Overpopulation: Not a People Problem5 March 2021
content warning: racism, mentions of eugenics and genocide
Overpopulation can be defined as an excess of people on the planet, and the assumed environmental, social and/or economic collapse that results. It is often followed by ideas and actions about curbing such population dilemmas.
So, why is this idea an issue?
Overpopulation is a difficult discussion, but the conversation today has one key problem: it assumes that an increase in human numbers always increases destruction at the same rate.
Environmental writer Ketan Joshi admits that the math has some logic in his review of David Attenborough’s new film, A Life on Our Planet. He notes, however, that this worldview stems almost entirely from the wealthy, white Global North: “those expressing concerns about population don’t include themselves in the wishlist of deletion. This is about other people.”
As an Attenborough fangirl I became defensive upon reading this review of the naturalist’s most recent offering, which, despite its flaws, Joshi labelled “well worth your time.” But, it cannot be denied that Joshi raises some vital criticism of the overpopulation argument that is rife in environmental circles.
Say, do you think you produce more or fewer emissions than the average human? When I think of my own life, which has been privileged even by Australian standards—a life of international holidays, the often necessary but carbon-intensive car journeys around a massive country, exorbitant food waste, electricity costs, and general overconsumption—I know my environmental impact is not at all equal to many others on the planet.
The Guardian found that taking one long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than is produced by the average person in dozens of countries annually. When you up those airmiles to the kinds of distances you’re likely to fly from Australia to Europe or America, you’ll overtake the annual emissions of the average citizen in around 56 countries… with one trip!
The birth rate in the Global North might be lower on average, but the consumption is not, and that consumption is a huge driver of environmental destruction. It is, therefore, highly hypocritical for us to be pushing for fewer births in the Global South as a response to the increasing human consequence on our environment.
There may be some truth to the science that it is more difficult to house and feed a large population, and that more people produce more emissions, but the blame and the solutions are way off. And even the science is debated.
A University of Washington study in The Lancet projected that the world’s population would peak in 2064 at 9.7 billion, then fall by 2100 to 8.8 billion. They even posit that planned increases in education and birth control access could reduce this to a population of 6.3 billion by 2100.
While there is hypothetically enough food capacity for those peak numbers, we already struggle to feed everyone. Hunger today is complex and linked to poverty, corruption, and political or environmental instability. Solutions to these massive issues are just as intricate and complicated as the problem they aim to remedy, but are not inherently based on having fewer people. Rather, they talk of political action to improve access to food, more sustainable practices globally to fight climate change, and the encouragement of democratic and egalitarian systems of governance.
While it’s far from a simple revelation, the blame placed on the Global South’s birth rate is misplaced. Food waste, unsustainable diets and climate change caused largely by the wealthy West and Global North are predominantly driving the inequality, poverty and instability of the rest of the world.
We also mustn’t forget calls for a reduced population are marred by a particularly dark, problematic history of eugenics, genocide, forced sterilisation, classism, and racism.
Non-consensual birth control or inhumane ways of lowering population, that have been both suggested and attempted in the past, are evidently not a solution. This is the problematic legacy of previous attempts at addressing “concerns” around population. Malthus, the father of the overpopulation argument, notably spoke of “court[ing] the return of the plague” to control and limit the number of poor people.
This ugly history has focused on specific human lives, notably of those who barely contribute to emissions, and has coupled up with the poisonous ideologies of colonialism, racism and white supremacy. It has not been aimed at the frequent flyers, CEOs, or the high-consuming richest ten per cent, who are alone responsible for around half of global emissions, but at the poorest and most vulnerable, overseas and in our own communities.
While that ten per cent continue to plunder, the UN predicts that the global population will plateau through humane efforts. This follows the broad trend of increased education, particularly amongst women and smaller families. In raising the living standards of those in the Global South, the world will face the challenge of maintaining this standard of living with fewer emissions, while the Global North will have to reduce its environmental impact significantly.
How we face these future challenges is beyond my personal capacities and the scope of this piece, but one thing I do know is that it’s vital we don’t revisit the dangers that plague our history.
Communities are still recovering from the repercussions of forced sterilisation of unmarried mothers, of the poor, of those deemed mentally unwell and many others, particularly women of colour. Preventing these people from having children doesn’t prevent deforestation, or an oil spill, but a system change could. That is, change towards a system that doesn’t consume so much, one that doesn’t allow for the hoarding of wealth and the celebration of greed.
The climate change issue is one of systems, rather than the number of people.
Changing the systems and targeting those corporations and communities most responsible for emissions, is more humane and effective than controlling vulnerable populations, who are least responsible for the state of our planet.
This is a discussion for us all. Regardless of your own reproductive choices, whether you decide to become a cat mum, adopt your brood, or have a few biological children of your own, the lone choices of one won’t save the planet.
Our collective goal is clear: we need to change the systems we operate within, and change the way we, as a planet, live.