Timely subject, as lefty environmentalists have just been attacking the Jeff Gibbs / Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans, for the crime of mentioning overpopulation, invoking the threat of eco-fascism just as you and Jason describe:
Then comes its most immoral and damning gambit: the claim that reducing the population is among the only effective remedies.
We see old white male after old white male declaring there is no solution to climate change except reducing the population. (With this many white guys, we can only guess which groups of people are supposed to stop reproducing.) We are told to face up to our own apocalypse—that humans should “know when it’s their time to go.
The claim that it is all those overpopulated countries that are causing the problem (especially coming from a boomer white guy in Michigan) would be deeply problematic even in “normal” times. But in the middle of a global pandemic that is killing a disproportionate number of black and brown people, it is more than just racist. It can be seen as an incitement to eco-fascist population controls.
The film offers only one concrete solution to our predicament: the most toxic of all possible answers. “We really have got to start dealing with the issue of population … without seeing some sort of major die off in population, there’s no turning back.”
Yes, population growth does contribute to the pressures on the natural world. But while the global population is rising by 1% a year, consumption, until the pandemic, was rising at a steady 3%. High consumption is concentrated in countries where population growth is low. Where population growth is highest, consumption tends to be extremely low. Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people. When very rich people, such as Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not us consuming, it’s Them breeding.” It’s not hard to see why the alt-right loves this film.
Population is where you go when you haven’t thought it through. Population is where you go when you don’t have the guts to face the structural, systemic causes of our predicament: inequality, oligarchic power, capitalism. Population is where you go when you want to kick down.
They must have missed the part when Gibbs explicitly mentions the multiplying factor of consumption in western lifestyles:
It took modern humans tens of thousands of years to reach a population of 7oo million. And then we tapped into millions of years of stored energy known as fossil fuels. Our human population exploded. It increased by ten times in a mere 200 years. Our consumption has also exploded, on average ten times per person, and many times more in the western world. You put the two together, the result is a total human impact 100 times greater than only 200 years ago. And that is the most terrifying realisation that I’ve ever had.’ (from 47:40)
Though the film’s analysis is limited by only zooming in on growth over the last 10,000 years, missing the step change that occurred with farming and looking only at the industrial period which merely accelerated processes that had already been set in motion (albeit to rapidly devastating effect).
Jason is brave to go after the sacred cow of female education and emancipation, though he does it clearly and undeniably as usual. I’ve had frustrating discussions before trying to get people to focus on the underlying material factors of why there has been this boom in the first place, but I guess there’s too much benevolent white saviour feel-goods to pass up by not stepping in to pull 3rd world women out of poverty, and thus solving All the Problems. Maybe the way to do it is by pointing out that h/ger societies are the most egalitarian along gender lines, most obviously because they aren’t required to act as baby factories for a booming agricultural workforce. Education & emancipation, and the move to city living that usually results, is only possible with fossil fuels and mechanisation picking up the tab on all the agricultural labour. Outsourcing in other words, and unsustainable when the oil runs out. Anyway, the point about the affluent 1st world depending on a deliberately impoverished 3rd world (or whatever other terms are being used nowadays) is key, and something liberal anti-poverty campaigners have failed to grasp for decades. Almost like they don’t want to understand…
I liked the idea of extending the idea of kin in your article, not just to other humans but to nonhumans too. Maybe you could expand a little on what you think that would look like? It strikes me that there’s a great yearning for that kind of connection, especially among young westerners who, thanks in part to their education & emancipation (funny that!) as well as the insane priorities the capitalist/consumerist economy forces on us, are often not in a position to have a steady home, raise a family or even sustain long term relationships. How do we go against those trends and start to claw back some of our most basic, fundamental birthrights?
“If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all.” ― Daniel Quinn, The Story of B
I’ve been thinking about this Daniel Quinn line ever since I opened up Making Kin Not Population, because it’s essentially what they are saying. One way to transform the concept of population is to change the way we perceive of reproduction and kin. I’m pretty sure that any “program” would be essentially some new or old horrific form of population control by the state. But mind change, is very different. I’m still not super sure what that would end up looking like, but probably steeped in cultural taboo (as opposed to laws). Not dissimilar perhaps, to post-civilization Maya and the concept of “spiritual debt” as describe in Martin Prechtel’s interview with the SUN Magazine.
I think one of the key things that the left fails to understand, is that racist, state level population control is already an ongoing and intrinsic aspect of state societies. We just generally don’t see it that way. But not seeing it that way, they are essentially allowing it to continue. Making Kin does a really good job of pointing out all the ways that population control has been operating in various forms.
