The Occluded Mirror: A Question of True Transparency

Morrison, Jane Gray, Tobias, Michael Charles | October 14, 2014 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF


So it is now “official”: we can expect to see no stabilization of the human population by 2100. By that time, we are likely to number 11 billion, with at least a meager likelihood of our having hit 13 billion. “Meager” has always boded ill in terms of scientific projections. Our worst nightmares – whether of genocides or the unleashing of chemical, biological or radiological warfare – have always come true. Twenty-two civilizations have gone extinct as a result of those societies consuming beyond their ecological carrying capacity. Now, as outlined on September 18th in an essay in Science (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1257469 – “World population stabilization unlikely this century,” by Patrick Gerland, Adrian Raftery, Hana Ševčíková, Nan Li, Danan Gu, Thomas Spoorenberg, Leontine Alkema, Bailey K. Fosdick, Jennifer Chunn, Nevena Lalic, Guiomar Bay, Thomas Buettner, Gerhard K. Heilig and John Wilmoth) the 14 authors, members of a primary collaboration between the University of Washington and the United Nations Population Division, have shattered the complacency which has, of late emerged in countless venues and publications. 

Yet, since the late 18th century, such complacency has been cogently challenged by anyone who takes the time to examine human fertility dispositions. The demographics are enough to drive sanity to madness. In my early book, World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium (Bear & Co., Santa Fe, NM, 1994), published at the time of the UN Cairo Conference 20 years ago, I titled a chapter examining differences in statistical opinion “Demographic Madness”; and likened those differing computational biological equations for achieving median extrapolations as a kind of “demographic Mount Everest”. One can never predict avalanches. Similarly, predicting human behavior is impossible because there is not one human behavior but, at present, nearly 7.3 billion human behaviors, to paraphrase India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The norms have by and large one thing in common, which has tended to thrust our primate species into the forefront of demonstrative ecological catastrophe. That common thread may come as something of a surprise to readers: neither language, nor fire; or, for that matter, a complex neural circuitry in our cerebellum. Rather, it is clothing that distinguishes our kind from all others, and best explains our current debacle here on Earth, in my opinion.

None of our weapons of mass destruction – from the fork, used most efficiently to consume other animals, to the atomic bomb – have had as much effect on our global environmental impact, our population size, geographical distribution, sexual proclivities and overall I=PAT equivalencies [the Ehrlich/Holdren equation] as have clothing.

Imagine a world in which we were all naked. Such a world would not send people into the Arctic or Antarctic to hunt seals and whales. There would have been no fur trade wars in North America. Settlement of the original Colonies would have been largely restricted by temperature, not the politics of affiliation with native peoples. This, in turn, might well have obviated the need for Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Expansion of past civilizations would not have hung their medals on the back of horses, fire-power, or legions of military-inspired, hegemony-mad tyrants. With nakedness comes sustainability, a world more like the original Woodstock open-air concert, or Aristotle’s agora, than today’s extinction-dominated Anthropocene.

Nudity is an absolute amongst all other species. Bower birds may fancifully outfit their displays, but make no mistake: they are naked. And as such, every other species but the one that dresses itself eventually must experience a demographic boom and bust. The most evident case of this can be read into the story of the now allegedly extinct Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus) whose population swarms between 1873 and 1877 are estimated to have numbered 3.5 trillion individuals, just three decades prior to the species going extinct (DNA of some 400 individuals have been identified in the remains of North American glacier ice).

But since there are very few remaining full-time nudists among humans on Earth, we can adduce little likelihood (with the exception of a pandemic going exponential, as is the current crisis with Ebola virus) of a human bust anytime soon, particularly across the very continent (Africa) where the tragedy of Ebola currently plays out, and where one country in particular, Nigeria, is likely to approach one billion people, largely poor and urban, by the year 2100.

Should the Ebola virus mutate so as to transcend its current transmission constraints via blood or saliva, going airborne instead, the story will be writ large, on continent after continent.

