I clearly remember when 'Ong', my adoptive Vietnamese grandfather, looked up at me from his window-side armchair and uttered this sentence in perfect French during one of our many philosophical discussions a decade ago: “The biggest tragedy of humanity is overpopulation.” Ever since, his wise words have echoed in my head infinite times, but never as much as this year.
In recent decades, more and more respectable, outstandingly intelligent, and famous people asserted the fact that the most severe challenges facing humanity could be traced back to one common root – there are too many of us. One of the latest advocates of this view is none other than the man we all know and love, Sir David Attenborough. His eloquent words in his famous speech at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce) People and Planet Lecture back in 2011 bear more relevance than ever.
It was at the beginning of 2020 that I started to unintentionally monitor population growth. While searching for a website that could tell me quick updates on the spread and daily new cases of Covid-19, Worldometer seemed to be the handiest platform. However, every time you open their webpage the very first real-time data you see is that of the world population. Looking at the raw numbers change in continuous motion – in one direction — it feels like an eerie video game. Common sense alone should tell you, it is much scarier than looking at the numbers of Covid-19, or any other number at that.
We have lost roughly 2.2 million people due to the pandemic based on official data since the outbreak, but we have still added a net 82 million (!) people to our population last year alone, as of December 30th, 2020. To put this into perspective, we need to put the entire combined populations of France and the Netherlands somewhere on the planet without removing a single soul in any country.
Many would argue that the disproportionate growth comes from third world countries and that we have to focus on them, but this single theory is leaking from various holes. First of all, let us make it clear for ourselves that the so-called “third world” countries make up 70 percent of the world. In other words, it is the developed countries who need to adapt their superior and mistaken attitudes towards the bigger part of the world.
Secondly, there is statistical evidence that “Western” societies follow the pattern, as well. Canada had a 0.93 population growth rate in 1999/2000 while it accounted for a 1.41 population growth rate in 2018/19, merely two decades later. Australia showed a roughly 1.4 percent population growth during the same period totalling over 25.5 million citizens compared to 19 million in the year 2000. This rate is just in line with the global average.
Without politicizing science, it is of uttermost importance to fully acknowledge the fact that migration has been an inherent part of human life on this planet since the very dawn of humanity, regardless of when so-called history started. Therefore, we must simply accept and cherish the phenomenon that societies perpetually transform and grow by welcoming newcomers. To the contrary of some populist and most nationalist beliefs, this “new blood” always serves as refreshment to the recipient nation or country.
Photo: Christian Senan
When Thomas Robert Malthus published the first version of his infamous An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, one of his visionary opening phrases went like this:
“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death in some shape or other must visit the human race.”
Malthus has certainly influenced how we look at the correlation between demographics and economy, and although the Malthusian theory seems to be outdated, we could easily replace agricultural yield with the sustainable reproductivity of our entire ecosystem and his words would gain momentum once more.
Climate change, plastic pollution, deforestation, and excessive and exploitive agriculture with special regard to cattle and large-scale animal farming are all clearly the derivative of our ever-growing needs, as can be seen in the numbers alone.
Let us put this next statement straightforward.
Climate change is proved to be a constantly ongoing feature of any planet, and ours is not an exception. There are several reasonable scientific theories on what constitutes the main triggers of global climate disruptions combined with gradual increase or decline of the temperature, ranging from meteor impacts, the axial wobble of the planet due to precession, or change in the magnetic poles, to even crust displacement suggested by Prof. Charles Hapgood, a much-overlooked genius in his own right. There is a scientific consensus that ice ages have been a periodically returning feature of the global climate affecting different parts of the planet in various ways.
Photo: Ben Carless
As for a systematic assessment of the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, which is one of the main causes of the unnaturally rapid climate change since the later part of the Industrial Revolution, the experts have a fairly clear view.
Our way of inhabiting the planet and exploiting its natural resources has an abnormally high effect on soaring greenhouse gas emissions, evidenced by data.
