Today is the day that the United Nations Population Fund estimates that the world’s population will reach 7 billion people.
So, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this particular moment in our history. As ever, it’s important to dig just a little below the surface to figure out what’s going on with the media’s coverage of this day. I’ve seen many slide shows in the past few months. I’ve seen many photos of crowded buses and streets in India and China. And photos of what look like very old people. All of these photos are, by turns, mesmerizing and heartbreaking.
Some facts: 200 years ago, there were only 1 billion people on the planet, and over the next 150 years, that number grew to 3 billion. Notably, in 50 years, the global population has more than doubled, and the UN projects that it could possibly grow to 15 billion by the year 2100.
The narrative that emerges from these kinds of stats pits humans (only some, however) against the environment. There is an alarmism that’s been on a long slow creep. An alarmism that tells us to worry about enough food, enough clean water, non-polluted air, and space enough for all of us. Not to mention the undercurrents of fear of the “browning” of the planet. A planet in which the growing population of people of color threatens our safety. A planet in which there aren’t enough resources for the West because of all the people in the East.
I’d like to take this moment to bust some of those myths and alarmist tropes.
First, let’s not get it twisted. It’s over-consumption, largely by the West generally, and the United States specifically, that is the greatest culprit in environmental degredation. The US is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Here, we consume the most water and energy.
Second, population growth has actually slowed in the past few decades. Seriously.
Third, this kind of uncritical alarmism is very destructive. Negative media images are rampant; hungry African children, masses of poor people in the third world, photos of pregnant women of color. These kinds of messages reiterate the idea that the danger of overpopulation is “over there” and that ‘those people’ outnumber ‘us. This fear often translates into xenophobic immigration policies and fear of increasing immigration to the West.
Fourth, poor women often bear the the burden of this kind of reckless rhetoric. They face unwanted sterilization and population control tactics. They often face the kinds of population control that programs distort family planning and diminish their control.
As we see, this is no small issue. There are many more reasons to be critical of the overpopulation narrative, and I presume we’ll see a lot of articles about this in the next few days. But I thought I’d just welcome the 7 billionth little sweet pea into the world with a little more truth and a little less alarmism.