Introduction: Billy discovers that his father Jack was deployed to safeguard the United States from a cyberattack on its military networks. After that mission, Jack disappeared along with the Chinese technology he was ordered to steal–a weapon powerful enough to sabotage the digital infrastructure of the modern age and force the human population into collapse. In a good-bye letter Jack tries to explain himself to his son.
When you were six years old, Billy, you asked me if I hated the elk.
“No,” I told you, “I love them.”
You looked me straight in the eye and said, “Then why do you always want to kill them?”
“I don’t always want to kill them,” I explained. I took you into my arms and I carried you to the window where we could see the forest and I told you, “I hunt them in the fall because it’s good for them and it’s good for our family.”
You didn’t let me off the hook. You asked me to put you down. You wanted to know how it was good for the elk to be killed.
It was a good question. You’ve always had a penetrating mind.
I told you that there were no more wolves in Colorado, only the ones that have snuck back into these mountains, and there weren’t enough of those, not yet, to keep the elk herds in balance.
I asked you who was left to prey on the elk?
You didn’t have an answer. There are no more brown bears in our mountains and the lions here prefer to eat the deer.
That was all you needed. At that point you understood.
But let me write this anyway, let me write it just to see the words on the page, the idea. I’ll write it for me.
Elk reproduce at a robust rate. Without predators to keep them in check the population would swell and the herds would destroy their habitat. Once their habitat was destroyed the elk, in turn, would starve. There simply wouldn’t be enough food to feed them all.
Given our choice to remove their natural predator it would be cruel not to hunt the elk because harvesting a limited number preserves the whole. In the end culling the herd saves lives.
We accept this as a biological truth, I think, that everything has to be kept in balance. The wolves are the keepers of the elk just as the elk are the keepers of the grass. At six years old you understood this. In the absence of the wolf the hunter must keep the elk. The hunter does this to also feed his family and to keep the grass because he understands that without the grass there would be no elk.
That’s what life is. We keep each other.
Our grocery stores, perhaps, have allowed some of us to forget about the simplest of all truths. That we keep each other. People who only eat the meat that is butchered for them have no appreciation for the consequence of that feast. In that sense, they have lost contact with reality.
The chasm between our own understanding of ourselves and biological reality can be illustrated in the following question, where is the wolf?
The wolf is all but exterminated. Why? Those who want to exterminate the wolf want to do so because the wolf competes with humanity for resources.
In the effort to make ourselves more secure we have exterminated our competition, those who would prey on us along with those who would compete with us. Thousands of years ago, on the scale of a few million human beings trying to make it in the world, the strategy made sense for our species because the human population was fragile.
It makes sense to eliminate the competition, to kill the wolf, today only if the lens is focused on the individual. If the harvest of an elk is detrimental to the individual elk but beneficial to the species, how can it be any different with a human being? The truth is that human beings need predators. Because of our birth rate, like the elk, we need strong competition to survive. This is a mathematical fact.
The overwhelming success of our strategy of extermination has dramatically augmented the scale of its implementation, resulting in a lack of balance.
I’ll try not to be pedantic but a little math will help to contextualize what it is I mean by balance. The growth of the human population as I write is estimated to be 1.3% per year. At the current rate of growth the population will double every fifty-three years. Six to twelve, twelve to twenty-four billion human beings in a century. To put those twenty-four billion people in perspective, the world’s population a hundred years ago was one point six billion.
Unfortunately, the resources required to sustain our civilization are not growing at the same rate as the human population. The United Nations estimates that 15% of the population goes hungry today. That’s nearly a billion people. The balance is off.
Although most people accept the concept of ecological balance they are attracted to it only in the abstract, in a Disneyesk, bloodless form.
Balance requires death, killing. This concept is missing from our current understanding of humanity’s place in the world. Our population is kept from growing out of balance as long as those who hunger for us eat. All one has to do is pay attention to understand that is how life works. The failure to understand this is a symptom of our cultural disengagement from reality.
Whereas, reality does not depend on our acknowledgement of it, it won’t deactivate its consequences because we do not recognize them.
What happens as the human population swells? Its hunger swells. And, like every other species, it satiates its hunger.