I wasn’t left with really a “how to apply this” from Making Kin, but rather, a more personal narrative for myself in regards to making more humans vs. more kin. I’ve already assumed I wouldn’t reproduce, and I’m still on that track, but this book gave me more to think about in regards to creating more kinship and “family” through alternative means to reproduction, and also expanding the scope of only humans. I’d love it if more folks could read it (it’s a quick read) and then chat about it here.
Step 1. Wait until the pandemic has subsided and I can go to a furniture store without threatening myself or others.
Step 2. Get a new chair that’s comfy enough to read in for long periods of time.
Step 3. Start reading more, like I used to back when I had a good reading spot.
Step 4. Add Making Kin Not Population to the ever-growing list.
Michelle Murphy: Against Population, Towards Alterlife (requires switching your screen 90 degrees!)
Kim TallBear: Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family
Couldn’t find the others, Adele Clark’s intro, Yu-Ling Huang and Chia-Ling Wu’s ‘New Feminist Biopolitics for Ultra-low-fertility East Asia’ or Donna Haraway’s ‘Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice’, but ch.4 in ‘Staying with the trouble’ I expect covers similar ground…
Also, this seemed like a good review, linking to another interesting paper that finds evidence of target-driven population control methods aimed at poor women in the global south as recently as 2012:
In contrast to claims made by some, it is evident from recent, high‐profile family planning programmes that population control is not ‘history’, belonging to some troubled past. Rather, it persists in the troubled present alongside human rights and women’s empowerment approaches. To make this argument, this article examines two family planning efforts which emerged from the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning: the ‘120 by 20’ target of Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), and the Implant Access Program (IAP). These examples illustrate population control practices in today’s family planning programmes and highlight their serious implications. First, there are shortcomings in conceptualizing population control as largely in the past. Second, the ‘120 by 20’ and IAP examples suggest that FP2020 as a whole merits critical inquiry. Third, FP2020 raises issues of contraceptive safety regarding both the methods promoted and their mass dissemination. Finally, the claim that population control is history blocks productive re‐visioning of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all people as a development priority.
As much as I think that saying it comes from old white men doesn’t address the substance of the argument and as such is basically an ad-hom, it was good to read some female, feminist perspectives on the pop control issue, so thanks for that… I liked Ruha Benjamin’s piece the best - lots of interesting examples from black culture & history, apparently stemming from the experience of slavery and the ongoing oppression which seems to have made extended ‘kin’ relations a necessity. I liked the article she linked to asking ‘Do White People Have Cousins?’ I guess it shows up my complaint above about ‘yearning for connection’ as partly an expression of privilege - coming from a class & racial background where it’s possible to get by without these essential safety nets (albeit not enjoyable!)
Murphy’s I found too full of eye-rolling PC jargon to get much out of, but TallBear had some interesting insights from the indigenous experience of colonisation. Hadn’t occurred to me to think of the emphasis on monogamy & the nuclear family as a weapon to use against tribal extended kin networks, as well as shoring up the white population with a ‘purity’ to lord it over the native people, while at the same time locking women into a subordinate role.
How this feeds into material analyses of the boom in civilised populations is another question… Definitely agree that any ‘program’ attempted will be doomed to failure, or more likely just act as another vehicle for the racist, patriarchal urges of the dominant culture. As far as I know there’s no evidence that these horrible population control policies have ever proven effective. China’s population as a whole has continued to soar despite the one-child policy, for example:
I don’t see how ‘new minds’ are going to make a difference. People trapped within civilisation will respond rationally within the insane economic parameters set down for them. There doesn’t seem to be a way out except perhaps for a vanishingly small minority. I think the whole thing has to crash and burn before anyone will start thinking differently and (crucially) having the space to do so in real life, not just in the fairytales we tell one another. I think you had it right in your article:
If agricultural subsistence innately charges humans to reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of their locales (as seen with every full-time agricultural society), than we must address that root catalyst, rather than just overlaying a narrative, or relying solely on a narrative, to counter-act the physics involved.
Yeah, I basically feel similarly. I’m so used to the PC Jargon, that I understood it but also had to re-read so much of it. In terms of its accessibility, it’s written for this small niche of society that would even understand part of what the hell they were talking about. I still thoroughly enjoyed it though, even with similar criticisms that you’ve brought up. And in the end, it really issue an issue of physics. If the underlying innate structure isn’t changed, the narrative matters little. I agree that it will take a collapse, but I don’t necessarily see that collapse as global event, but rather a string of events that happen globally but in regional areas and effecting those regions and globalism at large. Have you read “Questioning Collapse”? It’s a really good series of essays that dismantle some of the notions of collapse, and point to catastrophe as a catalyst for resilience. I think this is generally the case across the board in terms of societal transformations. It’s important to have narratives though, to either be catalysts for the change or seeds on the margins to populate a new way of living.
