Does Earth First! Carry the Capacity for a Justice Based Approach to Overpopulation?
Last October the 7 billionth human came into being on this little planet of ours, once again bringing the question of overpopulation to the forefront. To say that the discourse on human population levels has been ugly would be an understatement. On one side you have the narrow-minded and often times racist rhetoric from within our own ranks(1) wrongly assigning blame to poor, impoverished nations or immigrants for the Earth’s population woes (and conveniently absolving themselves of any guilt) while ignoring issues of First World privilege and over-consumption. On the other side there are many social justice groups reacting to these racist comments by downplaying(2) the negative impacts humans have had on the Earth or trying to narrow the problem down to solely an issue of consumption and resource distribution.
To complicate matters further, many governments have turned to authoritarian measures such as forced sterilization or enacting harsh penalties for women who have more than one child, leaving a rather sour taste in ones mouth when the question of solutions to population growth come up. As if that is not enough, overtly racist groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, The Weeden Foundation, and Carrying Capacity Network, are actively throwing millions of dollars at the environmental movement to get them on the anti-immigrant bandwagon(3).
Unfortunately the asinine comments of our ecological forefathers combined with the population policies of authoritarian regimes have made it next to impossible to discuss the issue of overpopulation without being thrown in with the unsavory company of racists and dictators. What’s a justice minded radical environmentalist to do?
It is important that we confront these racist and authoritarian attitudes but equally important that we not throw the 7 billionth baby out with the bathwater by denying the real impacts of a massive human population on the planet. What follows is an effort to detangle the issue of overpopulation from misanthropy and xenophobia of some environmentalists while laying out justice based, cooperative (rather than coercive) solutions to the population crisis.
First off we need to acknowledge that human overpopulation is a problem. While it may be technically possible to sustain 7 billion people, it is clearly impossible to do this without severely degrading the biodiversity of the planet and pushing countless species into extinction. For those of us who embrace a biocentric worldview such a scenario is not acceptable.
To go a step further, we must acknowledge that overpopulation is not just an environmental issue, but a social justice issue as well. Lets not forget that acquiring the basic resources our own species needs to survive is becoming increasingly difficult as human activities degrade the Earth’s ability to provide food, clean water and all the other things that make our existence possible. To make matters worse, the unsustainable use of fossil fuels (which must come to an end and to which there is no sustainable replacement), has acted as an insulator against regional ecological collapses that are already happening (drought, floods, mega-storms) by allowing for the quick redistribution of resources. Unfortunately, if we want a climate that is conducive to human existence, we must give up this luxury as well. Ensuring that everyone on the planet has equal access to daily necessities will only be possible if we address the issue of overpopulation.
Taking a look at the numbers
Lets take a look at how 7 billion humans are currently impacting the planet on the macro level. We humans make up a mere .00018 percent of non-marine biomass but use an incredible 20 percent of Earth’s net terrestrial primary production. In other words, every year humans utilize,consume, degrade and destroy 20 percent of all terrestrial life on Earth as measured by weight. 83 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is under direct human influence and 12% of the terrestrial surface is covered in crops (and still more land is dedicated to livestock grazing).
The numbers speak for themselves. Humans have a disproportionate and negative impact on the Earth’s ecosystems whether its climate change, erosion of topsoil, overfishing, desertification, water extraction, or deforestation.
But, the astute reader will say: Aren’t these ills by and large fueled by the exorbitant lifestyles of wealthy nations and the global elite. To which one must answer. Yes. Consumption levels are absolutely a factor, if not THE factor when talking about overpopulation and resource use. Any justice minded approach to the population issue must take on the over-consumption of middle and upper class lifestyles as a primary approach.
However we have to ask the question, can 7 billion humans live sustainably on this planet at any level of consumption? First, lets take this from a biological perspective. We are a top level, land dwelling predator. There are 7 billion of us filling this ecological role while all other species that fit into this niche (wolves, bears, lions, etc.) number only 1.7 million worldwide. That means there are 4000 humans for every 1 nonhuman top level mammalian predator.
Not only is the human population way out of proportion for the ecological niche we fulfill, we additionally require far more resources for our survival than any other animal. In addition to food and water, we require additional resources for clothing, heating, and cooking. These necessities further amplify the impact humans have on the Earth. If we accept that other animal populations can exceed an ecosystems carrying capacity, we must be willing to use the same yardstick for ourselves. From a purely biological perspective we have greatly exceeded the carrying capacity of ecosystems of which our niche is meant to fulfill.
Another way to look at our impact is in terms of how much land per person is needed to sustain us. According to Worldwide Fund for Nature the average person living in the US has an ecological footprint of 30 acres. That is it takes 30 acres of land to provide the resources to maintain that lifestyle. The US is second only to the United Arab Emirates in per capita use of resources. On the other end of the scale is Bangladesh whose average ecological footprint is a little under 1.5 acres per person. That means that even if we were to bring global levels of consumption down to the levels of one of the poorest countries on Earth, 7 billion people would still need 10.5 billion acres of land. There are 36.48 billion acres of land in total on our planet of which only 7.68 billion acres are suitable for agriculture.
So even at the very low living standard of a Bangladeshi, humans would be utilizing just shy of a third of the Earth’s land surface. I presume that everyone reading this article would strive for a world where everyone can live at a higher standard of living than is found in Bangladesh which had the highest rate of malnutrition world-wide in 2008 and the average person lives on less than a dollar a day.
