BTW Over-Population Is a Myth

[This post has been edited to reduce ranty-ness. 9/7/10]

The popular over-population myth is still around—clearly debunking efforts have been insufficient. Over-population is blamed for such woes as famine, pollution, environmental degradation, price increases, child slavery, global warming, “too many Muslims” , war, terrorism, animal extinction, Peak Oil, disease, crime, alcoholism and more. I provided links to some of the more surprising claims so that enterprising readers can see that I am not just making this up!

But wait, an astute reader might say, haven’t most of these things (with the exception of “too many Muslims” and global warming) occurred since time untold? Aren’t famine and poverty and disease, etc. all things which have existed since long before over-population was a twinkle in Malthus’s eye? Why yes, yes they have. Are they proven to be causally linked to over-population? No, not really.

Also, there are some interesting facts to consider. Such as:
The world already produces enough food to equal 3,200 calories per person, per day.
Only certain humans lead environmentally unsustainable lifestyles.
The major role of inequality is ignored by most over-population proponents.
Almost no one mentions that the continuous growth and perpetual consumption required by capitalism has created a global economy which is unsustainable no matter what our fertility rates are.

Also, people keep sounding the “population bomb” alarm, but yet we keep growing and no bomb has gone off.

So inspite of sketchy evidence, why would over-population be the popular, mainstream, one-size-fits-all answer to this shameful list of problems? And why do we automatically think the cause of pollution, hunger or whathaveyou is “fertility rates”, i.e. women’s reproductive choices? And not just any women. When you dig deeper into this issue, you will find that we are talking about certain women, and their unacceptable reproductive choices. Did you know that worldwide fertility rates are falling precipitously? They have actually “dropped by half since 1972, from six children per woman to 2.9.” Some parts of the world have below replacement level fertility, meaning more deaths than births.

So upon a little reflection, it seems wacky at best to blame women’s fertility for the list of woes. Why do it? Well, historically, as now, it is easiest to blame the least powerful for the sins of the most powerful—and make them pay for it. The people with the highest fertility levels continue to be poor third world women of color. Yet they have a vanishingly small environmental footprint and consume a tiny fraction of resources when compared to Western people, wealthy people, and white people.

What’s easier? Blaming the poor third world women of color, or getting the wealthy and the powerful to reduce their addiction to consumerism, capitalism, and The Bottom Line?

Instead of an over-population problem, we have a politico-economic problem. Why do we have mass starvation and impoverishment as well as a small elite who are wealthy beyond imagination? Why do third world countries produce commodities for export to rich countries, instead of growing food for themselves? Why are third world countries always in debt to rich countries, despite being richer in natural resources?

The other half to this myth is that getting impoverished women to reproduce less, without actually alleviating their poverty, will require coercion: forced sterilization, forced abortion, economic penalties for non-compliance, etc. In other words, the Big Solution to over-population right now seems to be abusing the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Brilliant solution! Review women’s experience with the One-Child Policy if you are in any doubt.

How does a smart person reduce fertility? They start by augmenting, not violating, human rights. The most consistent indicator for low fertility is high standard of living. The more a society satisfies human rights, the fewer babies. So even if you happen to buy into the myth that poor, third-world women of color just have too many dark-skinned babies, it is still clear that destroying wealth inequities and focusing on economic policies that generate sustainable wealth inside third-world countries is the best way forward.

Why do I think discussions of “high fertility” and “over-population” are really about punishing poor, third-world women of color? Well, take a world-wide gander at who has high fertility and who has low fertility. Clue: European and American fertility is currently below replacement rate, i.e. fewer births than deaths, i.e. population decline without immigration. The sick reality is that no one is getting their panties in a knot about “too many” white babies. To the contrary.

I am providing hella links because I know whenever you challenge a popular, useful myth, there will be people who insist you are making it all up and will demand impossibly high standards of proof on your part, while feeling no commensurate responsibility to provide any proof for theirs. So my proof is right here in this rant pudding.

