The Triad of Furies Human- Overpopulation, Immigration and Reproductive Rights

João Abegão | May 7, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

The Remorse of Orestes by William – Adolphe Bouguereau. Retrieved from

This is an abridged version. Read the full piece here.

In ancient Greek mythology, the Erinyes, also called the Furies, were three divine beings tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the demeanour shown by humanity. One way they did this was by listening to grievances from other mortals, to swiftly deliver judgment and torment humans for any transgression they were inclined to commit.

Strangely enough, the myth of the Erinyes appears to show some resemblance to the state of policing of ideas and suspicious vigilance of undesirable notions that has percolated our intellectual discourse. Of course, if the topic of analysis happens to be a catastrophic risk with the potential of tearing down our civilizational project, or even worse, to hurl our species to a similar fate of extinction to that which befell the dinosaurs, shying away from that dialogue might cost us our future.   

Enter the contentious triad of human overpopulation, immigration and reproductive rights, a trilogy of subjects that is certain of incurring the wrath of the attentive Furies.

For the last couple of years, I have attempted to get the lay of this land (or minefield) in my academic studies and educational activism, consequently I have come to realize that where we should have a constructive dialogue, we have prudence instead, seeing that even the most well-intentioned actor can easily be misrepresented.

Indeed, these are not conversations to be taken lightly. Therefore, an examination of the most factious subjects will follow.

The Elephant in the Smoke-filled Room

There are not many topics which possess the latent ability to foment just as much political unrest on the right as on the left. Notably, the conservative authoritarian right (in this case, the profoundly religious one in the United States) was one of the main forces behind the backtrack on population issues a few decades ago due to the famous Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, in which abortion rights were under deliberation. In a historic moment, Catholics united with fundamentalist Protestants to oppose the liberalization of women’s rights to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy, (nothing like an agreement on Bronze-Age creeds to bridge that century-old religious chasm.)

Of course, the damage from that era continues to this day, with Trump’s doctrinaire-right administration pulling the strings to block funding for women’s health providers worldwide and to direct it to faith-based bodies, while also reversing decades of progress on contraception, family planning, unchecked population growth and reproductive rights. This all in addition to the role the Catholic Church still plays in denying access to birth control to millions of women.

By all means, the conservative, religious right needs confessing its sins. However, at the same time, a case can also be made of how ideologies of the “New Left” interfered with efforts to stabilize the growth of our population. Indeed, the appearance of women’s issues and the shift to social and racial justice as a priority concern of population groups as well as the insurgency of environmentalists against discussions of immigration and population growth laid the groundwork to our current state of affairs.

Frederic Myerson summarizes the political divide in their friction with population matters well when he says:

“Conservatives are often against sex education, contraception and abortion and they like growth – both in population and in the economy. Liberals usually support individual human rights above all else and fear the coercion label and therefore avoid discussion of population growth and stabilization. The combination is a tragic stalemate that leads to more population growth.”

Religion doesn’t have to be an enemy of population stabilization. In fact, the most effective family planning program without coercion took place under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Religious leaders worldwide should take a page out from that book. In contrast, we might just be learning the extent of influence of the political left and how it is stifling civil debate on these issues. Nevertheless, it appears that environmentalists might need to vindicate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romanticizing of the past, and restore the momentum the population movement witnessed in the 70s.   

Difficult Conversations

Official forecasts are projecting 2.3 billion additional people to be born between 2019 and 2050. They will be spread unevenly among the continents, roughly by 1.3 billion in Africa, 0.7 billion in Asia, and 0.3 in the rest of the world. As a result, many uphold that the impact produced by population growth is insignificant (since a majority of those people will be born in impoverished conditions) when compared to the scale of consumption of individuals in rich countries. For that purpose, the argument that the over-developed world needs to reduce their strain on the planet is a legitimate and robust claim.

Nevertheless, those that maintain that it is all about consumption and focus on the hedonistic behaviors of the wealthiest 10%, overlook the fact that most people would live similarly if the circumstances presented themselves, or the fact that “lifting people out of poverty,” invariably translates into an increase in personal environmental impact, as Hubacek et al. (2017) attest to:

“The good news is that lifting people out of extreme poverty has only relative little carbon implications with a projected increase of about 0.05°C […] However, the situation changes for a policy goal of not only eliminating extreme poverty but also where we move people into, what may be considered as the global middle class […] we add another 0.6°C by the end of the century.”

