Even in environmentalist circles, overpopulation is still too often cited as the main cause for the ongoing environmental degradation. Looking at the name of this website and of our Facebook communities, one can guess that overpopulation is often brought up. It’s a very intuitive way of looking at the ecological crisis and it goes something like this: we were with far fewer people in the past and we didn’t have a global environmental meltdown; human population has increased by almost 5 times since the beginning of the 20th century and now we’re in big trouble because there are a finite amount of resources and ecological limits. Clearly, we can’t have an infinitely big population without disrupting the ecological cycles or depleting essential resources. This line of reasoning leads to a seemingly logical and simple conclusion. If too many people are considered to be the cause of the problem, then the main solution is self-evident: we need less people, surely, that will solve the ecological crisis. Right?
Less people is not THE solution
I can think of two ways of drastically reducing the number of people on Earth: either by having a lot of people dying suddenly or by reducing the amount of children people make below the replacement rate. This drop in fertility rates is already taking place, the fertility rate peaked in the 1960’s, has been steadily declining since and will very likely continue to do so. Human population will likely peak at around 11 billion people or possibly even at 9.7 billion, if you’re curious to find out why check out this video below, but in short, when standards of living improve, people make less kids.
Having fewer children can’t possibly be the ultimate solution to the ecological crisis. Scientists are telling us that we need to reduce the pressure on Earth’s ecosystems right away, otherwise we are going to cross many ecological boundaries : the collapse of the tropical forests, ocean acidification, the melting of the permafrost etc. Even if would stop having children tomorrow, we would keep on destroying the ecosystems at unsustainable rates for many decades and thus, we will cross many tipping points.
As for the other ‘solution’ I don’t feel the need to argue against causing, or hoping for, the death of billions of people. But I will say that this is not just morally depraved by any sane standards, it’s also ineffective at achieving anything desirable. Few people will argue in favor of mass extermination, but inaction in the face of ecological crisis is leading to very similar results. Some people imagine that modern human civilization will end in a clash, that billions of people will die, but that the survivors will get the chance to carry the torch of our species into the future with a sustainable civilization that will magically emerge from the ashes of the old system. I find this scenario to be rather unlikely and obviously undesirable. Our civilization is so powerful and destructive that in any scenario in which we have billions of people dying from starvation, mass migration, water scarcity etc, we will likely end up in a full-scale nuclear war. Therefore, I believe that crossing many ecological boundaries can potentially bring the human population down pretty close to 0. It’s hard to argue whether there are going to be many survivors and whether the planet will be suitable for human society after a massive extinction event prompted by pollution, dramatic climate change, ecosystem collapse or radiation. I’ll leave this up to your imagination.
But, this article isn’t really about debunking general misconceptions about overpopulation, it’s about looking at the issue from another perspective which can be useful to actually solve some of the worst problems that we’re facing. I do believe that there is an overpopulation problem, but a kind of overpopulation that is, rarely mentioned, and in some regards, hard to accept. I’m talking about the overpopulation of two types of assholes : the greedy and the consumerist ones.
There is an overpopulation of greedy assholes
A recent report from Oxfam came out with some chilling statistics, like this one:
The richest one percent accounted for 15 percent of emissions — more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity (7 percent).Source here
It’s hard to imagine how lavish the lifestyle of this group of people is, and how poor half of the population of world is. We’re taking about 70 million people emitting two times more greenhouse gases than 3 and a half billion people.
But the most destructive group of assholes are an even smaller group of extremely powerful individuals. And it’s not because of their outrageous direct emissions, caused by their private jets and yachts. It’s about the way they choose to use their wealth and power in order to maintain the same production methods, energy sources and food production practices which are clearly very profitable for them, but catastrophic for the everybody else. This makes me think about this quote from Noam Chomsky in the context of climate change.
“Has there ever been an organization in human history that is dedicated, with such commitment, to the destruction of organized human life on Earth?” “Not that I’m aware of. Is the Republican organization – I hesitate to call it a party – committed to that? Overwhelmingly. There isn’t even any question about it.”Noam Chomsky at a Democracy Now! event.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the Republicans, there are many political organizations around the world, supported by powerful corporate interests who seem to be dedicated at the goal of destroying the future of human civilization. It’s tempting to blame it all on them, or on the system which allowed them to hoard that wealth and use it in not very democratic ways. But this worldview would be incomplete and kind of disempowering. Not all rich people are evil, and some use their resources in ways that are helpful. But more importantly, ordinary people in rich and sort of democratic countries have a lot more power than they usually realize. We do have political power as citizens, we’re just too disorganized and divided in order to use it effectively and change the huge flaws in our political and economic systems. We also have a lot of power as consumers, but we’re stuck in a consumerist mindset of valuing convenience and short-term pleasure above the stability of our future. This brings us to the next point.
There is an overpopulation of consumerist assholes
Here’s another statistic from the report.
The richest 10 percent (approx. 630 million people) accounted for over half (52 percent) of emissions.
“The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fueling the climate crisis and putting the planet in peril. No one is immune from the impact but the world’s poorest are paying the heaviest price despite contributing least emissions as they battle floods, famines and cyclones.” Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB chief executive
In case you’re wondering, you and I are likely in this category of assholes. But I don’t believe that it’s our consumption itself that makes us assholes, but it’s rather our collective denial and apathy.
This 10% of the population have not only the economic freedom that could be used in order to change our lifestyle, but also the political power to create a meaningful structural changes in our societies. We don’t need to become as poor as the bottom half of the world’s population in order to stop climate change. We need to create an economic system that caters to our needs rather than one that’s aimed at extracting money from those who can afford to pay. We all need to eat good quality food, but we don’t really need to eat animal products or fancy vegan substitutes with every meal. We could produce and eat food that is simpler, healthier and more respectful to the soil, the water and the climate. We all need to be able to move around, but we don’t need to own an individual car in order to do so. We can use public transport and demand that our governments invest and develop the transportation network in a way that is far more efficient. We need to communicate, but we don’t need to change phones every two years, because companies make sure that their devices break fast enough to maximize their profits. You see where I’m going… And if you do feel that you do need those things, if you feel that your individual freedom is expressed in the meat or the vegan ice-cream you eat, in your car, in your fashion choices and your latest gadgets, well you are a victim of the marketing propaganda that has been trying to shape our desires and values since our early childhood in order to make us more profitable clogs in the machine that is ripping this planet apart.
We can change
Seeing us as victims or products of the system that have no agency and that are bound to perpetuate it is disempowering and false. We are capable of changing ourselves and we are capable of rethinking our socioeconomic relations. Many of us are already doing this and many have been doing this for their entire lives. The problem is that we need to take simultaneous action on very many fronts and this is really challenging. But if we fail to do a serious attempt at redefining who we are and what our society stands for, well I guess we really are just assholes.
In the end, it’s less about how many people there are and more about what they do and what society they live in. The message I want to get across is that we have real choices. I see myself and the vast majority of people in rich countries as a spoiled, consumerist assholes, but I that’s not a judgement, it’s just an observation. Environmentalism isn’t a guilt trip of endless flagellation, it’s more like a really tough quest. The odds are against us, but if we accept our journey, if we dare to redefine ourselves, if we dare to challenge our institutions, if we dare to love one another, there is a slim chance that we end up creating a future we all want to be a part of.