overpopulation

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Rob Nevin
overpopulation

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Too many people?

 

Ian Angus and Simon Butler have recently written a book titled Too Many People? At http://wearemany.org/a/2012/06/too-many-people-return-of-population-bombers  Ian Angus talks about the book in a 37 min. audio which contains an abundance of straw man arguments, logical fallacies and confusion.

 

In it he repeatedly accuses those of us who think that population is a problem, of thinking that it is the single cause of all of our woes and that *the* solution to all of our problems is to deal with population. He calls us “populationists”. I do not know of anyone who thinks that population is a problem, who doesn't also think that we have a long list of other problems (involving more factors than just the number of us) including the burning of fossil fuels, unsustainable agriculture, overfishing, destructive forestry, contamination and depletion of groundwater, disappearing natural habitat, flying on airplanes, our personal lifestyles, being in the 6th known mass extinction in the history of the earth, and for some of us capitalism and the list goes on and on. True some of these are interrelated but separate solutions at least in part are required for all problems. For example implementing sustainable agriculture will not bring family-planning clinics. Solutions necessarily include reduction of the human population (necessary but not sufficient) but that is by no means the only measure needed to be taken to attain a sustainable future. He refers disparagingly to people like Richard Attenborough and Christopher Hedges who say things like: if we don't get the human population under control we have no chance at a quality future. In this statement one could replace the words human population with any of the problems listed above and each of these sentences would be 100% true.

 

He laments that some talk only about population. There are websites and books about population and they talk about, guess what, population. The Ehrlich's do not have anti-capitalist analysis in their book on population. Neither does the book Chemicals, Low Levels High Stakes. The author is not political but her knowledge on chemical contaminants throughout our environment and their health effects is astounding. Of course capitalism is at the root of it all but she did not have to know that in order to impart to one a large body of knowledge.  Mr. Angus worries that talk about population being a problem will steal minds away from more important ideas like anti-capitalist analysis. Most people are capable of having more than one thought in their brain. Rather than the population problem stealing minds away, it is the ideas in this book that will drive minds away.

 

I agree with him about the importance of capitalism in the mix. It has been around for centuries (attempts have been made to counter it, many ultimately not very successful). And if we were to rely on its demise for the solution to our problems we could be waiting for a long time, time which we do not have. Therefore we have to address *all* of the above problems in *many many* ways.

 

It seems imprudent to rely solely on the demise of capitalism to save us. Sea levels are rising, glaciers are disappearing, violent weather events are on the increase, many fish species in the ocean are on the verge of extinction, groundwater tables are plunging and becoming contaminated, forests are disappearing, deserts are expanding, arable land areas are shrinking, etc. Who has done all of this? Humans. If it were any other species it would have been culled long ago. (I do not advocate culling of humans. I want empowerment of women.) We are very dangerous. In fact humans are so dangerous that some of us invented and perpetrated capitalism. Can we count on implementing all solutions and getting them right? Having fewer of us would reduce the risk of being less than perfect and make the net effect of us less dangerous.

 

Strangely, he reports that the umbrella body of the Natural Science Academies of 105 countries including the British Royal Society have determined that the human population is a problem and that solutions are in order. Is this not similar to 98% of the world’s top peer-reviewed climate scientists saying that human activity is changing our climate in very detrimental ways? Have we not learned our lessons about denying the determinations of scientists? At this point I should be able to rest my case.

 

Too many people? To answer this one must also ask with respect to what. Unlike what Malthus envisioned, the answer, yes, is not so much related to Earth's ability to feed us  (at the present time at least)  but more related to the destructive effects of our behavior (GHGs changing the climate, natural habitat displaced by human use, agriculture, settlements, recreation etc.) For example “about 38% of global land is devoted to agriculture” http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2015/2015/hydro_agriculture.html  Therefore we could feed many more people by completely eliminating nature, recruiting the entire bio productive capacity of the earth for our own use. It depends what kind of future one wants to have. (I personally want the human population to reduce by empowering women and then a lot of this can return to natural habitat.) Maybe some would be okay with living on a largely desertified planet by hydroponics, aquaculture, algae farms etc.  Also large quantities of food go to waste and are unevenly distributed. Therefore the earth is not necessarily overpopulated and nowhere near so with respect to feeding us.

 

Mr. Angus admits that more food production will displace more habitat but then says that habitat protection would require long-term global planning and capitalism does not do this. Agreed. This is why we have to do something about capitalism *and* population.

 

That the totality of human activity has damaged and will continue to damage our planet is indisputable, unless one is still a denier of climate science. The totality of human activity can be expressed as the product of the population of the earth times the average human activity or the way we live. One cannot eliminate one or the other elements of the product. Therefore the number of us is a factor and the earth is overpopulated with respect to the damage we have done. This is why in a survey 74% of environmentalists said that to be a good environmentalist one should not have children. This seems to shock Mr. Angus. Why?

