Population and the Future’s Deep Past

Now that you have seen the population mess we got ourselves into, and what was behind it, I want you to consider your own prospects in that department. And here much depends upon whether I am more or less correct in my assumptions about population dynamics, or if many of the so-called experts are closer to the truth. As it happens, I am acquainted with a group of population activists, who see very clearly that we are now in overshoot. What they do not see clearly, in my opinion, is what actually drives humans to overpopulate. Nor do they see population dynamics as scale-dependent, and so would perceive your situation, or the situation of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and the situation today as identical in principle. They are the experts, but I believe they are wrong in this. I leave it to you to decide which view best accords with your own sense of how thing work in the world.

One of these population activists has stated the problem thus: “We are genetically engineered to reproduce, and so we do; we are genetically engineered to consume, and so we do; we are genetically engineered to use our intelligence to maximize the above, and so we do.” This is fairly standard thinking among those trained in the traditions of scientific materialism, and tends therefore to be mechanistic and deterministic in outlook. My own educational bias would have me replace the words ‘genetically engineered’ with ‘culturally conditioned,’ thus making the population problem less about biological imperatives that drive and rule us, and considerably more about our proclivities as a social, cultural, and psychological animal who functions as a member of a group.

While it is undeniable that the human being comes with a strong sex drive, this is not identical to being genetically engineered to maximize reproduction. This construction seems to assume that the human being possesses little free agency, if any at all. We just behave as we have been genetically programmed to, with no choice in the matter of making babies. I believe it is much more nuanced than this: that the human tends to have a lot of children when it is perceived that the resource base will support many new humans. So, perception is a key factor, and is relevant at both the individual and group level. And because the human is a grouping, as well as a cultural, animal, group sentiment about population size will weigh heavily with couples considering parenthood possibilities. There is very little incentive to produce more children than the land base can support, because only grief can come from exceeding the carrying capacity of the land.

The concept of incentives—and disincentives—is in fact central to my understanding of population dynamics, and human behavior generally. I would think this should be self-evident to all, but somehow it is not, so I will try to spell out just how incentives can work to limit population.

Let me tell you a story about some people I know—a story with implications for your own situation. These are tribal people, three different tribes, who live on the Lower Klamath River, in the extreme north of what is now the state of California. The aboriginal territory of the Karuk Tribe encompassed about a million acres, extending from just above the confluence of the Trinity River with the Klamath in the west, to some seventy miles upriver beyond what is now the hamlet of Happy Camp. According to tribal tradition, they have occupied this land from time immemorial. According to the carbon dating of Western science, there is evidence of tenancy along this stretch of river going back nine thousand years.

The Karuk’s neighbor to the west is the Yurok Tribe, and their territory begins where the Karuks’ leaves off: from the where the Trinity and the Klamath Rivers join, downriver some forty miles to the Pacific Ocean.

The territory of the Hupa Tribe begins near the mouth of the Trinity and straddles that river for roughly thirty miles upstream. Historically, the Klamath and the Trinity Rivers have had abundant runs of migratory steelhead, eels, sturgeon, and salmon, with roughly a million fish entering the estuary in an average year.

Because of their location at the Klamath’s mouth and the lower forty miles of river, the Yuroks had first access to the fish that entered the estuary, giving them a possible chokehold on the finny resources they shared with their neighbors.

According to a worldview proclaimed by many scientists, and accepted by many non-scientists: humans are naturally selfish, competitive, and warlike. We are genetically engineered to be this way, as are all the other creatures in this dog-eat-dog world. This view is a form of Neo-Darwinism, but far removed from Darwin’s own careful observations of the natural world. It is a doctrine, an ideology, held by a certain faction within the scientific community– one which is not based in science, and, in fact, is clearly contradicted by many of the behavioral sciences, including much paleo-anthropology.

I bring all this up because these three tribes of the Lower Klamath River did not (and do not) behave according to the dictates of their presumed ‘genetic engineering.’ They did not overrun their resource base and they did not overrun each other. Why? Because they had strong incentives to live at peace with one another, and within their means.

You might think that because these three peoples spoke widely different languages that their cultural practices would also be widely different. In fact they are amazingly similar, and a prime reason for this is that intermarriage among these three peoples has been commonplace going back hundreds and even thousands of years. This intermingling of families and languages and traditions over long time has led to natural alliances as well as a blending of lifeways, spiritual practices, and cultural beliefs.

All three share a deep connection to their fish-rich rivers, and to the fish themselves– which is the mainstay of their collective lives. Then, too, the geographical area they share is one of the most biologically diverse in the world, giving rise to an incredible number of tree species, including five separate species of acorn-bearing oak trees– including the tanoak, their agreed favorite, for its superior texture and flavor.

Deer and elk are also plentiful, as are mushrooms, grouse, huckleberries, and scores of other plants and animals indigenous to this mountain and stream country of the Lower Klamath. Rich in diversity of landscapes as well as life-forms, this country is as much a delight to the eye as to the palette. This is, in short, highly desirable territory: a place where these people’s ancestors lived for untold generations, and where future generations might have gone on living indefinitely, had invaders not intervened.

