Blaming the COVID-19 Pandemic on Too Many Humans–A Critique of Overpopulation Ideology

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 1 Jun 2020

Roger D. Harris – TRANSCEND Media Service

28 May 2020 – A world gripped by a deadly virus has precipitated a deluge of punditry claiming to have found the primal cause of the pandemic. Anthony Judge, writing in Transcend Media Service, claims to have tapped into “the collective subconscious” to blame what he calls overpopulation. How well does this claim hold up?

Mr. Judge is concerned about “the epidemic of misinformation” regarding the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, “obscuring a neglected critical factor undermining global strategic viability.” Humanity, he posits, is “unconsciously endeavoring to communicate a vital message to itself…Collective Overpopulation Vitiating Individual Dreams.”

The problem of the pandemic for Mr. Judge has nothing to do with such ephemera as whether access to healthcare should be considered a human right, but something obvious only to the cognoscenti – there are just too many humans. The world’s “epidemiologists and health experts,” Mr. Judge admonishes, “have been lazily complicit” in not seeing overpopulation as the fundamental problem. Mr. Judge goes on to indict the world’s “international institutions” for being “so negligently complicit” of this “tragic form of ‘misinformation’” by making the “Big Lie” (his emphasis) of omitting the danger of overpopulation.

So, what is the connection between population and pandemic? Employing what he calls “root cause analysis,” Mr. Judge conflates “overpopulation” with “overcrowding.” The overcrowding he is concerned about is that found in “urban slums,” which he specifically cites in the article. That is, the overcrowding of poor people who cannot afford to live in what he calls the “sparsely populated areas.” Predictably, he does not cite the floor of the New York Stock exchange as an example of overcrowding.

Let’s test Mr. Judge’s hypothesis regarding the relationship between density of population and response to the pandemic. Take Belgium, where Mr. Judge lives. After the mini-state of San Marino, Belgium has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world at 83 deaths per 100,000 people. Its population density is 974 people per square mile. In comparison, Singapore and Hong Kong are the two most densely populated territories in the world with 20,456 and 17,565 people/mi2 respectively, after the mini-territories of Macau and Monaco. The death rates are less than one per 100,000 population for Singapore and Hong Kong, with 23 and 4 total deaths respectively . That is, Belgium has 15 times the death rate of Hong Kong, while Hong Kong’s population density is over 18 times that of Belgium. Belgium has twice the death rate of Singapore, while Singapore’s population density is 21 times that of Belgium.

Overpopulation is blamed not only for pandemics but as the primary cause for many of the world’s myriad ills. Overpopulation, he judges, is also “a primary driver for recourse to narcotics and opioids.” Mr. Judge callously omits to mention in the article poverty and myriad forms of discrimination as drivers for the sickness of substance abuse.

Consistent with those who espouse the overpopulation thesis, Mr. Judge yearns for an idyllic past when the planet was not as overrun by humans, say the Middle Ages. Since the 1300s, the world’s population has increased over 17-fold. But that much smaller population did not prevent the Black Death pandemic from taking an estimated 75-200 million lives back then.

In short, blaming the condition of humanity for pandemics is not supported by the facts. Densely populated places have succeeded well in containing COVID-19, while there have been far more devastating pandemics than the one we are suffering now, when there were far fewer of us on the planet.

Overpopulation ideology, as represented by Mr. Judge’s article, conflates overcrowding with overpopulation. If there were only three people in the world and they were are packed into a little cave, there would be overcrowding but not overpopulation. Mr. Judge’s sophistry and my critique are not new. Two hundred years ago, Karl Marx made a similar criticism of Thomas Malthus’ contention that the world was overpopulated. Malthus opposed the English Poor Laws because they ameliorated the conditions causing human suffering and thus encouraged poor people to reproduce. Malthus’ theory was a retrograde response to the French Revolution and the rise of the working class. Overpopulation ideology is misanthropic and reactionary in its origins and in its modern expression.

Mr. Judge’s article is silent about our political system or economic order; it’s simply that there are too many people. Aside from being wrong, it begs the question, which people? The ones in slums? The poor? Thanks to Oxfam, we know just who the offending individuals are. A handful of multi-billionaires now have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

The objection to overpopulation ideology is not just an intellectual one, but whether such an ideological framework promotes solutions-oriented peace journalism. The ideology of overpopulation poses the wrong causes while obscuring the right solutions.

