In her 2004 collection "An Alchemy of Mind," philosopher-poet Diane Ackerman comments on the "dazzling" range of variation among Homo sapiens compared to other animals: "How is it possible for vast numbers of humans to have elaborate, novel personalities?"
"Vast numbers of humans" is a hot topic of late, since Earth's population reached the 7 billion mark just the other week. Someone needs to go up again and repaint the galactic signpost that reads, "Welcome to Earth! Population: 6 billion," a mark we hit back in 1999.
On the third floor of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, there is an exhibition that explores this very topic. "Population Impact," opened in 2009, explores how Earth's larger-than-ever number of humans affects Earth and everything on it, from city people to city parks. As we surpass the 7 billion milestone that was unfathomable to our forebears, Population Impact provides a framework for tackling the question, "What's next?"
The exhibition was partially funded by Pittsburgh's Colcom Foundation, whose focus includes the causes and consequences of overpopulation. Colcom Vice President John F. Rohe, who has written widely on the topic, frames the question this way: "How do we define a responsible balance between ourselves and the web of life in which we are perilously embedded? The ecosystem is resilient to an extent, but it's also fragile. And we're testing the fragility."
The mission of the museum includes public engagement with science, assuring everyday folk that they don't need a Ph.D. to engage in conversations about issues that concern them. And over this exhibition's nearly two years of existence, a fascinating dialogue has resulted on the feedback board: Nearly 2,000 comments on the index cards provided for the purpose.
The stubby, museum-provided pencil is mightier than the sword for these visitors. Some furiously defend deer hunting in 2-inch-tall letters. Teens give the Earth a virtual hug via hot pink glitter pens and heart-dotted i's. Activists take the conservation message to heart, writing on a corner torn from the museum floor plan rather than using the index cards provided. Many cards include drawings. Few mince words.
As is the intent of the exhibition, two sides (or three or four) are equally represented in the comments. For every "Don't shoot Bambi!" is a "We must hunt to prevent overpopulation." Each vehement "Global warming doesn't exist!" has its counterpart in a fervent "What will it take to stop global warming?"
The religious perspective is a major theme throughout, appearing on a large percentage of cards. Thoughts along the lines of "God told us to 'be fruitful and multiply' " and "God never told us to multiply because He never existed" occur in equal parts. "God does not belong in museums" comes with a smiley face and is as amiably written as "I think God is saying 'If you enjoyed anything you saw here today .... you're welcome!' "
There are those who think the whole thing is one big non-issue. Consider: "Don't be paranoid. The more people that are alive, the more problems we can solve. Our most precious resource is our intelligence. Do not let fear compromise this," as well as, "There is no population issue. Just look at Canada. Instead of living in the city, people could live in the country."
Visitors on all sides often base their assertions in data. One guest writes, "I live in Vegas! They never stop building -- as Lake Meade levels drop -- drastically -- when will it end?" Another asks, "My understanding ... holds expectation of a global population peak in between 30 to 75 years, followed by a gradual decline. I thought this was due to steadily declining fecundity rates. Is this true or reasonable?"
A woman who identifies herself as an environmental historian authors this comment: "The notion of 'carrying capacity' and even ecology as a discipline are cultural, & therefore western ? so in reality this is a biased exhibit that perpetuates a crisis myth ... Books have been written, volumes, deconstructing ideas such as this, as portrayed in your exhibit."
Sam Taylor, director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, encourages the debate. " 'Population Impact' presents data from the museum's own scientists and other researchers who provide evidence of the impact population growth has on our planet. Visitors can weigh the information for themselves and add their own voices to the dialogue. Our hope is that this dialogue extends beyond the museum and into people's daily lives."
People, being people, have interpreted the exhibition however they please. The individual perspectives revealed through nearly two years' worth of comments reveal the "elaborate, novel personalities" that Ms. Ackerman describes.
A taxidermy white-tailed deer in "Population Impact" invites discussion of the pros and cons of managing deer populations. This topic makes up a large chunk of the exchanges on the comment board.
Simple observations such as "I live by a woods. I see lots of deer," in a child's scrawl fit right into the concept that all of us are qualified to observe and study and draw conclusions. Another one is: "Thank you for showing two sides of the issues about deer. ... Deer are beautiful creatures but I'm annoyed when they eat my garden."