In the meantime, we have between 11 and 13 billion people – with all of their biological fall-out – to look forward to. We can glean some clear and present sense of that calamity from the World Wildlife Fund’s most recent edition of its Living Planet Report:  of the “more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish” surveyed, reports the WWF, there has been a decline “by 52 per cent since 1970.”

Inventors expert Mary Bellis has suggested that hominid clothing may date back 500,000 years. During the past 30,000 years, there is no question as to the utility value to humans of wearing animal hides, then woven fibers and cloth. But all of that utility (in addition to placating the mythology of some `Original Sin’) has merely served to vastly accelerate our ability to overstep the carrying capacity that would otherwise serve the dignity and modesty of a species with nothing to hide.

With so much talk of transparency in government and economics as being a central pillar in any vital democracy, isn’t it curious that only the male Jain Digambara monks of India continue a national and honorable tradition of nudity? Were we all to follow that paradigm of simple living one advocated by Mahavira and later on, by Gandhi – the world at large would look very different indeed.

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  • The newprojections on population growth are deeply troubling. Our Earth’s natural
    systems are already substantilely eroded. Example — a recent World Wildlife
    Fund study indicated that wildlife populations have dropped 52% worldwide in just
    the last 40 years. During that same 40 year period, the human population on
    Earth doubled to 7.3 billion. The correlation is clear enough. The idea that wearing clothing was thecritical element that propelled humanity to where we are today is
    interesting. If we were still naked, the case could be made that we would still be mired in hunter-gatherer mode. I can’t imagine a transition out of the Stone Age into permanent settlements and agriculture if we hadn’t evolved clothing to protect ourselves from the elements. The expanded exploitation of energy sources, the industrial era, and modern medicine seem to require clothing. I would not like to go back to being a hunter-gather with a total focus on finding food and staying warm. I like the comforts and conveniences of modern life. The mess we’ve made of things seems less about clothes and more about our warped sense of right and wrong. We have been exploiters all through history. The time has come for humans to shift
    to nurturing mode. We can make that transition to a sustainable relationship with nature. But first, we need to reshape our democracy so that our economy and our politics favor compassion and inclusiveness and moral responsibility over greed and mindless exploitation. How to do that? I want to see a Constitutional Amendment that says ‘Corporations are not People’ and ‘Money is not Speech’.

    • Michael Charles Tobias

      The Authors absolutely agree with you. Keep in mind, as indicated in some responses lower down, that this absence of clothing is both real and metaphorical: real for the few remaining Jain monks on Earth who (in the logical traditions of great cultural icons as St. John the Baptist and St. Francis, Mahavira and others) have indeed renounced all possessions. Metaphorical of the overall consumerist insanity that has clinically taken hold of our species’ expectations, attitudes, and cliches.

      The “mindless exploitation” you refer to is inherent to the absence of compassion in politics, corporate culture, and most non-kin relations. The territorial imperative has become a proxy for Individualism which, in turn, has dominated the mind-sets of every system in operation across all boundaries of the human topography. This suggests that until we truly work together, the alleged shepherds (humanity) will continue to undermine the myth of Arcadia with a ruthless, combative, dysfunctional colossus of imperialism.

      Sadly, we have it within our grasp to express those genes that are good ones, as opposed to psychotic ones. In one particularly telling commentary of late, Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University, with her colleagues have suggested that there exists a “caring continuum” at one side of the DNA spectrum in humans, psychopathology at the others.
      While biologists and social scientists and artists have debated compassion on genetic grounds, particularly the age-old nature/nurture dialectic, we believe there is no question as to our capacity be good individuals within good communities. To be loyal, decent and loving. To embrace transgenerational equity, parity and kindness above all else and, hence, to recognize that the future is meaningful, not meaningless. And that to achieve the goal of a universal compassion begins right now, at your breakfast, lunch and dinner table; at the voting booth come early November; at the shopping mall, and recycling plant and community garden. In a potted plant wherein native species deserve a second chance, so that all those dependent upon them will, in turn, have their light of day, as well.

