Environmentalists are often motivated by the visceral – the prospect of a loved one being deprived of some glorious natural phenomenon, for example, or a haunting photograph that conveys the scale of destruction in which humans are continually engaged. A new coffee table book by the Population Media Center makes the most of this – flooding the reader with evocative images and ideas in hopes that we’ll wake up to the danger of population overshoot, live differently, and invest in still-feasible solutions. The book deserves careful consideration and widespread advocacy, as the effort is nothing short of heroic. We can only hope that it inspires a great deal more heroism, however modest or prosaic.
The first modern efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of unchecked human population growth were arguably disastrous. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1967 book, The Population Bomb, included projections that proved wildly inaccurate. Though these were modestly presented, with clear disclaimers, advocates of business-as-usual consumption have continually exploited them to characterize those concerned about precipitous declines in biodiversity as wild-eyed doomsayers.
In ensuing decades, environmentalists have learned many equally hard lessons. Global issues are so enormous and complex that early theories and projections are inevitably inaccurate. Seldom do these errors disprove the essential point – that overpopulation and climate change will impact life on Earth in profound ways. But the average citizen – an essential participant in any meaningful improvement – is relatively untutored in global complexities and therefore easily convinced that it’s all a lot of hokum. And legions of well-paid persuaders stand ready to dismiss and disdain. Humans are never so ingenious as when concocting excuses for depleting natural resources.
As Jonathan Franzen beautifully articulates in Carbon Capture (The New Yorker, April 6, 2015), global issues like overpopulation are amorphous and overwhelming to our day-to-day, survivalist brains. They’re everyone’s fault, and therefore no one’s. So the challenge for environmentalists is to isolate and clarify specific, preferably local, aspects of mega-problems that grassroots groups can sink their teeth into. Realistic objectives might then be defined, leading to concrete victories.
Another good approach is to move beyond statistical quibbles and aim for the gut. That’s the philosophy behind the new coffee table book, Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot, produced by the Population Media Center. The book is the centerpiece of the group’s Global Population Speakout Campaign. The hard copy must be enormous, but the book is readily, ingeniously accessible on the speakout site. From there, you can also sign up to become engaged in the campaign as a friend, activist or “book champion.”
The heart and bulk of the tome is visual: crisp, unforgettable images that drive home the consequences of unchecked growth – each set off by a quote from an environmental or political leader. It would be hard to list all the pictures and observations that struck me as particularly profound, but here follow a few examples:
“There are some things in the world we can't change—gravity, entropy, the speed of light, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die. Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature. We invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere.” —David Suzuki (Image: Mega car park, UK.)
"Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal. The more original move is to assume that it has already happened." —Jean Baudrillard (Image: Polar bear carcass on the tundra in Norway.)
The visuals are bookended by a foreword, two essays and a parable. The obligatory hockey-stick graph is also present, but in general the authors go easy on statistics and projections, which could be more distracting or overwhelming than inspiring.
In the foreword, Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, strikes a holistic, familial chord, speaking affectionately to and of humanity. It’s a stirring plea – not for mandates, but for honor and awareness.
William Ryerson, president of the Population Media Center and CEO of the Population Institute, exposes some common canards in his introduction – the quaint notion, for example, that the present population of the world (7.35 billion) could be
packed into an area the size of Texas. Technically true, perhaps, but cartoonishly irrelevant. Such blather reveals the stunning human capacity for detachment – in this case, willful ignorance of basic ecology and the level of suffering already extant on our beleaguered planet.
Mr. Ryerson goes on to offer a tangible bit of hope: the possibility that a few paltry billions of dollars invested in providing education and contraception in the third world, as suggested by the United Nations, could lead to population decline within this century. Now that’s an energizing idea – that we might actually make Earth far more humane and liveable for roughly the same cost as another crippling war.
Our species is as tough as nails in many respects, but astonishingly delicate in others. It turns out that too much self-criticism often simply shuts us down. It is therefore not just a matter of academic debate whether to shift emphasis in environmental literature from blame to hope. This book’s authors, photographers and designers clearly understand what’s at stake.
In the afterword, Eileen Crist eloquently addresses aspects of population overshoot, which I doubt many ardent environmentalists have even considered. The idea that the proliferation of dire predictions can drive self-fulfilling prophecy, for example. Well-meaning crusaders repeat the “10 billion” extrapolation so often that it’s starting to seem immutable. This seems akin to trying to avoid onrushing cars by staring into their headlights. As Crist writes, we “hypnotize and propel ourselves in the predicted direction.”
Dr. Crist is poetic and inspiring when she speaks of conserving, and even proliferating, “Life” – as opposed to the Orwellian “life” (with the smallest possible “l”) envisioned by modern “can-do” technocrats. Here she is in visionary harmony with Rachel Carson, who famously wrote, “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
Their point is essential: as we allow ourselves to become embroiled in technological debates – Can it be done? – we opt out of the larger, more humane considerations – Should it be done? Must it be done? Eileen Crist’s heartfelt notion of “Life” (with the largest possible “L”) should anchor all future debates.
As it is, our collective and institutional silence on overpopulation is deafening. Population overshoot is the Balrog in the bloomers – the mother of all Earthly challenges,
and it is already governing many aspects of our lives. Yet we still can’t come to grips with it. Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot is an extraordinary handhold – easily grasped, and carefully aligned in the right direction.
If the authors occasionally harp on Man The Destroyer (MTD), who can blame them? Yet I’d ask all environmentalists to take one step further and concede that the MTD perspective has been overdone. Not because it is unjustified, and not entirely because it has proven to be relatively ineffective. No, MTD is a poor strategy for the purely scientific reason that it hinges on an age-old false dichotomy.
Our species is actually integral in nature, as are all species. Orion magazine was particularly effective when hewing to that idea. “Man AND Nature” was the slogan – not “Man VS. Nature.” It’s a subtle but important distinction. We are not so much complicit as intrinsic. Truly groking that level of interrelatedness can only help us take responsibility and rise to the challenges we face – not as humans, but as constituents of Gaia.
All images are copyright protected and may not be used without permission from (1) Royce Bair, (2) Achim Blum, (3) Mark Gamba/Corbis and (4) Stephanie Sinclair