By Will Falk

(I recognize that I am a man. I will never confront a decision about abortion. I am not trying to tell women what to do with the following. I am, however, humbly trying to offer an argument for enforcing women’s rights to full reproductive freedom that is rooted in neither political or religious ideology, but in ecological reality.)

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopod, A Sand County Almanac

The global economy – the system that brings most humans the basic necessities of life (food, water, clothing, shelter) – is based on, and would collapse very quickly without, the ever-growing consumption of non-renewable resources and the over-exploitation of renewable resources. Fossil fuel consumption is one example (though it is not by any means the only example). Most of the time when we think of fossil fuel consumption we think of tail-pipe emissions from personal automobiles because that is the most overt example of most individuals’ direct use of fossil fuels. But, fueling personal automobiles, of course, is only one way fossil fuels prop up the global economy.

Fossil fuels are essential to the global food supply, for example. The world’s topsoil is also essential to the global food supply and is another one of those non-renewable resources that the planet is rapidly running out of. Humans have postponed the worst effects of local and regional topsoil deficits through the use of fossil-fuel based fertilizers like nitrogen fixers. Fossil fuels are also essential for processes like transporting food from where it’s grown to places humans need that food, for the manufacture and operation of the machines needed to harvest crops supporting humans, etc.

We are depleting many nonrenewable resources like topsoil and fossil fuels at an intensifying pace. This consumption of resources is driven, if not primarily, at least significantly by a human population that is growing exponentially. Basic algebra teaches us that the infinite use of a finite resource, the ever-growing use of a non-renewable resource, leads to the total loss of that resource. In other words, topsoil, fossil fuels, and other non-renewables we are currently losing will not be replaced. (Topsoil takes thousands of years to regenerate. Perhaps it will regenerate in several millennia but that doesn’t help creatures alive and suffering on earth today or for the next several millennia. It certainly doesn’t help any unborn children for the next few thousand years.)

Human population has doubled since 1968 and has grown by 40% since 1987. It appears that human population growth might have slowed from 2% per year for the last 50 years to around 1% per year in recent years. However, all that means is the rate of growth is slowing. It does not mean human population is decreasing.

There’s another aspect to the problem. The rate of resource consumption similarly appears to be increasing. Many mainstream studies estimate that while human population doubled in the last half-century, resource consumption quadrupled. So, each human today, on average, is using 4 times the amount of resources that each human was using in 1970. Right now there are more and more humans using more and more of the natural world that can never be replaced.

This reality means that humans who follow us (the population of which will only be made larger by making it more difficult for women to access abortions) will not only be part of a much larger population, those humans will use more resources than they are today – all while there will be less and less of those resources available.

A primary argument offered by anti-abortionists revolves around the right of a fetus to life. I should note that I am uncomfortable with the distinctions and hierarchies of life that many humans use to justify their position on abortion one way or the other. To me, this argument gets too close to arguments about why animals and other creatures should or should not have rights based on how closely they resemble adult humans. It gets too close to the arguments made by human supremacists seeking to justify the destruction of the natural world because, for them, only humans are truly alive.

So, I’ll take it as a given that a fetus is alive, a person even. Anti-abortionists then argue that a mother’s right to an abortion should not trump a fetus’ right to live. This of course ignores the danger pregnancy threatens a mother’s life with, too.

However, I’ll set that argument aside too because ecological reality undermines the anti-abortionist argument about a fetus’ right to life on its own terms. How?

Quite simply, the vast majority of humans alive today (and the vast majority of unborn fetuses that are not aborted tomorrow) survive by stealing from the future. The laws of ecology which are as immutable as the laws of physics illustrate how this is true.

Generally, whenever a population of any species overshoots the carrying capacity of that species’ habitat, a crash always follows. It is not a question of if a crash will follow, it is only a question of when. And, to make matters worse, when the carrying capacity of a certain habitat is overshot, carrying capacity is permanently eroded. The longer a population exists in overshoot, the more carrying capacity is destroyed. The inevitable crash happens. And, the population, whenever it stabilizes, will be far less than the carrying capacity that existed prior to overshoot.

Ecologists and other scientists have known for decades that human population has overshot Earth’s carrying capacity for humans. The Earth’s carrying capacity for humans is the maximum population of humans which the Earth can support indefinitely. Overshoot is the condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of Earth. Human overshoot has created a carrying capacity deficit, a condition where the Earth’s permanent ability to support human life is less than the quantity of humans already in existence. The Earth’s carrying capacity for humans has been temporarily extended by drawdown. Drawdown has been achieved by extracting resources necessary for human life that cannot be replaced. This drawdown will lead to a crash and a permanent carrying capacity deficit.

The harsh truth, for humans alive today, is that a population crash is coming. Meanwhile, more and more humans are being born who will depend on, and contribute to, the permanent destruction of resources that future humans require. These humans are more likely than we are to experience the horrors of that population crash. How horrific will that crash be? Mainstream estimates of the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans often range in the hundreds of millions. There are nearly 8 billion humans alive today. The die-off will likely be massive. 

The vast majority of humans alive and/or born today are quite literally stealing from the future. The vast majority of human fetuses that survive today are quite literally ensuring that many human fetuses in the future will not even have the opportunity to survive.

Ecological reality, therefore, undermines the argument that abortion infringes on the rights of unborn children because most children born today (especially in developed countries like the US) will consume and permanently destroy resources that future unborn children desperately need. Indeed, in industrialized countries most children born today reduce the number of children that can be supported in the future. Therefore, enforcing an unborn fetus’ right to life today comes at the costs of unborn fetuses right to life tomorrow.

Epilogue: My argument here focuses on effects to humans because I know most humans only care about humans. But, a biophilic reader, while reading my arguments, could (and should) point out that humans are destroying the Earth’s carrying capacity for everyone else we share this beautiful planet with. Right now, industrial humans aren’t just destroying countless other-than-human lives and species, industrial humans are rapidly destroying the very possibility that those creatures can exist in the future.

Author of How Dams Fall Will Falk is a biophilic essayist, poet, and lawyer. The natural world speaks, but rarely in English. Wind and water, soil and stone, fin, fur, and feather are only a few dialects. Will’s work is how he listens.


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Banner image: “Child Labor: Breaker Boys, Pittston, PA, USA, 1911.” by Kelly Short6 is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.