 

One can use an ecological footprint calculator http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/calculators/    to demonstrate that there are too many of us. For example if everyone in the world lived like the average Ontarian we would need 3.58 planets to sustain everyone. The population of the world now is about 7,218,000,000 people. Therefore the population for sustainability can be no more than 2,021,000,000(people divided by planets to get people per one planet) unless we expect many others to live more poorly than we do. If one goes through the calculator in order to achieve the lowest possible footprint by choosing never flying, not owning a car, eating only vegan locally produced unprocessed food, living in a zero emission green house that is one room with three other people, recycling everything, never buying any electronics, then there still has to be 1.5 planets to support everyone. Part of this is due to societal infrastructure items. Nevertheless it is completely unrealistic for all 7 billion people in the world to live perfectly. The arithmetic therefore tells us that there are too many of us.

 

To use a simplistic and imperfect analogy, living on more than one planet is something like gobbling up a month’s worth of groceries in two weeks. Things seem fine while you're doing it but then it gets rather nasty.

 

Human activity is damaging our planet. More humans means more human activity and more damage. It is misanthropic to advocate against reducing the human population as more harm will come to innumerable future generations without reducing the population now.

 

He mentions forced sterilizations in India. Some people at one time somewhere did a bad thing. This does not mean that we do not have a problem.

 

He talks about William Reese, one of the developers of the ecological footprint calculator and Mr. Reese’s idea that if a person from a poor country immigrates to a richer country his or her ecological footprint will increase and this will therefore add to the stress on the planet's ecosystems. He also points out that at one time some in the Sierra Club advocated a limitation on immigration because the extra people would cause extra damage to the ecosystems of the United States. He claims that these ideas amount to racism. Environmentalists are people who care intensely about the quality of future human life. It does not make sense that these people would have something against other people based on the color of their skin. It just doesn't fit.

 

There is however a dilemma about immigration. On the one hand we do not want to damage ecosystems but on the other hand we do not want to be unfair to people from poor countries by denying them a chance at a better life. The most fair type of immigration would be for richer countries to fund the immigration of the homeless and destitute of the poorest countries, the poorest of the poor. I have never read about anti-capitalists advocating this.

 

As a solution to overpopulation most of us want access to education for girls, political and financial equality for women, global universal access to family planning clinics and women to have control of their own reproductive systems. Data indicate that when these measures to empower women are implemented the population automatically decreases (More: population, nature, and what women want by Robert Engelman. Island Press 2008). There seems to be some kind of taboo on the left about having fewer humans. Yet the left has always championed women's right to choose. When women freely choose sometimes the result is fewer humans. So are we allowed to contemplate fewer humans or not? There seems to be a contradiction here. Or is it that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fewer humans, it is the intention that matters? If actions result in fewer humans it’s OK as long as that is not what was intended. This could explain it.

 

Surprisingly at one point Angus says that numbers of humans will have to be adjusted against resource availability. So it turns out that he is in favor of population control. Under what circumstances Mr. Angus? When things get worse? After we have dismantled capitalism? Once again, sea levels are rising, glaciers are disappearing, violent weather events are on the increase, many fish species in the ocean are on the verge of extinction, groundwater tables are plunging and becoming contaminated, forests are disappearing, deserts are expanding, arable land areas are shrinking, etc. How much worse do things have to get Mr. Angus? I don't know. I'm confused.

 

He also says that capitalism is not good at organizing at the societal level. So maybe it is limited haphazard population control to which he is opposed. Maybe he favors more effective massive pervasive population control. I think I'm still confused.

 

Ian Angus also denigrates the concept of personal responsibility. He says that this will also detract from anti-capitalist analysis. (This must be one fragile concept if so many things suck people away from it.) Does capitalism make us drive our cars or fly on airplanes on our vacations or make us eat meat? I don't think so. I think that Karl Marx had it right when he said that the human desire for stuff is a fetish that masks the exploitative relationships involved in the production and sale of it. Had he been alive today he might add that our commodity fetishism masks the environmental destructiveness of modern products and services. So, yes, each of us has to control our urges and smarten up.

 

He also complains that the population issue makes our problems seem only biological and not social. Again the detraction thing and he seems only capable of one thought. One can be radically left and still realize that too many people are a problem for the Earth's ecosystems.

 

Ian Angus again admits that population can be a problem when he says there is a direct relationship between numbers of people and amounts of food required to feed them. Also, he says the problem with “populationists” arguments is not that the number of people is an issue, it is that they cannot conceive of alternative ways to solve environmental problems. This is just wrong. We want to use all ways to solve problems: reduce numbers, be individually responsible, change the way we live, governments make systemic changes, *and* combat capitalism. Don't presume to tell me what I am thinking Mr. Angus.

 

It would be bad enough if the author’s position was just irrational. The real shame of this type of thinking is that it is going to bring us a more damaged future. The author’s position is actually an immoral one.

 

The way to influence “populationists” is not to accuse us of having only one thought (which we don't) and having no analysis but to add capitalist critique to what we're saying. Otherwise the dialogue is kept polarized and hostile. We all need to work together to solve our problems on many fronts, including neutralizing capitalist forces by whatever means.

 

Robert Nevin, B.Eng., MD,

Environmental Health Peer Presenter, Ontario College of Family Physicians,

Lead Physician, Bay College Family Health Group

The above titles are mentioned merely to convey some familiarity with the environment and/or human health. The ideas expressed are not necessarily those of the College or the Health Group.

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