William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was an English poet who in 1807 wrote the poem The World Is Too Much With Us. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours.” Wordsworth was inundated with a world in chaos: The American Revolution (1776-1783); the French Revolution (1789-1794); and most significantly the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). Wordsworth was twenty-eight years old when his British contemporary, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who was a scholar and cleric, wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population.
Malthus looked at the earth’s burgeoning population, about one billion humans as 1800 neared, and wrote:
“The power of population is definitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase.”
Malthus theorized that as we humans found ways to increase the food supply (and other assets) instead of concentrating on the quality of life we increase our numbers. Then eventually the poorer classes, that is, almost everyone, encounter famine and disease. This Malthusian Catastrophe is of our own making.
The American neuroscientist and psychologist Joseph V. Brady (1922-2011) while doing research for our space program did a study known as the Executive Monkey Experiment. Brady put two monkeys in cages that each had a lever. If the “right” lever was pulled neither monkey received an electric shock. However, if the “Executive” monkey failed to properly pull the lever both monkeys received a shock.
After conditioning the two monkeys to this procedure Brady then shocked both monkeys even if the previously right lever was pulled. This led to numerous ill effects on the monkey responsible for avoiding the electric charge. Eventually the Executive Monkey just gave up and was catatonic as it made no difference what decision the monkey made.
There have been several studies done on overpopulation using mice and lemmings. What the research has consistently determined is as the number of animals was increased into the same original area eventually the animals will turn violent and sometimes resort to cannibalism even though ample food is kept available. The psyches of the mice and lemmings cannot deal with the inability to get some individual space/control.
This is what Wordsworth and Malthus were opining about due to the unnatural changes in our human environment brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973) in his comic strip Pogo published a strip in 1971 that addressed similar issues of overpopulation and pollution when he portrayed his cartoon characters observing their once pristine natural environment filled with trash, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. The humorist Walt Kelly was not being humorous.
If Wordsworth and Malthus feared the results we humans had wrought by the 19th Century when we had one billion people and mechanical devices, what about our politicians (our Executive Monkeys) today who face a world with eight billion people and the Internet? What can they expect and what can we, the governed (the Proletariat Monkeys), expect from our leaders? Has it become such a complex and daunting world our only decisions are to not make decisions, that is catatonia, or to cannibalize one another in public and through the media? Does it always have to be, “All right, circle up and fire?”
There are no simple solutions to complicated problems such as infrastructure, war, disease, overpopulation, global warming, pollution and disparate distribution of our earth’s resources. But invective and ad hominem attacks are no solution at all. As with most seemingly insurmountable problems the first step is to take a first step forward instead of sideways or to the rear.
Incremental steps and positive attitudes may not save us from ourselves, but lighting a candle instead of torching our fellow sufferers will produce at least a little light and a lot less heat.