Voices of impending doom and desolation spread when the United Nations announced on November 15 that the population of the Earth had reached 8,000 million inhabitants. Even CNN advanced the armageddon: “More people in the world add more pressure on nature(…) people will compete with wildlife for water, food, space”.
Almost since the Founding Fathers, the United States has had an unreal panic about what they understand to be overpopulation. In 1967, The New York Times published an ad, paid for by the private Check The Population Explosion campaign, in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were heard riding: “The population bomb threatens the peace of the world. What are we going to do?”. The Earth then had 3,475 million souls and the United States, in fact, was home to just over 197 million.
The answer had begun decades before. Between 1907 and 1932, some 32 states passed laws based on eugenics that allowed the government to sterilize the “mad,” the “dependent,” the “feeble-minded,” and the “ill”: all were declared incapable of making their own decisions about reproduction. Only in the period between 1947 and 1948, for example, 7% of Puerto Rican women were sterilized. In some states, the law lasted until the 1970s.
None of this would have happened if Thomas Robert Maltus, a British clergyman and economist fond of pessimism, had not written in The Principle of Population in 1798 that the number of inhabitants on Earth would soon exceed the resources needed to support human life, thereby It would cause tremendous famines. One of his solutions was to eliminate aid to the poor in order to reduce the number of inhabitants. The philosopher Friedrich Engels would answer him in 1844 without leaving him a crack: “Under capitalism, the distribution of hunger in the population is not due to the abundance of the poor, but to a too poor distribution of the abundance of society.”.
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The messengers of disaster resemble a literary genre of its own. They are like Cassandra, the Trojan priestess cursed so that no one would believe her prophecies. In The Population Bomb, the 1968 classic published by the Club of Rome, biologist Paul Ehrlich prophesied that “in the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death despite the crash programs now being launched.” .
He was not the only doomsayer: in The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, a group of 17 scientists led by biophysicist Donella Meadows predicted that the world would run out of gold (in 1981), mercury (1985), tin (1987), zinc (1990), oil (1992) and natural gas (1993). Of course, the planet’s resources are finite, but no one knows for sure where the limits are (or, of course, what the ideal population or its border is).
Carrying capacity is the most cited method for finding the maximum human population an ecosystem can support through a mathematical equation, but it is highly imperfect as it does not take innovation or technology into account.
What the figures say
According to the United Nations, the world population took 11 years to go from 7,000 to 8,000 million inhabitants, and it will take another 15 years to reach 9,000 million (to which approximately 22 years would have to be added to overcome the 10,000 barrier). From there, and until the end of this century, everything will turn slower. The demographer Liz Allen, in fact, calculates that deaths will exceed births in 2080 (since 2019, for example, the growth rate of the world’s inhabitants has fallen below 1%). It will be unnecessary to seek refuge in the stars.
The problem, actually, is the clock: There are 783 million people over the age of 65 in the world, a figure that will double in two decades. It remains to seek greater fertility, but to have a notable impact in Europe we need at least two generations (or what is the same, more than 50 years): time is lacking. The world fertility rate, which measures how many children a woman expects to have in her lifetime, has fallen from 3.3 in 1990 to the current 2.3, a figure only slightly higher than the replacement rate (2.1) that allows us to maintain the constant population. The Earth, therefore, is balancing on the demographic cliff, and it does so even in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, whose countries have historically been very fertile.
In the short term, anyone would think of migrants, but these are usually adapted to the number of children in the country where they reside, as explained by Diego Ramiro, director of the CSIC’s Institute of Economics, Geography and Demography. An essay published in 2021 in The Lancet revealed that access to modern contraceptive systems and the education of women and girls have contributed to the decline in birth rates. Nigeria had the highest fertility rate in the world in 2017, with an average of seven children; in 2100, however the mean is expected to fall below two.
progress and aging
Overpopulation should not worry the planet: in the period of time in which the number of inhabitants went from 1,000 to 8,000 million, per capita income increased by 2,500%. The more human beings there are, the greater capacity to innovate and create we will have. This is the theory that Marian Tupy –a researcher at the Cato Institute think tank– and Gale Pooley –a professor at Brigham Young University in Hawaii– defend in their book Superabundance.
