Questioning ‘overpopulation’ - Colm Regan
Debate is important, but it is not the global poor who threaten sustainability
June 16, 2021|Colm Regan|19
4 min read
People in developed countries consume much, much more per capita than those in the so-called 'Third World'. Photo: Shutterstock
The images, numbers and language that characterise the debate on ‘overpopulation’ scream out one dominant message – ‘they are the problem’.  Images of sprawling slums, hungry and unhealthy children, endless lines of pregnant women at clinics – any image that supports words such as ‘explosion’, ‘hordes’, ‘spilling over’, ‘bomb’, chaos’ will suffice.
The debate has one core message – because the largest concentrations of population are in the Third World (what an accurate label that is in these times of vaccine imperialism), it is self-evident that the problem of ‘overpopulation’ is over there. The corollary sentiment is that we must therefore take action to stop it coming over here.
This line in illogic leads us all the way from the facile argument that Malta is ‘closed’ (to a highly selected group of people) to the impossible argument that millions are massed on the north African coastline just waiting, to the more insidious ideology of white race displacement.   
Extreme hyperbole is the order of the day when ‘overpopulation’ is the subject.  Much of this was on public display around the editorial published by the Times of Malta on June 10 and in the subsequent commentary and debate it generated.
Apart from conflating overdevelopment in Malta with population dynamics worldwide (two entirely different and unrelated issues), the editorial and the commentary that followed displayed wilful ignorance, wholesale stereotyping, bigotry and even downright racist bile.
At the outset, the editorial called for a debate on overpopulation without referencing the fact that the term itself comes fully loaded. Historically, the issue has been the subject of intense debate and disagreement as to whether the term is accurate and on what it means. The sentiments and strategies behind the term have also led to the abuse of the human rights of those deemed to be at fault for overpopulation.
Calling for a debate on population issues and concerns (not least here in Malta) is overdue but its first requirement should be that it is based in some modicum of fact and reality. Otherwise, it becomes yet another convenient version of the ‘us versus them’ view of life – an utterly unproductive, hugely divisive and potentially violent agenda.
Even a cursory review of the empirical evidence on population dynamics or on the carrying capacity of the planet or of regions and countries, makes it immediately clear that by far the greatest threat to planetary limits is not the world’s poor or poorest countries.
By a huge margin, the largest consumers of the world’s resources are the world’s rich and richest countries. If we are seriously concerned about the link between population, resource misuse and their associated threats, then our priority must be to address the behaviour and greed of the rich and the powerful not that of the poor and the powerless.
A rough estimate of the per capita consumption rate of those who live in ‘developed’ countries is 30+, while that of the world’s majority of people in the Third World is much, much lower, and routinely closer to one. When it comes to food, water, fuel, forest and ocean resources (and much else besides), the consumption rates between regions reflect the same grossly unequal ratio. 
Self-evidently, population growth in countries such as Bangladesh is a problem for Bangladeshis (especially for poor and often illiterate women) but it is not the world crisis as so often proclaimed because in world terms, they consume so little by comparison with us who can never have enough.
World population growth rates peaked in 1962/63 and have declined from 2.2% per year 50 years ago to 1.05% per year. And all the evidence suggests that the world is now approaching the end of rapid population growth.
Sadly, few of these realities impinge on much of the debate, as they might muddy our preferential narrative that it’s ‘their’ fault and that we must therefore do something about ‘them’.  The idea that ‘we’ rather than ‘them’ could be the problem, is anathema.
Any debate on planetary, regional or country population and resource boundaries is welcome and without doubt will be contested vigorously as there is a lot at stake. However, such debate should at least be grounded in some element of evidence, it needs to display care in its language and construction and should not be seen as a licence to indulge in abuse, bigotry, ignorance and racist diatribe.
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Opinion writer
Colm is a human rights teacher and activist.
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