Why Won’t “Overpopulation” (Finally) Go Away?

By: Robert Fletcher, Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University

The age-old specter of “overpopulation,” it seems, is back in vogue among environmentalists once more. “Our population,” writes celebrity biologist E.O. Wilson on the first page of his new book Half-Earth, “is too large for safety and comfort.” Celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs agrees, arguing in his own new book on sustainable development that “our starting point is our crowded planet.” Meanwhile, in Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, an eclectic collection of writers come together to “reignite a robust discussion of population issues among environmentalists, environmental studies scholars, policymakers, and the general public.” At the same time, the Foundation for Deep Ecology has launched a campaign called Global Population Speak Out, supported by a collection of evocative photographs, to explore “connections between the size and growth of the human population and key sustainability issues.” This focus has been reinforced by recent projections that the global population may reach nearly ten billion by 2050, revising previous assertions of an imminent level-off at nine billion or less. Despite decades of debate and concerted efforts to point out the problems in its framing, “overpopulation,” it seems, is squarely back on the environmental agenda yet again.

Photo courtesy of James Cridland (CC BY 2.0)

A Public Secret
What is striking about this resurgence is the way it so commonly frames “overpopulation” as an issue that has been widely suppressed or excluded from public discussion. Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström call it “the forgotten problem,” both Randy Alcorn and Chuck Baclagon “the real inconvenient truth,” and various others the proverbial “elephant on the room.” Wilson asserts that it is “still wildly unpopular” to raise the issue. Claiming that “[m]ost environmental groups now steer clear of the subject,” Carolyn Lochhead writes, “For various reasons, linking the world’s rapid population growth to its deepening environmental crisis, including climate change, is politically taboo.” Baclagon agrees that “environmental and government agencies often avoid discussing how to stabilise or reduce human population.” Life on the Brink, finally, claims to “confront hard issues regarding contraception, abortion, immigration, and limits to growth that many environmentalists have become too timid or politically correct to address in recent years.”

Yet concerns about “overpopulation” have in fact been repeatedly voiced for more than a century now by all manner of actors and institutions, from academics to politicians, from UN agencies to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Jan Breitling, Valerie Puleo, and I outline this prolific history in a recent article, which shows that such concern has usually been framed in precisely the manner just described: as something that no one else wants to talk about but that must be addressed nonetheless. This is, as Michel Foucault famously described of Western European discussion of sexuality, an issue that “speaks verbosely of its own silences” and “takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say.”

All of this evokes the idea of an “open” or “public secret,” in which something ostensibly concealed is in fact quite well known and commonly voiced yet maintains an aura of secrecy because its presentation is usually framed as the “revelation” of something previously kept hidden. I have written about public secrecy, a concept developed by anthropologist Michael Taussig, at length in various articles elsewhere, with respect to such diverse issues as colonialism, adventure tourism, celebrity, and environmental governance. What is intriguing about a public secret is that no amount of explicit exposure can usually erase the sense that there is still a secret at its center, since the manner of its ostensive revelation (as something previously hidden) in fact paradoxically reinforces the sense that that one is exposing something that is or at least can be concealed.

This is precisely the form that so much discussion of “overpopulation” seems to take. And it helps, I think, to explain why the issue just won’t go away, despite the fact that so much solid research and analysis, which we also outline in the paper mentioned earlier, has convincingly demonstrated why it is the wrong way to think about the problems it confronts.

Those concerned with population growth commonly acknowledge that it is the combination of such growth and increased consumption that is responsible for environmental decline. Yet in so doing, they frequently shift quite quickly from a brief nod to the latter to sustained focus on the former, contending that while of course overconsumption in a few wealthy countries is the principle source of environmental degradation currently, imagine how much worse the problem would be if all of the world’s poor end up consuming at similar rates as well. Madeline Weld is paradigmatic in writing:

Those who deny that overpopulation is a problem say the poor don’t consume much. Yet the poor want nothing more than to consume more, as proved by India and China. Who can blame them? And a burgeoning number of desperately poor people does have a major impact: they cut down forests to grow food, drain rivers, deplete aquifers, and overfish and over-hunt in their local area.

In this way, the emphasis quickly turns from addressing real issues in the here and now to a hypothetical future scenario that becomes the principle focus of attention. Psychologists call this dynamic “disavowal,” where something is superficially acknowledged yet its significance diminished. Such disavowal, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is precisely what sustains public secrecy. And in the process, inequality itself is actually defended in the interest of sustainability.

An Issue of Last Resort
Those raising the specter of “overpopulation” commonly lament that their efforts to draw attention to the issue inspire condemnation by critics. “But make these points,” Weld continues, “and you’ll be accused of blaming the poor for the problems of the rich.” They also commonly claim that critiquing the issue privileges human over nonhuman needs. But the critique of “overpopulation” is not intended to demonize those who raise the issue or to privilege anthropocentric interests but rather precisely to show how a focus on the proliferation of the poor commonly distracts attention from the actions of the rich.

None of this is to suggest the issue of population growth is wholly irrelevant, neither with respect to environmental problems nor to equally important issues of poverty and development either. Neither is it to assert that population growth will “naturally” tail off as development proceeds, a position increasingly criticized in the overpopulation debate. Obviously, everyone with any sense agrees that continual unchecked population growth will eventually render Earth unlivable for most species. And in some places, curbing this growth will undoubtedly require active intervention. But in discussions of sustainability, population growth should be the last issue addressed, while instead it is increasingly becoming the first, if not primary, problem to be identified.

In this way, a focus on “overpopulation” distracts attention away from what is the most serious issue to be confronted right now: overconsumption of natural resources fueled by an economic system that demands continual growth, not in order to sustain the global population so much as to accumulate tremendous wealth in the hands of a very few people. Until this obscene inequity, and the economic system driving it, is adequately addressed all the attention to overpopulation in the world will do nothing to halt our environmental crisis. On this upcoming fiftieth Earth Day, then, let us hope that the specter of “overpopulation” will finally be laid to rest for good—the good of all, humans and nonhumans alike.

Robert Fletcher
is Associate Professor in the Sociology and Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He is the author of Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism (Duke University Press, 2014) and co-editor of NatureTM Inc: Environmental Conservation in the Neoliberal Age (University of Arizona Press, 2014).

Cite as: 
Fletcher, Robert. 2016. “Why Won’t ‘Overpopulation’ (Finally) Go Away?” EnviroSociety, 19 April. http://www.envirosociety.org/2016/04/why-wont-overpopulation-finally-go-away.

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