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.
Banner image: “Child Labor: Breaker Boys, Pittston, PA, USA, 1911.” by Kelly Short6 is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.
I have always been a strong advocate for abortion being free, easily available, and totally unrestricted, and human overpopulation is the main reason why. I also feel very strongly that a fetus is part of a woman’s body more than anything, so if she wants to abort it that’s her choice and no one else’s business.
A few added facts and comments:
Without artificial fertilizer (which requires the use of fossil fuels to create), agriculture can only provide enough food for 1 billion people. So if industrial society were to end today, 7 out of the 8 billion people on Earth would die of starvation for that reason alone.
Humans have circumvented natural ecological controls ever since they started using agriculture, which provided an unnatural over-abundance of food that caused the first wave of human overpopulation. “Postponing effects” is a good way to put it, because none of this is sustainable, but more important is that these circumventions harm or destroy habitats & ecosystems, and kill or at least displace the native life there.
There is no evidence that the Earth can naturally support more than 5-10 million people. It took agriculture to increase human population beyond that, and agriculture is both unnatural, and destructive of native ecosystems even if it’s done in the least harmful manner (no-till, no spray, etc.). And of course add to that all the harms from unnatural human population growth caused by the unnatural overabundance of food that agriculture provides.
“Carrying capacity” is like “sustainability”: these terms define how much harm humans can do before everything collapses. That’s immoral and should not be the standard. Instead, we should strive for proper ecological balance that benefits the Earth and all the life here, as in the Aldo Leopold quote.
Of course a fetus is alive. So is a cancerous tumor. That doesn’t mean that a woman can’t remove a fetus if she so wants, it’s part of her body more than anything.
I’ve been thinking that, philosophically or spiritually, one of the greatest faults in industrial civilization is tgat we are, to put it one way, playing god by destroying and reshaping ecosystems according to our whims. I’d say the terms heresy or idolotry would be useful here since we are turning our backs on our place in nature. Agriculture is a less extreme form since it does entail reshaping vast tracts of nature to suit our desires. However, I am not as certain that permaculture is inherently negative in the same way.
One of my mother’s male friends was once asked, at a social gathering, if he believed abortion should be legal. His reply was, “I think it should be mandatory.”
I never had a chance to speak with the man in question, so I don’t know for certainty his views on anything else. But I can guess: In my West Texas hometown where he lived, most people were somehow involved in ranching, oil, or construction — which might more accurately be called species bigotry, depletion, and destruction.
The man in question was, for one thing, a biology preservationist. For part of his life, he maintained a storefront dedicated to the nine-banded armadillo — an ancient creature, which most humans of that region refer to dismissively as “roadkill.”
They even joke about armadillos being so stupid, their natural reaction to an approaching vehicle is to jump into the air — where they are killed, an instant later, by impact with the vehicle’s steel undercarriage.
What these self-satisfied human parasites don’t consider, is that armadillos evolved from a much larger predecessor, which lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and was almost the size of a small car. The shell of one is the only thing I remember clearly, from my visit to the state museum in Austin, when I was a child. Humans, in the day of the giant armadillo, were a mistake not even on the evolutionary horizon.
Back to abortion, Will Falk was slightly in error, when he implied that a man will never have to decide whether to have an abortion. As a man, I have been involved in that decision three times — in each case, when a woman I loved told me she was pregnant, and asked what I thought she should do about the pregnancy. In each case (1970, 1972, and 1983), I told the women essentially the same thing: “You make the decision, and I’ll support you 100%.”
Each woman, however, also knew that I did not want children. And each woman went on to have an abortion. (Two of them later married, and raised two children each. The third, to whom I was married at the time, didn’t want children, either. She went back to school, and earned a doctorate in education.)
As for the human carrying capacity of Earth, there are many serious opinions. Stanford population theorist, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, put the number at around 700 million, which was the approximate human census at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Jeff goes back to pre-agriculture’s 5-10 million. Looking at it from the perspective of what humans were capable of, I would put it at zero.
There is nothing humans have done that Earth couldn’t have done well without. So why take the chance that one of these serial thinkers might someday invent the wheel?
I appreciate your messaging and find nothing much disagreeable in your statements. My only quibbles are, firstly, that you didn’t rebuke the common silliness that “the problem is overconsumption, not overpopulation”, and secondly, talk of Rights seems a precarious ground to stand upon for anti-Civ positions, given that the concept of Rights was delivered by The Enlightenment, and Rights are only enshrined and defended by governments: there is no notion of “Rights” among non-humans or uncivilized people. In reality, abortion can hardly be stopped, regardless of what a court or legislators may pronounce or desire; it will continue wherever individual women and small communities decide to undertake it, by whatever means are available between their bioregion and their knowledge of it.
Fussing about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling or restrictive state laws makes people only more reliant on benevolent governance and technological medical centers, neither of which are required for choosing to abort a pregnancy, and both of which are overall negative. Bad laws are to be expected, but not lamented; we must keep our focus on eliminating the technological basis which is killing wild Nature and allowing for increased control of masses of humanity, infringing natural human autonomy.
I have nothing to say about abortion as such… what I don’t agree with is involving it with the very real issue of overpopulation.
The really sticky problem with overpopulation is that there are too many people over 50 (like myself).
China is going through a big problem now: there are too many Chinese altogether, but in proportion, there are too few young Chinese, who will have to support a sickening, ageing population. So a country which – with all its defects – was acutely aware of the problem of overpopulation, is trying to increase the birth rate now.
I don’t have a solution of course, but nature usually finds one.
And normally, nature’s solution targets the top of the population pyramid, not the bottom.
I’ve said this here before. But for any who might have missed it:
As for aging populations, we just need to accept what has always been the norm for other species. When you become too old to take care of yourself, accept your new reality, and die quietly.
As for overshoot, a few mathematical facts: Earth has 5 times the population it had in 1900, when we used 7 billion tons of natural resources per year, 2/3 of which were renewable. Today we use close to 70 billion tons of resources per year, and 2/3 are non-renewable.
At our current exploitation rate, we destroy a forest the size of Panama every year, and create a desert the size of Pennsylvania.
We and the fetuses the anti-abortion people want to save clearly are not sustainable. So, better to abort them today, than have them raping the land and ultimately starving to death, tomorrow.