One Of The Last Taboo Arguments: Human Overpopulation Is Bad For Planet Earth

One can write a book about this subject. But given the recent attention to Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us, it is time for this blog to add its two cents.

First, a tangent, something I have difficulty avoiding when embarking on a long post.


Now I try my best to ridicule and attack people known as Wingnuts. These are people who make irrational, usually right-wing or even fascist arguments covering a wide range of subjects, and often combined with angry, personal attacks on their opponents. They often embellish or exaggerate the threats, problems, and dangers they see around them.

They write scathing opinions about 'dirty hippies' (i.e. people who were against invading Iraq), Mexican immigrants, the unfounded desire of militant Muslims to conquer the west and enslave its women, the exaggerated threat of bigger terrorist attacks happening on US soil (they seem to frequently fantasize of left-leaning, coffee and wine drinking cities like Seattle and San Francisco being destroyed), and our offensive and shameless pop culture (and its role in weakening us for an incoming Muslim invasion). They use equally angry and irrational arguments to defend Bushworld policies like wiretapping, rendition, indefinite imprisonment, and torture. Simply put, they are fascists who write like eigth graders, cheer the people who run Bushworld, and are almost always wrong about everyhting.

Most have blogs. They write books. They write for magazines and newspapers. Some have radio or TV shows. The most educated ones are hired by right-wing think tanks and groomed to become policymakers and lobbyists. Some are regarded as scholars and experts on various topics and appear on cable news shows. As a result, they are usually paid more than more rational writers of the same age and demographic. They have names like Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin, Rich Lowry, Debbie Schlussel, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, James Lileks, Dennis Prager, Megan McArdle, Professor Mike Adams, Pam Atlas, Ace of Spades, Confederate Yankee, Andy McCarthy, Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Glenn Reynolds, Michael Medved, Maggie Gallagher, Dan Riehl, Jill StanekJeff Goldstein -and those are the ones I can name right away. Since the rise of the original contemporary Wingnut, Rush Limbaugh, there has been the development of a Wingnut industry.

You can even see young Wingnuts developing in the Wingnut farm system. One Wingnut farm is the magazine formerly known as The Atlantic (look for Matthew Yglesias and the already-mentioned Megan "I've only been a journalist for a few years." McArdle under the "voices" menu). It's a Wingnut incubator over there. They aspire to be famous pundits someday, writing about Important Things, and appearing on news networks saying Important Things. Yup.

As the links above suggest, I think greatest website to learn about Wingnuts is Sadly, No!

Calling All Wingnuts is also very good. Jesus' General is great. Actually there are a ton of blogs that attack Wingnuts. Hmm. There is a non-profit left-wing blogosphere thanks in-part to the well funded Wingnut industry.

I'm mentioning this because what I'm about to write about could get me labeled as a wingnut. So I have to keep this as rational as possible. It's not like walking in a minefield, but it is a slight risk. So here goes -


In 1907, the world had close to 2 billion people. Today it has 6 billion. By 2050, it is expected to have 9 billion.

(Yeah, I know you know where I am going, but you've made it this far, so hang-on).

In the last 100 years, the levels of greenhouse gases have risen even more dramatically. The scientific consensus is that CO2 emissions account for most of the global warming trends we have observed over the last century. And while it is true that we are still exiting a relatively recent ice age, the rate of polar ice melting has dramatically accellerated alongside human industrial activity, especially coal burning for electric power. As a result, sea levels could rise between 6 and 30 inches this century, depending on whether the glaciers in Greenland melt, the ice in Antarctica melts, or both.

Now it would seem obvious that since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, growth in human population and greenhouse gas emissions are interrelated. But we require science to to prove that. So far, the scientific consensus agrees that human industrial activity, the rise of developed nations, human population growth, and accelerated global warming are all related.

And I am not even going to get into early species extinction, which scientists have extensively studied and argued that human development and industrial activity is shrinking or destroying wild animal habitats.

Assuming that the scientists are correct (and people like Chris Mooney will argue that they are), then how should environmentalists address the need for us humans to change lifestyles in order to slow the damage being done to our planet?

There are so many ways. Here are just a few -

1. Advocate recycling. This finally caught-on in the 1990s after a 20-year effort to do so. Some of us, including me, thought that recycling would be the biggest hurdle to cross, but in fact it is a comparitively small hurdle, and it is not nearly fully-mastered nor implemented.

2. Advocate less energy use. This is slowly catching-on in the G7. Compact fluorescent light bulbs, while containing mercury, do use less electricity and last a lot longer than conventional light bulbs. Sales of CFLs have risen sharply in the last 3 years or so, and I myself have begun to buy them. Their use in the European Union has caught-on fast since the 1990s.

3. Invest more in renewable energy. Wind, solar, hydro-electric, and new hydrogen-based fuel cells for automobiles are all making advances in their use and practicality. Much more needs to be done - beginning with a promise that is yet to be made: Not one more coal-burning power plant should be built in the developed world. That is a promise no one here can keep yet.

4. Make cars more fuel efficient. Hybrids are nice, it would be nicer if every 4-cylinder car got 35MPG or more. I love 4-cylinder cars. They dominate the streets of Europe and come in many flavors to suit just about every taste. But the four-banger I dream of owning, the Subaru Impreza WRX, only musters 25MPG. Now while it is not an SUV, we ought to have the technology to get more miles out of a small sports car. Legislation can force the issue on carmakers. Of course, I could reduce my need for speed and aim for a car with less horsepower. The non-turbocharged Honda Fit gets about 35MPG, for example. The new Scion xD also musters 35MPG. Even the Mini Cooper provides fun and a guilt-free economy rating. Cars with better economy are out there, but they are still in the minority. Until we get practical hydrogen fuel cells in our future zero-emission cars, we should aim to get only as much car as we need, and only use them as much as we need. We can still make a car reflect our personality, but ideally that should not include a desire to ruin our air quality.

