The taboo that isn't: Mother Jones on population

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Mother Jones magazine opens a discussion of the population problem. Sort of.

Mother Jones is a once-radical now-liberal magazine that promises “smart fearless journalism.” An example of what that means is the main headline on the cover of the current issue: “Who’s to Blame for the Population Crisis?”

That’s the lead-in to “The Last Taboo,” by Julia Whitty, the magazine’s environmental editor.

Sadly, there’s not much new here … the usual retailing of scary statistics, with a particular focus on the threat posed by those unreasonably fertile women in India and other Third World countries. A prominently displayed pull-quote alerts us:

“Every minute … 157 new people join the world’s population. 4 are in developed countries (27 babies born, 23 people dying). 153 are in developing countries (237 babies born, 83 people dying.)” (emphasis in original)

Witty calls overpopulation the “last taboo” because, she says, no one wants to talk about it.

“What unites the Vatican, lefties, conservatives, environmentalists, and scientists in a conspiracy of silence? Population.”

Populationists regularly make this claim, apparently blind to the irony of using op-ed pages, major magazines, TV editorials and the like to complain that they are being silenced.

Today Mother Jones opened an online discussion forum on the topic. But the topic is not whether population growth is actually a crisis, but “Why Is Population Control Such a Radioactive Topic?”

They assume that there is a population crisis — the issue to be discussed is why it isn’t discussed.

The participants include Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and The Population Explosion and other books. Again with a total lack of irony, this writer of multiple bestselling books that advocated compulsory birth control says:

“We don’t talk about overpopulation because of real fears from the past—of racism, eugenics, colonialism, forced sterilization, forced family planning, plus the fears from some of contraception, abortion, and sex.”

The online forum will be open through Friday May 14. It’s not surprising, given Mother Jones‘ editorial slant, that so far most of the commenters think that the world’s problems are caused by poor women having too many babies.

The word capitalism has only appeared once, and socialism not at all.

Now that is the last taboo.


PS: Michael Swan reviews Whitty’s “misinformed  nonfiction” in the current issue of Swans Commentary.

“She systematically fails to grasp the historical dimensions of the population issue. In lieu of a viable argument she simply repackages imperial myths with a ‘new’ sustainable façade, facilitating the neoliberal onslaught on the majority of the world’s humans.”


  • Funny how we can just banish the concept of inequality by talking about global averages, isn’t it, Anton?

    We just have to average all the billions of have-nots with the millions of haves, and we come up with a planet apparently loaded with absolute ecological gluttons! It’s a nice way to gloss over the fact that most of that 2.6 hectares per capita is the result of averaging out the massive environmental destruction, resource depletion, and wealth extraction on the part of a tiny minority of the world’s population, who operate with a view to maximizing profits and personal wealth at the expense of the planet.

    I don’t know about you, Anton, but my environmental footprint isn’t anywhere near 2.6 hectares, and neither is that of the vast majority of the people of the earth. Blaming overpopulation is a convenient way of diverting attention from the real sources of environmental destruction and carbon emissions.

  • The problem isn’t just inequality but lack of resources:

    That is, our average ecological footprint is already 2.6 global hectares, and you need more than that to do things like access the Internet. The biocapacity is 1.8 global hectares, which means we’re at overshoot given the current population.

  • It isn’t easy to illustrate what’s wrong with populationism in a single phrase, but John Tons comes close with “Humans are no different to any other animal.” The mind boggles.

    Unlike “any other animal,” human beings can change the ways they live with each other and with other living things. They can adopt new modes of production and consumption. They have carried out massive social transformations in the past, and they can do so again.

    Ecosocialism works to achieve such changes. That makes it very different from populationism, which begins from a conservative and pessimistic view of humanity.

  • I agree fully that the problem is inequality, not too many warm bodies. Each has a brain that, if developed and used for the right purposes, will solve most of our problems. Anti-Malthusian arguments are compelling and easy to come up with. It makes you wonder – Cui bono? – Who benefits?

    Secondly – population control exists and is in force. The daily excess (war, famine, unnecessary disease) mortality for age < or = to 5 yr of age – 30,000 on our charming planet. Again, Cui bono?

  • By the same token the failure on the part of the left to incorporate problems associated with population growth within a left wing agenda is a major problem.
    Humans are no different to any other animal – a population explosion will be followed by a similarly rapid decline. We have seen it in other animal groups that reach plague proportions; nature will redress the balance.
    It is important that a left wing agenda with respect to population growth is developed. Failure so to do will mean that those who make the simplistic argument that the problem lies in the third world will continue to blame the victims of neo liberal free market for the population crisis.
    The reason natural population growth in the developed world is a problem is due to poverty. Nothing new here but what is often ignored is the practice in the west of allowing skilled immigration from the developed world; this essentially ensures that the very skills needed to escape from poverty are systematically strip mined – one of the nastier features of neo colonialism.

  • Yes, the idea that blaming environmental problems on population is a “taboo” is quite laughable. Its a very mainstream view. Unfortunately, Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, is one of the best selling environment books of all-time (over 3 million copies).

    But what all the taboo rhetoric indicates is that the actual implementation of population control policies (with its sexist, racist and eugenicist undertones) in the 20th century meant that it lost much of its legitimacy.

    Its often posed defensively today as though its ‘breaking the silence’ because there is a campaign to restore its respectability as a climate policy.

    But as African writer Mahmood Mamdani said in his 1971 classic ‘The Myth of Population Control’ (a book he wrote partly in response to Erlich) the idea is not just mistaken, it reflects a conservative social agenda.

    He said: “Optimism concerning the possibility of population control without a fundamental change in the underlying social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative.”