That is not to say that we in the West and the rest of the over-developed world don’t have severe and relevant issues that need to be confronted, which justify the international criticism and the internal admonishment. However, there is an element in our intellectual discourse that has been gaining ground; the conviction that billions of disadvantaged humans live “environmentally-friendly” lives. To believe such a statement is to ignore the fact that the sheer act of survival for millions of humans carries with it a myriad of ecological consequences, an ugly truth preferably forgotten.  

For instance, those who wrestle to survive and find opportunities in the formal economy, primarily in developing countries, turn to extractive activities to make a living for themselves and their families. Examples range from the overfishing of rivers and bays; overhunting through bushmeat as well as poaching and trafficking; habitat loss due to subsistence agriculture; slash-and-burn for cash crops, grazing land for livestock and deforestation due to illegal logging used for materials and cooking fuel. These activities conducted by hundreds of millions in their daily struggle for existence might have a lower impact in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases, but they still induce profound ecological repercussions.

Admittedly, it is perfectly acceptable to be critical of the eccentric and shallow consumptive behaviours of the wealthy, but we have to acknowledge the fact that certain actions are dependent on biogeographical characteristics, with those stricken by poverty being generally reliant on natural resources and ecosystem services for their subsistence, leaving a trail of ecological and environmental damage in the local to regional level. In contrast, developed nations can outsource a fraction of their footprints elsewhere, on top of their local impact. Nevertheless, distinctions between the two remain.

An illustration of this dichotomy would be bushmeat hunting, an activity mainly conducted in the tropics by developing nations, which is inducing the extinction of populations of species and creating a predicament that came to be described as “Empty-Forest Syndrome.” When we consider the fact that the tropics embody most biological hotspots, with these presently harbouring 40% of the entire human population (foreseen to expand to 50% by 2050), we have to be able to name the growth of the human population, along with economic expansion, as factors conjointly promoting the withering of wildlife. It seems obvious, but even the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been gradually shifting their attention to rises in GDP and neglecting population in the process.

Altogether, I chose the example of bushmeat hunting since it is discernibly not being conducted by the average European, North American, Australian and so forth. This is an activity culturally connected to the developing Global South, where incidentally most population growth will take place. In any event, demonising the immoderate practices of prosperous countries is adequate, if it follows that we do not glamorize the destitute in return. Both the excessive consumption by the wealthy and the struggle to survive by a large part of humanity can be traced back to too many individuals requiring some form of natural capital, collectively leading to a breaching of the biocapacity of the planet.  

Another uncomfortable topic that makes the list is immigration. Ever since the 70s, efforts to bring down total fertility rates (TFR) had been an enormous success in many European countries, the United States and Japan. Those accomplishments are on display in our present day, with 83 of the 201 countries examined by the United Nations presenting below-replacement rates (2.1 TFR). Unfortunately, 62 percent of those nations also have policies to raise their fertilities.

Regardless, these attempts to boost fertility are not always proven successful, and so governments turn to immigration. It is worth noting, in the interest of maintaining environmental stability and living within the means of this planet, to prolong population growth in countries with some of the highest carbon and ecological footprints is not just counterproductive but morally bankrupt. The ethics of immigration and excessive procreation need to become a central pillar of our conduct, especially within the countries most implicated. That is why there is a strong case (more recently here) for decreasing population growth in high consuming countries and limiting the mass movement of peoples from low-income countries to higher-income countries.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that most people refrain from engaging with these issues. Then again, immigration continues to topple the public’s concerns as a matter to be addressed by governments. International surveys constantly reveal the communal inclination for migration to not be increased and eventually to be brought down. There is no clear-cut solution to the matter of migration, but as the author and political commentator Douglas Murray asserts:

“The first solution is very straightforward. It is that you slow down the flow […] The second thing is you work on the people who are already here.”  

