Yet as I scrolled down the article, it became increasingly obvious that most of the examples given to illustrate overpopulation were culled from the developing world. Notably, the two aerial views of ‘overpopulated’ cities used Mexico City and Port-au-Prince as examples. Moreover, the repetition in each photo - whether it be tree stumps, people, slums, livestock lots, or rectangular crop fields – are potent visualizations of patterned homogeneity from a distanced bird’s-eye perspective. The camera’s positioning in most of these photos follow the logic of scientific objectivity, replicating what Donna Haraway has dubbed the God-trick, the mythical view which sees from everywhere and nowhere.
A seemingly neutral term like “overpopulation” can therefore be stacked with unsavory connotations that go well beyond scientific and statistical truth. The word does not only refer to excessive birth rates exceeding the global carrying capacity. It is also situated in a first world, post-Enlightenment, middle-class point of view posing as objective, which looks out at the third world and points to 'third world' countries as exemplary sites of overpopulation. In an environmentalist redeployment of the colonial gaze, our moral argument goes something like: if only the faceless masses that reproduce (over there) would only stop churning out children, then we would collectively use up fewer global resources and leave a smaller carbon footprint in a world we want to conserve for future generations.
But blaming ecological crises on “overpopulation” forgets that citizens of the United States contribute enormously and disproportionately to the strain on global resources. Middle class Americans may enjoy a prolonged life expectancy, low mortality rate, and nice disposable income, but these very luxuries requisition many more natural resources than the average standard of life in developing countries. Instead of looking across national boundaries towards ecological impact by class, it is easier for “us” first world citizens to deflect blame and frame “them” for impending ecological disasters. They are the faceless masses with whom we feel no kinship, who continue to betray the human trust by continuing their licentious ways. In other words, they become the perfect scapegoats.
Moreover, the rhetoric of “overpopulation” assumes that an ideal population exists in the first place, a belief which naturalizes and generalizes our current technologies and methods of extracting resources from the environment across time and space. The hard-nosed among you might hasten to cite Malthus and his theories of how reproduction will always outstrip the Earth’s capacity for food production. Yet here we are, seven billion people and counting. In today’s world, Malthus should no longer be imagined as an unassailable authority on matters of population. Given that we have never known with certainty what the future looks like; does a global ethical quota on reproduction make sense? China’s one-child policy, while “good for the environment,” has caused massive eugenic selection in favor of boys. If the environmentalist rallying cry to limit population growth becomes a reality, would it be too much of a stretch to imagine the household sacrifice of vulnerable demographics in favor of privileged ones?
While I want to believe that environmental activists are generally well-intentioned and only want to raise awareness about how humans have unsustainably exploited the earth in the past, they would do well to keep in mind how terms like “overpopulation” unfairly directs blame to the reproductive choices of poor people living in agricultural economies and third-world countries, whose lives are structurally constrained by poverty and tattered social safety nets. Under uneven material conditions and ways of life, we must address social problems in tandem with ecological ones. This means thinking in more complex ways about how to save the environment from exploitation by people, as well as how to save people from exploitation...by other people.
So does this mean we should hold first world citizens responsible for over-consuming? Should we conceive of new economic paradigms that do not privilege consumerism above all else? Should we move towards more sustainable ways of living and using resources? No doubt yes to all of the above. Yet generally speaking, sustainability discourses place the burden of responsibility on the individual even though individual choice can only go so far in actualizing sustainability. We must first and foremost hold government policies, institutions, and corporations responsible for preventing environmental damage. Thinking with a structural paradigm is essential for people to make demands to powerful organizations rather than being co-opted by those organizations into thinking of sustainability as solely the individual's responsibility.