Man Swarm - Our Relationship to the Planet

Book review:

Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife
    By Dave Foreman
    Raven’s Eye Press, Durango, CO
    2011, 300 pp., $20

As William Catton succinctly observed, “There are limits. We can overshoot them. This is a basic biological fact.”

This bedrock truth escapes many in America who are still living under the outdated frontier paradigm misleading us into believing that there will always be more resources just around the next bend. We have failed to recognize that takeover has given way to drawdown. As Catton points out, we’re now relying on phantom carrying capacity — we “mistook the rate of withdrawal of savings deposits for a rise in income.”

In other words, we are drawing down resources upon which future generations will have to depend. We are in biological overshoot.

Man Swarm covers the early history of thinking about man’s limits, noting that Greek historian Herodotus wrote 2,500 years ago, “Man stalks across the landscape, and deserts follow in his footsteps.” Indeed, even Plato saw the impact of man upon the land. Much later, Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Italy and Turkey reported similar environmental destruction and scalped landscapes. Even President Nixon acknowledged the challenge of curtailing population growth.

Foreman writes, “It’s painfully straightforward. There are too many men for Earth to harbor. At nearly seven billion, we have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity.” The Earth has suffered five great extinctions, and we are undergoing the sixth. This time it is different — our great numbers are the cause. 

The domestic population-environmental connection was quite clear in 1968 when David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, published Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb.

It subsequently turned out that in the U.S., immigration, not fertility, was ever more responsible for population growth. Even so, the 1989 Sierra Club population position was crystal clear, stating that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.”

Then in 1996 the Sierra Club unilaterally flipped on immigration, motivated by a conditional $100-million grant from a donor who said, “I did tell Carl Pope in 1994 or 1995 that if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me.” The rest of the environmental community shortly followed suit, in what Foreman refers to as “the great backtrack.” [Read more at SUSPS].

Foreman reflects, “In my worst nightmares, I never thought we’d come to this sad day when my own gang wimped out on the underlying threat: the unending rampage of topsy-turvy growth.” He warns of the “the mostly left-wing gang of the uber-politically correct that calls any conservationist/environmentalist/animal-welfarist/resourcist who worries about immigration part of a ‘Green Hate’ racist conspiracy.” He continues, “Believe me, they’ll burn this book and would gladly burn me, too.”

Man Swarm directly confronts the hubris of cornucopianism with reference to biologist David Ehrenfeld, who cautions that faith in humanism is based on a stack of faulty assumptions.

The book notes that with effort we can bring our per person ecological footprint down, but not enough for generous sustainability, meaning “(1) creating societies that leave sufficient natural resources for human generations to live good lives; and (2) sharing the landscape generously with nonhuman beings.” Foreman concludes, “It follows, then, that we have no choice but to freeze how many we are and to begin to become fewer.”

One might have high expectations of a book from such an accomplished environmentalist and the book Man Swarm indeed lives up to the expectation. It is comprehensive, informative, and quite readable. It should be high on the reading list for those who are concerned about our integral relationship to the web of life on Planet Earth. 

Read the complete review by Fred Elbel: Deep Ecology and Our Biological Future at The Social Contract.