St. Matthews is an uninhabited island in the Aleutians between Alaska and Japan. In 1941, the island was lush with vegetation. There was a world war on, and the U.S. Navy decided to set up a secret communications station on St. Matthews.
A handful of sailors were stationed on the island. In order to assure there would be adequate food, in case of emergency, the Navy imported twenty-nine reindeer to St. Mathews. No reindeer had ever been there before. The entire island was covered by a four inch thick layer of lichen. It was a paradise for reindeer. After a year or so, the Navy abandoned Saint Matthews, leaving the reindeer behind. Biologists estimated the island could sustain a population of no more than 1,200 reindeer. By 1957 there were 1,350. In 1963, the number had grown to 6,000, and the island was severely degraded. Three years after that, in 1966, scientists returned and found the reindeer population had collapsed to just 42 animals. By 1980, there were no reindeer left on Saint Matthews Island.
This is a real life story… an analogy for what humans are doing to our Earth as a whole. It’s called resource overshoot. It can happen to humans as well. The best known example is the Rapa Nui culture on Easter Island off the coast of Chile.
As the Rapa Nui population expanded, they built stone statues and cut down pretty much all the trees on the island to move the statues to permanent locations. They overpopulated the island and depleted the fish and other ocean resources they depended on, until the Rapa Nui collapsed to a fraction of its former self.
These things happened.
We are now seeing the same ominous dynamics at work on a planetary scale. In 1970, the human population on Earth was less than 4 billion. It took about 400,000 years of human history for the population to reach that size. It’s taken less than 50 years since then for human numbers to double in size to more than 7.7 billion. Every year, we’re adding another 75 million to the human population. Demographers project 10-12 billion humans on Earth by the end of this century.
We are setting ourselves up to be a St. Matthews Island parable on a planetary scale.
Every single global scale challenge we humans are dealing with at this very moment – climate change, deforestation, exhaustion of our aquifers and fresh water supplies, the collapse of our ocean resources, mass extinction of wild animal species – starts with too many humans making too many demands on our Earth’s ability to provide.
This planet is the only home we have. We have an obligation to each other to take care our precious biosphere…all of it, not just the human part.
There are too damned many of us already. If you get the parable of St. Matthews Island, you should understand that we humans have to get smart about population. The swirl of global scale problems we’ve made for ourselves is real. We must wake up and accept our planetary stewardship responsibilities. We must get past what divides us, learn to embrace our common humanity, and find a worthy pathway forward. That is the only way to keep the spaceship Earth we all depend on from breaking up and sinking under the massive weight of human overreach.