The Great Distraction: ‘Overpopulation’ Is Back in Town

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by Betsy Hartmann, August 30, 2011 

What’s next to hit New York after Hurricane Irene? If you’re in the heart of Times Square during the month of September, you’ll get the chance to see a scary video about overpopulation playing every hour on a huge screen. Sponsored by the Human Overpopulation Campaign of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the video aims to persuade people that the population explosion is the root cause of environmental destruction and that we need to stop it now.

The timing of the video could not be in poorer taste. September marks the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Twin Towers.  The tragedy of that very real explosion will no doubt weigh heavily on people’s minds and hearts.  The period should be a time to commemorate lives lost and challenge the strategic use of violence against civilians, whether by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or national militaries like our own.

Why then is CBD choosing this moment to launch its video? Ostensibly, it’s because world population is soon to pass the 7 billion people mark.  But the real truth is that fears about overpopulation are trendy again — and well-funded by rich donors. A “sympathetic advertiser,” for example, is bankrolling most of the video.

CBD is a relatively small player in a huge public opinion campaign mounted by the population lobby. Almost everyday, in a variety of media, we are being told that the world’s serious environmental and social ills are caused by too many people.  This begs two key questions. Are we really experiencing a population explosion? And just who and what are wreaking the most havoc on the planet?

Unbeknownst to many Americans, the so-called population explosion actually ended in the last century as growth rates came down more rapidly than anticipated. Family size has fallen to a global average of 2.45 children and is projected to fall to two or less in the next few decades.

The main reason why global population is projected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, and possibly 10 billion by 2100 (a high projection that is disputed by many demographers), is that currently a large percentage of young people are entering their reproductive years.

High fertility persists in only a few countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, because of deep class and gender inequalities and the failure of elites to invest in education, employment and health services, including accessible, high-quality family planning.

The real challenge before us is to plan for the addition of 2-3 billion more people on the planet in a sustainable way. Fortunately, that is possible, but only if we address the real causes of environmental pressures.  Instead of blaming overpopulation, Americans need to get serious about climate policy, conservation, the transition to renewable energy, and mass transport.

And we need to challenge the grotesque and growing inequality of wealth and power in our nation that fuels conspicuous consumption and weakens the government’s commitment to environmental regulation.

It’s also high time for environmentalists to stop turning a blind eye toward the role of the military in environmental degradation.  The Pentagon is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, burning the same amount of fossil fuel everyday as the entire nation of Sweden.  From weapons production to war zones, its ecological bootprint crushes and pollutes the earth.

Instead of lumping all people together into one destructive human mass, it’s important to carefully assess which human activities harm the environment and which enhance it.  CBD blames overpopulation for the accelerated extinction of plant and animal species.  Missing from this simple picture are the ways in which different systems of production yield very different environmental results.

Take the case of food. Industrial agriculture typically erodes biodiversity, while peasant farming often protects crop genetic diversity and creates a welcoming habitat for birds and other species. A Monsanto executive and a Central American small organic farmer may both be part of the human population, but there the resemblance ends.

Equally troubling about overpopulation propaganda is the way it undermines reproductive rights. While its purveyors claim they support family planning, they view it more as a means to an end – reducing population growth, rather than as a right in and of itself.

The distinction may seem subtle, but it is not.  Family planning programs designed to limit birth rates treat women, especially poor women and women of color, as targets rather than as individuals worthy of respect. Quality of care loses out to an obsession with the quantity of births averted.

The negative view of babies as future polluters and carbon emitters also plays into the hands of anti-abortion activists who are always seeking new ways to portray themselves as pro-life, and the pro-choice and environmental movements as anti-child. At a time when reproductive rights are under severe attack by conservative forces, the population lobby is playing with a fire it may not be able to put out.

So if you find yourself in Times Square in September, my advice is to walk on by CBD’s scary video.  More worthy of a visit are Ground Zero or nearby Wall Street, the source of so many of our current financial woes. The focus on overpopulation is a great distraction from what really ails the body politic and the planet. No wonder it’s an advertiser footing the bill.


Betsy Hartmann is the Director of the Population and Development Program and Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. A longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement, she writes and speaks on the intersection of reproductive rights, environmental and climate justice, and peace. See and


  • From the Center for Biological Diversity

    Hartman’s argument that concern for overpopulation is a “distraction” from fighting consumption and consumptive systems makes no sense because virtually everyone who advocates against overpopulation also advocates against overconsumption. How did she fail to notice, for example, that the target of her essay–the Center for Biological Diversity–is probably the most aggressive litigator against corporations and excessive resource extraction in the nation? Indeed, the Center is suing–Monsanto–her exact example of capitalist thugs that overpopulation advocates are supposed to be ignoring.