I agree with the arguments that state nations which neglect or fail to attend to the need of stabilising their populations should have no right to claim immigration slots in other countries, or at least those that do should be given priority. Likewise, foreign aid should be directed first and foremost for the nations that are committed to ceasing population growth. These policies would be applied only to economic migration and not for legitimate cases of required asylum.

The way I see it, by shifting the responsibility of providing economic migration to the nation-state, governments would be compelled to act on population growth, effectively harnessing the positive social and environmental aspects of that outcome, including, in the long run, a reduction of the number of people that would resort to moving. This would also help de-escalate tensions regarding the civil debate on immigration, as it would give the power to the individual to elect leaders to provide those opportunities, while at the same time enacting an acceptable international framework to provide equal opportunity for everyone. Still, the last word would fall on any sovereign state to decide to receive or not migrants, because if there is a lesson to be learned from the events that unfolded from the ‘migration crisis’ it is that there is a schism on immigration between public opinion and that of the political class. Moving forward, elected leaders on both sides of the immigration issue should strive to defend the interests of their citizens.

In any event, if we are to stand a chance in creating a better world for all living things, a sensible and humane plan to stabilise and slowly reduce the human population back to a sustainable size needs to be put in place. All of us can aid in that effort by changing and supporting actions from the individual to the international level.

If there is anything we need, it is conscientious, charitable and open-minded individuals taking the reins of these issues, so that they do not fall into oblivion and usher in a new slow and unsexy catastrophic risk.  

We owe it to ourselves and to all non-human life on this planet to engage with these issues so that we might have a chance of bestowing this gift of life, that is so fragile and unique, upon future generations of living beings.   

João Abegão has a BS in Environmental Health, a Masters in Ecology and Environment and is  currently applying for a doctoral program in “Sustainable Development and Climate Change” and plans to focus his studies on overpopulation. His interest in Human Overpopulation arose from literature like Life on the BrinkEnvironmentalists Confront Overpopulation and authors Jeffrey McKee, Dave Foreman, Eileen Crist, Albert Bartlett, Lester Brown, Alan Weisman, Karen Shragg, and many others whose contributions inspired João to write his own Human Overpopulation Atlas. João plans to continue researching, writing and advocating on human overpopulation and its many implications for the future.

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  • Arnold Byron

    You close your article with the following admonition, “In any event, if we are to stand a chance in creating a better world for all living things, a sensible and humane plan to stabilize and slowly reduce the human population back to a sustainable size needs to be put in place. All of us can aid in that effort by changing and supporting actions from the individual to the international level.”

    All of us must make certain that we understand “international” as used above means global. I am very happy when I see someone who is not afraid to consider overpopulation as a global problem. I am also very happy that you are willing to use the language “changing and supporting actions from the individual to the international level”. I interpret your language as meaning that you favor establishing an office at the global level, i.e. higher than any national level.

    A city deals with problems within a city. A state within a state. A nation within a nation. The idea of the globe as being a political jurisdiction to solve global problems is new. But it has to be embraced.

