The Triad of Furies - Human Overpopulation, Immigration and Reproductive Rights

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

A summarized version of this piece was featured in MAHB, 2019

In ancient Greek mythology, the Erinyes, also called the Furies, were three divine beings tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the demeanour shown by humanity. One way they did this was by listening to grievances from other mortals, to swiftly deliver judgment and torment humans for any transgression or insubordination they were inclined to commit.

Strangely enough, the myth of the Erinyes appears to show some resemblance to the state of policing of ideas and suspicious vigilance in the discussion of undesirable notions that has percolated our intellectual discourse, inducing a chilling effect or just the motivation to back down from certain crucial deliberations. Of course, if the topic of analysis happens to be a catastrophic risk with the potential of tearing down our civilizational project, or even worse, to hurl our species to a similar fate of extinction to that which befell the dinosaurs, shying away from that dialogue might cost us our future.

Enter the contentious triad of human overpopulation, immigration and reproductive rights, a trilogy of subjects that is certain of incurring the wrath of the attentive Furies.

For the last couple of years, I have attempted to get the lay of this land (or minefield) in my academic studies and educational activism. For this reason, I have encountered my fair share of resistance to these ideas in both Academia and the general public, and have come to realise where we should have a constructive dialogue we have prudence instead, seeing that even the most well-intentioned actor can easily be misrepresented.

For instance, when the opportunity arises for one to partake in an intelligent conversation that connects to these subjects, without exception, my peers and I will have to placate and distil a barrage of recurrent pre-conceived deductions before the conversation can begin. Not to mention, the onus is on the interviewee to prove one’s harmlessness, so there is a need to tread lightly because the Furies are wary and leery that interest in such fields might correspond to a Hitler waiting his turn. The way I see it, bringing up such topics in dialogue resembles that scene from the movie Inception when Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are gently walking and having a conversation on the dream projection and when Page starts to mess with the stability of the constructed narrative the projections all converge on her to try and remove the “intrusion.”

With that in mind, here are some of the well-established notions associated with this triad of disciplines that one has to invalidate regularly:

- Genocide. The solution to all life’s problems.

- Eugenics. When the dust settles, and the depopulation is done, you want all humans to look like you (Rumor goes that I might share some phenotypical resemblance with Barcelona’s football player Gerard Piqué, so I will leave the morality of such an outcome for the reader to decide).

- China’s One-child policy. The archetype of governmental rectitude.

- Racism. Overpopulation is not a problem of the white-majority developed world (it is); therefore it must be intentional discrimination of ethnic “others.”

- More racism. The white-majority developed countries are in population decline, while most projected population growth will take place in Africa and Asia, thus to promote smaller families in those countries is to be anti-white.

- Xenophobia and even more racism. To enforce restrictions to an open-borders movement is to deliberately overlook the profound state of inequality that characterises the human condition, while simultaneously harbouring enmity for foreigners.

- To not maximize humanity’s procreative potential (by way of family planning; access to contraception; safe and legal abortion; adoption; education and female empowerment; well as the adoption of a model of smaller families and the dissolution of pro-natalist religious, tribal and patriarchal systems such as child marriage) is to be anti-human and to hate babies specifically.

- It is all about population. By focusing on human overpopulation you ignore the overconsumption of the rich, giving them a free pass.

- Sexism and Misogyny. Empowering women/girls, improving on gender equity and providing family planning are not just our best strategies to restrain the advance of global warming, but they also stand as the leading approach to achieving a voluntary declining human population. Accordingly, to burden women and girls with the fate of the world is an attempt to exempt men from responsibility.

- Favourite movie: Schindler’s List.

- So… that guy Thanos hum? What an outstanding performance.

Without a doubt, the discussion of these subjects has always been reasonably contentious (even though in the period between the end of WWII and the mid-70s, it witnessed general consideration), or as Martha Campbell from the School of Public Health, Berkley puts it:

“Population growth has always been a delicate, easily misunderstood subject, because it involves sex, reproduction, cultures, religion, and severe inequities around the world.”

Indeed, these are not conversations to be taken lightly, and it is understandable that many refrain from engaging with these issues, due to the nature of these matters in conjunction with the backlash that can follow from attempting to participate in their discussion. Nevertheless, we ought to remember Aristotle’s words - central to the ideas of the Enlightenment - which exhorted us to be able to think about a subject without necessarily having to agree with it.

