Monday, October 28, 2019

Overpopulation from the perspective of an airplane

This 500-word post is one of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

In the 1995 comedy Father of the Bride Part II, George Banks (Steve Martin) and his wife Nina Banks (Diane Keaton) get news that they will be first-time grandparents, and then, soon afterwards, get news that they will be parents again themselves—because Nina is unexpectedly pregnant.  George and Nina leave the doctor’s office looking out different windows of their car while thinking about what this second bit of news means to them.  I could not quickly find the delightful scene online, but Wikepediaconfirms it: “As they are driving home, Nina and George have differing perspectives on the prospect of becoming new parents again.”  Indeed: since it’s comedy, Nina looks out her window and actually sees things representing the joys of parenthood, like a young daughter skipping blissfully with her mother, but George looks out his window and sees things representing the difficulties of parenthood, like a young son angrily throwing a fit at his father.

I mention this because I have a theory of why people’s opinions on overpopulation may start differently before they really study it.  I say this because I actually have such opinions right now; I have not really studied it.  My theory is that two common ways of experiencing an airplane flight may partly explain different initial armchair opinions on overpopulation.

Sometimes when you ride an airplane, especially in a window seat, during the daylight hours when you can look down and see the ground below, and you stare at mile after green mile of uninhabited grassland, or mile after brown mile of uninhabited desert, you might catch yourself thinking, “the earth is overpopulated with humans in about the same way that the sky is overpopulated with birds.”  The claim does not just seem false, but obviously, comically, ridiculously false.

Other times when you ride an airplane, especially in an aisle seat, during a crowded flight towards the back of the plane, you focus on what is inside the airplane: the seats packed six or more to a row, the isles made enough to thin for walking without bumping people, the smells of other passengers, the screaming of an infant, and the sight of a family boarding with many young children that you realize in horror are about to fill up all the seats around yours, you might catch yourself thinking, “you know, maybe if there were not so many people on the planet…”

These two types of experiences can happen on the same day, or the same flight, even simultaneously, to the same person.  But they may partly explain where the burden of proof seems to be for the thought, as you begin your descent into Los Angeles, and look out the window at mile upon grey mile of highways and homes: “even if some cities may be in some sense overcrowded, that is different than the planet being overpopulated.”

Russell DiSilvestro
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

1 comment:

  1. Russell, I think you are right that neither of these perspectives is very informative, and also right that this is how our initial probabilities in fact get formed. That is probably ok as long as we are willing to expose ourselves to new data and update accordingly.

    People can obviously have very different reasons for believing that there are too many people. If you hate people, then one is too many. But if you are more or less ok with people existing, then presumably it has to do with things like sustainability and perhaps our effect on other living things whose lives or wellbeing one might value intrinsically.

    The problem is that such views are all predicated on current practices and, especially, current technology. Before the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen from the air (which led the way to the creation of chemical weapons but also industrial fertilizer) we lived in a Malthusian world of rapid population growth and no way to sustain it. The world was fantastically overpopulated at the beginning of the 20th century when it contained less than 2 billion people.

    In our children's lifetimes humanity may create an industrial process for making food from the air (that is what nature does now, after all) and a means of producing energy that is almost carbon neutral. In such a scenario, overpopulation could become the least of our worries.