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"Population," a Real Red Herring (2020-12-07)

Figure by Catherine Linard representing population density calculated from cell phone location data for france, quoted from phys.org, october 2014. Figure by Catherine Linard representing population density calculated from cell phone location data for france, quoted from phys.org, october 2014.
Figure by Catherine Linard representing population density calculated from cell phone location data for france, quoted from phys.org, october 2014. (See original article.)

Michael Moore has a documentary out in which he attempts to unpack greenwashing, climate change denial, and what would really be effective to stop of mitigate catastrophic global warming so that the world stays comfortable enough for humans. Those are all laudable tasks that Moore has taken up, and whatever any given person may think of his politics or arguments, I think it is fair to give him credit for helping start or at least fuel constructive discussions. Sometimes the most effective people on those scores are the ones who trigger the most disagreement where that disagreement is expressed by engaging with the arguments those people make. Alas, the challenge more often than not is to get people all focussed on the argument rather than on attacking the person who disagrees with them or engaging in a pointless screaming competition. The latter two approaches have greater ease and attention getting in their dubious favour. In any case, for my part, I find myself frustrated all over again with the way upper middle class white men get completely distracted chasing after the red herring of "population," especially claims that there are simply "too many people." I have touched a little on the politics of populations before in Thoughts on "Liberation Theology, but the notion of "too many people" didn't come into the matter as such then. It does now.

To be clear, it is obvious and true that we humans can become too numerous to be able to survive well in a given micro-environment, and that logically it must be terrifyingly possible for there to be too many of us all for the overall environment that is the Earth. It is also obvious and true to me that by themselves non-carbon or low carbon based forms of energy generation or food production are not going to do anything about the challenges we face from ongoing deliberate environmental destruction that has been underway for at least 6 000 years and has now affected the whole planet. As a matter of real world physics, there is no way to expand infinitely, whatever that expansion may be measured in, food, energy, people, or even garbage. Those aren't debatable points.

The trouble with falling back to, "so obviously there are too many of us," is that no, that isn't obvious, actually. When we do the math, there is enough food and fuel and all the rest potentially available right now to feed, clothe, and house everyone at least for a short while. Not everyone can live according to the crazed "western" system of hyperwaste because that goes to the infinity problem. But as long as a hyperconsumptive culture is treated as the only culture that must be inflicted on everyone at all costs, then all drastic reductions or even moderate reductions in population would lead to is a delay before the collapse. And the practical fact is, if "population reduction" became any kind of open policy under any number of euphemistic names, the people who will be killed or prevented from being conceived in the first place regardless of maternal choice will preferentially be racialized, poor, and female. It is trivial to find current examples of women and girls generally being referred to as "surplus" because their numbers are not in one to one proportions with "marriagable" men. It is trivial right now to find multiple declarations that anyone who is poor, let alone poor and racialized, is expendable to keep "capitalism" or "the economy" running."

The difficult kernel of the present challenges we are facing cannot be blamed on a single factor, nor will acting on a single factor fix it. The difficult kernel is a vicious way of thinking that starts from the assumption that a certain small group of people has been chosen by some deity as the pure and superior beings above all others. Those supposedly chosen and superior beings then claim that they therefore have the right to rule all the world as they see fit. Since most of them believe absolutely as shown by their actions, not by what they say, that there is no future if they can't live forever, they have also conveniently concluded that the clock must be running out on the world, otherwise they would be immortal. Furthermore, they are sure that they are in charge of the clock, and their task is to use up everything and engross all the riches to themselves, because after all, if they are the divinely chosen supreme beings, they must be entitled. This is a pernicious and sick belief that because it hijacks and feeds our worst impulses as long as we are prevented from forming healthy, ongoing relationships with one another and all the other beings in the world besides ourselves. And of course, our resistance to it is softened if not eliminated by the practices of child abuse endemic to cultures in which this belief system is embedded. There is a horrible logic in viciously punishing children for ever being born, because they embody the evidence that the whole chain of false reasoning entailed in this belief system is wrong. As radical Feminist thealogian Mary Daly reminded us, "sin" is derived from the same root as the verb "to be" as in "to exist." And those of us with even a passing acquaintance with religious systems derived from ideas about ancient hebrew writings know very well that they start from the teaching that all humans are born sinful.

No matter what steps we humans take to work together to cope with the growing challenges of being out of balance with our human and non-human kin on this Earth, they will be undermined and neutralized if we don't refuse every time the temptation to revert to acting according to the horrible belief that only a few beings of any kind have the right to live. Yes, we need to change how we live in order to return to balanced relationships, and that will include shifting to ways of meeting our needs that don't poison our relatives or need to grow infinitely to keep up. Yes, that change will ultimately include not agreeing to the demand to produce as many people as possible effectively in order to use up the Earth and drive life into death once and for all, while conveniently setting up women for bearing children and children to be blamed and tortured yet again for that result. But if we fixate on the simplistic claim that the issue is really that there are "too many people," we are simply reinforcing the sick patterns that got us in this mess in the first place.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23