Friday, July 22, 2011

Over Population Passion

When they don’t speak straight to the point, I get inflamed.  The problem is ridiculously easy to see when you look straight at it.  Most people don’t, though.

Exhibit ATime magazine emblazons this cover story: “The Future of Fish.  Can farming save the last wild food?”  The article inside, by Bryan Walsh, is entitled “The End of the Line”.  The clever photograph that accompanies it is a picture of nine fishing lines and hooks, only one of which sports a fish. (Vol. 178, No. 3, July 18, 2011.  Also available at,8599,2081796,00.html)  Mr. Walsh writes about the promise of fish farming, or aquaculture.  He paints a pretty picture of the domestication of food from the seas to rival humanity’s domestication of grazing mammals thousands of years ago.

Comment.  I was forced to write to the Time editors:

Dear Editors:

Bryan Walsh's report on aquaculture fails to question an underlying assumption.  While acknowledging current human population as 7 billion, he writes that, "aquaculture can be one more step to saving ourselves."  Not likely.  Human population increases by 80 million each day (  Some models suggest this growth rate will diminish with time.  Nevertheless, even 7 billion humans is too great a population to sustain.  The actual problem is not technology for food production, it is policy for population reduction.

Exhibit B.  The Center for Biological Diversity’s Pop X newsletter tells how this admirable organization spent its money to display an overpopulation message on a giant monitor at New York’s Times Square.  The brief story (at claims the public service message will
“starkly highlight the simple but unmistakable connection between our ever-growing human population (we'll hit 7 billion this fall) and the disappearance of birds, plants, fish, snails, bears, wolves, butterflies and whales…  We hope the ad will help jump-start a national conversation on the ramifications of booming population growth and inspire even more people to action.”

Comment.  While I respect their intentions, I am forced to critique.  Using a 20 second silent video to ask people to grasp the subtle relations connecting human population growth with species extinction simple does not work.  Why?  First, Times Square is choked with visual messages.  Can you really engage someone’s attention given this competition?  Second, the message should require only the smallest amount of thinking to get its point accross.  Third, it preaches to the choir.  Only those people already concerned about threats to other species will bother to rate the message as meaningful.  That leaves out a great many witnesses to the message.

So, what is very succinct and direct, and how can it stand apart from the other visual and conceptual noise?  While I am not a PR or advert maven, I do understand some basic ideas.
  • Most people are too busy keeping their lives going to pay attention to issues of global concern (not to mention national concern).
  • Most people generally notice a situation if it triggers an unmistakable emotional response.  The news media understand this well.
  • Something is regarded as significant if it affects your pocketbook, or impinges on your welfare, or that of your family or cultural subgroup.
  • Something is regarded as significant if it threatens your ability satisfy your desires or threatens your sense of freedom of choice.
  • Most people formulate their beliefs based on the recommendations of an authority figure or famous role model.
  • Most people formulate their behaviors based on convenience, pleasure, and following group norms in order to appear socially acceptable.
  • Most people change their behaviors in a manner that will restrict their freedom, convenience or pleasure only under threat of punishment by an authoritative system (such as the legal system).

Let’s focus on this last point.  In the 1970’s Chiffon margarine ran a popular television ad in which a woman representing Mother Nature can’t tell the difference between the Chiffon product and real butter.  When the duped woman is told of her error, she exacts revenge (signified as a clap of thunder), all the while smiling and saying, “Oh, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

There are two authoritative systems available to help humanity (in Bryan Walsh’s words) “save ourselves”.  The more radical—and uncompromising—of these is “Mother Nature”.  As we continue to push against the earth’s limits, something will eventually give, and the consequences will be disastrous.  The other is comprised of national governments that can pass laws, enforce regulations, and generally direct policies that can command new ways of living.

However, in a pay-for-policies system that favors wealth over the general welfare, what is the authoritative system that can bend the will of a government away from its laissez faire, business (and wealth) knows best philosophy?  This is the second-order problem that either enables or obstructs the solution of the first-order problem (namely, overpopulation).

The hope is that an upwelling of popular concern and action would  provide the authoritative agency to change the will of a government.  This can, indeed, work successfully.  For example, see the track record of the Avaaz grass-roots organization:
Nonetheless, hooking people into a national/global conversation about the danger of overpopulation is a tall order for a public service announcement.

Still, it’s a temptation to try.  Here’s mine.  How about crafting one of your own?

“Seven billion is too many.  So was five billion.  Stop speeding toward the cliff.  Stop having babies.  Love, Mother Nature.”