This post by Kurt Dahl originally appeared at The Population Elephant.
The Real Problem
Some things are so preeminent within their context that they need no adjectives or explanation. Ask any American football fan what is referred to by “The Play” and they will tell you about the final play in the 1982 Cal/Stanford game when, after several laterals and a mad dash through the Stanford band, Cal scored the winning touchdown as time expired (do a Google search on “the play” and see for yourself). Likewise, “The Open” refers only to the British Open golf tournament, even though there are dozens of other “Open” athletic events.
The world today is beset with a host of major issues — oil depletion, climate change, food shortages, resource wars, species extinction — to name but a few. But these are only symptoms of the one true problem. “The Real Problem” — the one that spawns all others, and the one that mankind must face at some point — is that there are simply too many human beings on this planet.
Therefore, I suggest, that like “The Play” and “The Open” — hereafter overpopulation should be referred to as “The Problem”.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are content to address only the consequences of The Problem — climate change, energy depletion, food shortages, etc. This is the same classic mistake that a physician makes in treating only the patient’s symptoms, and ignoring the fundamental disease.
So then, the million dollar question is: “Why aren’t we addressing the real problem?”
First — A brutally honest reality check is necessary
World population stands at over 6 billion today. Every four days one million more people are added. Reasonable projections put world population at between 9 -11 billion by 2050. Rocket science is not required to understand what that implies for the host of issues (symptoms) listed above.
CO2 emissions are causing global warming. This is a fact. Many in the scientific community propose that an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 is necessary to forestall the extreme consequences of global warming. But how can this be done when at the same time we are adding 3, 4, or even 5 billion more people to the world? Get real — it can’t!
Likewise for energy and food consumption — the addition of billions of people means that these commodities will dramatically increase in consumption. But these are finite resources, already we are far above sustainable levels. So, can this go on forever? Get real — it can’t!
Can the use of new light bulbs, hybrid cars, cloth grocery bags, and mass transit offset the sharply upward consumption demand that will come from both the increasing world population and the dramatically increasing standard of living of the existing populations in developing countries like India and China? No way! Get real — it can’t!
So why aren’t the sirens blaring, why isn’t the alarm sounding, why isn’t this even being discussed?
In fact, the opposite is happening. There have been several recent opinion pieces in the Boston Globe and the New York Times expressing the belief that we have a problem with decreasing population! Absurd.
Why then is overpopulation not discussed? The Problem, it turns out, has many fatal problems of its own:
Five Fatal Problems with The Problem:
1. There is no money in it.
Going “Green” is a huge industry. Thousands of companies are trying to sell you efficient light bulbs, hybrid cars, cloth grocery bags, solar panels and a host of other gimmicks and gadgets.
Alternative energy sources need massive investments in capital expenditures and research and development. Government grants to universities, venture capital, bond issues, etc., all create a whirlwind of financial activity.
Money is to be made everywhere. And with these massive financial opportunities come huge profits, well financed lobbyists, publicity, and media creation. Indeed, the media explosion surrounding “going green” is a major industry all by itself. Everyone benefits financially by “going green”. Though, in the end, it is not a solution. At best, it will only modestly delay the dire consequences of our current over-consumption.
But, conversely, who would benefit financially from reducing the Earth’s population? No one! There is absolutely no money to be made in the one and only solution — fewer people.
So — one problem with The Problem is that it is a pauper, and therefore has no friends.
2. Not my problem — the short term view.
The United Nations provides the basic population projections that everyone else quotes. There is some arbitrariness necessary to create these models. For instance, the year 2050 is the endpoint for their current set of projections for no reason other than it is a convenient round number.
Almost every article written about population growth quotes the figure of 9 billion people by 2050 (though the UN projects other possible 2050 outcomes of 7, 11, even 13 billion). And then the reader of the article goes: “So what, I won’t be around by then.” As if the problem won’t happen until 2050.
I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I would strongly assert that in the United States, the “event horizon” for concern about the future, is short and getting shorter. A major problem that arrives in 2050 is too far away for most people to even think about, much less do anything about.
Not only that, but you can’t reduce The Problem to a short time frame and have it make sense to the average person. To say that there will be two million more of us on the planet in just a little over a week (a true statistic) also gets a big “So what?” “These two million newcomers aren’t in my neighborhood, so why should I care?”
Unfortunately, even though the problem won’t manifest itself for several decades, the solutions must begin now!
So — one problem with The Problem is that by the time it becomes obvious to the average person, it will be way too late.
3. The world’s fundamental systems oppose it.
Today there are three dominant systems that define and control the culture of human beings — democracy, capitalism, and religion. And unfortunately, all three of these fundamental systems work against addressing The Problem.
Democracy, to our great benefit, allows us the freedom to make certain personal choices. Among those is the choice of how many children we are allowed to have. No democratic government would even consider limiting that choice — because, at the first opportunity, they would be voted out of office. Simply put — it is impossible to imagine a situation where any mandate resembling population management could be enacted under a democracy.
Capitalism requires growth. Anything other than growth in consumption and demand under capitalism is considered bad — a recession, or worst case, a depression. But, The Problem is only solved by a declining population and declining consumption — or negative growth. It would be hard to conceive of a model of capitalism that could “succeed” under such a deliberate, sustained, long term, decrease in demand.
Imagine how capitalism would function if population declined steadily over several decades to levels approaching one billion people. The excess quantities of goods alone (think of housing) would virtually eliminate demand and eliminate the incentive for the constant struggle to achieve the ever bigger income. Capitalism, at least as we know it today, simply wouldn’t work in a declining population scenario.
Organized religion’s primary goal, like living organisms themselves, is to continue to exist. Religions always strive to increase the flock, whether by conversion or by birth. And in today’s world, they have even become competitive with one another to see who has the bigger numbers and thereby will “rule” here on Earth.
