By Alice Friedemann | 18 January 2016
“There is no need to decide whether to stop the population increase or not. There is no need to decide whether the population will be lowered or not. It will, it will! The only thing mankind has to decide is whether to let population decline be done in the old inhumane method that nature has always used, or to invent a new humane method of our own.” ~Isaac Asimov, 1974.
“Unlooked for but swift, we have come on like a swarm of locusts: a wide, thick, darkling cloud settling down like living snowflakes, smothering every stalk, every leaf, eating away every scrap of green down to raw, bare, wasting earth … There are too many men for Earth to harbor. At nearly seven billion we have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity.” ~Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First.
1) The Consumption of Wealthy Nations is the problem. Not the Poor
It’s both, obviously. Not one or the other. The famous equation to describe this is I = P x A x T, which translates to Human Impact (I) on the environment = (P)opulation times (A)ffluence times (T)echnology.
It is certainly true that wealth nations consume too much. The United States uses 7 billion tons of minerals a year. Per capita that’s 47,769 pounds per American: 1400 pounds of copper, 9 tons of phosphate rock, 300 tons of coal, 16 tons of iron ore, 700 tons of stone, sand, and gravel, and so on.
But the poor also have a huge effect on the environment:
- Slash and burn farmers migrate deep into rainforests on illegal logging roads and destroy them
- Extinction looms for many animal species due to too much bush meat taken, especially in Africa
- Deforestation due to illegal timber harvests and to cook food
- Competition over scarce water
- Sewage and chemical pollution due to lack of treatment
- The poor relieve their excess population by migrating to developed nations or nearby nations, so population growth remains unchecked, the need or desire for birth control lessened, and the impact of even more consumption in developed nations receiving immigrants worsened
- Adopting the consumerism of rich nations and consuming more meat and other goods
2) It’s taboo to mention the link between poverty and population
Much of the misery and starvation in Niger is caused by having the highest birthrate in the world, which clearly reduces the slice of resources per person. But reporters never mention this connection since it is not politically correct.
3) Don’t worry, America’s birth rate went down
By 1973 the birth rate dropped below replacement level, so the media ran headlines declaring that the population problem was solved and that America had reached Zero Population Growth.
Not true! The population in the U.S. was, and is, still growing.
4) Feminists and Human-rights groups took over the Sierra Club
After feminists and human-rights advocates were put on the population committee at the Sierra Club, they fought to have empowerment of women as the main goal. Dave Foreman was on the committee and opposed this since the goal was population stabilization and then reduction. Empowering women might be a key path to that goal, but was not the goal itself.
The newcomers replied that any implied restrictions, such as a goal of population stabilization, was an assault on women rights to choose how many children they had. The mere mention of limits to growth was coercive.
The takeover of the Sierra Club population platform by people unaware or unable to understand “The Limits to Growth” and “The Tragedy of the Commons” was a tragedy. The Sierra Club was instrumental in making the topic of population taboo and politically incorrect.
Since the 1980s there’s been little media attention to population growth, and close to none since 1994.
Not only did the Sierra Club and other environmental groups stop writing about population issues, they stopped reminding people that overpopulation is responsible for every single problem they were trying to “solve”. Clearly all of these problems would be reduced if there were fewer people:
- Climate change
- Oceans: acidification, overfishing, pollution
- (Rain)forest destruction for agriculture, cattle, construction
- Biodiversity loss (6th mass extinction)
- Providing a good education to children everywhere
- Feeding everyone
- Making jobs available for record numbers of unemployed youth
Martha Campbell puts this even more strongly – she sees hostility towards mentioning the population question due to universities teaching students that even discussing the connection between population and environment is not a tolerable topic of discussion and politically incorrect to even suggest that slowing population growth might protect the environment for future generations.
5) Cornucopian and Leftists Environmentalists also destroyed immigration and population stabilization goals
You’d think the Left would support conservation, but there are splinters who saw talking about overpopulation as blaming the world’s poor for their plight. Better to stop wealthy countries from consuming so much.
