A program of the Center for Inquiry
I am a wimp. I am not brave. I do not go white-water rafting. I never go on rollercoasters. I always wear my seatbelt. I can’t stomach violence on television or in films. I don’t like to watch contact sports. I think that I qualify as a super wimp. That is why I am always puzzled by people who call me “brave” because I work on the overpopulation issue. They mean it as a compliment. They think I am brave for telling the full truth about our environmental footprint when it has been so maligned in the past.
It’s true that few want to hear that we cannot make long-term progress when we are adding over seventy-eight million people to an already seriously overpopulated world. Many are outright nasty and will not listen to the facts that are screaming at us through the eyes of starving polar bears and children who are scrounging for food scraps. But that doesn’t mean I am brave. If you were to see a person slipping off a cliff, wouldn’t you reach out and try to grab that person before he or she fell? That is what I am doing. I am metaphorically grabbing at that person’s jacket as a visceral response in order to try to prevent a tragedy. I am not processing it through my mammalian thinking brain. I am responding with my fight-or-flight reptilian brain that tells me to hurry and do something in the face of a crisis.
If we want our dreams for a better world to come true, we have to recognize the significance of reducing human numbers, humanely of course. Overpopulation drives destruction. It removes possibilities, decimates wildlife, and destroys our future. On the plus side, it is the one issue that holds the key for success. On the negative side is religious dogma that is so far “downstream” that it is no longer serving us. To be fruitful and multiply is a fine mantra when you are at risk for losing your people with one successful virus. But in our current state of overpopulation, that doesn’t make any sense. Only with fewer people can we achieve our goals for a less crowded world with less competition for limited resources. This will translate to more peace; more wilderness and water will have a better chance to recharge.
First we have to know our numbers. They vary a bit depending on the year, but here they are as of the writing of this essay in the fall of 2016: We are adding approximately seventy-eight million people a year net gain to our limited planet. A sustainable population is less than three billion, and we hit 7.4 billion in the beginning of 2016. The United States should be at 150 million people to be sustainable; we are now pushing 325 million.
The world is a closed system. It is getting no input of any resources (aside from sunlight), just a gain of those who use up the resources. The world population has doubled in the past forty-five years. We are now adding 140 people net gain per minute. Can you imagine adding the population of Chicago and Los Angeles to the planet every month? That is exactly what we are doing. This population pressure is creating an unsustainable water supply where, for example, we are consuming groundwater at three times its rate of recharge.
Based on data from the Global Footprint Network, the Earth can generate renewable resources and absorb our waste for only two billion people if those people live at a European lifestyle and if we don’t care about leaving room for wildlife. This figure is also unrealistically high because we need to consider the current state of our diminishing fossil fuels, metals, and minerals.
We are in global overshoot, unable to produce enough resources for the demand of the humans who live here. Living as modern humans do, we have huge footprints. We added five billion people in the past eighty years, and they all need food, water, shelter, jobs, and energy. The earth is exploding in our waste; pollution and climate change threaten our very existence. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of activists, people and governments know that climate change is a force to deal with, and they recommend divesting in fossil fuels and investing in solar. What they neglect to do is tie it at all to overpopulation.
Here is how it makes a real difference. When the public discourse focuses on individual behavior change, we hear a statistic such as this: on average, every adult in the United States is responsible for giving off 19.8 metric tons of carbon per year. This compares to only 4.6 metric tons per average Chinese citizen. This is a statistic that shows our excess. But why, then, does China contribute more emissions than the United States? Because its total population is so much larger. China’s nearly 1.5 billion people are responsible for 29.51 percent of the world’s total annual carbon emissions (2015), and the United States with its relatively smaller 324 million accounts for 14.34 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions (2015). That is a striking fact, and so is this: the earth counts in total impact. It doesn’t care what each person does; it cares what everyone does in total. It’s great if you decide to grow an organic lawn, but if you live on a pond and your nine neighbors don’t make that choice, it won’t matter to the health of the pond.
These critically important population statistics cannot be found on the websites and in the mission statements of environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Social-justice NGOs should also educate people about these numbers, because their efforts to bring about a just and peaceful world are deeply connected to the overpopulation of our planet. This issue is so ubiquitous and yet so under the radar screen that everyone needs to wake up to it and find a way to get involved.
In the documentary Cowspiracy, a great argument was made that animal agriculture is a huge culprit in environmental destruction but is being ignored and downright shunned by environmental organizations. Ironically, the producers of this effective film shunned the overpopulation issue as the reason driving the demand for huge mega-farms to provide enough food for all the billions of hungry people.
Our old and tired religious and nationalistic stories force us to ignore overpopulation, shun it, deny it—yet it just doesn’t go away; it just gets worse, by a newly revised (upward) number of over ten thousand people per hour net gain. In my most recent book, I defined “downstream acts” as things we do to consume fewer resources per person. If you are busy installing raingardens, shopping for organic food with cloth bags, and raising organic vegetables, you are acting downstream. None of these acts is bad, it’s just that it’s very much like cleaning up a beach before the tsunami hits. “Upstream” is a reference to dealing with a problem at its source. The numbers don’t lie. The resources can also be measured with great precision. These numbers are just as depressing. Our essential nonrenewable resources are in such rapid decline that they drive prices up with their scarcity while demand increases with population. Not too long ago, copper mines were yielding nuggets the size of small Volkswagen Beetle. Now they get copper dust at a rate of one car load for every five hundred exhumed.
