Overpopulation: Crisis or Myth?

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Photo: curiousmatic.com

Photo: curiousmatic.com

Photo: curiousmatic.com

Nikhil Chandravel, Staff Writer

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Yes, Thanos did do something wrong. I’m not talking about wiping out half of the universe. Of course, that was morally dubious, but his first mistake was even assuming that overpopulation is so dire a problem that it could destroy a civilization. In the real world, overpopulation does not indicate the apocalypse.

No, overpopulation is a temporary phase of our population growth that points to a better future. The Demographic Transition shows so. The model states that pre-industrial societies have steady populations that experience population booms and overpopulation due to better living standards. Population growth then slows down due a variety of factors associated with modernization, such as education; eventually, population growth will stabilize and sometimes even dip. The West has gone through this cycle. Overpopulation is a natural and temporary phase of economic and demographic development. And current population forecasts indicate that the global population will peak and/or decline this century, just like the model says it should. Yet people still fear overpopulation.

You can blame Malthus, who in 1798 theorized that population will repeatedly outgrow resource availability; when this occurs, war, famine, and disease will thin the herd. Humanity would repeatedly be pushed against the wall by scarcity to undergo a gauntlet of war, famine, and disease.

Thankfully, human ingenuity and advancement exemplified by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions proved him wrong.

But the damned idea of the crisis of overpopulation just won’t stay six feet under.

In fact, I recently read an article blaming overpopulation for the exhaustion of resources, destruction of the environment, war, unemployment, poverty, and high costs of living. But I couldn’t find their suggestion box, because I would have expanded the list to also blame overpopulation for the difficulty of parallel parking, the fact that I still can’t find any imitation calabash tobacco pipes that blow bubbles [insert GoFundMe here], and the frightening reality that overpopulation will make the planet heavier, destabilizing the moon’s orbit and causing a collision right on top of Burning Man festival, which of itself isn’t much of a tragedy, but I doubt my favorite thrift store on Patterson would get off easy.

But in all seriousness, many of these problems are either mostly independent of population, or are in the process of being ameliorated. Water scarcity? Doesn’t exist. The earth is covered in mostly water – the problem is managing it, which is being improved. One only needs to look at how the Israelis turned the Negev desert green: by using innovative drip irrigation and high-tech desalination plants and effective water conservation procedures, Israel now produces more water than it needs.

Food scarcity?  Not a problem. Building on the work of the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, we are ensuring our food security through genetics and sustainable farming. For example, one GM rice strain called Swarna-Sub1 is resistant to flooding for up to two weeks – increasing yield up to 25% in Bangladesh. And sustainable farming techniques, such growing diverse, native crops can substantially increase yield. We are not going to face a systemic, global food shortage anytime soon. Food shortages today are mainly caused by corruption, war, mismanagement, and other factors – we should be focusing on these problems, not overpopulation.

Let it suffice to say that, for the environment, we are finally making gains in renewable energy, which is finally approaching the price of fossil fuels, next generation tech such as nuclear fusion, and efficient engines and energy grids, so regardless of UN predictions, we are on track to not dying of fire hurricanes or whatever phenomena climate change has up its sleeve.

But fear is one thing; let me address an uncomfortable realization: the discussion around overpopulation has often, and sometimes explicitly, considered some people as burdens.

For a long time, worries about overpopulation had an insidious undertone of a condescending, benefactor: the upper classes who knew all about the dangers of over-procreation versus those that go around “breeding like rabbits,” to quote Pope Francis. Malthus’s ideas fueled zealous laws against the destitute and tepid responses to the Irish Potato Famine, a supposed divine punishment for the overly-fertile Irish, because their poverty was their own fault.

Progressives of the 20th century looked beyond just the poor. Margaret Sanger suggested we establish global peace by sterilizing or segregating the “illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, [and] dope-fiends” and by depressing birth rates. While a pioneer in women’s health, Sanger was thoroughly orthodox among eugenicists.

Mysteriously, eugenics wasn’t as appealing after World War II, so activists set their focus on the whole of humanity. But overpopulation activists and their eugenist forefathers are responsible for millions of forced sterilizations in India and forced abortions in China in the late 20th century. It’s all fun and games when we talk about the crisis of overpopulation, but it’s a bit more serious when people take you seriously and start doing something about it.

Thankfully, we are not faced with mass sterilizations and forced abortions today, but we still see well-meaning activists that decry having too many children. For example, Macron said in a speech this year, “if you have 7-8 children per woman, even when economic growth is 5%, you will never end the fight against poverty” – in an apology nonetheless for previous remarks saying that Africa had civilizational problems with birth rates.

But Macron and Sanger were wrong: every human is a bundle of raw brilliance, unforeseeable creativity, unfathomable grit, and moving romance and love, no matter the intelligence, health, sanity, wealth, or morality, and developing countries need their citizens. Sure, lower birth rates would lead to fewer mouths to feed, but also fewer hands to feed them, fewer mouths to speak up, fewer arms to labor, fewer minds to ponder and invent– and that is what poor countries need. By trying to shame poorer countries into instituting policies to lower their own birth rates, we are only hindering the potential of these countries.

Macron, the Gates Foundation, and the plethora of other well-meaning activists should stop this  quixotic quest to slay overpopulation by stoking overpopulation alarmism; they shouldn’t vaccinate children one minute and then run onto their private jets the next and commiserate with reporters about how if only there were fewer children; they shouldn’t tell us that the fight against poverty is hindered by the large number of poor people; and they shouldn’t fool poor countries into thinking that overpopulation is what is holding them down. If we don’t get the problems right, such as poverty, war, illiteracy, and lack of health services, we won’t get the solutions right.

Instead, they should focus on what they are doing well: education, health services, and economic development to maximize human potential. The birth rate will fall on its own.

But maybe I’m completely wrong.

But I shall only admit as much as soon as you create a functioning democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eliminate its poverty, war, corruption, disease, environmental degradation, sexual violence crisis, and fill the market for bubble-smoking imitation calabash tobacco pipes, all by convincing the government to hand out birth control variety packs.

Good luck.

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Overpopulation: Crisis or Myth?