5. Make buildings more energy efficient. Most of the electricity consumed by our cities is used by big buildings. We can reduce our electricity use at home, but we need to tackle inefficient or wasteful power consumption by our commercial spaces. Shopping malls, airports, and office buildings can all be much more energy efficient. But that requires new engineering and new architecture that developers and owners need to embrace. There is a fight today to get more capitalists to build green-certified buildings, as as my friend Archetype has written here, it is a serious and frustrating struggle.

6. Eat less meat. I am guilty there as I resumed eating burgers after a 10-year hiatus from beef in 2003. The developed world's appetite for chicken and beef has increased chicken and cow populations dramatically. This adds to inhumane treatment of livestock and massive increases in methane, which is a greenhouse gas (as bad or even worse than CO2 depending on which scientist you listen to).

But there is a taboo subject most environmentalists dare not touch. It would be the next logical item on my list (or at least be further down the list after many more suggestions). If there are too many chickens and cows in the world, farting greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, then what about us? Isn't global warming tied to our numbers? Aren't we carbon-based creatures with big carbon footprints?

Which brings us back to global human population.

You can see where this is going. I'm going to touch the taboo subject that suggests that there are too many people on this planet.

I'm not suggesting a cull. Nor am I hoping for a calamity that kills millions. I am nothing like those who obsess over the book of Revelation. I never advocate limiting the number babies we can produce. To see where I am coming from, read my comments at here.

I think I made sense. I know I offended a mother of several children who responded.

I'm going to try to state again what I think. A list might be best.

1. We know that with higher human populations, the higher the potential for massive calamities and disasters. The bigger the aircraft, the bigger the accident death tolls, for example. The more dense the population in a flu pandemic, the higher the death tolls. The more dense the population in an area hit by an earthquake or typhoon or tsunami, the same thing.

We can't predict the future, but one popular prediction for the 21st century is that we could see some very deadly pandemics in the third world. The Ebola virus in Africa is a small yet very frightening example. Certainly the notion of a modern plague is a popular theme in literature. Earth Abides, The Stand, and The Road are three popular examples in the last 60 years. But lets stick with science. Science says that we may see an increase in pandemics this century. While the jury is still out, there are historical precedents we can look at. While the threats may be over-hyped, SARS and Avian Flu opper glimpses into future virus challenges, while on the microbe side, we have seen alarming resiliency and survivability of so-called 'super-bugs.' There are many warning signs, as outlined in books in the past decade such as The Coming Plague.

But the bigger picture is that fundamental resource shortages are tied to disease. The world's fresh water supply is shrinking, and of course, it is the third world that suffers the most. Over 5 million children die each year, mainly from preventable diseases, and many of them from water-based disease and/or lack of sanitary drinking water, which can lead to cholera and diarrhea. About 1 million of these deaths occur in India each year alone.

Now couldn't you make the argument that overpopulation is one reason there is such a large loss of life? Just stating what seems to be a fact. The bigger the population, the bigger the numbers all-around.

2. It is highly likely that rising sea levels will cause a phenomenon contemporary history has not seen before - massive environmental refugee crises. The most likely site of such a crisis is in southern Bangladesh, where millions of people will probably have to move many miles north sometime during this century. Many of the old and the sick among them will die. Disease might spread. Fresh water might be scarce. Famine might even ensue. A refugee border crisis with the Indian state of Bengal might also occur. Isn't it fair to ask if this pending catastrophe is linked to global warming, which in-turn is linked to human overpopulation? Again, I never blame the victims of past, present, or future calamities. It is not their fault that they might have to pack-up and move north. It's 'ours', right?

Now given these two types of 21st century calamities -more disease and rising sea levels, both coupled with a shortage of fresh water- shouldn't honest and logical environmentalists address the relationship between global warming and a human population that has tripled in just 100 years?

I think so.

I think the most 'ideal' environmentalist is someone who doesn't own or rent a car, doesn't eat meat of any kind, uses as little electricity as possible, walks as much as possible.....and also takes into account the effects of reproducing.

In an ideal world, a couple would not produce more than 2 children together.

I advocate not population control, but family planning. I advocate Zero Population Growth. This organization can help you to learn more about it in a rational way.

This is not a war on families. This is not an anti-religious initiative. I completely understand that in some religions, the production of 'as many children god will give' is strongly encouraged. I am an atheist, but I am not immoral or insensitive to anyone else's religious beliefs.

And looking over my comments at Slate, I should advocate something that is very, very green: adoption.

That might be the greenest thing you can ever do in your lifetime. You are saving a life, and you are not making a net addition to the world's total population at that moment in time. Of course, you will probably increase the adopted child's carbon footprint by raising him or her in the USA, and especially if he or she owns a car someday. Daniel Engber makes that argument. But I would add that there are plenty of kids who need homes right here in North America already.

Given this definition, would Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie fit my ideal? If you took away the excessive travel, private jet, and extra vehicles, I'd actually say yes....sort of.

I don't advocate creating a model UN in your house by shopping around Africa and Asia for babies. But adoption can be a great thing.

And a side point - if they are setting-up a model UN, then when the hell are they going to get a kid from South America? That continent needs representation in the Pitt-Jolie family.

The issue of overpopulation needs to be addressed. We need to get it out of the closet, so to speak.