As the United Nations’ bleak report on global climate change made headlines last week, I was already brooding on a related matter. The immediate threat to my local environment—the many largely undeveloped tracts of wooded, hilly land around my home in southern Franklin County—comes ultimately in the same form as that which threatens our planet overall: not in the form of increasing levels of carbon dioxide, exactly, but in the form of people.
I can’t say I was surprised when I arrived at the trailhead leading to my favorite trout pool the other morning only to find my path impeded by a line of freshly installed and very bright No Trespassing signs. For nearly a decade, I fished in this section of the Mill River watershed at least once a week, on a stream clean and cold enough to maintain a healthy population of native brook trout (and some holdover brown trout from a questionable stocking effort years ago).
But it’s been at least eight years since I actually wet a line in the stream; I stopped fishing there after finding the pools empty of trout, the banks strewn with beer cans and empty worm containers. When my wife and I first discovered it nearly 20 years ago, we thought we’d found a hidden, long-forgotten paradise. Sadly, it didn’t stay hidden. Though we didn’t blab about our finding, others found it. Over time, the game trails we followed from unpaved road to the trout pools became well-worn paths. Eventually, as developers built more and more houses along the road, the town paved it. Then more people discovered our little paradise.
And now it is paradise lost.
Standing in front of the No Trespassing signs, I felt angry, sad and a little guilty. I blamed the folks (I don’t know them) whose land it is not at all for posting it. Based on what I’ve seen happen to the place over 20 years, I’d have posted it years ago. I know that some of the footsteps that wore the paths to hardpan were mine. I was part of the swelling population that began to degrade an environment that I loved because it wasn’t degraded.
When I was a boy, I remember my father saying how intensely he felt the rise in the number of people in the world. In the 40 years since then, the U.S. population alone has grown by 100 million. Now, in my middle years, I understand what my father felt when he saw the world of his youth becoming too crowded for its own good.
Whether or not the recent UN confirmation that humans are responsible for global warming triggers any meaningful response comes down to how we describe the problem. Our methods and rates of energy consumption, as important as those issues are, shouldn’t obscure an even more profound issue: there are too many people in the world.•