Readers of this column may consider my weekly meditations less than gifts, or gifts that are problematic, like a Little Drummer Boy ensemble album. However, I persist in thinking that I brighten Wednesday mornings for lots of people, even if they're working in a Western state governor's office, plotting to steal already-stolen Indian lands. Or devising extortionate billing policies in a hospital. Or packaging loans to students who won't ever be able to pay them back. Or destroying something--a village, a mountain range, a livelihood, a hostage--to save it.
Is your morning brightened yet? It should be, especially if you're in an occupation that has misery and death as its end product. It's always a relief to face up to these things rather than lie to yourself about them, and it's a comfort to find that you won't be alone in the dock, come Judgment Day. In fact, the problem might be finding a dock big enough for all the people who are going to be in it.
Here's the problem: Human beings don't scale up very well. For years, I've told a stupid human joke. The set-up: "I've just discovered I'm one-8 billionth of humanity."
The punchline: "I always thought I'd amount to more than that."
There's another punchline, but it's not as funny. It's that if you're one of 8 billion humans, anything you have in common with the 8 billion minus one is probably lethal to the planet:
• We all eat, which means that a total land area the size of Africa has become overworked farmland. It used to be habitat for wild species, which are going extinct at the rate of 200 per day.
• Most of us consume antibiotics in our food, and resistant superbugs are emerging that promise to bring back the days of death in childbirth, fatal playground abrasions and TB sanitariums. It's already happening in India.
• Most of us burn things to stay alive, whether it's straw for cooking fires, wood to keep the house warm, coal for electricity, or natural gas and oil for transportation and industry. As a result the atmosphere has reached 400 parts-per-million of CO2 and is heading for 450, where the really serious positive feedback loops kick in. If you think the climate is disturbing now, wait until you and the other refugees are stopped at the Canadian border.
• All of us require inefficient, energy-consuming militaries to protect us from inefficient, energy-consuming militaries. Half of us require expensive and dirty nuclear weapons to protect us from people with expensive and dirty nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons don't scale up well, either, and the 20,000 in existence could reduce life on Earth to a few one-celled extremophiles.
Recent UN estimates on population predict our numbers will reach 11.1 billion at the end of this century. That many humans will require management as social insects. There are historical reasons against such schemes—Mao's Great Leap Forward comes to mind—but the idea that 11 billion people could exist on a resource-limited planet with intact human rights is absurd. Your grandchildren and even your children will face a world where the Borg Collective won't be confined to Star Trek episodes.
An applicable concept: bycatch. It's a term that came into use to describe dolphins dying in tuna nets. But it can refer to the accidental kills attendant to your job. I learned about it in a sadly literal way, on a gill-netter in Alaska, when I kept pulling beautiful, dead, 30-inch Dolly Varden from our nets. We were fishing for high-value sockeye, and the Dolly Varden got thrown in the waste-fish hold with the flounders and humpies. Any of these Dollies was the fish of a decade or even a lifetime if you caught it in a lake in Idaho, but in Alaska it was ground into dog food or used for organic garden fertilizer. Dolly Varden are an endangered species now, so you can't catch them in Idaho at all. I suspect they do still show up in Alaskan gill nets and Boise organic gardens.
Simply by being a consumer, you acquiesce to a much larger but just as literal bycatch. Think of the 6-year-old Bangladeshi who hand-tied your office carpet, the young Chinese woman who assembled your smartphone in a factory with suicide nets outside its windows. Think of the financial services industry, whose most prolific derivatives were, after 2009, the unemployed and the homeless. Think of the poisoned waste released by fracking. Think of the obesity epidemics hatched in fast food labs. Think of civilians in air strikes. Think of the bottom 5 percent and their financial realities. Think of brain-damaged football players. Bycatch.
Suffice it to say that no one in our culture gets to follow Hippocrates' first-do-no-harm advice. We are all guilty of bycatch. It's the contemporary version of Original Sin.
Which brings us back to Judgment Day. The Christmas season is the best time to think about it, because forgiveness is in the air, even for those who have sacrificed their children on an altar of gold. The Cosmic Prosecutor is in a jovial mood, in a hurry to make a deal, looking forward to getting drunk on eggnog at the office party. Even though you're in serious trouble—charged with wanton wasting of game and deliberate habitat destruction—he might accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge, if you can come up with one.