The world’s population topped 7 billion yesterday, according to the United Nations. Amazingly, it was covered in the media not so much as a problem as a milestone. Oh look, we’ve hit the big 7-0-0-0-0-0-0 mark.
How can that be? Overpopulation is one of the root causes of our most pressing environmental problems — from climate change and water scarcity to habitat destruction and decimation of species — yet no one wants to say so.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 70s, concerns about overpopulation were part of the national discourse. As a teenager, I was schooled in the subject– and I mean literally. I learned about it in my 7th grade biology class between lessons on cell function and chlorophyll. Overpopulation was also a key issue on the agenda of environmental groups at the time.
It’s no wonder, given the population explosion that took place in the 20th century. We went from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 4 billion in 1970, with the 4th billion taking only 15 years to arrive. And the mathematics pointed to even more accelerated growth in the decades to come, which naturally raised the question: How many people could the earth support? Answers varied, as did optimism on the potential of technology to extend the planet’s carrying capacity, but no one, as far as I recall, seriously questioned the fact that there were limits.
Yet, somehow, by the early 1990s, the notion of overpopulation had become almost taboo. Among the factors responsible, I think, were the green revolution, which fleetingly promised to solve the looming food crisis, push back by religious fundamentalists for whom the commandment to multiply is serious business, and a strong reaction in the developing world against “population control” initiatives by the West.
Most national environmental organizations in the U.S. went along for fear of jeopardizing their wider agendas. They switched their focus from overpopulation to overconsumption. No need to work on reducing population growth, they seemed to imply; just work on lowering consumption.
The truth is, we need to work on both — overpopulation and overconsumption.
It’s just obvious. A planet can no more accommodate an infinite number of people than a 2,500-square-foot home with a full refrigerator can. Everything has its limits.
Read this interesting piece by Jonathon Porrit in The Independent and see if you agree.