The worry of 8 billion humans today, 15 Nov

I’m in the forest listening to birds sing as new light filters in beneath the moon. Native bees are already industriously harvesting the new blooms of the at the Bottlebrush grass tree (Xanthorrhoea macronema). The world is beautiful but that beauty is diminishing daily. I return for breakfast and hear the news. According to the UN our species will reach 8 billion today.[1]  Galvanised I work on this essay all morning.

Bottlebrush grass tree flower

What a successful species we have become since leaving the forest canopy and walking, thus freeing the hands. And with such a calamitous impact on the planet. Donna Haraway wants a better world than this one of the Anthropocene and suggests, ‘The Cthulucene might be a way to collect up the questions for naming the epoch, for naming what is happening in the airs, waters, and places, in the rocks, and oceans, and atmospheres. Perhaps needing both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene, but perhaps offering something else, something just maybe more liveable.’[2]

But, imagining happy, healthy, sustainable societies in a future Chthulucene, relies for Haraway on a vast reduction in the human population.[3] How can that be achieved fairly and without duress?

Michelle Murphy argues that you cannot separate population from economic issues. In pre-industrial societies, birth and death rates were both high, with industrialisation and development both fertility levels and infant mortality dropped leading to the common belief that, ‘reduction in population quantity leads to good economic quality.’[4] She asks the key question, ‘What kind of population control practices and racisms are reactivated by pointing the finger at human density in a moment when wealthy human-capitalist assemblages with often low levels of fertility are responsible for the vast bulk of emissions?’[5]

Bryan Norton warns that, ‘the opinion that environmental problems are most basically caused by human population growth, and that if we could control population growth, that would be the end of the problems . . . [is a] woefully oversimplified formula for understanding environmental problems [and] is not just oversimplified, it is also morally dangerous.’[6] He tells his students, ‘If the blame for environmental damage can be located in the act of parenting, they should realize that each American child born (given current consumption patterns) has 40 to 50 times the environmental impact of a child born in poorer nations.’

The problem is that individuals in the poorer nations quite reasonably aspire to the comforts and luxuries they see advertised. And the middle classes are rapidly growing in the two most populated counties. Next year, India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country.[7] We are already consuming Earth’s resources much faster than they’re being replaced. ‘Humanity is using nature 1.8 times faster than our planet’s biocapacity can regenerate. That’s equivalent to using the resources of 1.8 Earths. How many Earths would we need if everyone on the planet lived like the residents of your country? Here’s how we calculate that, using the United States as an example: The Ecological Footprint for the United States is 8.1 gha per person (in 2018) and global biocapacity is 1.6 gha per person (in 2018). Therefore, we would need (8.1/ 1.6) = 5.1 Earths if everyone lived like Americans.’[8]

The G20 summit gets underway in Bali today and is very unlikely to make any progress on this issue.

So, who to blame? Let’s revisit Garrett ‘s famous example, ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Hardin imagines an open-access pasture where each herder adds an animal to his herd to do better, but if they all do that the pasture will degrade and the whole community (and the natural elements) will suffer.[9] This idea has spread though the fields of ecology, economics, political science and environmental studies. If you actually read his paper, you find Hardin to be racist and a eugenicist who ranted, ‘If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

Matto Mildenberger says Hardin was wrong and asks us to blame big business not ourselves as individuals: ‘Thirty years ago, a different future was available. Gradual climate policies could have slowly steered our economy towards gently declining carbon pollution levels. The costs to most Americans would have been imperceptible. But that future was stolen from us. It was stolen by powerful, carbon-polluting interests who blocked policy reforms at every turn to preserve their short-term profits.’[10] PBS Frontline’s, The Power of Big Oil, documents the industry’s long campaign to stall action on the climate crisis.[11] Jeff Sparrow argues that such corporations have manipulated us to have a sense of individual environmental responsibility – to distract from their own misdeeds. He says: ‘Not only are we being distracted from the real issues, but we are learning to interiorise this sense that it’s our fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s not the corporations’ fault. I think that is incredibly destructive.’[12]

