Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project


by Ronald Bleier

NOTE: The following attacks on greens who focus on overpopulation, are by Tom Athanasiou from his review of three books on the environment entitled "Green Romantics", in The Nation for May 1, 1995.

Mr. Athanasiou's forthcoming book from Little, Brown is entitled: "Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor".

After his remarks I quote some spokespeople on the other side of the issue and I add my own comments.

from "Green Romantics"
by Tom Athanasiou

"`The True State' [ed. by Ronald Bailey] opens with `Population, Food, and Income,' by Nicholas Eberstadt. It's a strong lead, for it plays upon the oldest stupidity of green reductionism -- the confusion of the biologic notion of `overpopulation' with t he political problems of poverty and sustainable food production. If ever there was a measure of the green movement's confusion, it is that so many environmentalists honestly believe that by soberly intoning that there are just `too many people' they so mehow cut across all the moral and political agonies of globalization, of rising human migration, mass extinctions, atmospheric instability and all the rest of it. In fact, `overpopulation' explains none of these things, and as long as we cling to it we remain the confused citizens of an incomprehensible world."

Later in the review, Mr. Athanasiou continues along similar lines with the complaint that "greens, well-schooled in reducing explosive political issues to biological abstraction, only continue to mumble Malthusian pieties..."

It may be that in Mr. Athanasiou's new book on the environment he explains why he thinks green emphasis on overpopulation is "reductionist" and why overpopulation does not indeed explain "rising human migration, mass extinctions, atmospheric instability and all the rest of it."

Meanwhile, others, as he says, take a different view. For example, Sonny Fox, Chair of the Board of a group called "Population Communications International" begins a fund-raising letter by saying that "Whatever environmental or human suffering issue you talk about today, there is a population connection standing behind it." According to Mr. Fox, there is a direct connection between growing population and the destruction of the earth's tropical forests; and, in a similar example, he asserts a populatio n connection with global warming and the greenhouse effect. He sums up by writing that, "There is not one environmental or social issue which will be made better with more people."

Even the mainstream Sierra Club has developed a "Population Program." In their pamphlet on "The Population Squeeze" they quote Paul Ehrlich who wrote: "All the major problems with which society is confronted, from the nuclear arms race and acid rain to worldwide recession, have major population components."

In the same pamphlet they also quote the Cousteau Society: "Through a chain of cause and effect, virtually every problem now facing humanity can be traced to population."

Cousteau was also quoted on overpopulation and other alarming symptoms by the "World Ecology Report" (Spring 1995).

"Jacques Cousteau continues to warn that overpopulation is humanity's greatest threat to survival. He argues that focusing on `sustainable economic development' is an illusion in a world of limited resources, and claims that the Western notion of `progr ess' has to be readjusted to recognize the reality of finite, rather than new and renewable, resources. He condemns environmental destruction in the name of progress, citing the draining of marshlands, the destruction of coral reefs, the depletion of ma rine populations by driftnet and dynamite techniques, and the felling of millions of acres of rainforests."


Population increases are truly stark and overwhelming. In the U.S., for example, our present population of almost 262 million has grown by more than 100 million in the last 40 years. Worldwide figures are similarly staggering. It took about 100 years fo r the world to add a billion people after the first billion was reached in the 1830s. We have added successive billions in increments of 30, 14, and 13 years respectively. And we are expected to reach 6 billion in 1998, only 11 years after our fifth bill ion was reached.

Many now warn that we cannot keep adding people at the present rate for very much longer. According to the Sierra Club's, "The Population Squeeze," if humans don't act to curb population then "the death factor will act for us. Disease, famine and war wi ll eventually stop the unending expansion of our masses." They go on to quote Vice President, Al Gore. "The social and political tensions associated with [rapid] growth rates ... threaten to cause the breakdown of social order in many of the fastest-gro wing countries, which in turn raises the prospect of wars being fought over scarce natural resources ..."

It's nice to see Al Gore on the front lines of the population debate. My only quibble would be that the wars he speaks of over scarce resources are not merely events reserved for the future but are actually going on right now. Moreover, the breakdown of social order may be seen today in countries with both slow and rapid population growth.

What if some germ were to pose a grave threat to society? Wouldn't we expect our scientists, politicians, and journalists to do their best to warn us of this threat and to take swift action to address the problem?

What if that threat should turn out to be an overabundance of humanity itself? In that case, it would be more difficult to blame individuals or particular human systems, since at the root of the destruction of the environment would be the mass of humanit y which generated those systems or individuals.

The great irony of the late twentieth century, when the crisis is at its peak, is that it may be overpopulation itself which drives the denial we see so prevalent everywhere.