Population Control, The Environmental Fix No One Wants To Talk About

Climate change is a real and alarming problem. But there's another — and intimately related — ticking time bomb threatening our planet: overpopulation.

Rickshaws in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Rickshaws in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Gérard Maarek

PARIS — More than 250 years ago — on Nov. 1, 1755 — a high-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami and fire ravaged the city of Lisbon, killing some 60,000 people. It also prompted a passionate, philosophical debate between two of Europe's leading thinkers of the time: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

To Voltaire, the catastrophe represented the cruel hand of fate and the unfathomable decree of Providence — further evidence of just how miserable the human condition really is. Rousseau, on the other hand, saw urban expansion and population density as playing a key role in the death and destruction. It stemmed from an overall excess of civilization and separation from nature, he reasoned.

It's easy, nowadays, to dismiss the position taken by the author of Zadig. And yet, people are still reluctant to side with Rousseau and to endorse the radical criticisms of the Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Perhaps they should reconsider though. Have they not noticed the consistent increase in the frequency of natural disasters, their explosive costs — a record $306 billion dollars in 2017 — and the growing number of victims to mourn?

Contemporary thinkers are satisfied instead with the unambiguous explanation that human activity generates greenhouse gas, which causes global warming. With a few modifications, the thinking holds, we can arrange everything just so and solve the problem. But this all-too-casual chain of thought is questionable in more ways than one.

The human species has taken over the entire animal kingdom.

First, not all natural disasters can be attributed to the climate. Consider the Asian tsunami in 2004 that took 250,000 lives, or the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Second, if these cataclysms are causing more and more damage, it's also because they reach denser population centers and ruin more expensive infrastructure and equipment.

Third, the extinction of numerous animal species is less linked to global warming and more to mankind's direct impact on our ecosystems (urbanization, overfishing, hunting, chemical pollution, etc.). The human species has taken over the entire animal kingdom.

Demographics is the "blind spot" of environmental politics. While the right side of the brain debates the maximum temperature threshold the world can handle, the left side of the brain contemplates the skyrocketing projection of population increase. For example, between 1990 and 2014, global CO2 emissions increased by 58%, but only by 15% per capita. The increase in the population thus contributed nearly three-quarters of the growth. And yet, the Climate Change Conference in Paris (or COP21) completely ignored the issue.

Train station in Beijing — Photo: Pan Kanjun/Xinhua/ZUMA

The reasons behind this attitude are multiple and profoundly rooted in our collective unconscious. For one thing, a numerous population used to be a synonym of power. It meant a workforce for agriculture, a reservoir of manpower for the industry, and a way of expanding the ranks of the army. And some of that thinking still holds sway. Why would one country try to limit its rate of population growth if its neighbors practice the opposite?

Demography is all about externalities. For a while those externalities were positive: More people gathering in cities and working in factories led to greater production and even more jobs. But there are negatives as well. The birth of a child affects the future of every other person on the planet. Once a baby is born, we feel compelled to stand in solidarity with that child no matter what happens. Then, when she becomes an adult, she'll contribute to the increasing anthropic pressure, not only in her neighborhood but the entire planet as well.

These questions may not be politically correct, but they need to be asked.

Today, we are without a doubt at the inflection point at which the negative externalities prevail. To combat this, there are two possible strategies: A ban that threatens penalties or promises incentives. China wasted no time enacting the first strategy with the one-child policy, which promoted economic growth. India also tried this is the 1970s with limited success. Today, 1.35 billion people live in India, triple what it was 50 years ago.

Elsewhere in the world, we just wait for quality-of-life improvements to dissuade couples from having multiple children. This strategy has worked quite well in the West, vastly lowering the fertility rate, and has also taken effect, more recently, in Asia and the Middle East. But the inertia of the demographic phenomenon is great. Africa is lagging behind, contributing to nearly 60% of the expected global population increase by 2050 (+1.3 billion people). Family planning policies remain principally ineffective.

Is procreation an unequivocal human right? The Universal Declaration does not explicitly say so. It is limited instead to the vague statement of the right to marriage and the foundation of a family (Article 16). Should we leave it to individual states to decide their own familial policies? These questions may not be politically correct, but they need to be asked.

Developed countries — the biggest polluters — are ready to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. A wedge formula shows that if each country were to stabilize its CO2 emissions per capita today, the global volume would still increase 16% by 2050 as a result of population increase. Conversely, to maintain the volume at the level it is at today, developing countries could maintain their emission levels if developed countries agreed to decrease their emissions by 40%. This shows that the challenge is large and that we should welcome more control over population growth.

The solution must be tailored to accommodate developing countries, especially those in Africa (Article 7 of the Paris Accord). Will such an incentive system suffice? Will more coercive measures be necessary to avoid the explosion of the "demographic bomb" and its fallout in terms of wars and uncontrollable migratory movements? What does seem clear is that if we fail to meet this challenge, future generations will realize, sooner rather than later, that the real "mother of all disasters' isn't climate change, per se, but overpopulation.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!