When the UN announced that our species would be reaching the 8 billion population mark, the environmental and economic media worlds were taken up by storm— while some met this news with nonchalance. What difference would another billion make?
Complex numerical data, theories, and opinions are being thrown about in response. While some believe that population growth boosts our economic abilities, others retort that it is detrimental to our ecosystems and societies. Some nations are re-introducing pro-natalist policies, while the blame of overpopulation falls on marginalised communities in others.
In the noise, many are ignoring the intricate intersections of population growth with consumption, sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) and livelihoods.
But first, a look at the population’s history.
Human History: How population has shaped us (and how we have shaped it) overtime
Back in the day, during the agricultural revolutions that first changed how our societies run, to have more children was to have more workers, more food production, and more security. in order to produce more food, you needed more workers, who needed more food, which needed more workers. In such times, disease was far more common and few children survived into adulthood, so bearing lots of children was considered important. For some periods of history (and even today), authoritarian states demanded more young children to supply armies.
Many early societies and cultures functioned on this principle of good old young labour.
At some point in time, people who could reproduce were essentially doing a lot of just that: baby-making. While a Handmaid’s tale may be dystopian, seeds of the idea were long planted during erstwhile days.
Eventually, birth rates outstripped death rates, with better access to healthcare, nutrition, support and judicial systems that were more peaceful. And the human population just kept rising.
In the 20th Century itself, we went from 2 billion in 1930 to 6 billion in 1998. Today, we can celebrate one thing for sure: rising life expectancy and reduced child mortality, as proved by the 8 billion milestone in 2022.
Discussions of the potential impacts of this exponential growth began around the 1950s, but have been shushed up and avoided ever since. Why? Because it is too complex and too controversial to fully formulate an opinion on.
Power and people: An interplay that marginalises
Culturally, many communities are built around larger, integral and populous families. For many people, having bigger families is a choice that they want to enjoy.
However, western urbanised ideals that have been built over eurocentric industrial revolution— influenced lifestyles, permeated throughout the globe and permeates even today. Individualisation and smaller nuclear families have been, to an extent, popularised by these certain notions of policy, urbanisation and the consumerist cultures that come with it.
With biassed international institutions framing the population control discourse, many turned a critical eye on such communal cultures.
In recent times, western perspectives on anti-natalist discourse have projected power relations between the western and developing worlds. Similar structures could, arguably, find roots in national, urban-rural, class, caste, and discourse that perpetuates other facets of marginalisation.
So-called progressive people have marginalised communities solely on the basis of their choice. The elitist lens scrutinised those who chose to have bigger families. At the same time, some believe that people from these communities, especially women, do not have a choice due to restrictions on SRHR, education, and opportunities.
In reality, though, is this blame-game even productive?
Climate crisis: The relationship and its injustice
Many arguments against overpopulation stem from the breaching of earth’s carrying capacity. Logically, we have more mouths to feed with the exact same limited levels of resources. Throw in a fossil-fuel-heated-up earth—and we have a problem.
Our current hunger, environmental and social crises don’t always have a direct causal relation with population sizes though. This is because these issues are caused by inefficiency—in agricultural systems, in capitalist consumption, and in systemic policy—as opposed to a growth in the number of people.
The truth is, you and I don’t consume and produce the same amount of energy and fossil fuels as someone living in a more developed country. Certainly not as much as someone in a much higher income bracket. How can an eight-hundredth baby be placed at the same level as a multi-billionaire in terms of environmental impact, then?
Therefore, the issue lies in how and what we consume. Instead of focusing climate discourse on population control, perhaps, we ought to focus on implementation of sustainable agricultural and industrial strategies to combat poor nutrition.
Potential, important “solutions”
Whether or not we agree on what is to be done or how to feel about the 8 billion population or whether it fits neatly into “good” or “bad”—there are some very implementable propositions that come out of this discourse regardless .
Primarily, policy on population decisions needs to be based on national and locally-focused economies and communities. Forceful, generalised and authoritarian policies are never a good idea, because an individual’s freedom to personal choice ought not be curbed. Humankind has witnessed traumatic histories of forced mass sterilisation and continued present-day non-consensual institutionalised contraception. On simple moral grounds, this cannot continue.
This includes ensuring that people have equitable access to and education of contraceptives and abortion. Whether a region needs more or less young people, whether a government adopts pro or anti-natalist policies— the provision of these basic goods and services is a human right. We must also understand that even cultures of implicitly shaming people into having children can hardly ever yield positive results for the parent and the child.
At the same time, for cultures and economies to survive, young people are important. Many people still desire to have kids— however, with increasing parental stress due to the uncertainty of the climate crisis, worsening financial strain of child-bearing, and lack of support, parenting can be difficult. At times like these, giving Mother Heroine awards is not the best you can do. Instead, policy-makers with a need for more young people, can simply focus on ensuring everyone can equitably meet basic living standards. Fun fact: most parents just want their children to grow up in happy, healthy and peaceful environments.
Education and opportunities always need to be championed for, regardless—but not through a so-called “progressive” privileged lens. There is no set definition for what an education can be and it’s time that these definitions are not controlled by upper-caste ableist cis-heteronormative patriarchal narratives. Genuine education does not equate pulling on a saviour complex.
In India, more young people are being celebrated as a sign for better economic futures. We must remember, though, the critical importance of ensuring that health and happiness can keep up— and the first step to doing this is smashing that prejudiced patriarchy!