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:

    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."

  2. Ben says:

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

  3. 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.

  4. TX Defense Lawyer says:

    Useful. I agree.

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