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Elon Musk’s Twitter has also joined the debate: “The population collapses due to the low birth rate. It is a greater danger to civilization than climate change.” The mogul at the helm of Tesla uses his own algebra: fewer people, more talent shortage. The economist Julian Simon called man’s ingenuity the “supreme resource.”
Simon, in fact, believed that the increase in population was Fierabrás’ balm to the challenges of the environment and the lack of resources. In a similar position is the prestigious economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey: according to her, resources do not depend on what is in the ground but on human creativity to invent new ways to use them.
It may be that society is not prepared for the slowdown. Collectively we are getting older, but life expectancy growth peaked in 1981. So people were living on average five years longer than they were in 1971 (that is, 61 years instead of 56), but we won’t get older anymore. : The rate of increase has been slowing for 40 years across the planet.
However, the true Malthusianism of our time is inequality, greed or irrational consumption. “The number of people the Earth can support depends to a large extent on how carefully the world’s resources are managed and how equitably they are shared,” explains John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations Population Division. And what about the link between the climate emergency and overpopulation?
The truth is that, despite what it may seem, more inhabitants is not synonymous with a greater amount of carbon dumped into the atmosphere. Another myth. Carbon Billonaires, a study published in November by the NGO Oxfam Intermon, calculates that the annual carbon footprint of the 125 richest people on the planet – which includes yachts, private planes and the emissions generated by their investment portfolios – is equivalent to the of France and its 67 million inhabitants.
This is an average of 3.1 million tons per billionaire compared to 2.76 tons for someone in the poorest 90% of humanity. According to the United Nations, as of 2020, high- and upper-middle-income countries (accounting for half of the world’s population) have been responsible for 85% of the CO2 added each year to the atmosphere.
Not all experts share this view. Some argue that the future of human beings depends on slowing the curve of overpopulation. One million animals and plants are threatened with extinction according to the UN, which adds to the fact that we consume the resources of 1.7 planet Earths. As the scientist James Lovelock argued, anyone who did not see the connection between climate and population “was either ignorant or hiding from the truth.”
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True: we are on track to add another 2.4 billion people in the next 65 years, but the good news, as the NGO Population Matters anticipates, is that in nations where population growth is higher, measures can be implemented that by themselves improve people’s lives: provide contraceptives, achieve gender equality, ensure quality education for all and end poverty and inequality.
A man for extinction
Les Knight is the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. Its name offers an obvious clue: it brings together a group of people who think that the best thing humans can do to help Earth is to stop having children. Knight, who is a 75-year-old college professor in Portland, always uses the word “volunteer” in email conversation. His group does not support suicide, compulsory birth control or mass murder.
His spirit, on the other hand, is reflected in his motto: “Live a long existence and become extinct.” It is not the only slogan. Another one that he uses in some presentations, for example, says “thank you for not reproducing.” “Humanity has been exceeding our carrying capacity for decades, (…) reversing the increase in population is essential for well-being and the biosphere,” he narrates.
The former teacher, who underwent a vasectomy in 1973 at the age of 25 and has no children, He understands that his idea of ”voluntary human extinction” generates reproaches of ecofascism or Malthusianism. But he remembers the proverb: the dogs bark, the caravan advances.
“People mention music, art, literature and other great things we’ve done. It’s funny that they never point out the bad ones.” This is how he maintains it in The New York Times: “I don’t think the whales care much about our songs.” They sing their own.
MIGUEL ANGEL GARCIA VEGA
Ethic is an ecosystem of knowledge for change from which we analyze the latest global trends through a commitment to information quality and under an inalienable editorial premise: progress without humanism is not really progress.
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