It’s time to break the taboo and to talk frankly about human overpopulation

| December 9, 2009 | 34 Replies

If you are feeling brave, take a look at the World Clock.     You’ll see that more than twice as many people are being born as are dying for any given interval (click the “Now” button to see the numbers spinning out from the present).  world-clock

Click the “Deaths” tab and note that for every 100 deaths, there are also more than 60 abortions, and yet the Earth’s population still spirals out of control. Click around on the other tabs and you will probably find yourself transfixed by magnitude of these numbers.  Notice the vast amount of forest being decimated by clicking on the “Environment” tab.  Under the “Energy” tab, notice the incredibly disconcerting “Oil Depletion Timer,” indicating that we have 40 years of oil left on the entire planet (you’ll need to do the math, dividing the days left by 365–this estimate is based on the admittedly laughable assumption that it would be economically viable to scoop up every drop of oil).  Notice the ghastly numbers of entire species being lost each week (almost 300 extinctions per week). Notice the many thousands of preventable deaths every week (under the Death tab), including ghastly numbers of children dying from preventable things like lack of nutrition.

The World Clock sends me into an existential swirl.  Watching these numbers accumulate fascinates me and, regarding some categories, horrifies me.  Regarding the needless deaths, for example, it occurs to me that no human being has sufficient cognitive capacity or sufficient empathy to properly understand or react to numbers of this magnitude.  It is impossible to feel sufficient empathy for the needless deaths of thousands people, week after week.

Last year, I posted on an effort by Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) to discuss the need to discuss overpopulation.    But many people are too horrified to even consider this topic.  One such person repeatedly vilified me in the comments, arguing that I was an elitist (and worse) because I merely dared to raise this issue.

But this issue of overpopulation is too important to ignore.  The bottom line issue is this:  In terms of human animals, what is the carrying capacity of the Earth?  Thoughtful people immediately recognize that this question inevitably dovetails with the issue of quality of life.   For instance, if we’re willing to settle for a degraded standard of living in the U.S., we could add three billion more people to the U.S. and live a desperate disease-ridden scorched-earth existence.  That is what you would expect, of course, unless you were one of those people who plans on multiple new scientific revolutions (including a massive new green revolution) that will save the day, allowing us to pack even more people onto the planet.  In my mind, though, rational people don’t plan on miraculous good things.  Yes, they are hopeful that some good things will happen, but rational people have the courage to acknowledge the clear evidence of our highly stressed resources and they make their plans based on these limitations and dangers.

As I mentioned at the top, overpopulation is an issue that makes many people go ballistic. They ridicule those who even raise this issue at all, accusing them of things that they are making up in their heads. These accusers don’t want the issue discussed at all–they want to pretend that the degradation of our environment and our dwindling natural resources have nothing to do with the the fact that we are adding people to Planet Earth at a ferocious clip.

Image by Wikimedia Commons

Image by Wikimedia Commons

Based upon numerous articles I’ve referenced at this website over the years (regarding energy, food, water, soil), this issue of overpopulation desperately needs to be discussed.  It should even be the headline story on a regular basis.  Every time a news source reports on an oil war, or climate change, or food shortages, there should be an asterisk reminding the reader that this issue has been exacerbated by overpopulation.  Overpopulation is rarely raised by news publishers, however.  They dare not raise it starkly, for the reasons sketched above.

GPSO has recently announced its GPSO 2010.  Here is the idea in a nutshell:

The idea of Global Population Speak Out (GPSO)  is that those of us who care about this issue need to discuss the issue publicly, and that the best way to do this is to speak out together.  Here is the position of GPSO:

The size and growth of the human population are fundamental drivers of the ecological crisis we face — no less crucial than emissions, over-consumption in developed nations, habitat loss and toxic pollutants. If we hope to avert worldwide catastrophe, many experts agree, we’ll need to continue working strenuously on those issues but also conduct a massive shift of attention and resources toward humane, progressive measures designed to stabilize and ultimately reduce world population to a sustainable level.