      • I agree that compassion is alive and manifest in much, if not most of of humanity. Unfortunately, too much of the real power and political influence has been coopted by psychopaths and sociopaths like Charles and David Koch. Blunting their corrosive influence must become part of every citizen’s agenda. Thus, my eagerness for a Constitutional Amendment.

        • Michael Charles Tobias

          The Authors could not agree with you more.

  • Michael Charles Tobias

    John, your points are well taken, and a little obvious. But, in fact, do not ignore that the conversion of a field of cotton into one T-shirt kills hundreds of vertebrates, thousands of invertebrates; that a coming population of globally of 10 billion will translate into tens-of-billions of pairs of leather shoes, billions of tons of animal corpses, and the mostly predictable devastation of every primary biome on the planet.

    Because Jain monks have shown true restraint -a window on what humanity is, in fact, and has always been capable of, their ordination is referenced here as a fitting and not a little iconic remembrance of things mostly past but still within our grasp: we have the potential to slow down if only we can relinquish the Ego that has undermined the resolve necessary (and it is so basic) to empower people to work together to solve these dire problems.

    Population science knows that the vast majority of the next generation will be unwanted and unintended; born into adverse (impoverished) circumstances, largely urban, ecologically illiterate, cut off from the harassed sources of their bare livelihoods. Deep demography has taught us remedies (free choice, contraceptive accessibility, education and noon-day meals, particularly for girls, the full suite of universal health care in which a key component is family health and family planning, Standard Operating Procedures that value human dignity and palliative care at low cost, as well as the right to die with dignity) but human nature appears incapable of looking deep into the mirror, or deeply enough; or of recognizing the constraints to its apparently unquenchable appetite for more, ever more.

    Hence the nature of this piece at that most perilous intersection of more and more people, and an increasingly depauperate biosphere.

    • JohnTaves

      Michael, this comment does not seem to recognize the “obvious” point I was making. If it is obvious that we must limit the number of babies we each can have, you have not said it once in these comments or the article. If Jain monks are having no children, then they are indeed showing the true restraint, but your comment above provides no indication this is what you are saying. “Relinquish the Ego” does not tell us that having zero or one child brings the population down, two attempts to keep it stable, and three attempts to grow it. It educates nobody that because we are overpopulated we must have less than 2.

      I agree that population scientists have good estimates for the rates of unwanted/unintended births, but demography has not taught us remedies. Demographers, starting with Malthus have encouraged a bogus belief that individuals acting independently can manage to not over breed. Demographers have invented and encouraged the belief that if women have full control over their fertility we will not average too many babies. I agree that women should have full control over their fertility, in the sense that we should have zero unwanted/unintended births, we all everyone must limit our births. You didn’t mention any such thing. Demographers don’t say this either.

      Notice that demographers don’t have a measure of what too many babies is. You might think that the replacement rate is the threshold, but there are 2 flaws with that. 1) given that we are overpopulated, which is to say highly dependent upon non-renewables to keep our current numbers alive, replacement is too high, and 2) the definition of replacement rate that demographers use is fundamentally flawed. Demographers don’t acknowledge that births are killing. The replacement rate as demographers define, understand and use is circular. It is the rate that births should arrive to keep the population stable given the rate that births are arriving at. They assume the birth rate is not causing child mortality. This simple definitional problem should end any delusions that they have supplied remedies.

      There’s a paper by Wolfgang Lutz titled “the ideal fertility rate”. He took into account two factors to arrive at this rate, but did not mention the concept that our numbers are higher than what we know how to keep alive at one time without consuming resources faster than they renew. At his presentation at the Population Association of American convention in SF, I called him out on this. His response was to say that we don’t know what future energy sources we will discover so we can assume we will find replacements for fossil fuels! His ridiculous assumption is the norm, the correct understand seems not to be obvious at all.