    Overpopulation concern prevents environmentalists from “getting serious about climate policy, conservation, the transition to renewable energy, and mass transport”? Absurd. The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity work on ALL these issues.

    Far from being distracted by overpopulation, the Center for Biological Diversity is vastly more engaged in on-the-ground, in-the-courtroom, in-congress, in-media, battles over energy, transit, agriculture, climate and consumption battles than Hartman.

    Hartman epitomizes an old school wing of post-Marxism that has become largely irrelevant as either a political force or foundation of political thought because of its unwillingness to accept the equal status and integration of social justice and environmentalism.

    The good news, though, is that post-Marxists and progressive social theorists these days are far more accepting of environmentalism and far more informed by ecological theory. It is really not that hard, after all, to simultaneously recognize that human population is driving species extinct at a catastrophic rate as it destroys habitat, pollutes land, air and water, and absorbs too much of nature’s bounty, AND that our social and economic systems are radically injust and cause suffering disproportionately across gender, ethnic and economic lines. Indeed, the two go hand in hand.

  • I’m so sorry! My daughter’s name is Ashley. Here in the Midwest US, that is most common. Thanks for the correction.

  • I’m sorry that I implied ecosocialists weren’t up on life sciences. Obviously they are, I was wrong. Most people with the kind of dry, factual, nerdy type personality I have, tend to jump at statements they find false. Sorry. Often, ecosocialists are so aware of all the social and economic realities that they quickly react when anyone states that the planet has a limited capacity. It often seems that you deny the planet has a limited carrying capacity for humans. It is quite possible that we misread your reaction to our fear for the planet.

    I have already been convinced that we need to address our destructive economic and social systems immediately and before we do anything else. The only way I can see to control human population growth quickly would be genocide of some type. Absolutely not acceptable.

    We can agree there is a great deal of ground between a planet that has already exceeded the limit of humans it can tolerate and a planet that possibly will be able to handle the population growth that will occur before we get our social and economic systems on the right path. There is really not much point in arguing over what the actual limit will be. When someone complains that population is the most important problem, just ask them what they can do about it. If they don’t have any ideas then point out that we could use their help to change human social and economic systems before those problems take us down anyway.

    A scientist who is working on the battle lines measuring huge losses of diversity and habitat and who suspects we have crossed many tipping points including loss of soil fertility, high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, disruption of important chemical cycles etc. can’t be blamed for wishing desperately that there were fewer humans. They are watching the concrete effects of humans just trying to feed their families in underdeveloped countries. We can sympathize with their strong belief that the planet would be better off without us. The planet would be much relieved if we vanished. Many are certain that it is too late even if we all went back to being hunters and gatherers which anyone can see would pretty quickly complete the destruction.

    So where are we?
    Jeff White, you write, ” I note that nowhere in your comment do you acknowledge the importance of employing such a socio-economic analysis in addition to an appreciation of life sciences.”

    We have been commenting on population for months and about many articles. I was careless and assumed everyone understood that I do acknowledge the importance. Ian has convinced me that discussing population is useless and often intentionally distracting. I completely understand that capitalism needs to disappear from the face of the earth today and knew that anyway! I do a great deal of reading about agriculture, organic gardening, permaculture etc. I can imagine humans living with so little impact on living systems that most today would refuse to believe they could be happy if not happier doing it. I do believe we can do much much better and first we need to scrap the systems we have now. I am still afraid that it won’t be enough from what I understand about the life systems of our planet. That won’t stop me from trying though.

    Ian Angus, you wrote, “Blaming ecological destruction on our numbers is the same as saying humans cannot change the way we live, cannot live in harmony with the rest of nature. Sadly, that’s exactly what many populationists believe — note that Ashley Bies, commenting above, says “human subsistence activities inherently diminish biodiversity.” (emphasis added)

    It cannot be said that blaming ecological destruction on our numbers is the same as saying humans cannot change the way we live. Of course we can. We have changed numerous times. We should have changed in certain ways sooner. Humans have created almost infinite numbers of varied cultures, large and small over the time of our existence here. Possibly and sadly, the ones that enable large explosions of population are the ones that we are left with, since they have beaten out the more stable ones, but we are above all, flexible.