Yet there exists today a taboo of sorts against public discussion of overpopulation. Outside the scientific community, calls to address overpopulation often meet vigorous, ill-informed criticism and blatant hostility from both the left and right. Most of these sorts of objections are either obstinately ideological or stem from financial interests dependent on population growth for profit. There are also well-known historical instances of shockingly coercive, involuntary birth control measures being implemented by misguided state policy. Understandably, few in a position to speak out on the population topic care to do so under such conditions.

Change does not spring from silence, however. We must find a way to break down the taboo and bring the population issue — which is absolutely fundamental to sustainability — back to the center of public discussion.

Over the decades, writers such as Paul Ehrlich have sounded the alarm, arguing that we are headed for a disaster.  Ehrlich’s estimates turned out to be overly-pessimistic and he was vilified by many people, including many people who refuse to face up to the dangers of failing to address overpopulation.  All indications are, however, that only Erlich’s time line was inaccurate, and that we human inhabitants of earth truly are in a desperate situation that is being exponentially compounded by our sheer numbers.

It is again time to raise this critically important topic.  Until we frankly acknowledge the fact of overpopulation, we will be unable to discuss potential solutions to the problem (one potential solution involves focusing on the resource-hog lifestyles of many developed countries). It is not presumed by anyone I know that the solution involves casting most of the blame on third-world populations.  We are all part of the situation and we can all contribute to solutions.

Earth is a big blue Lifeboat spinning through space.  Imagine a real life lifeboat holding 50 people, and eking out subsistence for its occupants thanks to occasional rainfalls and through modest success in fishing.  Imagine that the no rescuer appears, however, and that over a period of years, many of the occupants of the lifeboat start having babies.   Image that this boat was designed to hold 50 but that it is now carrying 75 people, and that the meagre resources are being stretched to the breaking point.  Imagine, further, that no one on the boat wants to raise the topic of the carrying capacity of the lifeboat.   Imagine that they won’t raise the topic because when they tried to do so in the past they were shouted down and told to shut up.

Would that be a smart way to run any sort of lifeboat?

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Category: Censorship, Community, Environment, Human animals, Quality of Life, Sustainable Living

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (34)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    This excerpt is from a blog by Duncan Green named "From Poverty to Power":

    [T]he choice of language also matters. As soon as the issue is framed as ‘population control’, the problem becomes ‘them’ – those women ‘popping them out’. That, along with population control programmes’ chequered history of coercing and tricking people into being sterilized in several notorious cases, is why many people in developing countries find the term so offensive. Start with ‘women’s rights’ and the discussion becomes about ‘us’, our shared rights and the solidarity to achieve them. Talk about the problem of over-consumption, and the debate revolves around equity, redistribution and low carbon development, not fewer babies. That discomfort on language is, I think, why so many NGOs tend to avoid the subject altogether. But in doing so, we unwittingly abdicate the ground to the bad guys. Time to go on the offensive?

    The population debate matters, especially in these Copenhagen weeks, because it risks becoming a massive distraction. We need to focus on curbing consumption and emissions, not babies and women’s rights. Otherwise we risk blaming the victims and letting the climate villains off the hook.

    http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=1521

    This post correctly reminds us how important the choice of words are. But I disagree that we should just write this off this enormous issue as a problem with resources and not with human biomass. That’s naïve. Our current conundrum a matter of lots of PEOPLE using lots of resources. It’s a people/resources issue, and both aspects are inextricably intertwined.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    Erich, you write:

    "But many people are too horrified to even consider this topic. One such person repeatedly vilified me in the comments, arguing that I was an elitist (and worse) because I merely dared to raise this issue."

    I'm guessing that I am the person referred to here. Please read through the comments again on your original post about the GPSO and see if you can find where I argued that you were an elitist for "merely daring to raise the issue", rather than for the *way* you raised the issue.

