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5 Ridiculous Reasons Overpopulation is Politically Incorrect

One would have to live in a hole to be unaware of the crushing crises we face thanks to the growing scale of the human enterprise on our planet. It’s a subject we desperately need to address. Discussion of the overpopulation part of this equation, however, remains a mere whisper in public discourse. When making the film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, I was warned not to include the subject.

I was reminded recently of the most maddening of the reasons many steer clear of this subject. I’ll start the discussion with a list of the top five things that keep us from getting busy doing what needs to be done to avoid driving our civilization right off the overshoot cliff:

Why Smart People are Afraid to Talk About Overpopulation

1. You’ll be called a racist.
(It’s assumed you’re only concerned about birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates are highest.)

2. You’ll be told to mind your own business.
(How dare you suggest I moderate my reproductivity? Stay out of my bedroom! The right to reproduce is widely considered sacred.)

3. You’ll be labeled anti-progress.
(Our Ponzi economy needs a steady supply of more workers, consumers & taxpayers.)

4. You’ll be called a selfish bastard.
(You want other people to give up parenthood so you can keep overconsuming?)

5. You’ll be called a racist, again.
(In many nations immigration accounts for most of the population growth, so if you bring up overpopulation it’s assumed you are talking about immigration and you must not respect immigrants.)

Man and ostrich with head in sandLet me be clear – I see positive signs today that overpopulation is making its way back into civil conversation. There are, however, still some clinging to the dark ages notions that keep the subject off the table.

Since it’s listed twice, today lets explore the most powerful, nasty and ridiculous of the reasons politicians don’t talk about it, journalists rarely report comprehensively on it, and many scientists, pundits and even college students avoid it. Accusations of racism, usually unfounded and completely false, make this subject poison. Otherwise good and smart people run from it.

Just two weeks ago we had a good example of this in response to a newspaper column we honored on the Wall of Fame at Growth Bias Busted. Overpopulation is the Real Cause of Climate Change, published in the Irish Independent, was written by Dr. Joe Barry, Professor in Public Health Medicine and Head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at Trinity College Dublin. The AP photo the newspaper used to illustrate the column drew a little criticism in the comments to our Wall of Fame post, and quite a bit of criticism (from the same commenter) in comments to this story on the GrowthBusters facebook page.

Crowded train in IndiaThis photo ran with the caption: GROWTH: India’s population is expected to exceed 1.27bn this year and is growing at more than 6.5m a year. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

The commenter called the photo racist because of a “connotation that the problem is India.” Well, there IS a population problem in India. Must we ignore it because we don’t live in India or are not of Indian descent? This comment is not helpful. These types of assumptions are what keep “the population taboo” as Julia Whitty dubbed it in Mother Jones four years ago, in place.

“What unites the Vatican, lefties, conservatives and scientists in a conspiracy of silence? Population.”                                             – Julia Whitty

In fairness, the author of the criticism on our facebook page offered some truth:

“Since the problem is ALL of us we need to turn the mirror on ourselves.”

We do indeed, and we at GrowthBusters of course do that all the time. Our work on the overpopulation subject has been illustrated by images of a wide variety – traffic jams in Sydney and Beijing, crowded sidewalks in New York and San Francisco, crowded train platforms in Korea and Japan, crowded trains in India, and many more. We keep it pretty well mixed up, because we honestly believe we need to bring fertility rates down in North America and Australia just as people need to in Africa, Asia and South America (Europe is doing fairly well on this).

I’m sure we also keep in the back of our minds that if we are not careful to do this, it could be easy to misconstrue our intentions. If all our images and all our talk were about high fertility in sub-Saharan Africa, a justifiable assumption could be that we believe that is the biggest or only source of the overpopulation problem. However, it is unfair and unwise to look at one column and one photograph and assume racism.

The commenter elaborated in comments on our facebook page:

“The author is a white Irish man. So, in order to minimize any appearance of finger pointing (or worse) – something that every activist from the Global North should aspire not to do – he should display an image that represents HIS experience, not someone else’s. Let Indian writers use images of Indian overpopulation; Chinese writers Chinese overpopulation and Irish writers, Irish overpopulation, etc. After all, its not like there are not easy to come-by images showing overpopulation in every country on Earth.”

