The Overpopulation Myth

Nature & the Environment, Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Just because Thanos erased half of all life in order to bring balance to the universe it doesn’t mean that everyone who is concerned about overpopulation is also an eco-fascist beset on subjugation and murder. It is quite probable that they’re simply anxious about the climate and ecological breakdown and see overpopulation as a legitimate cause. We needn’t assume to know any more than that; whom they blame, if they blame anyone, and what solutions they endorse we cannot assume to know. Sure, there is a distinct risk that arguments about overpopulation and their purported solutions can, and have been, subverted by fascist reasoning. However, concerns about overpopulation are not intrinsically fascist. On the contrary, in many cases such concerns are typically apolitical, much like “iceberg ahead!” implies “politics aside, we need to avert disaster!”. Such proclamations deserve our attention.

After all, the Malthusian premise that exponential human population growth will one day inevitably exceed Earth’s finite stock of resources is a compelling one. Just watch a few episodes of David Attenborough’s Our Planet and one will discover that we are already “totally out of balance with nature”.

In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow.

Despite this present imbalance, however, there is an increasingly fashionable argument permeating amongst social thinkers contending that global society is maturing to a point where overpopulation needn’t be an issue of concern. Call this the Sub-Replacement Argument. This argument is made on the assumption that the ‘third-world’ societies predominantly responsible for global population growth, due to their (delayed) industrialisation and socio-economic development will soon have greater access to education and contraception (importantly, education and contraception are proven to be essential in reducing reproduction rates in developed countries). Couple this with current statistics showing that developed countries have a collective ‘sub-replacement fertility rate’ – meaning new generations are less populous than preceding generations – and there is a strong argument to suggest that: Once capitalism pulls Africa and Asia out of the third-world, they too will have sub-replacement fertility rates! Thus, their populations, just like those of the world’s better, more advanced nations, will begin to diminish and those cries of ‘global overpopulation!’ will all be in vain.

Nonetheless, this covertly neocolonial argument fails on two accounts. Firstly, the fact that now, during the human epoch – the Anthropocene – Earth is experiencing its 6th Great Extinction, at a rate 100 times faster than normal, we can be certain that the issue of overpopulation is already pressing. Even if the third-world does attain sub-replacement fertility rates in the not-too-distant future, it’s already too late; innumerable irreversible tragedies have already come to pass.

I implore you to rebel against yourself.

That being said, maybe what counts as ‘overpopulation’ differs depending upon what politico-economic system the term is applied. Indeed, one may argue that in the context of the currently prevailing system overpopulation is already underway because capitalism’s tautological requirement for growth guarantees exponential ecological degradation. This inevitable degradation inexorably leads to agricultural collapse and thus the Malthusian premise is a priori fulfilled. In accounting terms, we are already overpopulated; theoretically speaking, humans exceeded Earth’s finite stock of resources long ago, it’s just that the effects are yet to be properly experienced on a global scale.

Perhaps, therefore, in order to prevent that from happening, moreover to prevent it from getting worse, we should transform the system into one that doesn’t necessitate the decimation of ecosystems. It’s already blindingly obvious that this is what’s required in order to sufficiently mitigate the climate breakdown, so this makes sense, right?

YES! Yet, this is unfortunately where the Sub-Replacement Argument fails again. We cannot possibly assume that a post-capitalist world is necessarily capable of enabling third-world countries to meaningfully develop. It may be, but we cannot assume it will be. For it is quite possible that in such a world standards of living in third-world countries would stagnate, whilst standards of living would by necessity have to decrease in ‘developed’ countries. This could arguably lead to increasingly limited access to education and contraception worldwide. So, it is possible that even if we manage to overcome the climate breakdown, there could well be another existential crisis lurking in the shadows of the future: overpopulation.

This is the overpopulation myth, the myth that overpopulation isn’t a legitimate cause for concern, when of course it is. In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow. And we cannot be sure how overpopulation might feature if our dreams for systematic change become a reality.

So, we are left with two options. We can choose either certain death-by-capitalism, whereby the climate breakdown and overpopulation will kill us; or we can choose a transition out of capitalism into the ominous unknown, the shadows, wherein overpopulation might kill us. I know which I’d choose. My question is what one would you choose? In any case, I implore you to rebel against yourself.


A.C. Stark

4 thoughts on “The Overpopulation Myth

  1. You need a follow link on your site, it’s fairly easy to add, and I’d like to, it’d been a while since I read anything decent on WordPress, mostly this place is a mire of marketing/business advice wannabes.

    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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