August Kleinzahler · Overpopulation

There are too many people on the planet, and that is why we are out there drilling at 5000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. There are too many people, and it is not at all an acceptable thing to say so. The Left doesn’t like it, neither does the Right, in so far as those quaint terms are relevant in this context. And the Catholic Church really, really doesn’t like it.

There are too many of them, to be sure, spitting betel juice and flipping tortillas all the live long day; but there are also too many of us, fussing with our handheld whatevers as we jostle one another amid the stalls of Camden Town or pour off the N-Judah streetcar at day’s end, down the block from me here in San Francisco, where a great deal of tortilla flipping goes on and, doubtless, the more than occasional instance of betel juice expectoration.

There are 6,853,132,362 (oops, make that 72) as I write this, at least according to the US Census Bureau. There were too many people in 1960 when the Cambridge scholar F.L. Lucas published his essay ‘The Greatest Problem’ in a collection of the same name, when the population was 3,021,500,000 or so. And it was certainly on the mind of Malthus when he first published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, when the world population was less than a billion; as it would have been to Jonathan Swift in 1729 (world population 685,280,500) when he put forth his Modest Proposal to deal with the population problem in Ireland.

The taboo against discussing overpopulation sometimes goes by the name of the Hardinian taboo, after Garrett Hardin (Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago) who wrote on ecology, biology and ethics. The remorselessly sensible John Gray discusses the matter at length in a 2002 essay entitled ‘Homo Rapiens And Mass Extinction: An Era of Solitude’:

Given the magnitude of change [loss of biodiversity], one would expect it to be at the center of debate. In fact, it is very little discussed... There are many reasons for this peculiar state of affairs, including the ingrained human habit of denying danger until its impact is imminent; but the chief reason is that is has become fashionable to deny the reality of overpopulation.

Gray goes on to point out that

opposition to population control is concentrated in the rich parts of the world, notably the US... In their use of resources they are themselves the most overpopulated. Their affluence depends on appropriating a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s non-renewable resources.

The late Pope John Paul II called the notion of overpopulation a ‘myth’, and in a letter to his bishops in 1993 called contraception ‘evil’. He brought both messages along with him on 102 pastoral visits outside Italy in the course of his long tenure, especially to Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

There was not a taboo regarding the discussion of overpopulation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, quite the contrary. When I was an undergraduate it was in the air, everywhere it seemed, along with the despoiling of nature. One couldn’t walk into an on-campus screening of this or that euroflick without first enduring some Sierra Club-type short about laundry detergent suds pouring into pristine streams. I recall one in particular about garbage landfill sites choking the magnificent San Francisco Bay. I have not heard of any further such concern regarding this since arriving here 30 years ago, but I shouldn’t imagine the problem has gone away.

Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) sold over two million copies. The Stanford biologist didn’t quite get it right – the high-yielding grains of the Green Revolution, for instance, forestalled mass starvation – and Ehrlich himself became some something of a figure of ridicule, but unfairly so. When he wrote the book in 1968 the world population was 3.5 billion, four decades later it stood at 6.7 billion. The environmental problems persist: pollution, waste, water scarcity, mass extinction of species, deforestation, global warming – you know the drill.

You will take note of the currently fashionable term ‘sustainability’. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is very keen on sustainability, while trying as best he can to rehabilitate his reputation post-Iraq. And he is right this time around: we do need to raise the tax on gasoline, pour billions into R&D, live more sensibly etc. But developing countries will account for 94 per cent of future population growth, Africa alone expected to grow from 740 million in 1995 to 2.27 billion in 2050. I don’t know that the disinclination to bring up the subject of overpopulation is so much a Hardinian taboo or a matter of intellectual fashion as a collective unspoken UH-OH...


  • 9 July 2010 at 12:44pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I can't understand this either since it's so obviously the principal cause of all the other problems. Iran recently had a very successful campaign to reduce its birth rate. We should all copy it, but we won't.

    In the 1970s, when words like queer & fag were socially acceptable, gay San Francisco retaliated by calling hetrosexuals "breeders". Too bad it didn't catch on.

  • 9 July 2010 at 1:12pm
    cpw says:
    Why is there no discussion about the connection between the First World's insistence that the Third World develop into industrialized, credit markets that participate in the so-called modern economy? For example, we can talk about the need for clean water etc, but humanity survived for several millenia without modern clean water technology. What have we done to make clean water technology necessary?