I can only rant for so long today, but FYI, it was instigated by a white, Western feminist pondering government-enforced restrictions on women’s fertility to stop this self-evident “over-population” problem.

PS. Don’t even start with me, because of course I am pro-contraception and pro-abortion, when the woman chooses it. Reproductive choice is reproductive choice is not government restrictions.

8 thoughts on “BTW Over-Population Is a Myth

  1. As if I blamed women of color and promoted punishing women. That’s annoyingly hyperbolic, and shows that you perhaps skimmed what I wrote, not read it:

    How do we control population without letting large populations of humans starve to death, or enforcing laws that wind up aborting fetuses or killing infants because of their sex or perceived mental or physical capacity? It seems as though a reasonable solution can be had; but how to get everyone to agree on something? A lot of people ignorantly blame immigrant populations for their lack of family planning, but having an unsustainable number of children is certainly not limited to any one group of people, either; groups from all cultures and walks of life reject contraception of any kind deliberately

    The way you painted me and my post was inaccurate, and it appears to have been deliberate.

  2. Oh, wait, and the very last paragraph:

    I support the theory of limiting families’ number of children, but at what point do we call it what it is, which is a denial of reproductive freedom? And at what point, if any, should we consider that perhaps unlimited reproductive freedom may need to take a backseat to the over-arching concerns and continued existence of humanity?

    Misrepresenting people and articles is very poor, unethical journalism.

  3. Hi April. I know I called you to the mat on this topic, and I appreciate that you are taking time to respond. I think, regardless, we may essentially disagree on this issue.

    To reply to your first comment:
    I have been involved in these type of debates before. When it comes to brass tacks, this “over-population” argument is about women with “too high” fertility- this category is predominantly filled by poor, third world women of color. European-descended women and Western women already have low fertility rates, so a discussion of (potentially forced) fertility reduction isn’t about them. Also, whenever the debate is about reproduction, and limiting repro freedom, we are talking specifically about women. That is why I called you out for espousing ideas (that over-population exists, that fertility must be reduced, perhaps by force) that are harmful to women and especially WOC.

    In reply to your second comment:
    I am not a journalist. I am a private individual writing about my opinions as a hobby. I did not say you “advocate for” or even “support” forcible fertility reduction, though one could make that argument based on your piece. I used the word “ponder”, which I believe is accurate. Inherent in “limiting families’ number of children” is force, i.e. compelling families to change their reproductive behavior against their will. This force would necessarily come from the government- how else could one enforce such a thing? Hence my phrase “governmentally-enforced, potentially non-consensual.” You state that you support this in theory, and then add reservations. I call that “ponder”.

    I am curious how you respond to my assertion that overpopulation is a myth, and also that the real problem lies not in women’s repro choices, but in western economic practices and consumption. Which is, after all, the topic of my post.

  4. I only had time to skim this right now but I absolutely agree that the problem is socio-political and related to the needs of the capitalist system for perpetual growth. Kudos for this post.

  5. Overpopulation is not a myth; the world has more humans than it can support. We also need to recognize that the world is a landbase (and water, etc.) for more than just human beings, so we can’t just turn use everything for human consumption and expect humans to prosper as other species die out, as though we don’t live in an ecosystem. For something to be sustainable it has to be endlessly repeatable, in the way that photosynthesis is, as long as the sun exists. It can’t rely on using up limited resources, or result in products that cannot be reincorporated into the ecosystem (e.g., nuclear waste, plastic).

    It seems what you are primarily challenging here is the lack of reproductive freedom and specifically reproductive coercion. You’re right that it should be a priority. However, that does not dispute the fact the fact that overpopulation is a problem. Reversing overpopulation, without coercion, should also be a priority.

