Friday, November 08, 2013

Pesky humans and why we still need philosophy

In today's Gospel, you can almost see Jesus shaking his head over the naive virtue of the "children of light" when it is a matter of dealing with "the children of this world."  One of our sisters here in Chicago is kind of stuck in the middle of a situation of this very kind, and it is quite frustrating. The  long-term inability of the "children of light" to establish certain principles with clarity means that the highway is free and clear for those with a less positive agenda.

In the case at hand, Sister Frances is finishing up her long-delayed degree (in Interior Design and Construction, so we won't have to hire outside experts for remodeling our locations). Naturally, there are science and math requirements that have to be met, so this semester she is taking a course in Environmental Sciences. This week they got to the part about how humans have become a blight on the planet.

The professor, a mathematician, has been demonstrating how the global population remained fairly steady (at 1 billion) until about 1830, at which point it (inexplicably?) began increasing exponentially, to the point that there are now over 7 billion of us. He further demonstrated how this taxes the available resources, since all those humans tend to eat and house themselves over a lifetime: clearly a situation of unsustainable growth. Sister Frances pointed out that humans are not like the other living beings on the earth, in that they bring creative intelligence into the equation. Being an artist (and not a mathematician with access to all sorts of data), that was all she could really say, and her input was treated somewhat derisively by the professor who merely offered to "continue the debate another time."

As you can well imagine, instead of finding ways to increase the available resources (and the availability of them), from the professor's perspective the immediately evident "solution" to the "problem" of an increasing human population dependent on the same source of resources is to reduce the number of people. (Oddly, the instrument of choice is a chemical that ends up damaging the rest of the environment.)

What struck me first of all in the population professor's calculation is the same thing that Sister Frances brought up. The professor's math is missing a very significant factor: what each person's ingenuity and creativity contributes in terms of resources. Culture is a non-entity in mathematical calculations, even thought it is the distinctly human contribution to the overall ecosystem. And a healthy culture is precisely the foundation for those increasingly positive contributions people can make even to the physical resources of the planet. (As an example of this, the Golden Rice Project.) And that's not even taking into account the very real contributions of art, music and literature!

But in the end, this is not a mathematical question at all: it is a question of values. It is also the realm of philosophy, the most neglected of all forms of knowledge. Because the population professor at the Illinois Institute of Art, like so many others, is working from an unstated value. He presumes that the unquestionable priority is maintaining some sort of static relationship between the planet and the people;  an ideal "status quo." In other words, in his worldview (and that of so many others today), people exist for the earth, and not the earth for people. That is the "philosophy" behind this form of population control "science."

Without any reference to faith (this is not a matter of religious belief), the mathematicians of population control are missing a huge chunk of data concerning available resources--the resources created by the very people who inhabit this ecosystem. If the greed of corporations and political interests provokes untold damage, human creativity can also created new and unexpected resources.

But who is calculating that?

Some issues and answers on the myths of overpopulation, with infographics.


Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder whether this professor believes he has a special reason to exist - does he view himself as superior, special, more valuable than anyone else in the class or in the world? It doesn't sound as though he values ALL human life from the moment of natural conception to the moment of natural death. What a waste of time having to listen to his preaching. - Jean

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

There's also the issue that it is the affluent 20% of the world's current population which is consuming 80% of the resources. For some reason, the population control team wants to limit the birthrate in the parts of the world that consume the least!
I found a very interesting little sidebar in a recent issue of TIME magazine: Ertharin Cousin (Head of UN World Food Programme) commented, "We have the ability to increase the yield of small farmers in places where food didn't even grow 50 years ago. We can feed the entire population. The only thing stopping us today is the public will...."