My Bacteria Neighbors -
an analogy about U.S. overpopulation


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My Bacteria Neighbors

Consider two beakers of a culture medium, with modest populations of bacteria in each. I'm a bacteria and I live in one. Mine is growing at a 1 percent growth rate per minute, but the beaker is only 1/10 full of me and my fellow bacteria, so doubling every 70 minutes doesn't seem to be an unsustainable rate, at present. The one next to me is growing at a rate of 5 percent per minute, with a doubling time of 14 minutes, and as a result is already 90% full, facing total saturation in a very short time.
My bacteria neighbors see their impending doom, and have for several minutes experienced the horrible consequences of over-crowding, and made some half-hearted attempts to reduce their terrible growth rate. Already a few of them are climbing up the sides of the beaker, and, by herculean efforts, are making it over into my beaker, where I welcome them with open arms. They are strong, determined bacteria and I find their slightly different ways interesting, and their different views about things stimulating and enlightening. The few who make it over from the over-populated beaker don't seem to have a strong, immediate impact on my life. On the contrary, they enrich it. They are so grateful to be with me, they work extra hard trying to do well, and fit in, and learn my language. I enjoy being with them.
A little later, however, the neighboring beaker fills to the top and hordes of my neighbors start coming over, and the deluge starts to have adverse impact on what used to be a pretty good life we were enjoying. Now I have a terrible dilemma. I loved the new-comers, when there were only a few of them, but now they are stressing out my systems and I join efforts to stem the tide, reluctantly and with great sorrow, because I know the plight of those left behind in the filled beaker.
This is a terrible moral dilemma for me. The new bacteria I love, but their NUMBERS are causing to my beaker the same thing that is happening to theirs. Is the solution to continue accepting the overflow? How long will it be before my beaker fills up and conditions here will be the same as in the other one? I notice that the crowding in the other beaker is leading to anarchy and loss of control. My neighboring bacteria are no longer in a position to figure out how to solve their problem, and the same thing is starting to happen to those of us in my beaker, as we spend more and more of our time and resources trying to accommodate the newcomers, and less and less time thinking about the big problem, the root cause of which is destroying both our beakers. Will letting the overflow continue at high rates give those left behind a false hope that salvation lies in switching beakers? Does it deceive what few leaders are left in the full beaker into thinking they don't have to deal with their own internal growth problem? Will our provision of at least a conceptual (if not factual) escape valve keep them from facing up to their problem and taking the drastic actions that are needed to preserve their society? I think so.
So I join a new Society to Limit the Number of Bacteria Allowed to Switch (SLNBAS) from the filling beaker to the one not yet so full. Out of nowhere I come under criticism from some in MY OWN beaker. Some of them are recent immigrants, and their criticism is understandable. I send them to talk to not-so-recent immigrants who tell them that things here are not so good as we thought they would be when we were in the other beaker, that the large numbers of recent immigrants are not being accommodated very well, to the detriment of the not-so-recent immigrants.
Then, even more surprisingly, I find that a few of my fellow bacteria don't like the looks or speech of the new residents and oppose the immigration, not because of over-population effects, but for their own reasons. I'm really baffled by this, for most of the immigrants are my friends and neighbors, and I love them dearly.
Then others of my group criticize me because restricting the immigrants deprives them of a cheap labor pool in the not-so-full beaker, cutting into their profits, their affluent ways of life. I try to point out to them that in the long term their affluent ways cannot last if our new, much higher, growth rate persists. They will be as swamped as everyone else. They say they don't care about the future, they want their profits now, and besides, science will somehow find a way to avoid the consequences of overpopulation which happened to the other beaker.

A comment about this bacterial immigration story: "Seems too dramatic.... Is it that the only workable practical issue you can envision to attack this problem on is immigration.?" Response: No. Immigration is only part of the problem. In the long term it's a minor part. It hardly matters in the long run where all the population grows, as the Earth approaches saturation. Inevitably excess populations in one part of the globe will seek to move to less populated areas, like water flowing into a valley. I understand it and would do the same myself. (In fact I already have, by moving to a small, hardly growing town in Florida.)
I'm trying to point out that excessive immigration is not a good idea, if we have any hopes of stopping global population growth. It makes too many people who are relatively free of the immense population pressures in some parts of the globe spend so much time and energy on dealing with the consequences of their own population growth that they don't have much left to deal with the bigger picture.
There is more to it than that, of course. Immigration isn't the only source of overpopulation in the U.S., but it is a big one. If we want other nations to stop population growth, then we ought to lead the way by stopping ours first. I'm not proposing that we solve our population problems through limits on immigration only. But limiting immigration to historic levels in the U.S. seems to me to be a saner policy than opening the borders to what is currently almost a flood of new residents.

      -- Ross McCluney


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