    Can we live in harmony with nature? We are “nature” I am afraid and nature is stuck with us. I am a dreamer who believes we have managed to sometimes approach doing so in the past and we might mange in the future but we probably will need to reduce our numbers non-the-less. Other animals of our size even with minimal basic resource requirements compared to us, never come even close to our population numbers. Nature just doesn’t do that. We have technology and big brains and can do wonderful things but look at it this way. Whatever we wrest from nature to support a larger than “natural” population means there is less for other species. And that results in a decrease in diversity and therefore in the resilience and flexibility of the planetary life system as a whole.

    I believe “nature” had already optimized the possibilities. Every single, possible resource was up and running through the total system, continually, in a way that produced the most resilient, flexible, responsive system possible. The proof is the fact that the earth’s life system exists and continues through many very radical and sometimes sudden blows such as meteors, heating periods and ice ages. Any planetary life system would necessarily achieve optimum balance over time or it would not now exist. We, as homosapiens haven’t been here very long at all.

    We may be able to come to terms with our planet’s life system in a way that allows us to maximize our population while not throwing things too far out of whack or at least allowing us a fairly long existence as a species. We probably should have done that sooner. Until someone comes up with an ethical way to decrease our population we will keep at it in the only way I believe we might succeed. And that is as an ecosocialist.

    Steven Johnson has the response I most identify with. Ashley Bies, in her longer comment, tries to explain more fully and never says she supports Capitalism nor does she imply that nothing should be done aside from limiting growth. I would ask her though, to please give us some idea of what she thinks should be done to limit growth. I understand that knowledge acquired “on the ground” produces in Bies doubts about whether we can make it especially with another 2 or 3 billion people. But after reading her longer comment I did not feel she should be considered horribly wrong. Hopefully, both of us are wrong.

    It isn’t simple to those of us who feel we are too close to major tipping points and may have gone over. When I hear other Ecosocialists sounding casual about human impact on the planet, saying another 3 billion people is no big deal, I literally can’t breathe. I’m guessing when you hear certain scientists say that our huge population is the biggest problem we face, you have the same reaction. Where is the common ground? How to connect? Can both sides be right if you ignore the extreme manifestations of both positions, both sides of the issue?

    Take the extremes out of the mix to start with.

  • In an attempt to understand my obstinate refusal to accept populationism, Chris writes:

    In the beginning however, I didn’t really understand the refusal to accept the fact that the planet was limited and could only support some limited number of humans.

    Chris goes on to say that I and others haven’t caught up with recent developments in the life sciences that prove that such limits exist.

    I could respond by explaining that I devote much of my time and effort to keeping up with the latest developments in biology, ecology, evolution and other sciences. I am fully aware of the unity of all living things, and of the importance of biodiversity. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with most of what Chris writes on those subjects.

    The fundamental problem with Chris’s explanation of my obstinacy is this: I have never denied that the planet is finite and can only support some limited number of humans. That would be absurd. Chris has set up and knocked down a straw man.

    But there is a difference between recognizing that some population limits must exist, and proclaiming that those limits are absolute and have already been passed.

    Are human population levels too high in some absolute sense? I don’t know, and neither does Chris or anyone else. As the noted demographer Joel Cohen writes, “no scientific estimates of sustainable human population size can be said to exist.”

    The impact of population has is mediated and distorted through an economic and social system that has waste and destruction built into its DNA.

    If you say that capitalism can’t support the present world population without poverty and starvation, I would agree. I would also agree if you said that capitalism’s drive to expand at all costs is destroying biodiversity at a potentially catastrophic rate.

    But that’s not proof of “overpopulation,” because for centuries capitalism has shown that it can’t support ANY level of population without poverty and starvation and environmental destruction.

    Blaming ecological destruction on our numbers is the same as saying humans cannot change the way we live, cannot live in harmony with the rest of nature. Sadly, that’s exactly what many populationists believe — note that Ashley Bies, commenting above, says “human subsistence activities inherently diminish biodiversity.” (emphasis added)

    If human activities are inherently in conflict with nature, then there is no hope.

    Fortunately, the evidence proves otherwise. People aren’t inherently anti-ecological, but capitalism is. Human beings created capitalism, and human beings can get rid of it.

    And when we have done that, it may then be possible to determine just what level of human population is optimal. On that possibility, I agree with Friedrich Engels:

    “There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty.”

