Bursting at the seams

Most discussion of population misses the point. The earth simply cannot support our lifestyle.

There are simply too many people. You’ve seen the pictures. Crowded streets in Calcutta, impoverished babies with huge hungry eyes and bloated bellies in Mexico, refugee camps in Africa, masses of Chinese crammed into filthy cities. The earth can’t support these numbers. Something’s got to give. And you’ve heard the arguments.

The US (or the UK, or any other rich country for that matter) needs to close its borders to immigration from poor countries. Having finally reduced our own birthrate sufficiently to more or less stabilise our population, the last thing we need is a bunch of poor (brown) people moving in to crowd us out. (We know, also, that once they’re here they’ll breed faster than we do, and soon enough will outnumber us.)

I often respond to this argument by saying I’m all for closing the US border to Mexico (and every other border, for that matter, all the way down to closing bio-regional borders), so long as we close it not only to people but to resources as well. No bananas from Mexico. No coffee. No oil. No tomatoes in January. Why do you think people leave their families in Mexico (or any other impoverished nation) to go to work in the US?

Not because they hate their husbands or wives yet have not reached the point in their therapy where they feel comfortable expressing (much less acting on) that hatred. Nor is it generally because they’re bored with Cancun, Acapulco and their other traditional vacation spots and have decided to take a tour of the bean fields of California’s San Joachin Valley instead. They go to the US because their resources have been stolen, and their community is unravelling.

Of course, this migration, too, is part of the unravelling. People migrate because the land they have lived on for generations can no longer support them. Think on that as you eat your next organic green bean. To want, on the other hand, to close borders to people but leave them open to the theft of their resources (‘importation’ is the preferred term in polite society), is to show that your alleged concern over population is nothing but a cover for continuing the same old exploitation. ‘I don’t want you, but I do want the coffee grown on land that used to be yours.’

Even those who don’t specifically want to close borders, but merely want to talk about population while conveniently forgetting to discuss resource consumption are, too, pushing us ever closer to the abyss. For the real bottom line of overshooting carrying capacity is resource consumption. It wouldn’t matter if there were 100 billion deer on a tiny island if they didn’t consume and trample and defecate on everything. Numbers by themselves are meaningless. It’s the damage that counts.

Too many stupid white men

Another way to talk about this is to contrast the language: ‘overpopulation’, ‘zero population growth’. How different would be our discourse if we spoke instead of ‘over-consumption’ and ‘zero consumption growth’? Such a shift in discourse won’t happen, of course, because zero consumption growth would destroy the economy. Look at it another way.

The US constitutes less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet it uses more than a quarter of the world’s resources and produces 25 per cent of global pollution and waste. If you compare the average US citizen to the average citizen of India, you find that the American uses 50 times more steel, 56 times more energy, 170 times more synthetic rubber, 250 times more motor fuel and 300 times more plastic. Yet our images of overpopulation generally consist not of those who do the most damage, the primary perpetrators (there couldn’t be too many middle-class Americans, could there?), but of their primary (human) victims.

At least partially in response to the obvious arrogance and absurdity of those who want the poor to stop having babies but don’t mind the rich having four-wheel-drive cars (and nuclear weapons), there are those who claim – equally absurdly, and equally arrogantly – that all talk of carrying capacity is racist and classist. To even use the phrase ‘carrying capacity’ in front of these people is to invite hisses, catcalls and the derogatory epithet ‘neo-Malthusian’.

I suppose the argument is that because some of those who want to protect our exploitative way of living use carrying capacity as a means of social control against the poor (as an American Indian activist friend said to me, ‘the only problem I have with population control is that you and I both know who is going to do the controlling’), then the notion of carrying capacity itself must be racist and classist.

This is similar to suggesting that because Hitler used self-defence as justification for attacking Poland using force to defend yourself can never be justified. The misuse of an argument does not invalidate the argument itself. Worse, the argument that the very concept of carrying capacity is a fabrication designed for social control, as opposed to a simple statement of limits, serves those in power as effectively as does ignoring or de-emphasising resource consumption when speaking of overshooting carrying capacity.

Why? Because it goes along with the refusal to acknowledge physical limits (and limits to exploitation) that characterises our culture. What would it take, I’ve heard peace and social justice activists ask, to bring the poor of the world to the material standard of living of the rich? Well, another 30 planets, for one thing. It’s a dangerous and stupid question. Within our culture wealth is measured by one’s ability to consume and destroy. This means that attempts to industrialise the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet the creation of one person’s (material) wealth always comes at the cost of many other’s poverty.

That’s why the question is stupid. And the question is dangerous because it serves as propaganda to keep both activists and the poor playing a game that doesn’t serve them well, and which they can never win. (Although from the perspective of the activists, at least they get job security and the illusion that they’re doing something meaningful). Instead of playing on, both activists and poor should be quitting this game and working to take down the system.