A common pro-hunting thread is the mantra "Hunters are the best conservationists." One hunter asserts, "I grew up learning how to hunt the right way. We ate everything we hunted." Opponents often make heartfelt pleas: "Don't hunt. If you do the world won't be the world anymore," complete with a sad smiley face.
Some take the view that hunting is a responsibility: "WE, mankind, have already destroyed the Natural Predators or Supplied too much food ... therefore we must now TAKE on the Job of Re-balancing."
If sarcasm has a typeface, it is evident in the spikily writ, "If deer ever get thumbs, everyone would be dead." Perhaps a bit too Swiftian for practical purposes is, "I think the deer have suffered long enough ...we should start hunting the humans."
Visitors express concern about issues that our ancestors never had to worry about.
Delicate handwriting sets out the observation, "We are too fascinated by gadgets. Nature is more fascinating than anything, but we've forgotten that ... I fear for humanity. We need to get back to a simpler life." More deliberate lettering frames the comment, "I wish the trend toward cutting down all trees in an area in order to construct massive houses on tiny lots would stop. Are we really any happier this way?"
Technology is an easy target for debate. Offset paragraphs visually underscore the cause-and-effect of, "The more we advance technology, the more we destroy ourselves." Another guest opines, "We are so smart we keep inventing things, why don't these things ever help the Earth."
Still, a bright spot emerges in the optimistic, "The world's population is growing so much, yet with the technological progress we're making, I am confident we'll be able to integrate the human world with the natural one."
A limerick is written in calligraphy:
With so many people on Earth
We should cut down the rate of birth
"Consume less" is the rumor
OR reduce the consumer!
Consider our home planet's worth.
A child's poem is poignant:
The world is good.
We can make it better.
The world is good,
But we make it worse.
With the milestone of 8 billion humans projected to arrive sometime around 2025 -- only 14 years from now -- the dialogue among today's youngsters is particularly intriguing.
Hearts warm while reading all the "I love nature/birds/turtles/trees" cards, a top drop-in for the tween-and-under crowd. Barely intelligible toddler handwriting is often interpreted by a grown-up, as on one card with a kindergartener's attempt accompanied by Mom's neatly lettered, "We should clean up everyday. -- Jack, age 4."
Future activists shine in comments such as, "Schools should stop using Styrofoam trays. They are destroying our enviorment." Twitter-friendly catchphrases also abound, including "Don't litter, save a critter."
Of course, teendom calls dibs on attitude, as evidenced in "These cards all just killed lots of trees. Good job, Irony!" and on a card submitted by a young man who, um, basically seems to want to help, we think: "So far our resources are suckish, so reuse recycle, and whatever."
There is a card signed "10th grade student," the author of which seems to have had just about enough of all of this: "People need to help our environment, but I feel we fuss too much ...If you wanna clean, clean, don't drag other people into it too." Score one for youthful independence.
But a grateful, if harried, mom of teens also has her say: "Thank you for the ability to grant us to do something provocative and intelligent on our days off w/teenage children. Finally, something we can debate w/o anger."
"Population Impact" displays a world population clock that dutifully chugs upward as it tracks Earth's population. Through visitor notes, we can witness the increase over time.
"I love the fact there are 6,821,908,900 people on the earth and still more to come."
"With more people, we should live on the moon -- #6,845,446,211"
"Everyone always talks about how we're destroying the Earth. As of this moment, all 6,850,865,213 of us are helping the world progress ..."
The clock at "Population Impact" shows that the human population's net increase (births minus deaths) is a little more than a quarter of a million people every day. Some visitors wax poetic on this outlook: "Oh how young humans are and how sensitive and concerned we are when adjusting to new population sizes, cultures and ways of life. We're so beautiful."
Some are more lackadaisical: "Why worry? Natural selection will take care of us -- either we ruin the planet or not... I imagine we'll be wiped out by a big asteroid soon anyways."
Some are a bit fatalistic: "We are the most destructive organism to ever grace this planet."
"Population Impact" seeks to encourage visitors to begin a dialogue that they can continue long after they've left the exhibition. As Colcom's John Rohe puts it, " 'Population Impact' presents an opportunity for us to learn how to become good ancestors." One simple, block-lettered card also seems to be pulling for that future:
"THERE IS HOPE."
Cathy Klingler works in communications at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. See more about Population Impact at: www.carnegiemnh.org/exhibitions/impact.html .