The Real "Overpopulation Taboo"

The Real "Overpopulation Taboo"

The most recent issue of Mother Jones magazine, ostensibly devoted to "the overpopulation taboo," shows a surprising lack of self-awareness.  Even the main editorial points out that "the average American's carbon footprint is 23 times bigger than that of the average Indian" but then goes back to the topic of the average Indian.


The flagship article, "The Last Taboo" by Julia Whitty, is downright cringe-worthy.  The entire first section of the article casts all of India as a teeming "other," referring to the crowds with alienating terms like "the flood."  

Seeming to sense that this is a grossly inappropriate and fear-mongering take on the subject, the author takes great pains to point out that her own family hails from Calcutta.  So it's, you know, okay for her to be grossly inappropriate and fear-mongering.  She has earned that right.  

Personally, I never bought into that line of reasoning.  Just because I have the right to call someone a "big fat cow" that doesn't make it right for me to do so.  And starting off an article about global overpopulation by describing the desperate poverty of Calcutta's vast slums is… not a good move.

Actually, any discussion about global overpopulation that veers towards The Topic Of India is probably off on the wrong foot.  After all, the ecological footprint of each American is bigger than that of anyone else in the world.  Each American consumes five times as much of Earth's ecological resources as anyone else on the planet.  

I know it's difficult to understand that we consume more than our share of the planet.  I know it's unpopular to suggest that maybe if we kept it to, say, one car per person, the planet might be a nicer place to live.  (There are more cars registered in America than there are Americans.)  

If it's true that "a vegetarian in a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat-eater in a Prius," then what must be true for an American who never has children?  I bet a childless American flying across the country in an empty airplane has a lower carbon footprint than either the vegetarian or the meat-eater.  By not having children you reduce both your own carbon footprint, and that of your non-progeny.  

The long-term positive consequences for the planet are astounding, if you ripple the calculations forward through the imaginary non-generations.  According to a scientist at Oregon State University, two American children are the equivalent (carbon footprint-wise) of 337 Bangladeshi children.  Each American baby costs its parents 20 times as much carbon as any American could possibly save, using all the choices in the world.

I would almost say that any zero population growth program that focuses on any country but the United States is barking up the wrong tree.  Despite which, the author's own article starts out by talking about all the darned people in India, and how poor they are.  I realize that it's more "impactful" to tour the slums of Calcutta than the playgrounds of the American suburbs, but it's also shamefully beside the point.

Even though the author touches on all of these points, the article is still focused on other countries, their failures and successes, the topic of microloans, and so forth.  All things that Other People should be doing, in other words.

What about us?  On that question, Mother Jones offers nothing but a ringing silence, and perhaps an embarrassed shuffling of feet.

Creative Commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Mr. T in DC