundreds in 1730 to protect Khejri trees from a Maharajah’s loggers. Their centuries-long, Green-living refusals to destroy flora and fauna, sustaining their communities and living good lives without ever inflicting harm, is considered the world’s first great environmental movement, dubbed “Chipko” in 1973. By contrast, 8 billion people, especially those in continuous growth industrialized economies, cause incalculable suffering via wasteful consumption, massively destructive development, plunder and squandering of Earth’s vital ecosystems and ecological communities. The Amazon alone has lost over 10% of its vegetation in less than 40 years. Each successive intrusion into temperate woodlands, taiga and rainforests, denuding the landscape and hastening extinctions, has forced surviving wildlife populations into smaller and smaller pockets of habitat, making zoonotic transmissions of novel, once-isolated infections more common. SARS-CoV-2 is a current example. Deforestation, of course, puts enormous amounts of plant-sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere. US climate envoy John Kerry went on record recently, saying last month’s international global warming talks fell woefully short of commitments needed to cut heat-trapping gas emissions like carbon dioxide. Fast-melting glaciers are already releasing huge amounts of newly-exposed bacteria into rivers and streams which could transform those freshwater environments indefinitely.

Despite growing human vulnerabilities to widespread contagion, famine and violence, this is probably the worst period in recorded history for any animal other than humans to be alive (except maybe jellyfish which thrive in warming oceans). According to the latest World Wildlife Fund report, wild species populations have shrunk by almost 70 percent since the 1970s. Global capitalism and surging demands for cheap meat over the last six decades are among the reasons why. The average American, 1 in 10 of whom eats recommended fruit and vegetable quantities, ate a staggering 225 pounds of meat in 2021 ─ the highest total in recorded history. The UN estimates over 70 billion land animals are slaughtered for food worldwide every year. Animal Kill Clocks, tabulating real-time destruction of both land and sea animals are now available on the Internet, chronicling industrialized nations’ killing statistics second by second. Australia, as I write this piece mid-December 2022, has killed about 4.7 billion animals for food this year, over 300 per second. The U.S. Animal Kill Clock for 2022 is over 53,000,000,000 animals and counting, averaging about 3,500 throat-cuttings, bolt penetrations, beheadings, electrocutions and asphyxiations per second. While, numerically, chickens are by far the worst victims (fish being second), numbers also include turkeys, cattle, pigs, ducks and sheep. 

Despite plant-based meats growing in popularity, many Americans still insist on eating animal flesh and animal byproducts in absurd quantities, putting themselves and the ecology in peril. Negative impacts of meat-industries on human health, global warming (i.e., methane emissions), and conservation of water, arable land and energy resources are irrefutable and common knowledge. Yet large-scale transitions to environmentally sound, healthful and cruelty-free eating habits are long-overdue. Rays of hope are emerging for us Bishnoi aspirants though, not to mention future generations of human and nonhuman animals alike. A team at Lawrence Livermore Labs has produced more energy from nuclear fusion than used by lasers to generate it, and if Homo sapiens achieve zero population growth before reaching our ecological carrying capacity, “soylent green” needn’t be a future menu item. Last month, to help matters, the FDA completed its first premarket assessment of Upside Foods, which grows meat from cells rather than slaughtered animals. Department of Agriculture approval of their lab-grown chicken should follow, opening doors for a moral revolution which ethically supplies contrarian demands of people who refuse to eat less meat. Not that becoming more vegetarian isn’t globally achievable and essential to survival.

Let’s face it, hominids evolved primarily as herbivores. Our dentition, color vision, convoluted intestinal walls and digestive enzymes are adaptations naturally selected for efficient consumption of fruits and other parts of plants. For digesting flesh of animals, however, they’re ill-adapted. Unlike true carnivores (e.g., cats) in secondary and tertiary ecological trophic levels, which have smooth intestines, raspy tongues, flesh shearing teeth and bite forces to match, prolonged human attempts at carnivory are high-risk. Too much meat-eating fills cardiac wards and factors into diseases such as renal failure, Alzheimer’s, stroke and erectile dysfunction. In industrialized settings, even moderate (or facultative) omnivory increases odds of exposures to food-borne pathogens (Salmonella and E. coli for example) and so-called “superbugs,” bacterial, fungal and parasite strains that develop resistances to high levels of antibiotics fed or injected into factory-farmed livestock. Best equipped to eat plants, edible algae and fungi, humans in modern societies, especially the west, have been sociologically conditioned by economic drivers and culture to eat more and more meat. Our heretofore biologically innate omnivore identity’s been skewed. In the last 75 years especially, corporate profit, government subsidies, dual-earner households and Madison Avenue’s shilling of processed and fast foods shifted our omnivory from fresh produce and painstakingly prepared home-cooked meals to meat-intensive, opportunistic glutting. Neither the planet nor human anatomy and physiology can support that shift, nor can 8 billion people competing for protein.

Some of the general public, harboring few qualms about veal calves being tortured or chickens by the billions mechanically dismembered, will claim squeamishness about cell-cultured meat. Surveys suggest some consumers, especially older, less-educated shoppers, may hesitate to buy it. Neo-phobia aside, laboratory-controlled tissue growth is the same metabolic process as repetitive cell division, contact inhibition and differentiation in a living organism. Problems such as tumor development, unhealthy fat to protein ratios and exposures to unsafe additives in feed are eliminated in labs. Overcrowded factory farms, by contrast, elevate stress hormone levels and are littered with excrement because high densities of animals are crammed together to abnormally accelerate growth and raise profit margins. Absent cleanliness, quality control and other safeguards of lab-cultured meats, factory farms are enormous petri dishes for disease development and transmission. Yet, 99% of animals raised for food today are “commoditized” by factory farms, living mere fractions of their life spans. Physically and emotionally abused, high percentages are too sick to survive even to slaughter. By comparison, cell-cultured meat is more natural. Additionally, conventional meats, when ground and processed, usually combine animal parts from many different farms, slaughterhouses and processing plants making backtracking to sources of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis) and other infectious diseases difficult.  Animals raised in these conditions eat abnormal diets regularly laced with antibiotics because of injuries and deformities caused by crowded confinement. Battery-caged chickens, behaviorally modified and fed diets to accelerate growth and egg production live in 8 ½ in. x 11 in. wire compartments which debilitate and cripple them. Cows, fattened with corn in feedlots, rarely see grass, a natural food for ruminants. Chickens, pigs, cows and aqua-cultured fish are intensely genetically engineered. Turkeys are so much larger than wild ancestors they can no longer mate on their own and have to be artificially inseminated.

Cell cultivation does require starter cells from actual animals, but the process used by Upside Foods and industry cohorts is much less cruel than conventional livestock production. Small numbers of cells are extracted from live animals’ muscle or fertilized eggs. Analogous to biopsies, they’re far less painful than mutilations and mistreatments occurring at factory-farms. Cell lines established from single biopsies also produce lab-grown meats for years if not decades, allowing unparalleled fine tuning of cell biology for taste and nutrition, perhaps even adding healthful anti-oxidative carotenoids.  Lab-meat production will decrease cruel confinement and slaughtering of animals by tens of billions each year, meet multiple moral imperatives while saving the planet, and spare us protein  alternative futures based on Swiftian modest proposals and Serling’s Twilight Zone “To Serve Man.”

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.