At the same time, we each do have responsibilities, since consumerism in ‘the developed world’ is causing problems, from eating meat, driving cars to using plastics and buying stuff. We just don’t seem to realise the dangerous position we have put the natural world in NOW. Climate scientists warn, ‘The risk of global societal collapse or human extinction has been ‘dangerously underexplored’.’[13]

But climate change is not the only problem we face. Our species is like Knotweed, we spread, thicken and dig deep into the earth. The current environmental crises (climate change, industrial development, resource extraction (from fish to water), biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, pollution, habitat destruction and deforestation) are caused by the massive effect our massive population has on the planet. And this effects humans too, water scarcity, famine, refugee crises, poverty, violence. We have been warned: ‘The human-made crisis engulfing the natural world is ‘just as threatening, perhaps even more so’ than the climate crisis.’[14]

While the human species expands its population, other life forms are facing reduced numbers and even extinction. Almost 70% of animal populations have been lost to the world in the last fifty years alone![15] The animals doing well are our pets, rats and cockroaches. Cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day.[16] What is the future? The Cop15 biodiversity summit in Canada this December will be so important.

In a 2015 article, Haraway notes that reluctance to discuss population issues because of the ‘neo-imperialism, neoliberalism, misogyny and racism its history contains . . . But denial will not serve us … Blaming capitalism, imperialism, neoliberalism, modernisation, or some other ‘not us’ for ongoing destruction webbed with human numbers will not work.’[17]

Haraway later writes: ‘I have been screamed at after lectures by my feminist colleagues of many years, told that I can no longer call myself a feminist . . . for arguing in public that the weight of human numbers on a global scale, however broken down by analysis of structured inequalities, opposition to ongoing racist population control programs, and many other important things, is an outrage.’[18]

Adele Clarke notes that in response to eugenicist and racist histories of population control, feminists have focused on enabling women’s reproductive choices and ignored the population issue. She advocates, ‘generating feminist science studies-informed pro-kin and non-natalist politics of reproductive justice for all species and future imaginaries toward their realization in our era of environmental crises and degradation.’[19]

Katharine Dow and Janelle Lamoreaux point out that, ‘To achieve environmental reproductive justice, there needs to be further acknowledgement that reproductive infrastructures go far beyond bodily and familial boundaries, and to make kin of many kinds there needs to be better infrastructural support, from housing to employment practices to education. There needs to be attention given not just to food production, but the economics of distribution, (over)consumption, and individualism that lead to a lack of interdependence when feeding and caring for ourselves and one another.’[20]

While the Earth’s population is growing quickly, the growth rate is starting to slow down. Eventually, it will start falling. Casey Briggs reports, ‘We’ve already hit peak child – there will never again be more children alive than there are today, with fertility rates plummeting across the globe . . . In fact, in some parts of the world, including Australia, Europe, North America, and some parts of Asia, fertility rates are already below that replacement number.’[21] Nevertheless, the number of humans and their consumer habits is unsustainable. Then there’s the issue of ageing population around the globe, which I am acutely away of. My mother at 96, on the other side of the world, has gone into a sudden cognitive decline.

But how to manage overpopulation? Put people off sex? In Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, the Ludovico Technique of conditioning forces an automatic response of extreme nausea when Alex thinks about sex or violence (or hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). We have good forms of birth control, but not always easily available in many parts of the world due to financial constraints and supply shortages. And there are other issues that impact a woman’s access to contraception, for example in rural sub-Saharan Africa, there is stigma and many misconceptions.[22]

Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano is largely Muslim and now the engine of global population growth. At 5.2 children per woman, or twice the global average, Nigeria’s population is set to more than double by 2050 to 450 million. Contraception is rarely discussed. In an article ‘Breaking Birth Control Taboo in Africa’, Michael Olawuyi is quoted as saying, ‘When you say ‘family planning’, you strike a response in them: ‘only Allah should be planning the family. So ‘childbirth spacing’ is used instead.’ Advocates try to stress that their work is not about ‘population control’, he says. ‘It’s really around the health of the family, the health of the woman and the ability for the family as a unit to lift themselves out of poverty.’[23]

Michelle Murphy has looked at how a Bangladeshi feminist collective threads together initiatives in reproductive health and justice with literary production and organic farming.[24] Linking reproduction and health to ecological sustainability is one way forward.