  • Chris Rodgers wrote:

    I think I see what one of the problems might be. It is relatively recently that science, especially the life sciences, has become aware of the complexity of the relationships that are life on this planet….

    No, Chris, the “problem” is not that ecosocialists are unaware of the complex relationships of life on Earth and just need to familiarize ourselves with modern science in order to realize that there are “too many people” on the planet.

    Simon Butler wrote:

    Marx and Engels understood the Earth’s ecosystem as dynamic and complex — an intricate, delicately balanced process of interacting components where any changes that occur feed back with new, and often unpredictable, effects.

    We disrupt the natural ecosystem at our peril, Engels warned. “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us.

    “Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.”

    Many times Marx described the normal interaction between human society and the natural world as a kind of “metabolism”. Capitalist production creates a “metabolic rift” — a sharp break in the relationship — between humanity and the Earth.

    It’s not that Marxists are ignorant of life sciences or that we don’t fully comprehend modern scientific insights and discoveries. Historical materialist analysis has always been rooted in a keen appreciation of science.

    We also appreciate the importance of recognizing the class nature of society, and the ways in which the social relations of a class society have profound impacts on human populations and the environment. I note that nowhere in your comment do you acknowledge the importance of employing such a socio-economic analysis in addition to an appreciation of life sciences.

    I invite you to read Simon Butler’s and Ian Angus’s new book, Too Many People?, in order to gain a real insight into why ecosocialists reject populationist arguments.

  • I have finally got to a point where I understand why ecosocialists like Angus hate to see “overpopulation” issues put forth as most important. It does seem that it is an unsolvable problem as well as distracting from very important issues we might actually be able to address. In the beginning however, I didn’t really understand the refusal to accept the fact that the planet was limited and could only support some limited number of humans.

    I think I see what one of the problems might be. It is relatively recently that science, especially the life sciences, has become aware of the complexity of the relationships that are life on this planet. Suddenly we see how much we didn’t know and how much more there is to learn. Up to now one could say that the planet apparently was able to support some huge number of humans. A person would look at how much arable land there is on the planet, how much fresh water and other resources and Tah-da! By dividing these resources by the amount one human needs for life, A person could have it all figured out in no time.

    But NOW science understands that we depend on every tiny microbe, plant, animal or fungus that exists on our skin, the soil, the water, the air etc. We and every other life form are truly embedded in a “web of life.” And every strand in the web is necessary. Each living creature depends on a certain environment, a matrix of resources that it must have to survive including many other organisms. Together, the life on the planet recycles all resources, balances the atmosphere and possibly goes so far as to effect temperature. The planet has been fined tuned over eons to support the largest density of life as possible.

    And one important fact in the new understanding of life on the planet is that the more diverse the living systems are, the richer each environment is, the more resilient and flexible they are to disturbance.

    There is also a point where the diversity and density becomes so poor, the relationships so limited that the slightest disturbance destroys that particular system whatever the size. Life scientists are realizing just how tenuous our existence on this planet is. We don’t know where the tipping points are but there is a very real possibility that everything might look fine until the whole life system collapses with little warning.

    We do understand that if the human population continues to grow to the APPARENT limitations of the available resources, we most certainly will have disturbed the life systems we depend on, past the point of recovery. We quite possibly already have. There might be plenty of land and water, but the soil will be dead, the ocean might be dead, we might find we don’t have an atmosphere conducive to human life or even the micro fauna necessary to grow food and protect us from disease.

    The difficulty with our discussions is that very intelligent individuals who pursue other interests than the life sciences don’t fully comprehend the most recent insights and discoveries. It will take at least a couple of generations for the public to be thoroughly at home with these concepts. Currently, it seems to most that one could look at the resources on the planet and mathematically divide them by a given number of humans to see if everyone could have enough to sustain life. But the necessary mathematics are far more complex than we have imagined. Diversity of species and life systems will be one of the most complex and important formulas we might ever but haven’t yet developed.

    According to the most recent developments in the life sciences, we have very possibly already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. We have been relying on stored, dense, ancient energy to sustain what is probably an impossibly dense population as it is. And in so doing we have probably pushed the environment into radical changes that will be impacting life systems that already have reduced adaptability due to loss of diversity at our hand. Climate change being one example.

    I believe a difference in the understanding of exactly how life functions on the planet is the problem in these arguments. I think that everyone must come to an understanding that the planet is limited in it’s ability to support human populations because of the complexity of life and its relationships. Much smaller populations will be necessary in the future in order to protect the life systems on the planet which we all depend on for life.