    I did make several strongly worded, passionate comments about how I felt the discussion could be better framed and how perhaps this time around, we could bring some other voices to the table. And as it turned out, most of the voices who joined that particular conversation chose to share their anecdotal observations about how irrational people (women) are about childbearing, how welfare encourages poor women to have babies, how the problem is that stupid lower class people are having too many babies, etc., while my reference to studies about how quickly demographic changes can take place when women are empowered and educated, were ignored. In fact, please point out anyone besides myself who made a constructive comment about what to do about overpopulation (the Amartya Sen approach that I mentionedin my first comment). Yet somehow, the problem has become my outspokenness, rather than those uninformed, knee-jerk responses.

    I realize you may choose to censor this comment, but I'm not too worried, as I think my comments in the other thread stand for themselves as a contradiction to what you have written here.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    The Financial Post argues that the entire world needs to adopt China's one-child policy.

    The real inconvenient truth

    The whole world needs to adopt China's one-child policy

    Diane Francis, Financial Post Published: Tuesday, December 08, 2009

    Ironically, China, despite its dirty coal plants, is the world's leader in terms of fashioning policy to combat environmental degradation, thanks to its one-child-only edict. Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images Ironically, China, despite its dirty coal plants, is the world's leader in terms of fashioning policy to combat environmental degradation, thanks to its one-child-only edict.

    The "inconvenient truth" overhanging the UN's Copenhagen conference is not that the climate is warming or cooling, but that humans are overpopulating the world.

    A planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate currently, which is one million births every four days.

    The world's other species, vegetation, resources, oceans, arable land, water supplies and atmosphere are being destroyed and pushed out of existence as a result of humanity's soaring reproduction rate.

    Ironically, China, despite its dirty coal plants, is the world's leader in terms of fashioning policy to combat environmental degradation, thanks to its one-child-only edict.

    The intelligence behind this is the following:

    -If only one child per female was born as of now, the world's population would drop from its current 6.5 billion to 5.5 billion by 2050, according to a study done for scientific academy Vienna Institute of Demography.

    -By 2075, there would be 3.43 billion humans on the planet. This would have immediate positive effects on the world's forests, other species, the oceans, atmospheric quality and living standards.

    -Doing nothing, by contrast, will result in an unsustainable population of nine billion by 2050.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Interesting to me how so many people conflate the problem with potential solutions. I have attempted to focus only on the problem, which is the FACT that there are so many people on the planet that we are displacing and destroying many other species as well as exhausting the planet's natural resources.

    Imagine that the problem wasn't with people, but with frogs. Assume that frogs were reproducing at such a rate that they were displacing and destroying many other species as well as exhausting the planet's natural resources. A good starting point might be to admit that there are too many frogs. The next step would be to figure out what to do about the situation.

    Solutions might include singling out the frogs that deplete more natural resources than the average frog and getting those frogs to stop that behavior. But it might also include slowing down the birthrate of frogs, generally. We'll never get to any solution, though, if we can't at least consider whether we have surpassed the earth's carrying capacity regarding frogs.

  5. Sean C says:

    I think it's an interesting concept to talk about, but I'm disappointed that you haven't brought up a goal to debate over. How should the debate be framed? What amount of persons/square mile should be set as a goal? Are the United States overpopulated, just the right population, not populated enough? What about Europe? Should goals be framed more aggressively than that, how about persons/arable square mile?

  6. Sean C says:

    To follow up, here's a quick data mashing from Wikipedia for population per arable sq km of land

    Russia 116 people/arable sq km

    USA 186 people/arable sq km

    France 303 people/arable sq km

    China 963 people/arable sq km

    What should we set our goal to?

  7. john says:

    I agree it is a problem and should be acknowledged. I think space colonization should be a priority sooner rather than later. Be it for the problem of overpopulation, catastrophic global warming, or WW3 total nuclear armageddon.