What would happen to the Catholic Church if each Catholic couple only had one child? It would shrink dramatically — heaven forbid! That is why they continue with their completely irrational stand against birth control.
And all religions work to obfuscate The Problem by proposing bizarre superstitions like the rapture. We will all be taken up into heaven soon, so why worry? Or even more simply: Worry not, God will solve this problem.
All religions work actively, aggressively, and with massive resources, to discredit any hint of activity that might be construed as population management. Considering the influence that the world’s religions have in today’s world, it is assured that The Problem will never be allowed to be addressed in any meaningful way.
As proof that these three fundamental systems work against a solution, look no further than China. The only successful approach to population management in the world is China’s “one child per family” mandate. Without this program, China alone would have several hundred million more people today, and perhaps a billion more by 2050. As it is, China’s population will increase by only 100 million by 2050 — in contrast, India will increase by almost 600 million in the same timeframe. China’s policy is by any reasonable measure, a great success. And yet, it is relentlessly attacked, here and abroad.
And now, with the dramatic rise of capitalism in China, internal attacks on the one-child policy are beginning. The capitalists in China are raising concerns about whether a declining young demographic can “support” (read — continue to grow consumer demand) an aging population. And concerns are being raised about China’s internal market not growing fast enough. If China’s one-child policy is ever watered down or eliminated, it will be because of this increasing pressure from the pro-growth, new Chinese capitalists.
So — one problem with The Problem is that it requires a godless socialist dictatorship in power in order to mandate any actual action.
4. The Problem has no voice.
It is hard to think of any issue in today’s media saturated world that doesn’t have several advocacy groups speaking and lobbying for or against it. If you are a newcomer to this population debate, I am certain that you assume that an issue as important as The Problem has many powerful voices advocating for population management, sustainable population goals, etc. Unfortunately — you would be wrong.
But, you say, surely the environmental groups all support population management and sustainable population goals? After all, isn’t their primary responsibility the health of the Earth’s ecosystem? Well, once upon a time they did, but no more — not even one of them.
More remarkably, the group created solely for this purpose — ZPG (Zero Population Growth) — its name identifying its position — began turning away from any specific population management agenda in the 1990’s. And now, it has even abandoned its own name! (Too confusing to have a name that says “Zero Population Growth” when that is no longer your position, I guess.) It is now called “The Population Connection” — a happy name, sounding like an arm of “Sesame Street”. Now it specializes in educating young people.
There are several reasons given for this complete abandonment of the issue by the very groups that strive to protect the planet — starting, once again, with money.
For the reasons stated above, The Problem has no friends. And no friends, means no money from contributions, memberships, grants, etc. In fact, many grant-giving entities would shy away from any organization that advocates positions directly opposed to such powerful institutions as the Catholic Church. So, no mater how important The Problem is, if it doesn’t generate any income (or might even cost money and members), the big environmental groups have no use for it.
And in addition, as it turns out, The Problem runs afoul of several Liberal sacred cows (just an FYI — I’m a knee-jerk liberal personally, so don’t think this piece is some kind of veiled right-wing political agenda — it is not).
Understand, the big environmental groups are primarily American institutions, and so they generally take an American perspective. Population management from a solely American position (specifically — managing America’s population) becomes then a discussion of immigration policy, or of minority fertility rates. Since the Liberal “politically correct” tradition is to not offend any minority groups, serious population management strategies cannot be discussed.
But the killer blow for population management advocacy has probably come from the women’s-rights movement. Women have made incredible progress toward equality in this country in just the last forty years. The women’s rights movement is now a large and powerful force. And one of the foundational rights of women, is the right to personally control their own reproductive choices. Obviously, this is in direct conflict with most population management solutions (China’s one-child policy, for example).
Population lore even puts a time and place when the women’s movement usurped any meaningful population management advocacy. In 1994, at the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the paradigm for population management dramatically shifted from “population control” to “the empowerment of women”. Virtually all environmental advocacy groups now promote the education and empowerment of women as the only acceptable population management strategy.
Now the world, facing a horrifying disaster in the making, is left with only a grassroots effort by handful of individuals with personal websites trying to sound the alarm.
So — one problem with The Problem is that no one speaks for it.
5. There is no positive approach (spin) to solving The Problem.
Our culture thrives on optimism. We believe that every problem must have a positive solution. I recently watched Al Gore’s newest version of his global warming slide show. The first third of the presentation now emphasizes how optimistic Mr. Gore is about both our ability to fix the problem, and how positive the fix would be for us — a true win-win — problem solved, and a richer world to boot.
Politics works the same way. To the politician, all situations, all problems have a wonderful and positive solution. Perhaps the last politician to even remotely suggest that things will get worse and stay that way, was Jimmy Carter, and he was roundly criticized for his “negative” approach, not to mention being roundly defeated in the next election.
But there is a simple and obvious solution to The Problem — one that has been tested and proven to work — one that causes no unnecessary harm to anyone — and one that costs absolutely nothing: the one-child per female policy. If implemented today, calculations show that world population would be reduced to a sustainable level of 1 — 2 billion people on earth by 2100. Within one hundred years the problem would be solved at no cost, and no harm — so simple.
But the one-child solution is considered completely onerous by almost all cultures on this planet. To almost everyone, it is a terrible choice, with difficult and frightening possible consequences that would require a rewiring of our thinking. No positive spin can be applied to this solution — except that in a hundred years, people will still be here and will be living on an increasingly healthier planet.
So — one (last) problem with The Problem is that the only reasonable solution is the worst possible choice — except for all the others.
Dancing Star Foundation | Overpopulation Problem
Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion, Trailer | The Future of Our Planet
Al Bartlett – Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation
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