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Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question

September 7, 2013 • News

Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question


During the 1960s and early 1970s population growth was regarded as an urgent environmental issue. Since then the topic has fallen into abeyance. Despite continuing demographic expansion and anxieties about a range of socio-ecological problems – from the stresses of high-density urban living to climate change, water, energy and food insecurity and loss of biodiversity – there is currently scant consideration of the benefits of population stabilisation or decline. Indeed, the problematisation of population numbers is widely disavowed or regarded with profound suspicion. Why have we become so reluctant to ask whether we are too many or to countenance policies that might discourage further growth? I identify five discourses – population-shaming, population-scepticism, population-declinism, population-decomposing and population-fatalism – that foreclose public debate and subject them to critical analysis. I end by eliciting signs of a hesitant revival of the population question alongside the enduring potency of silencing discourses.

Main article

In 1950 world population had recently exceeded 2.5 billion. By 1990 it had doubled and by 2020 it will have tripled. October 2011 marked one among numerous demographic milestones on this expansive journey as the 7 billion threshold was crossed. This is in line with conclusions to the United Nations’ 2010 revision that ‘world population is expected to keep rising during the 21st century’, albeit more slowly during the latter part. It projects some 9.3 billion of us by 2050 and over 10 billion by the century’s end (United Nations 2010). Such an ongoing increase surely conveys an alarming story to anyone concerned about environmental sustainability and social wellbeing. Or does it? I ask why concerns about population growth and over-population have virtually disappeared from the political agenda of developed countries, especially, since the mid-1970s. Have they simply forgotten about, even resolved, the issue? Or is it rather, as my analysis suggests, that problematising it has been foreclosed? For despite periodic eruptions of concern among democratic publics, members of the policy community have been noticeably reluctant to address these anxieties. Even among critical theorists and Greens, scant attention has been paid to the topic over recent decades. Indeed, it is noticeable that insofar as population numbers are mooted as a contributor to socio-ecological problems – from environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity to food and water insecurity or deteriorating wellbeing – pre-emptive dismissals swiftly follow.

The analysis that follows identifies five categories of silencing discourse: population-shaming; population-scepticism; population-declinism; population-decomposing and population-fatalism. These are analytic distinctions. In practice the discourses overlap or work in conjunction, the most obvious factor they share being antipathy to the Malthusian equation between population growth and resource shortages. But these are not merely analytic categories; they are also profoundly political. Each has a distinctive genealogy in terms of its ideological and professional investments, the political interests it serves and the narratives in which it is embedded. The more that key demographic variables become amenable to policymaking, the greater the impact of the discourses that frame them.

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