Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are we still panicking over 7 billion, or was that yesterday?

It was fun to see the predictable rollout of "OMG 7BN" rhetoric in the media last October followed by the  pushback by the weird combination of hyper-capitalists and leftists, both of whom have traditionally rejected the kind of Malthusian talk about limits to human ingenuity that has been part of environmentalism since the 1960s.  But that all ended pretty quickly, no?  Time to gear up for the 8 billion panic... it's just around the corner!

But I thought I'd round up some of the saner thoughts, for my own edification (and the teaching of introductory geography courses).  First let's start with a keystone quotation from David Harvey:
The political implications of a term like overpopulation can be devastating.  Somebody, somewhere, is redundant, and there is not enough to go around.  Am I redundant?  Of course not.  Are you redundant?  Of course not.  So who is redundant?  Of course!  It must be them.”
Ok, so there's the real question.  It was not hard to find image after image after image of brown people accompanying the 7 billion stories.  It wasn't subtle... there are too many brown people.  Hell, at you can even buy carbon credits by paying for family planning in Africa.  That's right -- let that sink in.  By paying to ensure that there are fewer brown people in the world, you can drive your SUV without adding to atmospheric carbon.

The obvious critique is that it's not, per capita, the brown people who are using most of the resources. 

Nonetheless, NPR went all Malthus on us, as did The New Yorker Magazine. The dependably liberal talk show On Point was flooded with Volvo-driving hand-wringers.

The Guardian fired back, twice, highlighting consumption, and NPR reconsidered its own reportage with a teachable moment on the dignity of individual lives that are often grouped together as "excess people". Even the High Country News weighed in.  And at least some people are making a class-based argument (Occupy Malthus?) about population.

But as my friend Eric Carter has pointed out, it's very easy to lob spitballs at Malthusians... it's much harder to explain how we decouple economic growth from resource use such that the development of a country doesn't lead to more severe per capita impacts on global resources.  The alternative is to celebrate poverty, or still to blame the poor in their millions for the problem. Unless affluence doesn't always lead to higher consumption?

The UN Population Fund has started a webpage devoted to telling the story of the march to 7 billion, while remaining rather agnostic on who is to blame.  Those peacekeepers, always turning the other cheek.

The Economist took the classic old-school liberal (not American liberal) line that more people is better because more human ingenuity is better.  And the BBC gave us something fun to do on the internet by figuring our population number -- I, for example, was the 3,767,313,699th person alive on earth when I was born, and the 77,947,989,929th  person alive in the history of the planet.  (I'm just imagining the poor neanderthal who just missed out being #1.  Didn't evolve fast enough, poor bastard.)

So what should we take from all of this?

Look, there are really two answers: Firstly, to paraphrase an economics professor of mine, if you think resource depletion comes from overpopulation, you probably think milk comes from bottles.  Focusing on the number is the easy way to avoid thinking about deeper causes of shortages and inequality.  Secondly, the thing that none of these sources is getting is that there is NO single, global problem called "overpopulation".  Rather, the question has been posed and answered at a global level because we have convenient global datasets at hand -- we look for the answer where the data is, not where the answer is (the old lost-quarter under a lamppost scenario). 

In any given setting, however, people use resources or abuse them for far more complex reasons than the fact that they exist as part of a 7-billion-large crowd.  I mean, you didn't leave the light on in the hallway overnight because there are 7 billion people, you left it on because your 5-year old daughter is afraid of the dark.  Things are complicated: In some settings, depopulation has been shown to cause environmental degradation; in others, populations are static but resource conservation depends on political or cultural features.  These cases are so numerous that it's a wonder anyone pays attention to the aggregate number.  The Geographer's answer -- or this one's, at least -- is to deny that a term like "overpopulation" is meaningful or useful, and instead to ask only about specific cases and situations in which the relationships between people and resources can actually be studied and resolved.

Unrelated but of great historical interest: James Madison, Conservationist?

*many thanks to the Cultural and Political Ecology listserv contributors for bringing my attention to most of these links.


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