Overpopulation Denial

Most non-domesticated life on earth is in decline and about 200 species a day are going extinct due to a wide range of environmental problems. Many humans are at risk of being harmed or killed by related problems this century.

All of the many problems are caused by the same thing: humans have used non-renewable energy to explode their population from 1 billion to 7 billion in 100 years, and now consume so large a share of the earth’s resources that almost all non-domesticated species are in decline.

Note that I use the word “resources” here in a broad context meaning land, water, minerals, photosynthetic output, biomass, and the planet’s capacity to recycle waste products.

The total quantity of resources consumed by humans equals the human population times the average consumption per person.

About 75% of the world’s population are poor and do not consume much more than is required for subsistence, although they desire and are working hard to consume more. The privileged 25% are working hard to maintain and grow their level of resource consumption and the majority are unwilling to contemplate a voluntary reduction in consumption, in part because they know that if they reduce their consumption others will consume the freed resources.

This dynamic makes it difficult to reduce the total human footprint by reducing per capita consumption.

Therefore, any progress towards solving the problems caused by human overshoot must come from a reduction in human population.

Paraphrasing Albert Bartlett, “There is no problem on earth that does not improve with fewer people”.

Establishing an effective and fair global population reduction policy will be very difficult and may be impossible for many reasons, not least of which it conflicts with what our genes want to do.

It may also be too late for a reduction in birth rate to prevent the worst consequences of overshoot. We can however say with certainty that a rising population will make things worse and a falling population will make things better. Therefore we should try to get the population down regardless of the prognosis.

Given that population reduction is the only thing that might help our predicament, why do we not even discuss it?

More to the point, why do those individuals and organizations with the best understanding of the seriousness of our predicament not speak out for population reduction? I am talking about environmental organizations, climate scientists, biologists, ecologists, deep greens, peak oilers, doomers, you name it. Almost without exception they are silent on population reduction.

I see the same dynamic in activist friends and acquaintances who deeply care about the planet and who work hard on environmental and social issues but never mention population reduction, despite the fact that population reduction is the only thing that might improve long-term environmental and social issues.

I understand that it may be impossible to gather enough political support, and that we might conclude that unintended consequences of population reduction policies are worse than the problems we are trying to solve. But at least we would have had the conversation and made a deliberate decision to not change course.

As it stands today we are racing towards a cliff without even discussing if we should slow down or change direction.

I like to think that if citizens understood that the choice was between having one child with some chance of a happy life versus having several children with no chance of a happy life, I think most people would choose a small family. Especially if they had confidence that the rules would be applied to rich and poor alike, and that cheaters would be punished. But if we don’t discuss it we’ll never find out if I am right or wrong. We’ll just blindly go off the cliff.

The fact that we do not discuss the only thing that might actually improve the future is amazing. I concluded several years ago that denial must be genetic. I later found a theory for evolved denial by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower and it is the reason this site exists.

Today, Alice Friedemann of the Energy Skeptic blog published a paper addressing this issue by Roy Beck & Leon Kolankiewicz titled “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U. S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998): A First Draft of History“.

It’s a long rambling paper on an important topic so I thought it worthwhile to summarize its key points here. Note that the paper has a U.S. focus with little analysis of what happened in other areas of the world.

What changed from 1970 to 2000?

  • In 1970 the need for population control was broadly understood and accepted by political leaders, business leaders, environmental organizations, universities, and the public. Strong environmental laws were passed. Earth Day had population control as a priority.
  • Thirty years later in 2000 the problems caused by population growth were still discussed but there was no discussion of the underlying population growth problem. The US population had increased by 70 million (33%) since 1970 . There was more nitrogen oxide pollution, more CO2, more endangered species, and fewer wetlands. Environmental groups no longer had population control as a priority and did not oppose laws that increased immigration. Earth Day did not mention population control.

What caused these changes from 1970 to 2000?

  • In 1970 the fertility rate of the white population fell below replacement level. All population growth after 1970 came from immigration and higher birth rates of the non-white population.
  • Environmental groups backed away from population control as a priority for fear of membership and donation loss due to potential charges of racism and the increased demographic influence of immigrants. Environmental groups competing for members and donations focused on issues that could demonstrate short-term successes rather than issues like population control that take decades to show results. It is much harder to raise funds for preventing future problems than for fixing an existing problem. In summary, protection of environmental institutions took precedence over protection of the environment.
  • Business used donations (or the lack thereof) to influence environmental groups to drop population control as a priority because they wanted the economic growth created by immigration and reduced labor costs from an expanding labor pool.
  • Politicians did not want to touch the population issue because of the increased voting power of immigrants.
  • The Catholic Church aggressively opposed any group in favor of population control, especially after abortion was legalized. It appears the Catholic Church had a large influence on government population policies but historians need to research this to confirm.
  • Women’s issues emerged as a priority which shifted the narrative from racially sensitive population control to politically correct empowerment of women.
  • A view emerged within the left that most environmental problems were caused by unfair distribution of resources and capitalism rather than overpopulation. Priorities shifted from population control to changing the economic system.
  • A view emerged that it was wrong to block immigration and to conserve resources for future generations while poor people struggled in developing countries.

