Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation

Tom Flynn

Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation, by Karen I. Shragg (Farmington, Minn.: Freethought House, 2015, ISBN 978-0988493834) 116 pp. Softcover, $16.00.

With Move Upstream, Freethought House, a small movement press based in Minnesota, branches out into mainstream activism. Well, almost. In truth, longtime green activist Karen I. Shragg names so many names that one imagines no larger publisher would touch this book. That’s too bad, because Shragg’s message is hugely important. She argues that overpopulation is the greatest threat facing humanity, a threat so primary that none of the lesser crises before us (climate change, biodiversity loss, declining freshwater supplies, you name it) can be resolved if we fail to reverse the surge in human numbers. Unfortunately, most environmental-conservation charities want nothing to do with overpopulation concerns. “We are told to reduce, reuse and recycle, but humanely reducing family size is not a part of the message,” Shragg writes. “Activists who are overpopulation deniers address problems without addressing the cause.”

Instead of confronting population head-on, argues Shragg, most activists seek more tractable targets downstream: “Downstream acts focus on symptoms. Upstream acts focus on the cause of problems. The approach taken to solving present problems is often like reaching for cough syrup to cure a smoker’s cough.” More bluntly, “Our co-ops are already full of families with more than the sustainable number of children who do not understand that shopping at a co-op cannot make up for overpopulation.”

How bad is overpopulation? Shragg cites data from the Global Footprint Network suggesting that a population of two billion is sustainable . . . if those two billion live like Europeans, not like Americans. Current population is over seven billion. The challenge of challenges is thus to reduce human numbers. Substantially. “We must recognize that we shot past the opportunity to stabilize the population at a sustainable level of 2 billion about 80 years ago,” Shragg writes.

Yet environmental and conservation organizations aren’t doing their part. Myopically, they keep poking around downstream. Shragg names them, including the Nature Conservancy, the Clinton Foundation, and the Sierra Club, which quietly accepted a $101 million gift from pro-growth Wall Street titan David Gelbaum, then derailed a vote among its membership that could have led to the Club’s adopting population reduction and tighter immigration controls as central parts of its agenda. These are not exceptions, Shragg accuses; they’re the norm.

Her jeremiad deserves a broad audience, so it’s unfortunate that it is marred by that bugaboo of small presses: poor editing. “[L]and becomes more expensive when populations are hemorrhaging,” the text proclaims. Hemorrhaging as a term for breakneck growth? Skyrocketing or metastasizing might have been better choices. Then there’s the single paragraph in which the size of the Ogallala Aquifer is stated as both “174,000 square kilometers” and “174,000 square miles.”

From sea-level change to extinctions of charismatic megafauna, most of our ecological problems are likely insoluble if we fail to reduce human numbers by several-fold. If that’s impossible—as it may well be—the human prognosis is not good. Shragg sounds a vitally important alert. One dares to hope a second edition with more careful editing will reach the audience it deserves.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

“Unfortunately, most environmental-conservation charities want nothing to do with
overpopulation concerns.”

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.