Date of Publication: June 2020
Author(s): Megan Seibert
By Megan Seibert, The REAL Green New Deal Project (https://www.realgnd.org)
Overpopulation has been a super-charged topic for decades, but Planet of the Humans has lifted it from a place of relatively obscure within the environmental community’s discourse straight back into the spotlight where it once was. Paralleling the general fissure within the community, the topic of overpopulation tends to elicit two types of responses: those who advocate for population reduction given the central role of overpopulation in our overshoot crisis, and those who attribute malevolent intentions to any notion of population reduction and insist that only brutal mechanisms can bring it about.
To be clear, I and my organization fall into the first camp. In light of the resurrection of this crucially important topic and some of the outrageous accusations being leveled against proponents of ameliorating its harms, the time seems ripe for a thorough examination of the population landscape. I begin with the strands of thought motivating each group and then weave in and out as I dissect them further.
Advocacy for population reduction tends to be motivated by:
- The ecological imperative of not exceeding the carrying capacity
- The vast historical precedent for controlling population sizes
- The importance of humanely restricting certain individual freedoms for the integrity and well-being of the human, non-human, and natural whole
Opposition to population reduction tends to center around assertions that it is:
- Negligible in comparison to the need for a reduction in consumption
- Unnecessary since growth rates are so “low”
- Tantamount to “eco-fascism”
- Motivated by racism / a desire to perpetuate neo-colonialism / eugenics (a complex historical concept that generally refers to some form of selective breeding)
The primary motivation of those who advocate for population reduction is an understanding of the ecological imperative of living within the carrying capacity of the environment. Like many of the terms explored here, carrying capacity is a complex concept with a rich and contested history in modern ecology. (It should be emphasized that modern terminology and conceptualizations do not constitute the only ways of knowing. Plenty of cultures, whether past or present, possess ways of knowing not necessarily arrived at by the modern scientific approach yet that nonetheless contain wisdom for living in right interaction with their environments). Generally speaking, carrying capacity is the optimum or maximum number of any species that can persist in a particular habitat without degrading the ability of that habitat to support the population in perpetuity. Carrying capacity is well understood in relation to, and regularly applied to, non-human organisms. But there are added layers of complexity for humans, who have the ability to alter our habitats beyond ways in which non-human species can through tools and technologies. We can then make lifestyle decisions about how to live in relation to our habitats vis-à-vis which tools and technologies we choose to employ. To account for this difference, carrying capacity as applied to humans has been referred to as either social or cultural carrying capacity.
Our incredibly rich understanding of social carrying capacity can be distilled down to two simple rubrics. First, energy can be used as a surrogate for lifestyle intensity (for example, a subsistence lifestyle versus a modern American lifestyle), which correlates with the level of technological development and adoption. Generally speaking, the more energy intensive the lifestyle, the fewer the people a particular habitat can support. This has come to be framed more commonly as the relationship between population size and consumption. The other way to think about social carrying capacity is an extraordinarily simple and intuitive one: observe the environment. Is there enough water and food? Are both being used or produced at sustainable rates? What is the health and vitality of other organisms, and is there enough space for them to thrive? Is there enough wild space for all humans to access? Is the amount of pollution we generate small enough that it can be readily absorbed without insult by the habitats in which we generate it? Are social conditions vibrant? When the answers to any of these questions point to the carrying capacity having been exceeded (whether anecdotally or through rigorous analysis of empirical data), we can return to the first rubric for how to respond: reduce the intensity of our lifestyle, reduce our sheer numbers, or both.
It’s overwhelmingly clear (here and here, for instance) from these two common sense rubrics that humanity has exceeded the social carrying capacity of Earth. (While localized assessments are more nuanced and varied, the carrying capacity of many ecoregions around the world have been exceeded). But despite the two tools in our toolbox for trying to manage a descent from a state of ecological overshoot, one of these tools is summarily or largely dismissed by some people who nonetheless acknowledge the severity of our state of overshoot.
Many who oppose population reduction try to chalk up exceeding the carrying capacity to consumption alone. But this only goes so far. Even if eight billion people don’t all have computers, TVs, cars, gadgets, and engage in frequent airline travel, the reality remains that those eight billion people still all need water, food, shelter, clothing, various forms of social engagement, and access to wild places. Even at lower lifestyle intensities, the sheer amount of habitat appropriation for the basic life supporting needs of extraordinarily large population sizes will eventually overwhelm the ability of a habitat to function healthily – or at all – in perpetuity.
The corollary to this argument is that we can reduce lifestyle intensity/consumption by switching to “greener” technologies and modes of energy production. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Energy doesn’t come out a black box, and all technologies – particularly high technologies – require energy and materials expropriated destructively from our habitats. Green consumption, like green growth, is a feel-good myth.
Consistent with the fearmongering labels now in vogue across all swaths of society – which have come to replace substantive dialogue – some who critique population reduction are beginning to use a popular label intended to invoke immediate repulsion towards those at whom it’s aimed: fascism. Specifically, a brand of fascism dubbed “eco-fascism.”
The presumed implication is that those who advocate for population reduction advocate for it to be brought about through the imposition of brutal authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The Merriam-Webster definition of fascism is: “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” The “eco” prefix would indicate a call for fascism in order to serve ecologically oriented ends.
I know of no individual or organization within the environmental community advocating for population reduction that calls for the installation a fascist regime. The mere accusation is laughable and preposterous on its face. On the contrary, those in this community concerned with overpopulation tend to be stalwart defenders of democracy and egalitarianism, as is my organization.
Since proving a double-negative is impossible, the burden of proof lies with those making this accusation to name the specific individuals or organizations for whom this slanderous description applies and to make the direct linkages as to how it applies.