    Personally, I think overpopulation will solve itself in very unpleasant ways. I do not know what we can do, based on our ethics, to control it anyway. Meanwhile, we need to work, each in our own area of interest or expertise, on the areas we can change, which is what the Ecosocialists are trying to do. However, the life scientists are going to continue trying to educate the public about how this planet and its living systems function. It is vital that we all understand the big picture. And the big picture will demand a more balanced distribution of the populations of all species. It won’t work if we just allocate small areas of land to be little arks or reserves for life forms. They don’t and can’t live like that. Meanwhile, the social scientists will be trying to educate us about economic systems and how they also effect human populations and all life on the planet. We can all learn from each other.

    I will add that the concept of diversity applies in other areas as well as living systems. As social animals we need the diversity of interests, knowledge, ideas, creativity, skills, personality that any group of humans can produce. We should not be too quick to write off individuals or their ideas. It will take creativity and an ability to form new questions and insights, as well as propose and try innovative solutions to come through this dangerous period in human and planetary history. Simply rehashing ideas others have postulated in the past won’t work although we should be conversant with past wisdom. Environments and societies change, science discovers new facts. Never before have human populations been so large in the midst of these newest discoveries and newly understood facts. No period in history is like another. We must be open to new insight.

  • To be provocative, one thing that strikes me as a deep incoherence in populationists is how do they manage to make a distinction between less people from less births or less people from more deaths. I mean, if you’re a populationist, then you must think that suicides, homicides and deaths caused by diseases, famine and wars are all great for the environment. Unless, of course, you try to jump from quantitative to qualitative arguments but then you’re just being incoherent again.
    This song brilliantly sums up the point I’m trying to make:

  • What Ashley Bies fails to recognize is that the planet’s “carrying capacity” for human population, the growth patterns and characteristics of human population, and the impact of humans on the environment are as much a product of human social and economic relations as they are of the laws of thermodynamics.

    Human societies lived for dozens of millennia in harmony with their environment, without any significant adverse impact on biodiversity, and without destroying the climate. Yet Bies insists that even humans living at a subsistence level are “inherently” incapable of avoiding the diminution of biodiversity. This dismissive view discounts the ability of humans – unique among animals – to apply conscious effort and knowledge to the preservation and protection of the environment. It ignores the importance of human culture as a means of preserving and transmitting through the generations attitudes and practices that nurture rather than destroy the environment. It ignores the pernicious impact of the rise of class society on human ecology – how laws of population growth, levels of consumption, and stewardship of land and resources are all distorted by social forces brought into play by the imperatives of a system based on private accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many and at the expense of nature.

    When it comes to the impact of human populations on the environment, size isn’t everything. It’s not the size of the population of upper North America that accounts for its vastly disproportionate consumption of the resources, both renewable and non-, of the planet. This can only be accounted for by considering how the social and economic laws of capitalist society and production have shaped and controlled the way in which humans live, reproduce, and consume in the heartlands of imperialism.

    People like Bies, if pressed, will often acknowledge this, but then continue to assert that physical laws prevent the planet from being able to sustain 2 billion more people in future, even at a subsistence level. But these are the same physical laws that apparently don’t prevent the earth from sustaining 400 million people in North America with an ecological footprint equivalent to 2 billion “average” Earthlings!

    Human ecology is a social science, not a branch of physics. Those who purport to be able to quantify in absolute numbers the supposedly immutable human carrying capacity of the earth fail to recognize this.

    Moreover, Bies’s position leaves us with no hope or possibility of avoiding catastrophic environmental destruction. Apart from saying that “overpopulation” must be “addressed” there is no clue as to how we ought to proceed in the short timeframe available to us for action. Even barring the monstrous prospects of mass culling of the world’s population or mass forced sterilization programs, Bies’s perspective is a dead end for humanity. It assumes capitalism can be made ecologically benign by having fewer people – despite the fact that capitalism has been on an anti-ecological rampage since the world’s population was far less than a billion.

    I will also take issue with Bies’s criticism of Betsy Hartmann for saying that populationism plays into the hands of American anti-abortion activists. The latter’s biggest problem now is that they have no answer to arguments in favour of reproductive freedom. They want to make the issue about babies, not women’s rights.

