Breaking the Population Taboo

We have no idea how to justly and equitably address global population growth — and that makes it very difficult to talk about.

By Janet Newbury

Johny Goerend via Unsplash

Have you ever driven north on Interstate 5 through California? Being a Canadian, I thought I was fairly accustomed to vast agricultural expanses, but nothing quite prepared me for the numbing feeling I was left with after witnessing the Central Valley at 75 miles an hour last week.

At first, I will admit, I observed the neatly lined nut trees and vineyards with fascination and a good deal of respect — I found myself trying to imagine the amount of work that must go into cultivating them. Being somewhat of a novice gardener myself, I could not imagine the relentless, backbreaking, intricately detailed work that must go into such uniform pruning, protecting the crops from birds and insects, and the sheer number of plants that were growing there.

More for less

But as the minutes and even hours trailed behind us, and we were still viewing row upon row as far as the eye could see in every direction, my heart had come to recognize what I hadn’t allowed myself to consider: this type of vast-scale monoculture industry is not farming so much as mass production. It simply cannot be understood in relation to my small vegetable patch and the type of energy that goes into growing food in this way. A more fitting analogy is a production line, and a production line must produce no matter what. Birds, insects, nutritional value, flavour — these are not concerns for this type of operation. It is about quantity, and with a continuously growing global population, food production for which the quality of the food itself is less of a priority than the sheer amount of it can actually begin to makes sense.

It was not, however, until the horrible stench of the upcoming cattle feedlot entered the scene that the extent of it all really hit home. Eventually, the scenery caught up with my nose, and it truly was more than I could bear. Thousands of cattle … up to their knees in their own waste … nothing green in sight … a couple of (dead?) cows lying in the filth unnoticed. It went on for what felt like forever, and (aside from feeling nauseous) I found myself completely dumbfounded as to how this could possibly be an acceptable way to not only treat animals, but to treat food? Even if I wasn’t so deeply struck with sadness at the thought of these unfortunate animals’ fate … wouldn’t I at least be struck with an equal measure of disgust?

I realize there is a complex matrix of factors that have allowed this to become the new norm of food production, absurd as it may seem upon reflection. Among them are such things as: 1) industrialization, urbanization, and our distancing from food production and the animal world; 2) our growth-model society in which ‘more for less’ is considered to be a priority beyond health or the treatment of animals; 3) increasingly individual-centered ways of interpreting the world around us and our responsibilities within it; 4) complex global transportation and economic systems which allow for easy distribution of mass produced goods; 5) the normalization of corporate involvement in most aspects of life, and the pressure this places on small farmers; and 6) a global population that is steadily inching towards 7 billion people.

Mum’s the word

So, while I do not intend to treat this as if it is a simple issue with a single cause (or effect for that matter), I do wish to focus my attention on the last point listed above — a steadily growing global population — for a couple of important reasons:

First, as was driven home to me during the scenario above, the issues of overconsumption, economic growth, and ecological degradation are undeniably interconnected with that of population growth.

Second, the endorsers of the Global Population Speakout rightly point out that while the issues of consumption, economy, and ecology are widely taken up in public discourse, critically engaging with the topic of population growth and its associated problems remains somewhat of a cultural taboo. While it can be cynically argued that this ‘taboo’ is intentionally kept in place to ensure we do not disrupt the current system (which relies on younger generations propping up those before them, through taxes, labour, or otherwise), I feel certain that — as with everything — it’s probably more complex than that.

Particularly as the world’s most affluent people and nations continue to live longer and longer, it is indeed true that our current system relies on a growing population. However, I also believe the taboo around the issue of curbing population growth also comes from an honest place: we have no idea how to justly and equitably address it. And this makes it very difficult to talk about.

It is, in part, for this reason that I support the Global Population Speakout. Without thoughtful and thought-provoking dialogue, we may remain in this stuck position, no closer to knowing what to do and continuing to grow in numbers.

All talk, no action?

I think it is probably fairly easy to reach some kind of agreement that the planet can only sustain a certain number of people comfortably. Most of us shake our heads in amazement and even dismay when we hear of the spike in population that has occurred since industrialization, and when we look at the amount of resources the average person consumes (particularly those in affluent countries). Most of us can do the math and recognize that the trends do not bode well for any of us. As long as the conversation remains somewhat abstract and theoretical, it is often less polarizing that some other more heated issues we more readily engage with. Population is sort of like the weather: we watch what it’s doing, briefly comment, and then change the channel to something we can really sink our teeth into.

But how do we move out of the theoretical realm on the topic of population? What — in concrete terms — can be done? There are controversial policies such as China’s (in)famous one-child policy. There are the debates overs such things as abortion and contraception (which are more likely to surface in conversations about women’s health and rights than family planning in relation to population growth). There are also complex realities such as the fact that high birth rates are not the only thing associated with growing populations, but low death rates are too (the extensions of this line of thinking may lead to some surprising and uncomfortable possibilities). And there is the embarrassing truth that all people do not consume equally and that some of us are a greater burden on the planet than others. Finally (well, certainly not finally), there is the reality that while the world’s rich can simply choose to ‘have’ or not ‘have’ children, for the world’s poor childbearing may not be as much about choice as it is a response to other complex social factors. Does a just and equitable way of addressing the population crisis even exist?

With all of these and other conflicting possibilities flying about, it is no wonder we have been skirting around this issue in favor of those that are a little tidier, polarizing though they may be.

Narrative identity and the need for a new story

But there is one other reason I believe the taboo persists around talking about population: it’s about us. We can speak in rational and measured terms about controlling the population of wolves for the sake of a greater good, but people? We’re talking about needing fewer of us. And that touches us somewhere deep.

The stories we’ve been learning about ourselves since time immemorial (historical, scientific, religious, or otherwise) differ in many ways, but they largely agree on one thing: the central and important location of human beings in the grand scheme of things. To open the door more widely to the kinds of conversations that are needed about population growth shakes that narrative up to its core. It calls into question our very identities, our relationships with each other and the rest of the world, and the concept of legacy with which we have such an ongoing romance. So perhaps it should be no surprise, after all, that doing so is met with some deep-seated reservations.

But I think it’s worth trying. I think this narrative has taken a bit of a bad turn at the moment, and I want out. When my mind flashes to the sights and smells of Interstate 5, it seems clear to me that the storyline we are following doesn’t even bode well for our own needs of identity and legacy — let alone for the cattle at the feedlot. Perhaps, if we allow ourselves to have more of these difficult conversations, we’ll find it is not destined to be a tragic tale after all.

Originally published in February 2011 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI on our website.

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