    Quick and dirty related google search.

    http://www.pregnantpause.org/numbers/fertility.ht

    Sure countries with stable or negative population growth via fertility could have less children and any reduction, even if small, would help. But I think that way opens the possibility to other problems. U.S. reduces it's population by 50-100 million or whatever meanwhile other countries with very large populations and/or large growth rates increase by 1-2 billion (collectively or singly) and they start to run out of food/resources. Then you might have a country with a huge population that is desperate and maybe a huge military, possibility of war if it came to that… And the negative growth countries/militarys have gotten smaller etc. Sorry if I meandered too far there or took too many liberties.

    Anyway, to get back to your lifeboat analogy… Boat is taking on lots of water and is in danger of sinking. Sure using a thimble to scoop water out will be a small help but relative to the problem not a viable solution. Not saying we should do nothing… but yeah.

  8. Chuck says:

    So… what? Are you saying that you're scared? Maybe you should be working on one of the NON-taboo solutions to this issue, like a green revolution or a money system that promotes localization of resources. God forbid, work on promoting a money system that gives incentives to do work that includes green revolution!

    Right now, the money system is responsible for giving incentives for the terrible policies and economic actions of "petroleum-ized agriculture" and all the other stupid things that destroy earth's ecosystems. It also squashes the initiatives to work towards something else.

    The earth, and galaxy, can support as many humans as we pump out of ourselves, but only if our money allows us to attain and distribute the resources in a way that makes sense.

  9. Dave says:

    I'm interested in learning of other's experiences in broaching this subject. Many of the challenges facing humanity, and all Earth life, are plainly resulting from the high human population, and still people I speak with seem fatally invested in the notion that there is some inherent boon to increasing this number further. Is there a reward for achieving the all-time high in concurrent populaion of which I am unaware? What is it about the present moment which inspires people to disregard ecological stability in pursuit of cramming mmore and more people into it?

    I appreciate what you've written. I wish I could say that I find your continued faith in applied ethics and the intelligence of humanity on the whole to be grounded, but this is not the case. Maybe I am too cynical; I hope that's the case. It seems to me, nonetheless, that by the time it is a commonly acknowledged problem, the time for steering away from it in a civilized and prudent fashion will be past. I whole-heartedly support you in what appears to be an effort to prove me wrong.

    Best wishes for enduring progeny.

  10. the_big_wedding says:

    Yes, the psyops is nearly complete: 911 and false-flag terror that allowed for the imposition of a global police state, the implementation of Friedman's "shock & awe" capitalism that provided a mechanism for looting the public institutions of the world, the acquisition of wealth into a handful of individuals and their conglomerate of corporate cabals that control our jobs, our media, our food production, privatized militaries to enforce their agenda, both on the land, sea, and space…full spectrum dominance by a new global guilded age.

    Now, it's time for the final act, the final agenda: slavery & depopulation.

  11. David Meyer says:

    There is no such thing as the "carrying capacity" for humans. Unlike animals, humans can cultivate crops to produce our own food. We do not merely consume what is already in the environment, but we create more of it. We can turn deserts into farmland. History has shown, as the population grows, food production grows with it. The FAO states that the world's farms could feed 12 billion people with current technology. The only reason hunger and poverty still exists at all is because of lopsided wealth distribution and war.

    Any other problems that develop due to our great numbers can and will be solved using our intelligence and knowledge.

    The Earth can sustain over 100 billion humans. It has the energy and the land to do it. Our job is to make sure that humans are as low emission and low pollution as possible, and that we commit to sustainable practices. We may never reach 0-emissions exactly, but we can get very close with technology and constructive thinking.

    Please focus on green technologies instead of trying to diminish humanity.

  12. No Thanks, I like my says:

    Sadly, the problem will sort itself out at the cost of great human suffering. The bacteria (people) in the petri dish (earth) are rapidly heading towards the population crash. Oddly, the same nutters that I encounter arguing against evolution are convinced that science will allow us to sustain the unsustainable.