    But when birth control and abortion are touted as the front lines in the battle against environmental devastation, the agenda of reproductive freedom for women gets overshadowed by an agenda of massive population reduction. Babies become the issue, not women; babies are cast as environmentally undesirable – a position totally at odds with reproductive freedom. Hartmann is quite rightly concerned that this is a propaganda gift to the anti-abortion forces, who seek to pose as “pro-life” and “pro-child”.

  • First, my regret for the health-related delay in my response;

    Second, my appreciation for the last anonymous contributor’s apt mediation in this discussion;


    We should note that Dr. Friedman’s argument addresses only my first sentence. He does not address concerns over allowing ideological or political reactions to repress worries about ecological impacts, the relationship between consumption and population in causing environmental impacts, the biodiversity loss caused by even the most underprivileged growing populations of rural areas, or, most fundamentally of all, whether the global environment and our planet’s biodiversity can be protected from the threats with which they are faced without halting human population growth. Therefore, his assertion that population growth doesn’t matter is not substantiated by his own argument: It is no more than a statement of personal agreement with Professor Hartmann.

    While awaiting Dr. Friedman’s arguments, if any, on the population growth concerns that I attempted to articulate or the nature of the over-population threat, I will attempt to reply to the concern he raises. However, our debate of this single point should not distract form the overarching issue of identifying and understanding the causes of current environmental crises and threats of future devastation (such as climate change).

    Indeed, I intentionally restricted my discussion of this point in the hope of avoiding consuming extra space to argue that the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics apply to our species and the ecosystems that sustain us (along with the first principles of biology and ecology). Distilling this point down to one human sentence (later backed up by a brief description of the link between subsistence and biodiversity loss) required that I express is as the sort of broad assertion that’s likely to arouse antagonism, yet I hoped that this would not unduly distract from the fundamental issue. I’m sorry that it so clearly has.

    One of the most unfortunate and common circumstances in our field is when well intentioned individuals who share a passionate concern for the environment consume energy debating or fighting with one another rather than both making urgently needed contributions to solving the problems facing our world. It is only because my work has persuaded me that human population growth is one of the two most fundamental threats facing us and what remains of our global biodiversity, and that failing to recognize and address it will likely doom us and most of the rest of life on earth, that I continue to push this debate. Again, my sincere hope is that the following sub-topic does not distract from the core, critical, issue, and Dr. Friedman’s opportunity to address it: Professor Hartmann’s and Dr. Friedman’s broad assertion that human population growth may not constitute an environmental or biodiversity threat.

    One of the principal threats of capitalism must be the neoclassical economic view of our planet as an unlimited resource with infinite capacity for substitution in the event that any resource becomes scarce. As ecology, sociology, or any reality-based economic paradigm can teach us, the resulting assumption that unlimited growth is either possible or desirable is false. This is just as true of the human population as it is of the human economy.

    As Professor Hartmann has correctly pointed out, some human actions and populations impact the globe far more than others. However, again, her intimation (supported by Dr. Friedman) that we can sustain an additional 2 or 3 billion people on Earth with only neutral or positive environmental impacts. As the most recent anonymous contributor mentioned, no matter how mitigated human resource production may become, it will inherently involve the simplification or conversion of a natural system into a productive one, to the great detriment of biodiversity, atmospheric carbon, and many other critical environmental issues.

    The sheer amount of resources required to sustain the most basic needs of 2-3 billion humans is staggering. All of that energy and land area amounts to a massive ecological footprint that threatens to trample much of the environmental integrity and biodiversity that we retain. And of course not all of the population growth will occur among the least developed and consumptive portions of the globe.

    Indeed, continuing population growth in more consumptive areas, particularly the US and also the other leading developed nations, threatens to swamp out any environmental gains that are made by reducing impacts from the most consumptive populations and activities.

    While population certainly is a multiplier, when our planet’s carrying capacity is approached, let alone exceeded, it is also a direct threat in its own right. We are now multiple billions past any reasonable approximation of carrying capacity, and our overpopulation presents a direct threat of not just the sixth mass extinction of life on earth but also to fundamental processes of our planet’s ecology. Overpopulation is neither a smoke screen nor a red herring; it is not even simply a multiplier: It is the leading cause of environmental harm in our world, without which neither consumption nor conflict would be a global threat.

