Is Claiming Space Problematic?
Overpopulation, Colonization and the Dream of the Future
My neck hurts, starring at the bright orange sculpture, representing a terrifying fact. It is 2017 and I stand in the basement of the Deutsches Museum in Munich in a special exhibition about climate change. It is only one room, filled with informational graphics and globes that show the effect of rising sea levels, droughts and other results of climate change if we do not act now. While it is such an important topic, the exhibition is not very memorable and I quickly head to the exit. Right there is the last display item, a sculpture that shows the development of the human population since we first became Homo sapiens sapiens.
The numbers had been rising slow and steadily over the centuries. The Black Death marked a small dent but one without long-term consequences. But all the way to the left, shortly after the Middle Ages were over, the graph turned into a spike that was so high that I had to look up. Pain was creeping up my nervous system, both from raising my neck like that and also from the truth that hit me in the face.
Space is limited on our planet. That is a fact. The idea of expanding onto other planets is nice, but we all know it is one for sci-fi books and rich people. All we have is Earth. And Earth is not expandable. There is a limit when it comes to space and nutrition.
In 1900 we were 1,65 billion humans on this planet. In March of 2021 we were 7,77 billion. And the numbers are growing. Every minute of every day this number grows by 157 new humans. How will we all fit and be fed?
While the size of the Earth will always remain the same, the living habitat for humans and things that feed us, will become smaller and smaller the further climate change progresses. Areas will get too hot, too dry or too flooded for us and our animal kin to live there or to even grow food. Streams of refugees from all corners of the world will be searching for new homes, simply for a chance of survival, not for better economic chances. The animal and plant extinction will progress even further and the space and the possibilities to feed everyone will be limited more with every passing day.
Environmentalists tend to claim that overpopulation is not the problem when it comes to the climate crisis. But it will be, if we do not make radical changes, that allow the population to continue to live, especially as the numbers keep rising.
Is claiming space ego-centrical?
One of the western privileges, and by that I mean North America and the wealthier European countries, is space. The population is currently not very dense, money is present and the politics are focused on expanding. Expanding profits, places, and more. Without a second thought, meadows and fields are transformed into parking lots made of concrete, office buildings that are not really needed or storage places for people that have so many things they do not fit into a single home anymore. Highways interrupt forests and ecosystems are vanishing under the landing strips of massive airports.
To claim space becomes problematic. Not only by being a part of those systems that claim space from nature that we shouldn’t, but also by buying big properties. It is clearly unfair when someone owns a villa, while not too far away a family of refugees is crammed into a sports hall with hundreds of others with no privacy or room to breathe. The poor can barely afford an apartment, while the rich own multiple houses, cars and boats, usually all over the world. It is ego-centrical to claim space for the few and leave nothing for the rest. With every big house and villa that is owned, room is taken from nature and from other people to find shelter.
Space has a lot to do with social and climate justice.
Not only in the physical matter. If privileged white people claim space in the workplace or in the media, there is often no room for more diverse voices that could make a difference and trigger change. And change is what we need. Desperately.
When my partner and I, two young Europeans, decided that we wanted to claim space by buying land and building a house, I had to ask myself the question if we should. I knew I was taking away possibilities from locals, as I only emigrated to the Azores Archipelago three years ago, and that I would build a house on a patch of land that was wild nature before.
It does not feel like we are taking much away, as the islands are blessed with a lot of wilderness and very little population. But I know about the changes in the last few decades. The Azores transformed themselves from a very rural place where people were mostly walking by foot and often without shoes not too long ago, into a place with streets, cars and a bunch of tourists.
Even in 2018, when I first visited the island I now live on, things were still different. Less immigrants, fewer cars, less holiday homes. Now, the hiking paths are no longer overgrown by plants and the volcano is witnessing erosion due to the hundreds of visitors every year. The old ruins of the traditional houses built from volcanic rock are turned into modern apartments that are not for rent, but only for tourists. The harbors are filled with sailboats from around the globe and speedboats from the whale watching and diving companies, still side by side with the small fishing boats, but the space is getting scarce, the harbors need to be extended almost every year. There are fancy restaurants, owned by German, French and Italian people and there are communities forming that only consist of immigrants. They all come here, looking for a new life and eventually looking for land. And I am one of them.
Creating space for the future
The home that we envision will be filled with life and serve the purpose of greater self-sufficiency. We are planning on organically farming all of our vegetables and fruits, bake our own bread, brew our own beer and only visit the supermarket for flour, rice and toiletries. Our own chickens will provide us with eggs and maybe with meat — we don’t know yet if we have it in us to kill and eat animals that we raised and that are family. Everything else we can access through the local community on the island. The corners of our land will be filled with wilderness and endemic plants and one day we hope to have some bees on the property. We will never poison the ground with chemicals and embrace the animals that join us in the garden. If the food that we grow is plenty, we give it away and share it without hesitation and if someone needs shelter, they are always welcome. That is the vision we are working towards.
And while it does not erase the problematic privilege nor our status as immigrants, it is still a way of claiming space that is in alignment with the future we should create as the human species. In fact, we need to claim space in a way that allows us to give it back to nature and to indigenous people if it is stolen land.
We need to make space for change to unfold.
Physically, when it comes to land, and also in other ways. When we join the protests for climate action, when we refuse to leave a forest that is about to be cut down, when we support indigenous people claiming their rightful homes and fighting oil companies, oppression and colonization. We need to claim space in order to let a movement unfold that will maybe give us smaller houses but a bigger, healthier home. We need to claim space in the media and in the workforce, we need to be loud and visible, so no one can ignore the problems we face.
So, where is the truth? Is it problematic to claim space when you want to live a sustainable life? Yes and no.
Especially in the western countries, claiming space in the sense of taking away from others, being focused on oneself and acting without thinking about nature, has negative consequences. But if we claim space in the right ways, with the intention of regenerating nature and returning the power, it is actually crucial for creating a better future.
But there are limits. If I was not on the Azores, a European island archipelago with a constantly decreasing number of inhabitants, but for example on Hawai’i, my vision of a self-sufficient life as an immigrant would still be very problematic, as this archipelago is a colony of the US and the Native Hawaiians are being oppressed and are directly suffering from immigrants moving to the land that was stolen from them. Examples for this include the affordable housing crisis as well as the fight for Mauna Kea.
Claiming Space in the name of nature and sustainability is a good thing. But good intentions are sometimes simply not enough.
Social justice, in all its complex layers, needs to be a big part of the process, otherwise it is not truly in alignment with the mission of creating a healthy planet. Being open and ready to unlearn and relearn is necessary as well, especially as times will change rapidly. And finally, it is also important to communicate with nature and work with knowledge. Simply planting fruit trees and cabbages might sustain you, but not the place you are living in. If you claim space in the form of land, it is your duty to create an area of biodiversity that supports the endemic plants and animals of your region and regenerates the soil and the overall ecosystem.
When it comes to claiming space in other areas of our lives, we do need confidence as well as empathy. If you are privileged, you need to uplift others and make room for them to grow side by side with you. You need to fight against injustice and listen to the oppressed.
I do not believe that white people, myself included, can fix the climate crisis, because we are the ones who caused it in the first place. We failed. So now we need to make space for others. When we give the power to indigenous people and other people with open-minded and clear visions, we can create a better future alongside them.
Of course, this sounds like a lot. But no one said it was easy. We are trying to prevent a global disaster that could kill almost all life on Earth. None of it is easy, but all of it is necessary.
If we want to claim space, in whatever shape or form, we need to show up for it and take care of said space. Because if we don’t, there will be no space left. For no one.