    My goal is to promote the idea of a global office that will be established by all of the nations acting together. I believe that an office at the global level is needed so that all of the nations can work together simultaneously to solve the various global crises that humanity is facing: overpopulation, global warming, probable atomic energy implosion, plastics degradation, and revitalizing nature. The global office that I envision will be limited to solving a limited number of problems like those shown above. I certainly do not want an autocratic form of governance at the global level so I have tried to include as many fail-safe measures as possible.
    [1] To be valid the global office must grow out of the deliberations of respected institutions that are close to the people. These institutions are the educational institutions, because learning is at the core of humanity. This is why the path to establishing a global office that will serve all of humanity equally must begin at the colleges and universities, worldwide.
    [2] To act as one group the colleges and universities must form themselves into an association complete with a mission statement, officers, standing committees and everything else that an association needs to function. With modern communication an association should be able to formulate itself and then to begin functioning, even if the people on the committee live in different parts of the world. Our colleges and universities have all the acumen needed to figure out how this can be done.
    [3] The first mission for an association of colleges and universities will be to engage the nations and convince the nations that the nations must agree to form an association of nations so that the nations will have a group, ratified by the nations, to create and provide governance to a global office. No single nation will be in charge. The Association of Nations will be in charge If the Association of Nations uses a one nation one vote rule whenever decisions are made, then the decisions will be arrived at democratically regardless that some nations may have autocratic rule.
    [4] In my writings I have suggested that the association of colleges and universities call on the most respected people in the world to aid in the process of convincing the nations. The politicians who happen to be in power at the time will need to be convinced. Having highly respected people from within each country jaw-boning the politicians may make the difference.
    [5] I also suggest that an association of nations could agree to have the association of colleges and universities become an advisory body for decisions that the association of nations make. An association of colleges and universities will provide an unbiased view and will have expertise that may not be available to politicians.
    [6] I envision a global office whose head is not one person who is elected but rather a committee of twelve who are elected: six from the science and engineering departments and six from the comparative religion and humanities departments of the colleges and universities. These committee members will be elected to overlapping terms of office so that new ideas can be forthcoming but also so that a continuation of purpose presides.
    [7] The global office will have to be located somewhere in the world. It will have two sub-offices. One sub-office will be like the group of highly respected people in #4 above. I also include, in this group, a raft of emissaries for each of these people so that there will be continual jaw-boning of global leaders of all stripes. The second sub-office will be a committee of twelve elected from the populace. The global office will write the criteria for the people elected to this sub-office. There will be three from a scientific, engineering background, three with a religious, humanities background, three from business and three from government. These positions will have time limits for reelection. The way the elections will be conducted is outlined in my writings titled, A Plan for the Nations. This sub-office will have hundreds or thousands of locations throughout the world doing the work of removing carbon from the atmosphere, ending the use of fossil fuel, administering rules for reducing the population, overseeing the dismantling of everything nuclear and cleaning up plastics from everywhere in the world.

    The global office can be made into a non-threatening office. This will take a lot of money, but there is enough money in the world to make this happen. If people will not step up to do their part then humanity risks socio-economic collapse. If we do the right things, the right way, right now, we can avoid collapse. Here is a truism that I embrace. If everybody wants something to happen and if everybody works at making it happen, it will happen.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Humankind is presented with a complicated, multifaceted, human-induced, global ecological predicament that is caused primarily by one problem: the human overpopulation of Earth. The seminal question before us is, Why have absolute global human population numbers been continuing to explode on our watch even though total fertility rates (TFRs) of nations virtually everywhere on the planet are noticeably declining? The best available scientific research provides an evidently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome answer. Homo sapiens sapiens is not exceptional with regard to its population dynamics because human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species; human population numbers appear as a function of an available food supply for human consumption, just like other species.

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      Declining fertility rates (TFRs) virtually everywhere on Earth need not blind us to the undeniable, ongoing annual increases of absolute global human population numbers. Human numbers have exploded by more than 5 billion on earth in the past three score and ten years. This population growth ‘trajectory’ is patently unsustainable on a planet with the size, finite resources and frangible ecology of Earth. Please consider how the growth of human numbers worldwide is caused by the spectacularly successful production and distribution of food for human consumption. With each passing year more people are being fed and many more people are going hungry.

      Uncontested ecological science of human population dynamics indicates that the world’s human population –all segments of it– grows by approximately 2+/-% per year, including more people with brown eyes and more with blue eyes; more tall people and more short people; and more people who grow up well fed and more who grow up hungry. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people. The evidence shows us dramatically how the remarkably bountiful harvests from annual efforts of humankind to increase food production to feed a growing population result in even greater increase in absolute global human population numbers.

      The widely shared, consensually validated and ubiquitously <i>perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a misperception, a denial of the physical reality of the space-time dimension. If people are starving at a given moment in time, increasing food production cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing, and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without food they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes with foodstuffs to people who have already fallen out of the airplane — the food arrives too late.

