What Gives Overpopulation Its Legs?,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of the ever-wise Tom Flynn, who graciously printed so many of my articles over the years on this topic because he shared my deep concern.

What more can be said about the oppression of overpopulation that I and my colleagues have not pontificated on for decades? I hope the accompanying cartoon I commissioned from artist Rah Lee of Singapore can help us to understand what forces have allowed us to become so outrageously overpopulated in the first place. What is significant about this illustration is that it dares to point fingers at the four main reasons we came to gain so many humans so rapidly on our planet. We must first acknowledge the reasons behind the addition of 5.5 billion people in the most recent 100 years and why we continue to grow by over 80 million per year, despite the pandemic. If we do not take a deep look into this mirror, we will be unable to untangle ourselves from this unsustainable mess.

Conversations about developed world consumption versus consumption in the developing world doesn’t help us address the complications of adding over 200,000 people per day to an already bloated planet. Without a doubt, human numbers are anchored to consumption; this is clear. It is even clearer how richer countries consume more resources per capita while stealing resources and opportunities from poorer ones. But sheer numbers also matter, because no matter how low we go on the energy/food chain, we cannot go low enough when billions share our niche as apex predators. Many discussions and “aha!” moments need to be had, because virtually all global discussions leave out the multiplying factor: the menace of overpopulation.

To explore the four legs of what I call “the oppressive iron stool of overpopulation,” one needs to realize that they all work together to create our unsustainable numbers. Overpopulation exists because there are more successful births than deaths in the context of a landscape of limited resources. These limited resources cannot be expanded with technology. Water is key. It has a cycle that moves slowly through evaporation, condensation, and percolation. It is needed by every human on the planet for drinking, cooking, washing, and processing all energy and manufactured goods. Aquifers and rivers around the world are certainly climate stressed, and water is also wasted on many unnecessary projects, but this precious resource is also being reduced due to the very human need of requiring fresh water to survive.

We continue to suffer from our success at populating every corner of the world with our species. The world is bearing witness to the systemic failures caused by the pressure that is put on our biosphere by the demand of billions of us, but most of us don’t view those failures as connected to the entirety of the growing modern human enterprise. We are experiencing many urgent problems simultaneously that can all be traced back to the forces of overpopulation. From the sixth mass extinction of species to our plastic-filled oceans, from natural resource scarcity to grinding poverty, overpopulation is rarely tagged for being the guilty party that it is. It can no longer be denied that it is pulling the levers of unsustainability behind a curtain of delusion. Mainstream media has become an expert at ignoring this issue, often called the elephant in the room. We must connect the dots so that we can stop spinning our wheels and start coming up with real solutions that embrace rather than deny our biosphere’s limits.

The Oppressive Iron Stool of Overpopulation

The easiest leg of the oppressive stool to describe is the total fertility rate. Humans grow exponentially while resources decline, and therein lies the crux of the problem. Even if a couple has only two children, and they in turn each have two children, then given good health and no catastrophes, by the third generation there will be eight added to their family tree. In the same scenario but with one extra child, the third generation will have twenty-seven grandchildren. The total fertility rate is affected in various ways by economic opportunity, culture, infant mortality, access to birth control, and cultural expectation of desired family size. The average number of children per woman is a focus of much attention by population groups. They spend their donation dollars and energy on encouraging small families with efforts to increase access to birth control and empowerment for women. To coach people to have small families is a great way out of overpopulation’s oppressive effects on nature and natural resources. Unfortunately, these efforts are often resisted due to an overall myopic view that somehow family size is a sacred choice that must be immune from outside interference. The modern world does not operate with an ecological worldview in which increases in human numbers result in serious consequences. Instead, the world as we know it operates from an anthropocentric vision in which the spread of the human enterprise is considered an overall plus to our materialistic definition of progress.

