Overpopulation Must Remain a Key Issue for Environmentalists

A second take on Alan Weisman’s Countdown

If the Earth Island Institute community is a family, as we like to say we are, then there should be dinner-table arguments,  and I’m going to start one now. Having muttered to myself for a couple of days about “Numbers Game,” a review in Earth Island Journal’s Spring issue of Alan Weisman’s book Countdown, I need to vent and thump the table.

Crowdphoto by James Cridland, on Flickr

The reviewer, Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity, an Earth Island project, does the craziest dance with the book, with its subject matter – population – and with himself for having agreed to review the damn thing in the first place. It’s some sort of tango. The second paragraph reads: “Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him as a friend.” (Big step toward partner, with rose between teeth.) “But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism.” (Giant step backward. Partner has bad breath?) “They’re not the same thing, of course …” (Tentative half-step toward partner again.) “ … but I still hesitated before reviewing it.” (Half-step backward.)

If a population book and Malthusianism are not the same thing, then why did Athanasiou, however briefly, conflate them? Athanasiou’s pattern of equivocation repeats throughout the review: criticism, then retraction – or sometimes just amelioration – and then criticism again.  The result for the reader is a kind of seasickness. Athanasiou’s position on the population question is a moving target, very difficult to track. If there is a lesson, it is that Athanasiou was justified in his ambivalence about undertaking this assignment: Never review the book of a friend whose basic thesis you dispute.

I want to select one Athanasiou paragraph for attention, his third, in which he takes aim at Thomas Malthus. He begins:

“First up, what’s this ‘Mathusianism,’ and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda.”

Yes, Malthus was a demographer, and his theories are quasi-biological. But why is “biological” a term of opprobrium? It is untrue that Malthus was a reductionist. Yes, Malthus predicted reduction in human numbers, either by what is now called “Malthusian catastrophe” – famine, disease, and war – or by voluntary methods to avert such catastrophe. This is not reductionism. It’s just common sense.

Whether Malthus’s findings buttressed the pessimism or policy conclusions of any particular political wing was not the demographer’s concern, of course. (Malthus was especially unconcerned with the policy conclusions of a political wing that did not yet exist, across the water in the new republic of the United States, 200 years in his future.) His concern, as a scientist, was to investigate reality and to make sure he got his science right. He did both those things. As to these right-wing policy conclusions that Malthusianism is supposed to buttress, what are they exactly? (One deficiency of Athanasiou’s approach is that, assuming that we’re with him, he makes no arguments, only assertions, and generally provides no examples to help us know what he’s talking about.)

The primary political effect of Malthusianism, I would have thought, is not to buttress right wing pessimism, but the opposite – to deflate right wing optimism. The Malthusian message is that there are limits to growth. This notion is anathema to the corporate powers running the right wing. Their mantra is that there are no limits: we must grow the economy forever.

As to Athanasiou’s contention that Malthusianism pushes social justice off the political agenda, the opposite is true. It is social justice advocates who have pushed Malthusianism off the agenda. They have done so by controlling the language of the debate – a strategy employed much more effectively, as a rule, by the right wing than by left-wingers like themselves. The social justice argument has successfully conflated, for example, “anti-immigration” with “racist” – not without good cause in many cases – but it has also conflated “population control” with “racist,” and that is a tragedy.

In the golden age of environmentalism, the ’60s and ’70s, when the movement was in the vigor of its youth (Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Wilderness Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, national park expansion), environmentalists still somehow found plenty of time to talk about population. The issue was seen as central. It was a truism, back then, that the one thing we absolutely had to get right was to defuse the population bomb. If we failed to accomplish that, all other causes were lost.