In 1998 the Bay Area Marxist group “Political Ecology Group” succeeded in killing a Sierra Club immigration-lowering initiative. Leftist ideologues also suppressed talk about overpopulation at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment because Chinese and India’s attempts to gain population stabilization were seen by them as coercive.
6) The American public is not scientifically educated and ignores warnings from scientists
Anyone who denies overpopulation is a problem ought to be called a population denier, just as those who insist there’s no climate change are called Climate Change Deniers. For some reason just about everyone, scientifically literate or not, ignores warnings about population:
- 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus
- 1968 The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
- 1968 The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich
- 1973 Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows et al
- 1980 Overshoot by William Catton (especially Chapter 2)
- 1992 World scientists’ warning to humanity. 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this appeal
- 1993 The Arithmetic of Growth: Methods of Calculation by Albert Bartlett.
- 1995 The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons by Hardin
- 1999 The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia by Garrett Hardin
- 2001 Global Biodiversity Outlook
- 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- 2006 The Essential Exponential: For the Future of our planet by Albert Bartlett (video)
- 2014 Nobel laureates call for a revolutionary shift in how humans use resources. Eleven holders of prestigious prize say excessive consumption threatening planet, and humans need to live more sustainably.
7) Educating Women to lower population a nice idea but…
As far as lowering population, Virginia Abernethy has some valid criticisms about whether this will work in “Population Politics: The Choices That Shape Our Future”.
The main reason it won’t work is that it’s too late. We’re too far into overshoot beyond carrying capacity once fossil fuels start declining.
Though it’s still a good idea, so that as energy, natural resources, and population decline, educated women perhaps will fight the loss of their rights because they’ll know it doesn’t have to be that way.
8) Only humans matter, screw the other species on the planet
Nearly all the optimistic books written with the general theme of “YES WE CAN SUPPORT 10 BILLION PEOPLE” ignore other species on the planet. All that matters are human needs. The human-caused mass 6th extinction is well underway. The idea that we can kill off most other species and maintain a population of 10 billion is absurd.
9) Anyone who wants to limit immigration or population is portrayed as a racist
When’s the last time you read or heard anyone interviewed in the newspaper or television who stated their reason for wanting reduced immigration was their concern over declining aquifers, fisheries, forests, and energy? Instead, only people who sound like hateful racists are interviewed.
Many systems ecologists have estimated that without fossil fuels, the United States could support at most 100 million people. The media should be asking people how we can go from 320 million to 100 million without birth control, abortion, and limiting immigration.
I personally think it’s less than 100 million due to what we’ve done to our topsoil, aquifers, massive dieoffs of marine life from eutrophication (due to fertilizer runoff), the lack of land to grow food on once the 4x to 5x intensification of food produced due to natural-gas fertilizers is no longer attained, phosphorous depletion, invasive species, and a whole lot of other ecological showstoppers covered elsewhere on this site.
10) The Sierra club and other environmental groups abandoned immigration level goals
In 1989 the Sierra Club’s stand was that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.”.
But in the 1990s conservationists feared alienating leftist and racial rights groups and dropped immigration to stabilize population from their platforms.
Since then immigration has grown immensely. Until 1965 levels were about 200,000 a year. In 1965 it leapt to 1,000,000, and in 1990 to 1.5 million.
Immigration is now the main cause of increasing population growth in the United States. Between 1900 and 2000 the population almost quadrupled (76 to 281 million), with the largest 10 year increase between 1990 and 2000 (32.7 million).
11) We must have more population growth to fund retirees and grow the economy
That’s clearly a crazy Ponzi scheme that can’t go on forever on a finite planet.
12) Immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want
Who benefits from immigration? Businesses that want to pay people less. Everyone else loses. Wages would be much higher if there weren’t so many people competing for every job, which drives wages, safety, and working conditions down.
