Why we are not addressing the real problem – overpopulation

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).

In its most important foreign policy manipulation of all, the Vatican is successfully blocking consideration of the reality that population growth is the most serious threat to the security of all nations.

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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9 COMMENTS

  1. It seems to me that the womens’ rights movement works to address The Problem by insisting on our rights to contraception & abortion. Republicans have refused to fund foreign aid that includes contraception information & supplies. I think we should focus efforts in those areas rather than adopting a repressive government “solution”. Preserve freedoms. Educate.

    • When women are educated and have access to contraception and abortion, we have fewer babies. If we have the opportunity, we will do other things with our lives, things that are more interesting and more rewarding than bearing and raising babies. Since Roe versus Wade, the birthrate of American women dropped to 1.4 children. (The replacement rate is 2.6 children.)

      I suspect our declining population is part of the reason why our politicians made our borders and our immigration laws so porous: because they think they need expanding population in order to have capitalism.

      Our immigrant populations, primaily latinos and muslims, have high birthrates. Their religions tell them women should have babies, and their women are not educated enough to see (or have) other goals for their lives.

  2. I think you missed the main issue that our economic system is predicated on infinite growth, and depends on an ever increasing workforce to support the precious generation's retirees.

  3. Two points – giving women the right to control their own reproductivity historically results in reduced birthrate, an effect which iS HUGELY multiplied by educating the population, especially women. Given the choice, women prefer smaller families (obviously there are ecceptions, but this is generally true) because they bear the bulk of the burden of raising those children. Raising fewer means a greater chance of success with thise children. And did it never occur to you that the biggest battles in this issue are fought in order to allow women access to contraception and timely abortion?

    Secondly, you claim the one child per family rule causes no significant harm .I disagree
    Chinese culture places higher value on boys than on girls. This has led to rampant infanticide of girl babies, leading to a massive population imbalnce. Ultimately you could say this shoukd mean fewer babies as there are fewer wimen to have them. In the meantime there are millions of women who lise their babies simply because they are girls. I don't say none are complicit in said infanticide, but having borne a child for 9 months and then given birth to it means one does not give up that chikd without pain. I would bet the majority of those infanticides are carried out by disappointed fathers or grandfathers, an the woman's wishes are ignored.

    The only real solution is not a cruel dictatorship imposed law, but education of everybody, including critical thinking. Probably strong government incentives to have smaller families would help. And definitely encourage female control of their own reproductive choices. That complaint of yours is WAY off the mark.

    That all said, I agree, this is the elephant in the room of the entire planet. The tendency to push for "more population growth" to "bolster the economy" is purely about money for those who stand to gain. Ultimately, all except that very small, but unfortunately powerful, segment of the population would be better off if there were fewer of us, fewer demands on limited resources, anf fewer of us making waste.

  4. HI Kurt its been a long time.. this is EXCELLENT.. tweeted it out and will share on Facebook too..
    thanks would love to talk to you about my film.. 612-965-0575 see me on my new website..

    THANKS for writing this..

  5. I am vehemently against putting children who have no choice in the matter into the mess we have created.
    What hypocrisy to call this love.

    For the love of our children

    If we had children they would have been pretty
    If we had children they would have been witty
    If we had children they would have been clever
    Had we had children they may well never:

    Never forgive us the collective stupidity
    Never forgive us the unfettered greed
    Never forgive us that on the day we conceived
    We didn’t instead spend the time watching telly

    For what future is there for nine billion of them?
    All of them programmed to come out on top
    Having grazed the surface of the planet
    Left to search the universe for a place with a crop

    If we had children we would have loved them
    And hoped in return they would love us
    Nobody to look after us when we are old
    Nobody to leave things to when we are cold

    The biggest act of love is not to have them
    In 80 years time a search for life may be in vain
    What chance do they have for a future?
    Not having them we’ll have saved them much pain

    I am a woman hence programmed to bear them
    Have a lovely mate, would have been a fantastic Dad
    I am depressed when I think about Humans
    But maybe my children would have been barking mad!!

    So leave them where they are, as such they are perfect
    Won’t play, nor steal, lie, murder, love or create
    Leaves me to long for what could have been
    And leaves our children in a much happier state

  6. One partial objection to Kurt's conclusions.. In the developed nations of the world, no one really practices true Capitalism. It's this pseudo-capitalism that evolved out of America, right after WW2. We give artificial stimulus and preferential tax-discounting to "individuals", who own stocks and real estate (man-made buildings). We then tax the heck out of Corporations, (which is really a regressive tax against the little guy). All this nonsense has led to extreme and egregious "disparity" between the have's and the have not's. Believe it or not, a lot of this false capitalism and specious nonsense; all got started with John Maynard Keynes, right before he died in 1945. He established that IMF Bank in Washington DC; which spread this false or pseudo-capitalism all around the world.

    (LOL) Anyhow, my point being; under true free-market Capitalism, it would "never" be fiscally advantageous or prudent, to "buy" a 2000+ square foot, centrally air-conditioned, 2nd vacation home!…(lol) For that matter, with a nuclear family of 3.3 people, is wouldn't be prudent to even buy a "primary" home, much over 1600 sq feet!.. And that's because, under true Capitalism, a man-made home or building would "never" appreciate in monetary value, over time; regardless if you put on a new roof or upgraded the toilets and kitchen countertops..

    (lol) And continuing; a lot of the disparity problems, racial problems, traffic problems, energy consumption problems etc etc etc; are not really so much over-population, rather the false or pseudo-capitalism, that is practiced worldwide..

  7. Excess of anything is never a boon. We can adapt with fewer of everything we’ve become accustomed to living with. That includes children.

    People address homeless issues with such passion- looking to turn current public park spaces (Seattle, to name one) into homeless and low income housing, yet people cringe to speak up about our overpopulation: the origin of our issue.

    We are bursting at the seams, willing to give up legally designated green space to house our excesses. We are forced to give more of our tax dollars each year to an ever growing homeless population.

    American living has transformed drastically in the last several decades. Some good, some bad, as is the nature of change; we cannot plead ignorance to the over-population issue.

    Disregard debate re: women’s rights or abortion law: This current issue plunges more deeply into the flaw of our current mindset of viewing the world as ours. Our current mindset is awry: the world isn’t our receptacle.

    Think about it.

  8. The solution is rather simple. ALL of the "GODS" that are available for Humans to worship (there are Many as we know), being all knowing and powerful and all those positive things we hear over and over from their followers need to get together for a casual "meeting" and figure out how to make their "creations" be more responsible to YOUR Planet when "creating" new humans. If "GODS" (regardless of which one someone chooses) are so powerful and knowing, WHY NOT do that? Are they too busy? Doing what? C'mon GODS……. get busy TOGETHER and fix it. The Devil made me say that. Not my fault. That was easy.

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