Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Another Rant About Overpopulation Arguments

I don't actually care that much about overpopulation, not nearly as much as I care about re-regulating industry with climate a top priority and changing economic policy to decrease inequities, but there's such a frustrating argument I've seen a few times on social media and ranted about it before, but now I've seen a YouTuber with a philosophy background, Abigail Thorn, make the same argument, so I'm compelled to have yet another look at it, just to make sure I'm not missing something. It's this:

"Overpopulation is a myth." And the supporting points? "It's just a fact." The unspoken premise in the video at the link above, which is most frustrating, is this: The suggestion that overpopulation is a problem can lead to a horrifying solution; therefore, there is no problem.

Thorn goes back to 1798 with T. Robert Malthus and his "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in which he explains that population doubles every 25 years, exponentially (he got that number from what happened in the preceding decades in the British colonies in North America), while food yields increase additively, so, if we're not careful, then we'll have more people than food without "a strong and constantly operating check on population." Malthus offers two solutions to this, the first one, preventative, just have fewer kids, which many were doing already due to economic constraints. Guys didn't want to propose marriage without financial prospects. But Thorn just focuses on Malthus's more famous proposal, which is all about letting the poor die off by not offering any help to them, which directly influenced Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge. Malthus also influenced Darwin who influenced parts of the writings of Marx and Nietzsche (Thorn doesn't get to to Nietzsche, unfortunately).

Luckily, we don't double every 25 years. Since then, population has slowed to, worldwide, an additional billion people every dozen years or so since the 70s (1974-4, 1987-5, 1999-6, 2012-7), and machinery has dramatically improved food production, so, we're okay so far. Thorn says, that Malthus "predicted, wrongly as it turns out, that the more food we make, the more we will breed. And he predicted this can't go on forever. Sooner or later we will exhaust our ability to produce food, and we will have an enormous, hungry population." Thorn thinks that any lack of food on the planet is a matter of economics, not numbers. And, it's true that some estimate we currently have enough to feed 10 billion if we're clever about it. However, it's not necessarily true that we're not breeding more now that we have more food or that we won't exhaust our ability to produce enough food for everybody.

Thorn explains that Malthus "misses the fact that rich families with fewer children still consume more resources than poorer families with more children. . . . The danger is coming from a tiny number of people who own everything." It's true that rich people use more resources and produce more GHGs than poor people, but the 70 richest people in the world don't come close to having the same effect as a billion of the poorest people. It's still a matter that more people on the planet will have more effect on resource extraction and GHG production.

Since there is room for doubt in the facts of the matter in when we're all making predictions about the future, we have to look for which side has the more credible claim. Is it the case that overpopulation is just factually not a problem, as Thorn suggests, or is it the case that it's something to keep an eye on?

I sometimes offer an exercise in my social science classes to show how to weed out the truth among competing claims.
"In a nutshell, look at the actual study being cited, the number of studies and independent articles on each side, and the primary authors of the studies and/or articles, and check out the journal's ranking for each of them. Then look carefully at the study design (falsifiable hypothesis, repeatable...) and the sample (size, randomness...). Finally, check for any funding that might indicate a conflict of interest."
For backing, Thorn turns to an opinion essay by journalist and prize-winning poet Eleanor Penny, "We are Not the Virus," to prove that overpopulation isn't the problem we think it is, except that's not something the essay actually proves. She argues that the wealthy use more resources and have fewer children, and that population control has "sinister implications" for poor and racialized people. And she uses a white supremacist group, Hundred Hands, to further her point that climate activists concerned with population are genocidal in nature. But she doesn't prove that our population won't continue to grow to a point that we can't produce enough food for everyone.

It's not the case that a journalist or philosophy video essayist can't have a well grounded position on overpopulation, or any other issue, but we would expect them to be citing some scientists on matters relating to science.

In this compilation of interviews with Graham Turner, a senior CSIRO research scientist; Australian National University emeritus professor and top climate scientist Will Steffen; and Associate Professor Anitra Nelson, honorary principal fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, they all think population growth is a real concern:
"The Limits to Growth model released by the Club of Rome in 1972 looked at the interplay between food production, industry, population, non-renewable resources and pollution. The basic findings were that you can’t grow the system indefinitely as you will cause environmental and resource issues that will ultimately cause the whole global system to collapse. . . . Turner ran updated figures through the model again in 2012 for another peer-reviewed paper, and again in 2014 when he had joined the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute. 'Data from the forty years or so since the LTG study was completed indicates that the world is closely tracking the BAU scenario,' Turner concluded in the 2014 paper. . . . Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. As Steffen notes, the web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. Humans thoroughly dominate the land biosphere making up 32% of all terrestrial biomass followed by around 65% in domesticated animals, leaving less than 3% of vertebrate wildlife. There has also been what’s called “The Great Acceleration”, whereby human population and economic growth is accelerating leading to accelerating use of resources like water and energy. This has also led to exponential growth in: greenhouse gas emissions, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, surface temperatures, marine fish capture, terrestrial biosphere degradation, tropical forest lost and domesticated land. . . . Associate Professor Anitra Nelson, honorary principal fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, advocates for “de-growth” policies which would reduce global consumption and production to sustainable levels. She says we’re currently consuming resources as if there were four Earths and if we don’t change fast we will face conditions that we can’t survive under. . . . Nelson said we have to wholesale change how we live on this planet and that includes discussions about population control (such as restrictions on the number of kids people have) and even maximum income limits. Nelson said we also need to get rid of capitalism as fundamentally that economic system could not survive without growth."

