Roxane Rakic, Psychologist
The issue of overpopulation is usually discussed from an economic food-technical or environmental point of view. It remains a subject, however, which it is difficult to interest people for,
even though, little by little, an increasing number of people seem to be worried about it. People lack the courage to express these feelings openly. It is worth considering where this fear comes from.
This article will explore a number of ideas about what makes this subject so difficult to discuss. The aspects that will be discussed here are the difference in freedom and autonomy, political and economic powers and human behaviour, led by inborn characteristics as well as the environment.
Freedom and Autonomy
“Overpopulation” and even the size of the world population taken by itself are not subjects which people talk about easily. This could be because they are felt to touch on people’s values and fundamental rights, such as freedom and the right to autonomy. These values and their expression are interpreted in different ways by different cultures. “Freedom” has a different meaning in wealthy countries than it does in poor countries. In richer, predominantly western, countries, people generally feel “free” when, for instance, they have enough time to themselves, are able to express and improve themselves and are able to choose for themselves whether or not to have children. If people do choose to have children, then, these will generally be welcome. People usually consider the matter very carefully. It is probably because we value freedom and autonomy so highly in our western society that we find it so difficult to say anything about the number of children people have.
Functions of the Family
In wealthy countries, the function of the family unit is no longer a biological one, namely to ensure the survival of the species. Neither does it have an economic function any longer: children are not expected to contribute directly to the family income by working. There is not much evidence these days of people seeing the function of the family in a religious light, as a way of passing on a religious view. The affective function of the family, however, is strong; an important goal for parents is to enjoy their children’s company and to share mutual love and affection. In wealthy countries, people want to have fun with the few children they do have. They want to see them grow up, help them with school or even get involved in school activities themselves, and they feel their children deserve to play a sport or have music lessons.
The position of freedom and autonomy in poorer countries, is very different to the way it is experienced in by us in the wealthy countries. Many women are not free to choose their marriage partner, let alone the number of children they have. In those countries, the functions of the family are, above all, the biological, economic and religious functions mentioned above. Generally, people continue to have high numbers of children, despite the fact that there is often no guarantee of them being able to provide schooling or even sufficient food in the future and despite the fact that many countries are torn apart by civil conflicts.
This becomes visible when large numbers of immigrants from poor countries start to arrive in the wealthy countries. For most immigrants, the function of the family is a biological, economic or religious one. This clashes with the ruling cultural values in the wealthy countries. On average, immigrants have much higher numbers of children than the native population. Through the practice of bringing marriage partners into the country from the immigrants’ countries of origin, their system remains in place, even though the environment surrounding them is that of a wealthy country. We could call this a form of disconnection. In the mean time, the immigrant population is growing at a much higher rate than the original population.
We can also look at the terms freedom and autonomy from the point of view of sexuality. The primary aim of sexuality is reproductive. The meaning of sexuality and reproduction varies globally, according to different places and cultures. In poor countries, these terms still primarily signify reproduction. If international political powers were to introduce measures to promote lower birth numbers in these countries, the though, and with it, the fear might arise among members of these populations that they would not be able to survive as peoples or nations. It might even instigate rivalry, through one population’s fear of the potential dominance by another. The more likely reaction to such measures would therefore be for people to have more children instead of less.
In wealthy countries sexuality is associated with pleasure, personal identity and self-development. In developed countries people see it as their hard/free won right to plan for and have children. To be “childless” is seen as a want which needs to be compensated by means of medical interventions such as IVF. Having children is seen as a way of belonging in society and is a source of social status. People attach a lot of importance to these aspects and are very sensitive to other people’s judgements where the subject of parenthood v. childlessness is concerned (“don’t you have any children, why not?). People who have taken the decision not to have children are expected, as it were, to defend or justify their choice, while the decision to have children, and the consequences that follow on from it, are actually much weightier. It is considered to be a natural choice, though, and is, therefore, not questioned. People in wealthy countries can regard measures aimed at promoting a decrease in the population as violating the freedoms that people fought for in the past. It invades their personal space as they experience it. The “other” is interfering with their intimacy and their pleasure.
This is connected to the way in which we want to be seen as persons. It touches upon our social status: as the mother of a family, for instance. Adopting the role of mother is a way of gaining acceptance in the wider community. Being childless, on the other hand, often evokes reactions of pity, along the lines of: “how terrible for you that you are not able to have children, it must feel like a great lack.” In contrast: when measures are introduced which are to do with traffic or safety, these are accepted, usually without question; they do not intrude on people’s intimacy.
“Go forth and multiply” is a message which is used in the political and economic spheres as well as in a religious context. In the past, the only power the proletariat held was that of their high numbers of children. Ceauçescu, wanting to rule over a population of 25 million, forced the Rumanian people to have more children, even while they were living in wretched circumstances. Governing a country with a larger population means being able to exert more influence (inter) nationally and therefore equals more power.
Large multinationals also have an interest in large populations. The more people they have working for them in poor countries, the more profit they make and the greater their power and influence is. Shrinking populations might well seem, to them, like a limiting factor on their growth and therefore equal a potential loss of power.
