Maybe you haven’t heard about it. After all, it’s a taboo. We tiptoe around the subject of population growth as though it could give you a bad case of leprosy. Even when the topic is addressed, the word “overpopulation” is frequently avoided. Presidents, journalists, and humanitarian and environmental organizations head for the hills when the conversation turns to the role of population growth in hunger, poverty, climate change, species extinction, fresh water availability, desertification, deforestation or fisheries depletion.
I’ve written about this before. My GrowthBusters film put a spotlight on it. I’ve posted YouTube videos about it (see list below), and others have written on the subject. But it’s not everyday we get such an overt, classic, textbook example as the one delivered on a silver platter last month by the U.S. State Department. It was chronicled nicely in The Australian.
The agency had invited environmental/wildlife champion Bindi Irwin to write a brief essay about her commitment to wildlife conservation, for publication in eJournal USA. The December edition of eJournal, headlined Go Wild: Coming Together for Conservation, promoted a State Department initiative to protect wildlife and reduce trafficking of illegal wildlife goods.
Fourteen-year-old Bindi is the daughter of the late Steve Irwin (a conservationist catapulted to fame in The Crocodile Hunter TV series). The Irwin family runs the Australia Zoo, and – following her father’s death in 2006 – Bindi has carried on in her father’s footsteps as a very popular public conservationist figure.
Bindi’s original essay included this exceptionally astute observation:
“I believe that most problems in the world today, such as climate change, stem from one immense problem which seems to be the “elephant in the room” that no-one wants to talk about. This problem is our ever expanding human population.”
But when Hillary Clinton’s team finished their hatchet job on Bindi’s essay, it was unrecognizable. The word population doesn’t appear even once. Compare this one paragraph, just to get a sense of how egregious the editing was. Here it is after Clinton’s team had their way with it:
“Like many wildlife conservationists, I believe that the greatest threats to the world’s animals stem from one incontrovertible fact that seems to be the “elephant in the room” that we don’t like to discuss: We humans are consuming Earth’s resources – including its wildlife – faster than they can be replaced.”
I struggle here to find a nice word to describe this. It really disgusts me that the bureaucrats working on an endangered species initiative are too lily-livered to acknowledge the truth: human overpopulation is pushing other species off the planet. Adding insult to injury, they flipped over to the standard progressive do-gooder mantra that the problem is we are consuming too much.
I don’t disagree that we have a consumption problem, but why is it some people have no trouble telling you your house is too big, you drive too much, or to stop eating hamburgers, but they can’t bring themselves to recommend you limit the size of your family? Are they waiting until we’re all living on top of each other in tiny cells, eating rations of Soylent Green, to finally admit that humans have overpopulated the Earth?
Bindi was not pleased with the complete rewrite Hillary Clinton’s team did to her essay, so she asked the State Department not to publish it. She told news.com.au, “Population is an issue no one wants to talk about and it seems to be very controversial (but) if you look at any conservation problem today it all stems from population.”
Bindi’s mother, Terri, told The Australian, “I just think it’s fascinating that when Bindi does an interview and talks about population, more than 50 per cent of the time it’s edited out. It’s something we do need to talk about or the ship’s going to sink man.”
A State Department spokesperson told The Australian that Bindi’s essay’s focus on population wasn’t consistent with the focus of the journal. To be fair, it wasn’t. The journal focused very heavily on trafficking in illegal wildlife goods. Human population was mentioned just twice, somewhat incidentally. Pieces describing the work of such conservation organizations as Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund and Association of Zoos & Aquariums made no mention of human population whatsoever. In fact, the journal’s “Top Ten Ways to Get Involved” say nothing about reducing family size or even consuming less. It’s a lightweight, feelgood, ineffective approach to a serious global issue.
This is just one example of an affliction shared by most of the environmental movement – working on mitigating the effects of economic and human population growth, but avoiding the root causes. It’s just too difficult and potentially unpopular to tell the truth.
