The Unmentionable Population Debate

Friday, 20th February 2009 at 9:00 UTC 2 comments

A recent article in the BBC’s series “The Green Room” which is intended to give “thought-provoking opinion pieces on environmental topics” posed the question of why population is almost entirely absent from sustainability debates. The observation is largely a valid one, but the article focuses more on the need to include it in the agenda than the reasons it is absent.

Of these, it seems easy to speculate that the first and foremost is simply that any suggestion of population control would be met with historical arguments based on Eugenics, Fascism, Nazism, and so forth. Regardless of whether we want a population debate, its certainly a good thing that these events are raised immediately.

The other, and the reason most specific to the Environmental Movement, is the historical significance of population reduction in the Green Scare that gripped America over the last decade.

The Green Scare is the term given to the massively exaggerated policing and sentencing of environmental groups in the United States. It involves making a campaign group that has killed no one the top “domestic terror threat” on FBI watch lists, above White Supremacist organisations with long histories of murdering black people.

One of the arguments given as to why these groups are dangerous refers to speeches and writings in which population was discussed, and in which violent and discriminatory forced reductions were not ruled out. Indeed, one such writing claimed HIV/AIDS to be a means by which nature was keeping a check on human populations. Naturally, this is pretty terrible for the image of environmentalism everywhere in the states. In breaking with the Bush administration, Obama has somewhat moved on from this narrative, but it may take some time.

Perhaps with such a shift in mind, its worth looking at some of the Do’s and Don’ts one might place around the debate. First off, DO distinguish between actively disposing of people and attempts to curb the birth rate. DO be pro-active in explaining everything in detail. DO support programs that empower women, because so much of the over-population issue is tied to Women’s Rights. And DON’T piss off the Catholics, as they’ll just get more retrenched.

But above all, deal with the social pressures around child bearing and raising families. I find myself occasionally being told “oh, but you’ll want to raise a family in a few years”, and I’d quite like a tenner every time it happened to put towards my supposed future children’s food and wellbeing. The fact is, its not people wanting to have children that’s the problem, it’s a society which requires people to have children which we should be concerned about.

The fact is, we can’t survive without some degree of consumption; starvation, thirst and asphyxiation would approach at different rates. We can continue to consume the minimum, but we can’t consume the amount we’re consuming now, so we should cut consumption, but unless we choose gentle decline, we’re going to see a marked drop-off. If we get global population reductions to 1%, they will mount up over time and give us a satisfactory result.

But its interesting from the comments to the article the notice being given about Climate Change, the West and who has the most children. This isn’t just about Climate Change, its also about the amount of food we can sustainably produce. And where people argue that the fear mongering began decades ago, they’re perhaps missing the point; it will be possible for the population to survive above the maximum capacity for some time, perhaps generations, but soil composition and vital resources will begin to change for the worse, eventually becoming harmed beyond repair.

In many ways, it doesn’t actually matter whether we’re over the line yet or not, if we’re to do something which is both Just and Credible, as any options we choose will require time, and any panicked reaction will likely smell of fascism. It will be as much about social change as political change, it will involve women’s rights, and it will involve challenging the traditional family, as we look for new ways to support ourselves in a world where few have children to look after them in their old-age.

And that, in a sense, is where the real excitement might begin. We’re already seeing a small number of self-run older-people’s communities; people sharing houses in their old age so they can maintain most of their independence, whilst having others around to keep an eye open. We’re going to need a lot more community houses like this in the future.


Entry filed under: Climate Change, Community, Gender, Politics.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Friday, 27th February 2009 at 23:03 UTC

    You say, “it’s a society which requires people to have children which we should be concerned about.”

    I don’t see what’s so concerning. The normal desire to bear children, and to encourage other people to have children, is a requirement for the survival of our species and so it’ll be fairly hardwired into us by the pressures of natural selection. I’m also mystified as to how “challenging the traditional family” will help the fight against climate change, rather than just some leftist agenda, but there you go.

    I agree with the bit about empowering women, though. Since we’ve got more security round these parts of the world, we’re having a lot fewer kids than elsewhere, and since women can have their own lives rather than needing to attach themselves to a man in order to get by, they’re choosing to have kids later. Having kids at 28 rather than 21 means 3 generations every 84 years rather than 4, which means a lot fewer people alive at the same time.

  • 2. Lois  |  Tuesday, 3rd March 2009 at 14:43 UTC

    Having done a module on The Family in history, it’s interesting to see that large numbers of children were (and in some parts of the world still are) an insurance policy for old age. Also, when poor sanitation and healthcare mean many children die in infancy, it’s natural to have large families to compensate. Much of the reasoning behind large families is to create security for one’s self, to satisfy physical and psychological needs. If those needs can be met elsewhere (eg better healthcare, support for the vulnerable) and only then can we start preaching to people about the need for smaller families.


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