I could tell you the brutal story of an idyllic life interrupted by gold-crazed white savages with murder in their eyes and hearts: of genocide, land theft, betrayal, and the spending down these peoples’ resource until little was left of this once-cherished world. But the ecocide and genocide perpetrated by European invaders is not the focus here. Instead, I want to look at some of the reasons why these people did not overpopulate their land base or make war upon one another when that is presumed by some as an all-but-inevitable outcome of our ‘genetically engineered’ human nature.

These three tribes of the Lower Klamath were particularly fortunate in their choice of where to call home, including the fact that they were so geographically isolated from the rest of the world that for millennia they were able to live their lives undisturbed by outsiders. This is fortunate for us, too, because it gives us an exceptionally long-lived undisturbed social experiment with scientifically verifiable results—results that in many instances turn conventional expectations on their head.

Those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives on a family homestead may claim some knowledge of what it means to feel attached to a particular place. Farming and ranching families very often claim to feel a ‘love of the land.’ City folk, who have never become intimate with a large piece of natural landscape, really have nothing significant in their experience to relate to the kind of attachment to place that I am going to talk about next. And if you yourself have spent your whole life in a bunker or a cave because it is too dangerous to go out into the light of the sun, I do not expect immediate and empathic comprehension of these people’s motives and mindsets. I would only ask that you use your imagination; that you put yourself in the moccasins of these fortunately situated people, and consider what you would do, if you had their lives to live.

Historically, we transplanted Europeans have been a footloose people, and though our ancestors may have yearned for a place they could call their own, very few families have been allowed land tenancy for more than a handful of generations. In such a case we are talking about a particular piece of land belonging to—that is, being ‘owned’ by—a particular family, for let’s say a hundred years or more. Along with the title for the land comes the presumption that this piece of ground can be used in any way that the ‘owner’ chooses, with virtually no prohibitions or taboos. Land is private property, real estate, and is valued as a more or less fungible economic commodity. Can a white man love the land he lives on? Of course. It happens all the time. But owning land—even if tenderly nurtured and cared for—is quite a different proposition than belonging to the land.

What does it mean for a people to belong to the land?

What does it mean for the people themselves, and what does it mean for the land?

When your ancestors’ bones, going back dozens or hundreds of generations, are buried in the ground beneath your feet, this gives you a special claim to the land you stand on. When the stories of your people tell about these ancestors, and put them in particular places on the landscape that you frequent yourself, this makes you feel rooted in this land your people claim as their spiritual home. When you’ve grown up learning from your uncles and elders where to find the best acorns, dig the best balsamroot, or find deer grazing at dawn ; when you have spent untold days on the river fishing with cousins and brothers, harvested medicinal plants with your grandmother, and picked huckleberries with a lover in the mountains; when you’ve learned where to gather the wild mushrooms, and when; where to find the best basketry materials, and the prime time to pick wild iris for the making of cordage; when you have gone to the sacred Elk Mountains to seek a vision, gone swimming in the deepest creek holes of summer, and hiked with friends to the high lakes for the refreshment of their clear waters—then you have begun to know what it is to belong to a place.

This is belonging that comes from knowing the lay of the land in all its physical variety, and in all seasons. This way of belonging is shared with others on a daily basis, and includes lore passed down from the ancestors–and with it a deepened sense of continuity in place. But knowledge of belonging to this place runs even deeper than this, because of the cultural lens through which all this is experienced. Unlike the reductionist lens through which materialist science would have us see the world– with matter itself as inert, lifeless stuff lacking in any of the qualities with which we humans are imbued, which of course begs the question of where our own intelligence, sentience, personhood, and volition comes from, as if something can come from nothing– these native peoples, and most indigenous people everywhere, recognize that the Earth is inhabited by what they would describe as spirits. In their world, which is known to them to be sacred, everything is individuated and possesses the dignity of personhood. Of course everything has its own particular kind of sentience and intelligence, its own reason for being, and the will to become what it is meant to become.

Of course this view of a world that is fully alive and sacred has far-reaching implications for how a people will live their lives, including how many children they will see fit to bring into the world. I have said that perception is a vital component to reproductive choices, as are perceived incentives. If you and your people have belonged to a particular place for a very long time, and it is a good place for your people to go on living, you have a strong incentive to avoid careless or reckless behaviors, and to live circumspectly in place, informed by attitudes of reverence and gratitude.

As for the mechanics of population control, there have long been several options open to humans. In the case of these particular peoples, the men and the women have traditionally slept in separate quarters: the women and children in the long house and the men and older boys in the sweat house. This segregation by gender has been accompanied by a culturally cultivated prudishness toward sex, and taboos against secret trysts. Most sexual activity, and most pregnancies, occurred in the high country during the berry season of high summer. Other birth control strategies, among these people who had a thoroughgoing understanding of their local pharmacopeia, included herbal equivalents of morning-after pills and plants that would induce miscarriage. They also practiced the nursing of infants until their fourth or fifth year, physiologically discouraging unwanted pregnancies thereby. And if all else failed, there was always infanticide.

