The specter of “overpopulation” has returned to the public airwaves following the UN’s recent announcement that the earth is now home to 7 billion people. The coverage is highly reminiscent of the debates that raged throughout the 1970s and eighties and, once again, there’s a dearth of critical evaluation of this issue. Do rising human populations drive environmental destruction, or are rising populations themselves a symptom of wider social and political dislocations? Are there too many poor people, or too many in the affluent global North whose levels of consumption exceed all historical precedents? What about rising inequality in so many of the world’s cultures and the role of the elites who constitute the proverbial “North in the South”? Have efforts to curb population increases by empowering women and improving educational standards succeeded or not? Why do rates of consumption and economic maldevelopment continue to exceed population levels?

In 1988-89, Murray Bookchin published a pair of articles in the newsletter, Left Green Perspectives, which aimed to put the population debate in perspective. They are still highly relevant today, and well worth reviewing in light of present coverage.  I also recall important articles from the same period by Amartya Sen that appeared in the New York Review of Books.  Bookchin’s 2-part essay, “The Population Myth,” can be found here:  [Part 1]  [Part 2]

One exception to all the alarmist coverage of the “7 billionth human” appeared in the BBC’s online magazine last week. The article reviews the history of “population scares,” going back to the days of Thomas Malthus, and highlights the World Bank-supported mass sterilization programs that began in the 1960s. The thread that links those episodes with the present, of course, is the overarching focus on blaming the poor. The BBC story is accompanied by an enlightening video featuring BBC reporter Fergus Walsh grappling with the sometimes overwhelming statistics and dissecting the UN’s latest projections for the future.

The BBC story ends with a surprising quote from Paul Ehrlich, whose bestseller, The Population Bomb, played a pivotal role in those 1970s debates. Today, “I wouldn’t focus on the poverty-stricken masses,” Ehrlich told the BBC. “I would focus on there being too many rich people. It’s crystal clear that we can’t support seven billion people in the style of the wealthier Americans.”