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The Psychology of Denying Overpopulation

General Ideas

Let’s imagine we were giving an award for the worst social problem in the world today. Do you have any nominations?

Did I hear someone say international conflict? Racial prejudice maybe? Environmental destruction anyone? Millions of homeless refugees? Exploitation of women? Turns out there’s one problem that connects all of those, and it’s one you hardly ever hear politicians talk about.

Overpopulation may not be root of all evil, but it is indeed at the root of many of the world’s other miseries.

Just do the math. As a minimum, every additional person needs a certain quantity of food to eat and clean water to drink. Extra people could, in theory, live without clothes on their backs or roofs over their heads, but most of us would not wish for a world with more people, if they had to live homeless and naked against the elements. Beyond basic needs for food, water, and shelter, more people need more energy — to light their homes and cook their food, and if that level is reached, they’ll be in the market for still more — to power their refrigerators and washing machines. At moderate levels of economic development, people start to desire cell phones, big screen televisions, and cars to drive. And at the highest levels, they want second homes and vacations in far-away destinations, which they reach by flying on gas-guzzling airplanes.

So, more people means more competition for food and clean water, more demand for places to build homes, and more energy consumed. You don’t need a fancy mathematical model, you just need to be able to add two and two (or two billion and two billion, but the calculation is still well within the arithmetic abilities of a second grader).

The predictable and noncontroversial result of all those extra people satisfying all their increasing energy needs has been water and air pollution, more garbage floating in the oceans, more and more forests being cut down, longer and longer traffic jams, and ever increasing urban sprawl. Easy math there, too.

Then you need to move up to a little multiplication, to understand how the different consequences of overpopulation magnify one another. In a recent blog, I noted how Thomas Homer-Dixon and a team of eminent political scientists linked overpopulation and its consequent resource depletion to intergroup conflict – following from more people migrating out of blighted areas such as Bangladesh into other areas that are already overpopulated, such as India, where migrants are unwanted. Homer-Dixon published their case in Scientific American back in 1992. Since then the world population has gone from just over 5 billion to 7.5 billion, with an increasing number of the world’s peoples, predictably, now homeless and migrating in search of somewhere to settle down. There are now 150 million homeless people in the world, and an estimated 1.5 billion more (that’s billion) living in “inadequate shelter.” And the equation works against people living in countries with the least resources – which are growing at the fastest rate – so there’s less to go around but more people needing it.

After I wrote a blog on this topic recently (an open letter to Samantha Power), one reader referred me to the writings of Philip Cafaro, a philosopher at Colorado State whose scholarly work, according to his website, “centers on environmental ethics, population and consumption issues, and the preservation of wild nature.” I just finished reading Cafaro’s article on “Climate ethics and population policy,” and recently began his book “How many is too many: The progressive argument for reducing immigration into the United States.”

In the article on climate ethics and population policy, Cafaro noted that the continuing failure to deal with overpopulation is not only the fault of traditional religious groups, like the Catholic church (which has actively worked against birth control). Cafaro, who identifies as a progressive, points out that his fellow progressives often refuse to talk about the problem, and sometimes attack and insult him when he even brings it up.

Why would progressives refuse to talk about the problem of overpopulation, you may wonder? Well, the same reader who pointed me to Cafaro’s work also pointed me to a recent article by George Monbiot in the Guardian, which was titled “Population panic lets rich people off the hook for the climate crisis they are fuelling.” Monbiot rails at middle class Americans and Brits, such as Jane Goodall, who dare to publicly express concerns about overpopulation. Here is the reason behind his conscious, and self-righteous, denial of the overpopulation problem:

Malthusianism slides easily into racism. Most of the world’s population growth is happening in the poorest countries, where most people are black or brown. The colonial powers justified their atrocities by fomenting a moral panic about “barbaric”, “degenerate” people “outbreeding” the “superior races”. These claims have been revived today by the far right, who promote conspiracy theories about “white replacement” and “white genocide”. When affluent white people wrongly transfer the blame for their environmental impacts on to the birthrate of much poorer brown and black people, their finger-pointing reinforces these narratives. It is inherently racist. 

Well, that certainly gives some insight into why people like Cafaro might want to avoid talking about overpopulation. But Cafaro, who has heard similar arguments, argues that they are ill conceived, and ultimately harmful to the very third-world people Monbiat claims to be defending against the nefarious Jane Goodall.