    I'm a scientist, so I'm not adverse to modern technology. But I question the contribution of "development" to increasing strains on our planet. Perhaps we need to reconsider what it means to be developed, and it is the cultures that manage to live more balanced lives with regard to local resources that are the civilized ones and the West must get over itself.

    Moreover, discussions about overpopulation often either directly or indirectly smack of "let's stop those third worlders from breeding!" No one seemed concerned about the West's rabid use of resources until people in "developing" countries demanded their right to do the same. This is a double standard if I ever saw one.

    By the way, some of us are making tortillas AND fussing over our handhelds.

  • 9 July 2010 at 4:35pm
    loxhore says:
    Ross Douthat will hate this.

  • 9 July 2010 at 5:55pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    You have to look at the regions where the population is growing. In Europe and Japan, it's declining. There is a useful site which produces moving charts and graphs on this and other topics that you might like to consult - it's called Gapminder - take a look and be fascinated.
    CPW has a very good point. Who uses the world's fossile fuels? USA (5% of the population) uses 20%. Europe, (7.5%) uses 15% - there's 12.5% using almost a third of the fuels right there. There is enough food being produced and a lot of production is subsidised, the surplus exported to Africa where it detsroys the local production and sends the farmers on a dangerous journey to Europe. What needs examination is the way that resources are allocated and who makes the decisions about exploitation and sale.

  • 9 July 2010 at 6:21pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    in Europe and Japan, it’s declining.

    It sure isn't declining in southern England.

    • 10 July 2010 at 3:09pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      So, A.J., now I know where you live. But you are talking about migration, not population change.

    • 12 July 2010 at 11:13am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      No, I'm not talking about where the people come from, though that's no reason not to regulate the birth rate. I live in Norway (pop. 4.5 mill.), and maybe it's the contrast in density that makes the overpopulation of southern England (where I grew up) so obvious to me.

      Your statistics don't tell the whole story, 123. Even if Europe's population is declining, it's way overpopulated already. It's the cause, not only of fossil-fuel overconsumption, but of factory farming and pollution and most of the other moral accommodations we make to live here.

    • 13 July 2010 at 6:50am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      That's certainly true, I grant you that. From what I have heard about Norway, the government seems to have a very progressive policy on fossilised fuels and on investment in renewable resources and has a healthy budget to boot. Migration is usually the result of economic exploitation and the destruction of domestic resources by foreign companies. But my earlier point is still valid - many poorer countries have rapidly growing populations because child labour is exploited to increase the profits of the international companies.

    • 13 July 2010 at 11:07am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      That's true, but it's not either/or: Britain (say) could regulate its multinationals better, boycott companies that exploit children AND reduce its own population. A million here and a million there, and pretty soon we're talking about real reductions.

  • 10 July 2010 at 12:36am
    rival says:
    I thought it linguistically suspicious that someone named Kleinzahler was writing about making numbers (of people) smaller. But the internet tells me that it's not a strangely appropriate pseudonym.

    I remember naively bringing up this issue in a discussion with some Catholic friends years ago, and being surprised to find them strongly disagreeing with me. They felt that "population control" or such other words were code for "abortion." I wonder how often when non-religious people talk about the Catholic Church and overpopulation, they're taking a pro-contraception stance, but what Catholics hear is a pro-abortion stance.

  • 10 July 2010 at 8:49am
    Mike Killingworth says:
    AJPC,I think we are talking here about births and deaths, not migration.

    You allude to a serious point, though: a stable, or even gently declining population does sound like the beginning of wisdom until we recall that it's also an ageing one. And when people get old enough, they need to be cared for - Shakespeare's final age. And very little personal care in the south of England is performed other than by immigrants.

    • 12 July 2010 at 11:36am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Mike Killingworth
      I didn't see your comment before I'd replied to 123's. Crying "immigration" is a good example of Augie Kleinzahler's observation that it's no more acceptable on the left than on the right to say that there are too many people. Whether they migrated or were born in southern England is immaterial, you can reduce the overpopulation by limiting the birth rate, as they recently did in Iran.

      It should be pretty obvious that finding a way to care for old people is a trivial problem in comparison to overpopulation -- it's just another example of Augie's point -- I'm sure there are lots of solutions that don't also destroy the planet.

  • 10 July 2010 at 3:12pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The Catholics need to look at the situation in Bangladesh, or in Iran, where 40% of the population is under 30. Do they apporve? A more serious point is at what time does the planet simply become overloaded and its systems begin to break down? At 9 Billion? If so, it won't be long.

  • 10 July 2010 at 3:53pm
    cigar says:
    Kleinzahler = little payer? I wonder what this implies....

