Redefining What it Means to be Human
Throughout a good deal of my life, public concern about overpopulation, overcrowding and the environmental impact have commanded high levels of attention. Indeed, when FAIR was founded in 1979, overpopulation both here in the United States and around the world was top of mind among every thinking person.
Conceptually, overpopulation has its roots not in the absolute number of human beings that can be physically crammed into a square mile, but rather around the conception of what makes life worth living. At the same time, a sense of environmental stewardship and respect for the complexity of natural ecosystems suggests that the growth of human population numbers needs to be managed because, as in nature, the ability of humans to reproduce exponentially is built in as a survival mechanism against the impact of now non-existent predators large and small. A modern extension of this environmental orientation has resolved into attention to the health of overall natural resources and the greenhouse effects of certain carbon emissions.
As “mainstream” environmental organizations moved away from a stated population policy and a commitment to a sustainable population size for the nation, groups like the Sierra Club have opted instead for some version of “smart growth.” It goes like this: Humans should, instead of living in “suburban sprawl” (previously known as the American Dream) should, instead opt for high-density living in urban cores.
High-density living was supposed to be an accommodation to population growth and the resulting residential demand based on the idea that if populations were going to grow, it would be better for the environment if they were pushed to live in dense urban spaces to create enforceable “green belts” outside the core.
In 2022, something has changed. The mainstream environmental organizations – so woke and so ineffective these days – left a vacuum and some serious absurd thinking is occupying the void: Thinking that is designed to try to rationalize mass immigration. From a policy designed to accommodate likely population growth, the Left has turned it into an affirmative goal in and of itself.
In a remarkable (remarkably silly) article appearing in a recent edition of the Atlantic, a young person named Jerusalem Demsas (class of 2017) authored a piece entitled “The People Who Hate People.” It has an illustration at the top of people crammed into a sardine can. This, apparently, is a desirable goal, according to Demsas.
The Atlantic is not what it used to be, obviously. But anyway… She writes: The evidence is clear, and has been for some time, that density is good for the environment. As UC Berkeley researchers argued in a 2014 paper, “population-dense cities contribute less greenhouse-gas emissions per person than other areas of the country,” and “the average carbon footprint of households living in the center of large, population-dense urban cities is about 50 percent below average, while households in distant suburbs are up to twice the average.”
In other words, because people forced into crammed urban spaces use less carbon to commute, etc., density per se is “good for the environment.” And, she concludes from this, the more people there are, and the more of them are living crammed into smaller and smaller urban spaces, the better it is for the environment. Ideally, it would seem, the average human should be stacked inside cubbies of 10 square feet of living space, and the more, the better.
This means that a future of skyscrapers across the globe is desirable in and of itself.
Putting aside the carbon emissions argument for a moment, the question is are people really designed to be crammed into spaces check to jowl as far as the eye can see? And is this the affirmative goal for humanity? Humans notably suffer from excessive proximity, just like all other animals. Stress, frustration, friction, and mental disease are all symptoms of overcrowding. Who has ever said this about any other species, that “density is good for the environment?”
Density might be good for certain animals that have evolved a need to live that way, like bees or ants. But humans are not bees, and, hopefully, they have more independence of spirit and thought than ants.
Not long ago, environmental writers like Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey understood that the preservation of a delicate natural ecosystem entailed achieving a low-density position in complete harmony with the complexities of native life. Steven Pinker opines in How the Mind Works that landscapes of open fields attract and calm the deep-seated psyche because they are associated with safe, wide expanses where herbivores are abundant and threats cannot hide behind trees. The classic suburban single-family residence harkens back to an English country estate where expanses are open green are both desirable and desired. All are associated with the serenity of a symbiosis with nature in a safe and secure environment.
What about dense, urban living? Garrett Hardin noted that the percentage of Americans who live outside crowded cities was decreasing at the expense of a true and balanced understanding of what the natural world was like or even all about. Young people like Demsas are a product of that phenomenon. They look at Manhattan, for example, and believe it to be entirely self-sustaining. They seem not to understand the enormous energy, resource, and food inputs, along with waste removal, that go into sustaining that many people in so small a space. Resources to feed, clothe and move Manhattan come not only from different parts of the United States but from all over the world.
Who really wants to live in overcrowded urban environments? The poor – but they don’t want to. Multi-millionaires who have the resources to live in many other places as well. And young, professional elites who are willing to give up the safety and security of suburban or rural environments for the proximity to the stimulation of food, culture, and professional opportunities that exist in the city. Those who have the choice to live in dense urban areas give up many things: safety, security, lower stress, and decreased proximity to the natural world.
Yet somehow, what was a method of accommodating an inevitably growing population has turned into – especially at places like Atlantic and Vox (where Demsas previously worked) — a moral injunction to intentionally grow population and build upward indefinitely in more and more crowded conditions. Demsas proudly proclaims that the “technology of apartment buildings” represent the wave of the future. The argument here, counter to all common sense, is that abundance increases with population growth. This sort of demand-centered innovation and extraction theory was previously confined to libertarian anti-zoning, anti-conservation minds like Julian Simon and the retrograde corporate shills at the Cato Institute.
Desmas concludes that a smaller population size and reduced density will also retard the development of mass transit. Could that be because fewer people will need mass transit if fewer people need to actually go anywhere?