    Though it may be far easier or even more practical to primarily address consumption as a remedy to global environmental problems, we MUST base any such evaluations in reality. Clearly, overpopulation is real, and must be addressed to the maximum extent possible if we are to hope for anything approaching the best possible outcome from our global environmental efforts. May we find a way to limit our own increase as well as excess, that there is a future for the increasingly fragile living systems of which we are inextricably a part.

    -Ashley Bies
    PhD Student in Conservation Biology
    University of Central Florida

  • Michael Friedman responds to Ashley Bies: ‘Your categorical claim that “human subsistence activities inherently diminish biodiversity” is nonsense and, moreover, as a result of its abstract form, unfalsifiable.”‘

    The claim is not “categorical,” it just fairly obviously applies so long as extinctions are taking place at a rate many times higher than a breakeven rate. When that is no longer the case, we can ease up. In the meantime, common sense dictates reducing ALL multipliers affecting the equation, insofar as that can be done without creating worse ills. The fallacious nature of the either-or thinking in Hartmann, Angus, et al is surely clear to all who are not somehow MOTIVATED to not see it.

    AND YET, with only a slight change – the removal of the stubborn denial of the obvious that unfortunately has been made the central thrust of their articles on population – the position elaborated by Hartmann, Angus, and others could become a singularly cogent and compelling agenda for our times. For it is TRUE that current anti-population programs are oppressive and counterproductive, and probably always will be so long as they are imposed by outsiders aligned with capitalist interests. It is TRUE that replacing capitalism (Angus and other “ecosocialists” have a more thoroughgoing agenda than Hartmann indicates in the article, but her “challenging inequality” is a start) is essential for healing the planet’s ecological ills. It is TRUE -as Hartmann champions – that access to contraception is important. It is TRUE that weighty factors in addition to population bear on impacts, that powerful interests are threatened by the prospect of addressing these, and so they very plausibly would prefer that public attention be concentrated nearly exclusively on population. It is even true that these interests probably do not even CARE if the population programs work so long as attention is distracted from needed agendas which would diminish their wealth and power. And it is right and good and necessary to blow these whistles.

    And what is also true – and missed by many on all sides – is that replacing capitalism with a genuine ecosocialism, and thus making everyday people stakeholders in the land uses and capacities of every locale, so that people share in the responsibilities and benefits of reaching a reasonable human population level, is an essential prerequisite to the emergence of effective, indigenously motivated, democratically implemented population policies. This latter argument could become a powerful weapon in the anti-capitalist arsenal were it not for the prevailing blindness in many Left circles to the need to not just stabilize but also reduce human population levels to achieve goals such as biodiversity. What a tragically missed opportunity!

    And I don’t think these folks realize how far short they fall from doing real justice to biodiversity concerns. It is certainly true, as Hartmann and Angus argue, that the most sustainable production systems permit a greater number of species to co-exist. Honestly, it’s not hard to improve upon chemical-intensive monocropping in this regard! But this is utterly insufficient to meet the needs of the many threatened species which require large contiguous spaces, away from the edges, and far more minimally impacted by human activities. These species require not just better human production systems, but far more space without human production of any sort (or, at most, the sort of minimally intrusive symbiotic tweakings involved in the forest gardening that SMALL pockets of past indigenous people have practiced).

    Or perhaps I, a lay observer, err. But I think it is telling that Ashley Bies, a conservation biologist, takes the position she does. Just as it is climate scientists, and not retired astrophysicists or even meteorologists to whom we should be listening concern climate change, when it comes to biodiversity, we must give weight to what conservation biologists and others in fields with directly relevant specialized expertise have to say. It would be interesting to know: How many conservation biologists would take Mike Friedman’s position over against Ashley Bies’?

  • Your categorical claim that “human subsistence activities inherently diminish biodiversity” is nonsense and, moreover, as a result of its abstract form, unfalsifiable. “Human subsistence activities” are concretely expressed through determined economic forms, and said forms have varying impacts on biodiversity, Jared Diamond to the contrary. And I suspect you are referring to Diamond, Paul Martin and others who claim that primitive humans, as much as modern humans, were responsible for large-scale extinctions.

