Archive for August 23rd, 2012

Population Paradox #1

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Population Paradox #1—7-2012

            From a biological standpoint, the most important goal of any species—or individual—is to pass on its genetic information. That is the reason that so much time and energy is spent on reproduction. In general, the more progeny, the better.

The exception to this observation is humans, at this time in history.

The human species has been so successful that our numbers have grown enormously. We are not as physically powerful as some animals, nor do we have the weaponry like claws and teeth that many carnivores enjoy. Nevertheless we have become the planet’s top predator.

I can think of no other predator that increased its numbers beyond a sustainable population for long. Prey animals may expand their numbers beyond their territory’s carrying capacity, but then predators feast and the prey population drops. The balance of nature is restored as the predators’ numbers diminish.

Many humans think we can exceed the planet’s carrying capacity permanently. Economists and politicians talk about growing the economy, but seem to have two blind spots—that we live on a finite planet that is already stressed, and that indefinite growth is impossible. The Global Footprint Network’s 2011 Annual Report illustrates these concepts wonderfully. Titled “What happens when an infinite-growth economy runs into a finite planet”, it is available at

The number of people who can live on Earth (its carrying capacity for humans) is not fixed. We have succeeded in increasing the planet’s carrying capacity immensely, thanks to our fantastic inventiveness. First we learned to squeeze food out of much of Earth by devising agriculture. Then we discovered remarkable ways to increase agriculture’s productivity. We have benefitted from stripping our planet of its resources. Fossil energy from below ground provides each person in our country with work that couldn’t be performed by a score of human slaves.

We are so successful that we are exhausting our life-support systems. You know the extent of our destruction: extinction of species, depleted ocean fisheries, polluted air and water, loss of topsoil, climate change, slashed rainforest. Although we lead lives of unparalleled bounty, our progeny will suffer because we have used more than our share of resources.

How would it be if our population had leveled off at, say, three billion? That would be what our numbers were when I graduated from high school, 50 years ago. Of course this question cannot be answered. I remember that the1960’s was a bad time for the environment with DDT, burning rivers and toxic fog. It was also an era when we were still living sustainably, according to Ecological Footprint measures.

As a species we have been victorious in passing on our genes. We have followed the command in Genesis: “…God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” We humans have been too successful in multiplying, and now we are killing off the fish and fowl. Most ocean fisheries are depleted and many species of fish are endangered. We have also caused the extinction of many species of birds—the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon and the dodo are memorable.

All signs are that we will leave too few resources for those yet to come. Our success has endangered our progeny’s future.

What can we do? The first step is to recognize that the Biblical phrase above no longer applies. We have been too fruitful. A current estimate of the number of plants and animals on Earth is over 8 million. We have already permanently exterminated 802 species that we know of, plus innumerable members of creation that were unknown to biologists. We need a second ark for all the endangered species.

I fear that our success as a species will also be our downfall. This is the second of two population paradoxes. The first is that armed conflict was a significant factor in keeping the human population from growing rapidly in the past. Our era, called by some the “long peace”, has allowed our numbers to increase radically. We have outgrown Earth’s carrying capacity and conflicts over resources such as petroleum and water may trigger a catastrophic Armageddon. The paradox is that small skirmishes may have helped prevent total war.

The time has come to realize that what has worked in the past will cause a disastrous future. For our progeny’s sake we must promote small families.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012

Population Paradox—Small wars may prevent apocalyptic conflict

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Population Paradox—Small wars may prevent apocalyptic conflict—6-2012

            The reason that I became concerned about human population is that I wanted to work for peace. Long ago I believed (and still do) that overpopulation is likely to lead to armed conflict.

Scarce resources are the most common cause of armed conflict. People are hungry and their neighbors have food, so a raid is initiated to steal their sustenance. Another scenario involves a growing group whose land area is limited. They look envyingly to the other side of their border with rich land and few people; invading a neighboring territory is a common cause of war. The Nazis used Lebensraum (living space) as an excuse to invade adjacent lands, thus catalyzing World War II. Recently we fought the Iraqi war over another valuable resource—petroleum.

Religion is also a common cause of war—even though most religions claim that they want peace. We are afraid of Muslims overrunning our beliefs. We have forgotten, however, what many followers of Mohammed still remember—how the Christians tried to exterminate Islam during the Crusades.

We know that a graph of the human population was almost flat for many centuries before the past couple hundred years. Why was there so little growth for so long, followed by such an amazing acceleration?

Many reasons are given for the past slow increase in our population. High infant mortality, poor hygiene, infectious diseases, and meager food supply all contributed. These factors all changed with the industrial revolution.

There is another cause, however, that we don’t usually consider as a reason for slow population growth. Several books give us a clue. The Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Matthew White) lists the world’s largest mass killings. The Roman gladiators (responsible for over three million deaths) and the Crusades (another three million) are listed. The imperialism of Genghis Kahn destroyed 40 million people, the Atlantic slave trade 16 million and the conquest of the Americas 15 million. Overall, about a half billion people died from the hundred cruel calamities described in this book.