Even though it may be technically possible to sustain a population of 7 billion at a lower level of consumption, it is still impossible for one species to dominate 1/3 of the Earth’s surface for its own needs without adversely impacting other species and the health of entire ecosystems.
We must also factor into the equation other unsettling trends which greatly impair the Earth’s ability to sustain a massive human population. Due to erosion, desertification, soil salinization, and other factors we are losing 38,610 square miles of arable land every year. Climate Change is expected to further reduce the total global agriculture output by between 3-16% with some regions seeing agricultural output being cut in half. Climate change and the ocean acidification caused by CO2 emissions are expected to greatly reduce the biocapacity of ocean ecosystems, impacting access to seafood which is considered an “essential” source of nutrition for approximately 3 billion people globally. In addition land loss due to rising sea levels, displacement due to flooding and drought will create further difficulties for human communities’ survival.
Where do we go from here?
There is no way around it. If we want a world in which healthy ecosystems flourish, species extinction ends, and all humans have access to the resources they need to live a comfortable life, we must find ways to reduce the human population.
Lets be clear, this does not mean we get all Pol Pot on each other and start sending people to the killing fields. Any solution to the population crisis must be justice based and non-coercive. Authoritarian approaches such as China’s one child policy have proven not only ineffective but horribly cruel. We need solutions to overpopulation based on cooperation, not coercion. Fortunately there are several solutions that can help alleviate the population crisis while also addressing issues of inequality around the world.
To start, there is already some good news; the rate at which the global population is growing is already in decline from a peak of 2.2 percent growth per year in 1962 to 1.1 percent in 2009. Several countries are actually experiencing negative population growth.
1. Drastically reduce consumption. There is no doubt that the most immediate way to reduce human impact on the environment is for wealthy nations and individuals to drastically reduce consumption. Rates of consumption must always be a part of the solution when discussing overpopulation but alone are not enough.
2. Smash Patriarchy. Worldwide, nearly 40% of pregnancies are unintended (some 80 million unintended pregnancies each year). An estimated 350 million women in the poorest countries of the world either did not want their last child, do not want another child or want to space their pregnancies, but they lack access to information, affordable means and services to determine the size and spacing of their families. In the United States, in 2001, almost half of pregnancies were unintended. Empowering women and ensuring they have full control of their bodies can greatly reduce birthrates while addressing what is perhaps the most pervasive act of inequality. Some specific actions that have proven to reduce birthrates are improving women’s access to education and family planning including contraceptives and safe abortions. On a broader level this means dismantling the institution of patriarchy so that women have the ability to make the choices that directly affect their bodies without the interference of partners, religion, governments, and other institutions.
3. Separate overpopulation from immigration. Unfortunately many groups from overt racists to mainstream conservation groups (and sadly even some EF!ers) have attempted to tie the issue of overpopulation to immigration, making half-assed (and xenophobic) arguments that hordes of brown people are going to come to OUR country and destroy OUR wilderness. This kind of protectionism and racist rhetoric has no place in a just solution to the overpopulation problem and only feeds, the notion that we in the US have the right to destroy other countries ecosystems to fuel our exorbitant lifestyles while preserving our own wild places4. NIMBYist approaches to a global problem simply will not work. The last time I checked hordes of immigrants were not building trophy homes in our last wild areas or clearcutting our forests, wealthy corporations were. A just approach to overpopulation must have a pro-migration stance especially when we take into account that most immigrants to the US are economic and ecological refugees of catastrophes created by the US government.
4. Class war. There is a strong correlation between poverty and higher birthrates. Efforts to redistribute wealth from rich to poor could go a long way in lifting millions of people out of poverty and thereby reducing birthrates. These efforts could range from breaking up large landholdings and redistributing them to landless farmers to implementing wage equality so that all workers are able to earn a living wage rather than simply making the rich richer (and giving them more money to destroy the planet with).
5. End policies that encourage population growth. Believe it or not, there are several countries with low birthrates such as Italy, Russia, and Malaysia that actually pay people to have kids! These policies are largely fueled by fears of a country loosing its “ethnic identity” as the “native” population breeds less and immigrant populations move in. Having less people in a given country should not be considered a problem and policies encouraging people to have more children should come to an immediate end.
So what are you waiting for? Its just a simple matter of dismantling the global class system while tearing down the old institution of patriarchy! I’ll be the first to admit that these are lofty goals to be achieved. How we achieve them is far beyond the scope of this essay but at the very least they gives us a way forward for discussing a justice based approach to overpopulation. We can address the issue of overpopulation without wallowing in the misanthropic rhetoric Earth First’s! bygone days. There are ways to reduce human population that are cooperative, empowering, and effective and that affirm humans’ role in the Earth’s myriad ecosystems.Footnotes: 1- “The Aids epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population… If [it] didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].” -Dave Foreman.
2- “Some resources are limited—but again, those that are in crisis, such as oil, could be replaced. In fact, more people can do more work and create more wealth.” –The Socialist Worker
3- For example, The racist Weeden foundation gave $15,000 in 2005 to E Magazine to “to underwrite the research, writing, and public relations/distribution costs for their coverage of population and immigration topics.” E Magazine has subsequently run ads by anti-immigrant groups.