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.)
Let 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.
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.
I 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?
Do 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.
Trackback from your site.