World population growth rates are precipitously declining and on a trajectory to stabilize this century, with the current rate at 1%. Meanwhile resource consumption continues to increase at a rate of 6 to 7%. Clearly, something beyond simple demographics is at play, and that is what overpopulation ideology obfuscates.

There are serious obstacles to achieving a more peaceful world. But these do not revolve primarily around human population demographics. Rather, the very relations of power call to be addressed in our quest of a better world. And this is precisely what the ideology of overpopulation obscures to the benefit of the powerful few and to the detriment of the multitude of humanity.

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Roger Harris is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and on the board of directors of the Task Force on the Americas, a human rights organization in solidarity with the social justice movements of Latin America and the Caribbean, founded in 1985. He is on the state central committee of the Peace and Freedom Party, the only ballot-qualified socialist party in California, on the executive committee of the US Peace Council, and on the editorial board of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Jun 2020.

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7 Responses to “Blaming the COVID-19 Pandemic on Too Many Humans–A Critique of Overpopulation Ideology”

  1. The commentary is especially valuable as an indication of the mode of discourse which has so tragically undermined the World Social Forum — in contrast with the tragic success of the World Economic Forum. Where does “Him wrong; Me right” take us? How does it engender peace, solidarity or any form of transcendence?

    Unfortunately the author’s concluding explanatory assertion regarding “relations of power” is as nebulous as explanation of the COVID pandemic has proven to be in a sea of misinformation and overreaction. Investing so heavily in a mode of blaming others — the Dump Trump Syndrome — inhibits emergence of collective insight. Has the World Social Forum been a model for the world of appropriate “relations of power”? If not, why not?

    Is the peak creativity of human collective response to the crises of the times to be under the banner: Whingers of the World Unite? Should everyone who disagrees be eradicated? Is there really no alternative to the blame game — now so ironically framed by TINA?

  2. Nicholas Marconi says:

    I agree, in principle with the assertion by Mr. Judge, “Where does “Him wrong; Me right” take us? How does it engender peace, solidarity or any form of transcendence?” But, I also must agree with Haris that the overloaded term and concept, “overpopulation” has been used to mask more fundamental problems concerning the current human condition. Case in point: is the United Sates currently overpopulated? By no stretch of the imagination can we make this claim. The enormous amount of energy and available raw resources and products and potential services puts the lie to this assertion. And yet we are among the worst responders to the covid-19 pandemic. I’m not going to argue why at this point. The reason why we have a very large underserved population in the US is not because our economy can’t yet produce enough or a lack in technological development. The reasons are political and economic, a reliance on an economic model that pits human beings against one another in an economic game based on a competitive, for profit/ commodity exchange system, in a word neo-classical theory. We all know this.

    The concept of over-population needs further explanation, though. We can only have an “over” with respect to any population in a relative sense. If a population is actually increasing in numbers that means that the carrying capacity is able to support that increase. But, if there is a sudden restriction in that carrying capacity due to acute local climate changes or acute changes ecological integrity and subsequent decrease in available resources then we have a situation of over-population. Of course, there might be a time lag in the manifestation of this. But for many of the human population centers this is not the case; its not that we have natural restrictions, although that can sometimes contribute; we have political and economic restrictions which are not accounted for and this leads to a false belief that it is over-population that is causing the suffering.

    Mr Haris is correct when he alludes to this. It is known that the best way to control or reduce population growth is improve access to what people need in resources, including education, and the reason that there is so much presure on the ecosystems we depend on is due to overconsumption in terms of energy use which is used to fuel an economic-politcal system that “needs” to grow, otherwise it would collapse.

    But that doesn’t mean we need to prop up that system; what we need to do is act like the caterpillar and create a kind of cocoon that allows for a humane transformation( collapse) of our current system to one that is planetary with local control and diversity in a sustainable relationship to Earth Bio-Ecosphere.

    But, we can only this with what Mr Judge recommends wisely: stop bashing one another and come together and work together creatively to solve our problems as the wonderful( albeit often frightening) beings that we are.

    Thanks for your commentaries.

    regards,
    Nick Marconi
    Shelburne, VT

  3. On further reflection I would like to contrast the author’s criticism of any conclusion of “too many humans” (as it appears in the title of his comment) with my focus on “overpopulation” (as I had originally presented it).

    I would reframe my focus — if it were the case that the number of humans on the planet was associated with their evident ability to organize themselves fruitfully. This is only too evidently not the case, as multiple conflicts and inequalities illustrate. Many would blame others for this incapacity — a symptom of that inadequacy, especially when others blame them. The inadequacy is evident in the problematic nature of any dialogue — as is evident from these exchanges and the inherent disagreement they imply.

