If I Were Black, I Wouldn’t Believe Me Either: Reflections of a White Overpopulation Activist

Karen Shragg

Yep. If I were African American, Latino, or Native American, I wouldn’t believe my own rhetoric. Why should I? White people have been in charge for so long and oppressed so much that libraries cannot contain all the atrocities that have occurred just in the United States. From slavery to genocide, from Jim Crow laws to Native American Treaty violations, the oppression continues today in the form of institutional racism and a deep, violent brutality that shows no signs of stopping.

Inequality keeps morphing into new ways to keep the world unfair. I learned in my critical pedagogy doctoral program that racism exists to keep those in power in charge no matter the cost to the disenfranchised. The narrative of prejudice allows the dominant culture to continue to rule. Colonization continues its crimes even when colonial rule officially ends. I get it that shouting from the mountaintops that our billions are growing and ultimately destroying our livable planet sounds like another plot to keep people of color down. This may seem especially true because outnumbering one’s oppressor may be one’s only strength. At first blush, it seems suspiciously like another way to oppress the already marginalized. Indeed, the overpopulation issue has a sordid past of doing just that. If the narrative of too many people is accepted as truth, then it could be used as another excuse for abusing certain ethnic groups.

In my many talks, as soon as I mention overpopulation I am sure many turn their attention to Africa and the Far East. But that is not true; the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan, and the entire developed world is overpopulated relative to the resources we consume and the carbon and pollution we create. It is all of us, and the higher our global footprint the worse the impact of our numbers. Some resources are global in nature and others are local. Energy is an exportable resource, but water and soil are relatively local. Space is local. The traffic in Los Angeles is a result of too many people using a resource and causing pollution as a result. My own city of the Minneapolis metropolitan area is expanding over what used to be amazingly fertile soil laid down by centuries of prairie. Overpopulation exacerbates those two examples of how we are currently living unsustainable lives in this country.

In her article dated April 24, 2019, on the Wear Your Voice website and called, “How Thanos Fits into Real World Myths of Overpopulation and Scarcity,” essayist and editor Sherronda J. Brown says, “Both Malthus and Thanos assume that all people have equal access to resources and that we are all equally responsible for consumption, environmental devastation, and pollution. Both are wrong. Scarcity is a myth. There is enough to go around. The problem is not and has never been a lack of resources; it is the unequal distribution of those resources and the greed of the wealthy which causes conditions that make it difficult for certain people to thrive.” She goes on to say how overpopulation is just another tool used to exploit black people just like its other tools of capitalism and colonialism.

My skin is white, but its olive tone and my curly hair reveal a connection to a history that is steeped in prejudice and injustice. I am connected on both sides of my Jewish ancestry to the ruthlessness of the Roman Empire, the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition, the devastation of the Russian pogroms, and the systematic genocide by Nazis in World War II. Over thousands of years, each group had a goal to obliterate my people, and came close to succeeding in some cases. Indeed, anti-Semitism is alive and well today—and on the rise. I have been called a “dirty Jew” and can truly empathize with those who are hated for their pedigree. I am also a woman and have been aware my whole adult life of the inequalities and injustice that challenge even women of privilege in a culture where sexual assault, role and income inequality, and other issues of oppression remain relevant issues to this day.

Still, if I were a person of color, I too would be suspicious of a white, albeit Jewish and female, overpopulation activist. I would question her message, especially if the whole message goes undetected because overpopulation is poorly defined. My message is that in every country all over the world, especially in the developed high-consuming world, we must stabilize and reduce our numbers to survive on a limited and ailing planet. Overpopulation is not just about carbon footprint. If too many people are using an aquifer, that aquifer will be unable to serve its users, people will perish. That is not only about overconsumption because we all need water, although to be sure many take more than they actually need. It is true that scarcity is helped by the crass racism of multi-national corporations who go into places such as India and steal their water to profit from bottling and selling it.

These are very legitimate concerns. I do not want to diminish them in any way; it’s just that overpopulation is rendering the future so bleak for all of humankind. We must not use this legitimate cautionary response as earplugs. No matter how appropriate, it cannot be allowed to dismiss an issue that is begging for our collective attention.

What can I say that will make people of color take a deeper look into an issue that is already negatively impacting their communities and will only continue to do so with greater intensity in the future?

