Those scary, reproducing brown billions: a primer on population boom alarmism

The panic is coming, y’all.

In the past few weeks, there’s been a resurgence of population boom alarmism and photo journalism of lots of brown folk taking over the planet. All this comes on the heels of revisions to the population projections by the UN Development Program. Which, if one READS them, say that in fact there is a decline in fertility rates in many countries and that there is in fact a complicated picture being painted here. According to Hania Zlotnik, director of the UN Population Division, “the population as a whole is on a path toward nonexplosion—which is good news.”

Now, that’s not to say that over-consumption and environmental sustainability aren’t problems. But there are major problems with laying the blame of overpopulation on the shoulders of women and men of childbearing years who live in the global south. What happens when we do that, you ask? Well, population control programs emerge and they try to drive down birth rates as quickly and cheaply as possible. They do this through aggressively promoting sterilization or long-acting, provider-controlled contraceptives without acknowledging that education and access to basic health care, as well as birth control and abortion are vital for public health. Seriously, if you want to have a host of brilliant responses the next time you’re at a dinner party and someone says something uninformed about the population boom, read this.

Or you could say what I say (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek): the main problem our planet is facing is not, in fact, more poor babies in the global south, but is rather the collusion of unsustainable wars, uncritical capitalism, a disregard for human rights and most reality-tv programming. But that’s just me.

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  • Gabe

    Racism becomes a handy tool for defending the consumption habits of the privileged. If people ate lower on the food chain (read: not meat), we wouldn’t have to worry about whether the planet can support everybody’s children.

  • Jay

    The very best contraceptive is money. The poorer and more desperate people are, the more children they have because they need a lot of help to make the family survive. If people can get a little bit of security and a legitimate hope for the future, then they might decide to limit their family so that fewer kids might have a better life.

    • SamBarge

      Money and the empowerment of women. Once women have the education, resources and political strength to control the number of children they have, they will.

      This hysteria about non-white population growth is nothing new. It’s the double edged sword of racism and sexism that gets swung around every couple of years. You can date this sort of nonsense back to the Victorians at least.

  • steven

    The Hampshire College link just doesn’t make sense to me.

    When I think of the host of major environmental problems like wilderness and species loss, air pollution, rising CO2, ocean and land degradation, etc they all seem to be correlated strongly with a rising (and in some cases wealthier) population putting ever greater demands upon natural resources. The Hampshire article more or less just denies this.

    • mistress clarissa

      i would agree whole heartedly steven. the hampshire college study while it questions the validity of how the numbers for reproduction came to be, they completely overlook at the most basic population stats. just look at the census in this country and we have doubled our pop since 1970.

      this article that includes the very weakly researched hampshire college study makes the assumption that there is only a concern of overpopulation in third world/brown countries. overpopulation is happening world wide, especially in this massively consumptive country. we here in the states and the first world are oblivious to our own issues especially when many of us live in big houses and apartments, nice nabes with good schools. we look out our own door and think we are doing great unaware of over crowding happening in other places.

      just because we have a few parks left is in no way a sign of sustainability.
      it is also of the highest human ego to make irrelevant all the other science that clearly shows human impact on this great blue ball. it is also foolish to fail to notice places like india and china simply have run out of usable space and the population lives shoulder to shoulder, one on top of another except for the well to do.

      yes we need to change the way and how we consume all over the planet, especially in the west or we will find less space, food, even more competition for the dwindling resources. we will also find faster and greater encroaching desert wastelands like in china and africa, and destruction of habitat and nature as we try and make more with a lot less.

  • MScott

    A problem here is that, just skimming through it, I can pick out at least one case of personal bias in the Hampshire College document you link to, which makes me doubt whether the entire thing is objective and based on facts. In particular, it’s statement that “Nuclear [...] reactors and waste pose the most deadly environmental threat to the planet” is so wildly exaggerated, alarmist, factually false, and laden with personal bias that any other claim this document may make is now automatically suspect. This items makes it immediately seem to me more like someone using this as a personal platform to push their views. And perhaps most of their views are valid, and objectively supported by the facts, but they’ve got at least one case of smoke which makes me worry that they’re cherry-picking their information to only support the conclusion they want to reach. I would suggest finding something more objective to use as your “read this” example.

  • Kim

    I agree that we have no place to demonize the fertility of any woman – global south or global north – and talking about population growth in terms of ‘overpopulation’ implies that certain demographics (read: poor, developing) are having too many children. Yet refusing to talk about population because of these associations obscures a very real problem facing the planet we live on, and dissolves potential partnerships that could actually benefit women, families, and access to healthcare and SRHR services worldwide.

    Organizations and individuals working from Paul Ehrlich’s assertions that we are rapidly ‘overpopulating’ and need to implement controls on fertility still exist. Yet I would argue that there are many MORE organizations and individuals – in the environmental, reproductive health, and development sectors – who recognize that population growth is a reality best tackled by ensuring that women and girls have access to voluntary family planning, education, economic opportunities, and safe, accessable health care services. We know that access to the above has positive ramifications for families, communities, and the future of our planet.

    Perhaps instead of balking at the mention of the word “population,” we should use the concept to build bridges between the reproductive health & rights, environmental, and development communities to work TOGETHER to ensure that people around the world have the ability to plan the timing and spacing of their children, and can bring those children into a world with clean air, adequate food, and a healthy enviornment in which to learn and grow.

  • beet

    Right on. For some of us, it’s not population boom that’s the problem, it’s population collapse. In Taiwan, the average woman has less than one child, meaning that the population is cut in half within one generation, cut by three-fourths in two generations.

    In Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea, the average woman has barely more. China is headed there too with a fertility rate of only 1.5, not far from 1. Once the present generation retires, there will be not enough workers to support them and this will cause huge problems.

    In the ’60s and ’70s it was the ‘yellow peril’ and too many East Asians having babies, people like Paul Ehrlich and others came in with propaganda that fewer is better. Their propaganda was too effective– now there’s not enough. Mara Hvistendahl discusses this in her book about gendercide in Asia.

  • Redpine

    The human carrying capacity of the earth is a function of our consumption, the technologies we use to exploit the earth’s production, and our population. The criteria by which we can determine if we have exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth is if we are currently degrading the ecosystem that we rely on to produce our food and fiber, recycle wastes, provide potable water, balance competing populations of pests, etc. In a world where we are eroding out soils, fowling our water, desertifying entire regions, experiencing destructive mass die-offs of animals, trees, and other organisms, and even changing the earth’s climate, the evidence indicates that we have already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity.

    We have three ways to bring ourselves back into balance with the earth, reduce our consumption, develop more efficient technologies, and/or reduce our population. Given that we only have one earth and probably only a generation or two to make this right, we would be foolish to not to address all three.

    Any attempt to turn this into an issue of skin color is a red herring at best. We need to stay on task if we are going to heal the earth and sustain our collective future.