I have a saying I made up sometime around the mid 90’s, a time when world population was an issue that made the headlines, when our population was approaching 6 billion people. “We can fix our population problem ourselves, or nature will fix it for us. If we fix it ourselves there are two options, we can either stop people being born or kill ourselves faster. If we wait too long to make a decision then nature will take that choice from us.” I admit I was drunk at the time when I came up with this, it was one of those political discussions only drunk people can have, but having thought about it since I still stand by it.
To some extent the west has already chosen to stop people being born. I don’t believe it is a conscious decision at a societal level but one introduced socially by our own genetic makeup. Whether genetics had this by design or accident doesn’t really matter. At some point our lives got easy, easier than at any point in human history. Overabundance of calories meant the population on average became fatter, reducing sperm count and testosterone leading to an overall decrease in fertility. Large cities create a plethora of partner choices, which contrary to free market thinking actually makes dating harder. People wait longer to be married and the window on women’s fertility drops the longer they wait to have children. There are more factors then these involved but overall the west’s birth rate is now well under 2 children per women in some countries which are far from close to replacement rates.
In other cultures and countries they are slowly joining the west. India has dropped from 24 people born per 1000 people every year to 19. Only the poorest most desperate third world countries are maintaining their birth rates. The human survival instinct is still very much running strong in these countries.
As for killing ourselves faster, well we were doing a good job of that for the first half of the 20th century but frankly our war efforts haven’t been up to the task. I’ve said that jokingly but in all honesty as many as the people who die from war and other methods of mass murder are, this hasn’t been a serious contender in managing the world’s population, it’s also a method that is extremely detrimental to Nature in the countries involved.
So what would nature taking control look like? In the past there were meteor strikes and supernova, but they took out close to 60-80% of all life on Earth. What about something targeted directly at humanity? We are unlikely to have any predators develop, out intelligence puts us at the top of the food chain even though as far as predators go we are soft, pink and not scary at all. Is there something else? Well, in 1918 it didn’t start with a bang or a flash, it started with a fever and diarrhea and 2 years later 5% of the world’s population was dead, all because of the Spanish flu. Or it creates a zikka virus killing our unborn babies. We place great faith in our science today but science takes time, and two years to develop a vaccine or cure is still too short for any serious disease. Nature is perfectly capable of throwing new diseases at us, it does so continually and whether these are antibiotic resistant strains of diseases we already have or completely new diseases our next Spanish flu is likely only a few mutations away.
Yet Huston, we have a problem. You see we contribute to these mutations, we speed them up and in some cases we cause them. Our very fight against nature in our efforts to control nature is likely to create the very killers we are trying to avoid.
Whether we like it or not humanity is part of nature. We build our houses to keep out the weather. We wash our hands to stop getting sick, we build fences to keep out the wild animals and we develop drugs to turn back the tide against virus’ and microbes. Yet no matter how much we like to think we have control of our environment we are still part of the world’s ecosystem, and ecosystems always strive for balance. Whenever there is too much of something or too little in an ecosystem the ecosystem strives to create something that will eat it, kill it or fill the gap. When you clear a field and plant wheat a common, but mostly harmless, rust fungus is given an environment in which to thrive. When you chop down a forest plants that struggled to survive in the forest setting become the weeds of tomorrow. When you make a species extinct an animal is there to reproduce and take the extinct species place. There are no excesses or vacuums in nature, if you make a space in an ecosystem it will be filled by something else, if you have too much of something nature will make it into lunch.
So humanity becomes its own worst enemy. We have too much of one thing – people, cattle and crops, and at the same time too little of another – forests, species and diseases. Nature isn’t in balance at the moment; it hasn’t been for a few hundred years now, but less so in the last 50. We have created too much of one thing and destroyed too much of others. Predators may develop to take out our cattle, but they will take too long to mutate, the generational cycle of animals is measured in decades and years, our scientists will be able to keep ahead of nature’s mutations here. The same applies to plants whose generation cycles are measured in years and months. Yet what scares me is the overuse of pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics and other chemicals we use to control fungus’s, bacteria and viruses. The generational cycle of these things are measured in days and minutes. Eventually we will have enough holes in our ecosystem that only these small things can reproduce and mutate fast enough to fill the voids. We are creating the very conditions that make the next Spanish flu, or swine flu or blue green algae epidemic possible.
I started writing this because a friend of mine is fighting to save the Amazon, directly so in her dream job in Peru. I think her job is worth doing, we should be trying to prevent too many holes in our world ecosystem. Yet I don’t think she will win, not until it’s already too late, if it isn’t already. She wants to connect people with nature again, which if there weren’t too many of us already this would probably work. But the world has created too many holes in nature and we have filled them with cities, towns and farms. It’s an impossible job to reconnect people with nature again because most people are too removed from the world’s ecosystem. We have too much belief in our ability to control the world around us and we underestimate the power of Nature. I think we are secretly relieved that we have won the battle for control, it means we live in the relative safety of our houses and farms that surround us. Yet I think we fail to see that in winning the battle we have set up the circumstances that will lose us the war.
So is this doom and gloom a warning, or prophesy, I don’t know. I was trying to get my thoughts together on this subject and often I usually don’t know what my thoughts are until after I have written them. I’m a special little snowflake sometimes; I see patterns and trends in things that most people miss. I’m not always right but I’m usually more right than wrong, and every time I come back to nature vs humanity I can’t help but think I’m still right, no matter how much I want to be wrong. I think humanity may be in for a rough time in the next fifty years. I don’t think we will halt our population growth quickly enough. I think our hospitals will become some of the most dangerous places on Earth, places of super bugs even casual visitors can catch. I think we will watch most of our crops and cattle die of diseases we can no longer spray or treat. Lastly I think we will see more and more exotic diseases being born into existence to fill the holes we have created and I don’t see any way we can prevent this. I think we won the battle but we might lose the war, nature doesn’t need humanity, but we need nature. Nature will survive long after we have gone, no matter how many holes we create, no matter how hard we try and control it.
Advertising Agency: TBWA\PARIS, France
Executive Creative Director / Creative Director: Erik Vervroegen
Copywriter: Nicolas Roncerel
Art Directors: Caroline Khelif, Leopold Billard, Julien Conter
Account Supervisor : Laurent Lilti
Released: April 2008