Paul Ehrlich’s Lament: Revisiting overpopulation, family planning and climate change

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In 1968, a book called ‘The Population Bomb’ was published and sounded the alarm about exponential population growth. Written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the book promised imminent starvation and ecological catastrophe unless the global birth rate was brought down, immediately. Though the book has turned 50, and many have denounced it for its alarmist and potentially racist views, Ehrlich stands by much of his original predictions. And as I write this, the population clock has hit 7.54 billion people worldwide, the atmospheric carbon count over the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i has topped 400 parts of carbon dioxide per million for the last couple of months, and the alarm bells over overpopulation keep ringing.

Let’s define some terms

Climate change is the process by which the earth’s atmosphere is changing, due to fossil fuel combustion, which adds to the “greenhouse gas effect” and traps more of the sun’s radiation (heat) within the earth’s atmosphere. This warming process disrupts ocean currents, weather patterns and can cause extreme heatwaves and droughts. It can also create heavier rainstorms and exacerbate flooding. Counterintuitively, this process can also displace polar weather systems, creating cooler than average conditions, even as the earth warms.

Global change is the process by which humans have changed the surface and ecosystems of the planet. Often, these processes feed into one another; deforestation for agriculture eliminates “carbon sinks” that take up carbon from the atmosphere, as well as reducing water availability locally and creating arid soils, which are harder to re-forest. As fewer forests take up excess carbon, climate change worsens.

Both global change and climate change pose a threat to biodiversity and human habitation on earth. Many of these systems are also positive feedback loops—for example warming oceans. Warmer water melts polar ice, which reflects solar radiation back into space. The warmer the ocean becomes, the less ice there is, and the more heat the ocean absorbs. One theory within ecology, known as the rivet hypothesis, posits that if enough components of an ecosystem are disrupted, the entire system risks complete collapse, like jenga.


Oh, baby!

Those who argue for slowing the human population growth recognize that each person on earth needs space to live in, fuel for warmth and cooking and other energy use, more land for the food they will eat, logically enough. Each person also requires a host of other materials—medicines, plastics, metals.

A lower birth rate is also correlated with higher income per capita. However, even 40 years ago the late sociobiologist and ecologist Barry Commoner argued that birth rates do not drop until wealth is accumulated in a society, and the need for more children, a necessity in subsistence agriculture, is eliminated.

An additional issue with focusing just on “overpopulation” is that this fixation can presume an equal use of energy and resources across the globe.

“There is a myth of overpopulation,” says Dr. Harlan Morehouse, who researches human geography at the University of Vermont.

“People will say that the reason that [the climate] is how it is because we’re nearing eight billion people on the planet. And that strikes me as deeply problematic because it tends to suggest that this driven by ‘humanity’ as a massive undifferentiated bloc. It doesn’t take into account different subgroups, some that bear a hell of a lot more responsibility than other sub-groups.”

According to a study done by OXFAM in 2015, the wealthiest ten percent of people on the planet produce a reported fifty percent of all carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest half of the world—which was 3.5 billion people at the time of the study in 2015, produce only 10 percent of carbon emissions. And lowered birth rates are correlated with higher energy and resource consumption per capita, which somewhat negates the environmental benefits of fewer people., which lists girls’ education and access to family planning as essential to climate change, acknowledges this inequity, saying that reducing emissions should not be considered the primary outcome of these initiatives. The UN’s Sustainable Development goals also places family planning within the nexus of fighting global poverty, rather than an explicitly climate-change related issue.

Fighting overpopulation?

As Morehouse points out “population control narratives” can implicitly assign blame on the people who bear children and regions with higher fertility rates: mainly sub-Saharan African and Latin-American nations.

In an article published on the culture website, writer Sharronda J. Brown points out that the contemporary American struggle for birth control and especially abortion has been spearheaded by white women. Brown explains this is likely because reproductive freedom for people of color in the US and in other countries means the freedom to have children and care for them without interference from actors of a white supremacist state. Writes Brown:

“For able-bodied and able-minded white people, [reproductive rights] has been primarily about the right to not be pregnant. Considering the historical context of eugenics, scientific racism, and certain state-sanctioned violences, reproductive justice for non-whites would largely be quite the opposite.”

An ongoing lawsuit in Canada alleges that first nation women have been forcibly sterilized last year. Sterilization was imposed upon Native American women in the US as well and may have affected 25 to 50 percent of all native women from 1970 to 1976. California only banned the forced sterilization of inmates in 2014 (2014!) after a report showed dozens of women had been sterilized without consent while incarcerated.

This is not to say that access to voluntary family planning is a negative thing—it isn’t. in this author’s opinion, it is a human right. However, controlling fertility is not always inclusive of reproductive justice, and it should not be considered a panacea to society’s ills.

Saving Us

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a famous Ted Talk titled ‘the danger of a single story’. Often with climate change/global change narratives, we are presented with a single solution. What if we all, independently, stopped eating meat? What if all of our cars were electric? What if we found a perfect, carbon neutral-fuel source? What if we made Elon Musk our god and prayed for His deliverance?

Population control is unfortunately sometimes presented as one of these solutions.

Even if a game-changing  “solution” somehow alleviates global change and climate change—like drastic drops in human energy consumption through industrialized population control, wide-scale implementation of carbon capture and storage, using sulfate particles to deflect solar radiation, seeding the ocean with iron or something that has not even been dreamed yet—would this give humans an ideological “pass” to repeat the sins of the Anthropocene: issues of colonialism, imperialism, anthropocentrism, global inequality and gendered violence?

Is that what we want?

“Reports such as the IPCC report are not policy briefs, yet they are fundamentally political at their core. These reports give figures basically telling saying we have 20 years to de-carbonize our economy… in some ways we are fundamentally incapable of acting on this information,” says Morehouse.

Recognizing the thoroughly entrenched nature of fossil fuels in the global economy, is de-carbonizing ‘in time’ –which will surely involve utilizing every tool at society’s disposal—even possible?

“It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” goes a quote popularly attributed to Dr. Fredric Jameson, the director for the Center of Critical Theory at Duke University. Indeed, depictions of societies without extractive and destructive economies often seem confined to fiction, such as Ursula Leguin’s ‘The Dispossed’ and Starhawk’s ‘The Fifth Sacred Thing’.

Climate change and global change too, are impressive ends that are difficult, if not impossible to meaningfully comprehend.

Nevertheless, there is no option but to try. Fighting climate change means placing the economy within the context of finite natural resources. It means pushing back against fossil fuel infrastructure that is unnecessary—such as the natural gas plant planned for New Orleans East, which will not fix the issue of power failures in New Orleans. It means recognizing that protesting pipelines a tactic of environmental defense and it should not be treated as a felony—like it is in Louisiana.

As Phillip Pullman wrote in ‘the Amber Spyglass’: “We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are because for us there is no elsewhere.”


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