The Pink Elephant in the Room that Nobody Wants to Discuss:
Population – Part 1
By foreseeing problems at a distance, which is only done by men of talents, the evils which might arise from them are soon cured. However, when, from want of foresight, they are suffered to increase to such a degree that everyone can see them, it is too late and there is no remedy. Pain and suffering shallow follow, as surely as day follows the night.
The Prince, Machiavelli
The pink elephant pictured above is a metaphor for the unmentionable question we do not talk about – population. In the 1970s it was a question that was allowed to be talked about – no more. Back then environmental sustainability was inextricably linked with population reduction – no more. We have become uncomfortable with asking uncomfortable questions – and population is certainly one of them. Why this is well explained by this environmental journalist (1):
“Mitigating some substantial percentage of that population growth would be one way to better environmental conditions in 2050. It would also have more impact than virtually any other climate policy. When political movements or leaders adopt population control as a central concern … let’s just say it never goes well. In practice, where you find concern over “population,” you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost always, ahem, particular populations that need reducing. There’s much downside and not much upside to talking about population So that, for the record, is why I hardly ever talk or write about population. (I will now send all future askers of the population question to this post.) It is high risk very, very easy to step on moral landmines in that territory — with little reward.”
While this is true, as far as it goes, it is still gutless. The really best things in life are the hardest – by definition. Here is a strong response to the above article which I love (4):
Reading David Roberts’ recent explanation of why he never writes on overpopulation, I felt compelled to reply. While Roberts made a set of superficially convincing arguments, ultimately he’s wrong not to focus directly on the population pressures we’re facing. Not confronting population head-on is like looking out the window of a plane and realizing you’re about to crash but refusing to tell the other passengers about the impending crash. Instead you spend your remaining moments convincing people that it’s “empowering” to wear their seat belts.
Other authors responded to the article cited above with this:
Successful family planning initiatives show that there are humane ways to keep a growth rate in check, and some scientists have even made the case that we must do it in order for the human race as a whole to survive. As climate change continues to threaten the well-being of the entire planet, argue scientists in a recent opinion piece in Science, it’s time to take population control more seriously than ever. (2)
We need to talk about how population growth is harming the planet Discussions of population’s impact on Earth have been off limits, but scientists and conservationists are challenging the taboo and politicians must do the same. (3)
Fact: Human impact on the natural environment is summed up in a simple formula:
Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology
Fact: The current global population has crossed 7.5 billion and is heading upward. The latest UN projections have it hitting 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Average fertility rate will decrease, but that effect will be overwhelmed by the absolute numbers.
Fact: Avoidance of an attempt to make this part of our discussions dooms us to failure. No, not because population reduction is THE solution to all our problems. Most probably it is not. However, by not allowing certain “holy cows” or “pink elephants” to be discussed we reduce our ability to seek creative and unconventional solutions to the multiple crises our civilization faces. For don’t forget, the climate crisis is only 1 of several major problems we face. When, or if, we solve it, there is bound to be another existential threat. That is just where we are in History.
Now, I know that our rate of population growth is decreasing, as shown below (5), but, is a population of over 10 billion really sustainable? I think there is enough evidence to show that our ecosystems are already over taxed. I like the following metaphor: we are the deer in Yellowstone Park. We think we are a success. Our population has been rising. What we are not noticing is that our over-population is damaging the park’s rivers and forests and other species. The deer thought all was well, but no other species did. So, the wardens brought in wolves from Canada. They reduced the deer population. The entire ecosystem benefited. We are the deer. What will be our “wolf”? Watch the following video which makes this point clear. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/wolves-yellowstone/
Let’s go back in time to how the idea for writing this essay came about. A couple of days ago I had an uncontrollable urge to walk into the Salvation Army in Kemptville. There I discovered 2 treasures: a beautiful (and comfy!) Italian sweater and a book I had imagined existed but had never found: The New Green History of the World, by Clive Ponting . In the Preface he states the following:
“At the end of my first edition (1991) I tried to strike a balance between pessimism and optimism. However, in the last 16 years the balance has clearly tipped in favour of pessimism. It has been a period of wasted opportunities.”
I could not agree more. This struggle, this “war” of ideas to live sustainably vs. our current unsustainable living (that many of us necessary deem to our very survival) seems to be lost. Or is it?
The metaphor of our need to devote as many resources to fighting that climate crisis as we did in WWII has often been used. I like it, particularly as there are so many good books analyzing this disastrous conflict. My favourite is the “History of the Second World War” by Liddell Hart. In his introduction he makes the point that this war was avoidable – if the Allies had not been so willing to appease Hitler’s demands because his Generals did not want a war as they were convinced that they would lose it. So, when Hitler always got what we wanted their credibility was destroyed and they had no leverage to stop him. Here is an excerpt:
“The last thing Hitler wanted to produce was another great war. His people, and particularly his generals, were profoundly fearful of any such risks. The Chief of the general staff resigned when Hitler announced his plans to annex Czechoslovakia, but Hitler was convinced, because the Allies had allowed him annex the Rhineland and Austria, that they would not react. The Chief of the general staff had actually written a memorandum, signed by all the other generals, which argued that Hitler’s expansionist policies were bound to produce a world-wide catastrophe and be Germany’s ruin. They actually plotted a military revolt to avoid the risk of war and told the British. However, this plan was made impossible by Chamberlain acceding to Hitler’s plan to annex Czechoslovakia (where my family comes from) by buying “Peace in our Time.” (7)
In other words, he and most British people, were unwilling to face the harsh truth of Nazi aggression, unable to change, unable to realize by avoiding conflict that had made conflict not only unavoidable, but much bloodier than it need have been. Today most people want “Peace in our Time”. They do not want to face the uncomfortable truth that we are destroying ourselves when we destroy our climate, when we destroy entire ecosystems, when we make species extinct, when we vote for “leaders” who our leading us, albeit willingly, to our own doom: more like a pack of lemmings heading for a cliff than a species that has the arrogance to call itself home sapiens.