“The mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Because of this, what I propose to the reader is not that one becomes an activist or academic in these areas (although those would be helpful), but that one might be able to ponder on their implications while grasping the subtlety and gradations inherent to any intellectual discussion. With that in mind, let us briefly go through the history of political meddling in these issues and how it came to shape the size and well-being of the human population.

The Elephant in the Smoke-filled Room

There are not many topics which possess the latent ability to foment just as much political unrest on the right as on the left. Notably, the conservative authoritarian right (in this case, the profoundly religious one in the United States) was one of the main forces behind the backtrack on population issues a few decades ago due to the famous Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, in which abortion rights were under deliberation. In a historic moment, Catholics united with fundamentalist Protestants to oppose the liberalisation of women’s rights to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy (nothing like an agreement on Bronze-Age creeds to bridge that century-old religious chasm.)

Of course, the damage from that Era continues to this day, with Trump’s doctrinaire-right administration pulling the strings to block funding for women’s health providers and to direct it to faith-based bodies, while also reversing decades of progress on contraception, family planning, unchecked population growth and reproductive rights. This all in addition to the role the Catholic Church still plays in denying access to birth control, with currently roughly 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries having an unmet need for contraceptive methods (this means that women want to avoid a pregnancy but do not have access to contraception).

Accordingly, if global support for family planning was met, by 2050 the human population could be 15% lower (45% by 2100) by non-coercive methods, not to mention the immensely positive impact it could have on weakening the impetus of global warming (slowing population growth could grant 16-29% of the emission reductions required by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change). Unfortunately, and despite mounting evidence, a substantial share of the climate community, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), remain silent on the need to extend a population policy as part of the process of adaptation and mitigation responses.

That much is true. Many players are still hesitant to speak on the issue of human overpopulation and population growth due to the stigma and taboo that have been created around their many implications. However, and this might come as a particular surprise, as well as seeming like an absurdity to many, but the main actors behind the rise in population of the last half-century or so, as well as the state of condemnation of those who attempt to discuss it, have been the progressive Left and some feminist branches.

Let us start with the appearance of women’s issues as a priority concern of population groups and how they shunned everything connected to population.

With the programs of population stabilisation in China and India demonstrating cases of coercion and infringement on human rights, voices on the Left admonished their prolongation. However, the apprehension with population policies persisted and extended to more than forcible procedures, with one of the first significant implications being retraced to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. At that time, individuals concerned with social justice changed the narrative, in effect stifling any discussion about human overpopulation, since it was deemed to condemn the world’s poor for several environmental plights, for this reason altering course to denouncing the high living patterns in wealthier countries.

By the time the third U.N. population conference in Cairo in 1994 took place, the rules of the game were undergoing a complete change. All of a sudden, the goal of stopping population growth was replaced by the empowerment of women (although it is a noble endeavour, it should stand as the most compassionate and ethical path to the goal of lessening population growth, and not the goal itself), and funding for international family planning abated. As a result, by 2000, when the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals were being drafted, anxiety about human overpopulation had dissipated, and family planning was nowhere to be found.

The feminist takeover was underway. Its rationale was that “coercive anti-natalism” (population policies, access to contraception and family planning) was equal to coercive pro-natalism as it, allegedly, hindered women’s autonomy and reproductive rights of she deciding to maximise her procreative potential. At the same time, it ignored the “true causes” of environmental degradation: militarism and consumerism, class-based eugenics and the disregard with the empowerment of women (tough crowd). As Beck & Kolankiewicz state:

“Now centered in a feminist rather than an environmental mission, many population, family planning, and women’s groups would support no talk of stopping growth or reducing average family size because that implied restrictions on what they considered a universal right of women to choose their number of children entirely free of the merest hint of official or informal pressure.”

Coupled with this, as Madeline Weld, President of the Population Institute Canada declares:

“The Marxist/feminist/social justice ideology that denies the population factor and vilifies those who address it […] an ideology that claims to promote social justice, but does not recognise that the Earth is finite, is more than unethical…”

Regrettably, the epiphany that escaped these branches of feminism is that overpopulation impairs women, stifles the promise of wellbeing and prosperity and confines them to a perpetual state of poverty while robbing their children of a promising future. Granted that all this holds it should become evident that attaining a sustainable population (to not live beyond the carrying capacity of places) by voluntary and ethical means is a profoundly humane effort.

