How many people can the earth support? Dr. Christopher Tucker raises this question after pointing out that between 1970 and 2017, human population more than doubled, going from 3.7 billion to 7.5 billion. Tucker’s book title provides his answer: A Planet of Three Billion.
The doubling of the global population in less than fifty years is treated, according to Tucker, ‘as though it was exogenous to all our other climate concerns’. How could it not matter, as Project Drawdown comments, ‘how many people will be eating, moving, plugging in, building, buying, using, wasting, and all the rest’? The period called the “Great Acceleration”, starting in 1950, did not just see exponential growth of the global human population, but also in other key socio-economic and earth system measures, as in this alarming graphic.
There has been a cautious (re)opening of the population question in the pandemic context. Perhaps it is prompted by the recognition that humans’ relentless penetration into wild life habitats has pulled viruses towards humans and that this will continue if human populations do not retreat. Adrian Tait’s CPA blog emphasised how viruses have been a significant agency, repeatedly bringing outbreak species under control. An ‘outbreak species’ means any animal population that outstrips its environmental provision. This is not just about food supply, as in Malthus’ original formulation about exponential human population growth, but about every aspect of environmental deterioration. The natural law is that such population outbreak always leads to a die-off. Biologists call this type of cycle an ‘outbreak crash’ and from this perspective the human population curve of the Great Acceleration period looks like the first half of such an outbreak-crash, involving as it does not only human population explosion but wide-ranging assaults on the life support system of the planet.
However, humans are different from all other species. This is the grain of truth in human exceptionalism: self-conscious knowledge of what is happening is available to us, (although CPA knows better than most how humans avoid this knowledge). We also have the technology to control such a population outbreak: contraception is potentially the human equivalent of die-out. A solution is available but is not being planfully applied. What is getting in the way? How does the denial work?
Population debate CPA-style
The issue of population growth has attracted the CPA Forum’s attention, appropriately asking what lies behind the continuing difficulty in raising this question and hoping for a “real discussion”. The thread was started in response to reviews of Michael Moore’s highly controversial film Planet of the Humans. A review of the film in the American magazine The Nation claimed that, having egregiously dismissed renewable energy, the film introduced ‘its most immoral and damning gambit’ where ‘old white male after old white male’ was seen ‘declaring there is no solution to climate change except reducing the population’. This is where the CPA thread took up the story: a contributor pointed out that this argument was based not on facts, as were the other arguments, but on the branding of interviewees as educated, white and middle class. With that, a psychotherapist can smell a rat!
The subsequent thread discussion ranged through the need for reliable statistics and to identify entrenched positions in population politics which – to simplify – boil down to the binary positions of overpopulation versus overconsumption. At the factual level, while the world population has more than doubled since 1970, the world consumption per person has increased by a factor of nearly three ($3,829 to $11,297 between 1960 and 2018). Moreover, the population curve is flattening, so the population picture is improving while the consumption picture worsens; reining in consumption of the highest 10% would make the biggest difference (see here for a striking graphic). This has become the factual basis for the social justice position. The Nation review suggested that old white male commentators (by implication class-privileged as well) were laying the blame elsewhere, on poor countries’ ‘overpopulation’ (where high consumption is not an option and diets anyway carry a low carbon footprint).
The climate population debate gets trapped into binary positions - either fair reduced consumption or population reduction. Impact = population x consumption is an equation that holds on to both factors. Why is it so hard to avoid the binary positioning? Why is it taboo to state that world population is dangerously big as well as too consumer-driven in the global West? The consequences of the Great Acceleration are hugely unequal for rich and poor, let alone for non-humans and earth’s biodiversity.
The issue is tarred with the historical brush of eugenics which advocated selective human breeding, for example through forced sterilisation. Women’s lives were never part of those narratives, but ‘family planning’, especially in poor countries, has sometimes been suspected of being selective population control under a euphemistic name. Yet Population Matters tells us that if women were free to choose in a world where contraception were available, they would choose smaller families. Almost half of all pregnancies are unintended. Women’s rights is an issue often squeezed out of this debate, even though, as a socially and democratically just way to dramatically reduce global population in one generation, it effortlessly transcends the binary position-taking outlined above.