They are diligent to emphasize that there is not one single causal root responsible for the rising global temperature, but rather an inter-related combination of several phenomena, such as population trends, production and consumption trends, energy demand, and key sectors of the world economy (transportation, construction, industry, agriculture, forestry, and waste). Nevertheless, we can clearly see that all these can be partially traced back to one simple fact:
The world population is growing.
Another issue that is almost never talked about is that our economic system and theory are almost entirely designed around the increasing and perpetual growth of the economy. Since population and demographics are the primary drivers of growth, we do not have the economic systems that are designed to deal with a stagnating, let alone decreasing population. That also means that we do not have any political or social systems that can deal with a population that does not grow.
It is about time we get one.
The main issue here is that our system is created in a way where success and fulfillment are defined by money, which is an artificially crafted value-indicator. With the exception of one country in the entire world, Bhutan, we do not even show signs of willingness to start looking at growth by anything other than how much more we make, take, and fake. Bhutan officially measures its own growth by a happiness-indicator instead of the GDP/GNI indicators. How awesome is that?
Photo: Gaurav Bagdi
In one of his many thought-provoking speeches, Nick Hanauer perfectly summed up how “inherent reciprocity” — what he also calls “humanity’s economic superpower”— as an underlying principle could and shall be replaced by human greed and selfishness incorporated in our socio-economic model. The man, who is a billionaire in his own right, established over 30 companies and is a big name among venture capital investors and well worth listening to. His deep understanding of our system is underpinned by the fact that he was the first non-family investor in Amazon.
Indeed the so-called Sustainable Development Goals framed by the United Nations aim at noble global goals. At the same time, however, they are illusionary, and unless the underlying socio-economic paradigm does not shift drastically, we deceive ourselves with partial results, if any at all, ultimately leading us to a point where irreversible consequences will constrain us to implement draconic measures.
So what could we do?
Incentives for men to have voluntary vasectomies and women to have voluntary tubal ligations would be a step in the right direction.
Education, political will, and spreading awareness will be imperative in making unpopular but necessary decisions. The longer we procrastinate to make the right ones, the higher the price we will have to, and ought to pay.
Yes, there is always a choice to leave matters to fate and we can very well take the stance of contemporary thinkers like Eckhart Tolle:
“[T]he planet's regulatory intelligence will take action and will reduce the number of humans on the planet.”
It would not be fair to exclude probably one the most famous academics of recent times – the ever-positive, optimistic, and inspiring figure of demographics as a science, the Swedish Hans Rosling. Throughout his invaluable research spanning several decades, he concluded that our total planetary population will increase up to 10 ~ 11 billion at a slowing pace by the end of this century and will not exceed that threshold. Even if he is right, are we really prepared to face the consequences of this outcome? Do we not clearly see what an increasing toll our increasing numbers takes on our everyday life, even with such a threshold?
Photo: Théo Roland
So, what have I been beating around the bush about in this article?
To have fewer children.
For God’s sake, I am not saying to not have children.
They are the meaning of our lives, our true legacy, and the most precious treasure we can have in life.
However, there is no true monotonous or religious justification for a third or fourth child. With just two, you are maintaining the status quo of our population. The solution could be that policies, laws, and regulations especially on national levels need to target this extremely delicate issue by simply reversing the prevailing legislative trends of welfare and modern political systems.
“Extra” children should be disincentivized and deterred by law and ultimately penalized fiscally by either taking away subsidies from big families or supporting normal sized ones.
In closing, in regards to this vital issue, let us skip over some related talking points, such as the “sixth mass extinction” or its latest “proof” in the form of the current global pandemic — you, dear reader, are kindly invited to watch this recording of a live panel summit from last year aimed at highlighting this topic, with experts from all around the world echoing one clear message:
Screw wisely, don’t screw everything up!
Top photo: Dan-Cristian Pădureț
Sources: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fK0rXRmC4DQ https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200929/cg-b001-eng.htm https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/AUS/australia/population https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hapgood https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter5.pdf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eckhart_Tolle https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPMy2Yw8teM