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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 10/5/20

Happy Monday!


 

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

This celebrated Broadway play, which also played to sold-out performances at the Mark Taper Forum, is going to be aired on Amazon Prime beginning October 16th. Not only do I believe it is an innovative play, but I believe Amazon Prime’s airing of this play is practically a “public service announcement” for our Constitution, as imperfect as it may be:

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-09-17/what-constitution-means-to-me-heidi-schreck-amazon-prime?utm_source=wordfly&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ArtGoesOnDonors20200925&utm_content=version_A

You don’t have to agree or disagree, but you’ll react and, I think, come to love this delicate, imperfect, work of creativity and compromise (good and bad) given to us by the Founders. Thank you, Ed Nahmias, for highlighting this opportunity.

My own view? The Constitution was an act of brilliance, faith and compromise. It was a work of imperfection, yet a work as perfect as the times would allow. And while its greatest shame, acknowledging the forced servitude of human beings, is forever enshrined in the document, the founders were careful not to condone it nor fix its continuance. I understand that “the best they could do” wasn’t good enough—and yet, through its mechanisms we have limped our way through to today. We are freer, healthier, wealthier, and more secure today than we were. How much further we can limp along to better days is up to us…

 

HAS THE EARTH REACHED ITS CARRYING CAPACITY FOR HUMANS? IS MALTHUS FINALLY RIGHT?

Matthew Yglesias Thinks There Should Be ‘One Billion Americans,’ albeit tongue in cheek as part of some policy prescriptions:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/books/review/one-billion-americans-matthew-yglesias.html?referringSource=articleShare

But his statement reminds me of something I’ve been toying with for a while. Namely, many of our problems arise from (or are exacerbated by) there being just too many people. While it may be true that the American economy could marginally benefit from more Americans producing more things to sell to more Americans (and taxing more foreign residents), I think the opposite could be true for America and the world. Too many people are a big part of the problem.

Most of us studied Thomas Malthus in college. He famously posited that overpopulation would take its toll on the human race. One part of that analysis was that population grows exponentially, while food production grows only linearly. He has been proven wrong repeatedly and spectacularly. Just when it seemed there could be limits to the human enterprise, along come advances in agriculture. Then advances from the Industrial Revolution. Then advances in the extraction from the Earth of cheap hydrocarbon energy. Add to all of this the advances in the control and eradication of diseases and the myriad new technologies to make people healthier and enabling them to consume ever-more food and energy.

Scientific American published an article in 2016 suggesting Malthus still is still wrong, in part because human beings make reproductive choices that animals do not:

The problem with Malthusians [according to the author] is that they “cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction.” Humans are thinking animals. We find solutions—think Norman Borlaug and the green revolution. The result is the opposite of what Malthus predicted: the wealthiest nations with the greatest food security have the lowest fertility rates, whereas the most food-insecure countries have the highest fertility rates.

I attribute much of the high fertility throughout the world in large measure based upon the unavailability or cost of contraception, and the acceptability of that means of limiting population (largely propagated by religion), but perhaps more on that later.

Perhaps times have caught up with us. Perhaps Malthus might finally be right. I believe it is possible—perhaps even likely—that the Earth has a “carrying capacity” for human beings. The concept of “carrying capacity” is pretty straightforward. It basically is how much density of a particular species can be supported by an environment without it experiencing degradation. In some instances, the environmental degradation itself will, in turn, result in culling the herd of the subject population. By way of example, x cows may be able to graze happily on y acres of land. But 2x cows would consume all the grass and there would then be no more grass available to the herd. So, one can see that exceeding the carrying capacity burdens both the environment and the species itself.

This problem was encountered in specific ecosystems like Yellowstone, where the absence of wolves resulted in an abundance of their prey. Introduce wolves and one can reduce that herd. But then will this stress the population of wolves that can be supported? Curiously, it seemed to be self-correcting. It’s been established that Yellowstone can sustain 100 wolves, and that’s it. Originally it was thought the herd would have to be culled through hunting. But wolves actually don’t need to be culled by humans. They permit only certain family members to breed and maintain their numbers at a stable level.

As opposed to the wolve of Yellowstone, humans on a global scale are unable to feed and house the entire “human herd.” The result is that more arable land and wood for construction is required, resulting in the deforestation of vast swathes of old-growth forests throughout the world (most notably the Amazon). Keep doing that and there are fewer tress, producing less oxygen, and fewer species who live within those forests. Seven billion people require food, energy, homes, and infrastructure.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. My initial conclusion is that the biggest problem we may have is families with six children, lack of contraception (which leaves poor women, often without a helpmate, even poorer and without prospects), and lack of education. 7.5 Billion people (and climbing) sounds like a lot. Imagine if there were only half that number and the effect it would have on air pollution, malnutrition, energy usage, global warming, and diseases that thrive in crowded conditions… Still working on this theory.

What do you think?

 

BOOK REPORTS!

So many books and so little time! There has been an avalanche of book recommendations. Many are foreign authors and many are female authors. Here are some of them (more next time). Of this list, I have yet to read any, although Hamnet is in the stack for this month:


• From Susan Shanley, “If you have space to recommend one more book to your readers, The Price of Altruism by Oren Harman is a great read on a fascinating subject: how does altruism fit into evolutionary theory? It’s a biography of the brilliant but tragic American scientist George Price who utilized game theory to come up with reasons why altruistic behavior is not antithetical to ‘survival of the fittest.’”


• Julie Robinson urges that we read Edith Wharton, the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize, 100 years ago, for Age of Innocence.


• From Sindy Kessler, “Here are a couple novels to add to your list that I think are magnificent reads! Both haven't won awards but in my humble opinion they are both beautifully written books and must reads!!”

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell


• From Sandy Pressman are the following:

o Illuminations by Mary Sharratt: Historical fiction about the 11th century composer and feminist abbess Hildegard von Bingen –Sandy Pressman

o On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Written as a tell-all letter from an immigrant son to his illiterate mother.

o The Vegetarian by Han Kang: South Korean story about a woman’s spiral downward after a dream.


• Finally, from David Rochkind, “The ability of those with nefarious ideas from pedophilia to terrorism can find “like-minded” people these days through the means to find others like them in social media, is a huge problem. It enables their bad behavior. Even less threatening wackos such as flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers and their ilk have a platform. That reminds me of a non-fiction book about the guy who started one of the first dark web sites. Check out American Kingpin by Nick Bilton. His intent at first was free speech/libertarian but things quickly went sideways. I believe the guy is in federal prison.”


Have a great week,


Glenn


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