The Overpopulation Debate

Many people think that the current environmental crisis is due to the earth’s overpopulation. They believe that, with more people, more resources will be consumed, and consequently, our planet will be destroyed. So to save the world from environmental disasters, we must drastically reduce our population.

For the longest time, I subscribed to this idea. It was only during my EVS course in college that I challenged these assumptions.

In our course, we studied “Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis” by Ian Angus and Samuel Butler. It illustrated the flaws in the overpopulation debate. We learned how population growth is not the fundamental cause of environmental degradation and how this assumption promotes xenophobic policies.

So, how did the overpopulation debate spring up? It came into the conservation sphere when Paul Erhlich published his book “The Population Bomb” in the 20th century. It asserted that we must reduce our population growth rate to zero and increase food production to avoid catastrophe. The book urged the US government to employ its political and economic might to advance this agenda.

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Angus and Butler classify those who argue for radical population control policies as “populationists”. These people believe that the large population of the earth is driving up consumption, and to alleviate this, we must take drastic action. They propose such approaches in third-world societies (in locations like Bangladesh, African countries etc.)

Angus and Butler deconstruct the “too many people, too much consumption” by saying that not all consumption is equal. A wealthy family’s carbon footprint is more significant than a poorer one. Genuine contributors to consumerism are the affluent, not the poor. So these arguments shift the blame to the impoverished, not addressing the real perpetrators.

Substantial inequalities exist within ‘rich’ countries themselves. High-level consumption by wealthy minorities, coupled with spending on fossil fuel, mining, and petrochemical industries, far outpace individual consumption.

The overpopulation argument has fuelled anti-immigration stances, often supported by the rich, white, xenophobic American male. Calls for extreme action, such as military action, deportation are motivated by racism, not science.

Another concept that populationists overlook is that the markets and advertising highly influence consumption by individuals.

The reality is that an enormous effort influences current consumption with marketing and advertising. Companies make customers feel the need to buy products they could comfortably live without. In liberal economist, John Galbraith’s words, marketing “creates the wants it seeks to satisfy.” It is hard to expect the average person to resist these monumental marketing efforts.

This is so extreme that companies deliberately make their products expire after a specific time to ensure continuous consumption. So while one can regulate their consumption, they are up against a big challenge, against some influential players.

Populationists ignore that most consumption is by economic sectors, not individuals. Today, countries spend excessive funds on their military, one of the worst polluters. Most spending is done under the garb of “national security”. Cutting down there will free up vast resources.

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Populationists believe that populations grow exponentially, which is not valid. Birth and death rates are affected by many factors. They do not constantly increase/ decrease, certainly not exponentially. These phenomena are beyond simple arithmetic.

Population growth can only happen when growth is higher than the total fertility rate(TFR). The reality is that the growth has been lower than the TFR in 116 countries. Population growth has decreased in recent years across the globe.

Feigning scientific accuracy, populationists intertwine population growth with carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is the maximum size an animal population can survive indefinitely in a given environment.

Comparing human population growth with animals is wrong because of the variation between and within species. Humans live, reproduce and consume in several different ways. The flux in human activities masks what factors affect our growth. There is no accurate way to define human carrying capacity.

The overpopulation argument has fuelled anti-immigration stances, often supported by the rich, white, xenophobic American male. Calls for extreme action, such as military action, deportation are motivated by racism, not science.

By blaming marginalised groups, populationists delay action against the crisis. It is resources usage that matters, not the number of people using them. We must implement sustainable and social development-oriented policies right now.

The growth imperative of the capitalist system is the cause of all this mayhem. The “need to accumulate”, which is instilled in consumers, must be confronted. All this accumulation is at the cost of nature- a truth we must acknowledge to see tangible change.

Reference
“Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis” by Ian Angus and Samuel Butler.

All Images from Pexels.com

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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