In a particularly pointed review of a Scientific American special issue about climate change, physicist Al Bartlett chastised the authors for avoiding the subject, dubbing this phenomenon “the silent lie:”
“Scientific American has rounded up the usual suspects but has ignored the perpetrator of the crime. The editors and writers at Scientific American know that population growth is the underlying source of the problems, but it is politically incorrect to state this obvious fact. Mark Twain wrote that if one has information that would help others, but does not share that information, then one is telling a ‘Silent Lie.”
Mother Jones magazine acknowledged it as a “silent conspiracy” in the subtitle to its 2010 story on population, The Last Taboo.
Why is human overpopulation the third rail of environmentalism? One hint is offered by this blog post about Bindi Irwin’s scuffle with the U.S. State Department: Hillary Clinton’s E-Journal Retracts Neo-Malthusian Essay By Crocodile Hunter’s Daughter. Here, “investigative writer” Jurriaan Maessen wrote:
“Irwin, in response to the assignment, spoke her mind, regurgitating the same old neo-Malthusian death-talk we have become accustomed with from the mouths of conservationists such as David Attenborough, Paul Ehrlich and other people devoted to reducing the world’s population ‘for the earth’.”
NEO-MALTHUSIAN! Oh my god. That’s a horrible, terrible, very bad thing to be. What is it? It’s actually a bunch of organically grown nonsense from growth boosters (those who would rather take short-term profit from growth today than have a long-lasting, sustainable world tomorrow), eco-socialists, pro-lifers, the Catholic Church, and anyone else mortified at the thought of a stable or declining population. Over the years they’ve whipped out that adjective so many times, it eventually came to mean evil, wrong, baby-hating, racist, elitist, eugenicist, controlling, abortionist, slime.
Of course, the term was originally coined to describe someone who subscribes to the thinking of Thomas Malthus. Malthus was an early 19th century political economist who came under fire for theories he expressed in An Essay on the Principle of Population. He espoused that there were limits to our ability to wring more food out of the land, and that would ultimately limit our population. He described a cycle in which human population would at times overshoot the capacity of our technology and natural resources, and that starvation would bring our population back into line with the planet’s ability to sustain us. This was not optimistic enough for some, namely economists and industrialists (big surprise), so the name-calling began. Among the ill-informed today, Malthus and Malthusianism have a very negative, but undeserved, connotation.
“Neo-Malthusian” became another talking point in the toolkit of overpopulation deniers. It was used so many times in the process of blackwashing sustainable population advocacy, it finally lost its original meaning. Now it is pulled out and mindlessly slapped on a person whenever someone wants to use a sustainable population advocate as a whipping boy. Sadly it was used last week by Jurriaan Maessen to denigrate a 14-year-old girl working to save Koalas. I seriously doubt most users of the word have a clue as to what it really means.
The overpopulation deniers so relentlessly hammered at the sustainable population advocates that they finally succumbed. Political correctness won out over scientific correctness. Zero Population Growth became Population Connection. Optimum Population Trust became Population Matters. “Population growth became “population dynamics.” Contraception became “reproductive health,” and then “family planning.” Sustainable population advocates were advised to do an end run around the issue and “simply support economic development and gender equity; that’ll take care of it.” Anything but telling the truth.
Because sustainable population advocates have headed for the hills in response to these attacks, we have so far failed to present a truthful view of what we are about. Too few understand that limiting family size is a loving, compassionate act by parents who want the best for their children and all the children of the world.
I’ll end with some sound advice offered by professor of medical demography John Cleland at a population conference in 2006:
“we’ve got to use straightforward robust language. It does this cause no service at all to continue to shroud family planning in the obfuscating phrase “sexual and reproductive health. People don’t really know what it means. If we mean family planning or contraception, we must say it. If we are worried about population growth, we must say it. We must use proper, straightforward language. I am fed up with the political correctness that daren’t say the name population stabilization, hardly dares to mention family planning or contraception out of fear that somebody is going to get offended. It is pathetic!”
Suggested Essays and News Stories:
GrowthBusters Blog: Population Taboo – Kiss It Adieu!
BBC News: Population: The elephant in the room
HowMany.org: The Population Taboo
PostGrowth Institute: Population Taboos? No Kidding!
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