Maybe we should talk about empathy?

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To what extent can we say that, in confronting the Otherness of Nature, humanity is confronting its own essence, the negative core of its own being? Speculatively, this is obviously true, since nature appears as a threatening Otherness only from the standpoint of a subject who perceives itself as opposed to nature: in the threatening negativity of nature, the subject receives back the mirror-image of its own negative relationship towards nature. –Zizek, Living in the End Times

Barely a video or article is produced that is critical of our ways of life, our over-consumption, the lack of political action on climate change, or resource depletion, without somebody piping up with the mantra of ‘yes, that’s all well and good, but maybe we should talk about overpopulation?’

The overpopulation argument is an intuitive one: the population is growing, things are getting worse, resources are depleting, and most importantly I, in my city, see my immediate environment becoming overcrowded. Headline figures like 7 billion come to light, and we say “That! There’s our problem!” And we ask what is driving it, and point the finger at high birth-rate countries.

The very attraction of intuitive ideas is that you don’t have to think.

A major issue is that this sort of thinking comes out of colonial ideals. We assuage our own guilt by blaming the unseen, poor countries–the very same ignorance and immorality that ignores the plight of war-torn countries, famine and plague-prone places.

Now, I don’t blame individuals for having this idea, nor even for repeating it uncritically, for it is a callously and carefully constructed myth, propagated and unchallenged by the people who wish to divert from their own hand in the world’s problems. But the idea itself is inhumane. It is wrong, and it is inhumane.

Let me repeat–the people who believe this are not inhumane, the idea is. And that is why it is important to dispel the myth–because it is doing its job: powerful, smart, wealthy and empowered people with good hearts are falling into its trap.

So, again, you are not inhumane for believing it. But you are wrong.

We can easily generalise the world’s problems to two main factors: consumption and the number of consumers. The number of consumers is growing, but so is the consumption rate of the majority of them (incidentally those of us with lower birth rates: the rich, western countries). But rather than change our increasing consumption, it is more intuitive and less confronting to focus on the other side of the equation.

While the idea has its basis in wrong-headed ideologies, its continuation and perpetuation arises from a lack of empathy. The lack of recognition that other people might be living differently to the way we do. A slum-bound 13-child family has so little impact when held up against a 2-child Australian, European or North American family.

The diversion of blame to the poorer countries might be called a kind of global carbon austerity–let the poor and disenfranchised take the slack for our failings (the very failings that often contribute to them being poor and disenfranchised.)

The world is facing complex problems–it is a dynamic system–and for that reason, the simplistic argument of overpopulation is even more foolish and diverting. (Diverting in that it diverts self-reflection, taking of responsibility etc.) We can see this complexity in the fact that cities are overcrowded–and cities also happen to deplete water and build across arable land. So again, in our cities we see these issues and the intuitive mental shortcuts show up in our heads.

If we focused more on the technology and brainpower to exploit renewable energy and distribute it efficiently, then things begin to fall into place.

If you do make the argument that the world is overpopulated, you do so because you are aware that there are things that are not shaping up so well for us. You accept that and you feel strongly about it. So surely it is worth considering for a moment that it may be your own behaviour that is having a greater impact. You care enough to do some research, apply some critical thinking. Check the arithmetic yourself. You are concerned, so check your own behaviour, your place in the world.

Blaming overpopulation often (not always, but–explicitly–often) insinuates poor countries with high family sizes. It is an inherent form of prejudice. You may not realise it, so it’s worth examining your own assumptions anyway. But if you have, and you genuinely believe that prejudice is not to blame for your ideals, then the belief is still wrong. It just means you have one fewer mental hurdle to overcome.

Of course, if population does continue to grow, and we come to apply our knowledge and resources to making life sustainable, there will be inevitable questions, like can we sustain the ecosystem, can we grow without destroying the other animal life, can we prevent disease in the same ways we do now? I think probably the answer is yes, but we need to have these conversations, and plan for such eventualities. As it is, we are going to confront these issues anyway, but do so on our current trajectory of ecological instability, overcrowded cities, and reliance on non-renewable energy sources, inefficient distribution, and wilfully ignorant blame-deflection.

If we have the conversation rationally, scientifically, we can plan for it, or determine whether it is, indeed, impossible.

We can be certain that the world cannot sustain us at levels of consumption we have now in developed countries, and with the methods we have in place. But if we accept that we have to live differently, and make efficient use of our resources, it can sustains higher populations, without the destruction that we currently wreak, and without the ignorant, inhumane idea that the unseen other must upend their social structures to slightly assuage our guilt. Which prerogative is more human: the growth of society, or the growth of your favourite gadget-peddler’s share price?

With empathy comes compassion, and with compassion comes the incentive to create new possibilities.


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