Frederic Myerson summarizes the political divide in their friction with population matters well when he says:

“Conservatives are often against sex education, contraception and abortion and they like growth – both in population and in the economy. Liberals usually support individual human rights above all else and fear the coercion label and therefore avoid discussion of population growth and stabilisation. The combination is a tragic stalemate that leads to more population growth.”

Religion doesn’t have to be an enemy of population stabilisation. In fact, the most effective family planning program without coercion took place under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Religious leaders worldwide should take a page out from that book. In contrast, we might just be learning the extent of influence of the political left and how it is stifling civil debate on these issues. Nevertheless, it appears that environmentalists might need to vindicate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romanticising of the past, and restore the momentum the population movement witnessed in the 70s.

Given these points and to put everyone on the same page, an abstract of the scientific background will follow and how the three fields of population, immigration and reproductive rights closely intertwine to produce turbulence.

Unconfortable Conversations

First of all, the human population on this planet is currently 7.6 billion, and we keep growing annually in net gain (births minus deaths) by roughly 80 million (if you are wondering, that amounts to the population of an additional Germany). Of course, all of us come equipped with subsistence and material requirements, together with a need for territory, fresh water, fuel and our uncontested talent to produce waste. To say nothing of the social strains that are exacerbated by population growth, such as available infrastructure, employment, housing, poverty, as well as violence and terrorism. Owing to such exertions, it still comes as a surprise how ending population growth has not become one of the enshrined Sustainable Development Goals.

Besides these points, environmental problems such as climate change; ocean acidification; disruption of biogeochemical flows (e.g. concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen in Nature); land degradation; availability of freshwater (which other lifeforms also depend upon); changes in atmospheric composition, and the extinction of biodiversity are all connected to continued population growth. These are called planetary boundaries, and they are an excellent place to start in the road to understanding our impact on this Earth.

In this manner, the first premise can be encapsulated as such: the human population is swelling with each of us demanding a certain proportion of natural capital, consequently expediting the environmental and ecological predicaments of our own making. The second premise should come as no surprise to anyone. We are all collectively implicated in this, but there are noticeable discrepancies between how all humans live on this planet.

Evidently, per capita affluence level (individual resource consumption, or how rich one is) tends to be a good predictor of the resultant impact of our existence, with differences in carbon and ecological footprints standing as the epitome of this disparity. To demonstrate, consider the per capita CO2 footprints of the United States (16.5 tonnes), China (7.5t), India (1.7t), the EU28 (7.1t) and Niger (0.1t). As it is clear, depending on where one’s geographic lottery lands, the resultant CO2 footprint is shockingly uneven.

However, we need to take it a step further if we want to comprehend how population and consumption interact. As the simple equation I = P x A x T defines, the impact (I) of human activity is the product of three factors. These are the size of the population (P), its level of affluence (A) indicated as income per person and a technology factor (T), which quantifies how resource intensive the production of affluence is as well as the environmental effect connected to it.

Many believe that we can continue to increase both Affluence and Population if we focus on improving the technology (T) factor. These are the so-called “cornucopianists,” and they believe in continued progress and that resource scarcity is an illusion fixed by market forces. Much attention has been paid to them, which is why I will not make the same mistake here.

Now, when taking into consideration that population (P) and per capita affluence (A) are both factors necessary to quantify a country’s total CO2 emissions (and any other kind of environmental impact), a different picture begins to emerge. If we had to order the three biggest polluters, these would be, respectively, China (9839 Million Tonnes (MtCO2)), the United States (5270 MtCO2) and India (2467 MtCO2). For comparison sake, Niger stands with 2.5 MtCO2 and the EU28 with roughly 4500 MtCO2.

Notice that despite an overwhelming difference between the per capita CO2 footprints of the United States and India, the eventual result is that India has more or less climbed to half of that totality. Obviously, both countries total population (United States – 328 million and India – 1.371 billion) play a crucial role in their overall impact since population and consumption cannot be dissociated from each other, forasmuch as every new passenger on this planet is a new consumer attempting to rise on the food and material chain, or as the population ethicist Karin Kuhlemann affirms:

All human beings engage in at least subsistence level consumption, and virtually all either already consume more than required for survival or would if given the opportunity.”

