A crowded planet. Disappearing nature. Faces of deprivation. These are the images we associate with what we call "the population explosion," referring to the huge surge in human numbers during the past several decades. It is not a sustainable trend: as Paul Simon sings in the song "Born at the Right Time," "The planet groans / every time it registers another birth."
Perhaps more than any other global issue, population is an immensely complicated puzzle – one that must be solved soon, before a collapsing ecosystem solves it for us. The puzzle pieces are, in turn, linked to virtually everything concerned with sustainability, from agriculture (which supports us at the cost of pesticide poisoning and disappearing topsoil) to zoos (where the species we have shoved aside must eke out a miniaturized existence).
The puzzle itself is a product of our history. Our millennia-long struggle against the elements has programmed us with what Elias Canetti calls "the desire to be more." More we have certainly become, yet we still relate to nature as an enemy to be defeated with hordes and swords. We humans now hold the Earth in an ever-tightening siege, with millions of reinforcements arriving every day – even though the battle against nature is as obsolete, and as dangerous, as the nuclear Cold War.
Can we break this pattern? What will it take for humans to balance their numbers – and their habits – with the needs of this wondrous living sphere we call home? What will it take for the planet, instead of groaning, to sing in celebration at the arrival of each new child?
This issue explores some of the many possible answers to these questions. We focus especially on important pieces that tend to get lost in the fractious debate over the population puzzle, including:
- the inspiring example of intentional conception and childbirth as practiced by the Tibetan people
- how cultural obsessions – and taboos – around sexuality complicate the dynamics of population growth; and
- the importance of overcoming our fear of death and, instead, embracing it as a natural – and even wonderful – part of life.
We also examine topics like voluntary childlessness, family planning success stories, and how a traditional culture (now succumbing to "development") managed to balance its population and resources. And finally, we remind ourselves that efforts to improve family well-being and increase human happiness – which are both good strategies for family planning, as well as worthy goals – involve the making of a simple decision: the decision to love.