    Diamond, of course, like Paul S. Martin and like the schools of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, maintains that Homo sapiens is inherently bloodthirsty, and that prehistoric humans, no less than their modern descendants, were responsible for mass extinctions. Diamond and Martin, for example, made a case that “Clovis man” was responsible for mammoths and other large mammals in North America. However, their Hobbesian view of “primitive” humans is supported by precious little hard evidence. The Nova production “End of the Big Beasts,” addressed these claims (

    “…skeptics have asked, Where’s the evidence? Grayson and Meltzer [who favor climate change theories] have noted that late-Ice Age sites bearing megafaunal remains that show unequivocal sign of slaughter by humans number just 14. Moreover, they stress, only two types of giants were killed at those 14 sites, mammoth and mastodon. There’s no sign that early hunters preyed on giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, or the massive, armadillo-like glyptodonts, for instance. (Forensic studies of a cache of Clovis tools found in 2008 suggest the Clovis people did hunt now-extinct camels and horses.) That’s hardly enough evidence, Grayson and Meltzer argue, to lay blame for a continent’s worth of lost megafauna at the foot of the first Americans.”

    Ross MacPhee, a mammologist at the American Museum of Natural History quoted in the same production, also dismisses claims that the modest Pleistocene human population could have wiped out this fauna: “I just don’t think it’s plausible, especially if we’re also talking about collapses for megafauna that didn’t actually go extinct.” At the end of the ice age, populations of other large mammals fell precipitously: “It gets a little bit beyond probability in my view that people could have been so active as to hunt every animal of any body size, in every context, in every possible environment, over three continents.”

    You might just as well say that ANY organism, in the process of interacting with its environment (and Richard Lewontin has it right: organisms shape, as well as are shaped by, their environments), “inherently diminishes biodiversity.” But, of course, that would be absurd, too, because while a given organism may adversely impact populations of some other organisms, it provides conditions that favor others. To stretch a point, even under modern conditions of monopoly capitalism, as far as we know, biodiversity has been reduced only if eukaryotes are considered.

    Our society, capitalist society, is the only society that has turned everything it touches into capital, exchange value whose sole purpose is the accretion of more value in the form of profits. Natural resources, land, pets, animal hides, food, nothing is exempt (and, under the current neoliberal variant, as Naomi Klein noted, this includes sunlight, itself). And in our market economy, the only outcomes possible are rampant consumerism, “externalization” of environmental costs, habitat destruction, overexploitation of fisheries, pollution and mass extinctions. If you are concerned about biodiversity (and that is my area of work, as well), then you will realize that our form of society is the principal threat to it, to the environment as a whole, and to our own species’ existence on this planet. Overpopulation is a red herring.

    Michael Friedman, Ph.D.

    Visiting Scientist
    Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics
    American Museum of Natural History
    79th Street and Central Park West
    New York, NY 10024

  • Skip the video, I don’t think so! While you are watching that “scary” video you might want to look around at one of the most overpopulated places in the world – Times Square.
    Now that’s scary!


  • Human subsistence activities inherently diminish biodiversity – Professor Hartmann’s claim that increased human activities due to population growth could have a neutral effect on the global environment is therefore false.

    Additionally, her characterization of population concerns as playing into the hands of American anti-abortion activists is not substantiated: Fewer abortions would lead to greater US population growth, and hence population control efforts should not play into “pro-life” (also perhaps anti-biodiversity) hands. To have any hope of averting the environmental catastrophes we face, our society, both nationally and globally, must recognize the importance of population in all global environmental matters (even if this dawning recognition offends some ideological interests).

    Consumption is clearly the other half of the global human problem, meaning that population growth in the United States or other more developed countries has a far bigger effect than growth in less developed countries. However, all growth has biodiversity impacts though habitat conversion, degradation or harvesting, particularly when local subsistence involves practices such as bushmeat hunting in habitat whose wildlife is being devastated by the Empty Forest Syndrome. Just as it would be ineffectual and inappropriate to address population alone, so it would be a mistake to only address consumption.

    While Professor Hartman is correct that consumption must be addressed strongly, and that targeting these actions to the areas of greatest consumption will have the greatest effect, her dismissal of population growth as a global problem in urgent need of attention is simply wrong. It would be a great disservice to our future generations and to the future of our world if we took her advice and failed to address the mounting threat of population growth.

    It is my hope, therefore, that Professor Hartman’s sentiments do not distract us from reality that our continuing procreation and population increase are fully half the cause of climate change, biodiversity loss, and a host of other environmental stresses she does not mention. I applaud the CBD and their partners for helping to draw the attention of our nation, birthplace of the most consumptive people on earth, to the need to control our population growth. I hope that those of us who pass through Times Square in the coming month consider their video with open minds, even if it scares us as true patriots of our homeland and globe.

    -Ashley Bies
    PhD Student in Conservation Biology
    University of Central Florida