Note: This week’s post is a little different. You might call it a semi-scholarly “rebuttal” to something I read. It still has a touch of the personal, though . . .
Ever since I realized that environmentalism sometimes went hand-in-hand with xenophobia and racism, I’ve been interested in this phenomenon, which seemed odd to me. So when I came across an article in the Atlantic that presented the story—specifically, the part of environmentalism that concerns the effects of human population numbers—I had to read it. (“People Who Hate People,” by Jerusalem Demsas, The Atlantic’s Weekly Planet, May 25, 2022.)
Some of the details I disagreed with got me so riled up that I realized I needed to cut the post in two. I’ll publish the second half next week.
Post 46: Are We Too Many? (Part One)
It’s no secret that historically, population activism, conservation, and environmentalism have been associated with racism and xenophobia. We need to know this kind of thing, and to follow the threads of history to the present—in order to better understand the present, and to remain alert to the present. (That is, there’s something from the past that still resonates today, but may not be visible to all.) For example, if we make the connection between slaveholding and the later violence of the Texas Rangers toward people of color, it might tell us something about law enforcement in that state today.
In her Atlantic article, The People Who Hate People, Jerusalem Demsas reviews some of the shameful details surrounding past and present efforts against overpopulation. But it looks like the implications in her piece are that we should give up any thought that human population numbers are creating problems for life on earth, since bad ideas and good intentions are often hard to separate. But this is a dangerous takeaway. Our era has been named the Anthropocene for a reason: the dominance of humans is quite obviously affecting everything.
Clearly, it can’t be my purpose here to argue the infinitely large topic of human impacts around the world. It is my purpose to insist on separating our overpopulation concerns from any unenlightened (or worse) thoughts and deeds of activist individuals. The subject is just too important in these days of unchecked human takeover. We can’t be afraid to face, identify, name, and eliminate all remnants of xenophobia and racism from the true work, from countless studies relating to population, and whatever activism grows out of them.
The author starts with the present—with NIMBYs who believe their communities are too crowded, with a Palo Alto resident who believes his city shouldn’t be “planning for more people” by adding housing, and another California man who objected to additional housing in his area because he didn’t think population growth (and climate change) could be tackled unless such housing development was stopped.
I’d argue that these last two men should also be labeled NIMBYs. They’re selfishly objecting to more people in their own home spheres. These people claim to be following lofty goals—a concern for population problems—but their real purpose is masking their not-in-my-back-yard motivations. In talking about real altruistic responses to real global problems, can’t we just get rid of these guys?
You can’t change world population numbers by excluding people from one place; they have no choice but to move to another. It’s elementary physics: when you squeeze the air in one part of an underinflated balloon, it moves to create a bulge in the other end.
Ed Abbey, a hero to environmentalists (and a Tucsonan like me in his later years) would have been an interesting example to bring into this discussion: he acknowledged his own racism. These are words from his journal (quoted by S@sh@ in the Earth):
Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.
And I personally remember picking up a Tucson newspaper and reading a letter to the editor by Abbey that railed against immigration from our border to the south.
Besides being racist, he was sexist, with gender stereotypes found throughout his writings. He would have been called out by the Me Too movement for misogyny . . . of some sort. So many of today’s icons of humor, politics, acting, sports, newscasting, and literature have “fallen.” How do we tease out their unforgivable acts from their valued contributions? Every person answering this question will have a different answer. It’s not just population prophets that mix their messages with hate, overt or disguised. It’s a broader anthropological—or even moral and religious—puzzle.
The article gives historical examples of these embarrassing bedfellows as well. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968) and founder of Zero Population Growth (1969), ignited awareness and passion about overpopulation, and was indisputably a key figure in this whole arena of debate. But his book goes back half a century. He is now 90. He’s owned up to a few mistakes, a couple of which were noted in Demsas’s article: predictions that were laughably off-base, and comments about another culture that stink of intolerance, if not racism, today. I won’t defend them. But the disastrous opener to his book was committed as he reached for the most graphic account of the wretchedness that overpopulation can bring, not to purposely vilify foreigners or people of color. He was insensitive to the difference, and, sadly, the times (including his editor!) let him get away with it.
Today Ehrlich speaks positively of diversity and cultural gifts, condemning racism and (especially) unequal wealth, while continuing to warn against overpopulation.
I hope we allow him to evolve after 55 years. The times we live in should not forgive or forget, but they can explain. Most people find it hard to believe Helen Keller espoused eugenics for part of her life, influenced by her times and her friend, Alexander Graham Bell. I believe she backed off from these views as she aged and times changed, and there’s no reason not to glean insights from her other writings.
Let’s evaluate the population controversy using reliable science instead of dismissing the topic because of past (and present) mistakes of morality. It still won’t be easy. There are almost eight billion of us now, with different needs, beliefs, habits, capabilities, and, of course, degrees of consumerism. We will not be using war, neglect, racism, or other violence to reach any particular number; we have to talk about control in the context of voluntary existence prevention. Anything else is not what I’ve been writing about here.