A second commenter pointed me to Deep Green Resistance White Ally Guidelines, which explained the above comments:

“Do not speak as an authority on subjects that people of color directly experience and you do not.”

This seemed to be the guideline for guilty, oppressive white men to follow in order not to step on a landmine. It felt like good advice when I first read it. But if it extends so far as to mean an Irish newspaper can’t show overpopulation happening in India, or a U.S. filmmaker shouldn’t include images of impoverished people of color struggling to get by in Ethiopia, then I’m out. I’m not a Catholic but I have plenty of valid perspective to share about the Vatican’s position on contraception. I’m not a billionaire, but that shouldn’t mean I cannot suggest the one percenters eschew their private jets and mega-mansions.

population taboo cartoonI want an Indian to be able to point out that North Americans are using an obscene share of the world’s resources. I don’t think that’s racist. Nor do I think it’s racist for a North American to want to help an Asian or African family moderate their size and climb out of poverty. Granted, if you’re the North American advocating for fertility reduction in Africa, you’d be smart to also advocate fertility reduction in Salt Lake City. If you don’t, however, that doesn’t necessarily make you a racist; it just makes you uninformed.

The Deep Green Resistance guidelines inform us white people can’t help but be racists, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it; we “should feel obligated to dismantle racism, both inside ourselves and externally.” This makes good sense, but the notion that showing a crowded train in India is a racist act strikes me as a very guilty-feeling judgment.

I see people drive ten miles per hour under the speed limit as they pass a patrol car on the shoulder of the freeway, as if somehow this would make up for the past hour in which they were driving ten mph over the speed limit. We should learn from history, but we should also recognize we cannot change it. Our actions today should stand on their own and not be subject to assumptions of guilt based only on past history. Sensitivity is definitely an asset when walking the minefield of overpopulation, but the flinching overreaction and over-sensitivity exhibited in response to that photo is simply not warranted and not helpful.

Racism today is an extremely serious charge to level at someone. News anchors, sports commentators and NBA team owners are summarily dismissed for making racist remarks. I rose to the defense of the Irish Independent and Dr. Barry because I felt the accusation was baseless. After a bit of back and forth in the comments at our facebook page, the accuser informed me I need to seek help.

I honestly have no idea whether Dr. Barry or the photo editor at the Irish Independent are racists. A photo in itself can’t be racist (unless it’s been staged), however the selection of a photo could certainly be affected by a racist perspective. Since I don’t know, jumping to the conclusion that the photo selection was racist is patently unfair. But that is the risk one runs when one dares to discuss overpopulation. For some reason the subject is so sensitive you are walking into a minefield.

It would seem that Barry includes himself as part of the problem:

“The undeniable fact is that we, the human race, are the cause of our own difficulties and unless we reduce our numbers, we will self-destruct.”

Dr. Barry stepped into the minefield, however, by writing about nations other than his homeland:

“We send money to poor nations to help sink wells and buy livestock but do little or nothing about helping them control their rate of reproduction, which in turn creates further famines. Assistance and education in introducing birth control would surely provide a more lasting solution.”

This is very true, but it’s also frequently a source of unwarranted vitriol about “racism.” Some people feel overconsuming fat-cats in the rich world have no right to suggest people with different skin color and/or less wealth should choose to have smaller families. Some feel offering help, such as making contraception and other family planning services available to those dark-skinned populations, is somehow racist. I will grant you some people with a racist perspective could certainly be motivated to do this. There are probably some racists among the supporters of international family planning aid. But it is not accurate, not fair, and utterly ridiculous to jump to that conclusion about everyone who supports family planning aid.

Clearly we over-consuming fat-cats in the rich world have plenty to feel guilty about. We are major contributors to the overshoot of the human race, in terms of our appropriation of planetary resources, but also in terms of our population numbers. It is offensive if someone in the rich world thinks the fertility rate in India and Nigeria are the problem and the fertility rate and voracious resource appetite of the U.S. are not. I do run into that kind of thinking frequently, however, and I do all I can to correct it. We don’t know that Dr. Barry feels that way. In fact, his column clearly did point a finger at the over-consuming rich world:

“During the past two centuries this has accelerated as we developed larger and more sophisticated machinery to help us mow down rain forests, plough and create ever more farm land, drain wetlands, expand our cities and road systems and mine high-carbon fuels which are then burnt and sent in to the atmosphere. Just imagine the resources required to sustain cities like New York, London, or Paris.”

