EditorialOverpopulation Is No Laughing Matter

Overpopulation Is No Laughing Matter

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

One of the rules of comedy, so I’ve been told, is to talk about what you know.

That’s why many stand-up routines over the past couple of years are based on personal accounts of COVID-19.

I watched one recently, during which the performer joked how they’d ‘solved’ that one crisis and next time they’ll tackle climate change. So when I got the chance, I asked him – German comedian Henning Wehn – for a sneak preview: how would he solve climate breakdown?

His response surprised me. The biggest problem, he said, is overpopulation.

It’s a controversial and sensitive topic, but maybe it does deserve more attention – and a sensible debate – before being dismissed as an issue of concern for cities.

Mindful Millennials

All over the world, climate anxiety is playing a part in people’s decision not to have children.

Others, such as the Birthstrike movement, voluntarily forego their right to procreate as a means to draw attention to human-made existential threat. They refuse to condemn a life to the dystopia they believe climate change is leading to.

It’s not a far-fetched reaction, either.

As we get richer, we become more resource hungry. Per capita, high-income nationals consume huge amounts, disproportionate to individuals in low-income regions, and churn out far more harmful CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, countries in the Global South are forced to expend up to five times as many natural resources to generate the same level of income as their richer counterparts. It’s undeniably human and environmental exploitation.

Image source: Our World in Data

Increasingly, for many this adds up to a legitimate reason for rethinking parenthood. It’s possibly the most effective action an individual can take to reduce their impact on the environment.

Having one fewer children spares about 58.6 metric tons of CO2 over a lifetime, compared to 2.4 metric tons for going car-free.

So, a dwindling population seem good news for the planet… but it’s a concern for political leaders.

Dealing with the Grey Issue

Japan’s population is projected to fall by 30%, to 88 million, over the next 45 years. The elderly would eventually outnumber the working young.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is worried that it will become impossible to sustain the country if there’s a larger pension-aged base than those young enough to pay taxes and provide care.

The controversial pension reforms in France are similarly based on filling the public purse to provide for a growing, aging population.

The charmer that he is, Kishida has adopted the language of catastrophe to scare people into procreating.

To be fair, his administration has backed this up with economic policies that encourage the pursuit of parenthood: financial incentives, childcare options, and flexible work practices.

In simple maths, Japan’s plan requires every woman, on average, to give birth to two children. But this is an island nation; there’s limited space. Surely even in such densely populated cities like Tokyo, leaders can see that exponential growth can’t continue perpetually.

But that’s tomorrow’s problem. Our short-sighted leaders seem content to leave that for future generations to solve.

Or maybe no one needs to solve it. Nature, after all, has a habit of finding an equilibrium.

The Population Bomb

The worldwide number of humans does continue to rise. Should we be concerned?

Paul and Anne Ehrlich thought so. Their book, Population Bomb, when published in the late 1960s, caused a major stir. They suggested that the growing number of people would lead to mass starvation as food production becomes overstretched.

This was enough of a warning for some countries which, revealing the truly dark side of the debate, established sterilisation programmes – some forced – to control the birth rate.

They were concerned, presumably, about the finite nature of resources. The more people there are, the greater the competition for the limited supply.

Even today, more than two billion people suffer insufficient access to potable drinking water, and we may need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to sufficiently nourish everyone on the planet.

Even so, it’s possible that the population bomb has already been diffused.

The United Nations predicts that the global population will never reach 12 billion. Rates of childbirth slow and decline as countries become more economically prosperous.

Could it be, therefore, that it’s not oversized populations but, more likely, unequal distribution and how unsustainably we live that puts the most pressure on our resources?

Relocation As a Resource

Henning Wehn didn’t actually offer up any solutions – serious or humorous – in response to my question of how he would deal with climate change. Respectfully, I got the impression that this, and overpopulation, weren’t topics he knows much about after all.

And admittedly neither do I. But I do know that, unless we prevent global warming, water levels will rise, infringing on inhabitable and agricultural land.

From New York to Shanghai, and from London to Rio – many urban centres are in danger of drowning. And with this, we’ll see a steep rise in the number of climate refugees.

Countries concerned with declining native populations could embrace this movement of people by creating hospitable policies that attract displaced populations.

This has the potential for bolstering the tax-paying workforce. But to succeed, it requires compassion among people and positive messaging from politicians.

We need to learn to share fairly, and it needs to be followed through with adequate investment in infrastructure that gives every resident – existing and new – the basis for an equitable, dignified, sated, and fulfilling life: food, water, warmth, shelter, safety, community, and agency.

Overpopulation is a subjective term. If we don’t have enough to go round, people will suffer, however few there are. But if we cooperate and find sustainable solutions for our greatest challenges, there’s no reason everyone in a swelling population can’t live well.

Have Your Say

Are you concerned about the demands that population growth imposes on our planet? Is the issue overblown? Do you fear for future generations? Like Japan’s PM, do you think that today’s economics come first? Or should leaders be looking longer-term and investing in alternative ways to offer the lifestyle we want without relying on people to provide it? What sacrifices would you be willing to make to limit the damage humans cause to the natural world? Do you lead a project that focuses on exactly this topic that you’d like to tell us about?

Add your thoughts in the comments below. Remember to keep the conversation respectful.

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