    In such circumstances it would be appropriate (and prudent) to reduce the rate at which the population increases to a level at which humanity is able to organize itself effectively — if it was remotely possible that a consensus could emerge as to the meaning of “effectively”. In the absence of more appropriate collective organization, reference to overpopulation is however appropriate — in my view. More people can be assumed to make the management of resources even worse than it is — if not impossible — and may well lead to catastrophic “remedial” consequences.

    The response to the pandemic has highlighted aspects of this collective incapacity — whoever is considered blameworthy. However critics have yet to demonstrate a mode of organization by which the range of crises could be better managed — as optimists so enthusiastically envisage (typically even without the kinds of modelling skills which have proved so inadequate in the case of the pandemic).

    If it is demonstrably problematic to organize a community or a meeting of 100 people, is it completely naive to assume that such skills would be adequate for a meeting of 1,000 or a society of 9 billion? From this one may conclude that there are indeed “too many humans” in the light of their incapacity to organize themselves so as to distribute resources appropriately. Is that the real meaning of “overpopulation” — too many to manage themselves? Does reaction to the term itself mask the underlying issue and the failure to recognize it?

    The situation is well illustrated by the adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” or perhaps by the question “how many leaders does it take to change a light bulb”? Humanity could benefit from acknowledging its limitations in managing its own excesses.

  4. Those claiming that a country or the planet is not overpopulated seem to be using selective observation and local focus. Whole-System thinking is required to “weigh the evidence.” The Global Footprint Network has been gathering such evidence for many years: https://www.footprintnetwork.org

    Waste sink overload, biodiversity decline, toxification of the biosphere, conflicts over declining resources…are a few results of our quadrupling since 1900. My paper presented to The World Congress of the System Sciences 2000 is reprinted at the below link. It has never been rebutted, and was webcast to three continents.

    https://www.countercurrents.org/kurtz060611.htm

  5. My learning from this exchange is that “overpopulation” is too politically charged to allow for reasoned discourse. Much more to the point is “coping capacity”.

    If humanity cannot cope in response to its challenges, then fewer people has at least the potential of making it easier for our collectively limited organizing skills. Increasing the number of people when it is already impossible to cope is dangerously irresponsible. The only excuse, too which some would give credibility, is that by increasing the numbers the situation will become more critical sooner. If the consequence is a major crash of disastrous proportions, the hope is that a renaissance is possible. Otherwise some would indeed hope for intervention by divinity or extraterrestrials — in the belief that this would be less painful.

  6. Marilyn Langlois says:

    Thank you, Roger Harris, for your critique and to everyone participating in the ensuing lively discussion.

    Rather than overpopulation, at the root of much human suffering and environmental degradation lie overconsumption by the middle and upper classes worldwide and overconcentration of control over resources by the super-rich global elites. A Caribbean island with 11 million people has managed to organize itself effectively and eliminate abject poverty, consistency prioritizing meeting everyone’s basic needs over protecting excess wealth of a few. Cuba, even with inevitable imperfections and at the mercy of a crushing 60-year economic blockade, is setting a good example.

  7. A different perspective is usefully offered by Marilyn Langlois. We now have several horses in the race as framed by this exchange: overpopulation, coping incapacity, overconsumption, and overconcentration of control. Are there other horses whose colours have not yet been presented? Perhaps the pundits or those who support one horse rather than another — or maybe those who have not been able to get their act together to instigate a more adequate mode of organization? Is it indeed a race to focus blame most narrowly and effectively — and to avoid any complicity whatsoever in the current condition?

    The policy sciences have developed the understanding of a “wicked problem” — one which is especially complex and is mistakenly understood in the simplest terms which many find so credibly convenient. Why the resistance to any form of root analysis? “Him wrong — Me right” is that the best that “We” can do?

    Given this inability to clarify this tragic matter with its highly divisive implications — however unfruitful — my own preferred horse is the coping incapacity of humanity. Arguably this engenders and sustains patterns of overconsumption and overconcentration of control — and others absent from this exchange.

    Some may recall the Jackson Report: The Capacity of the United Nations Development Program (1969). Is there a case, 50 years later, for some form of study of the coping capacity of humanity in the face of the complex crises by which it is confronted — given the rate at which these are being exacerbated by the unchallenged increase in population ?

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