Anybody who spends much time thinking about the environment knows that population is a major driving force behind the unraveling of our Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems. The Earth simply cannot sustain as many people as we now have. Say overpopulation and the mind may leap to Haiti, El Salvador or Rwanda, then to the vastly larger lands of India and China. But even big countries with low average population densities, such as Australia and Canada, are overpopulated, and the United States is even more so. One only has to look for symptoms and they are all too apparent.
But today I am celebrating. This morning, my oldest stepson Sean and his wife Leslie welcomed a baby into this world. I now have a granddaughter. Her name is Bailey.
Bailey is, of course, beautiful. We are hard-wired by millions of years of evolution to feel, way deep down, that babies are beautiful because they carry our genes. The fact that Bailey isn’t actually a close biological relative of mine doesn’t make that any less true. She is beautiful, and I love her already.
With all my joy, I’ve felt some twinges of guilt today. Knowing that there are already too many people, does celebrating Bailey’s birth make me a traitor, a hypocrite, someone who does not deserve the noble title environmentalist? Am I part of the problem, rather than part of the solution?
Maybe yes, maybe no. My wife’s big, strong sons are not my biological children, so my love for Bailey has to be something more than the genes we have in common. Certainly loving her is a way I can celebrate life, and my love for my wife and our family. But there has to be another explanation.
Seeing this tiny little human being, so dependent and innocent, makes me want to do more to protect the Earth. When I was her age, 59 years ago, most of the oceans were still filled with life. Right whale, Mediterranean monk seal and Atlantic halibut populations were imperiled, but green abalone, queen conchs, Atlantic cod, bluefin tunas, oceanic white-tip sharks and Pacific leatherback sea turtles were vastly more abundant than they are today. When I learned as a 5-year-old to catch 6-inch snapper bluefish and feisty blue crabs in a Brooklyn estuary, I would sometimes see huge numbers of tiny American eels. Now they, too, have become rare. Everywhere I look, everything has changed in less than six decades. Billions more of us humans, every person wanting more and being more able to get it, have drained the seas of life.
So I have a fervent hope: When Bailey is growing up, I want to take her fishing and snorkeling so she can marvel at the life in the sea. When she is a young woman, I want to hear her tales of fishing and scuba diving in clear waters filled with kelps and corals, fishes and sea turtles. When she is the age I am now and I’m long gone, I want her to take comfort in knowing that the oceans are, once again, filled with life, as they were decades, centuries and millennia ago. And I want her to know that I did whatever I did in substantial measure for her, and the billions of other people who need healthy oceans and diverse, abundant, beautiful marine life.
By loving and celebrating little Bailey, by protecting her and helping her become a person, I am part of the problem, true enough. But I am determined to be the biggest part of the solution that I can be. Her 15 hours of existence inspire me to fight harder to protect and recover the oceans I love, so that, one day, she might love them too.
Hearing the distant applause of fronds, fins and claws, I smile, thinking “She has no idea!”
[Dr. Elliott Norse is President of Marine Conservation Biology Institute]