Dear Erle Ellis

Jennifer Good- The Brock Press

In your September 13, 2013, New York Times Opinion Editorial “Overpopulation is not the Problem” there are two things with which I agree: there is a problem and it’s not overpopulation.   Beyond that, I fundamentally disagree with what you have written and am somewhat stunned by what you have proposed.

Opinion - erleellisYour thesis is easily summed up: human ingenuity will save the day.  The problem that you allude to is the earth’s carrying capacity (i.e. the earth’s ability to sustain all of us) – a capacity that, you believe, many intelligent people erroneously attribute to population growth.  You propose that blaming population growth is not only wrong, it’s naïve (although you do point out that even you used to worry about population growth).

Now, however, you know better.  Any environmental problems we are experiencing doesn’t have to do with our bumping up against the planet’s limits, but are instead the result of our not fully tapping into human ingenuity.

In fact, you suggest, “It is time for all of us to wake up to the limits we really face: the social and technological systems that sustain us need improvement.” The earth is only as limited as our cleverness and, apparently, you feel that we are very clever indeed.

So, yes, I agree that we have serious environmental problems.  As the fires, droughts and floods that climate scientists warned us about become manifest; as habitat loss leads to what some scientists have called “the sixth mass extinction”; as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concludes that “Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural function of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted”: it is clear we have some problems.

And, yes, I also agree that overpopulation is not the problem.  For example, according to the World Watch Institute’s 2011 report, “The 12 per cent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 per cent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 per cent.”  The report also points out that while the United States has less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, Americans use about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources “burning up nearly 25 per cent of the coal, 26 per cent of the oil, and 27 per cent of the world’s natural gas.”

Population is not the problem: greed and over-consumption are.  And this, Mr. Ellis, is what makes your “we’ll figure it out eventually” proposition so disturbing: you condone ongoing greed and over-consumption.

It’s not that I haven’t heard of the “human ingenuity will save the day” argument.  Indeed, as you point out in your column, the idea that our cleverness will triumph is a concept that has been around for a very long time.  But it’s also a concept that is lacking in complexity and brimming over with hubris.  And hubris got us into this mess.

I would therefore like to propose that you, Mr. Erle, and others in your human-ingenuity-will-save-the-day camp, are not only wrong but the airing of your “no worries, we’ll figure it out sooner-or-later” message should not even be allowed.  Freedom of speech ends when someone mischievously shouts “FIRE” in a crowded fireless theatre.  That’s what you’ve done.  Only you’re encouraging inaction while the theatre burns.

***

Jennifer Good is an associate professor in the department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film

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