Western aid organisations do their utmost to make to remove the taboo surrounding contraception and to distribute contraceptives in poor countries. The pope also visits these countries, but his advice is for people to carry on with the existing habit of unlimited reproduction. Contraception is a new phenomenon and people are puzzled by it. Maintaining old habits is the natural course, especially when this behaviour is seen to be rewarded. These are examples of a form of collective resistance which is expressed whenever overpopulation is made a subject of discussion.
Human Behaviour: Innate and Acquired
Human behaviour is driven by values. These are the things we attach importance to in our lives, such as freedom, acceptance by others, respect, prestige, acknowledgement of one’s achievements and personal development. When a group of people attach importance to a particular value it becomes a norm. Rules are then constructed in order to be able to express this value. People are, consequently, expected to conform to this norm or feel compelled to.
In the case of reproduction, people are often led by the value associated with having children: it is seen as an essential good. This seems to be generally accepted. The (unspoken) norm is that having children is a good thing, and questioning this commonly accepted truth is taboo. That would entail going against the norm and would result in resistance and conflict. People prefer to avoid this.
People tend to react quickly and emotionally and think that people who are merely trying to discuss the subject are automatically against them. This thought can then, for example, lead to the condemnation “what a racist!”, because “racists are bad people”. Apparently, it is very difficult for people to stop and listen to what the other is actually trying to say, when they want to make a subject such as this one discussible. This step fails to be taken in most cases. People want to protect their values and opinions, which form part of their identities. They do not want to lose them. What results is a defensive and combative stance, which is not conducive to exploring a subject further. People then tend to go along with the other person without being convinced, or lose all interest in the subject.
What also plays a part is people’s desire for recognition, appreciation and acceptance. Politicians want to be respected. They do not gain any popularity by making pronouncements on overpopulation. Politicians want to win votes for their parties. Again, talking about overpopulation is not a good way of going about this. Saying “no” to immigration also brings with it the danger of “not being liked by the others”, and this is a risk they do not want to take. Whether the public really would dislike a politician for such a point of view, or would praise him or her for taking a stand, is never even put to the test.
People allow themselves to be influenced by their surroundings and learn from their own experiences. People are especially liable to learn when they are confronted with their experiences. Thinking ahead about a confrontation in the future is not the same as actually experiencing a confrontation. People live in the here and now. Right now, most people are not yet directly experiencing any negative consequences of overpopulation, or are not aware of the actual cause of their stress and of waiting times, traffic jams etc. Those few people who do recognize overpopulation as the cause of these problems move to areas that are less densely populated, or even leave the country all together.
If we take measures now to counteract overpopulation, the effects will not be noticeable for at least another 20 years. That is just too far away for the average person. As long as people still have food and water, can take a shower every day and trust their house will not fall down around them, they will carry on with their daily existence. People are not interested in the issue, because it does not affect them. People opt for daily life, in the short term. That life needs to be comfortable, pleasant, without misfortunes etc. People do not choose to invest in activities which only have effect in the long term, such as making economies, using less water, buying less luxury products etc. Another reason why people do not feel impelled to take measures is that they do not see others taking action either. “Why should I economize, if I cannot see that it has any real positive effect on daily life and my neighbour is not doing the same?” What difference would it make, if I did watch how much water I use, as long as the industry continues using as much water as it does? Moreover, buying food which is biologically produced, to name an example, is many times more expensive than opting for the regular, mass-produced alternatives. In this case, most people do not have a choice. It is only the people who have clearly defined principles who are willing to buy these products, because they understand that they are also paying for the environment.
At the most, people will notice the following, indirect consequences: traffic jams, soil subsidence, contamination etc. many people still entertain the hope, however, that man, as a species, will find some kind of innovative solution to all the problems when the time comes. “Science and technology will not let us down. The generation after us can sort all of this out.” The message, that what we keep doing is to treat the symptoms instead of the root cause, is not getting through to people.
In the West, especially, man has unlimited faith in his own abilities. This entails a belief in the malleability of society and, perhaps, even in the malleability of human beings. This makes it hard to accept that there might actually be a limit to growth. Things are still going well, are they not? Only when a natural disaster occurs, such as a major flood, or when a disease like AIDS starts to affect a lot of people, do some people start to pipe up. Often enough, though, the blame is soon allocated to the “failures” of aid and emergency services, who are actually only combating symptoms. The question why these disasters occur at all is thus avoided. People are not quick to connect such problems to the high numbers of people in the world today. The fact that nature might be intervening in that number is an idea that is not acceptable to many people.
A long way to go
There is a long way to go before we can get everyone to understand that the high numbers of people in the world today are the cause of many problems and that man as well as nature is threatened by these problems. Scientific proof needs to be produced. It is also important that the problem of overpopulation is presented in such a way that it stimulates people to think in terms of care; care for ourselves, for nature and for future generations.
Seeking an international dialogue on this issue will prove more effective than debating the issue and laying down sanctions from above.