Guest columnist Barry Roth: The ravages of overpopulation


Published: 06-01-2023 6:36 PM

In a recent New York Times column, David Wallace-Wells criticized the current environmental movement for losing its passion for protecting the natural world for its own sake. Instead, he pointed out, a large faction of environmentalists are focused on creating a world suitable for further human expansion by gaining control of climate change. This shift in emphasis has manifested itself in a disregard for the threats of habitat destruction and over-exploitation, both consequences of human overpopulation and far more impactful than climate change.

As someone long involved in environmental movements, I witnessed this transposition, beginning with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.” Here is a synopsis of why and how this came about and what it means.

Few deny that we are in the midst of the sixth greatest extinction of biodiverse life in Earth’s history, yet for the average person this is of little concern. Only where it deprives humans of some pleasure, as with the loss of the bluefin tuna, does it gather attention. Another case in point is the plight of the monarch butterfly.

Butterflies are insects seemingly granted a reprieve because of their beauty. Monarchs belong to the order Lepidoptera, which includes moths and butterflies. Monarchs have massive migrations that stretch for thousands of miles and involve millions of butterflies, which catches the attention and gains the appeal of ordinary people. Yet despite this, the monarch butterfly is among many insects threatened with extinction.

In the last 30 years, 50% of insects worldwide have been driven to extinction. Not because of global warming, which they like, but habitat loss and pesticides, which are results of overpopulation. We’ve lost about 3 billion birds in the U.S. in the last 50 years alone, almost a third of their North American population. We’ve lost 90% of sharks.

People are under the impression that only exotic creatures are faced with extinction, but all creatures, including chimpanzees, lions and whales, face extinction because of human overpopulation. Unless you follow nature, the non-iconic ones will be gone before you even knew they existed.

So, given the impact of population, why is it so little discussed? Consider what confronting overpopulation is like, when even discussing climate change causes furious resistance when calling for simple sacrifices, such as raising the temperature setting for an air conditioner. Population issues, comparatively, challenge the most primal instincts of all living things, contravene the fundamental faith of many religions (be fruitful and multiply), and can pose a problem to economic systems in which population growth is seen as a driver.

Yet the nail in the coffin that ended honest discussion about population and its consequences was attributing racism as the motivation behind Ehrlich and others.

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In response to Ehrlich’s observations and the fact that countries with surging populations were and are mostly developing nations populated by people of color, many dismissed concerns by arguing that Western economies and populations surged in the 19th century and ignored the environment, so it was undeveloped countries’ turn to grow. This position was further justified in light of slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the historically huge environmental footprint of individuals in the developed world versus those in the undeveloped world.

It followed that to talk of population was to be racist, and so the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental groups in the country, became the first to cave in and literally ban discussions of population. Others followed. And then the press followed where discussing overpopulation became a third rail.

This isn’t working out that well, not just for the environment but for people as well.

Recently, the evening news reported massive numbers of humans starving in South Sudan in Africa as being “the innocent victims of climate change.” No mention was made that Sudan in 1950 had a population of approximately 6 million people, while by 2023 its population is close to 50 million. The news footage shows children with bloated stomachs, and arms so thin it is heartbreaking. Yet with starvation at hand, many of these babies were under a year old and the women pregnant.

Likewise, we are told the waves of immigrants to the United States from Central America are caused by crime, hunger and climate change, but population is never mentioned. Guatemala’s population went from 3 million in 1950 to 20 million today. Honduras’s population went from 1.5 million in 1950 to 5 million in 1990, and today it is 9 million.

Climate change is of consequence, but it has become the excuse to account for the far greater ravages of overpopulation. If tomorrow we had an endless supply of clean energy and the temperature stayed the same, it would only lead to a quicker sixth great extinction of much of life’s diversity on Earth. We need a reverence for all living things.

Barry Roth lives in Northampton. ]]>