Overpopulation: The Elephant in the Room That Shrinks and Grows
Are we dancing around the elephant of overpopulation?
Too many are not enough
A lot of articles in the news lately, including the latest information on the 2020 census, note that in the USA, the overall population is not growing. The census showed that there is slightly more growth in red states, and thereby, more political pull for republicans, as the current trend.
Developed and richer nations are seeing significant decreases in the number of babies born. Even COVID affected this, despite lockdown.
Many factors are in play. Some people, especially during the Trump times, didn’t want to be reported. Infertility, caused by a sort of Hidden Handmaid’s Tale adaptation of our endocrine disruptors (read plastic/chemical contamination) in our waste stream, is just one reality. The cost of children is another big factor (one being watched carefully due to Biden’s new family plan). Women seeing themselves as having careers outside the home is another. Stay at home, men realizing how challenging home and child care really is could be a factor. More and more people abandoning parts of religion and “tradition” are a factor. There are many, many variables.
Yet, in more impoverished nations, having lots of babies is still the norm. In such places, we still have factors like little, or no, education for girls, child brides — about a third of girls/women are married before the age of eighteen — strict restrictions enforced by patriarchy, and health and economic limits that still encourage women to have enough children that one or two will live to see adulthood.
There is something going on here with the elephant in the room who wriggles and dances for attention. Overpopulation seems to be an issue with strong opinions for and against it. We do know, factually, that we could feed ten billion people. We do know, actually, that the will to do so has not as yet emerged on our planet.
The mid-century green revolution that fed billions more mouths on planet Earth in the twentieth century effectively stuffed a sock in the mouth of Thomas Malthus. He is the one whose work on overpopulation warned us that starvation results when population size outpaces resources for food.
What is missing in any glance at Malthus now is that the food and prosperity we gained was done so at the cost of heating the planet with fossil fuels. Also, in increasing our numbers, we have invaded and cultivated land and sea to danger points of overuse and contamination. People dead set against growing the population of people see these costs. People for the continuing growth of more people for more prosperity, see the rewards, not the costs.
The elephant in the room seems to grow in those places that can least afford to feed her.
The elephant in the room seems to shrink in those places where people who could better afford bigger families opt not to have them.
We are close to eight billion people now; the elephant is dizzy with our human weight, and the providing biosphere is stressed.
Messages distort meaning
Sadly, overpopulation itself has become another brick to throw in the culture wars.
Starting with my own mind, I have become conditioned to react to several stray bits of information (or misinformation, depending upon your opinion). These factoids about overpopulation — although I should know better — continue to drive me crazy.
Here are some samples. “Humanity will soon learn that we will be the ones to go extinct if we continue to destroy our planet.” Sometimes it is said in another way, something like, “Nature will be just fine; it is we who will be no more.” “Overpopulation is not really the problem; we have enough for everyone if we share.” Or, “We should encourage women to have more babies because one of those babies may save the world.” Or any variation thereof.
There are fatal flaws in any of these ideas.
I think this sort of sentiment is a leftover fragment from those days before we seriously geo-engineered the planet. For all of human history, prior to the 1980s (which is quite recent), our human impact was not perceivable as it is today.
The late, great George Carlin even had a riff upon it which can be summarized fairly well as: “Nature will be fine, we are the ones who are ________( insert one of “seven dirty words you can never say,” here).
Yet, If George Carlin saw what is happening today, he would revise his dirty words about just how “fine” nature is.
Here is the truth that grates against the “reality” that there is enough for everybody if we share: We don’t share.
We would not be in a climate crisis built from colonialism, injustice, racism, and sexism with our fellow humans if we had been inclined to share. We would honor, respect, and revere other organisms that create and support the biosphere if we knew how to share.
Can we learn to share now? Maybe, but it would take monumental efforts only beginning to be explored.
From a personal standpoint, I have never met another hiker or climber in the woods who says, “There are too few people in this National park.” I have never been on a crowded train in Bangkok or New York City and heard the lament, “We just need MORE people!”
Indeed, it was just a couple of years ago in the “wilds” of New Zealand that my partner and I began to come upon little mounds of people poop piles. They are easy to identify because they are dotted with white, discarded toilet tissue. Apparently, no tissue manufacturer got the memo that we should invent biodegradable, unbleached tissue. Or maybe, as so many of us have observed, the more ecologically friendly choices are unaffordable because we want to share profits and not wisdom.
John Muir did not have this problem. This is an eight billion self-centered people in the world problem.
Our only real solution is to learn to share, but that is asking a lot of more, and more, and more, people scrambling for their portions.
When it comes to every single personal preference, people want space. When it comes to their ideology, they may want more babies. When it comes to talking about overpopulation as a problem, they want to ignore it.