The motivation of these people to control population was strong. Recognizing that they lived in a territory that provided high-value nutrition, but could support only a limited number of humans, the people were forced to make a choice. If they allowed their population to exceed their resource base, children, elders, and others they loved would die. The single other option would be to expand their resource base by killing off their neighbors—many of whom were also family. One group having no particular technological or numerical advantage over the other, the outcome of such an enterprise was likely to be highly unsatisfactory all around. All out war made no sense, but this is not to suggest that there were never tensions or clashes among neighbors.

All three tribes built temporary weirs out into the river to trap and retrieve migrating salmon. Usually these were built in pairs: one from one side of the river, the other from the opposite bank and just upriver. When constructed according to tradition, these weirs allowed considerable escapement of fish to proceed on their upriver journey. But what if some enterprising young Yuroks decided to build a third weir above the other two and thereby take fish that would normally be harvested by their neighbors upstream? Two things would happen. The womenfolk would know of this right away, and many of these would have kinship ties to the Karuks, the Hupas, or both. Not wanting to see her relatives suffer privations, they would talk to her own menfolk about taking out that third weir. If they didn’t respond favorably, she would get word to her relatives upriver. And soon a contingent of hotheaded young men would be down in Yurok territory taking things into their own hands. Blood would likely be shed, but whoever’s blood it was, that third weir would come out—as would, in time, the other two.

Everyone would know that it wasn’t right for one people to take more than their fair portion of a shared resource—including all but a few of the Yuroks. ‘Take no more than you need’ is a fundamental principle of the hunter-gatherer lifeway, and it is not just some abstract ideal. It is a guideline that conserves the resource base over long time even as it respects the sacredness of all life forms.

Empathy is a key factor here, in both the human and the other than human realm. In addition to the intermarriage which brings these peoples into each other’s orbits, their ritual lives also intersect. All three tribes are fix-the-world peoples whose World Renewal Ceremonies are nearly identical, because they have been invited guests to one another’s multi-day ceremonies and have shared in their spiritual practices. This close interaction among groups has had the effect of investing their neighbors with their full humanity, thereby countering any tendency to demonize them as an alien Other, who might then be treated with disrespect. Empathy and mutual respect make for better relations among humans than their opposite, and both can be cultivated at the personal as well as the group and cultural level.

When it comes to enforcing cultural norms, scale is critical. Like their more mobile forager cousins, these people of the salmon tended to live in groups of twenty to thirty people, with one or two strategically located villages reaching as many as fifty individuals. There were no ‘chiefs’ among these tribes, though there was slightly more stratification than among immediate return hunter-gatherers. That is, some families and village sites had more prestige than others, and healers and ceremonial leaders were held in higher esteem than others. In general, leadership tended to arise out of the particulars of the moment and then recede as the situation was resolved. For instance, each of these peoples had worked out its own schedule of fines to levy against wrongdoers, ranging in severity to match the wrongful deed. Everyone knew the cost of each infraction, but a particular individual would have to emerge to extract the fine from the perpetrator and pass it on to the victim(s). With no police and no judicial system, these people regulated behavior with simple peer pressure—as humans always have—and when group pressure wasn’t sufficient to control all behaviors, this system of fines was used to enforce group norms.

In a group where everyone knows everyone else, what is perceived to be the common good is socially enforceable on a day-to-day basis. This would include the number of people that any village’s land base could support in an average year, and thus the number of children that any such living unit could safely allow into its fold.

In a mass society, like the one I live in: where we have lost this intimate connection with the people around us, and are ruled by anonymous authoritarian systems of externally imposed enforcers and laws that may or not be just; where the growth demands of our systems take precedence over, and short-circuit, our own deepest interests and human needs; where land may ‘belong’ to people, but almost no one belongs to the land, and no one is thinking about the seventh generation; where we are so out of touch with Nature and Mother Earth that we behave as if our resource base has no limits; where everything has grown far beyond the natural human scale, and the inborn capacities that our evolutionary history has provided us with—it is easy to see how some get lost in the abstractions of biological determinism, and believe that we are run by locked-in automatic programs that we have no capacity to override; that we are feckless victims of our own biology.

If those who say that we are genetically engineered to reproduce and consume, and to use our intelligence to maximize our reproduction and consumption, then I would say that you (and our species) are doomed—doomed to consume and over-reproduce yourself into oblivion, like the snake that eats its own tail, and keeps on eating until there is nothing left but teeth and gaping appetite.

I cannot believe that the Project of Life is built on such a model, that it could have endured for four billion years based on a balls-out ‘genetically engineered’ zero-sum winner-take-all program of maximization. This model is, I believe, a reflection of our human-devised predatory/parasitic economic system, and has been made into an ideology to rationalize our living so out of balance with Mother Earth and all our relations. It is a rationalization to justify our living by Theft.

I believe that Nature works on the principle not of maximization–for one particular (favored) species– but of optimization for all. This has been called the Balance of Nature, and it operates on the principle of reciprocity, in a world where all flourishing is mutual. I believe you are being asked to choose between two worlds; one made by Nature and one made by man. And what you believe about your world will go a long way toward making that world what it is.


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