The paper concludes with the following statement:

Historians need to explain how an environmental issue as fundamental as U.S. population growth could have moved from center-stage within the American environmental movement to virtual obscurity in just twenty years. For the American environment itself, the ever-growing demographic pressures ignored by the environmental establishment showed no signs of abating on their own as the nation prepared to enter the twenty-first century.

I found the paper to be a disappointment. I think it did a good job of explaining why environmental groups dropped population control as a priority. In summary they chose to give higher priority to protecting themselves than the environment. That’s no surprise.

A much more important issue that was not addressed was why did the majority of the public drop population control as a priority? Given that public sentiment shifted it is no wonder that political leaders, business leaders, universities, and environmental groups followed suit.

What really happened? I have a theory.

In 1970 economic growth was strong. The middle class was healthy and not threatened. Most white families, for whatever reason, had already decided to have 2 or fewer children. Making population control a priority did not require lifestyle changes for most. There was surplus wealth to spend on environmental protection laws and enforcement. People who understood the threat of overpopulation could form organizations and raise funds to support themselves.

By 2000, economic growth had slowed. The middle class was in decline and feeling threatened. Recent immigrants with higher birthrates became a powerful political force and resisted changes to their lifestyles or immigration reductions. Environmental groups chose survival over principles. Government deficits had replaced surpluses. Economic growth was becoming harder to achieve due to depletion of low-cost non-renewable energy. Our monetary system requires growth or else it collapses, however it will not collapse if per capita economic activity decreases as long as total economic activity increases. Therefore continued growth of the population via immigration became necessary to maintain some overall economic growth despite falling real incomes for individuals.

Today, 15 years later, the middle class is under even more pressure because low-cost non-renewable energy continues to deplete and globalization has eroded their standard of living. They see that immigration has not benefited them, seek someone to blame, and many have decided to vote for Trump.

If I am right, it is ironic that economic growth slowed due to the overpopulation related depletion of non-renewable resources which then required a further population increase to maintain some economic growth to avoid collapse. It’s analogous to the positive feedback loop of rising temperatures causing ice loss and methane release.

We have only two paths. We can find a way to break through our evolved denial and proactively act. Or we can let nature act for us.

2 thoughts on “Overpopulation Denial”

  1. In addition to the factors already outlined in the article as reasons for the disappearance of population control from the public’s priorities, we’ve also had the dropping of China’s ‘one child per family’ policy in 2015, which took effect at the beginning of this year.

    Although it’s possible that the growth of China’s population which results may not be very significant (largely because of the economic and social incentives that have indirectly arisen from the rapid urbanization of China), the relaxation of the one-child policy sends an unwelcome signal around the world that as a species, we need not worry about constraining the total size of the world’s population. But it’s an unfortunate fact that our global economic system, which in the West is largely based on industrial capitalism, has trapped us in a vortex in which that system is only viable if each successive generation produces additional consumers, despite the wastefulness of such an economy and the associated depletion of resources and degradation of the planet as a habitable place.

    In such a situation, a good understanding of the demographic and economic realities attached to the various possible future scenarios, far-sighted vision, assertive leadership, a supporting legal framework, and adequate financial and administrative resources are all necessary for effective action that is capable of combating the undesirable trends and consequences connected with uncontrolled population growth. Unfortunately, in the notionally democratic societies of the West, perverse incentives actively encourage politicians to pander to their support base and not raise the issue of curbing population growth via enforcement of an as-yet non-existent limit on fertility (something the Chinese did through both physical coercion and fiscal penalties), and not to draw attention to the adverse economic consequences of limiting population size. So as this article’s author has already made amply clear, nothing useful is happening on the political and social debate front regarding this issue.

    Given this situation, the only recourse I can envisage that seems remotely possible to achieve by voluntary means is for a few foolhardy national leaders to set up and fund a dedicated policy-making unit under the auspices of the United Nations, the British Commonwealth, or the Non-Aligned Movement; this unit would have the aim of drafting an international convention having legal force and laying out proposals for concrete population control measures which the signatory nations could be induced to adopt. This would then be followed by the multilateral adoption and ratification of a suitable version of the draft by an overwhelming number of countries; the establishment of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms; and the creation of an international legal framework to coordinate and adjudicate the implementation of the population policy.

    No, on second thoughts this is impossible to make happen. Bottom line: we’re all screwed and the planet is doomed.

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    1. It’s quite remarkable that no leaders anywhere in the world, even those nearing the end of their term, speak out on population reduction. Some really powerful force must be at play because it is obvious to anyone that looks that we are in severe overshoot. I think it’s evolved denial, but if it’s something else I love to know what it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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