Search the literature; read the news; comb the mission statements and recommendations of various environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and it will become obvious how climate change utterly dominates public discourse, leaving the overpopulation issue behind. The average global per-person carbon footprint is 4.9 metric tons per year, according to the Global Footprint Network. Multiplied by 82 million persons, which is the number World Population Balance says we add (net gain) to our planet every year, and one gets a low estimate of almost 402 million metric tons of additional carbon emissions added to the planet annually. These numbers indicate that the per-person impact matters when it comes to climate change. That is because there are billions of us. There is no way to overemphasize the impact of our numbers on climate gas emissions. Numbers matter when it comes to resources, wildlife, and general quality of life as well. Few have explored the interface of these two critical issues and why climate change gets so much more ink than overpopulation. Climate Chaos, as I prefer to call it, is a subset of overpopulation. Every time a new so-called solution is invented to reduce greenhouse gases, added population eats up the gains that the new technology promised to deliver. These two very connected issues have been separated to the detriment of us all.
Why is the story of overpopulation so hard to tell and sell? Why has the climate change story been so much more successful in becoming a dominant—if not the dominant—environmental issue of demonstrators, major media outlets, and NGOs? Why are there so many guilty parties in the deliberate and collective silence on this issue? From mainstream to alternative media, from environmental NGOs to political candidates, from meteorologists to immigration and peace activists, overpopulation remains a decades-long taboo.
Both issues paint such a horrific future for humankind and wildlife, yet only one is truly on the table. The very existence of human-caused climate change is still controversial to some, but at least it is being discussed. A quick Google search of articles on climate change produces over 473 million choices. The same search of overpopulation produces a bit over 2 million hits: more than I would have guessed but still far smaller.
My favorite climate site is called Climate Reality. It is Al Gore’s pet project, but it is not truly teaching the reality of climate change—because you will not find any reference to the overpopulation issue amid its pleas for a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. I don’t claim to be excellent at math, but I understand that if you reduce individual output with conservation methods and you increase the number of individuals using energy, you cannot stay ahead in this race against the clock.
What I wish to examine is why climate change gets almost all the press coverage devoted to big issues threatening the planet, while overpopulation remains an issue that is largely ignored. Why do overpopulation groups discuss climate change, but climate change groups largely ignore overpopulation? One would be hard pressed to find even one reference to overpopulation on 350.org or other top climate websites. It is a different story on overpopulation websites. The World Population Balance website, www.worldpopulationbalance.org, helps viewers make the critical connection between the two: “Adaptation to climate disruption will be much easier with a much smaller global population.”
Competition between these two critical issues is not productive. They are intimately and inextricably connected, and both are important. Climate Chaos affects wildlife in its droughts and loss of arctic habitat, but it is often treated as the only culprit. Overpopulation is responsible for desertification as forests are cut for farmland, as suburbs sprawl over arable soil, and as water is drained from aquifers due to high demand. Ideally every paper, NGO, activist, and journalist would never speak of one without discussing the other. I want to explore why this is not happening in our oh-so-imperfect world.
At first blush, climate change is just easier to discuss. It comes with less baggage. In my own life, I recall holding a forum for 125 people at my nature center on what was then called global warming. I had a state senator come in to discuss what the government could do about it. That was in 1988. It took me another four years to realize that there was more to the story of human-caused planetary destruction. What I came to understand is that if climate change were to magically disappear as a threat to life on earth, overpopulation would remain an existential threat to our existence. Because we live on a limited planet with a fragile biosphere, we would continue to suffer from scarcity and the issues it perpetuates: poverty, lack of fresh water, war, traffic, and loss of species. Furthermore, each of us cannot help but contribute to our carbon footprint with our diet, use of water and energy, and need for shelter, as well as transportation and other products. One million people are added to our already overpopulated planet every 4.5 days. If climate change is the fire, overpopulation is the fuel.
Economists carry a lot of weight in our culture, yet their over-arching perspective is damaging to the issues of both climate change and overpopulation.
According to Dennis Meadows, author of Limits to Growth, in an interview with Alan White in 2015 titled “Growing, Growing, Gone: Reaching the Limits”:
The economics profession is based on the assumption that continual growth is possible and desirable. Likewise, most politicians have a predisposition for growth because it makes the problems they address—unemployment, poverty, diminished tax bases—more tractable. Instead of having to divide a fixed pie, which gets you in trouble with some constituents, you can grow the pie so that nobody has to make a sacrifice or compromise. So there was—and is—a set of vested interests in the notion of growth.
Buying into the growth model only satisfies the myopic appetites of Wall Street investors and becomes a barrier to getting at the source of the planet’s current predicament.