      I agree it is obvious. But I haven’t found anyone, including Ehrlich and you, that have demonstrated understanding. An obvious tell that they don’t understand is when they discuss the consumption side and population, instead of talking about how many babies one can have. I promise you I am totally eager to find others.

      • Michael Charles Tobias

        Thank you for your spirited and well-informed response. First off, I should mention that my life partner of nearly 3 decades, and I, deliberately – for ecological and ethical reasons – chose to have ZERO CHILDREN.

        In my book (profiled briefly today by MAHB), World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium, Bear & Co., Santa Fe, NM, 1994; second updated edition with a Preface by Jane Goodall, Continuum Books, New York, 1998), I demonstrably came forth with a thesis suggesting an “end to all economic growth; a firm (and deeply personal) belief in zero population growth; an end to the fertility replacement myth, namely, a sobering embrace of the fact that unless our species abides by several generations in which couples prudently and wisely opt to have no children; and an equally ethical, ecological and efficacious acknowledgment that vegetarianism/veganism amongst humans is crucial to the survival of the biosphere….short of those crucial steps, we will continue to destroy the Earth through senseless greed, ego, callousness, indifference, hate, insanity, and impulses to procreate, and in our panic, further procreate; to decimate (and in our stupidity – chop down every last tree, kill every last edible vertebrate and invertebrate); and by our hubris and the worst qualities of human nature, destroy one another until there is no one left to kill.

        If that isn’t deep demography, deep ethology, and “obvious” scientific and ethical logic, I don’t know what is.

        We are rapidly nearing the end of the dialogue, because within 50 years, at best, there will probably be few if any primates left on Earth – given the current business-as-usual trends.

        Let us watch the climate talks at Lima in early December by way of an indication….

        • JohnTaves

          I like where you are headed with these comments. I am saying a few things though.

          First, I am saying that your message will get lost if it is surrounded with non-essential stuff. For example “…thesis suggesting an “end to all economic growth””. This thesis speaks to nobody. No corporation will shoot for this. Individuals are not going to stop working to make their lives better. What government actions could possibly be enacted that accomplish no growth, except the Chinese OCP? If I was a dictator, and took this message to heart, I would limit resource extraction. Voila, population growth and economic growth would stop. (this is like preventing the bucket from growing, sure the population stops growing but it only adds to the water flowing over the top). This thesis does not mention anything about how many babies one can have, and if we make up plausible scenarios where entities do take actions to make this happen, only limiting the number of babies one can have will actually limit the number of babies one can have.

          Also; “and an equally ethical, ecological and efficacious acknowledgment that
          vegetarianism/veganism amongst humans is crucial to the survival of the
          biosphere” is a waste of breath. You said “several generations in which couples prudently and wisely opt to have no children”, and if that really means “several generations where the average number of babies world wide is less than 2”, then there must be something ensuring that is happening, and that something can keep going until our numbers are so low there is no problem eating meat. If there is nothing ensuring we average less than 2, then veganism is not going to stop the murderous ceaseless attempt at infinite population.

          Second, I am saying that there are a set of facts that must be taught to every child in the world. I posted 2 of them above. Another is the fact that if everyone in the world has zero children except my descendants, who average more than 2, the world will be overpopulated. In other words, it does not make any difference if you have no children, or many have no children, or billions have no children. If there is a belief that is passed to the next generation to an average of more than 2 children, then births will kill. For example, the belief that I have the right to have as many children as I want is passed to the next generation nearly perfectly, and it has always been passed to an average of more than 2.

          Notice how bad our demographers are. If billions had no children, but not all, demographers would predict human extinction, when in fact overpopulation is the outcome. They would predict this because they sample and extrapolate. They wouldn’t find the groups that refuse to average less than 2. All their samples would return 0, and voila, that means extinction. Only when those groups were obvious would their techniques register their existence. This is not the education or “remidies” we need.