The second leg of the stool refers to how the modern world has been successful in curing diseases, decreasing infant mortality, and increasing crop yields. As harsh as it seems, we are disturbing nature’s way of keeping us from being too successful. What would happen if there were an explosion of great horned owls in our forests? They would run out of mice and experience a die-off. As apex predators, owls are supposed to be the fewest so that its supporting food chain of plants, grasshoppers, and skunks can support them. Imagine a village living sustainably for a thousand years using four wells to fulfill the needs of their 1,000 villagers. When its population grows because of interventions on its behalf to cure diseases that allows the village to double its population to 2,000, the water in those wells will eventually dry up, forcing the villagers to dig deeper wells and walk farther to get water. Success in increasing populations by eliminating causes of death at some point challenges the ability of the environment, and parenthetically our economies, to adequately support those increases. We keep sending food to places where people are suffering from warfare, droughts, and famines only to see the suffering continue when birth control is not also part of the rescue plan.

The third leg, fossil-fuel–based neo-capitalism, plays an undeniable, deeply embedded role in keeping our numbers high. We can’t brush our teeth without using fossil fuel. We can’t heat or cool our homes, eat a meal, or turn on a computer without using fossil fuel. Relatively cheap and easy to exploit, fossil fuel has powered our proliferation as a species. It has kept our human-promoting undertakings growing, from hospitals to transportation to the development of cheaper ways of bringing food to our tables.

The promotion of so-called green energy sources as a solution fails us as well. We don’t need green bulldozers; we need fewer bulldozers. Labeling resources “green” by those who stand to benefit just keeps allowing for the continued development of the biosphere. The fallacies of using energy-producing solar panels and wind turbines to prevent the destruction of the planet is well described in Ozzie Zehner’s book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism (2013). Zehner states:

Environmentalists generally object to battery powered devices and for good reason: batteries require mined minerals, employ manufacturing processes that leak toxins into local ecosystems and leave behind an even-worse trail of side effects upon disposal. Though when it comes to the largest mass-produced battery powered gadget ever created—the electric car—environmentalists cannot jump from their seats fast enough to applaud it.

His research was given oxygen when it became a part of Jeff Gibbs 2019 documentary Planet of the Humans.

The fourth leg of growth is the leg referencing a given country’s immigration policy. It is easy to understand why it is such a touchy topic. In the United States, we all know, love, and come from immigrants, unless we have only indigenous ancestry. This has become the most avoided part of the overpopulation discussion since abortion became wrongly conflated with it years ago. Immigration, however, has a powerfully direct local connection to overpopulation. As sensitive as it is, we must recognize its impact on growth. Immigration is an important leg of the stool, even though it is experienced as a local overpopulation phenomenon and not connected to increasing the overall global population like the other legs.

Though overpopulation is a global problem, it is experienced locally. As American ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out so many years ago, growth happens locally and must be addressed where each of us lives. In Hardin’s essay, “The Global Pothole Problem,”1 he told a story that used a metaphor of potholes. They happen globally, but we must address them in our own neighborhoods, because that is where the rules are made and enforced. Immigration also has global climate effects. The more a richer country expands its population due to immigration, the more resources will be consumed, creating both pollution and scarcity. Immigration from poor countries to richer ones is a trend that also increases the total amount of carbon produced as new immigrants are likely to increase their global footprint upon adopting a more modern lifestyle.

U.S. population growth is mostly due to legal immigration, so encouraging Americans to have small families is not destined to be a successful strategy because it is being undermined by waves of new immigrants. If it is so bad, why is the increase of immigration so consistently promoted? Immigration is encouraged not only from a social justice perspective of helping the downtrodden but also and mostly from industries throughout America who are out to increase their profits by hiring workers who will accept lower wages. Roy Beck clearly documents this historical reality in his 2021 book Back of the Hiring Line: A 200 Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias and Depression of Black Wealth. In this game-changing book, Beck has paved the way for more rational discussions about this leg of overpopulation’s causes. I hope we can move forward without the constraints of political correctness and see the societal and environmental benefits of putting caps on immigration.