Well, it’s good to be reminded that there is some valuable stuff in there, and if indigenous and minority groups can make use of the analysis so much the better. I think it was TallBear who was talking about all the newfangled terminology for sexuality and gender roles, and how it might be helpful to have them for the recognition, but really they’re clumsy attempts to describe things that were already well understood in her culture. And then there’s the whole dark side of ‘queer theory’ which Jensen and the DGR crowd have been very vocal about instead of, y’know, that thing they were talking about before… But that’s a different subject!
No, haven’t read ‘questioning collapse’, but my browser history tells me I read this review of it and the spat between the author(s?) and Jared Diamond. May have to check it out… You could be right about the importance of narratives, albeit in a secondary role to the material factors. I’m cynical about it after Naomi Klein got my hopes up with her thing about crises and shocks being an opportunity to change things for the better - you just had to have the right ideas ‘lying around’ at the time. But every time something big goes down (with this corona virus as a prime example) all the moneyed interests rally round and completely smother any discussion of radical, or even toothlessly progressive alternatives. Ideas don’t get to compete on a level playing field, and we aren’t really even free to think what we like when you take into account the consequences of doing so (Chomsky to Marr, a high-up UK TV reporter: ‘If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting’) and the lucrative rewards for telling power-friendly lies and penalising those who don’t toe the line.
We could even relate this back to population control: who gets to have a family in the current western economies where, as Jason says ‘children are a severe economic burden’? I would say for the most part it’s the conformists, the yes-(wo)men, those who can crush their humanity well enough to hold down a job and fight their way up career ladders and property markets to the point where they have enough stability and financial security to start having their f’ed up children (I should know: I’m one of them! - the f’ed up children, that is) People in the formerly working classes have to get by as best they can, making use of social welfare while it still exists, and relationships often don’t take the strain - though I’m generalising beyond my knowledge now… Still, quite an effective control measure for the spread of radicalism IMO, especially multi-generation radicalism with parents & grandparents teaching the children all their hard-won lessons.
For me it comes down to the liberal/radical split which Lierre Keith memorably identified:
Liberalism is idealist. This is the belief that reality is a mental activity. Oppression, therefore, consists of attitudes and ideas, and social change happens through rational argument and education. Materialism, in contrast, is the understanding that society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas, and that the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart brick by brick.
And specifically on Quinn’s policy of changing minds:
this is a deeply liberal understanding of social change. Certainly radicals believe in the strategic necessity of education, but that education is toward a goal of transforming material conditions of socially sanctioned subordination to material conditions of justice.
This has been my main issue with the Dark Mountain project too, over 10 or so years of being loosely involved with them: at the base it’s about stories - changing all the things we tell one another about our place in the world. On one level it’s great if that lays the foundation and gives inspiration for building a sustainable society, but on the other hand it’s a major mistake to think that civilisation came about because of a new story. No, the story came after to justify what was already going on in material reality. If we’re not simultaneously working to change the fundamental basis of our material existence on this planet then telling different stories is a dead end distraction IMO, just banging our heads against the wall while the destruction continues unchallenged.
Anyway, I’d best wrap it up there before this turns into a rant!
There is that quote by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. Something like, “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment.” People create narratives to explain the way the world is first and foremost. Stories to effect the world are second. This is I think why people seek confirmation bias. They seek a narrative to explain what they already experience. Patriarchy, therefore, must be innately human (to use a ridiculous example) because it exists today. So we project it onto prehistory as a way of maintaining the comfort in current reality. Or, even in its discomforts, to accept that reality.
That’s why I’m moving rewilding in the direction of subsistence at its core. We need to be getting our food in a different way. The core of culture is food. If people are to “find another story to live by” it has to be a livable one. Meaning, there is actual, literal food on the table. We can’t resist if food is under lock and key. A meme isn’t going to break that lock. It might inspire someone to break the lock though. might. But it in and of itself isn’t going to break the lock. Stories are for inspiration to action. But the action has to take place in order to manifest the story. Someone has to take the leap and role model/demonstrate that it can be real. Daniel Quinn was basically saying “The ship is sinking” but that’s about all he was able to articulate. Since there were no viable alternatives, people got bored with his work. The Ship is Sinking isn’t another story to live by, it doesn’t explain how to get off the ship. The truth was that he didn’t know either. And when presented with real concepts for this, rejected them himself.