I wish Sherronda J. Brown was correct in saying that scarcity is a myth. The forests, oceans, minerals, soil, and water tell the truth about scarcity. We depend on so many resources, from soil to water, from minerals to open space for wildlife, and all are decreasing due to an unrelenting demand (see www.globalfootprint.org). I know that racism/colonialism has robbed brown and black countries of their resources faster than they would have used them on their own. But here we sit in the twenty-first century suffering the impacts of ruthlessness toward people and countries of color, with rates of growth the earth cannot maintain according to all who measure all the resources we need to survive. We have to have this conversation.

I would love help from justice activists in those communities. I want someone to help me make an argument that can be heard as what it truly is: one of compassion and caring, not just another attempt to further oppression. I want someone to help me choose the words that will get communities of color not only to hear my message but to get involved in its humane solutions. I don’t think this is dreaming too large, because we overpopulation activists cannot continue to be a virtually all-white movement. We need our sisters and brothers from all ethnicities to realize what is at stake, particularly for their communities.

My message is relatively simple: There can be no equality, no justice, no fairness, and no opportunity on an overpopulated and still-growing planet. Overpopulation oppresses people of color already in deeply unfair ways and is on a trajectory to do yet more damage. This is not a prediction; this is happening right now, for example, to the nine million people who have all but run out of water in the city of Chennai in southeastern India. What is happening there is predictable. The richer citizens are buying water from water trucks, for the time being, and the poorest of the poor are going without. Stabbings are on the rise as desperation sets in. What is even sadder is how every story on the issue blames poor city planning for their desperate situation. Overpopulation is not even mentioned. Sure, there are not enough reservoirs and, yes, modern buildings requiring more water exacerbate the problem. When the first census was taken in the area, in 1871, 400,000 people lived there. Why is it so hard to see that Chennai’s growth to nine million has made getting access to water for all an impossible goal?

At 10,000 people net gain per hour globally, we are all on the Titanic of sinking resources, and the groups with less now will suffer first. Suffering, misery, and early death will continue to accelerate in a world of growing populations demanding ever-diminishing resources until there are no more resources to consume. Nature is in charge. We (albeit mostly rich white countries) have pushed her cycles beyond their capacity as indicated by water, energy, and food scarcity and the addition of climate-change gases that are responsible for stronger storms, longer droughts, wildfires, and the inability to grow food due to the instability of weather. Nature has all the cards, but we can get our hands in the game if we try to play by her rules. Her rules are the laws of physics. Although religion keeps telling us we are exceptional, and racism keeps proclaiming the superiority of whites, the laws of physics and carrying capacity apply to us just like they apply to owls, whales, and lions. If we don’t work feverishly at reining in human numbers, we will join the dinosaurs on the dust heap of history—only we won’t have a meteor to blame this time. Each country has the data to figure out its own carrying capacity. Every country must realize how and how much dips into other countries for resources, and they must include that in their global footprint.

The ability of our planet to support human life and other more innocent species is in the balance. We have less than a dozen years to turn this ship around, and we cannot reduce our carbon enough without reducing our numbers—particularly in the developed world. In developed countries, research shows that having a child is the greatest contribution to carbon footprint (see https://www.zmescience.com/ecology/fewer-children-carbon-footprint-042342/).

Climate-change activists would be wise to chime in. They are fully supported by those industries that stand to gain economically and politically by staying quiet on overpopulation. There is a lot of infrastructure getting funded to counteract fossil-fuel usage and pollution, but dealing with overpopulation costs money and loses votes, even though the science is all in on the fact that overpopulation by itself is one of the world’s greatest exploiters.

While I abhor hatred and violence against anyone particularly under false narratives of difference, it won’t matter much when all the forests are gone and the soil is no longer able to grow enough food.

I guess it comes down to priorities. I call it “moving upstream.” We must move our activism to the most critical issue of our day. Of course I want all members of the LBGTQ community to have their rights and be fully accepted human beings. I want indigenous people who are so great at keeping their lands biodiverse to have more land granted back to them. I want prejudice to end yesterday, but a living planet must be included in our plans. As much as we would like to think of each of our histories and tales of oppression as all-important, at the end of the day, we are all just bipedal hominids who descended from the trees. We must turn the spotlight on our common needs and common enemy. We all have the same basic needs for clean air, arable soil, and clean water to survive; we are all oppressed by overpopulation, but those who live in poor, overcrowded neighborhoods are oppressed even more.

