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

The Road to Ruin (The Impending Overpopulation Crisis)

Politics & Public Debate
“[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill

In 2015 the People’s Republic of China ended its 35 year old one-child policy. Having broadened the laws surrounding procreation, resident families are now permitted to have two children. This, of course, is worthy of celebration. The one-child policy created a disproportionate infanticide-obsessed China, with vastly more men than women and a rapidly ageing older generation. Though, many see this as only a minor victory. Don’t people have the right to have as many or as few children as they desire? Surely, any restriction on procreation is immoral or unjust, a restriction on liberty, an infringement of human rights.

Whilst I too condemn infanticide, I fail to recognise the strength of arguments in favour of unrestricted procreation. So, I’ll get to my point (as if you hadn’t guessed it already): Our right to procreate is not, neither should it be a universal human right. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that we are not, morally speaking, at liberty to procreate willy-nilly. Why? Because limitless procreation in a world of finite resources necessarily leads to the mathematical problem of overpopulation. And that problem is presently lurking. As it stands today overpopulation is seen exclusively in parcels – in relatively small segregated communities, subsets of the global populace. These communities’ demands for food and resources outweigh their net supply of those available. That being said, in a global context overpopulation is not yet an issue. Indeed, the world produces enough food to feed more than 10 billion mouths, some 30 to 40 percent more than is required (these numbers are a little loose but still tell a horrific injustice). But this doesn’t merit us ignoring it. Rather, it tells us that we have the power to take preventative rather than reactionary measures.

It’s rather obscure as to whether the situation in China is a consequences of reactionary or preventative action. What is certain is that China’s one-child policy was implemented in part to prevent a relapse of the Great Chinese Famine. Between 1958 and 1962, 45 million people died from starvation, hunger-related disease, murder and in some instances cannibalism. On top of that, 40 million babies were unborn (again, these numbers are a little shaky, but the magnitude of this tragedy is somewhat comparable to that of the Second World War which took the lives of 60 million). As a result of Chairman Mao Zedong’s vision to empower China through population growth and then to embark upon The Great Leap Forward, the people of China were condemned to enacting a pilot program of mass overpopulation. The horrors which unfolded were unprecedented and almost immeasurable.

Imagining what such a disaster would look like on a global scale is nigh-on impossible. However, looking at such things in statistical terms can sometimes enable us to understand them a little clearer. So here it is: During the Great Chinese Famine the amount of lives lost compared to somewhere in the region of 10% of the entire Chinese population at the time (to round down!). If such a famine happened today on a global scale 700,000,000 lives would be lost. That’s seven hundred million fatalities. An enormous number. And these aren’t quick deaths. We’re not talking about pressing a switch which simply takes seven hundred million people out of ever existing. We’re talking about the sluggish toil; the gradual, harrowing journey towards fatal starvation. A scenario so dire it inspires an impulse to eat anything whatsoever. Trash, bark, mud, bodily remains. But like I said, as it is, the world is far from overpopulated (if only in numerical terms). That being said, our population continues to increase dramatically. So, let’s look at some fairly standard population projections and see what the world might look like in the not too distant future.

The UN predicts that the world’s population will increase from 7 billion to roughly 10 billion by 2050, possibly to even 13 billion by 2100. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, demands for food will increase by 70% by 2050 as a result of having to feed around 200,000 more mouths every single day. This in turn increases our demands on agriculture and industry. Harvests are required to produce higher yields subsequent to an increase in food, medicine and multiple other recourse requirements. Rather than investing in sustainable life-giving methods, up-scaling our agricultural systems typically involves clearing rare and precious forestland (up to 58,000 square miles of forestland is lost each year; that’s 48 football fields per minute!). At present, approximately 40% of the land-surface is dedicated to agriculture. If we assume that the same agricultural methods remain in 2050, ≃68% of all the worlds land-surface will be dedicated to agriculture. I’ll not project these figures into 2100. Though, undoubtedly, they’d paint a pretty bleak picture.

With an increasing need for forested areas in order to tackle the effects of climate change and to create carbon capture and storage sinks, there’s just not enough land to go around. Indeed, without appropriate and careful changes to how we utilise our rural areas the quality of our soils, with help from a rising climate, having already deteriorated over recent decades, will continue to degrade. This doesn’t bode well for the people of 2050. Where on earth will they get their food if their most precious commodity, that upon which their harvests depend, dies? Undeniably, a world that destroys its soil destroys itself. But I stray from the point. Global warming is one of, if not the most pressing issue the world has ever faced. We are yet to feel even a fraction of its true force. If we fail to curb our emissions, which even the most incongruous of persons can see is probable, the likelihood of global overpopulation increases greatly. With the desolation of vast rural and urban areas resultant from violent weather systems, the collapse of industry, a global recession, food, water and aid all in short supply, it’s clear that we’ll be unable to sustain a standard of living similar to that to which we have become accustomed. Yet, even if global warming were a myth, at some point in the future, in the absence of any formal or natural population control, an analogous scenario would still come to fruition. Without a cap on procreation we would almost certainly find ourselves in a state of global overpopulation. The fact that global warming is a reality means that our currently being on the verge of overpopulation stands only to intensify its effects; it stands only to produce more suffering in the long run.

Especially given the evident inevitability of our world being ravaged by climate change, I’d propose that a child-cap policy is, contrary to popular belief, a morally good thing. What China is doing by sticking to their guns and not permitting unadulterated procreative freedom is, in my eyes, commendable. Relatively speaking, if there are fewer mouths to feed, there are more resources to share. With more resources we could delay succumbing to the effects of overpopulation, giving us a little more time to mitigate the consequences of and/or adapt to climate change. This would prevent a great degree of additional and unnecessary suffering.

Whilst we’ve been raised to be wary of eastern political sentiments, when it comes to China’s child-cap policy we have something to learn. Yes, it remains controversial subject, but political intervention on such matters is not as radical as it once seemed. It is clearly incumbent upon us to curb our rate of procreation, to prevent harm to ourselves and to those that we create. We are on the road to ruin, but we’re capable of making that road a longer one and of making our destination a little less austere.

A.C. Stark