Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The First “E”: Ecology

Hi Friends,

In my next three posts, I am going to speak about the things that most concern us as inhabitants of Earth. The three “E’s” are ecology, energy, and economy. I do not pretend to think that my way is the only way or the right way to conceive of our challenges. I really do not have a clue! But I am dumb enough or bold enough to say, "Hey! Isn't there a problem here?!?!?!" So here it is as I see it.

The first “E” is Ecology.

Before we jump right in, you need to watch and listen to the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle. It is good to have a perspective!

OK. Now, you are ready...

There are many definitions of ecology and I am not an expert. I am a simple country preacher. I gladly appreciate your responses. But I will take a stab at it. I am going to speak of ecology as an understanding of life systems. I am interested in how human beings participate in their understanding of ecology. In other words, to what extent are we self-aware of our participation in the life-systems of Earth.

“Man against nature” has been one way of understanding our relationship to Earth. Conquer, dominate. and control have been verbs used to describe our activity. However, man [sic] is Earth. We are not apart from Earth. We part of it. We are nature. We cannot disconnect except in our own fantasies that we are different from Earth and its life-systems. We are born of Earth and to Earth we return. As goes the squirrel, the worm, the elephant, and the poison ivy plant, so go we.

I am not interested (nor am I disinterested) in metaphysical theories about humanity such as an immortal soul, reincarnation, or other views. I am simply bracketing those in order to focus on the human species as a species of Earth.

Ecology has to do in part with populations and their relationship to their environment. Squirrels eat nuts. Therefore, if there are less nuts, soon there will be less squirrels. Increase the nuts, and then there are more squirrels until there are too many squirrels for the nuts, then less squirrels. And on it goes. In its most basic, simplistic form, that is how it works. Populations increase and decrease relative to the food or energy supply of their environment. Of course we need to consider predators and other environmental considerations. In the end, that is all part of the mix. A predator is another’s prey. We participate in a system.

I simply assert the obvious: populations increase and decrease in response to the energy that is available to them and to their ability to adapt to changes in energy and their environment. So what of human beings?

The population of human beings has increased exponentially in the 19th and 20th centuries. Check out this graph.

In 1970, when I was nine, humans numbered 3.9 billion. Today in 2006, our population is 6.6 billion. What is the reason for this increase? Let’s go back:

At the time of Jesus, the world’s population is estimated to be 170 million.

At the height of the middle ages, the world’s population was about 360 million.

When Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation in 1500, the population was 425 million.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1800, the population was 813 million.

Just before the Civil War in 1850, we passed the one billion mark to 1.1 billion.

When my father was born around 1920, we were up to 1.86 billion.

When my brother was born in 1951, the population was 2.4 billion.

When I was born in 1961, we were at 3 billion.

When I graduated high school in 1980, 4.4 billion.

When I graduated seminary in 1992, 5.4 billion.

At the turn of the century, 6.1 billion.

Today, 6.6 billion.

Between 1992 and 2006, by the time I graduated from seminary until today, the world’s population increased by 1.4 billion people. This is a larger increase in 14 years, than the increase in population from the time of Jesus to the Civil War. For reference check here and for a cool population clock watch this.

"So what?" you ask?

My question is why? What is the cause of such a rapid increase in the population of human beings from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries?

One could say: "We increased in population 'cause we are really smart."
I think there is truth there. Because of our intelligence we learned how to manipulate fire.

One could say: "God has blessed us." I have no argument except to say, "What??"

Perhaps many factors play into this, but it seems to me that the
key reason is that we have in the last 150 years discovered a source of energy that we have been able to utilize. That source of energy is found beneath Earth. We discovered fossil fuels. Think of what we can do because of oil and other fossil fuels. This animated film from the 1950’s describes it well. Take time to watch Destination Earth. This clever cartoon produced by the petroleum industry describes the philosophy which has driven our economy. The film ends on the hopeful note that because of oil and competition our destination is now unlimited!

Yup, oil has made life grand. I can hardly imagine life without it. However, the side effects include pollution, namely carbon dioxide emissions that are creating havoc with the environment. Global Warming appears to be one of the results. Al Gore’s new film, “An Inconvenient Truthdescribes what the future could hold for Earth.

And there is another problem. “Destination Unlimited” isn’t exactly accurate. Our oil reserves are not unlimited. An economic system based on unlimited growth which is based in turn on unlimited energy (oil and other fossil fuels) is a fantasy. But hey, who wants to spoil the party?

Ecology is not simply about preserving wildlife. It is about becoming aware of all of life including human life in the balance with all of Earth. As go the squirrels, so go us. Yes, it is sobering. But there are alternatives. We are not toast yet. Al Gore reminds us in his film that many people jump from unawareness to despair. There is a middle step. That is action.

I invite and encourage you to share positive ideas and steps for action! I will share what I know as well. Next time a sober look at energy.

But you should hear the Galaxy Song one more time first!



  1. Antibiotics, man, antibiotics. And food. Lots of food. Personally, I'm in favor of both. How about you?

  2. Good call, Andy. It is time to prepare. How do you store up antibiotics without a prescription?

  3. The Galaxy song puts all in perspective really.

    Overpopulation is a big thing; obviously usage and consumption of resources is directly tied to population. I think we need to shoot for a new global-social paradigm, one that places an emphasis on having fewer children (duck the rotten tomatoes being thrown). That’s a way we can personalize the problem. Having an only child makes the most sense in our modern overpopulated world. I’m not condemning anyone with more than one child or with brothers and sisters; I’m just saying this is a good approach for the young and our next generation to consider; worldwide. I’m not advocating a China-like law either; just the concept as a societal goal, not a law. Of course, the United States isn’t a big problem in terms of population explosion, but as noted, we consume more than our share of resources too, and we also feel the effects of world population by the enormous pressure of immigration.

    Our country also should be more involved in international family planning. Safe birth control options aren’t available in all parts of the world, and they should be. We need to get over our seeming collective rejection of sex. We can’t stop people from having sex, but we can help provide birth control options to those who need it. The Bush administration has performed poorly in assistance to international family planning, a stance that basically places us at odds with the rest of the world on this issue. It’s a catch 22; the Bush Administration has cut funding due to the fact that some of the funded organizations perform abortions, yet without proper birth control means, more unwanted pregnancies are occurring and therefore more abortions. We need to demand better of our government.

  4. Hi Bobbby,

    Good thoughts!

    Population is part of the problem. I mentioned it to get at what is more critical--that is how to live with the remaining resources and the necessity for us to drastically powerdown.

    What I find encouraging is that people are talking about this. If we keep it up, eventually politicians will need to follow.