overpopulation

A very demanding question

The ‘law’ of supply and demand isn’t a complicated thing, despite what your economics teacher would have you believe. Let’s pick a commodity… and, since it’s purely for the sake of illustration and we’re keeping things simple, let’s choose wax crayons.

Start with the idea that the available supply of wax crayons is pretty much equal to the demand for wax crayons. Crayon manufacturers are busy doing their thang, and kids are busy drawing pictures of rainbows (which is keeping fridge magnet manufacturers happy, too). Parents know roughly what crayons cost because this idyllic state of equilibrium keeps prices stable.

Now let’s change something in this happy little equation.

Some changes would drive prices down. Let’s say a new craze comes along for finger-painting, and word in the playground is that crayon drawings are uncool; or a new manufacturer floods the market with cheap crayons. When supply exceeds demand, retailers discount their stocks of wax crayons and prices drop.

Other changes would drive prices up. A new craze comes along for making funky fashion accessories out of wax crayons; or there’s a world shortage of the special multi-coloured wax they use to make crayons. When demand exceeds supply, retailers know they can charge more for their crayons and people will still buy them.

Now let’s get all of our wax crayons out and draw a really big picture. Consider a world where the price of everything seems to be rapidly increasing, and where everybody’s suddenly talking about a cost-of-living crisis. It’s not just a question of tightening belts, or of lower income families having to cut down on a few frivolous luxuries. No, we’re looking at a situation where the majority of people are at least moderately concerned about the rapidly rising costs of fairly essential things like food, energy, clothing, fuel, healthcare…

Theories abound on the causes of this crisis, yet they all miss the mark and fail to acknowledge the enormous elephant in the room. The news is full of articles about supply chains affected by pandemics, wars and strikes, crops affected by weather, availability of raw materials, etc., etc. There is plenty of focus on how we might improve supply. But why aren’t we talking about the demand side of the equation? We should ALL be talking about the fact that human population has doubled from 4 billion to 8 billion in under 50 years – less than one lifetime. We should ALL be talking about the impossibility of meeting this mind-blowing scale of exponentially increased demand. We should ALL be talking about the fact that this ‘crisis’ isn’t going to go away, it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse. We should ALL be talking about the fact that far, far greater problems of rising costs, empty shelves, power cuts, starvation, and brutal, violent desperation inevitably lie in store for all of us if we fail to tackle the insatiable, unsustainable demands of our species.

Well, I’m talking about it, and I make no apology for that. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I’m also daring to suggest that the politicians and big businesses on whom we misguidedly rely to solve our problems fully intend to ride this runaway gravy train for as long as possible. So they will carry on discrediting ‘doomers’ like me and distracting you and your children with inane adverts for the latest must-have wax crayons – “New colours!!! Bubble-gum scented!!! Now with glow-in-the-dark glitter!!!” – and countless other things you don’t need. That way, you won’t open your eyes to the true state of the world, you won’t push for fundamental change, you won’t stop wasting resources, and you won’t stop breeding new consumers.

At least, not until it’s way too late.

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A milestone around our necks

We have a thing for celebrating big round numbers. Birthdays, anniversaries, jubilees, millennia… and the bigger the number, the greater the cause for celebration, right? But we’re about to reach a milestone that’s too big. Obscenely and disturbingly huge, in fact.

On 15th November 2022, according to United Nations data, the population of human beings on Earth will officially reach 8 billion. It’s a milestone that certainly doesn’t warrant celebration, and I suspect it’s one that will be widely ignored, despite its massive implications for each and every one of us.

Big numbers

Part of the problem is that 8,000,000,000 is a number that’s too big to have any real meaning for most of us. We can’t even imagine it. So let’s try to give it a bit of context. It’s nearly 11 times the entire population of the whole of Europe. It’s more than 24 times the entire population of the United States. It’s the entire population of the UK, multiplied by about 120. In short, it’s too many people.

Even so, it’s not just the sheer number of humans that’s really going to catch us out; it’s the fact that our population has been growing exponentially, on a rapidly steepening curve.

References in popular culture have brought this home to me recently. I borrowed a book from my dad last year, written in the 1940s, which mentioned there were 2 billion people on the planet. The population has quadrupled within my dad’s lifetime. That’s pretty scary. And I was watching a much more up-to-date movie this week from the early 2000s which mentioned world population at 6 billion. So now, at 8 billion, we’ve increased our numbers by a third within the past 20 years or so. Or, to put it another way, it took all of history for total world population to reach 2 billion by the 1940s, and we’ve added that same number of people to our planet in the space of just a couple of decades.

When I finished writing 10:59 in 2018, world population was under 7.6 billion. By the time the book was published just two years later, it was almost 7.8 billion. And now, another two years on, the number I used in my novel already looks outdated and has been surpassed by another half a billion people.

Pick any year you like, and the speed of this runaway train we’re all riding becomes evident. 50 years ago, in 1972, the number was 3.8 billion, so there are more than double the number of people in the world now.

The modern plague

These are the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.”

He wrote that in 1966, when the population was 3.4 billion – well below half of today’s figure – and already being highlighted (albeit to no avail) as a cause for very serious concern and urgent action.

So why should we care?

There’s evidence all around us of the myriad problems caused by our uncontrolled numbers and the consumption and demands that go with them. With every day that passes, we hear more references to the global food crisis, climate crisis, healthcare crisis, housing crisis, fuel crisis, pollution, waste, pandemics, crime. It’s more and more difficult to find a parking space, to get a doctor’s appointment, to get to work (or anywhere) on time because of all the traffic, to get through to customer service on the phone. All of our systems are starting to come apart at the seams. Yet we still refuse to even acknowledge – let alone discuss or address – the 8 billion reasons that lie at the root of all these problems.