Restricting Individual Freedoms for the Well-Being of the Whole
The issue of political regimes and which approaches ought to be used to bring about certain outcomes is indeed a central piece of the broader discussion of how a descent away from ecological overshoot can be managed. Baseless outcries of eco-fascism counterproductively drown out the core ethical tenet we need desperately to be grappling with: the agreed upon restriction of individual freedoms for the integrity and well-being of the greater human, non-human, and Earthly whole (upon which all individuals depend for survival and happiness). Indeed, this fundamental principle is the very basis of any society, large or small.
No group of people living together can do so in a state of relative peace under conditions of unbridled individual freedom. I can’t shoot you for insulting me. You can’t rob a bank because you need money. I can’t drive 100 mph down the highway and run red lights because I want to or am running late. I have to pay taxes in order to fund social services that benefit me and the community (or at least, so the theory goes). The list goes on and varies by each group of people, depending on what they value.
The task before us today, in these unprecedented times of ecological overshoot – in which the consequences are catastrophic of not managing a contraction back down into the safe operating space below the carrying capacity – is to come into a new relationship between individual and collective freedoms. To relinquish the false belief in the virtues of, or absolute right to, unbridled individual freedom. To return to the mature understanding that our individual actions and behaviors have distinct consequences for those around us. To understand the paradox that certain freedoms arise out of a certain amount of restraint.
Working through this relationship is a tricky, subjective balancing act. But modern humans have shown again and again that we can rise to the occasion – that we are perfectly willing and able to forego certain individual freedoms for the good of the greater whole. Sacrifices during wartime are classic examples. The current response to coronavirus is another perfect example, playing out right before our eyes.
Racism, Neo-Colonialism, and Eugenics
But, say some in the opposition camp, you’re only telling marginalized people of color that it’s their procreative freedoms that must be restricted, which means you’re racist, a perpetuator of colonialism, and a supporter of eugenics.
This nonsensical argument is torn to shreds in a moment when it’s pointed out (as if it couldn’t be understood already) that environmentalists promoting population reduction are promoting reduction everywhere! How can a position applied universally, to every country on Earth, possibly be conceived of as racist? Regardless of the specific policies advocated for, the call amongst environmentalists for population reduction is motivated by ecological reasons and love for all creatures and the planet, not exclusion or a desire to stamp out certain groups of people.
“Low” Birth Rates
Every country is overpopulated, whether by a small or large degree. But confusingly, we hear again and again that birth rates continue to fall and that, in many places, they’re the lowest they’ve been in modern times. While true, this statement misleadingly sidesteps two crucial points.
First, growth rates and the base populations they act upon must be put in context. The average growth rate from 10,000 BC to 1700 was 0.04%, whereas the average growth rate from 1800 to the present – during the Fossil Fuel Age – has been 0.93%. The global population size for the first period peaked at just under one billion, spending the vast majority of its time well under 190 million, whereas the global population today is just shy of eight billion. For nearly all of human history – when humans lived relatively sustainably – the size of the global population was a fraction of what it is today and the rate of global growth was 20 times less than what we’ve experienced during the Fossil Fuel Age. In terms of exponential rates, a 20-fold increase is staggeringly large.
The second point is that of the all-important doubling time, or the amount of time it takes for a population to double in size. Doubling time can be approximated by dividing 70 by the percentage growth rate. For example, a population of eight billion with a growth rate of 1% (today’s conditions) will double in 70 years (70/1). This means that even a seemingly “small” growth rate of 1% (if sustained) will ensure that 16 billion humans will crowd the planet by the end of the century. Only a rate at or barely above zero can be considered small, especially acting on a base of eight billion.
Historical Precedent and “Malthusian” Framing
That ancient humans were able to maintain such smaller population sizes than today wasn’t just attributable to their lack fossil energy. Humans have controlled population sizes since time immemorial. As sociologist Jack Parsons said, “population control is an ancient institution.” Even cornucopian economist Julian Simon said, “every tribe known to anthropologists, no matter how ‘primitive,’ has some effective social scheme for controlling the birth rate.”
Some of our oldest literary documents, the Babylonian Atrahasis circa 1750 B.C. and the Philippine Code of Sumakwel from 1250 B.C., contain population control policies. Confucius, Plato, the “first city planner” Hippodamus in Greece, the Indian sage Kautilya, the influential Catholic Church figure Tertullian, and even Benjamin Franklin, all spoke of the dangers of overpopulation and the need to manage our numbers – before Malthus ever entered the scene.
Where Malthus – and others since him – primarily went wrong wasn’t in pointing out that populations can outstrip the capacity of their environments to support them, but in predictions of when things would go terribly wrong. What Malthus couldn’t have foreseen was the Green Revolution, an unsustainable, ecologically destructive method for temporarily increasing otherwise normal levels of agricultural output. What others making predictions since him have underestimated is the incredible resilience of Mother Nature to persist beyond all odds in the face of unrelenting pressure and exploitation. Whatever policies Malthus may have advocated for, he was right in pointing out the dangers of exceeding the carrying capacity – as were countless generations that came before him.
Those of us sounding the alarm about overpopulation do so out of a deep concern for reducing suffering – the suffering of our fellow humans, the suffering of our fellow creatures who we share this incredible Earth with, and the Earth itself that gives life to us all. We understand that the unprecedented explosion of our numbers has only been made possible by the unprecedented explosion of energy during the Fossil Fuel Age, and that once those fossil fuels are gone (whether because we chose to stop using them, they eventually run out, or our life supporting systems finally collapse from the overexploitation they’ve enabled), our present numbers can’t be sustained. Pleas for humanely reducing our size before Nature does so painfully (as we’re beginning to experience with coronavirus) come from a place of love – from knowing the horror that can come from abusing our Mother Earth and ignoring her limits.