Yesterday, I described the thrill of riding as the only passenger in a Gulfstream II that comfortably seats a dozen — making excuses right and left, as any liberal would, for the inequality and wastefulness of it all.
Some of you will doubtless write in that I’m a fool to buy into any of that liberal guilt nonsense; others will say that I am a sell-out to the aristocracy and that with the cost of the fuel for that trip alone we could have built a school in Somalia or freed seven Tibetan monks by bribing some prison guards.
I leave you to fight among yourselves. I had a great time.
(My actual feeling is that you’re both right — to a point — and that the “truth” lies, as it so frequently does, someplace in between.)
But as a board member of Zero Population Growth, I do think about some of these larger issues. (ZPG, I hasten to stress, as I have before, advocates voluntary ways to find a sustainable balance between the earth’s population and the environment.)
Clearly, if what it takes to be happy is your own jet, we’re in big trouble. In an ideal world of 10 billion happy people (because if we reach the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman tomorrow, the earth’s population won’t level out anywhere near today’s 6 billion), that would mean 10 billion private jets flying around. Not gonna work.
Even if we figured that just one in 500 people would have one — the reward for being at the tippy-top of the pyramid — that would still mean 20 million private jets flying around. Not likely.
But let’s switch from jets to lobster. I’m not sure how many lobster there are in the sea, and I recognize that with proper techniques we may be able to farm them like chickens. (I would also point out that though high in cholesterol, it’s the good cholesterol. And that you’re really missing something if you don’t eat the green stuff. [Andrew Tobias and your Internet service provider assume no liability for any green stuff you may eat or any adverse consequences suffered therefrom. This is Mr. Tobias’ personal commentary and does not constitute a recommendation of any kind.]) Still, if you figured that each of the earth’s future 10 billion would eat 3 lobsters a year on average, that would be 30 billion lobsters a year we’d need to harvest from the sea. Can we do that without wiping out the species?
Obviously, life would go on even without lobster, and no one says everyone has to have access to lobster — or fresh air or clean water. Or even that, if everything works out right, we can’t develop the technology and political harmony to provide virtually unlimited lobster — and clean air and clean water — to tens or even hundreds of billions of people.
Still, my instinct is that adding a new China every 14 years, as we are now doing, makes improving the average person’s quality of life a more difficult task than it would otherwise be.
And what if we switch from jets and lobsters to wonders? Just as every Muslim hopes to visit Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime, would it not be reasonable to envision a happy time when everyone on the planet gets to see Yellowstone National Park, or Mount Kilimanjaro, once? If the average visit were just a day (I think it’s longer), then that’s 10 billion visits to be spread over 75 years (the average lifespan of those 10 billion visitors, say), or about 350,000 visitors a day to each place. If you figure the average visit to such unique attractions would be two days, then figure you’ll be enjoying these great natural wonders with 699,999 fellow visitors. Want to go only on Spring Break? More crowded still.
At the Pyramids, where we’ll assume people stay just half a day, that would still be 4,000 tour buses arriving twice a day, parking discreetly off to the side someplace so as not to be noticed. Have you ever seen 4,000 buses? Hard to hide. (And to keep this schedule, a new bus would have to arrive every 5 seconds.)
Of course, with virtual reality, people will be able to “visit” the Pyramids and just about anything else without actually having to visit them. And one can even now “climb” Mt. Kilimanjaro, after a fashion, watching a travel tape while working the Stairmaster.
Nor need one actually visit these places in any event to have a happy, comfortable life. Like so many simple pleasures from “the good old days,” to which, on balance, most of us would not like to return — churning your own butter, writing a letter in longhand with quill pen by candlelight — it may be that “real” tourism will in the future be reserved for a tiny proportion of the population, while the masses have it created for them (wonderfully) by the Discovery Channel and more and more Disney theme parks, with those wonderfully convivial thirty-minute lines to take the four-minute ride up the “Amazon.” (Don’t hold me to any of the specifics, I haven’t been to Disney World in a long time — and I still can’t get that cloying “It’s a Small World” theme song out of my head.)
But in a sense it is a small world. And these are the kinds of crazy things liberals (and many conservatives and virtually all conservationists) think about as the population grows. Can we physically feed and clothe and house 10 billion people if we can feed, clothe and house 6 billion? Sure we can. Twenty billion, 40 billion. Whatever.
But are we that generous that we want to share the planet with so many more people?
Surely if we got word there were 200 billion humans in a far off galaxy, who, for whatever reason, wanted to emigrate to Earth, we wouldn’t say, “Come on down! Our earth is your earth!” Naturally, we’d love to have their ambassador and their hockey team . . . maybe even 100 million tourists coming for a few weeks at a time (again, Disney would thrive). We’d be tickled pink at the notion that not only is there intelligent life in the universe, it turns out to be just like us. But a billion of them coming to stay every dozen years?
If I were a lobster, it would make me very nervous. Even as a human, I’m not unconcerned.
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