Overpopulation is something new under a hotter sun
Our tools to interpret exactly how much impact we have on the planet were not up to task in the past prior to the twentieth century.
The animals, organisms, and interactive systems that support the biosphere existed in large numbers with an eons old track record. We numbered less than one billion people just a little over a century and a half ago.
Let’s look at Gandhi’s claim that we have enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for everyone’s greed. I love Gandhi, of course, but this is akin to saying something like: “We absolutely could all live underwater in the Pacific ocean if we just had the will to make it happen.”
Yes. Maybe we could, but do we have everyone aboard spaceship Earth ready to make that happen? Do we have the infrastructure? Do we have the tools? Surely, it is just our human will that is keeping us from all moving into the new Atlantis: Pacifica.
Alternatively, the red planet is looking mighty tempting, especially to the richest among us.
Even if we did have all the tools, infrastructure, and resources, do we have the will? If history is any indication, there is NO human will to share equally. There is no evidence — despite our human wish for harmony, equality, and peace — that we could ever all agree as to what it would take to share equally. When I say share, I mean with the Half-Earth needed to protect the whole biosphere — that is, systems and organisms beyond the human beings.
Let’s examine a more straightforward predicament, equality itself. Can we get eight billion people (or a strong majority) of people to agree as to what equality is? Some people already think we are post-racism and post sexism. There are even a few who think social justice and the pursuit of equality have already gone too far. Most think we have far to go. Will there ever be an agreement? No, only a sloppy and constant struggle for equilibrium.
Like the disco-dancing elephant in the room, a constant and wobbly struggle for balance defines what evolution and earth really are.
If the reader has not yet guessed it, my opinion is that we have too many people, all of them stuck in habits, addictions, varying levels of privilege, and, or deprivation. Even if we are among the oppressed and exploited, our interests genuinely ask: Why shouldn’t we get our share?
Until we fix that, we can’t assume population growth will help us save us, much less the biosphere threatened by the sixth extinction and climate crisis/refugee chaos.
Words and worlds
Using the overpopulation problem as a sort of template, let’s examine another part of it. Words and definitions. When people assert the good ole’ Earth will spin right on through without us, are they thinking about how we once were a molten magma earth, then a watery earth, possibly a snowball earth, and most of the time a very lifeless, empty globe? Is that “nature” going on without us?
Factually, it could be, but I doubt this is what they mean.
When people say and think, “nature will go on without us,” I tend to believe they have in mind nature as a biosphere: living, life-exchanging organisms, and systems. Animals, forests, reefs, and glory going on their merry way without our pesky interference.
This definition of nature is highly problematic.
Our numbers and our impact on this type of “nature” are exactly the opposite. We, in our vast numbers, are quickly annihilating the myriad of other beings. And once extinct, the possibility of them arising again will take hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years, if ever.
Since the 1970’s we have wiped out 60 to 70% of other animal species, save our domesticated food sources. Scientists have warned one million species face extinction. I rather doubt this is what people mean when they say, “nature will go on without us.”
It seems far more likely, that our species — the most adaptable one by far — which lives in deserts and even upon ice, will be the one species that will survive. If not by our numbers, then by our ingenuity and ability to put up with critically denuded and degraded environments.
Naturally, we will go extinct, as do all species, but what people mean by “killing ourselves” usually refers to civilization, not our species.
It is true that our number is not the problem, but what we continue to displace and extract, most certainly is, and there is little indication we are stopping that trend just because we should.
Let’s play politics
Perhaps there is a flaw in my logic.
If we are unlikely to share Earth food resources (water too) simply because we should, is there any reason to believe that we will work for gender/race equality just because we should?
Yes, I know, the question is redundant. Fair sharing assumes reasonable equality.
With this question, there is a big difference between what we have done historically, what we are doing now, and what we will do in the future.
It appears that there is more will in the world to demand gender equity than there is a will in the world to demand that we share food and other resources equitably by a redistribution, say, of property wealth of nations.
Indeed, the two are related, a female farmer who can better feed her family because she has an education, a working wage, fewer children, and better health will likely be in the vanguard to demanding better sharing of all resources overall.
It is opportunity access, not wealth access that most educated people say they strive to work toward because of this reason. Yet, we are not there yet.
The same argument can be made about race. We are not yet in a color-blind society. When people of every color do achieve elite wealth and power, they are indeed reluctant to give it up, to share it equally.
To my mind, the invention of “white people” in the nineteenth century has been every bit as polluting and restricting as our fossil fuels.
By inventing the absurdly destructive concept of “race,” we ensured that a class elite will steal all the work and resources of the whole earth while subjugating all of us to defend our perilous rung on the ladder.
Right now, it feels like the dancing elephant could knock us off our ladder.