We don’t know if Barry recognizes Ireland is overpopulated. I suspect he does, since he mentions 1 billion as a sustainable world population. But even if he doesn’t, does it make him a racist to want to encourage family planning in places with the highest fertility? Is the photo editor at the Irish Independent a racist because he chose a picture from an overpopulated country other than Ireland?

A politically correct overpopulation imageDo I have to create a “politically correct” photo like this every time I want to illustrate overpopulation? I’ve tried to make this an equal-opportunity overpopulation image – India, United States, Australia, England and Somalia. Is this what it takes to avoid being accused of racism? (Click the image to enlarge it.)

The commenter who rendered the racist accusation about the Irish Independent photo probably has very good intentions. I like to assume the best about people in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary. But unwarranted accusations like this are precisely why good people shy from the subject. I suspect this is why the U.S. State Department refused to publish a guest commentary it solicited from environmental champion Bindi Irwin for a wildlife protection issue of eJournal USA (read about it here). Bindi submitted a piece about the role of expanding human population. You just know the State Department bureaucrats felt they had to nix that in order to stay out of the minefield.

It’s become so politically incorrect to discuss overpopulation, family planning programs and advocates dare not admit that the number one benefit is smaller family sizes and therefore a reduction in the rate of population growth. They have to tap-dance around that benefit and talk about “improving reproductive health.” Reproductive health is good, but who are we kidding? Reducing family size in Chad is going to help the people there rise out of poverty, and it’s going to help the whole of humanity move toward a sustainable population level. The fact we cannot say that just blows my mind.

Whenever I mention the importance of choosing smaller families, I’m reminded that education and opportunity for women is very effective at that. Yes, I know, but I think it’s also valuable for women (and men) to understand the ramifications of their family-size decisions on the quality of their children’s lives. There are plenty of well-educated women with lots of opportunity walking the streets of North America with 6 kids. Yet, I’m supposed to use the code words (education and opportunity) when talking about overpopulation? Nonsense.

No wonder we are making such slow progress!

Dave Gardner directed the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. He blogs regularly at www.growthbusters.org, is a founding contributor at Growth Bias Busted and a regular contributor to Shift. GrowthBusters is a non-profit project of Citizen-Powered Media and depends on public donations to pay its expenses.

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Comments (7)

  • Avatar

    Brian Sanderson

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    Overpopulation is everyones problem so everyone has a duty to say it when they see it…

    On the good news side of the equation, I was having a few drinks at the bar the other day when the conversation drifted onto resource depletion. I guess I’d been beating about the bush because the guy to my right impatiently pointed out to me that the problem was overpopulation. At which time, the guy to my left jumped to defend my reputation…

    I admire your patience Dave.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Bromwell Ault

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    It’s refreshing and encouraging to see your thoughts IN PRINT, as “Racism” has become a kind of national taboo.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jonathan

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    Excellent article highlighting just how toxic the word racist can be and how freely and indiscriminately it is bandied about. I would suggest that those who are quick to label people as racist are actually just as intolerant as real racists. Would you go and accuse someone of being a murderer without proof? Racism is denigrating someone based on their race or racial practices, whether intentional or unintentional, unfair stereotyping or abuse. If I say that Indians have a birth rate that is too high and and an Indian is offended before I can explain what I mean, that’s THEIR problem to fix. Unfortunately calling someone racist places the onus on the accusee to defend themselves, the accuser bears no responsibility, when they should. Accusations of racism are leveled frequently by proponents of unsustainable economic growth so they can defend “business as usual” and high immigration fueling that style of train-wreck economy. This is what is happening in Australia. Developers have the government firmly in pocket.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Steven Earl Salmony

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    Dear hopeless,

    This is not a time to give up or give in. Likely your hopelessness is at least partially driven by the abject failure of so many self-proclaimed experts and other kno…wledgeable people to say out loud what they know to be true about the way the world we inhabit actually works as well as about the placement of human species within the natural order of living things. Not speaking out loudly, clearly and often regarding what is known to be true and real gives rise to the hopelessness so many feel and to the false idea that there is nothing we can do. Perhaps the silence of so many ‘plays the lead role’ when it comes to killing the world as we know it. Not speaking truth to the powerful is unethical, morally outrageous, intellectually dishonest and a preposterous failure of nerve. Never in the course of human events have human failings had such profound implications for the future of life on Earth.
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC

    PS: I do not have to win or even believe I will win the human-induced struggle that is presented to all of us in order to speak openly, honestly and hopefully “the whole truth” about what could be real.