That truism is no less true today. It is truer. There are now 7.1 billion of us, more than twice the 3.3 billion 50 years ago. Yet almost no one in environmentalism is willing to use the P word anymore. (Athanasiou, for his part, bristles every time the word comes up. In Countdown, an Indian agricultural expert, Dr. Kalkat, is quoted as saying that unless we do something within the decade about population, we will have decided, en masse, to commit hydrological suicide. “I wanted to scream,” Athanasiou writes, in response to this retrogressive thinking.) In the environmental movement today, we do talk about redressing inequities and empowering women as a means of getting our numbers down. But we rarely dare to bring up population control as its own subject. It is now a social error to make a point about the grim mathematics of exponential human breeding that shocked the world when Malthus first broached the subject, and shocked it again in 1968, when Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb hit us again with those realities. It’s noteworthy that nowhere on the cover of Countdown does the word “population” appear. It’s hard to even say the word any more. Puh, puh, paah, paah, paah …. population. Excuse me.

Athanasiou writes: “It does this [buttresess right-wing pessimism and shoves social justice off the agenda] by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to.”

Malthusian theory is no “tale.” It’s just the facts, ma’am. Athanasiou’s reference to animals is puzzling, as Malthus did not base his theory on animal studies, just humans. And the truth is that we are, in fact, simply animals. That is what science tells us, at any rate. It’s the bad news that Darwin and Wallace (both big readers of Malthus) broke in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Human exceptionalism, the idea that we are more than simply animals, is an idea from religion – not from all religions, but from those employing the Old Testament. The Bible has not been helpful in environmental matters. Genesis 1:26, which introduces man as made in God’s image and gives him dominion over the fish, birds, and every friggin’ thing that creepeth on the earth, got us off on the wrong foot. Our confidence in our exceptionalism, in our special creation, helped get us into the fix we’re in.

Malthus never said “we are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing.” That is a false characterization. Malthus says that in the absence of checks we will exceed the carrying capacity of the range. Malthus was not a pessimist. The demographer, who was also a cleric, believed that the population dilemma was a test by God, and that we humans are fated in our natures to come to our senses and figure a way out. Malthus’s contention that population, unchecked, will exceed the carrying capacity of the range is indisputably true. The skies of Beijing, the alleys of Calcutta, the freeways of Los Angeles all tied up in Gordian knots, the melting polar ice, the rise of the seas, the acidification of ocean, the collapse of fisheries, the fires in Australia, the salinization of soils, the droughts in the American West, the desertification of the Sahel, the successive years of superstorms, all suggest we are already there.

And Marx? Really? Marx?

Yes, Marx did point out, as Athanasiou says, that we make our own history. And how has it gone for us, the history made for us by Marxists?

Yes, we are the animal that makes its own history. And how has that gone, the history we have made for ourselves, insofar as it affects the fate of Earth? That we make our own history is exactly the problem. Other animals follow the dictates of natural history. Our own unnatural history, to date, has been to work as fast as possible to disassemble the biosphere. Of course, the only recourse now for us is to work desperately to make better history than we have made so far – that is what environmentalism is all about – but we should think twice about touting our special talent for making history.

Athanasiou concludes this third paragraph in question:“It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is that fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.”

Pretend? Exponential breeding absolutely is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.

At midpoint of Athanasiou’s review, there comes a sentence that illuminated for me his credo on population and clarified his problems with Countdown. After conceding that Alan Weisman’s book explains vividly the mechanics of overpopulation, and after acknowledging that Weisman takes pains to emphasize how the dynamic of economic injustice and subjugation of women interact synergistically, Athanasiou remains unsatisfied. “For while Countdown makes injustice a part of the story of overpopulation, it’s still only a subplot.”

Injustice is, in fact, only a subplot. But Athanasiou sees it the other way around. For him, overpopulation is a subplot of injustice.

This is just not reality. The tail of injustice does not wag the dog of overpopulation. Tom Athanasiou’s special concerns at EcoEquity – injustice, economic stratification, patriarchal domination, First World economic hegemony – do indeed have huge impacts on population growth. But many other factors feed in, among them medical advances that raise the birth rate and lower the death rate, international relief programs that nip Malthusian catastrophe in the bud, baseline human horniness, and the fact that we are a species just too successful for our own good. When the discussion is on environment and planetary survival, overpopulation is the larger and more crucial phenomenon in which equity plays a part.

