Saturday, August 12, 2017

Genocide, Lebensraum, and the American Dream

Overpopulation is the normal condition, with intermissions after genocide.

As a recent article pointed out, the American Dream has undergone some changes. Where in the Depression, it was an idea of human decency, equal opportunity, and basic living standards for all, it has more recently become more focused on a prosperity gospel, with owning a house as the centerpiece of "making it". This presents great problems, since our society has become so sclerotic and unequal that defining our civic values by such inflated metrics leaves a very large and increasingly restive population behind. One hears echos of "Let them eat cake".

Long before either epoch, however, the American Dream was one thing- free land. Land for the desperate paupers of Europe, land for anyone willing to work, land for the taking and "proving". Rich, beautiful, verdant, and virgin land. With occasional interludes for gold rushes where the free-for-the-taking wealth was underground rather than on the surface. It was a Dream built on the genocide and dispossession of the previous occupants of all this land- the Native Americans. While most of that work was done silently by European diseases, the nascent colonial states were not shy about cleaning up the loose ends, with a manifest destiny of taking ownership of all useful lands of any kind across the continent, leaving the native peoples, when they were not killed directly or by mistreatment, in reservations on the most miserable land available.

Why, then, were we so exercised about the policy of the Nazis in the next century to spread eastward, over the great prairies of central Europe, in search of "Lebensraum"? Was it that those prairies were already occupied? Or was it that they were occupied by people significantly more similar to ourselves, not susceptible to the European diseases, and aready farming, and ready to complain in comprehensible languages? That of course is a bit unfair, since the Nazis authored a much wider range of mayhem, through Europe and world-wide, than just their push to the East. But it is worth re-evaluating our national epic and mythology in this light, since it brings out fundamental forces that recur through history, and promise rocky times ahead.


As Thomas Malthus observed, the natural state of any population of organisms, including humans, is overpopulation. Remissions of this state can happen by predation or catastrophe. Genocides, devastating wars, plagues, droughts, and the like can provide brief respite from this normal, cramped condition. The discovery of the Americas by Europeans was one such event, (as it had been for the Clovis people and their predecessors as well), providing an escape valve, given a total lack of compunction about stealing the lands of others. Another such event has been the technological development of the West, especially our use of fossil fuels, which have magnified our powers and particularly our farming capabilities, with new fertilizers and machinery. This has meant that through the last roughly 300 years, we (especially in North America) have faced a substantially relaxed Malthusian constraint compared to most human cultures. I recently read the biography of the famous jocky Ron Turcotte, who narrates his childhood in New Brunswick thus:
"We have four kids. A big family now is six. Back then, when we were growing up, families of twelve or thirteen were common. One family had twenty-three. We had a very strict priest. if you didn't have kids, you weren't doing what God put you on earth for." ... "The priest would come in, and if there wasn't one baby in diapers, one in the womans' arms, and one in the oven, he'd say the couple was not doing its Christian duty."

So here we are, at a state of dramatic overpopulation, using the lands, air, and minerals of earth far, far beyond her ability to sustain us, using fossil fuels which can never be replaced and which are heating the climate and destroying the biosphere. In the US, we are coming to a state of culture and class war that is a sign of stasis/crisis. The pie is not growing bigger. Overpopulation generally means, culturally, that there is an excess of workers relative to productive capacity, which gives power to capital and those who already have power. It is the kind of situation that leads to inequality, castes, feudalism, and sclerosis.

There are no more frontiers, and we are already living far beyond earth's carrying capacity. By the natural processes of selfish greed, our home is turning into a dump. For example, we are not, in all honesty, close to resolving our carbon dependence, among many other limitations- emissions are rising, not falling, let alone reversing damage already done. In the US, our population is rising relentlessly, yet we have not built significant roads for decades, or even maintained the ones we have. For various reasons of self-interest and cultural drift, we are collectively unwilling even to face up to the population we have, let alone make room for more, were that even desirable. So until we resolve our long-term sustainability issues, we should focus on population reduction, ideally with a universal one-child policy.

While the American Dream has narrowed to one of personal greed, we are at a point when we can and need to think globally, for the long term. The dream should be one of sustainability, over hundreds and thousands of years, given the momentous consequences of our current technologies and lifestyle. Giving in to rampant population growth, however natural it may be, dooms us to an ever more impoverished country and planet. It would be a tragedy, alongside the related tragedies of denying the very reality of climate change, and weakening our scientific and social consciousness of its future course and consequences.


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