Similarly the idea of “taking down civilization” is one I find completely absurd. As if that is even possible. Like, over the last 10,000 years, no one tried to do that? As if over the last 10,000 years, hierarchy hasn’t been spending all its money on preventing that exact from happening. Every moment, it gets better at preventing its own inevitable demise. Only when it hits the point of diminishing returns will it be possible, and at that point simply probable. At the point at which it becomes possible to “take down civilization” it is actually already going down. That’s not to say I’m against direct action, not at all. I’m completely for it. Every location and time is different in relation to collapse, and we need to do what we can to protect and promote biodiverstiy.
In terms of “over-population” I think that regenerative subsistence as a model and means won’t “reduce” population, but stabilize regions as they depopulate from disease, war, etc. The “soft landing” is one that I think concepts like permaculture and horticulture can mitigate. This is why the slogan of the Rewilding Conference is “Subsistence as Resistance.” From the material standpoint, we have to unlock the food. Still not sure if we will ever have any control over population, or if all our attempts at control will cause this collapse spiral to force humans to evolve into an animal that is incapable of modifying our environments to the extent that we have… I wish I could see what the world will look like in a million more years.
Well said, mostly agree and like the slogan ‘subsistence as resistance’, as long as that’s not the only acceptable form of resistance (which it doesn’t sound like it is).
To be fair to DQ he did have his new tribalism idea of running businesses along the lines of tribal support networks, though I never quite saw how that was going to have the desired effect of abandoning civ en masse and making it unworkable. I remember him responding sarcastically to a question saying ‘yes, you’ll still have to pay taxes’ and other things like the person was stupid to even ask, but isn’t that rather a big issue with the whole idea, that the state still gets to cream off the fruits of our labours for its own destructive purposes? How about mortgage or rent payments, the main coercive tool used by the dominant culture to get us working all the hours g*d sends? How about the dictates of the global ‘free’ (sic) market which effectively disallow certain economic practices depending on where you are (try manufacturing steel or cotton in a 1st world country; try selling insurance or high-end fashion in a 3rd world country)? How about debt? Does it change anything to be working in these groovy egalitarian, supportive structures if at the end of the day you’re still forced to submit to those demands?
re: taking down civ - well that’s a whole other debate! I thought the DGR book made a compelling case that it was in fact possible and that we’re morally obligated to at least try for the sake of all the beings (human and other-than-human) that are getting wiped out on a daily basis while the system stumbles on, but yeah it kind of depends on a general crash already being in progress to stand a chance of being successful and not counter-productive. I don’t actually think anyone has tried to take the whole thing down over the last 10k years, just oppose it piecemeal when it brought the fight to them. Maybe Tecumseh. Definitely more difficult for that kind of resistance to develop when we’re all locked into dependency on that same system - witness all the clamour from right and left to ‘get back to work’ asap from the covid lockdown. Unlocking the food and building other independence skills will likely be v important for getting over that stumbling block apart from being beneficial in themselves.
The ‘soft landing’ approach sounds good if non-industrial food producing methods are able to ramp up to the point where they can take over, but then you still have to address the underlying growth imperatives, otherwise you end up producing yet more food to feed yet more people and likely stealing yet more of the planet’s photosynthetic capacity (especially in the absence of fossil fuels). Quinn’s ‘food race’ concept is key to understanding, but again, these things aren’t just about understanding… At least I would hope we could get lefties & progressives to stop their well-meaning attempts to ‘help feed the growing population’ with permaculture or organic farming, eg this doozy from Charles Eisenstein back in 2012:
The latest permaculture methods can deliver much more than just double or triple the yield of conventional farming. I recently came across this article by David Blume chronicling his nine-year permaculture enterprise in California. Running a CSA for 300-450 people on two acres of land, he achieved yields eight times what the Department of Agriculture says is possible per square foot. He didn’t do it by “mining the soil” either – soil fertility increased dramatically over his time there. When people project an imminent food crisis based on population growth or Peak Oil, they take for granted the agricultural methods we practice today. Thus, while the transitional period may involve temporary food shortages and real hardship, permaculture methods can easily feed the peak world population of perhaps 10 or 11 billion we’ll see by mid-century.
‘Easily feed’ or easily generate a population of 10-11bn?
I don’t know how the problem will be solved either, or if any creature is capable of voluntarily controlling its population. Earlier changes in subsistence strategies, like cooking, bow technology, fire tending will also have increased the human carrying capacity, albeit not to the point where the population was making it impossible for other creatures to continue living. Maybe it goes to that other Quinn formula: ‘you may compete to the best of your abilities but you may not wage war’ - a point of diminishing returns beyond which civ forms of agriculture are beyond the pale. Certainly ‘taking control’ is a deeply civilised mindset, and part of the ‘fruit of knowledge’ which we should be spitting out.