World’s best magazine – National Geographic

January 1, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More

As the new year began, I found myself finishing up the January, 2011 edition of National Geographic. This is not a magazine to be merely scanned. In my experience, National Geographic deserves its own special time. It needs to be read slowly so that its exquisite prose and photography can be deeply appreciated. Every minute invested is paid back tenfold, and National Geographic has been written in this high-quality way for as long as I can remember. So… If you’re going to put me on a deserted island and I can only have one magazine subscription, please make it National Geographic.

The cover story of the current issue is “Population 7 Billion: How Your World Will Change.” In the introduction, the Editor notes that “the issues associated with population growth seem endless: poverty, food and water supply, world health, climate change, before station, fertility rates, and more.” Therefore, it would seem that we would insist on discussing the carrying capacity of Earth. We talk about the capacity of motor vehicles and houses and hotel rooms and conference centers, because we can’t deny that human animals take up space and use up resources. We can’t put 12 people in a boat that is designed to carry four, because it would cause a disaster. Yet many of us simply refuse to consider whether there is such a thing as a carrying capacity of the earth, and we utterly refuse to attempt any sort of quantification of the carrying capacity of the earth. Therefore, as we are approaching 7 billion people on earth, it is preordained by many people that population is simply not a problem, even though societies all over the earth, rich and poor, traditional and modern, are exhausting the resources that are available to them.

Yes, wealthy industrial societies use up far more resources per person than traditional societies, and we should be looking long and hard in a mirror at our own profligate consumption. At the same time, we could all be seriously considering whether we have long overshot the sustainable capacity of Earth. Many people refuse to even address the topic. Why is this important, one may ask. After all, many societies (e.g. China) are below replacement fertility. Here’s why:

[T]he bad news is that 2030 is two decades away and that the largest generation of adolescents in history within be entering their childbearing years. Even if each of those women has only two children, population will coast upward under its own momentum for another quarter century. Is a train wreck in the offing, or will people then be able to live humanely and in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment? One thing is certain: close to one in six of them will live in India. The article also points out that since there are many new human beings on the way, the most effective approach at this point is to deal with the way people consume resources. But our people really willing to eat less meat?

The article describes vasectomy as the dominant form of birth control in India. The government pays incentive fees for vasectomies (about a weeks’ worth of wages for worker). In India the procedure is mass-produced, the surgery taking about 7 minutes and the patient walking out without even a Band-Aid after the “painless, bloodless surgery.”

This is a good opportunity to mention an organization that very much once a conversation to occur on this topic of whether the earth is overpopulated with human beings. The organization is Global Population Speak Out, and it is time for their annual effort to highlight this issue:

The size and growth of the planet’s human population are fundamental drivers of the ecological crisis facing us – no less crucial than overproduction and consumption in developed nations. Almost all environmental problems, from biodiversity loss to climate change, are traceable to the interplay of all these factors.

To mitigate this global tragedy, changes in our consumption habits are indispensable. But, so are investments in voluntary family planning and reproductive health. Giving couples everywhere the ability to prevent unplanned pregnancies is critical for the health and well-being of women, their children, their communities and the planet. This February, an international community of ecologists, scholars and concerned citizens will SPEAK OUT for a sustainable population and a sustainable world. Be part of the change.

National Geographic offers many topics per issue. I’ll mention only two others at this time, and I’m picking two with which I have a personal interest. First of all, there is an article on Cahokia Illinois, “America’s forgotten city. The article points out that American Indians created a city of 15,000 people four centuries prior to the arrival of Columbus. The Cahokia region is only about 10 miles from my house in St. Louis, and it is rich in archaeological artifacts:

Cahokia mounds may not be aesthetically pristine, but at 4000 acres (2200 of which are preserved as a state historic site), it is the largest archaeological site in the United States, and it has changed our picture of what Indian life was like on this continent before Europeans arrived.

I’ll mention one other story, on the city of Timbuktu. I had often heard of Timbuktu growing up, but I knew nothing about it. To find Timbuktu, you need to travel to the African nation of Mali. If you visited Timbuktu, you would learn about the ancient books and manuscripts of Timbuktu. How did Timbuktu come to be a place where one would find great quantities of beautiful ancient manuscripts? It turns out that Timbuktu was prosperous due to

its position at the intersection of two critical trade arteries-the Saharan caravan routes and the Niger River. Merchants broadcloth, spices and salt from places as far afield as Granada, Cairo and Mecca to trade for gold, ivory and slaves from the African interior. As its wealth grew, the city erected grand mosques attracting scholars who, in turn, formed academies and imported books from throughout the Islamic world. As a result, fragments of the Arabian nights, Moorish love poetry and Corunna Commentaries from Mecca mingled with narratives of court intrigues in military adventures of mighty African kingdoms.

I knew a bit about Timbuktu, in that my sister-in-law, Alida Jay Boye, working with the University of Oslo, spends quite a bit of time in Timbuktu assisting in the effort to preserve these ancient manuscripts. If you want to know more about this work and the physical beauty of these documents, consider reading the article in National Geographic. For a lot more detail, however, consider reading The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Rediscovering Africa’s Literary Culture (2008) (co-authored by Alida Jay Boye).


Category: Culture, Education, History, Human animals, Quality of Life, travel

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Beth Foster says:

    I work for National Geographic magazine. Thanks for your thoughts about the Jan issue. The 7 Billion story is part of a year-long series looking at population issues planned across 2011. We just launched a youtube video setting up the idea of the series that you may want to take a look at:


    The Timbuktu story was partially supported by the Pulitzer Center in Crisis Reporting. The photographer presented the photos at an event at NG headquarters–there are many that didn't make it into the published story for space reasons. You can see him talking about them here:….

    Thanks for reading us and best wishes in the New Year.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Beth: Thanks for the comment and the links. I just finished watching Brent Stirton's presentation on Timbuktu (complete with many of the photos from the paper version of the article on Timbukto), and I'll now check out the population link.

    It must be so very satisfying to work for such an excellent organization.

  3. I have been a long time subscriber to the National Geographic and plan to continue till I die. It has provided me with insightful facts and emotions on all kinds of subjects (not only geographical).

    Unfortunately, there is a downside to the popularity of the NG; scientists say that the earth's rotation is slowing down. I think it's due to the accumulation of NG magazines in basements. The problem is probably compounded by the amassing of pennies in jars…

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Rejean: I just can't bear to throw out old issues I've already read. I'd give them away to someone I respect, but most such people are already NG subscribers who are accumulating their old copies in big piles in the basement.

  4. Dave Jenkins says:

    Population growth is built into so many fundamental parts of our society that no one wants to really talk about hard choices. I'll put one on the table: if you worry about population growth, are you willing to privatize social security? Before you throw that yellow card for a possible thread-jack, please hear me out:

    1. Social Security and most government-funded pension plans are structured in a way that expects an ever-expanding labor pool to support those who've retired. This labor pool can be expanded by either bringing in additional workers, expanding hours of existing workers, or lengthening the number of years that they work (and pay into the system). With a limited population, or worse– a declining one– these equations suddenly go south: an ever diminishing pool of workers are expected to pay for the lump of retirees. This is currently the case in Japan (where I live) and most of Europe. The USA still has some running room in that it expects immigration to ramp up the population to 500M over the next few decades. Theoretically, if everyone had their own savings and didn't rely on others for retirement, then the size of the labor pool gets removed from the equation.

    Take this same question and substitute the word 'deficit spending' for 'social security', and the same problems crop up.

    Population control sounds like a sensible idea in terms of the environmental impact– no one argues that. The problem is that no one has figured out the economics of it, nor the tax-base issues involved.

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