    As a species, we have learned how to eat petroleum (it is a vital cog in our agricultural production). I believe we have passed peak oil. A significant population reduction is likely to occur during the lifetimes of some of those currently alive.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    John Guillebaud and Pip Hayes wrote an article called "Population Growth and Climate Change," which appeared in the April/May 2009 issue of Free Inquiry Magazine (not available online – see here ). The make the following assertions:

    – "The annual increase in population of about 79 million means that every week an extra 1.5 million people need food and somewhere the live. This amounts to a huge new city each week, somewhere, which destroys wildlife habitats and increases world fossil fuel consumption."

    – "The number of people now living on less than $2 a day is about 2 billion, which is equal to the world's total population . . . in 1942."

    – approximately half of all pregnancies world-wide are unplanned.

  14. Kasha says:

    Overpopulation fetishists miss the point when they are talking about the fundamental problems facing humans at this juncture. It is not the size of the human population or its growth rate that is the problem alone. Rather, it is the ideologies surrounding consumption, production and distribution which determine how the human population grows and it's relationship to resource depletion, extinction of species, ecological degradation, et cetera. Currently, humans produce enough food to feed 12 billion people. (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2009) However, 1.1 billion are malnourished. 39% of food -viable nutrition!- produced in the United States is wasted, placed in landfills. (1) "A degraded lifestyle" is not what people of the United States would have to face in return for giving up their consumption habits, it's what the rest of the world faces because of that consumption itself.

    It's really time to break taboo around criticizing the capitalist model, the fact that the United States Military causes more ecological degradation and ecological harm than any other organization or population could dream of. (2)

    Population is not the problem. It is capitalism, the global economy, and western culture around consumption.

    Furthermore, in neglecting clarity around which populations are in fact the most ecologically destructive, population fetishists engage in a racist discourse that blames people in the "third world" who are literally enslaved by "first world" corporations, organizations and economics to destroy their own environments in order to make a living in this globalized world.

    Your boat analogy fails, because in reality, on that boat, 11 of those 50 people which represent the United States are using the resources of 20 other people, wasting the resources that could feed 8 of them, and murdering any of them any time they attempt to speak up.

    Some more facts: Fear mongering around population growth has been around since Malthus, and saw it's heyday in Nazi Germany. It is literally laden with racist overtones. You want justice and sustainability? Smash capitalism.

    (1) http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2009/11/wasted
    (2 )http://www.sociologistswithoutborders.org/essays/Gould_militarization.pdf

    http://books.google.com/books?id=hGfMloxsz8wC&amp

    • Erich Vieth says:

      For those of you who have accused me of ignoring issues of energy efficiency, bloated capitalism, social justice and consumerism, please scan some of the other posts at this site before you accuse me of being blind to those many serious issues. We need to address these issues. But keep in mind that we haven't yet addressed those issues well on this planet, certainly not in the United States, and I wouldn't put any bets down that we are about to start acting with long-term discipline and widespread empathy.

      Also keep in mind that the problems we face do not constitute an either/or situation. The dangers we face are being exacerbated by scores of social/energy/food/justices issues AND the fact that we now need to feed and house almost 7 billion people, a number that was unfathomable in 1900, a number that is not sustainable to the extent that we continue to run the world the way we've been running it. There is no need to choose one aspect of the problem to the exclusion of the other.

      My position is that we face many problems, and that overpopulation is one of those many problems (a problem from which many of the other problems flow). I won't agree to set the population issue aside and pretend that having 7 billion people has nothing to do with the degradation and depletion of the Earth's critically important resources.

      My observation, the point of this post, is that the Earth is bursting with people, but this simple claim that the Earth is overpopulated upsets numerous people who insist on believing that it is a known "fact" that the earth is capability of sustaining huge numbers of people that it has never before sustained. It is also my position that if we can't agree to at least consider that the Earth is over-bursting with people, we will not be in a position to do anything at all about it. Those potential solutions are many. They include making birth control available to every person who wants it. They include developing sustainable energy. They include seeing whether it is possible to halt the decimation of Earth's soil. Can we at least admit that the Earth is being degraded with the existing numbers of people, and it is risking those who already live here to keep adding 1.5 million more people each week under these circumstances?

