The Passengers are killing the crew of Spaceship Earth

The essay by Captain Paul Watson below is one of the best I’ve ever read on the overpopulation crisis.  This is just part of it, to read it all (and many other great essays as well), get “Life on the Brink. Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation” 2013 edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist.  What follows is from Chapter 11 “The Laws of Ecology and Human Population Growth”.

Captain Paul Watson:

The earth is a planet, but because it contains complex ecosystems and living entities on a celestial body hurtling through space, it may also be described as a spaceship. 

The living entities that crew this spaceship are millions of species working within diverse ecological niches to maintain the complex life-support system of the ship. The foundation is made up of the species that most human beings regard as the lowest life forms: bacteria, insects, plankton, plants, invertebrates, and fish.

We could call them the custodians or the working crew of Spaceship Earth.  The spaceship in reality belongs to them, not us.  They run it.  We so-called higher forms of life are merely the passengers.  The custodians do not need us, but we need the custodians.

We humans suffer under the delusion that we own this planet.  We do not.  We never have and never will.  We have not been here long, and we will not be here much longer if we continue to operate in contempt of the rules of ecology and in total disrespect of the ship’s crew.

A life-support system requires some essential engineering.  We must breathe, and thanks to trees, plants, bacteria, and plankton we can.  Another necessity, water, has its quality maintained by wetlands, estuaries, plankton, and bacteria.  Eating is another component of our life-support system, and our gratitude must extend to the bacteria, earthworms, bees, beetles, ants, plants, and other animals for that privilege.  We also must have a comfortable temperature gradient in which to live.  Plankton, plants, and animals ensure the integrity of a global climate is maintained.  Finally, there must be a mechanism for recycling waste.  Bacteria, plants, insects, fungi, and animals can all take credit for this vital and often overlooked function.

The ecological reality is that no species can survive long outside of the laws of ecology.  A violation of these laws leads to extinction.  An extreme violation of these laws leads to a major extinction event.  That is the situation in which we find ourselves at the moment.  One species, our own, has radically violated the basic laws of ecology, placing us in the midst of a major extinction event.  Between the year 2000 and the year 2065, we will lose more species of plants and animals than the planet has lost in the last 65 million years.  The last major extinction event was caused when a comet collided with our spaceship.

It is like the passengers on an ocean liner partying in luxury, while slaughtering and feeding upon the engineers, navigators, and crew, only to find themselves adrift, with no place to go and nothing to eat or drink, and wondering where the crew went as they slowly starve. This is not something that most people want to hear.

The biggest problem is that people for the most part don’t care.  What we have is collective apathy fueled by distractions and diversions. This is evident in what human societies consider important.  Religion, sports, and entertainment are the three most notable forms of collective mass escapism from the realities of ecology. Consider that the video game World of Warcraft has over 11 million subscribers, and there is not a single environmental or conservation organization in the world that can equal that number of supporters.

Intelligent and ecologically concerned people cut right to the chase and declare they will have no children.  Considering that such people would be hard pressed to outnumber the regular players of World of Warcraft, this does not bode well as a solution. Ecologically intelligent men and women refraining from reproduction leave the world in the hands of the ecologically ignorant and the anthropocentrically arrogant.  If the biocentrically oriented refrain from having children, while the ecologically ignorant reproduce, the self-sacrificing people would act like cuckoo birds, paying taxes to raise the children of people who will do little to solve our problems.  The population will grow even larger, with a higher proportion in the eco-idiocracy.

Then there is immigration, which enables less responsible countries like Catholic Mexico and Muslim Pakistan to export their surplus numbers to other countries.  And since rich countries consume many times more resources per capita than poor countries, immigrants moving from poor nations to rich nations increase their consumption enormously, making global ecological problems even worse.

Social justice advocates will be angered by this, but the reality is that the laws of ecology are unconcerned with how humans treat each other.  Alleviating poverty and empowering minorities are noble endeavors but irrelevant to the basic fact that resources are finite and there are limits to growth.

As populations increase and carrying capacity is reduced, the costs of food and commodities will continue to rise.  Societies will not be able to keep up the charade of “sustainability”, a word that has been used to mask the destruction of resources.