13) We’re wealthy, so we’re obliged to offer shelter to immigrants, and we are a nation of immigrants
Just because we can’t control other nation’s population policies doesn’t mean we should reward them for reproducing beyond their carrying capacity. Since developed nations consume many times more resources, immigrants from India to the U.S. magnify resource depletion 40-fold, since Americans consume 40 times more per capita than Indians.
14) Nature keeps us alive
People are brainwashed by viewing the world through economic filters, forgetting that forests, fisheries, wetlands, aquifers, healthy deep class 1 and 2 topsoil, and other resources are essential for survival, and can be diminished and even depleted.
15) 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development
Activists at this conference shifted the goal of population stabilization and growth to empowering women. They labeled attempts by China and India as coercive, and thereby killed family planning, replacing it with empowerment and reproductive rights and health, because now family planning was spun as being coercive.
Perhaps they forgot that women are coerced into unwanted pregnancies and often die or are severely injured in childbirth. One of the results of this conference is that many poor women have little or no access to family planning and as a consequence are unable to control their bodies, how many children they have and when they have them.
This conference discouraged discussing the connection between population growth and environmental destruction, because to do so was seen as anti-woman. Anyone who persisted in talking about population growth was dismissively labeled a Malthusian.
16) Standard demographic theory
It was assumed that women would want fewer children as their nation modernized and more women were educated.
A better theory and one that matches reality, is that if men and women can gain easy access to birth control, they will have fewer children.
For example, in Thailand, where family planning is easy to obtain, women with no education used birth control as much as educated women. In the Philippines, where birth control is hard to get due to the Catholic Church, uneducated women don’t use contraception because they can’t get it.
If women could gain access to birth control, the population growth rate would go down.
Women aren’t stupid, they know that childbirth is dangerous – the risk of death or injury is very high. Women would rather stay alive to take care of their existing children. One million children are left motherless every year – childbirth kills 287,000 women and injures another 10 million every year according to the World Health Organization.
17) It’s Human Nature not to worry about overpopulation
In the end it may be that we’re not wired to worry about this issue. Everyone loves babies. We’re tribal. We’re optimistic.
18) Don’t worry: the fertility rate and disease are driving population down
Worldwide, family planning brought fertility rates down from 5.5 to 2.5 children per woman. Therefore the media reports: the population explosion is over. But the rate is still above replacement, the population is still growing exponentially. Just a bit more slowly.
19) Propaganda from anti-abortion activists, religious leaders, and right-wing think tanks
The most extreme are not only against abortion, but even family planning. Catholics and Right-to-Lifers strategized to convince people that there was no population problem, since that’s one of the reasons many people supported legal abortions.
Islamic countries are thought of as living in the Dark Ages, but some Muslim countries are the most advanced in family planning. In Iran, subsidies stop after a third child and classes in modern contraception methods are required before a marriage license can be obtained.
Capitalists have succeeded in painting environmentalists with negative terms such as being overly concerned about the environment, which threatens jobs and that their concerns about pollution and endangered species are overblown.
20) Many people don’t understand how powerful exponential growth is
Aldo Leopold: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us”.
Leon Kolankiewicz “Our species is unique, because here and now only we have the ability to destroy, or to save, biodiversity. Only we have the ability to care one way or the other. The destiny of all wild living things is in our hands. Will we crush them or let them be wild and free? Limiting human population will not guarantee success, but not doing so means certain failure”.
Isaac Asimov: “Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears”.
Alice Friedemann is a freelance journalist who specializes in energy. She is a member of the Northern California Science Writers Association. She graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana, with a B.S. in Biology and a Chemistry/Physics minor. Currently she is a systems architect/engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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Overpopulation – We Beat Around the Bush
How the world went from 170 million people to 7.3 billion, in one map
Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion, Trailer | The Future of Our Planet
Al Bartlett – Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation
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