    People often point to a growing living standard as a solution for overpopulation, but that ignores the fact that the populations that have the highest standard of living (or we could say, the highest level of consumption, or the most destructive lifestyles) rely on exploitation of humans, nonhumans, the land, water, etc. It’s no wonder that the leaders of colonialism consume far more than the victims of colonialism. Globalization enacts the same story. Our current system cannot exist without this hierarchy of power, and the exploitation it entails. “First-world” lifestyles (and the current economic system) require massive amounts of cheap energy — petroleum in particular, though natural gas, coal, etc. also play a part. This is one reason population decline should be encouraged in rich countries (the United States, by the way, is the third most overpopulated country in the world, and has no sign of a declining birthrate). It’s also why looking to non-industrialized or currently industrializing countries to fully industrialize in order to reach the level of “prosperity” and subsequent assumed birthrate decline is simply not feasible. The world just doesn’t have the resources for that much destructive consumption, and this model requires a hierachy to function, so someone somewhere would still have to be poor and stuck in wage slavery, war, etc. for other people to have electricity, the Internet, cars, etc. It’s also essential to look at *how* food today is being produced. The so-called “Green Revolution” (using petroleum products for fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) increased food production significantly, and industrial food production is dependent on petroleum, but obviously oil is limited, so this level of food production cannot be sustained. (That’s ignoring all the other limiting factors of using an environmentally destructive method of agriculture.)

    I know you yourself didn’t suggest industrialization as a solution, but this is central to why richer countries have lower birthrates. And again, no one should be ignoring rich countries’ population increases, because as standards of living and consumption go up (just look at how computers and cell phones have gone from being luxury items to practically essentials) the impact of every individual goes up — which is why rich countries shouldn’t be content with populations stablizing, or growing more slowly, but should actually strive for decline. (But this would be unpopular, of course, because it the economy would also decline.)

    Overpopulation is a complicated issue. It’s essential that we talk about the danger of reproductive coercion (as well as actual implementations of it), but we also need to talk about the reality of overpopulation, and not just of poor and non-white communites. To support reproductive freedom doesn’t mean denying the reality of overpopulation. We live on a finite planet, and infinite growth is just physically not possible. We’ve already overshot carrying capacity with the help of fossil fuels, and once those resources decline, we’re going to feel the effects of overpopulation much more strongly. Unfortunately, this will (and has) hit poor populations first, and hardest, so it’s essential to approach overpopulation in a holistic way, considering racism, classism, misogyny, exploitation, (neo-)colonialism, etc.

  6. I noticed that the video linked is by Population Research Institute, also known as a right-wing organization invested in anti-abortion and anti-contraception policies. It was instrumental in cutting U.S. aid to UNFPA, a UN organization that offers sexual and reproductive health services around the world. In other words, PRI is not exactly a nonpartisan organization, and it certainly doesn’t support reproductive freedom.

    Do you have any other sources to support that overpopulation is a “myth”?

  7. @Melinda: Yes, try any of my other links.

    I am aware of the anti-abortion status of PRI. However, that doesn’t invalidate their conclusions on over-population. If you have some sort of counter-proof that their over-pop claims are wrong, feel free to present it- simple dislike of one of their positions isn’t sufficient proof.

    If you have any proof that over-population is real, please present it.

    I am confused by one of your arguments. You say that increase in standard of living leads to lower fertility. Then you say that a population decrease is necessary (why?). You state that a population decrease would lead to economic decline, i.e. lower standard of living. But a low standard of living leads to an increase in fertility. So how does population decline help anything?

    I feel that you are conflating high consumption with standard of living and the meeting of human rights. A high standard of living can meet human rights AND be over-consumptive and destructive, but not necessarily. Human rights can be met without overconsumption, materialism, imperialism, etc. So I don’t feel the conclusions you draw make sense to me.

    What are your suggestions for non-coercive population reduction without a loss in a standard of living where all human rights are met? Especially when we account for the fact that the countries with high fertility are poor, non-Western countries? Simply making birth control available doesn’t change the reasons that women or families choose to have large families, so I’d like to hear a cogent argument that goes beyond simply increasing birth control availability. (Birth control is a good thing, but it doesn’t address the larger social-political-economic conundrum.)

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