Ultimately, ignoring all the consequences of overpopulation is the most immoral thing we can do, whether we are good Catholics or ultra-progressive atheists, and whether we are focused on the problems of people in the first or the third world. It turns out that it is the world’s poor who are experiencing the worst consequences. It is their forests that are being obliterated most rapidly, their water that is being dried up or polluted, their children without enough for food to eat, their tribes being driven from their homes by other local tribes who want their resources.

One solution is to simply open our borders, to allow more of the world’s desperate people to come to the United States, England, the Netherlands, and Germany. That is the case Samantha Power made in her painful stories of the desperate people she encountered as a journalist and later as U.N. ambassador, which triggered the earlier open letter. The statistics seem to indicate that most immigrants are not criminals or terrorists, but are, compared to those who grow up in first world countries, actually more eager to work long and hard hours. Cafaro acknowledges the obvious — that the opportunities in a first world country are substantially greater than those in a third world country. And if you are rich or middle class American, there are benefits from immigrants – cheaper labor and better bottom-lines on stock dividends (as large corporations have used the availability of cheaper immigrant labor to break unions, and drastically cut salaries and benefits for their employees). But Cafaro notes that those economic benefits to middle and upper-class Americans translate into severe costs for the poorest Americans. Middle-class people are generally out of touch with how those economic benefits to them translate into the hefty costs associated with unemployment or underemployment among African-Americans, poor whites, and native Hispanics. Many of these less fortunate groups have lost the union jobs that permitted their parents to live reasonably comfortable lives. This in turn leads to loss of health care benefits, and many other unpleasant downstream consequences.

There are other costs to overpopulation, both within and outside the boundaries of first world countries. The destruction of natural habitats to increase farmland and suburbs, combined with overfishing the oceans, has led to the extinction or near extinction of many other species, not to mention diminishing the pleasures of being able to find a quiet natural place to walk and listen to the birds.

To the argument that it is immoral to encourage other people to reduce their family size, Cafaro asks whether it is more moral to close our eyes to the environmental destruction, starvation, and future wars that follow from ignoring overpopulation.

Cafaro also points out that policies to reduce population size don’t need to be coercive.  Indeed, he points to data suggesting millions of people in the third world who would be only too happy to control their family sizes if they were given access to free or low-cost birth control. Making abortion legal and safe would also help. It is easy to appreciate that some people have objections to abortion, but if those objections are also accompanied by an opposition to birth control, which could reduce abortions, that is harder to justify given current world population and all the attendant problems of scarcity and desperation facing many children born into the third world. A third solution should be the least controversial — support education for women, because women who stay in school have fewer children, and those children they have later live better lives.

Cafaro also points out something that should be obvious, but which I’d never considered – having one less child does more for the environment than all of the other pro-environmental choices you could make: buying a hybrid car, putting in solar panels, improving your insulation, driving and flying less are all things we should all consider, of course, but they don’t add up to the same benefits as a little bit of family planning.

There is another obstacle which stems not from religious fundamentalism or misguided political correctness, and it’s one I’ve heard expressed by some of my most educated friends. An ever-increasing population means an ever-increasing market for goods, and is better for “the economy.” But this is using a fairly short-sighted definition of economic utility – one that only looks at dollar signs in the immediate future, and ignores the unequal distribution of those dollars into some people’s accounts but not others. The economic utility argument also has multiple flaws if we take value from a world in which fewer people are desperate and miserable, in which more people live comfortable lives, and in which more of us get to enjoy the best things in life (that should be free, like a nearby forest or stream). And back to the math, there is a point at which cramming the world with more people to generate more profits simply can’t go on. That point may already be upon us, and the question is whether we can use our knowledge of human psychology and behavioral economics to rebalance the equation. At the very least, we could devote more intellectual and economic resources to getting people to stop denying the problem.

Psychology Today

4 Comments on "The Psychology of Denying Overpopulation"

  1. print baby print on Mon, 14th Sep 2020 2:10 pm 

    Overpopulation is the key problem along with our primitiveness

  2. DT on Mon, 14th Sep 2020 6:12 pm 

    Corporate capitalism would be the real culprit. Endless growth on a finite planet is the basis for all things capitalistic. The only thing truly sustainable and built into the universe is entropy.

  3. Harquebus on Mon, 14th Sep 2020 6:54 pm 

    Questioner to cannibal: “Why do you kill and eat people?”
    Cannibal response: “Because they are plentiful and easy to catch.”

  4. print baby printr on Tue, 15th Sep 2020 12:07 am 

    DT you are right, capitalisam too. WE are very primitive and unfortunately we dont have better sistem at the moment

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