    Hopeless > stevenearlsalmony • 4 days ago

    What an eloquent description of the situation. The subject is taboo across all disciplines. No environmental orgs will touch it — even Zero Population Growth has disappeared. Talk about ignoring the gigantic elephant in the living room. What a bizarre species we are…and one that has limited time on the planet. Sadly we are taking many, many other species with us.

    stevenearlsalmony • 12 days ago

    What is true, real and somehow right can never be trivial. And yet ‘the brightest and best’ ignore, avoid and willfully refuse to examine, discuss and report on all as well as, perhaps, the best scientific research on the subject of human population dynamics. Knowledge of the population dynamics of the human species remains off limits, a taboo even among those in the newly established ‘Scientific Consensus on…Humanity…’, the relatively ‘ancient’ Royal Society, the modern American Academy for the Advancement of Science, other national academies of science, the Union of Concerned Scientists, demographers and economists everywhere. When and where are the self-proclaimed experts in population biology, other sciences and relevant disciplines going to openly acknowledge the uncontested scientific evidence of human population dynamics that appears to disclose simply and elegantly how human population dynamics is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species; how human population numbers appear as a function of an available food supply? How more food equals more people; less food equals less people; and no food, no people.
    Are the overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of many too many people not the primary problem confronting humankind in our time? Scientists have been seeing what is happening during the past 70 years as human population numbers skyrocketed worldwide. Scientists have been regularly reporting this widely shared and consensually validated scientific knowledge. But that is not the end of the story. There is at least one other question to ask that calls out to us for an answer, a question that any reasonable and sensible person would ask, I suppose. And that question is, “Why is the human population on Earth exploding? Why?” The question is straightforward. Where are the scientists with knowledge concerning why the global human population is skyrocketing on our watch? They are electively mute.Their conscious and deliberate collusion makes it possible for silence to prevail over science. This cannot be construed as correct behavior, especially by top-rank scientists. In diametrical opposition to the evolution of science extant, uncontested research related to the question of ‘why’ has been ubiquitously avoided or denied by many too many of the very experts on human population matters who are in agreement about ‘what is happening’ regarding the unbridled colossal growth of the human population on Earth. If science of ‘why global human population numbers are exploding’ is willfully ignored, how is the human community ever to respond ably to emergent and convergent human-induced threats to future human well being and environmental health? How can we speak about the necessity for advances in science, for fidelity to scientific facts and truth, for the individual and collective will to go wheresoever the evidence leads while first class scientists with appropriate expertise deny scientific evidence of human population dynamics/overpopulation? For self-proclaimed experts to refuse to examine and share findings of scientific research regarding ‘why the human population is exploding’ has got to be overcome, fast. Such a breach of one’s duty to science & humanity is a personal and collective betrayal of both.

    stevenearlsalmony • 12 days ago

    http://planet3.org/2013/05/30/

    Hope on Earth: A Conversation | MAHB

    mahb.stanford.edu

    Steven Earl Salmony A comment from a remarkably astute observer and friend…. Just to jump in to the discussion: Every so often this group hits the target. This amounts to an eloquent prologue for a undescribed action that should follow. But closer to a bulls eye would be something like a revolution.

    But now we hit a wall, a singularity moment, where we know something big and important has to happen, will happen — we don’t know or agree just what, or perhaps we know, but are afraid to describe the ruthless immensity of the purpose driven change needed. The horror is – we know huge changes loom — generally predictable but not specifics of time or event. We can influence so little. But we are unable to call for changes to mitigate the looming decimation.

