Interview with Tom Toro


When did you first become concerned about human population growth and overconsumption?

As a kid I remember having an acute sense of unease about the fast food restaurants in our neighborhood, and how each item that my parents bought from the grocery store would be individually wrapped in plastic. One afternoon I was at home alone trying to make myself lunch and I suffered a mini panic attack when I realized I couldn't even feed myself without creating a pile of garbage. Not that my family wasn't eco-conscious — we always had a vegetable garden, an apple tree. But the waste was unavoidable. I think my early misgivings were probably what caused me to look at the world through a green lens and to slowly recognize that human society is operating on an unsustainable scale.

Why do you think articles, cartoons and other media so rarely tackle these issues?

It's always easier to describe the symptom than to diagnose the illness. We live in a time when thankfully there's a great deal of attention being paid to the negative impact of human behavior on the planet, from environmental degradation to climate change. Media coverage is absolutely vital to raise awareness and explore solutions. But showing how human civilization needs major reengineering if we hope to ward off disaster is still missing half the point; it's not just what we're doing that must change, it's the scale at which we're doing it. Humans are part of a fragile ecosystem which we've thrown horribly off balance and now it's our responsibility to create equilibrium. But perhaps there's another reason why people get skittish around the topic of lowering birth rates; it smacks of eugenics. Which is a troubling if inaccurate connotation. Compounded by the fact that regions with the highest birth rates are typically those in the poorest countries, whereas the places most worried about overpopulation tend to be Westernized, conjuring up the spectres of racism and neo-colonialism. I'm very sensitive to such perceptions and I think it's important to stress that reversing the tide of human overpopulation is the duty of everyone, regardless of borders, culture or ethnicity.

Let's raise it as one of our pack. That way we can be sure it grows up to be an environmentalist.

Tom Toro, tomtoro.com, @tbtoro on Instagram, created for the Center for Biological Diversity, December 2015.

How does your art help you reach people or help them connect with issues they might otherwise ignore?

My art is how I cope with the things that haunt me, how I focus my thoughts and feelings, how I vent, how I try to grab people's attention with something amusing and evocative. If nothing else it's a nice alternative to despair.

When you think about the future, what is your greatest concern about the impact of continued population growth and overconsumption?

My greatest concern is that unchecked population growth and depletion of the earth's natural resources will lead to a desolate planet. A barren place where people can't see beyond the sprawl of what we ourselves have constructed and controlled, where all of the wonder and mystery and diversity of nature has been erased and there's no place left to step off the concrete and to stand in awe of all creation. I can't imagine a worse home for our species than one in which we live alone.

How does having a young child influence your perspective and/or activism on population, sustainability and environmental issues in general?

My wife and I have an eight-month-old son with whom we're madly in love. Our lives are unimaginable without the little bugger. (Maybe because we're too exhausted to use our imaginations...) Being a new parent has definitely made me more conscious about the long-term health of our planet, the urgency for immediate action and the difficulty of putting good intentions into practice. Already we're debating whether or not to have a second child. On one side of the equation there's the procreative urge, the comfort of a bustling family; on the other side, the knowledge that the most damaging thing we can do from an environmental perspective is to bring another human being into existence.

Do you have a favorite endangered species or wild place that inspires you?

Growing up in Northern California I was very fortunate to be surrounded by spectacular regional parks. Near my childhood home in El Cerrito is a glorious one called Tilden, where I'd get away as often as possible to take hikes and swim and bike ride — and yes, to sometimes drink beer and smoke weed with my friends. That, too. (Hey, the wild is the wild.) There's a scenic trail that meanders along the crest of the Berkeley hills where from certain vistas it's possible to see the entire Bay Area spread out like an enormous butterfly wing: the glittering metropolis of San Francisco and the hazy skyline of Oakland mingling with expanses of ocean and forest, and right at the center of it the Golden Gate Bridge suspended amidst fog like a fulcrum holding city and nature in tenuous balance. When I think of humanity's place on Earth I try to remember those views and how beautiful it can be when we leave everything enough room to coexist.


Tom Toro has been a cartoonist for The New Yorker since 2010, where he’s had more than 140 cartoons published by the magazine. His work has also appeared in The Harvard Business Review, Narrative, Audubon and The Funny Times. In addition to the visual arts, Tom is a prolific writer. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife, kid and cat. Learn more about Tom and his work at tomtoro.com.


Banner photo courtesy sfbaywalk/Flickr