Beyond attempts at finding evidence of what will be, we can also compare arguments.

Thorn's arguments (basically Penny's), explained above, suggest population isn't a problem because...
- Malthus's predicted data didn't come to pass precisely as stated,
- wealth is a problem, not numbers, and
- believing population is a problem can lead to a really bad set of solutions (eugenics and genocide - government control over reproduction)

I agree with Thorn, that absolutely it's a problem to even consider sacrificing a few for the benefit of the many. And I agree that hunger, today, is often a political issue rather than a scarcity issue. But, my arguments, explained below, suggest population is a concern because...
1. population is still advancing and there's a limit to our food production technology
2. it's better to err on the side of caution
3. concern for population can lead to a really beneficial set of solutions (better personal control over reproduction)
4. we can't control the global political situation as easily as we can control our reproductive options
5. many theories can be used to horrific ends, but the theory itself isn't the problem

1. Is there no point at which we can't feed and shelter the population on the earth, at which time, when people start going hungry, then, we'll consider it necessary to have fewer children? By current estimates, much advanced with the use of technology, we could almost double our current population by the end of this century. So it's slower than Malthus predicted, but it's still growing. Thorn points out that in some places birthrates are falling, as if we can relax because of it, but globally, it's still rising. And, while we've gotten much better at producing food, there is a limit to what we can do. Thorn's argument seems to assume that there will always be a technology to save the day.

2. If it's the case that, at some point in future, if we continue unabated and undeterred, that we could have more people than food even with some much improved food distribution and storage systems in place, then it makes sense to get on top of the problem now, when we, technically, all have enough to eat, rather than at the point of starvation. OR is it the case that we will always have more food than people? I can't find anything to verify with certainty either position; it doesn't appear to be predictable with any accuracy. So, if we do a Pascal's wager analysis, it might make more sense to restrain ourselves now so our few precious grandchildren can survive better in future.

3. It's not a given, a natural conclusion, that if there is a problem with the growing number of people on a finite planet that we need to kill some off. There is another path that doesn't go down a violent or even discriminatory road: Therefore, we need easy access to birth control and abortion (BC's rates increased by three times once offering Mifegymiso by phone) such that every child is, indeed, an intentional choice, and we need it to become more socially acceptable to be childfree, even just with a few sitcom characters or happily ever after storybooks that don't end happily only when everyone's paired up and pregnant, but actually have happy childfree lives. We need characters to have goals other than mating. It's not to say that people should be shamed for having kids, but that maybe we could stop cajoling young couples into reproducing, or even badgering single people into marriage when they might otherwise have no interest in it. Worldwide, we need all girls to have access to education as well. There are many ways to reduce future population numbers without sacrificing anybody. Thorn suggest this at one point, that we need better personal reproductive control, but doesn't seem to see it as one way to solve the population issue that he insists doesn't exist.

4. If we can't change the economic and political system, then, for many, it's in our own best interest to have fewer children to feed. Climate change is already happening and millions of people are forced out of their homes due to flooding or heatwaves, so it's also a problem that the amount of livable land is decreasing as our population increases. We're currently over-consuming resources, and individual consumption needs to decrease, for sure, but having fewer individuals in future can certainly help the situation.

5. Many theories, in the hands of a racist or classists, etc., can turn into a policy to target the poor or minorities. The London School of Economics and Political Science released a study in 2017 that, like Thorn suggests, shows that wealthier families produce more GHGs than poorer families, that poor households have "a smaller carbon footprint overall." But they go on to predict that: "If the United States had total income equality, emissions from private consumption would increase by 2.3%--or an extra 0.8 metric tons per household per year." This could easily be used to concluded that income equality should be avoided to save the planet and that we need to keep people poor, which is horrible! But it doesn't follow that it's a problem to say the rich cause more GHG than the poor because it will lead to more inequitable policies. Right?! Because one conclusion is problematic and suggests maintaining or even exacerbating poverty is the solution to climate change doesn't mean it's not true that the wealthy produce more GHGs than the poor. It's reminiscent of Gloria Steinem's essay "If Men Could Menstruate"; power justifications just go on and on if we let them.

