Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Overpopulation Rant

Remember “The Population Bomb”? In the 1970s, overpopulation was a major global concern -- widely discussed and generally accepted as a critical problem. Governments advocated family planning programs on everything from public health posters to postage stamps, and as I recall, the issue of population control regularly made television news.

Lately, I’ve been wondering what happened to that widespread public concern. The world’s population now (6.8 billion) is greater than it’s ever been, but we seldom hear anyone (and certainly not anyone in government) advocating population control or family planning.

I suspect they’re afraid to go there for fear of being labeled “anti-family." It’s a shame that the political right has been permitted to hijack the issue and twist the discussion.

I’m convinced that overpopulation is our most critical global problem -- greater than global warming, environmental degradation, energy consumption, pollution, disease, starvation, immigration and crime. Because overpopulation is the single root cause of all those issues.

I’m sorry that global religious leaders have so successfully demonized birth control. (And I’m not talking about abortion here, though I am decisively pro-choice. I’m talking about spreading misinformation about the pill, about vasectomies, about condom use.) I remember a few years ago the pope actually contended that Catholics ought to be having more children to stay competitive with other religious groups. What is this, a race?

At the extreme are the “quiverfull” people, who contend that we ought to shun birth control and have as many children as God “sends” us, because it’s part of his overall plan. Let me satirically suggest that if they don’t want to take advantage of modern medicine for contraceptive purposes, they should also abstain from taking any of their bazillions of kids to the doctor. The results will also model God's all-natural plan.

When I was in Tampa last week I read an article about a woman with 15 children, no job and a boyfriend in jail for drug dealing. All her income came from the government. She and her 12 youngest kids were living in a motel room, and she was angry at social service agencies for not finding her a better place to live.

Granted, again, this is an extreme situation, and as my friend Sue pointed out, the kids (as always) are the ones who suffer. But I wonder: Are our social service programs so poorly designed that this is the result?

For a long time, the theory was that as societies developed and became wealthier their birth rates would go down. But I’m not seeing that happening -- the pace of development can’t keep up with the birth rates, particularly when people are wearing the blinders of religion and cultural tradition.

I seriously think it's time for every nation to consider imposing limits on the number of children a family can have, a la China. Of course, it’s unlikely every government would do so, and it’s difficult to enforce such regulations. (I'd say mandatory tube-tying after two kids, for both men and women.) Admittedly, the pervasive sexism in some societies endangers female children when childbirth is limited -- we'd have to protect them via focused law enforcement.

But something has to be done. The world can’t continue growing this way. Some people say growth is an imperative -- that economies can’t prosper without continual, steady growth, and merely maintaining equals collapse. I don’t really get that. Fewer younger people would be available to take care of the older generation, sure, but I'm not sure why that would mean out-and-out disaster.

Wow, this entry got huge. Guess this stuff has been percolating in my head for a while.

(Photo: The graffiti artist Chickenkid, who you may remember from this post, left this work in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.)


  1. Points well made.

    Not only are there too many people in the world, but the areas of rising population are also the poorest.

  2. Goodness! Where to start?
    Your post interested me, not least because of the obvious passion and concern that drove it. However, I can't decide if all your suggestions are serious. Manual (mandatory?) tube-tying after 2 kids? An invasive and potentially risky procedure (more so for women.)
    I've been googling and found it quite hard to find reliable data on the subject, but had a look at the 'Population Clock' which showed the rise, but not the percentage of increase. India, Pakistan & China appear to be the main offenders, with the USA & UK catching up.
    An article I read suggested that one reason for population increase in the developed world is that people are living longer. In the UK we face the possibility of an ageing population. I think that's a serious problem too.

  3. We aren't having too many kids here, but elsewhere, yes. Well, according to our cultural assumptions there are too many kids being born.

    This is the way on our planet. A species will overpopulate, then something happens to cull the herd. Something will happen to us, too.

  4. Betty: I'm serious! Perhaps there's a better answer than tube-tying but some sort of enforceable contraceptive would be necessary under such a drastic policy. I'd love it if we could not be so drastic, but I'm not hopeful if we want results. A good Web site, I think, is http://www.populationconnection.org/

    It is true that longer-lived populations, at least in the developed world, are part of the problem. But once you're here, you're here. I think our goal should be to ensure that all children who are conceived are wanted and can be well cared for.

    Reya: In some ways, I think making distinctions between population trends in specific nations is counterproductive. This is a GLOBAL problem, and should be approached in a global manner. You're right that something will eventually happen naturally, but it's not likely to be pretty -- I'd like to think we could manage our population well enough to reduce the misery of that eventuality.

  5. Steve - thanks for the link. Will check it out. I'm in total agreement with children needing to be wanted & cared for & realise that we should all be thinking and acting towards a safer future.
    I'm going to be in NYC in October - let me buy you a drink or 2 and we can discuss some more!

  6. China tried mandated birth control and it greatly distorted the demographics because of all the baby girls who were killed. I agree with you that overpopulation is a problem, but I'm at a loss to come up with a way to fix it. As you said so well, it's the poorest and the most disadvantaged who are largely responsible for the population boom. You have to wonder what this world is going to be like in 50 years.

  7. Great post and lots to think about. I just wish the people that are here now would stop throwing their food and garbage on the ground. This city is filthy and I'm really getting disgusted by it.