A migratory animal, ever seeking to move on

July 02, 1996|By Michael D. Nauton

IF WE EVER REACH a point of sustained zero population growth, we will have destined our species to doom. At best the human animal will evolve into a disenchanted, unimaginative creature lacking any sort of potential or motivation to improve; at worst we will die on this planet, extinguishing ourselves from the universe. Either way, we end in failure.

We are, by nature, a migratory animal that will cross political borders, oceans and continents in search of political representation, economic opportunity, religious freedom, safer neighborhoods and stronger nations. And because the grass does tend to look greener on the other side of the fence, we sometimes migrate on the soles of fantasy.

There's a primitive motivation for migrating that the human animal shares with most of our lower cousins. It is given voice whenever a man or woman stands with arms akimbo and says, ''It's getting too darn crowded around here.'' Often, this motivation to migrate remains subconscious, and the nervous ripples it sends to the surface get reshaped and redefined according to whatever current discontent is affecting us. ''It's too crowded around here'' can come out as ''I'm tired of the city,'' or ''I want a bigger back yard,'' or ''I want to go someplace quiet.''

From the mouths of the timid it comes out as, ''We must have zero population growth.''

In prehistoric times, clan leaders concluded that a valley's resources would be insufficient for continued hunting and gathering. Polynesians and Melanesians paddled the South Pacific in search of tiny, uninhabited islands. Humans have always looked outward, beyond the horizon for space -- living space, breeding space. It has been the human animal's quest for space that has made our world so enriching.

Cultural diversity

We inhabit a globe that is in constant celebration of diverse cultures. This diversity was born from the migrations of peoples from their congested Edens. This wonderfully pluralistic world would have never existed had our ancestors shouted down their inner yearnings for space and procreation with calls for zero population growth.

What medieval ills would we face today if the Renaissance world had limited its restless broods to two children per couple instead of looking and then sailing westward? Chances are we would still be plagued with smallpox, polio and diphtheria. Tuberculosis would still be incurable and minor infections deadly.

I'm not suggesting that without the colonization and eventual development of the Americas the world would have forever wallowed in a state of sickliness; rather, it was the migrations of people from swelling cities and villages to the New World that encouraged population growth, and this exponentially increased the intellectual and scientific pools from which cures (and technology) have been extracted. More brain power in our societies means sooner cures for AIDS, cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Only two destinations remain to migrate to: some other leafy, watery planet spinning somewhere within sight of a telescope -- or the bottom of the ocean. I think we can rule out the ocean floors. Radical environmentalists would drop depth charges on any Plexiglas human Habitrail lowered within 10,000 miles of a guppy. That leaves outer space -- specifically, an Earth-like planet reachable with a durable spacecraft and a full tank of fuel. Can we get there from here?

The sad answer is that we might never know if we accept the demands for zero population growth. Zero population growth destines the species to this one planet; its fate, for good or ill, becomes our fate. All the more reason, some might say, to save this planet by recycling garbage and promoting electric vehicles.

But a perpetually recycled environment will have the effect of locking the human animal in a tread wheel. Like a ridiculous rodent, we will exhaust our energies running, running, running and getting nowhere, suspending indefinitely our natural evolution. We will never migrate to another planet if we become complacent with our fate on this one.

Over the horizon

We will launch ourselves to a distant colony only if we listen to those primitive mechanisms of which we are barely aware, urging us to get away from each other. Once human congestion ripples around the globe, warning our collective subconscious that what waits over the horizon is more people, just like here, then we will think seriously about those lush forests and cool waterfalls waiting behind that twinkling star.

The human animal has been itching to migrate into space. From Einstein formulating the intergalactic speed limit, the Sixties' space race, the Hubble's scouting view and the aptly named space shuttles, we have been teasing ourselves with the promise that if we just keep dreaming, just keep reaching, just keep producing, we shall find room to grow, to evolve into creatures of unimaginable potential. Primitive motivations have brought us this far.

How much farther we have to go depends on whether we let our species evolve on its natural course. If we wisely dismiss those timid, unadventurous types among us who cry for zero population growth, the pool of creative talent will increase and we will inch ever closer to migrating off Earth.

If we let the timid convince us that we are not talented enough to colonize a distant planet, we will be forced to accept reproductive policies that will doom the human animal to either intellectual or existential extinction.

Michael D. Nauton writes from Westover.

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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