by Stephen J. Lyons
Six baby quail hug the gutter of a busy avenue in downtown Lewiston, Idaho. They are about to be killed. They are so little that you could hold two of them in one hand and have enough room left over for a golf ball. Their mother nervously runs up and down the sidewalk calling to the babies and offering encouragement. I watch from across the street and cringe every time another 17-foot-long sports utility vehicle comes hurtling down the hill.
The drivers are oblivious to the quail, or to anything else for that matter. One driver per car, coffee mugs balanced against gravity, in a hurry to some job they probably can't stand, and music blaring at ear-splitting decibels out of the open windows. For one second I hear Dwight Yoakam singing, "I ain't that lonely yet," followed by a
prostate-jarring bass beat and a rap "artist" speaking in urban tongues.
"This is my species," I thought, watching one of the quail leap toward his parents only to hit the wall of concrete and fall back into the gutter just inches from a Chevy extended-cab V-8 pickup truck with giant mud flaps that show a silhouette of a naked woman and a bumper sticker that says "So many women, so little time."
More and more, I stumble upon these perfect examples of how overbearing, noisy, and large our human species has become. "Big" is probably the most often used word in advertisements these days. Big trucks, big Macs, big mergers; drinks the size of troughs and houses the size of
arenas. Vans with enough square cubic feet to hold a Subaru. Here in the West we brag about "big skies," and big sunsets, steaks, and mountain men.
Little wonder that quail, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears end up lost on our city streets. Their traditional residences, which were always modest by comparison to ours, keep getting smaller.
In his book on population, "Maybe One, a Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families," author Bill McKibben echoes many demographers who say the human species will grow even bigger and
approximately double its population by the year 2050 , the fifth such doubling since the 1840s. For the United States, already the third most populous country in the world, that means 170 million more people for a
total of 400 million. Picture Seattle, Boise, and Phoenix with twice the population (and traffic). California, always ahead of the times, is on course to grow to fifty million people by the year 2020.
Meanwhile the earth's population at mid-century will be eleven billion people, who will have to live with continued global warming, diminishing crop yields, road rage, unequal water distribution, and unrealistic consumer needs.
McKibben writes that these next fifty years could finally be that "special time" many have predicted throughout history. The earth is changing in ways never before seen; so subtle as to be imperceptible. But not so subtle is that global warming is now underway, brought on not by
large Third-World families but by our out-of-control western acquisitive nature. The average modern earthling uses 31,000 calories-most of that in the form of fossil fuel-each and every day. Americans, with our big energy
balloons trailing behind us, use six times that amount.
And forget about escaping to Montana. "There's no place to run," Mckibben warns. "We have to salvage what we can of our relationship with the earth, keep things from getting any worse than they have to be."
Can the earth survive our additional 130 million refrigerators, televisions, SUV's, air conditioners, not to mention meet the demands of increased food production, energy, and potable water? No one knows. That's
the scary part. This is uncharted territory.
If, as McKibben suggests, we lower our birthrate to 1.5 children and voluntarily reduce the entry of immigrants by half (to 400,000 per year), our population in 2050 would be 230 million, the same number when Reagan was in his first term.
"That gap of ...170 million Americans could be crucial...in reducing our environmental damage. By itself it would not solve the problem, for our fierce appetites and our old-fashioned fossil-fuel technologies also account for much of our dilemma. But it would make a
difference." In other words, we need to begin a lifestyle that values the concept that smaller is better.
That lifestyle makes sense for animals, too. More of us means less of them. McKibben writes, "There's not a creature anywhere on earth whose blood doesn't show the presence of our chemicals."
Our saving grace and largest attribute is our capacity to have big hearts. Like the woman who braved the Lewiston traffic to gather up the baby quail and deposit them on the curb to their waiting mother. The quail
were safe. For the moment.