    Our impact will be minute – we might mitigate global warming so slightly as to permit a select sample of multigenerational humanity to survive. Otherwise we are condemned to silently witnessing our demise – and by our silence, hastening it somewhat.

    I am struck by the descriptions of various revolutions – where historians note that no one caught up in them knows they are revolutions, nor knows what that means, or what must come next. They know only that change must come, and so pushed forward with a different way of doing things. Perhaps called revolutions by their success, otherwise they would be a failed loss. Now comes the great test of our civilization, whether it can change sufficiently to allow human survival. I don’t think pure wealth will suffice. Nor ruthless power. Although wealth and power will positively bias short term survival for some – unless it is so organized and refocused – it means little for the survival of the human species.

    Our planet is locked in to warming of 3° to 10° C no matter what we do about it. And the higher heating would assure violent extinction. The lower end merely great suffering and loss. We appear to be making choices that increase danger. It is a poor response to argue about the scientific validity of the projections. As if to see a house on fire, with far more fuel inside, instead of applying water, we try to exclaim and explain that it is not really aflame. Our house is next, and within, we don’t have enough denial left for facing that.

    We have describe it well, we are fully engaged in losing the first great battle – the battle of perception. Since the 1980s – where media consolidation completely dominated and controlled messages we receive – we have lost the battle for truth or even open minded perception. But our defeat has been painless, accompanied by growing affluence, we have been surviving against a real enemy that contains and controls our mass communication. Carbon commerce has built its own media empires, and now completely dominates.

    So now we are left to observe or witness – that our friendly media enemy has been promoting so much commerce that the real harms of overpopulation and climate change are side effects, collateral damage. Now the only hope is that mass media simply surrenders to the reality of the situation – and now must change completely to promote survival messages. All mass media turn around… like it did in WW2. Nothing will change until overwhelming message-making compels it. We can see the need, we can demand it, but until all mass media compels and promote fundamental changes, until then we are losing the battle to slow down our demise.

    It just does not seem very likely. Indeed it may be a losing battle. In which case all we can do is witness. “There are now more 22 year olds in America, than any other age.” They must decide to radically change in ways that amount to revolutions. All we can do is exhort behavior that encourages survival.

    Future, historians deciding our tumult was a revolution, means purposeful change would have succeeded. Whereas, extinction will be unrecognized, undescribed from within.

    Interesting times.

    Richard Pauli
    http://climatemanifesto.com/

    Climate Manifesto climatemanifesto.com

    climate manifesto political action for the future

    Reply

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    Karen Gaia Pitts

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    In 2010 55% of families had no children, 9% had 3 or more children, so 5+ times as many families had no children as families that had 3 or more children.

    But not mentioned in this blog is that 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. These accidents are not happening with the 55% of families who have no children, and it is unlikely that they are happening very often with those that have one or two children. We need to first improve contraception access, effectiveness, and affordability for those who have an unmet need for it, long before we start shaming people for having too many kids. See the Choice Project http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/contraceptive-study-in-st-louis-coincides-with-drop-in-abortion/article_9efe9196-b672-5f6a-9a6a-c094e7fe5546.html

    The importance of reproductive health is that it is a pathway to family planning. Women are far more likely to use contraception when their health care workers recommends it for their health and well-being, or for birth spacing and healthier babies.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Vachhani

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    Indian population is growing at a rate that can only lead to disaster. For political reason no one talk of population stabilization. All are in habit of talking good and all have habit of listening good. Everyone has wish that some miracle will happen and Indians shall surpass living standard of Europe in future. They all must understand that population explosion is one of the biggest problem and will lead to dis-integration of India if not controlled. This need political will. At present no one is talking of it.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    J.O. Raber

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    Growth Busters;
    Those who equate birth control with racism need to be reminded that the more intelligent and better educated people are, the fewer children they are likely to have, if any children at all. And people who have more children than they can properly raise are more likely to see their children end up in trouble with the law. Our prisons are full of racial minorities who come from poor families. And there have been a fair number of racial minorities without children who have made a positive difference in the world: e.g. T.V. hostess, Oprah Winfrey; Poet, Langston Hughes; Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor; Choreography, Alvin Ailey; to name a few.
    J.O. Raber, Author, Famous But No Children
    http://joraber33.blogspot.com/

    Reply

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