Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Sadly, the Population Bombers (mostly) still don’t get it

Posted 03 Jul 2015 / 0

WNYC The Leonard Lopate Show “Is Human Overpopulation The Reason for Environmental Destruction?

In my Ecology for Architects class we do an activity (“Perspectives on Becoming Ecologically Sustainable“) that challenges my students to comprehensively consider our large-scale options for becoming sustainable. When we do the activity we have already done some ecological footprinting and discussed the concept of planetary boundaries, so we know that human civilization is not sustainable in its current form. The question then is what to do to become sustainable?

To help students answer this question, I ask them to work in groups to advocate one of four ‘perspectives’:

  1. Population Bombers;
  2. Neo-Luddites;
  3. Deep Ecologists; and
  4. Technological Optimists.

The students don’t get to choose their role, so they have to do their best to advocate for a position that they might not personally advocate.

To frame the presentation of each of these positions, I ask students to explain the actions they propose in terms of the IPAT equation, which is a very rough way of conceptualizing the sources of human impact. The equation helps to clarify the meaning of each position and the presentation of each position helps to clarify the meaning of the equation, so this exercise builds student understanding of critical issues in sustainability.

One of the reasons that I love this activity is that it forces students to really think through what our possible options are, and how we might exercise each of these options. The four positions that I have assigned are very ‘cartoonish’ in the sense that each takes a very singular and orthodox approach to becoming sustainable. I plan to better explain the outcomes of this activity in a future post, but suffice to say that the ‘extremes’ represented by each of these positions usually help students to understand that no simple approach to sustainability is likely to be effective. We need a hybrid of all of these perspectives.

So it is kind of surprising to me that activists like Tom Butler are still advocating for very singular approaches to sustainability. If you check out the above interview with Leonard Lopate, you will hear what sounds eerily like a 1970’s population control advocate… except that population control advocates have now learned not to call it population control.

Some of what Butler talks about makes total sense: educating women and providing them with family planning options has been shown to reduce the overall birth rate. But is that all that the modern advocates of population reduction have to offer?

I am amazed at how vacuous the population reduction platform remains. Fine, we should educate more women… but how? Sure, we should make family planning available to women… but how? In this interview Lopate rightly brings up the problem of cultural barriers to the adoption of family planning measures. Butler makes some really vague comment about how rapid cultural transformation is possible (apparently through the publication of a big photographic coffee table book!), but ignores a really vexing issue: those whose cultural values promote large families are also disproportionately passing on those values to the next generation. A coffee table book of images is not going to change the drivers of population growth.

And this interview completely ignored the biggest cause of continued population growth, which is poverty. Revealingly Butler avoided the issue of food scarcity versus food inequity, even when Lopate raised the issue. What seems clear to me is that the population reduction movement is rather explicitly about perpetuating inequities rather than dealing with them. Lurking behind the attitude “we need a smaller population” are the sentiments “I could continue to live in my affluence if there were just fewer people trying to do the same” and “poor people need to have fewer babies”. What’s ironic is that reducing poverty and promoting equity are the most likely pathways to a stable population size, a process that is already occurring. Boy, it would be good to see some of these population reduction advocates talk about equity.

The one thing that I agree with people like Butler on is this: as we currently live, there are more people on the earth than can be sustained for very long. But what to do about that? To just talk about population as a cause is to ignore the fact that population growth is an effect as well, caused by an infatuation with material affluence, an addiction to unsustainable sources of energy, and a reluctance to convert to technologies that would provide us with comparable benefits with far fewer costs. Population growth is also so clearly caused by inequity. I encourage everyone who is concerned about human overpopulation to go do something deep about the profound inequities that exist in human societies.

A Minor Post, Anthropogenic Change, Biodiversity Loss, Carrying Capacity, Climate Change, Habitat Destruction, Population Growth, Population Pressure, Sustainability

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