A fierce debate rages between people who believe our planet is overpopulated, and people who think it is not.
For our first two hundred thousand years, our species depended upon procreation for survival. With the advent of agriculture, imposed hierarchy, and city states, we found even more safety in family and tribal units.
The first billion people arrived near the end of that two hundred-thousand-year mark. The second billion people arrived just 100 years later. And we’re still growing in numbers, currently at more than seven and one half billion mouths to feed.
Will the population bomb explode or not?
Most projections agree that population may well grow to ten billion by 2050. For those who say that’s okay, they often contend that food production and innovation will meet the need. They see, correctly, that it’s not a lack of space, or technical inability to feel more mouths, but merely a food distribution problem. We throw away enough food to feed everyone, and most of the Earth’s surface is still empty.
They also point to the fact, also true, that in every nation that has economic opportunity and race, and gender equality (or approaches it) has a falling birthrate.
Nevertheless, as any visitor to locations all over the world will attest, the human experience is that many places especially cities, are insanely overcrowded. As sea rise and climate crisis drought drive more people to these cities, the crowding increases each day. As I write this, much of Venice is under water. It was once a place of fantastic, affordable tourism. Now it’s a burden to most who live there. Overcrowding, of course, is just part of the problem, but Venice is a microcosm of many, many low lying cities from which people must now relocate.
People are dying of poor quality in Delhi. A billion people starve, or, also pressed by overcrowding, have little access to clean water. Conflict also arises with these stresses.
If you have tried to navigate streets in Tokyo, Bangkok, Manila, or Rio, you feel the full weight of crushing humanity. Then there is the garbage we generate.
We might have enough for everyone, but we don’t care enough to make sure nothing is wasted, and our sustaining ecosystems can remain productive.
It’s not that the population bomb went off, it’s that the climate crisis — what resources seven and one half billion people have to compete for — has divided our human tribe into separate bubbles. In one bubble, there is plenty, quit worrying. In the other bubble, hope is bursting at the prick of a thousand pins.
Nevertheless, most people have a gut feeling about overpopulation. They sense an oppressive madness taking hold, even as fewer places of natural beauty and abundance are found.
When I travel now with my family, the lack of wildlife is evident. Fewer birds sing, fewer forests beckon, fewer waterways are uncluttered, and every scrap of nature is over run with people.
Too many people? Or too much doom and gloom?
How can statistics tell one story: that our sheer numbers are within a carrying capacity, and our physical experience of the world tell a whole other story?
It is because facts don’t tell the whole story. Facts say we can genetically modify all we need, and that we can innovate technology toward ever more efficiency. Facts say that, as more people are lifted from poverty, that smaller families become the norm. Facts say that as a percentage, we have only one seventh (one billion hungry people) whereas forty years ago, we once had nearly one third of all people undernourished. The trouble with this fact is that if you counted every growling stomach, there were far fewer back when we had fewer people overall.
Empowering family planning (choice) does reduce the birth rate, it’s true, but it is only true where such empowerment values prevail. It is true that poor nations have higher birth rates, but it is equally true that they are not consuming most of the earth’s resources. It is true that if we empowered choice, we would have less poverty and disease, but that is not important enough to people that they demand it for the starving masses. At least not yet; some signs point to a tipping point of realization, especially as the climate crisis impacts more people in disasters and risk worldwide. Farmers in the US Midwest, for example, are seeing crops yields reduced by a warming world.
More food on less land is another trend that is touted for those who think that the more of us there are, the more innovation will produce more food on less land. By this logic, as we add over 350,000 people to our food lines every day, we should have millions of acres of lands returned back to a sustaining environment each day too. But I don’t think finite planets work that way.
Capitalism and colonialism
Famously, some people don’t want refugees, or migrants, from impoverished, war torn, or crisis driven events from S-hole, (let’s say “S” as in Suffering” countries as that’s what these countries typically are). Similarly, and coincidentally, these same people don’t want to curb their intake of meat, fossil fuels, luxuries, and most especially, the convenience of wasteful living. Entitlement is something that follows centuries of colonialism, and it is far too entrenched for many people to even recognize it, much less worry about it.
Capitalism is seen by many as the problem. But fair capitalism would look very different than exploitative capitalism. Colonialism, I think, is more relevant today, the after effects of colonial mentality remains a huge problem. Racism and sexism are direct results of some people simply not wishing to share what is produced by shared effort.
Unlimited growth is just not sustainable for most planets. And even, if techno fixes, and food production are the answer, there is little indication it is happening because of the intransigence of human values.
In fact, people who argue for unlimited growth often conflate environmentalists and scientists with Nazi’s who demand eugenics. If such progressives see human beings as so awful, the thinking goes, the planet is better off without people, and that’s what progressives want to do, kill everyone so earth can recover. Some people also believe that environmentalists and others wish to return to agrarian cultures and rustic living.
Personally, few of us have ever met someone who wants to go backwards, but to go back to a world abundant with wildlife and beauty is highly desirable and even necessary.
Overpopulation is not a concern until it affects you
If everyone has equal access to opportunity, choice, food, water, healthcare, and uncrowded living conditions, I would say overpopulation is not a concern. But, any glance at any news tells us this is not the situation. This has never been more true than it is now in the Sixth Extinction epoch of the Anthropocene. We need the natural world to survive.
We used to have a need to procreate for survival. Now, we have to slow the birth rate to survive. But the values that embraced large, and supportive families are still with us. Women, especially are accused of selfishness for refusing to have children. Men, are still not encouraged to be the stay at home caregiver that frees many women to be more economically productive. Our restrictive roles around gender and race are slow to change.
In Zambia, the average number of babies per woman is five kids. Other African nations are seeing similar upticks in the birth rate. The global north, which has the resources, typically feels no responsibility towards promoting economic empowerment and health resources for such women, even when preventable refugee crisis pushes desperate people to Northern shores.
No one wants to stop women from having babies, but everyone should want every baby to be a well-considered — and well fed — choice.
We should continue with the technological advances. We should continue with efficient food production, but more than anything else, we should stop thinking that we need large families to support and thrive simply because that was true for the first two hundred thousand years.