Rabbit breeders

There’s still another way to look at population, which is, I think, as useless and harmful as the others. Even when people do accept the existence of carrying capacity and aren’t trying to use their talk of overshoot to maintain the West’s current stranglehold over the lives of the poor, more often than not they talk of population in terms of mathematics – in terms of exponential increase, some ‘natural rate’ of population growth. It’s very simple: turn on your computer, plug the appropriate numbers into your handy-dandy formula – X number of people on Y amount of land containing Z amount of resources, where W represents the industrial educational level of women – and watch the little black and brown dots representing people fill your screen.

But this formulation carries with it many dangerous premises, including the essential premise of mathematics itself: those to be studied and described are not individuals who make choices, but objects that act with no great measure of volition. The mathematical approach presumes people do not make rational short-, mid- and long-term family-planning decisions based on their circumstances, experiences and the social values with which they’ve been acculturated; and that they don’t give any thought to the personal, social or environmental consequences of their decisions.

Heck, it presumes people – especially poor, brown, uneducated people – breed with no thought whatsoever: where does thought, or choice, fit into it? It presumes they breed like rabbits. But that’s nonsense. I’m not even sure rabbits breed like rabbits. Sure, we can make probabilistic predictions of what certain percentages of people (or rabbits) will do under certain social and ecological conditions, but to talk of any ‘natural rate’ of population growth without talking about the culture that causes people to not only ignore environmental limits but to perceive, accurately, that their larger social fabric would collapse without incessant growth is to naturalise something that is not natural but cultural.

Non-linear, or cyclical, cultures – those not predicated on growth but on dynamic equilibrium – maintain stable populations. Having reached the limits of what their landbase sustainably supports – indeed having reached a population level that best serves the needs of both the human community and its non-human neighbours, they, believe it or not, have less children. This is well-nigh inconceivable to those of us raised in a culture that teaches us to perceive all life as horrific competition and humans as the bloody victors.

They do this by breast-feeding their existing children for many years, by abstinence, by taboos, by the use of herbal contraceptives and abortions. Prior to conquest, American Indian women, for example, used more than 200 plants, roots and other medicines as means of birth control, making the decisions themselves as to whether to use them. When all else fails, some cultures, and I’m not promoting this, practise infanticide. Often, this infanticide is not gender-based. But the real point of these family-planning techniques is that they are indicative of an intimate and mutually beneficial relationship between societies and the landbase. ‘What nonsense!’ I can hear you say.

‘Humans exploit their surroundings. Human needs are in opposition to the natural world. Otherwise, why would politicians say we need to balance the economy against the environment? Balance implies opposition. Whether it’s a God-given right or an evolutionarily ordained mandate, humans chop down trees, deprive all others of their habitat. It’s what we do.’

But to believe this is to mistake civilisation for humanity, an unforgivable and fatal error. One of the central myths of our culture concerns the desirability of growth, a parasitic expansion to fill and consume our host. This was manifest from the beginning, as Genesis says: ‘And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”.’

From its opening to its endgame, civilisation has been nothing if not consistently narcissistic, domineering and exploitative. And it is consistent in its attempts to make these attributes seem natural, to make them seem as though nature itself is to blame for our exploitation of it. (‘She was asking for it,’ we can say with clean conscience as we pull up our pants and leave the darkened alley.)

We can see the myth of growth at work in the Catholic church’s continued hostility towards birth control, its attempt to persuade us, as the ironic bumper sticker so eloquently puts it, that ‘every ejaculation deserves a name’. We can see it in the concern over falling birth rates in industrialised nations such as Greece and Russia. And we can see it in the commonplace acceptance of the very real fact that without constant economic expansion capitalism will collapse almost immediately.

This mythology is grounded in reality – cultural reality, that is, because from the beginning the very existence of cities has required the importation of resources from ever-expanding regions of increasingly exploited countryside. It has required growth. Well, that’s going to stop someday. At some point, probably in the not too distant future, there will be far fewer people on this planet. There will be far fewer than the planet could have supported, and did support, prior to us overshooting carrying capacity, because the great stocks of wild foods are gone (or poisoned), the top soil lost in the wind.

My saying this doesn’t mean I hate people. Far from it. A few weeks ago I received an email in response to my saying that the only sustainable level of technology is Stone Age technology. My correspondent said, ‘I don’t think a new Stone Age would support anything near the current world population. [Of course, I agree.] So, to return to that level implies either killing a lot of people or not having many children and waiting for the population to diminish. Or do we allow war or other pestilence to do the job? Is this what you are proposing?’ I responded that what I’m proposing, startlingly enough, is that we look honestly at our situation. And our situation is that we have overshot carrying capacity. The question becomes: what are we going to do about it?

This article is an edited extract from Derrick Jensen’s forthcoming book working title What Goes Up, which is to be published later this year

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2004

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