          If demographers actually comprehended this “obvious” stuff, they wouldn’t be wasting research money sampling, extrapolating, and spitting out the demographic transition theory which depends upon no groups existing that pass beliefs to the next generation to an average of more than 2. They would focus on ensuring these facts are taught (not fully listed in this thread).

          • Michael Charles Tobias

            you have made two quite adamant points here, among others. First that the thesis, “an end to economic growth,” speaks to nobody. We respectfully take issue with your presumption. Indeed, as you clearly understand, all modern economic growth has come about as a result of perpetual deficits, between 2 and 4%, which are assumed to spell out a healthy economy. No deficit is healthy. There are some who would argue that taking the month of August off for holiday in France is nuts, because that is an entire month of no economic growth, in theory. Amongst the more than 300 million remaining indigenous peoples of the world, studies have shown that a few hours of work per day is more than enough to sustain these communities. If a few hours of work per day were the norm in the high consumerist nations, we would at once recognize massive changes at every level of of the societal engine. John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860) which Mahatma Gandhi translated into Gujarati in 1908 under the title of “Sarvodaya” (“well being of all”) in fact argues for stable economies, economies that function without perpetual growth, but within finite limits of input and the egalitarian distribution of gains. Growth is far less important than fairness.

            Your second response, that we are “wasting breath” advocating for vegetarianism would suggest that you are unfamiliar with both the inherent science of, and ethical imperatives that a no-kill economy aspires towards and, in fact, achieves. We suggest you read our book God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor, for an intensive (600-page) analysis of an ecological economy. We would also suggest you study the complex politics of cow worship in India last April during the furious campaigning that resulted in Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning the seat of Prime Minister. One illustrative link is included herewith.


            India is a classic study in the dynamics that relate diet, ethics, cultural norms, and animal rights, to human rights and family planning. We spell out the complex slate of details in the above referenced God’s Country. You can freely download that book (published a few years ago, but entirely and urgently relevant to today [in our opinion]), by going to the following link:


            Thanks again for your comments.
            Michael and Jane

          • JohnTaves

            I am sorry, but I don’t think you are following my comments. I didn’t mention deficits for example.

            It seems you have missed the concept of the bucket of water analogy that you said was a “little obvious”. That bucket of water analogy is defining the concept of being “at the limit”. It shows us that solutions directed at the size of the bucket are useless. Again, water is flowing in proportional to the amount of water in the bucket, so raising the sides, will raise the amount of water and the flow, and the end result will be water flowing over the top. The rate that the water flows in is analogous to how many children we average. The water flowing over the top is death caused by averaging too many children.

            A vegan diet does nothing more than increase the capacity of the environment. It allows more people to be crammed into the Earth, but it does not stop the cramming. It does not affect how many children we average. Similarly, stopping economic growth does nothing more than preventing the bucket size from increasing, which again does nothing to slow the murderous rate that water is entering. It certainly prevents the population from growing. Either you are cruelly indifferent to the death caused by averaging too many children, or you have not understood the concept I was explaining.

            The additional thing I was saying about the no-growth thesis was that nobody will act on this. Name the intended audience for this paper and tell me what that audience will DO with this information. What actions do you expect one to take once they get this information?

            But, again, you keep missing the essential bit. We are averaging too many babies and that is causing child mortality and none of these things ensure we do not continue to average too many babies.

  • The question raised by Tobias and Morrison on the possibility of imagining a world without clothing may not be central to the environmental crisis discussion. It would be highly difficult to go back to those days. Furthermore, I cannot see how nudity will really help us facing environmental crisis.