Because we are more capable than the elk we can exterminate the organisms that compete with us for resources, weeds, fungi, insects, and grow our own food supply. And rather than exhaust our supply of food when faced with a swelling population we can expand food production and satiate the hunger. But that expansion has consequences. The elk feeds by ripping the grass with its teeth. Rather than consume the surrounding habitat with our jaws we consume the habitat with our cities and our farms.
Where is the pressure, the competition, the predator to check human civilization?
Due to our ability to adapt to the radical alterations we ourselves are making to our habitat the human timeline for uncontrolled, exponential population growth is more expansive than that of the elk’s but an expanded timeline is not an infinite timeline. The result of an unchecked, exponential growth in population is always the same.
Starvation. Because we have been so successful at exterminating our competition, a wolf will be provided for us. This wolf will come in the form of our own hunger.
There will be balance.
I’ve heard it argued that technology will change this. That there will be a human exception. That we can think our way out of this natural law. But that denial, the denial of the most fundamental law of biology, will only exacerbate the inevitable consequence. We do have an incredible gift in our ability to create. But as powerful as our minds are they are housed in our animal bodies, bodies that require sustenance to survive, bodies that are hardwired to reproduce. It is true that technology has stretched the breaking point but it has not and it cannot do away with it. The law remains constant. The result of an unchecked, exponential growth in population is always the same.
Nature forces balance.
The only variable to the law is scale. Because the elk’s impact is, in the grand scheme of things, small, if the population of its herds were to swell then collapse today the ecological damage could be repaired within a few generations. The same cannot be said of humanity’s global biological impact. As a matter of fact, with the six billion hungry humans who inhabit it today it is hard to imagine a species affecting the planet on a wider scale. Unless you were to consider the twelve billion who will inhabit it tomorrow or the twenty-four billion after that.
There will be a collapse. I think we all know this. Somehow we sense it. This is true for every part of the world to which I’ve traveled. People see it coming. Yet as a culture we suppress that knowledge, like the knowledge of the inevitability of our own death. Although suppressed the awareness spills out of our cultural-subconscious like a collective nightmare. You see this in the form of our post-apocalyptic art, our entertainment.
I wish it were different. That we could discuss the problem openly. But the subject of ecological balance in the context of human beings remains taboo. So when one does speak the truth, when one speaks about our need for the wolf, it sounds radical.
However, give it time to sink in and the truth of the matter will become inescapable.
I understand that decisive action has the appearance of cruelty. However, history tells us that it is decidedly more cruel to do nothing. The number of deaths from starvation has grown exponentially with the overall population. For example, the number of people without enough to eat in the world today is equal to the entire human population of 1810.
What does the future hold? If the number of hungry people doubles with the overall population, at the current rate of growth, 1.3%, there will be two billion hungry people in fifty-three years, four billion hungry people in a hundred and six years. How long will it take before the number of people suffering from starvation grows larger than the total number of people alive on the earth today?
Moreover, the problem reaches far beyond human suffering. To do nothing is to preside over the next mass extinction.
The growth rate of the human population will drop below zero. That is certain. The remaining question is one of scale. How catastrophic will the collapse be? That is up to us. That is up to me. The sooner the population is restored to balance the gentler, the more humane will be the collapse.
That, in a nutshell, is my job. To save lives. Just as I kept the elk I have been given an opportunity to be humanity’s keeper.
Why are we now comfortable with that ethic in its application to the elk but not in its application to human beings?
Because we have been disengaged from reality.
A paradigm shift, especially for those uninitiated to the trauma, can be unsettling emotionally. And in my experience the human condition does not allow for the intellect to move forward unless the emotional needs of a person are met. That is to say, unless the person feels safe. Which is difficult, or impossible, to achieve when under threat.
I realize that it is difficult to imagine a reality more threatening than the one I am now presenting.
I understand why this is so hard to accept. I’m afraid that when it comes down to it human beings reproduce, eat and starve just like every other animal. The belief of human exceptionalism in this regard is a blinding myth. Perhaps that false belief is why the truth is so painful to us. To be clear, I am not suggesting that an elk’s life is as valuable as a human’s. To me, it is not. I am only stating that humanity is governed by the same biological laws as the elk, the same mathematical equations. Life will grant us no exception in this regard. We are vulnerable to our own appetite.
Before I close this letter, Billy, I want you to know how sorry I am about how difficult reading this must be for you. I wish it were different. I wish I were there to be your father. To walk with you through this. I really do.
I love you more than anything in the world,