  • Julian Cribb

    Sex is about power. That, put simply, is why churches and religions – notably Christianity, Islam and Judaism – want to control it and why they employ guilt, shame, rape and punishment to do so. Men want to deny reproductive power to women, so they use religion to impose their control. Women, however, are ignoring them on a worldwide basis. They have halved fertility rates since the 1970s – without seeking male permission. Now, the patriarchs are fighting back. May they be utterly defeated, for all our sakes.
    Second, the greatest breach of the biocapacity of the planet, and by far the greatest destroyer of nature is the modern industrial food system, which is a distinctively first world creation. It currently dominates 55% of the available land area, its livestock account for 64% of terrestrial vertebrate biomass (with humans supplying another 32%), it sheds 5 millions tonnes of specialised poisons and 75 Gt of topsoil every year and by mining 2600 cubic kilometres of water is destroying rivers, wetlands and biodiversity on every continent. And, get this, over three quarters of its consumers now die of food-related diseases! So this is not a great system from anyone’s perspective other than those making money from it.
    Bringing world population down is essential – but women have already shown they are quite capable of managing that, provided men do not get in their way, and preferably support them. What is most urgent is a complete rethink of the global food system. More about this in my forthcoming book, Food or War.

    • João Luís Ramalho Abegão

      Thank you for your feedback Mr. Cribb. Evidently, we agree with religion and the dissolution of patriarchal norms and cultural values. Regarding factory farming and the modern industrial production of food, there isn’t even the slightest disagreement between us. However, I don’t think it stands as an “uncomfortable conversation,” at least not as much as the topics I have discussed in this piece. The media and, the public and environmental groups are already in agreement regarding its impact and how it needs to change, and those conversations are happening all around, even though they aren’t producing the required results. However, we can’t say the same things about immigration or the romanticizing of the poor (which leads to passiveness in addressing population growth). Those topics are almost taboo outside of the sustainable population movement. I just want to expand that conversation a little bit further. Kind regards.

  • Steven Earl Salmony
    • Jason G. Brent

      I agree with Salmony

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        JGB is well known for his intellectual honesty and moral courage. He is among a few people who are willing to objectively examine and outwardly confirm the unfalsified ecological science of human population dynamics.

        Humanity has precipitated an existential planetary emergency that is a direct result of the unbridled, colossal growth of absolute global human population numbers. Everyone sees what is happening. There are 7.5+/- billion of us on the surface of Earth. Only a few, like Jason Brent, will acknowledge the science that indicates precisely why human population numbers are continuing to explode on our watch….. the education of women, reproductive rights, contraception, and declining TFRs notwithstanding.

        Global human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the misperception that food production needs to be increased. The data indicate that as we increase food production every year, the number of people goes up, too. Human population numbers, as is the case with other species, are primarily a function of food availability. That is to say, food is literally fueling the human population explosion. Although the explosion is a huge problem, we can take the measure of it and find a remedy that is consonant with universally shared, humane values.

        But how on this good Earth are we to sensibly address and overcome the monstrous, human-driven, global threats to future human well being and environmental health when virtually everyone refuses to acknowledge the root cause of human population growth? We are ‘jousting at windmills’ not solving the problem posed to the future of life as we know it by billions of humans overpopulating Earth; by choosing to leave unchecked the explosion of the human population worldwide.

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        Homo sapiens sapiens have become an overwhelming force of Nature, a force so formidable on our watch as to be able destroy the world upon which life as we know it is utterly dependent for existence. Why are absolute global human population continuing to skyrocket? An objective examination of heretofore unfalsified science is necessary because the research presented earlier in this thread discloses the apparently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome root cause of the human population explosion, a now colossal, leviathan-like presence that has given rise to a global predicament humankind has evidently precipitated. We are called upon to confront sensibly enormous emergent and convergent, human-driven global ecological challenges. For a moment please rivet your attention on what we now know to be real about the growth of absolute global human population numbers, thanks to the ecological science of human population dynamics. Corrections are required with regard to what we can see is simply wrong in our conventional thinking about the recent, near exponential growth in absolute global human population numbers. We are in possession of sound science, good fortune and great power, and have a moral duty as it relates to science and humanity to respond ably to the distinctly human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that are ruining the Earth in our time as a fit place for human habitation and threatening global biodiversity and environmental health. What we choose to do and not do will surely determine the kind of future children everywhere can expect.