Two books put forth a theory that may be a more significant past cause of mortality. War Before Civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage (Lawrence Keeley) and Constant Battles: Why we fight (Steven Le Blanc and Katherine Register) both posit that our ancestors killed each other in very significant numbers. They look at archeological evidence from around the world, especially right here in the Southwest.

In the past there were small bands of people living all over the world. Recent evidence suggests that these societies were more violent than prior archeologists ever acknowledged. Overall, these authors estimate that 10 to 15 percent of people in prehistoric societies died from conflict.

Disease and starvation weren’t bad enough! It seems that homicide and warfare are important reasons human population grew slowly for millennia. Past people destroyed their neighbors to steal their resources. In some cultures there is even evidence of cannibalism; not only did they kill, but also ate their neighbors’ flesh.

War is a terrible way to limit population growth. Unfortunately, battles and cruelty with extensive loss of life seem to have been the way of life in our dark past.

We are living in a period of relative peace according to Better Angels of Our Nature. A reviewer of this book summarizes its thesis: “…our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.” What may not be self-evident (few of us have the long view of history needed) is that the world has actually become less violent.

This book goes further than just to claim that we are living in an era with decreased armed combat. The author, Steven Pinker, is a Harvard psychologist who believes that we have slowly changed our mores to accept less violence in our personal lives—less spanking of children and less persecution of people for their beliefs, ethnicity, color or sexual orientation. With this current “Long Peace” has come longevity—and more people.

Apparently small raids and “horrible things” kept our population small, and the “long peace” is one cause our numbers have increased so rapidly. Relative peace has allowed our population to outgrow the carrying capacity of our planet by fifty percent! I share a concern with a Pentagon document from 2003. “As famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to … climate change, many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity… which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance.”

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012

Honor this Heroine’s Story of Healing

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Honor this Heroine’s Story of Healing—5-2012


Sunday two months ago, the same day the Herald published “Studies: Keeping abortion safe, legal aids women”, I received an amazing email. Its author lives in a neighboring community. She was born when abortion was still illegal.

“My Mom… agreed to have 2 children and only 2. She became pregnant with me (shortly) after my brother’s birth…. A few years before her death, my Mom finally told me that she had (attempted to have the pregnancy aborted) on 3 occasions…. She… tried to abort me herself by tumbling down some stairs around the 8th month. Then, as she always reminded me, I had the ‘audacity’ to arrive breach and cause her great pain. She blamed me for ruining her life and taught my siblings to resent me if they wanted her approval. She was a charming woman who could keep this part of herself hidden from public view… pretty easy to do actually in the … 50’s when folks didn’t ask the questions they ask today.

“Challenging childhood for sure as she erupted in rages quite often, one of which resulted in a serious traumatic brain injury at 9 months and many beatings which she made sure were hidden under clothes so Dad and others wouldn’t know. She took pleasure in sexually abusing me with enemas as well. By the time I was 6 years old I realized that I had to take care of myself if I was going to live. I never spoke to my Dad or anyone else as she made sure I knew what the consequences would be.

“(Many) years later (I) came to understand mental illness including personality disorders. I have been working on my own healing for many years, though I never spoke about my Mom to professionals until this time, when I knew I had the strength and needed more answers. My psychiatrist (who had diagnosed me with post traumatic stress symptoms a few months earlier)… reviewed many letters and an audiotape I had received from her. (He) thought that she suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder.

“As I thought about the research you cited and your concern about demonstrators, it brought me full circle back to my life and my family…. I am one of the lucky ones… somehow found good, supportive folks throughout my life who sensed the depth of the pain I carried, although most all of them never knew the specifics. They taught me that what happens to you is only a small piece of your life unless you make it define you… what matters is what you choose to do. They taught me to take back my power.

“So the ripple effect of an unwanted pregnancy for a woman with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues spreads way beyond her and may extend to generations after.”

The email quoted above was my reason for telling a story that is often left untold—the story of unwanted children. Last month’s column was based on a large study of Czech women who requested abortions, but were twice refused. Their unwanted children did not fare as well as carefully matched control kids. They were more likely to have criminal records, to not make friends, to think poorly of themselves—and to be themselves at risk of having an unplanned pregnancy.

     The woman who wrote this short autobiography is unusual. Most children who have been unwanted since conception lack the emotional strength and intelligence to pull themselves out of a difficult emotional situation. As Dr. Henry David, the psychologist who investigated the Czech families, wrote: “…there were some unwanted-pregnancy children who were just fine—(they) had a high resilience rate.”

     Unwanted pregnancies are a problem for the individual woman and also for society. There is a great deal of misinformation about abortion—perhaps our nation’s most contentious issue. My March column reviewed two recent studies. One investigated the psychological effects of abortion on the woman. It found that women with unplanned pregnancies are susceptible to psychiatric problems whether they abort or deliver. “The most reliable predictor of post-abortion mental-health problems was having a history of mental-health problems before the abortion”. The second study found that abortion is practiced all over the world. Making abortion illegal may make it even more common, and increases the maternal death rate.

Currently, unplanned pregnancies are a part of life, but they can be minimized with good contraceptive services. Until perfect contraception is available to all, access to legal abortion will benefit society as well as individuals.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.