Direct state control of their population numbers is anathema to democratic governments (“only in China” – rather like lockdown until it happened everywhere else). To propagate is a priority for every species, but in the age of extinction humans are faced, as Joanna Macy explores in World as Lover, World as Self, with a loss of certainty that ‘there will be a future for humans’. Macy regards this as ‘the pivotal psychological reality of our time’. Having a child can feel like a fundamental existential solution to loneliness, irrelevance, depression; especially to fear of death. How do such deep investments get accommodated in a politics of population reduction (see here for a CPA book review on Kamalamani’s Other than Mother)?
In the global West, where it would be inexcusable to focus on population regulation only in third world countries, talk of population reduction bumps into abortion politics and a woman’s right to choose. It also bumps into what one CPA contributor called “phallic potency and sexual territorial rights”, which I take to mean the investment of many men in their fertility as virile masculinity and a feeling of entitlement to impregnate women irrespective of consequences.
In Staying with the Trouble Donna Haraway, feminist philosopher and environmentalist, regards it as vital to ‘address the urgency ... of almost incomprehensible increases in human numbers since 1950’ and treads a delicate path recognising that ‘for excellent reasons [feminists] have resisted the languages and policies of population control … fearing to slide once again into the muck of racism, classism, nationalism, modernism and imperialism’. A toxic mix indeed – social justice, feminism, eco-politics and classist/racist history, the existential and identity significance of procreation - all at risk of colliding as the question of population reduction appears above the pandemic parapet.
Psycho-socially, identity politics works to shame people - in the case of the social justice position on the population debate to shame educated white westerners – into silence by attaching its barb to privilege. “First it must be permissible to mention [population] without being assigned a class profile”, another CPA contributor commented. When the shame of over-privileged consumers is projected, it becomes others who are blameworthy (‘not me’, correct enough to espouse a social justice position instead). This dynamic, active among privileged Westerners, reproduces the binary and encourages silence and disavowal. The well-tried therapeutic way to help undo such projections is to create a containing space for staying with the shame so as to think through and beyond it. The CPA discussion thread conducted a beyond-binary discussion, not least by naming the territory as dangerous (“I know I’m swimming against the tide here”, “it’s just not done”, etc). Thus we create a safe-ish space to think about difficult issues of greater consequence than just about anything else in today’s world.
What did the elephant say to the psychotherapist after many sessions (having got in touch with her anger at misrecognition)? “Now when I enter the room, everyone will see just how much damage I can wreak with my size and weight; they’ll have to recognise me because I am impossible to ignore”.
A no-touch future
Naomi Klein provides a chilling picture of the Covid-19 lockdown as a ‘living lab for a permanent and highly profitable no-touch future’. Eric Schmidt, ex-president of Google is now heading a panel tasked with imagining New York State’s post-Covid reality. Big tech, positioning itself as the successor to big oil in the neo-liberal world order, is moving fast to capitalise on the overstated death threat that has, with remarkable success, kept billions in fear of human contact for the past few months. The aim is the permanent integration of virtual technology, for example in telehealth and remote learning. ‘All these physical classrooms, why, with all the tech we have?’ Six months ago, Eric Schmidt – or was it Bill Gates – could not have got away with a question like that. Yet Covid has provided a wide opening to what Eisenstein describes as the ‘seemingly inexorable trends (which by no means began with Covid) toward surveillance, tracking, distancing, germ phobia, obsession with safety, and the digitization and indoor-ization of entertainment, recreation, and sociality’.
No contact (no touch) has invaded daily life as if it hardly matters to human wellbeing, indeed is its saviour. We know that this is not the case. How do we ensure that touch is on the political agenda?
Thanks to Bizarro Comics for permission to use their cartoon image.
Thanks to Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash, for the free availability of the image of hands.