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The Great Distraction: ‘Overpopulation’ Is Back in Town

Betsy Hartmann

What’s next to hit New York after Hurricane Irene? If you’re in the heart of Times Square during the month of September, you’ll get the chance to see a scary video about overpopulation playing every hour on a huge screen. Sponsored by the Human Overpopulation Campaign of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the video aims to persuade people that the population explosion is the root cause of environmental destruction and that we need to stop it now.

The timing of the video could not be in poorer taste. September marks the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Twin Towers.  The tragedy of that very real explosion will no doubt weigh heavily on people’s minds and hearts.  The period should be a time to commemorate lives lost and challenge the strategic use of violence against civilians, whether by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or national militaries like our own.

Why then is CBD choosing this moment to launch its video? Ostensibly, it’s because world population is soon to pass the 7 billion people mark.  But the real truth is that fears about overpopulation are trendy again -- and well-funded by rich donors. A “sympathetic advertiser”, for example, is bankrolling most of the video.

CBD is a relatively small player in a huge public opinion campaign mounted by the population lobby. Almost everyday, in a variety of media, we are being told that the world’s serious environmental and social ills are caused by too many people.  This begs two key questions. Are we really experiencing a population explosion? And just who and what are wreaking the most havoc on the planet?

Unbeknownst to many Americans, the so-called population explosion actually ended in the last century as growth rates came down more rapidly than anticipated. Family size has fallen to a global average of 2.45 children and is projected to fall to two or less in the next few decades.  The main reason why global population is projected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, and possibly 10 billion by 2100 (a high projection that is disputed by many demographers), is that currently a large percentage of young people are entering their reproductive years. High fertility persists in only a few countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, because of deep class and gender inequalities and the failure of elites to invest in education, employment and health services, including accessible, high-quality family planning.

The real challenge before us is to plan for the addition of 2-3 billion more people on the planet in a sustainable way. Fortunately, that is possible, but only if we address the real causes of environmental pressures.  Instead of blaming overpopulation, Americans need to get serious about climate policy, conservation, the transition to renewable energy, and mass transport.  And we need to challenge the grotesque and growing inequality of wealth and power in our nation that fuels conspicuous consumption and weakens the government’s commitment to environmental regulation.

It’s also high time for environmentalists to stop turning a blind eye toward the role of the military in environmental degradation.  The Pentagon is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, burning the same amount of fossil fuel everyday as the entire nation of Sweden.  From weapons production to war zones, its ecological bootprint crushes and pollutes the earth.

Instead of lumping all people together into one destructive human mass, it’s important to carefully assess which human activities harm the environment and which enhance it.  CBD blames overpopulation for the accelerated extinction of plant and animal species.  Missing from this simple picture are the ways in which different systems of production yield very different environmental results.

Take the case of food. Industrial agriculture typically erodes biodiversity, while peasant farming often protects crop genetic diversity and creates a welcoming habitat for birds and other species. A Monsanto executive and a Central American small organic farmer may both be part of the human population, but there the resemblance ends.

Equally troubling about overpopulation propaganda is the way it undermines reproductive rights. While its purveyors claim they support family planning, they view it more as a means to an end – reducing population growth, rather than as a right in and of itself.  The distinction may seem subtle, but it is not.  Family planning programs designed to limit birth rates treat women, especially poor women and women of color, as targets rather than as individuals worthy of respect. Quality of care loses out to an obsession with the quantity of births averted. 

The negative view of babies as future polluters and carbon emitters also plays into the hands of anti-abortion activists who are always seeking new ways to portray themselves as pro-life, and the pro-choice and environmental movements as anti-child. At a time when reproductive rights are under severe attack by conservative forces, the population lobby is playing with a fire it may not be able to put out.

So if you find yourself in Times Square in September, my advice is to walk on by CBD’s scary video.  More worthy of a visit are Ground Zero or nearby Wall Street, the source of so many of our current financial woes. The focus on overpopulation is a great distraction from what really ails the body politic and the planet. No wonder it’s an advertiser footing the bill. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Betsy Hartmann

Betsy Hartmann

Betsy Hartmann is the author of "The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness" (Seven Stories Press/NY) and "Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control" (third edition, Haymarket Books). She is a professor emerita of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Visit her website


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