In the video, Thorn argues against Herbert Spencer who says, as explained by Thorn, "Things will change naturally and for the better if we use a light touch and don't do a lot of government regulations 'cause they always mess things up," but then Thorn appears to directly follow this line of reasoning in his argument against any type of social interference in the status quo. Let's just live and let live. We very well might end up doing that, to our own demise, but we can change things for the better if we have the will, without sacrificing the living.

What on Earth am I missing??


Anonymous said...

we all "miss" things

we allow small numbers idealogues far too much influence in our "democracies"

we continually constrict education, close shools, limit teachers, force changes to curriculum without input from teachers

we treat farmers very poorly, the business of farming is more important than the production of food

we throw away huge quantities of food, most at the production stage, to protect market prices

we celebrate business practices that rely on vast numbers of people remaining in poverty

the list of things we miss is much longer. makes it easy for big business to set every agenda

The Disaffected Lib said...

I was drawn into the overpopulation issue through taking a couple of online courses on global food security. That introduced me to some of the latest research by leading agronomists into soil degradation. It's telling that never comes into these population debates.

A Nobel prize was bestowed on an American agronomist who launched the "Green Revolution" that transformed once food insecure nations such as India into major food exporters. It was a formula of plenty of ground water and generous applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Even marginal farmland could produce bumper crops. It worked for a few decades. Subsistence land that had been hand-tilled could sometimes be put into industrial production. Then, gradually, the land became exhausted, production fell.

It takes 500 years, sometimes considerably more, for nature to produce an inch of topsoil. Most of us know good soil when we see it - rich, black, a little moist. It'll clump in your hand. We buy it by the bag for potting our summer plants. The black, that's carbon. It plays several rolls in soil. It's an essential medium for microbial growth that, in turn, provides nutrients that deliver great crop yields. Industrial agriculture strips carbon out of the soil and, as mentioned, it will take centuries to recover.

A few years after I came across these papers the UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report warning that soil degradation was occurring so quickly that the world had about 60 harvests left.


We were at 2.5 billion, an all time record, when I was born. We're closing in on 8 billion today. We're also living longer and consuming vastly more per capita, including food. The Green Revolution contributed to that population growth. Today, however, it's backfiring. India is a fine example. Many farmers in India's grain belt now need to use twice as much fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide chemicals per acre than before and, worse, their aquifers are running low, in some cases empty. I've read too many news reports of distraught farmers taking their own lives.

Even in Canada our best farmland is showing some degree of degradation. It's not a huge problem at the moment but the same can't be said for the more densely populated parts of the world.

The Disaffected Lib said...

Part Deux - sorry

One of my favourite climate scientists is the University of Hawaii's Camilo Mora. In a 2014 interview with Yale Environment 360, the Colombian-born professor discusses overpopulation in the context of climate change and why so many of his fellow climate scientists are fearful of raising the issue.

"I grew up in a country where there has been a long history of violence. We have been in war for 50 years, and one thing people don’t realize is what it means to be in a place where anyone can get shot at any moment, where people are starved to death, where there is not enough food to feed people. In the first world, people don’t know how rich they are, and they don’t realize what is happening in the rest of the world. And for me that’s a driving force. It’s scary to think about climate change because when we start damaging physical systems and the carrying capacity of physical systems to produce food, people will react to this in a terrible way. I’m telling you, I have seen it in my own country. It’s very negative the way in which people react to hunger. And that’s one of the things that’s most frightening to me with this large-scale analysis — the fact that I know we’re on our way to some very disturbing scenarios if we go down this pathway of damaging physical systems in the ways that we are today."


Those who argue that we can sustainably feed 8 or 10 or even 12 billion construct neat arguments that omit considerations that easily refute their claims. Ask Maude Barlow about water security for agricultural production across the world. Ask the agronomists about the worsening state of soils degradation. You put factors such as these (there are others) into the overpopulation debate and they change everything.

A little reality can be crushing.

Marie Snyder said...

@Anon - I agree that big business has an agenda that puts profits over people, including destroying food to keep up prices, and that they're enmeshed with government via lobbying. It's a very real problem that can't be easily remedied.

Marie Snyder said...

@Mound - Thanks for the data. I was going to get into soil and degrading nutrients and migration from loss of habitable land, but I was already running on and on. It's so curious to me when people vehemently insist it's okay if we keep increasing our numbers. We're already in trouble in so many ways.

Anonymous said...

So what about the fact that 80% of farmland is used for livestock feed? Why is that always omitted?

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, the problem with feeding animals in order to feed us is a huge issue, and was alluded to, bundled up within "problems with food production" and the fact that, "Humans thoroughly dominate the land biosphere making up 32% of all terrestrial biomass followed by around 65% in domesticated animals, leaving less than 3% of vertebrate wildlife."