    The environmental crisis has two fundamental causes: Over-population, and over-consumption. It is not necessary to go into details because these issues have been addressed several times by many people. Over-population, on one hand, may be the easiest issue to control. It may even be possible to argue that ecological carrying capacity will do its work, sooner or later. A terrible population crash may be the final warning for our species. On the other hand, over-consumption has an ally that make us think that we (humans) are omnipotent: money.

    Money is much younger than clothing (~2700 years). Money has given us the power to accumulate resources in ways that nature would not allow us to do. The more money you accumulate, the more resources you can get access to. Money can be used to buy food, energy, refuge (even luxury houses), and … also… to buy other people. Nothing on earth has been so evil as money. People have been killing each other for money for centuries. There are ways (inadequate from my point of view) to qualify someone as a “poor” individual, but is there any economic indicator of being “rich”? Why not? I mean, if you earn more (let´s say two fold, or threefold) than the minimum necessary to qualify as “poor”, are you already “rich”? Why do “rich countries” still aim for further economic growth? When will a person be “rich enough”? This race has no end! Money is the cause of aberrant behaviors… Both, rich people, and poor people steal from each other to get some more… money! Aguties (Dasyprocta spp.) steal palm seeds that have been scatter-hoarded by another individual, but they cannot store too many seeds, because they rot. Aguties even cache less seeds when their availability is greater. We humans do exactly the opposite.

    My daughter says that the problem is the very existence of money and I believe this is so. This form of accumulation that is almost indestructible (inflation is an artifact) is the main problem. Well, can we solve the problem (money) with more money? It is said that Einstein once argued that you cannot solve a problem thinking the same way as you were thinking when you created the problem (or something like this). Obviously, the problems created by economic growth (money) cannot be solved with MORE economic growth (more money). Therefore, I would rather argue that we should begin to imagine a world without money, instead of a world without clothing.

    • Michael Charles Tobias

      “Clothing” is used here as a symbol for the out-of-control appetites of a species that has long overstepped the resources of a finite planet.

  • MichaelGiannelli

    Moral of the excellent essay written by Jane Gray Morrison and Michael Tobias:

    • TO
    • IS
    • Michael Charles Tobias

      Absolutely, Michael. Well said.

  • JohnTaves

    I am sorry, but clothing does not help to “accelerate our ability to overstep the carrying capacity”.

    The carrying capacity is defined as the maximum population size that can be sustained indefinitely. Indefinitely is the key word to comprehend. This can only be overstepped by consuming resources faster than they renew. Clothing is generally not some non-renewable resource.

    This is not some minor quibble with your article. This is a huge flaw with population scientist’s understanding of the fundamental principles. Population scientists beginning with Malthus and the Ehrlich’s have consistently failed to comprehend the difference between the carrying capacity and the limit. The limit cannot be exceeded. The carrying capacity can be exceeded, but only by consuming resources faster than they renew.

    To understand the limit, think of a bucket of water. The bucket has holes, it represents the environment. The water is the population. Water that runs out of the bucket is dead people. The holes represent unpreventable deaths, like old age. The water is poured into the bucket proportional to how much water is in the bucket. The limit is the situation when the bucket is full and overflowing. The amount of water running over the top is determined by how fast the water is poured in.

    Population scientists assume that this bucket is not full and overflowing. They are dead wrong. The bucket has always been full. The water flowing over the top is child mortality caused by adults averaging too many babies. That overflow water is the horrid child mortality rates we see in developing countries. That overflow is not caused by any specific stream of water flowing in, it is caused by the sum total of the flow.

    This model is further enhanced by comprehending that we have managed to increase the size of the bucket throughout human history. When we shifted to farming over hunt/gathering we increased the size of the bucket. When we figured out how to make refrigerators, we increased the size of the bucket. The consumption of fossil fuels has allowed us to increase the size of the bucket, but fossil fuels are not renewing.

    There is simply no excuse for population scientists to assume that this bucket has not always been full even while we have expanded it’s size.

    • Michael Charles Tobias

      See our response below that of Mr. Holland’s superb comments.