    One is supposed to believe that more than 40 years after Ehrlich's sermon on demographic doomsday, and more than 200 after Malthus wrote his apology for the famines the East India Company's caused through the imposition of commercial crops on its real state, the Environmentalists' End of Days is truly, really, at hand.

    And how appropriate for a man coming from a land still very much in love with the feuilleton, whose style is reminiscent of the post modernist, vacuous bombast of Bundesrepublik literature, to carelessly brush aside doubts on the outcome of forecasts made in a city, where, at that time, to be deranged was a personal quality to be proud of. Forecasts that were probably made by minds no only deranged, but under the influence of LSD or marijuana, among others controlled substances.

    John Gray's statement that developing countries do not want to control population sounds odd considering that people such as Bill Gates are promoting birth control through their foundations. Anyway, Gray is a notorious misanthrope. Before, his bête noire was the ideas of the Enlightenment, the children of Liberalism. Now it is every other human being (except probably himself - he's not enough of an idealist to carry his beliefs to their ultimate conclusion). Herr Kleinzahler seems to agree with him - every Mensch ist ein Tier.

    And what about all these comments with barely concealed racism? Worthy of The Spectator and the Telegraph... The way things are going on this blog,I won't be surprised if a Taki post appears below one by Tariq Ali.

  • 10 July 2010 at 6:06pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Herr Cigar. "reminiscent of the post modernist, vacuous bombast of Bundesrepublik literature" How many authors have you read, then? Do you know how many novels are published in Germany each year? And they're all post modernist bombast? Anything to do with this thread? I think not.

    Now we'll get down to brass tacks. Of course the developing countries want more and more children, because that is the only way that they can stay alive. Children don't want high wages or benefits, you know, they work for a few pennies a day. The rest of your post is rather deranged itself.

    • 10 July 2010 at 6:23pm
      cigar says: @ Geoff Roberts
      "Children don’t want high wages or benefits, you know, they work for a few pennies a day."

      Jesus... Look who's talking of being deranged, Mr.Scrooge. And you can find plenty of sociopaths who would agree with that not only down South, but also in the City and Wall Street. And Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Rome...

    • 11 July 2010 at 6:59am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ cigar
      Never heard of irony?

    • 11 July 2010 at 7:01am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ cigar
      I'd be interested in your evaluation of contemporary German literature - why is your judgment so sweepingly negative?

    • 14 July 2010 at 6:42am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ cigar
      Still waiting but not holding my breath. I'd be interested to hear why you have damned German postwar literature. Thomas Mann as the Mahler among the artists?

  • 10 July 2010 at 7:59pm
    jmp says:
    Oh dear....Keep the perspective:

    Fred Pearce: overpopulation worries are a potentially racist distraction:


    Hay festival 2010: Overpopulation fears nonsense, says author Fred Pearce

    Global fertility patterns suggest population crash more likely than the much-anticipated explosion, claims environmental writer:

    Speaking at the Hay festival, Pearce said that the global population "timebomb" was being defused by some of the world's poorest women, thanks to the impact of feminism in Muslim, Christian, secular, developed and developing countries across the world.

    Irons, the actor who recently told the Sunday Times "there are just too many of us", and other environmentalists such as Attenborough and Porritt, who are patrons of the Optimum Population Trust, are modern-day Malthusians, according to Pearce, who fail to see that overconsumption, not overpopulation, is what really imperils the planet.

    "I believe they are talking dangerous nonsense. The population timebomb is being defused, fast," Pearce told the festival.

    The United Nations has predicted the world's population could rise from 6.8bn to 9.2bn in 2050, but, according to Pearce, it will only rise by up to 2bn and will then start to fall.

    Half the world now has fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.3 children. Women in Iran were giving birth to eight children in the 1980s, but now give birth to less than two. In Bangladesh, where many mothers are poor and badly educated, women have an average of just three children. Birth rates have fallen to 2.8 in India and two in Brazil, despite the influence of Catholicism.

    • 12 July 2010 at 11:46am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ jmp
      The population timebomb is being defused, fast,” Pearce told the festival... according to Pearce, it will only rise by up to 2bn and will then start to fall.

      Defusing the problem? Already there are too many people and he's saying there are going to be 2,000,000,000 more of them before the growth flattens out.

  • 11 July 2010 at 3:38am
    Laird Barrett says:
    Hans Rosling's TED lecture on global population growth, given last month:

  • 13 July 2010 at 6:59am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    He's quite a showman. Show it to kids. causes? Fehlanzeige.

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