Before we are faced with potential collapse, especially when fossil fuel resources are diminished and overall global carrying capacity is reduced, concerted attempts should be made to lower our populations.

Rather than endure genocide, war, famine, or pestilence, societies may choose to implement a more humane answer, although one that is in opposition to what is often falsely seen as a fundamental human right: the right to unlimited procreation.

Having children should be seen as a limited right with commensurate responsibilities.

Limit parenthood to those who are able to show they can provide financially and educationally for their offspring, and discourage all couples from having more than 2 children, who should not be raised in abject poverty or ignorance, nor should future children be forced to live in a crowded, ecologically barren world.

This would not only reduce our current excessive demands on the biosphere but also prepare us for a future balanced relationship between humanity and an ecologically restored Earth.  It would also help ensure that couples a few centuries from now can exercise their right to have a child or two of their own.

The world 100 and 200 years from now will be vastly different from what we see today.  The end of oil will be the end of civilization as we know it and the beginning of a new relationship between humans and nature.  The alternatives to fossil fuel energy are not practical; at least not if we expect them to provide the sort of cheap, abundant energy we have gotten used to in recent years.  Solar and wind power probably cannot satisfy the needs of 7 or 8 billion people.  Nuclear energy requires vast amounts of fossil fuel to extract finite resources of uranium ore, process and transport the uranium, and there is no way to safely and securely store the nuclear waste.

It’s time to back off from the all-you-can-eat passenger buffet.  The crew of this magnificent spaceship needs our respect and our support.  They also need to be given some rights; most importantly, the right to survive, flourish, and continue to do what they do best: keep us all alive.

The needs of the crew are more important than the needs of the passengers, and we humans have been enjoying first-class service at the expense of the crew for too long.  We will survive only by rejecting the anthropocentric perspective in favor of a biocentric point of view, and by living in harmony with all other species.  We must realize that any species, including our own, survives as part of a collective whole, in accordance with the laws of diversity, interdependence, and finite resources.

Captain Paul Watson helped found Greenpeace in 1972 and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in1977..the world’s most active marine nonprofit organization.  His books include:

  • Sea Shepherd: My fight for Whales and Seals
  • Cry Wolf
  • Ocean Warrior
  • Earth Force
  • Seal Wars

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I think that the only meaningful action we could take to lessen the die-off and suffering ahead would be a global program to make birth control and abortion available everywhere, and in the United States, to drastically lower immigration levels.  Since peak oil was reached in 2005 and the exponential oil decline rate of 9% is likely to start in 5 to 20 years, no other solution could possibly make as much of a difference in the short time we have left.  If David Pimentel is right that the carrying capacity of the United States is 100 million without fossil fuels (at a lifestyle of meat and a glass of wine once a week), then all the other solutions, i.e. organic gardening, stronger local communities, a vegetarian diet, and so on, can’t possibly make up for the resources needed by the 220 million “extra” Americans, not to mention that at least 300 million have no clue how to survive going back to a wood-energy-based lifestyle plus live far beyond where most of the calories we eat can be delivered by truck or rail in the future.  Ecologists tend to blame the prevailing economic belief that there’s “No Limits to Growth” for our predicament, but I wonder how much blame future historians will assign to the Sierra Club for making population and immigration non-issues and taboo to talk about.

Alice Friedemann

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One Response to The Passengers are killing the crew of Spaceship Earth

  1. Great post and important message. Thanks.

    The metaphor of crew and spaceship applies so well. But while we are all passengers, it is as if the crew is not yet well defined – and not willing to take command.

    I know if I enter an airliner, that the captain is in charge, and I must follow the rules or be expelled. It is for the safety of all the passengers and crew.

    But the crew of Spaceship Earth is still involved in plundering the ship rather than piloting the craft. If I was on any ship on the high seas or in air or space, I would expect those in command to protect passengers and crew. For some reason, those treading the land feel immune or excused from these rules. Doubtless, as danger and calamity rises, this behavior will change. Since time is running out, I wish we could quickly identify the crew and commanders.