Whilst it’s true that big businesses and the wealthiest people on the planet contribute disproportionately to overconsumption, if we use that as an excuse not to do anything as individuals, then we really are doomed. The cumulative effect of 8 billion small differences would be spectacular, and we can only challenge the corporates and the super-rich if we do it together. One thing’s for sure: if we keep ignoring this increasingly blatant truth and carry on like there’s no tomorrow… well, there won’t be.

One last little frightening fact is that, even today, nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. We are accidentally overpopulating ourselves into a self-inflicted apocalypse.

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Boiling Frogs

I was honoured to be invited to write a guest blog post for The Overpopulation Project in October 2020. Read on, or follow the link to view the original post and explore TOP’s excellent website.

According to the well-known metaphor, if you were to put a live frog into boiling water, it would – very wisely – leap straight out again. However, if you put the frog into tepid water that was then brought slowly to the boil, the hapless creature would be cooked before it even realised it was in trouble.

We’re the frogs. We’ve been relaxing in the nice warm water for years, turning a blind eye to the danger signs that have been appearing all around us. The outspoken few who dared to voice their concerns in the past were branded alarmists, and brushed aside. Those in political and commercial power have assured us that constant building and development is a Good Thing, that covering the land in concrete and plastic is positive: it’s all evidence of growth and progress and prosperity.

But now things are really hotting up, literally as well as figuratively. More and more of us parboiled amphibians are noticing that our surroundings are simmering in a distinctly uncomfortable fashion. Those danger signs that we conveniently ignored suddenly seem to be everywhere, because they are. We recall seeing graphs depicting exponential growth and we try to convince ourselves that we haven’t reached the nearly vertical line where things are escalating towards imminent catastrophe.

Only a few years ago, headlines about the environment were few and far between. Today, we can’t avoid the stories pouring in from every continent, and it’s not as easy to believe that everything will somehow be okay. Devastating wildfires and floods, unprecedented melting of ice in the Arctic, ubiquitous deforestation and habitat destruction, species extinctions, plastics in the oceans, air pollution, coronavirus, oil spills… It’s a long list, occasionally supplemented by mentions of concerns over intensive farming of crops and livestock, increasing allergies and mental health problems, poverty and famine.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to acknowledge the existence of all of these issues, and to accept that they all have a single common denominator: human overpopulation. It’s time to work together; in criticising and blaming each other, we are frittering away what may well be our last opportunity to solve the environmental crises that threaten the very existence of mankind. It’s time to recognise that the sheer mass and insatiable demands of the human race are throwing the planet’s entire ecosystem fatally out of balance and the only hope lies in reducing our numbers.

Yes, that sounds simplistic. Yes, overconsumption and emissions and pollution and poverty and education all need to be addressed. But every single one of the increasingly critical environmental issues that we face stems essentially from the scale of human activity on Earth; every single one is made easier to solve if there are fewer people. Our survival depends on not being afraid to talk about overpopulation.

That’s pretty scary stuff for frogs to face. Much nicer to close our eyes and lay back in the hot-tub, right? Trouble is, the really scary stuff is yet to come. Our pandemics, plagues and extreme weather are only just beginning to escalate and, unless we face facts and take action, the inconveniences and fears of 2020 are soon going to seem like a walk in the park. We can’t afford to wait until the human population reaches some predicted future plateau. We can’t afford to wait until 2100 or 2050 or 2030 or even 2021. We can’t afford to wait for politicians and corporations to save us; with a few exceptions, they are generally the ones with the most to gain by maintaining the status quo. Let’s not continue to be duped by those who preach the gospel of economic growth at any cost. Let’s implement humane, achievable solutions before it’s too late. Let’s measure success not in numbers on computer screens, but in the health of the natural world on which we truly depend.

If we turn the volume down on the vitriolic objections of the deniers and the smooth reassurances of those who are busy lining their pockets at the planet’s expense, if we think for ourselves and open our eyes to the true scale of our vandalism, then it quickly becomes obvious that the water we’re sitting in is extremely close to boiling point. Any frog with an instinct for self-preservation would have hopped out a long time ago.

So what can we do? We post and retweet and like and share and sign petitions and hold placards, and all of that might help to raise awareness. But does it actually change anything? How do we translate awareness into action that might make a meaningful difference? Above all, we stop assuming that it’s someone else’s problem. We stop waiting for our governments to save us. We stop being passive. We hop out of the almost-boiling water and each do what we can. We make the number of humans on the planet the solution instead of the problem.

7.8 billion humans are destroying the world. 7.8 billion humans are the biggest threat to climate, biodiversity and habitats. 7.8 billion humans are generating waste and pollution on a terrifying scale. 7.8 billion humans are obliterating nature and wiping out other species faster than ever before. But 7.8 billion humans having smaller families, consuming less, avoiding waste, protecting Earth’s remaining treasures, shunning single-use plastics, planting trees, educating themselves and others, standing up against corruption and destruction… 7.8 billion humans each in their own small way doing what they can to restore the balance… Well, then 7.8 billion humans just might be able to save the world.

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Niki Baker is the author of the new eco-thriller 10:59, described as an inspiring ‘must-read’ by both adult and teenage reviewers. In the course of researching for her novel, she discovered how close we as a species have already brought the world to the brink of disaster. What began for Niki as a love of nature and concern about overpopulation has – as a result of what she’s learned – become an urgent passion to help raise awareness and encourage action.

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