      Apparently not.

      There seems to be a fundamental disconnect here. I am not suggesting that we kill anyone (see the above comment accusing me of "diminishing humanity"). I'm simply asking whether we should be increasing the population under these circumstances. Was it "diminishing humanity" to only have 2.5 billion people on the planet back in 1950? Shame on us, I assume. I suppose I should be glad that we starting thinking straight and added 5 billion MORE people.

      As far as specific solutions, we need to begin the conversation. We haven't had that conversation, for the most part. I would state, however, that I am in agreement with the "Solutions" proposed on the GPSO website.

      High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.

      — Albert Bandura

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    In an article titled "The Real Perils of Human Population Growth," David and Marcia Pimentel make a strong case that we are getting into a desperate situation regarding soil degradation, fertilizer production, pollution, water, energy and other biological resources.

    Full article can be viewed here.

  16. roxtafari says:

    You said it was Erlich that started this in the 70's. It really goes back to 1798 and Thomas Malthus. Mathus was right, but his timeline did not account for the pace of technology and industrialization.

  17. rob says:

    Ok, this is tough for some people, but let's go over it:

    Let's say we have some land, and some people. Say all of the land can be used to grow food, but some of it is used to house people. None of our land is wilderness. As the population grows, the amount of land used to house people grows and the land used to grow food shrinks. It is absolutely, fundamentally impossible to escape this reality, unless you believe that population density can approach infinity.

    At some point, one of two things happens: a) the scarcity of food prevents the population from growing further (usually, this takes the form of an oscillation between expansion and die-back); b) people use their intelligence to control their population, to make sure there's always adequate crop land.

    Even if you disregard the need for things like ecological diversity, ignoring the mathematical realities of population growth and insisting we can just grow indefinitely is, simply, insane. More insane than blaming it on the money system or some kind of kooky conspiracy.

    On the other hand, our quality of life in the West, while somewhat related to population sparsity, is more dependent on our access to cheap goods from places that are poor and densely populated. Virtually nothing we buy is priced to reflect its true cost. Reducing the world's population will reduce the top living standard and require that many people return to subsistence agriculture. Things that require vast amounts of capital and deep divisions of labour (science, medicine, etc.) will have to be curtailed.

    The population is too high, but reducing ain't gonna be no picnic. Everyone will sacrifice in different ways.

  18. Micheal Porter says:

    "It's time to…"

    Check that.

    Too Late!

  19. 6thextinction says:

    lots of opinions, positions, information, statistics, etc. are being shared here: are we talking to our families, friends, associates about this stuff? if not, why are we part of the taboo?

  20. Erich Vieth says:

    Public service announcement run by GPSO:

    <object width="448" height="269"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/cCfX5uoBhdQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/cCfX5uoBhdQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="448" height="269"></embed></object>

  21. Erich Vieth says:

    From Lisa Hymas at Grist:

    "Here's a simple truth: For an average person like me—someone who doesn't have the ability of an Al Gore to reach millions, or of a Nancy Pelosi to advance (if not actually enact) landmark environmental legislation, or of a Van Jones to inspire (and piss off) whole new audiences—the single most meaningful contribution I can make to a cleaner, greener world is to not have children."

  22. Ben says:

    Another simple truth: There is no such thing as a simple truth.

  23. BenA says:

    I find in reading those sites that say that population problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series "In Search of Utopia" (http://andgulliverreturns.info), it blasts their lack of evidence relative to their calling overpopulation a myth. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half.

    The outdated fertility replacement rate of 2.1 is also clarified.

  24. TX Defense Lawyer says:

    Useful. I agree.

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