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No Kidding: The Dreaded Overpopulation Conversation

At some point in discussions about being childfree, the inevitable "I don't contribute to overpopulation" argument shows up. It's one of the most complicated for an environmentalist like me because taking that stance immediately implies others do not care for the world in the same way that the speaker does. That's a subjective assessment that is just not true. When I wrote about how to be intentional about not judging other people, I also had this issue in mind. I guess it should be clear by now that I spend a lot of time thinking about unpopular issues related to gender, the environment, and choice.

There's no tidy way to end this series, and there's never an easy way to talk about population growth. Often, it's happening very far away from the people who actively complain about it. Often, the people who complain about overuse of resources live in the most consumer-driven, consumption-based places in the world. Doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about how massive cities may soon become megacities, about how hunger manifests in places with explosive birth rates, and how poor women and children disproportionately bear the brunt of the ecological damage to which we all contribute. All of those things are very real, and arguably very feminist, issues.

Since I'm not good at talking about overpopulation—assuming there's ever a sensitive, peaceful way to explore the idea that at some point, the planet can't support us and all of our well-intentioned choices anymore—I turn to a book I've been reading over the last several months, the very best book I've read in recent years (and I read a lot of books—please, get your own copy, now). Melissa Holbrook Pierson's The Place You Love Is Gone is a meditation on personal geography, how "progress" truly harms so many, the value of nostalgia, how the poor are pushed out, and the meaning of "home." A few nights ago, I read the following rather long passage that I has haunted me since. In part, she quotes historian and writer Lewis Mumford. Lest you think she's being antagonistic, see the last word of the first paragraph for some contextual irony. In my reading, Holbrook Pierson's work is hardly about judging others. Rather, it's about understanding how we have collectively contributed to our current over-developed world in which many of us long for simpler times, more open spaces, and a chance to revisit the beloved places of our younger lives that have since been bulldozed and built into more condos.

Lewis Mumford a long time ago seemed amazed that we were doing what we were doing, as if he believed that we could control ourselves: "We have consistently acted as if there were no relation between congestion on the streets and arterial traffic routes." Be indignant all you want at the insensible idiocy of every one of us, but to stop our headlong slide into self-destruction only two things need to be done: stop people from procreating with such abandon, and change our form of governance and its supporting economy. (Simple!)

The big numbers only fit through the brain edgewise and so cannot in fact be processed. We are made for smaller stuff: what we see in the several yards around us, what it makes us feel. The emotional space to catch one's breath, the vacant apartment that might be lent to someone who will do something artistically big in it, the quiet forgotten corners of town that are not overnight sold and flipped half a dozen times in the weeks before transformation into the next hot neighborhood for the rich—there is only a sense that these things are gone never to return, but our sadness does not look for the reason. What is it but a stare at the galaxies above, unable in any real way to comprehend their distance, to know that the planet is about to add three billion more people? Not much easier to try to think of what this country alone will be like with 120 million more people, even if you imagine all of them competing for your parking space at the post office.

I'll be back on Monday for a proper goodbye.

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5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I think it's very difficult

I think it's very difficult to have an intelligent conversation about growth, consumption and overpopulation. Given the extreme divergence in levels of consumption between the developed world and the less developed nations, I don't think it makes any sense at all to talk about controlling population without a serious conversation about controlling consumption. And given that historically the populations we are always concerned about controlling are something other than white, middle-class, Anglo-American . . . I think we need to be very careful if we are to say that the world can't support our population. The problems we have right now with hunger and poverty are much more problems of distribution and inequality than they are of scarcity and lack. So my question to anyone who claims the moral high ground of not contributing to overpopulation is "What are you doing about overconsumption?"

Re: I think it's very difficult

Wonderful comment! Kudos to you! I am now going to look people straight in the eye and ask them this!

I think an intelligent person

I think an intelligent person would not support another life being brought into existence, and at the same time be for equality. You're right, the two are tied together. If the less developed world wasn't denied all things, but especially education, they'd be less religious and have less kids. But one single life more is too much, even if consumption never was a problem. All those things are true. The world can't support our population. Populations should be controlled regardless of consumption. There are problems with hunger and poverty. One has a right to take that moral high ground because by not bringing someone into the world, they have averted every single one of those problems for someone. And that's important.



choice issue

"That's a subjective assessment that is just not true."

You have to pick one - is it subjective (and therefore neither true nor false), or is it false (and therefore not a subjective assessment)?