What good is justice if we run out of water? What good is freedom if we run out of food? What good is equality if we become sickened by our chemically infected air?

Overpopulation opens the door for exploitation. Capitalism isn’t the only culprit. If you are an individual or group concerned with poverty and injustice or exploited workers, this issue must become yours.

People become expendable in an overpopulated country. Exploitation of people is so much easier as they outnumber available jobs, services, and housing. Multinational corporations wishing to save money and sell cheap goods to the developed and higher-carbon-producing nations know how to take advantage of places that are way over their carrying capacity. The detrimental effects of overpopulation are created by both the developed and underdeveloped world in different ways. We need to quit playing table tennis with this issue. Whose fault is it? Clearly few understand that the greatest environmental impact we have on the world is having a child, particularly in developed countries. It is greater than our diet and our transportation needs. We all share the blame for not addressing human numbers and consumption together. We need to carefully and specifically unpack this story and include human numbers. It is complicated. We, the developed world, now run mostly by greedy corporations, are guilty of exploitation, greed, and high consumption, and they are guilty for allowing their population to grow into such an impossible situation often influenced by politicians and religious norms that are outdated and hurting everyone. The many overpopulation inspired catastrophes in the world could have been helped by addressing overpopulation long ago. Ask the people in Cape Town South Africa if they wish they had an ethically implemented population policy decades ago that would have helped to prevent them from running out of water today.

This nuance is illustrated in the following example. Let’s compare Wisconsin and Bangladesh. They are about the same size. One is a mostly Muslim country in the developing world. One is a Midwestern mostly Christian state in the United States (my neighboring state).

Wisconsin is bigger by approximately 10,000 square miles. Bangladesh has a collective ecological footprint that is very small, much smaller than Wisconsin’s. People in Wisconsin have cars, fly in planes, and many have cabins on the many lakes. The average working Bangladeshi walks or bikes to work and lives in substandard housing, often away from his or her children who must be supervised during work hours by relatives who often live far away. One way Wisconsinites’ excess carbon footprint affects Bangladeshis is that the carbon Wisconsinites release into the atmosphere melts the icecaps and glaciers. Bangladesh is at sea level; melting ice causes sea level to rise and salt water to seep into Bangladeshis’ wells. At the same time, their shorelines are disappearing.

But Bangladesh has a low carbon footprint not out of choice but because of poverty; that poverty is a direct consequence of its population size. Compared to Wisconsin’s 5.8 million citizens, Bangladesh just announced it reached 167 million this year even though very effective family planning efforts by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have been implemented; it will take a long time for those millions to start decreasing. Dozens of wildlife species have gone extinct, and over 200 are on the endangered list. Bangladesh has terrible traffic in its cities and cannot provide necessary services to its citizens. Multinational corporations exploit this desperation with low wages and don’t even pay those if workers fail to meet their garment quotas—all so that we can have cheap goods in the United States and other rich countries. The residents of Wisconsin, however, are not responsible for the loss of biodiversity and open spaces in Bangladesh; that falls on the shoulders of the local people.

I just want to be able to say this without sounding like a white woman of privilege judging poor people. I am not judging; I am offering a way out of poverty and toward justice. It has been proven that countries that address overpopulation show improvements in their economies and the welfare of their people. Thailand is just one example.

I once read that we cannot simply be non-racist; we have to be anti-racist. I couldn’t agree more. The most anti-racist thing I believe I can do is to continue my work educating people about the 10,000 people each hour of every day we add to an already over-bloated planet. In the name of justice for all, I will continue to beat my drum about the coming water wars and scarcities that will only exacerbate the tensions between the haves and the have-nots. I just hope my drumbeat is heard by the activists who want so desperately to help their communities. Success is only possible if we allow overpopulation a seat at everyone’s table. Consider this an offer to bring my own chair.

Karen Shragg

Karen Shragg, director of the Wood Lake Nature Center in Minnesota, is an overpopulation activist. She is the author of Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation (Freethought House, 2015).

Yep. If I were African American, Latino, or Native American, I wouldn’t believe my own rhetoric. Why should I? White people have been in charge for so long and oppressed so much that libraries cannot contain all the atrocities that have occurred just in the United States. From slavery to genocide, from Jim Crow laws …

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