Human reproductive behavior does not require inequity for population to go exponential. As Malthus pointed out, food increases arithmetically while population increases geometrically. “The power of population,” Malthus wrote, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Equity considerations do figure in the equation, but the core problem is all in the math. There are already more billions of humans on Earth than any society, now matter how just, can support in the long run.

In The Population Bomb, the Ehrlichs took the implications of Malthusian geometry as far as the laws of physics allow: at the rate we are growing, they pointed out, we will soon be a seething ball of humanity expanding outward at the speed of light. Inside this supernova of flailing knees and elbows and Edvard Munch howls, economic stratification, Tom Athanasiou’s bête noir, will have long since broken down, but that won’t slow our expansion by much.

In the real world, of course, Malthusian catastrophe kicks in long before the ball goes to light-speed. But the Erhlichs’ little proof-of-existence theorem is fun to think about as a parable. The Homosphere, we could call it. If Malthusian catastrophes were rated like hurricanes, then the inflating ball of breeding humans would be a 5.

What I find most disheartening in Anathasiou’s review is that here, again, we have an unnecessary skirmish in the civil war that environmentalists insist on fighting among themselves. I cannot understand why Anathasiou would feel so threatened in his own work by Malthusian thinking, or so impeded, that he is compelled to call the school of thought “hateful.” It is clear to me that working toward equity in the world, for both moral and environmental reasons, is noble work. It is also clear that addressing the existential threat of overpopulation, as its own subject, is noble work, too. Malthusianism is very much in the DNA of Earth Island Institute. EII’s founder, David Brower, my father, was the environmental leader who suggested to the Ehrlichs they write The Population Bomb and he is the one who published the book. He was among the many environmentalists convinced that a solution to overpopulation is the sine qua non of our survival.  

“The population debate is over,” Athanasiou writes, in concluding his review – a baffling declaration, given what we have just read. “It’s time to get on to the harder problems.”

It is time, in other words, for everyone to get serious and concentrate on inequity, the part of the puzzle that is Tom Athanasiou’s.

But suppose, as a thought experiment, that inequity proves to be a problem even more intractable than overpopulation. There are indications that this might be so, given the persistence of inequity and injustice for the past 10,000 years. Suppose that income inequity, economic stratification, subjugation of women, and hegemony by foreign powers are more ingrained in human nature and culture than we think. Suppose it takes Tom and his faction another 10,000 years to scrub these atavisms out of us. If we have put all our eggs in the equity basket, where will we be then, in the year 12,014?

We will be riding the outer shell of the Homosphere as it expands at light-speed into the blackness of space.

I have a better idea. Let’s concentrate on Tom’s piece of the puzzle and on all the other pieces simultaneously, and let’s welcome Alan Weisman’s contribution in Countdown and all the other help we can get.

The Latest

A Sense of ‘Flight Shame’ May be Changing Travel Habits

In parts of Europe, air travel is becoming taboo for its big carbon footprint.

Andy Rowell

Jordan Cove Terminal Opponents Celebrate Win Against Project, Vow to Keep Fighting

An Oregon agency has denied water quality certification for the natural gas export facility, but the project isn't dead yet.

Juliet Grable

The Butterfly Effect: Five Stages of Anthropocenic Grief

Two years into the Twilight of the Bugs. Loving and mourning don’t seem to be so hard.

Evan A. Warfel

We Need to Protect Our Solar System from Mining Rush, Scientists Say

New proposal calls for 'space wilderness' designations as startups eye precious metals on asteroids, planets, and moons.

Ian Sample The Guardian

The Return of the Clark Fork Delta

How an Idaho community is restoring an ecologically and culturally significant wetland that was once written off as lost.

Cate Huisman

Lion Shaped Mountain: The Inferno

In Sierra Leone, people have been fallow farming for generations. Today, it poses new hazards to human and chimpanzee communities alike.

Andrew Halloran