Running Postman vine and Lily Pilly berries in our garden

We need to save this beautiful world and all its variety of life forms and habitats that are remaining. We need to make it healthy again and, at the same time, alleviate animal and human suffering, and make life enjoyable for all humans. We need a sense of a healthy world, and need all kinds of voices, experiences and disciplines, taking into account a whole range of factors from technologies to soils to justice, before we can start talking about what an ideal human population may be and how to achieve that number.

[1] Niels de Hoog, Pablo Gutiérrez, Liz Ford and Theresa Malone, ‘How has the world’s population grown since 1950?’, The Guardian, 14 Nov 2022.

[2] Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’, lecture by Donna Haraway in Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, 05/09/2014.

[3] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke UP, 2016, p6.

[4] Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life, Duke UP, 2017, p35.

[5] Michelle Murphy, p138.

[6] Bryan G. Norton, ‘Population and Consumption: Environmental Problems as Problems of Scale’, Ethics & the Environment, Vol5:1, 2000, p23.

[7] As of 2020, China’s population was 1,439,323,776; India’s 1,380,004,385.


[9] Garrett Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162, 1968.

[10] Matto Mildenberger ‘The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons’ Scientific American  April 23, 2019. He is an assistant professor of environmental politics.

[11] Three part series, produced by Dan Edge, Jane McMullen, Gesbeen Mohammad, Robin Barnwell, April 2022.

[12] Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Paul Barclay, ‘Jeff Sparrow says we’ve been duped into believing environmental blame rests with us’ Big Ideas, ABC RN, Mon 22 Aug 2022.

[13] Damian Carrington, ‘Climate endgame risk of human extinction ‘dangerously underexplored’, The Guardian, 2 Aug, 2022.

[14] ‘European Commission’s Frans Timmermans says biodiversity situation is ‘really very, very scary’.’ Jennifer Rankin and Fiona Harvey, ‘Destruction of nature as threatening as climate crisis, EU deputy warns’, Guardian, 22 July 2022.

[15] Patrick Greenfield, ‘Animal populations experience average decline of almost 70% since 1970, report reveals’, The Guardian, 13 Oct 2022. The Living Planet Index combines global analysis of 32,000 populations of 5,230 animal species to measure changes in the abundance of wildlife across continents and taxa, producing a graph akin to a stock index of life on Earth.

[16] John Woinarski, Brett Murphy, Leigh-Ann Woolley, Sarah Legge, Stephen Garnett, Tim Doherty, ‘For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day’, The Conversation, October 4, 2017.

[17] Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities 6 (1), May 2015, 159–165.

[18] Making Kin not Population: Reconceiving Generations, Ed., Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway, Prickly Paradigm, 2018. Based on a 2015 conference panel.

[19] Adele Clarke Introduction, Making Kin not Population: Reconceiving Generations, Ed., Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway, Prickly Paradigm, 2018, p1. See Sandra Calkins and Tyler Zoanni, ‘Population (What is It Good For?)’ Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 92:3, Summer 2019.

[20] Katharine Dow; Janelle Lamoreaux, ‘Situated Kinmaking and the Population ‘Problem’’, Environmental Humanities (2020) 12 (2): 475–491, Nov 2020

[21] Casey Briggs, ‘8 billion and counting’, 15 Nov 2022,

[22] Meghan A. Potasse & Sanni Yaya, ‘Understanding perceived access barriers to contraception through an African feminist lens: a qualitative study in Uganda’, BMC Public Health vol 21: 267, 2021.

[23] Neil Munshi, ‘Breaking Birth Control Taboo in Africa’,, 9 November 2022.

[24] Michelle Murphy, Chapter 9.

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