Is Overpopulation Still Taboo?

Published on October 10th, 2013

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle was like a flashback to the 1970s for me because it openly linked population growth with overexploited and deteriorating natural resources.

Population growth increases climate fear” by reporter Carolyn Lochhead broke with a dismal pattern of population neglect by the Fourth Estate that has prevailed for the past three decades.

Lochhead dispensed with this pathetic timidity and political correctness in her very first paragraphs:

California has 157 endangered or threatened species, looming wate shortages, eight of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the country and 725 metric tons of trash washing up on its coast each year.

California also has 38 million people, up 10 percent in the last decade, including 10 million immigrants. They own 32 million registered vehicles and 14 million houses. By 2050, projections show 51 million people living in the state, more than twice as many as in 1980.

In the public arena, almost no one connects these plainly visible dots.

What a refreshing delight to read a journalist telling it like it is for a change rather than ignoring, denying or obfuscating.

But I don’t blame the news media for this collective failure at truth telling as much as I blame the squeamish environmental establishment, and worse yet, the politically correct donor community. The donor community consists of well-endowed foundations and well-heeled individuals without whom most environmental organizations would wither like a Central Valley vegetable crop cut off from the irrigation water that sustains it.

In research conducted in the late 1990s, Prof. T. Michael Maher of the University of Southwestern Louisiana studied news coverage of three phenomena heavily influenced by population growth: urban sprawl, endangered species and water shortages. In a random sample of 150 articles, he found that only 10 percent even mentioned population growth as one cause of these problems, and less than 1 percent mentioned population stabilization as a potential solution.

One of the journalists Maher interviewed said that none of his environmentalist sources ever mentioned population growth. He and others felt it was not their place to raise the population issue on their own. They were well aware of its contentious nature and preferred to avoid it altogether if possible.

With the business and political establishments pushing for ever-more growth, leftists and ethnic interests pushing for ever-more immigration, and the environmental establishment now pushing the elixir of “smart growth,” few were left to advocate for “no growth” or population stabilization. Maher studied the membership materials of America’s environmental groups and concluded: “Population is off the agenda for the purported leaders of the environmental movement.”

Lochhead’s article also cited the tenacious political taboo that effectively blocks connecting population growth to our “deepening environmental crisis, including climate change.”

It’s a taboo CAPS and its supporters are all too familiar with.

The irony and the tragedy is that as the very impacts caused by population growth intensified, instead of stepping up to the plate, we human beings and our various institutions retreated ever deeper into denial and wishful thinking. The latter is well exemplified by conservative journalist Jonathan V. Last and geography professor Erle C. Ellis, who this very year were both showered with attention in the country’s major media for arguing that there is no such thing as overpopulation.

Perhaps we’re seeing more about population growth recently not because society is belatedly awakening to the problems it poses but because there is still no widespread consensus on how to address it or whether it is a problem at all.

One thing the media does cover is controversy.

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