In discussions about the problems posed by growing population, resource use and environmental impact, idealists sometimes sing the praises of tribal peoples as an antidote to the ills of modern life. Ancient people, they say, led unsullied, happy lives in harmony with nature and each other. Even today, the idealists add, a few isolated instances still exist. Some enthusiasts hint that we should give up our TVs and SUVs, strap on a loin cloth and join the crowd around the campfire. We appreciate such optimism -- and maybe even agree that there is a lot that is positive about life without traffic jams and air pollution. But, we rather suspect that tribal peoples were and are a lot like the rest of us -- sometimes life was good and sometimes not. Some were stinkers and some were decent folks.

We'll also observe that one can learn lessons from every group, both the successful ones and the failures -- as Jared Diamond has shown in his highly recommended book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. We'll even downplay examples of stone age tribals who wrecked their environment, wiped out the megafauna on entire continents and cooked and ate their neighbors -- and instead admit that there were, and still are, others who lived in low impact harmony with nature, an existence that could probably go on more or less forever if allowed to.

But, that "allowed to" caveat is a bit of a sticking point.

Unsullied or not, I have to say that I don't find the focus on such peoples particularly helpful. Even if one stipulates for the sake of discussion that tribal peoples are universally possessed of all-seeing wisdom and virtue (which many would dispute, some vehemently), the plain fact is that a great many of the 6+ billion people on earth today (heading toward 9 or 10 billion before leveling off, according to some demographers) have no intention of returning to such a state voluntarily. (What happens when the oil runs out and there is no alternative is a different story! But, then again, that won't be voluntary. . .) Furthermore, left to their own devices, those billions will eventually overrun the remaining garden spots as well.

From Outhouse to Cyberspace

I'll count myself in the latter category. I like indoor toilets, antibiotics and the specializations of modern life that allowed me to have an intellectually challenging and rewarding career in a field other than hunting down and killing the next meal. (No offense intended, of course, to those who prefer that life.) I come by a preference for indoor plumbing naturally. I was born in a house, not a hospital, and I spent my early years walking through the rain and snow to the outhouse when nature called; my greatest fear as a very small child was falling into that awful pit! The Sears catalog wasn't much fun either! And antibiotics probably saved my life many times over because I caught just about every childhood disease known to mankind. Not to mention a few stitches, broken bones and knocked out teeth.

As to the career, a high degree of specialization, some of it not directly devoted to production, is one of the things that distinguishes technologically advanced peoples from less differentiated tribal associations. Sorry folks, but a long time ago my particular tribe mastered the art of dividing up complicated tasks into constituent parts and parceling out the assignments, the better to complete the whole. Maybe it was a byproduct of developing the smarts needed to survive an ice age. Or, maybe the big monkey just enjoyed giving orders to everyone else. Or, maybe it was just blind, dumb happenstance. Whatever it was, that's what my tribe does -- and I don't intend to apologize for it or give it up willingly.

I do, however, believe strongly that we have to live within our means.

I suspect that most lovers of nature would agree that the current trends in population growth and resource use (and the pollution and environmental degradation that results from it) are leading us toward an even worsening situation. All three are important; there are too many of us and some of us are consuming resources and impacting the environment in a variety of ways at a rate that cannot be sustained, at least not at the present numbers. I hope we can all agree that we must eventually reach a sustainable balance of population, resource consumption and enironmental impact. This undoubtedly means fewer people as well as more careful consumption.

There are far too many aspects that go into sustainability to discuss here -- or even enumerate -- but certainly the factors include sustainable agriculture, forest management, erosion control, avoidance of complete resource depletion, pollution control, renewable energy sources, recycling in all its forms, and much, much more. (See the above referenced Collapse for a good discussion.) And, while we're at it, I'm sure most of us also hope we can preserve at least some of the wilderness that those of us who love nature find so important.

No Man is an Island

Certainly there are people who find a less complex lifestyle appealing -- call it tribal life, to make clear the contrast with modernity. Or maybe they just prefer living life away from the cities and the crowds -- like me, only more so. I can certainly relate to that. Thankfully the world is not yet so overrun that such ways of life are impossible, though we seem to be headed in that direction. And, there are beneficial lessons to be learned from the simple life. But, unless people attracted to that way of living also participate in the processes and institutions that govern the wider world, they will have little or no impact on the course of events in that bigger pond, where the mega-problems of overpopulation, runaway resource use and environmental degradation are begin played out.

What's more, if we collectively do not avert the population, resource and environment train wreck that seems headed our way, there is a significant risk that the thing they value so highly will eventually be taken from them. So, it would seem that they should pitch in and help out -- even if it means occasionally coming out of the forest and joining the fray.

With that in mind, the real challenge for those of us who would prefer to maintain some semblance of modern civilization -- but practiced in a more sustainable manner -- is to find ways to work within the framework of existing institutions and perceptions to effect positive changes. Within our current system, that means participating in the political process. I take a back seat to no one in detesting certain aspects of the system we presently live under (which I would characterize as the feast of the robber barons), but it is the system we have and it can be worked successfully with enough will, skill and patience.

To succeed, we must approach the task of convincing people to our way of thinking by citing examples they can relate to rather than examples they may consider idealistic and simplistic. Some people will find wisdom and motivation for change in the supposedly tranquil and bucolic life of tribal peoples. But, those same examples will immediately cause others to tune out. Once again, that doesn't mean we can't learn from people who are different, but we need to keep in mind where we are starting from as well as the wide range of perspectives that exist among those who must be moved to adopt change.

Achieving sustainability will requires addressing both population and resource use. Fewer people means family planning -- unless you like the idea of war, famine and disease as population controls. Family planning is already a major focus in some countries, and the goal should be to make it even more so in the future. We may also need to practice tough love with respect to foreign aid. While it sounds cruel, feeding the hungry throughout the world is likely to cause more people to come into being, not fewer, unless the feeding thereof is conditioned on effective family planning.

However, population size is only part of the equation. It seems vital to take a much longer term approach to resource use, recycling and minimizing creation of waste and pollution. To date, we have mostly treated the world's resources as inexhaustable and the oceans and spare land as a garbage dump of limitless capacity. That simply cannot continue indefinitely, and it would be far better to address problems now, while structured and orderly solutions are possible.

Sustainability is the Goal

If these thoughts sound a lot like the kind of talk coming from existing environmental, conservation and family planning movements, and the types of government initiatives that have resulted from them, that should come as no surprise. Sustainability movements have arisen in response to many of the current negative trends, and they are addressing at least some of the relevant issues, however imperfectly. And, not only are they are doing so in a way that a wide range of people can relate to, but they are having an effect -- although perhaps not as much of an effect or as fast as needed. Not to say that any of this is perfect; we should always strive to do better. But, part of doing better is getting more people educated and involved. To accomplish that, they need examples they can relate to.

One of the major problems we face, as Collapse points out, is that many exploitative practices yield enormous benefits to a few but cost each ordinary individual only a little -- at least in the short run. Thus, it is difficult to make people sufficiently aware of and stirred up about long term negative consequences to get them to take action before crisis overtakes us all. But it must be done. Grassroots activism is not very glamorous and the rewards are often a long time in coming. But if the numbers are there it can be effective. Given the direction we are headed, problems will become ever more obvious. Given that, the worsening situation will serve as a catalyst for developing effective solutions. The more we push, the sooner it will happen -- and the less difficult the recovery will be.

© 2008 Michael W. Masters   Return to top