Tonight, October 31, 2011, is Halloween, a night when children (of all ages it seems) dress up in scary costumes and go tricking people and/or collecting sweet treats. At least those celebrating this pagan holiday here in America (and other countries in the American cultural empire) do so. I watched my younger daughter's first grade class participate in a costume parade this morning at her school: under the watchful eye of all their teachers and many a parent, in their school yard secure behind a high fence to keep the children safe in the downtown neighborhood which is scary year-round to people from more affluent parts of town. Tonight, I will walk with her in our own perhaps safer neighborhood, joining with neighbors' kids in the fun annual ritual that started with celebrating the harvest and nature's spirits, but is now mostly about making us buy cheap plastic crap and candy - to the tune of at least 7 billion dollars this year in the US, according to National Public Radio.
7 Billion dollars. That is quite a market for scares in this scarily declining American economy.
7 Billion is also a number that is scaring the pants off of many in my environmentalist fraternity this Halloween. Because today is the date that the UN has chosen (rather arbitrarily, of course, given that we add about 216,000 people every day, but appropriately for this scary day) to mark the official birth of the 7 Billionth human being alive on this planet!
Yes, we are 7 billion now. Doesn't that give you the heebie-jeebies? Especially if you've been listening to Paul Ehrlich, that reliable environmental scaremonger who is again in the news, of course, as the expert who rang the 20th century's loudest alarm bell about the human Population Bomb - and that was when we were a mere 3 billion or so!! We've managed to double, somehow, without experiencing complete collapse of civilization (arguably), but we continue to dance ever closer to the brink. Collapse is now imminent, says Ehrlich. Even Bill McKibben, more focused on climate change issues, worries about the population problem.
There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet, of course. Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk (and candy) that is actually rather expensive if we factor in the environmental costs of manufacturing (we don't) and getting rid of after tonight (we don't do that either). Yet, the signs may be more hopeful than in your nightmares painted by Ehrlich, our generation's Malthus, who continues to focus on population per se as being the big problem, even while acknowledging the role of how much we consume. Other, more careful analyses of human demographics suggest, though, that our population growth is slowing down considerably, and we may not even hit the 10 billion mark projected by the UN. Rather than rehash the arguments on this otherwise busy day (even before take my child out trick-or-treating), I suggest you read this thought-provoking post about the demographic transition and what it means for us.
And while thinking about how many of us there are, how much we consume, and how our technology is also helping empower women to take control of reproduction and slow down our explosion, see also a wonderful talk by Hans Rosling, on the magic of washing machines.
A quick tangential true story: Sometime back in 1991-92, after I'd been in the US for my first year or two of graduate school, a good friend asked me a standard question that immigrants inevitably get asked at some point: what is the best thing about life in America, now that I had lived here for a while? My spontaneous answer: washing machines! Honest! No one had them in India until the late 1990s, and I was truly appreciative of the benefits of that technology. My friend (expecting perhaps something about freedom or the American dream) was nonplussed.
Little did I know that I was anticipating the genius of Rosling, in this lovely TED talk:
Malthus' Ghost Haunted Old Delhi So...
(Photo of a street scene in Old Delhi taken by Raghu Rai sometime in the 1960s)
Four decades ago two young American men took a seminal trip (one walked, the other took a taxi) through the teeming bazaars of Old Delhi in India. The sensory overload of what was (and still is) a typical morning commute for a Delhiite awakened something profound in both young men, who went on to write about the experience famously in ways that resonate till this day.
Idealistic Youth #1:
“As we crawled through the city, we encountered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming… People, people, people.”
Idealistic Youth #2:
"Small animals were not the only beings in great abundance. So were people. Along one long sidewalk, I saw hundreds of wooden shelves about the size of a refrigerator lying on their sides. Each served as home for at least one person. Even less fortunate souls lay on the grass or in the brown dirt with a tattered blanket serving as their only shelter. Some had only rags to protect themselves from the elements. About a block from the YMCA, an old man grunted as he squatted and defecated in the gutter. A little further on, a bony couple engaged in mechanical sexual intercourse while two children sat beside them, taking little notice of their parents as they played in the dust. Millions in India live out their lives on the public streets awash in the dried mud. There they are born, and there they bathe, eat, sleep, excrete and copulate. As attested by the teeming population, the one thing they seem to do best is breed."
Can you guess who the famous authors of these passages are?
All right, let me give you just the names - and see if you can identify who wrote which passage above: Paul Ehrlich and David Duke.
Surely the ghost of Thomas Malthus must've been actively patrolling those alleys of Old Delhi back in those days, seeking out idealistic young white tourist souls to pounce upon! And yet, how different the paths that ghost led them down...