April 27, 2011


The Unnameable Crisis: Overpopulation

by Lorna Salzman

The initial and most severe consequences of overpopulation will be felt by those countries and regions that are the most overpopulated. This is a point that the deniers overlook. Overpumping of aquifers, drought, floods, desertification, etc., which are clustered in Africa, Pakistan and India, are due to the clearing of forests for firewood, which in turn prevents soils from retaining rainwater, and to agricultural practices that necessitate maximum food production to feed local populations (and often primarily for export). The overpumping of deep aquifers and the threat to food supplies is one of the most important topics in World on the Edge by Lester Brown, and is clearly a response to overpopulation.

Dozens of countries are now dependent on the World Food Program because disastrous policies have drastically reduced their ability to produce sufficient food. But the WFP itself is dependent on secure, plentiful food supplies, primarily wheat and rice, and as exporting nations' supplies dwindle, where will these supplies come from? Brown's figures on the loss of self-sufficiency in many exporting countries are dismal and frightening. So while the poor nations will suffer first and worst, in fact the whole world is interconnected in terms of food. China is now a chief importer of American wheat. Some southeast Asian countries are now importers instead of exporters. Brown's figures on these are truly scary.

But Brown does not downplay the impact of overpopulation in these cases. . He has not written a book solely on the overpopulation crisis. Instead, he has taken a comprehensive look at the intersection of these things, of cause and effect, of unintended consequences, and has come up with a book that, to my eyes, will be far more convincing to many people, especially those on the left who are still in denial about population and consider any discussion of it to be racist. Brown has constructed a far stronger case against overpopulation than he would have had he changed his emphasis in the book. Perhaps his tone lacks the urgency that some believe is needed. But overall his discussion of the numerous other problems connected to overpopulation, overconsumption and climate change provide a far more credible picture precisely because he gives an integrated comprehensive explanation of the interconnections.

The main issue at hand seems to be the question of time frame. I don't think that Brown or anyone would disagree, if asked in private, with the premise that anything short of immediate stabilization (i.e. zero population growth) of population will save us. His use of the phrase "stabilization" is to me the problematic one. The word means STOP RIGHT NOW AND DON'T ADD ONE MORE PERSON TO THE EARTH beyond replacement. But that is not what most people think it means. When Jim Hansen talks of stabilizing CO2 emissions, he means DO NOT ADD ANY MORE EMISSIONS TO THE ATMOSPHERE NOW. But again, this may not be clear to many people.

The ethical problem raised by this issue and others such as food supply, water resources, deforestation and habitat destruction is finding a process that

is not coercive, like China's one-child policy. But short of immediate adoption of drastic coercive measures we have nothing efficacious or timely enough to head off collapse.

Most scientists agree that we must act before we exceed the carrying capacity of the earth but if you accept Brown's figures, we have ALREADY exceeded this by 50%. And he also discusses the conflicts and catastrophes we have already reaped because of this: Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, New Orleans (Brazil and Australia were too recent to get into his book). I think he is perfectly aware that failure to adopt all of his prescriptions is dooming the world to disease, famines, and wars.

I don't think that failure to stabilize population is the only or first thing that will doom us, because all of the problems we face such as oil depletion, deforestation, food shortages, loss of freshwater supplies, epidemics, and economic recessions are equally likely (though Brown and others have strong evidence that the food crisis will hit first) and any one of them will take more time to resolve, if that is the right word, than we have left. The extra problem of overpopulation is the demographic overshoot problem: that we presently have billions of people of reproductive age who are now reproducing or will shortly. They are already born. This is what the various projections of population growth are based on. The only things that could restrain these numbers are the OTHER factors that are operative: disease, famine, war.

Social factors such as women's education and economic empowerment are effective and necessary in slowing population but this will take a long time, and possibly no less time than even forceable sterilization or birth control coercion would take. Those on the left who rely solely on policy changes - all of which have extensive political and economic implications in any given country - are blind to reality.

The onset of any given crisis - water, food, population, energy, disease, famine - is equally likely, and the time to address and mitigate these problems is insufficient. Population experts might well argue that it will take much longer to control population even by force than it would be to mitigate the water and food crises. These are simply matters of judgement and I don't think anyone can prove that any one solution would be enough to save the world, population control included. Zero population growth is nowhere in sight, except through natural forces and events. But climate stabilization is not in sight either, and one could make a valid argument that the impact of the continued rise in global temperature, compounded by positive feedback mechanisms and events, will doom civilization long before overpopulation does.

Let's look at some of the conditions that allow and encourage overpopulation.

--immigration into the USA. Millions of people each year, legal and illegal, possibly equal in number to the increase in annual births. All of these will eventually form households, have children and then grandchildren, purchase homes and cars, become over-consumers like the rest of us and add to the sprawl, overdevelopment and environmental problems already caused by our affluent society, a society whose impact on the earth exceeds that of undeveloped countries by orders of magnitude. Under the circumstances is quite legitimate to question America's role as a pressure relief valve for Latin American countries who refuse to house, feed and provide decent jobs for their own citizens. By not curbing immigration we are letting these countries off the hook. Only desperation forces men with families to leave them behind for the promise or illusion of jobs thousands of miles away.

--patriarchy. In Africa particularly, machismo makes men refuse to use condoms and force their wives to have children; families with six or more children are common. In Latin America large families are also the norm, especially in Brazil. Polygamy in Africa and the Muslim world, widespread prostitution, child slavery, poor disempowered women without rights and no education or job capability all put women at the mercy of men and repugnant ancient customs.

--Islam. Like orthodox Judaism, it bans contraception, and gives men the right to force sex on their wives, otherwise known as rape. Girls are married before their teens and thus start breeding early. Women are denied education and basic freedoms and thus have no future or sustenance outside of their husband's home.

--the Catholic church. If condoms are OK to prevent AIDS, as the pope says, then they should be OK to prevent pregnancy but this logic does not seem to have occurred to the church. A campaign in Latin America and parts of Africa against the Church's ban on birth control is imperative (and of course against the American Christians who want to ban funds for family planning abroad).

We treasure individual freedom and rights, but we also proscribe and often penalize anti-social behavior. Having more than one or two children is

anti-social today. It should be penalized.

Here are some possible solutions that are minimally coercive and deserve discussion and consideration.

1. Reverse Welfare: remove benefits to families with each successive birth after one child.

2. Ban new immigrants of breeding age (except to reunite

separated families) until we have reached no more than 1.2 replacement rate.

3.Track down and expel polygamist families, some of which now collect multiple welfare

benefits (yes, indeed, this is a fact, both here and in the UK but authorities look the other way).

4. Require all new immigrants to speak and read English.

5. End foreign aid except in cases of natural disaster and epidemics, and except for providing information on and access to birth control.

Remember Garrett Hardin's book The Tragedy of the Commons? In that case, those who took more than their share of the commons benefitted and

the rest of the community suffered as the commons disappeared. Today, overpopulated countries are demanding more than their share of the commons, that is, of the earth's space and resources. This is no less reprehensible than the overconsuming countries like the US taking more than their fair share and also

contributing more to climate change. Neither overpopulation nor overconsumption are socially responsible. Both need to be curbed drastically.