Throughout history, both real and manufactured issues related to population have often been used to justify racism, exploitation, and worse. This means that any discussion of population issues today must be particularly sensitive and we must always be aware of the potential for such discussions to be misused by those with other agendas. At the same time, however, this is not a topic we can afford to ignore either, especially as human impact on the environment is continuing to accelerate, and the planet's ability to support its human population in being reduced.
There is no question that humans have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, or that our actions are continuing to reduce that carrying capacity even further. That fact alone, however, does not necessarily mean that the planet is overpopulated. It just means that we are consuming renewable resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished and we are generating waste at a faster rate than it can be absorbed by the planet, even as we are rapidly depleting our non-renewable resources. In other words, we are not living sustainably.
If global industrial activity were largely absent, and the average level of consumption was much lower, it is at least theoretically possible that the current human population could live sustainably, below the carrying capacity of the planet. With each passing year, however, this possibility grows ever more remote, as more species go extinct, more land turns to desert, and more carbon gets pumped into the atmosphere. As our population continues to grow, and some parts of this population continues to increase its levels of consumption, the remote must eventually give way to the impossible.
Of course, while many of us in the West are concerned about sustainability, billions of people around the world are more concerned with having enough food to eat, and access to clean drinking water, let alone a good education for their children and decent medical care. It is easy for us to talk about overpopulation, while at the same time some of our pets have a greater impact on the environment than many of these people. The reality is that many discussions about overpopulation are not really about too many people, but about too many of the wrong type of people.
The western nations represent about fifteen percent of the world's population, yet they are responsible for the vast majority of global environmental damage and carbon emissions, both today and historically. So, if we have a population problem, the problem is us. Our per-capita consumption, energy use, and carbon emissions are an order of magnitude higher than the global average. If we want humanity to be able to live within the carrying capacity of the planet, the most effective way to get there is to make drastic changes here at home. This means a dramatic cut in industrial activity, energy use and consumption, as well as extensive conservation efforts.
Perversely, some people and groups that purport to be concerned about the environment use Western excess as an argument for strong anti-immigration policies. Yes, our culture is extremely environmentally destructive, they argue, so we must prevent more people from moving to our countries and integrating into that culture! These are frequently the same people who argue that overpopulation is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.
It is also important to recognize that the West has some degree of responsibility for the rapid population growth of many third world populations. Historical trends clearly show that population growth levels off, and sometimes even turns negative, in developed countries. Yet, the process of development in dozens of countries was interrupted, or brutally reversed, through hundreds of years of colonialism. Local industries were destroyed, and diverse, self-sufficient economies were often eliminated in order to focus production on a single profitable export (the so-called Banana Republics). We should also remember that before the Americas were colonized, many indigenous groups had relatively stable populations for thousands of years.
Education is also a key factor in population growth. As populations, and especially women, become better educated, they generally choose to have fewer children. For example, while India is known for its rapid population growth, the state of Kerala has the lowest growth rate in the country, and it is continuing to fall. As detailed in David Attenborough's recent documentary, How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?, the state has an excellent education system, and women are particularly well educated. It has a very high literacy rate, and women get married 10 years later than the national average. In Kerala, most families have only one or two children, with an average of just 1.5.
Unfortunately, in many cases, public education has been deliberately undermined by Western policies. Aid packages, from the World Bank, for example, often mandate "structural reforms" that require the defunding of public education. If we are truly concerned with reducing population growth, we should, at least, remove such conditions, or better yet, increase education funding, without strings, to countries around the world. We also need to stop political interference in poor countries that already have excellent education systems, or those that are trying to build them.
During the sixties and seventies, concern about population growth, expressed in Paul R. Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb, for example, led to support for some extremely disturbing programs of forced contraception and sterilization (mostly directed towards women). Much of this is well-documented is Betsy Hartmann's book, Reproductive Rights & Wrongs. Later in the eighties, as the religious right gained power in the US, strong anti-abortion and anti-contraception policies were pursued.
So, we have another perverse situation where people in the third world were, at one time or another, either being told that contraception was evil and denied access to it, or it was being literally forced on them. Where was their right to choose? Studies show that when people are well educated, however, and access to contraception is freely available, people will choose to use it. The solution is simply to give people information and make tools available to them, and respect their right to make their own choices.
None of this tragic history, of course, negates the fact that population size is a real issue in much of the third world today. Population pressures were a factor in the recent and ongoing genocides in Africa, although of course many other issues, including colonial legacies, were also involved. Many countries are having trouble producing enough food, although again, this is made worse by climate change and other environmental problems. The increase in urban populations is another serious issue, which has been partly caused by western trade policies (grain so cheap that third world farmers cannot make a living) and by corporations buying up foreign land and pushing local people off it.
It is also clear that many third world countries are also responsible for extensive environmental damage. Populations are growing and many people want to emulate the rest of us, so they are trying to rapidly industrialize and increase their levels of consumption. This has led to massive deforestation, habitat destruction and soaring rates of extinction. Industrial agriculture is expanding, and turning much of their land to desert. Groundwater is being rapidly depleted. Perhaps many of these countries would be in much better shape without centuries of Western colonialism, but that doesn't mean they aren't responsible for their actions today.
If human history had been different, it might have been possible for a population of 7 billion to live in harmony with nature, and for the planet to support an even higher population. Of course, if history had been different, the population may have never grown to such a size in the first place. Today, however, because of the extensive and growing damage to the natural world, the idea that there may now simply be too many of us may indeed be valid. If we continue with business as usual, this will become certain.
So, what's the solution? First and foremost, the West needs to reduce its impact on the environment. This means dramatically cutting consumption and carbon emissions. It also means we need to repay our climate debt. Only once we move to true sustainability, and repay the world for the damage we've caused, will we have the moral high ground from which to criticize the environmental policies of other nations. Such a change would also likely convince many rapidly industrializing nations to take responsibility for their impact on the environment as well, and change their course.
To reduce the rate of population growth, we need to support sustainable development, health and education around the world. Much of the money we owe in terms of climate debt might be used towards this end. This doesn't mean we dictate to countries what they should do, or try to govern them ourselves. We simply need to make the resources available and leave them alone to pursue their goals. Even if they choose a form of government we don't like. Stable, healthy and well-educated societies should naturally see a decline is birth rates.
Concern about the size of the human population is legitimate, but only because we've so badly destroyed our home. For many, overpopulation is a problem because it means we might have to stop using so much more than our share. If we can somehow "reduce" the world's population, that means more resources for us. That kind of thinking leads to a very dark place. If we are genuinely concerned about overpopulation, we need to first deal with the minority of the population that is causing the most damage, and that's us.