Suffering, misery, and early death lie in the gap between the supply of our natural resources and the demand for them. As the demand increases, the supply decreases. We have two choices. We can create more resources or decrease demand. The trouble with increasing resources, like we did during the so-called Green Revolution when fertilizers were introduced to our food industry, is that we also increase our demand. Because we could feed more people, we got more people whom we needed to feed. The only way out of this treacherous entanglement is to lower the demand by decreasing our population. It is a very humane solution because, as China found out, the alternative is mass starvation and untold suffering.
The great news in all this is the way overpopulation explains our failure to better the world, better than any other single factor. Even our ability to govern ourselves is challenged by overpopulation. At the writing of this essay, our 435 representatives in the U.S. Congress serve 324 million people. That is 744,827 constituents per congressperson. Just one hundred years ago, that number was far lower. There were approximately 100 million people in the United States in 1916, and that means each congressperson on average had to serve only 230,000 people. Each state gets two Senate seats, no matter how much population grows. Ever try to reach your senator? I used to be able to, and now I hardly bother. In my home state of Minnesota, the two senators that represented me, when I first voted, had just less than four million constituents to serve. Now they have 5.5 million.
So how did we get in this overpopulation mess? The answer is both natural and political. Numbers grow exponentially. If two people have four children, and those four children each have four children, the great grandchildren of the original two will have multiplied to sixty-four. We have also become more efficient at growing food. We have become healthier as we cure diseases and increase longevity. Some more devious systems were put in place, historically, to make it mandatory to have larger families and therefore simplify recruiting for armies. Some powerful religions play a huge role in demonizing the use of birth control, campaigning against abortion, and keeping women away from being in charge of their own bodies. Culturally, big families can mean stature or simply the ability to raise crops better. The efforts to have male children for their favored role can mean many pregnancies until a boy is born. In the big picture, major corporations see the loss of people as a loss of revenue. These globally invested companies like to fund environmental groups, but only if they don’t touch this issue. Environmental groups are out to serve their missions but also want to stay in business, so they don’t say things that could stop the money flowing.
On a personal level, people can become accustomed to and desire an unsustainable number of kids. The solution often stated is that if we simply empower women, we will solve this problem. Yet empowered women are having unsustainable numbers of children all over the country because they don’t know that overpopulation is undermining our success. They only know the narrative of being greener consumers. Many would be stunned to learn that they cannot raise three or even two children with organic food and cloth diapers and still be called sustainable, not when each child will leave a carbon legacy of 10,000 tons in his or her lifetime on an already overpopulated planet.
Our economic system plays a huge role in our overpopulation quagmire, for our capitalistic system thrives on growth. We love to grow; we think we need more people to be there to buy more stuff and increase the corporations’ bottom lines. Our armies need more people to defend the country and its efforts to secure more energy resources. All in all, these scenarios add up to unsustainability. We are on the way to rendering our planet lifeless, due to our swollen numbers and the consumption they drive; the only winners, if any, will be the surviving cockroaches and scorpions.
So what are the solutions? The first thing to do is know what won’t work. What won’t work is focusing exclusively on downstream ideas. Let’s say you have a company and it makes carpeting out of old tires. This is a great idea, but let’s say your capacity to handle tires is 100,000 a year. That will not put a dent in the need to do something with our tires. On average there are 16.4 million new car sales in the United States each year. That is 65.6 million tires that will need to be recycled at some point down the road, so to speak. Recycling is politically acceptable and encouraged, but it is not a solution in an overpopulated world. The effort to recycle also takes fossil fuel, so recycling creates problems on the way to solving some.
We must stop using cough syrup to stop a smoker’s cough; we must stop smoking.
What will work? What will keep us from growing to nine, ten, or eleven billion and beyond? What will keep us from careening out of control off the cliff of collapse? We have to stop reproducing at even modest levels and ratchet reproduction down to a trickle (a one-child average) for at least three to four decades, so we can get a handle on our resources and create ways to live within the resources that are available to us. Remember, overpopulation is not an overseas issue. The more developed countries are using resources faster than underdeveloped ones. Even those countries with slow growth or no growth are overpopulated. How do we get society to agree to such a radical approach? How do we get the entrenched political forces to step aside and allow sanity to prevail? By working upstream together and telling the full truth about our absolute need to change course before it is too late.
We have to stop telling only the consumption side of the story. We must be vigilant and not let anyone, from reporters to clergy, from conservationists to politicians, get away with lying to us. They are lying by telling us that solar panels will save the day. They are lying to us by saying if you give your money to their nonprofit the rainforest will be saved. They are lying to us when they say that you can sustainably fish on an overpopulated planet. Will this be an easy ride? It will be as easy as it is to convince a morbidly obese person that he or she must hit the salad bar and avoid the fries in order to avoid catastrophic illnesses. Of course this is a long and very difficult road to go down.
The good news is that many are doing it already. Many have shunned their dominant religious stories for ones that will actually serve them. Even though the Catholic Church is busy fighting free birth control in terribly overpopulated areas such as the Philippines, others have understood for quite some time that societies do so much better when numbers are controlled. There is much less suffering, and solutions can actually have time to work, when the number of babies per woman drops. Thailand was successful in reducing poverty and increasing its GNP when it implemented a country-wide family planning program. It wasn’t easy getting this mostly Buddhist population to get used to the idea of condoms, but it finally happened. Creating soap operas with characters who brag about their small families is working in Mexico. The solutions are here; they have been here for a long time. Reaching for them is the challenge, and it can be done when those of us who are not brave, but are alarmed, join our enlightened, wimpy hands together and work to move our society upstream.
Karen Shragg, director of the Wood Lake Nature Center in Minnesota, is an overpopulation activist. She is the author of Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation (Freethought House, 2015).