Population in the United States has continued to grow to its 2021 numbers of more than 332 million. When our numbers grow, our resources shrink. Open space, fresh water, and energy are all in higher demand, and none of them is without an endpoint. What does increase are all the things we dread: traffic, congestion, crime, pollution, and loss of wildlife. As environmentalist Gary Wockner states in his 2020 article “It’s Time to Talk about Population Growth”:

Human population growth is either the root cause, or a primary cause, of every environmental problem we face on the planet, as well as every problem I’ve worked to address in my career. A short list of the causes I’ve fought for: protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, fighting fossil-fuel extraction and climate change, and protecting free-flowing rivers and waterways. All are under siege by human population growth as either the root cause or a primary factor.

Indeed, the U.S. population continues to grow by 1,700,000 per year or 200 per hour.2 Much of that growth is now due to immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, “Looking forward, immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for 88% of U.S. population growth through 2065, assuming current immigration trends continue.” In addition to new arrivals, U.S. births to immigrant parents will be important to future growth in the country’s population. In 2018, the percentage of women giving birth in the past year was higher among immigrants (7.5 percent) than among the U.S. born (5.7 percent).3

Now What?

The wild world is being devastated by overpopulation and its continued expansion. Extinctions must be addressed locally in each place where they are threatened. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), over 60 percent of wild animals are now gone, which has happened in the past forty years. We have added 4.5 billion people in those four decades, and yet in WWF’s Living Planet Report of 2018, you will be hard pressed to find a word about overpopulation. Shame on these wildlife advocates for using only euphemisms for human overpopulation with terms such as “human activity” and “excessive overconsumption.” How can we save wildlife when we are dishonest about why they are going extinct under our watch?

As I write this, COP (Conference of the Parties) 26 is ending once again without a plea to deal with overpopulation. I was honored to be at COP 25 in Madrid Spain in 2019 and speak with two of my fellow activists about overpopulation. I soon realized how unaccepted this issue remains among the world’s climate activists. As indicated in the cartoon, all these legs contribute to our horrific problems of climate change. Our climate is getting measurably hotter, resulting in more wildfires, stronger storms, and sketchy rainfalls affecting crop success. To address the frightening fallout of climate change without addressing overpopulation and the way each individual can’t help but contribute to the production of greenhouse gases is a lot like trying to sweep up leaves from a tree that keeps losing them. Yet that is where many of our devoted scientists and activists remain, acting downstream away from the controversy and far away from the solutions that have a chance of working to keep the planet supporting us.

Over the years, I have worked with many people who have each been trying to reach the captains of spaceship Earth with the message that overpopulation is the iceberg that will sink us. The earth would be cooler, wildlife less threatened, our survival less on the line if only we were given a stronger voice and a courageous audience. I know that it is extremely challenging to focus on even one leg of this overwhelming stool. Political quicksand surrounds each. It is a daunting task to remain focused and create messages that people can hear without taking offense. But in doing so they inadvertently make it seem that theirs is the solution to the overpopulation predicament. But the truth is that all these legs form the stool in an interconnected, interwoven way, and all are responsible for our “success” as a species. It would be ideal if all population groups—those that work strictly on immigration, those that work only on fossil-fuel economics, those that work on family planning and total fertility rate—joined hands to share their expertise and strategize on how best to tame this beast together. For, if given a multiple-choice quiz about the answers to alleviating the oppression on our planet by the iron stool of overpopulation, the answer is D: All of the above.

This article has been adapted from Dr. Shragg’s December 2020 Forum Paper for Negative Population Growth, Inc. (NPR).

[1] “Filters Against Folly,” Garrett Hardin, 1985.

[2] U.S. Census. Accessed January, 2020. census.gov/popclock/world. Courtesy www.worldpopulation balance.org.

[3] Abby Budiman, “Key Findings about U.S. Immigrants” Fact Tank News in the Numbers, August 20, 2020.

Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of the ever-wise Tom Flynn, who graciously printed so many of my articles over the years on this topic because he shared my deep concern. What more can be said about the oppression of overpopulation that I and my colleagues have not pontificated on for …

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