If we take the view that to life is to struggle, and that the level of nation this means war, our environmental challenges can be seen as a type of war. However, I cannot imagine that a war with Nature, with the Climate, with the basic physical-chemical processes of our planet, is one we can ever win. All we can do is pro-actively change before we damage ourselves (our mental health crisis), and ecosystems that support us (the 6th mass extinction). Symptoms that we are “losing the war” and thus that we need to change how we live and how our economies function are too numerous to recite completely, but a few include: failed states, accelerating wealth disparity between the super-rich 1% and everybody else and decreasing sperm count.
When there’s an elephant in the room introduce him. – Randy Pausch
On the other hand, I do agree that the following is worthy of examination (1):
“Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth. You could do that by, for instance, taxing the shit out of wealthy people. If you approached the problem that way, under the banner of reducing global income inequality, you would find many allies. Income inequality is a top-line concern of people and organizations all over the world, even some conservatives these days. Reducing high-end consumption could have an enormous short-term impact on carbon emissions, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson is always saying. Shifting wealth within populations — reducing the number of very wealthy and the number in poverty — can have as much carbon impact as reducing overall population. So maybe, at the next environmental event, you could ask the income inequality question rather than the population question.”
My concern is not the answer to our environmental crisis – it is with the questions we ask. Avoidance of uncomfortable questions drives me crazy! I am convinced that it is in our discomfort that we find better and deeper understanding of how we got ourselves into the mess we are in. Thus, without rejoicing in this discomfort we are never going to extract ourselves from this mess, well, at least not until it is too late to avoid a lot of suffering and death of rivers, lakes, soils, oceans, forests, animals, and yes, people.
Remember, we do not just have a climate crisis – it is only the tip of the iceberg.
It is toxic soil, species extinction, ecosystem destruction, mental health, social breakdown, despair, unaffordable housing, homelessness, extremes of wealth and poverty, failed neo-liberalism policies, populists politicians, religious fanaticism, food insecurity leading to eventual famine, disease, ocean acidification, the opioid epidemic, the burnings of the rainforest, melting permafrost, boreal forests burning, loss of Arctic sea ice…. The list goes on and on and on…
And what makes all these things worse?
It is not the cause of all the above problems – but it is the gasoline on the fire which makes the fire impossible to control. We are greedily using of most of the World’s resources that should be shared with the other species – not shared to be “nice” – but out of necessity. We are but one species in the ecosystem – to thinks otherwise is, in my opinion, a God delusion. Any time people put themselves at the centre of all, as the only species that matters, we are, in effect, making our self in a type of God, and we know from History that when people makes themselves into God very, very bad things happen. Anything is justified in the name of God. Anything can be done to “the other”, the “infidel”, and in this case “the other” are all other species, all other life. They have no value. Clean water, soil and air has no value. It’s all about money. For me. Now. Today. The future be damned. And if we continue our insane way of life the future is damned.
Yes, you and I are damning our children and grandchildren to a living hell – a hell which is avoidable. Such an uncomfortable truth. Such a harsh truth. It is understandable that most people behave like Chamberlain and desire “Peace in our Time”.
But it is not to be.
Life is struggle.
Life is conflict.
Life is war.
Survival means facing the harshness of life.
The question is not how many people can the Earth hold.
The question is not how many people can we feed.
The question is how can people, as only 1 species of millions, live so that these other species also thrive on the planet, not only today, but for the foreseeable future?
The question is what how will the human spirit be free if there is no more wilderness? If everything we do is controlled and measured and measured and given a $ value?
The question is what will it take to get us to change?
Will it take massive pain, suffering, starvation, disease inflicted first on other species and then inevitable onto ourselves? Or can we use the foresight of the few, what Machiavelli calls “men of talents”, to see the future BEFORE it hit us, and make the necessary changes?
In effect, this becomes a political question.
For politics is a process of selecting people to exercise power over, and hopefully for the benefit of the masses of those who cannot the future until it hits them in the head.
Democracy, today, does a poor job of this. We wait until everybody can see what has been obvious to the “men of talents” for a long time. And then it is too late. WWII did not have to happen. Climate induced famine, disease, societal & economic collapse do not have to happen. But we do have to face uncomfortable truths. We do have to change. We do have to follow the advice of our “men of talents”.
We can do this.
We can face the population question.
Not by necessarily following the Chinese 1 child policy. Not necessarily by blocking all refugees at our borders. But without honest conversations about all options we invite, no, we make inevitable, the reactionary and destructive populists policies that are springing forth around the world. The more we pretend population is not an issue, the more it becomes and issue. Like an hidden truth it festers. It hides within the cracks of our unconscious and distorts our thinking. It makes honesty impossible. It is 1939. The World War, because we have had leaders like Chamberlain, is upon us.
Are you ready to face uncomfortable conversations?
Are you read to talk about population policies?
Are you ready for the climate wars, whatever their form?
So, What are you doing?
- I’m an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation. Here’s why. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/9/26/16356524/the-population-question
- Population Control Is the Climate Change Fix Nobody Wants to Talk About https://www.inverse.com/article/48236-population-control-can-help-climate-change
- We need to talk about how population growth is harming the planethttps://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232310-100-we-need-to-talk-about-how-population-growth-is-harming-the-planet/#ixzz67uI52yhW
4. Why We Must Talk About Population https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/must-talk-about-population/
5. Future Population Growth https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth
6. The New Green History of the World, by Clive Ponting, 2007, Penguin Books
7. History of the Second World War by Liddell Hart, G.P.Putnam, New York, 1970