In light of this, the official forecast is for 2.3 billion people to be born between 2019 and 2050. These new passengers will be spread unevenly among the continents, roughly by 1.3 billion in Africa, 0.7 billion in Asia, and 0.3 in the rest of the world. For this reason, many who uphold that the Impact (I) produced by population growth is insignificant (since a substantial portion of those people will be born in impoverished conditions) when compared to the scale of consumption (affluence) of individuals in rich countries. For that purpose, the argument that the over-developed world needs to reduce their strain on the planet is a legitimate and robust claim.

Nevertheless, those that maintain that it is all about consumption and focus on the hedonistic and whimsical behaviors of the wealthiest 10%, overlook the fact that most people would live similarly if the circumstances presented themselves, or the fact that “lifting people out of poverty,” invariably translates into an increase in personal environmental impact. Given this, Hubacek et al. (2017a) write:

“We explore the global carbon inequality between and within countries and the carbon implications of poverty alleviation… and assess the carbon implications of moving the poorest people out of poverty. Given the current context, increasing income leads to increasing carbon footprints and makes global targets for mitigations greenhouse gases more difficult to achieve given the pace of technological progress and current levels of fossil fuel dependence. When looking specifically at India and China, we find that the global carbon emissions would increase by 7 and 4%, respectively. The latter would be equivalent to the total carbon emissions of Japan in 2012 (1200 MtCO2), and the increase in emissions triggered through the poverty alleviation scenario in India is almost equal to the total carbon emissions of the EU in 2012.”

In another publication, Hubacek et al. (2017b) quantify the additional rise in global temperatures associated with eradicating extreme poverty (those living with <1.90$ PPP per day), as well as lifting those in the poor class (<2.97$ PPP per day) to the next higher income category, so-called middle-class (2.97-8.44$ PPP per day). They argue:

“The good news is that lifting people out of extreme poverty has only relative little carbon implications with a projected increase of about 0.05°C […] This relatively small increase makes intuitive sense given the low per capita carbon footprint of the extreme poor. However, the situation changes for a policy goal of not only eliminating extreme poverty but also where we move people into, what may be considered as the global middle class […] we add another 0.6°C by the end of the century. This is a fairly significant increase […] given that total increase in global temperature since the industrial revolution is about 1°C.”

Indeed, Affluence and Population cannot be disconnected from each other. We have to realise that if we are striving to provide and maximise well-being, dignity and aspirations to billions of humans all over the world, an increasing population will disrupt that honourable enterprise. Fixating on consumption alone - especially in the over-developed world – while repressing any civil discussion on the interaction of rising population and affluence is extremely unhelpful.

That is not to say that we in the West and the rest of the over-developed world do not have severe and relevant issues that need to be confronted, which justify the international criticism and the internal admonishment. Certainly with the big polluters; the economic inequality between those two realities; outsourcing environmental impact from wealthy nations to developing countries; and the profound variation in individual carbon and ecological footprints, among other reasons, we become a legitimate target.

We as a global community need to act on the necessary enactment of an all-inclusive and international population resolution to stabilise and eventually reduce the human population to a sustainable size, while also empowering those stricken by poverty. Surely we can all agree that making that transition voluntarily and in the most compassionate way possible, instead of leaving it to corrective ‘impulses’ of Nature, would be universally beneficial.

Equally important, it is extremely commendable that human rights and environmental groups are raising their voices to advocate for climate and social justice. However, that cannot be the only game in town. For one thing, alterations to the composition of the atmosphere, by the emission of greenhouse gases, are but a fraction of the impact caused by humans (again, climate change is intrinsically linked to population growth).

Still, climate change has become the poster child of the insurgency against our anthropogenic madness, effectively leading many to summarise it as the environmental concern or believing that ‘fixing’ our climate equals to no more environmental or ecological predicaments. That could not be farther from the truth.

Unquestionably, climate change is a force to be reckoned with, and it requires much more being done than is currently agreed upon by political leaders, to say nothing of the required individual changes in attitudes. Nonetheless, it could be argued that the infatuation with climate change is sucking the air out of other major concerns. If I had to venture a guess as to why this is happening, I would contend that since climate change is explicitly linked to former and current voluptuary styles of the affluent nations, it makes for better a better ‘origin story’ of redemption and expiation. In like manner, the fact that rich countries do not have to point the finger of blame to anyone else besides themselves also might play a considerable role. In our atmosphere of political correctness and guilt-driven narrative, climate change becomes an enticing medium, even though emissions still reached an all-time high in 2018. It is high time we expand our strategy to include ceasing population growth worldwide, to ameliorate the repercussions of climate change.