Climate-change marches are happening all over the world. With chants such as “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!,” they march against the inertia of getting off fossil fuels. Students leave their classrooms to protest with signs that say everything negative about our reluctance to change … about everything except deliberately reducing our numbers. If I were a betting person, I would challenge anyone to find overpopulation mentioned on any protest signs at any of these worldwide rallies. I have searched hundreds of climate protest signs, both at rallies and on the internet, and found none that refer to overpopulation and its role in our collective carbon footprint.
One of the most important reasons, I believe, that climate change is easier to discuss is because its enemies are easy to hate. We like stories with villains. The fossil fuel industry is riddled with schemes to buy out politicians and fill the airwaves with lies about their safe coal plants and pipelines. They make a great enemy and an easier story to tell. Who is the enemy behind overpopulation? Well that would be us, particularly poor people of color. Images of poor women with large families come to mind, mostly in the developing world. They are weighed down with the extra burden of lack of access to birth control and religious doctrines that keep them from making their own reproductive choices. They are hard to hate and create a backlash of accusations that overpopulation must not be true because these women are to be given empathy.
Capitalism is another enemy that is often blamed for our ailing planet’s problems. It is easy to hate. Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers are in cartoons all the time; adding them to a litany of enemies is almost fun to do. Overpopulation is not popular to hate, but it deserves to be, not because of any blame on disenfranchised women, but because we need to help those women. Overpopulation is the enemy of so much of what we hold dear.
The deep irony, lost on most, is that our beloved agency is diluted in an overpopulated world. America’s population today is not sustainable. It is about double the size it should be. Because of that, we often talk about loss of natural resources—but we also lose our freedom to move about at a normal speed on the freeways. We lose our rights to own property on a lake when it is all taken and very expensive. We lose our rights to purchase event tickets when they are all gone because the demand has become too high for the supply. We must be subjected to lotteries to get permits to enter wildernesses, and yet we somehow do not see that overpopulation is to blame for our loss of agency. To get people to hear that overpopulation is an enemy we can all learn to hate, we must attach its role in diluting the very thing we covet: our freedom. Our freedom to move about is threatened, as is our ability to get into desirable schools and to have enough jobs, water, land on which to grow our food, and wildlife to make it all worthwhile. It is all threatened by how we humans have overrun our planet in the past 100 years or so. This doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable truth, but it is largely an untold one and must be reframed as one we can all grapple with maturely to ensure a future with more freedoms.
Overpopulation also threatens human rights, animal rights, and all issues surrounding social and ecological justice. To demonize overpopulation, we must vilify the things it causes and point out the threat it poses to what we love. The NGO HavingKids.org takes this position. On its website is crafted a message that is very digestible. It creates the enemy outside of ourselves and does it with compassion. The organization skillfully points out all the things we gain when we choose to have small families. It paints the heroes on this issue as those who choose dignity for their children by paying attention to the world they will inherit. It offers something called a “Fair Start Model.” This model promotes the rationale that planning smaller families increases equality and democracy and preserves a healthier planet upon which more resources can be devoted to one child rather than divided among many. It strives to break the taboo against smaller families by attaching them to a better climate future.
Overpopulation robs us of our future. How do we plan our lives, go to college, or have our dreams if the future is eaten up by too many people trying to eke out a living on a limited planet? We can learn to hate overpopulation for what it does to everything we love. We can vilify the suffering that results from an overpopulated world and not those who are doing the overpopulating for whatever reason. Once we have this enemy properly positioned in society, it will be easier to hate and protest.
So how do we make overpopulation a goal of economic investment? We talk about how our economy is based on natural resources that are diminished by too many people. One cannot have prosperity on a dying planet. If you want long-term prosperity, you had better climb on board.
Travis Rieder, a colleague of mine and a moral philosophy professor and bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University, takes an ethical approach. He suggests that “we ought to consider adopting a ‘small family ethic’ and even pursuing fertility reduction efforts in response to the threat from climate change.” To position this issue in the context of morality and ethics is a fresh approach with much potential. It challenges so many of the pro-natal policies and memes still so prolific in our overpopulated world. How moral is it to willfully add passengers to our sinking ship? We must come up with slogans that people can understand. “People, people everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
We must be brave and call out those who do not allow overpopulation its rightful seat at the table.
Overpopulation activists are not the enemy of climate change activists, but we cannot be silent any longer. We have economic potential and an enemy to vilify, and we do not represent a loss of agency. We are the key to climate change activists’ success—which is our success too. I want nothing more than to have climate activists such as Bill McKibben, the people in the Extinction Rebellion, Winona LaDuke, Al Gore, and the rest become so successful that the planet starts to cool right in the middle of their well-intentioned campaigns. Success will always be out of reach, however, without inviting overpopulation activists to the table. Numbers matter, and real solutions for this existential threat must be solved together. My bags are packed, and I am ready to help fill those chairs at the table with those who have moved upstream and grasp the big picture.
This article was originally published in a longer version as an NPG Forum Paper (www.npg.org).