Dissecting the myth of overpopulation
Discovering the history, motivations and agendas behind the concept of overpopulation and why we should stop using it to justify reproductive and climate action.
by Sophia Jendrzejewski
When we talk about reproduction in a European context, we tend to think about the criminalization of abortions, poor access to birth control and too few resources regarding (female) reproductive health. There are many battles we still have to fight to reach a point where we are free to make our own choices.
As we recently witnessed in Poland, female* (*individuals with female reproductive organs) bodies are still being regulated by laws, institutions, and political leaders. But as I found out, ‘my body, my choice’, the slogan used by several feminist movements, can have various implications.
'I stumbled across quite problematic claims which were made in several articles and papers on our reading list.'
It was the start of the semester (and I was still full of ambitions) when I stumbled across quite problematic claims which were made in several articles and papers on our reading list. Since I’m doing my Masters in Sustainability Science, all of these papers focused on environmental challenges, which I loved.
What I didn’t love though, was that they were written in a way that suggested that we had found the main cause to blame for climate change: overpopulation.
I felt discomfort set in. Since most of the literature was written by white, male scientists, located in western contexts, I began to wonder what was really behind this attitude.
Most of the articles I read for my course claim that fertility rates are on the rise.
Compared to past centuries, that claim is quite accurate: since the age of industrialization the number of human beings on our planet has increased rapidly. Agricultural, technological and medical developments allow societies to consume regular meals, improve their safety and make communication more convenient, all of which increases life expectancy (and decreases child mortality). Population has peaked in a way it never has before.
'So why, then, is overpopulation still widely accepted as common knowledge and used to legitimize the implementation of population control policies and programs?'
This led members of the scientific community to suggest that planetary boundaries will be overstepped sooner or later. The concept of overpopulation was born.
Thomas Malthus was one of the first theorists who suggested in 1798 that the proportional growth of societies would clash with finite resources. A couple of hundred years later (in 1968), Paul Ehrlich published the Population Bomb.
He predicted that rising population numbers would bring doom upon humankind by causing ‘hundreds of millions of people’ to starve to death. Luckily, both predictions have not come to fruition.
Do highly precarious living conditions affect millions of people? Definitely. But is overpopulation the cause? Probably not.
Let’s take a look at science: the UN predicts fertility rates will decline globally by 2100. Vienna’s International Institute for Applied System Analysis even states that the shifting point could be reached by mid-century.
Most institutions agree that these demographic shifts will be caused by improved living conditions, global development of medical facilities, easier access to education but also heightened costs of living.
What does that mean? Well, communities are expected to shrink. Sounds like good news, right? Problem solved! So why, then, is overpopulation still widely accepted as common knowledge and used to legitimize the implementation of population control policies and programs?
By trying to find an answer to these questions, I stumbled across an interview in the New York Times, where Paul Ehrlich himself (the Population Bomb author) made an interesting comparison. He stated that allowing parents to choose the number of children they have is like allowing everyone ‘to throw as much of their garbage into their neighbours backyard as they want.’
This statement is problematic for a few reasons. But what stood out to me the most was the core message: we cannot be allowed to make our own choices about our own bodies, because if we do so, it will lead to catastrophe.
What makes this statement even more inappropriate is the history of human rights being violated in the name of population control. For example, coercive sterilization programmes targeting BIPOC and disabled individuals were performed in the USA, Australia and Canada during the second half of the 20th century.
It’s not only people with female reproductive organs who were targeted: in 1976 India forcefully sterilized 6.2 million cisgender men. The programme, which was funded by foreign donors, caused the death of around 2000 individuals.
These horrific examples are just a handful of the multitude of cases involving such a gross abuse of human rights worldwide. What all of these cases have in common is that they were legitimized and excused by the greater cause: fighting overpopulation.
'population control policies always reproduce asymmetrical power patterns.'
What tends to be overlooked is that population control policies always reproduce asymmetrical power patterns. Targeting bodies who aren't white and aren't rich says a lot about the perspective from which population control policies are being implemented - and what these policy makers really mean when they talk about safeguarding global resources.
Today, the most affected groups are still marginalized women. Most of them are living in so-called ‘developing countries,’ predominantly located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Something has changed though: population control efforts are being rebranded as empowering women.
These external programs that provide access to contraception claim their work is essential in furthering women’s reproductive rights. Yet critics of the system argue that these programs reproduce harmful beliefs instead of actually strengthening women's rights.
Betsy Hartmann writes in Reproduction Rights and Wrongs that the described policies have negative impacts on women’s* ‘health, contraceptive choice and human rights’. From her perspective, the main goal is still to control people with female reproductive organs.
She also points out that policy-makers use pictures of large crowds of ‘dark-skinned’ individuals to legitimize their population policies - by instrumentalizing a racist narrative.
'What does the Global North gain from holding on to this false narrative?'
The question that still remains is: what does the Global North gain from holding on to this false narrative? First and foremost, the concept of overpopulation is an easy way to shift the focus, and more importantly the blame, for environmental issues from western countries to women in the Global South.
Besides that, since the whole story is told from the perspective of the oppressor, western countries tend to present themselves as the much-needed force which finally brings contraceptives to the Global South to safeguard global resources. The white saviorism of it all!
Additionally, the myth of overpopulation makes it quite easy to forget that people living in the richest countries, (like Germany and the US) emit fifty times more carbon dioxide per capita than people living in the countries with the highest fertility rates.
This makes overpopulation a useful political tool. First, it creates a convenient 'we' versus 'them' narrative, projecting complex problems onto less privileged groups and distancing us from the problem at hand. Second, blaming climate change on fertility rates in the Global South allows us to avoid reflecting upon our own privileges - whilst reinforcing imperialist ideas.
With all of that in mind, how we can discuss fertility rates in a global context?
I asked myself the same question.
I think it can be done. But we must shift the conversation away from policing BIPOC and disabled bodies. Instead, we should focus on how to actually strengthen women’s rights by allowing them to make their own choices.
When it comes to climate change, reproduction rates shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to our mind at all! Our overconsumption, exploitation of resources by companies and outdated energy supply systems play a way larger role in the challenges we are facing today. By reflecting upon it, we can learn a lot about our own identity, privilege, and responsibility.
At the end of the day, perpetuating the myth of overpopulation is just a way to rob us of the right to make choices about our own bodies. This has to change, even if you end up throwing some garbage in your neighbour’s garden in the process.
Ehrlich, Paul R. (1968): The Population Bomb. Ballantine Books: New York.
Hartmann, Betsy (2016): Reproductive Rights and Wrongs. The Global Politics of Population Control.
Sophia is a Graduate Student in Sustainability Science who feels strongly about environmentalism, social justice and intersectional feminism. When she is not ranting about the patriarchy on the internet, she enjoys reading, painting, and going for walks with her dog Lilly. Besides that, she’s into poetry and recently re-discovered the joy of writing (thanks to covid lockdowns).