I remember the very first geography lesson I had while I was in high school. A love for geography and learning about the world around us has been in me ever since I was a child, reading National Geographic, watching documentaries, and even visiting the United Nations HQ when my family went to the US. Seeing it in my high school curriculum, I was extremely excited to hear that an entire class was dedicated to the subject I love.
Consequently, I vividly remember the first activity we did in that class to introduce us to the subject. I remember the sentence our teacher dictated to us to write in our textbooks:
‘The world is a finite place. This means that it is not getting any larger, even as we continue to use it.’
Of course it is true – the world is not infinite and neither are its resources. But this single establishing sentence resonated throughout the curriculum in six whole years of study – and it had its positives and negatives. We learned about conservationism and sustainable development. But inevitably, when discussing the natural limits of the planet, we come to ask how many people it can sustain. Naturally, the ‘conservationist’ tone sets the stage for the subject – though we must be careful when discussing population in a conservationist context. It’s important to remember that we’re not talking about resources, but people.
The dichotomy in population policy discourse, both on national and international levels, is ironic. On the one hand are those who believe that increasing population is always a good idea, mainly for economic reasons. On the other hand are people who are concerned about the potential crisis of an overpopulated Earth. Regardless of what you believe, few governments are silent on the issue of population growth. Yet despite their polarised views, they all share one similarity: the ideology that drives their thinking. And this ideology reflects a society and political discussion confused on its purpose.
Do we really have too many people? Will we in the near future? UN estimates range anywhere from 9 to 11 billion people by 2050. Primary concerns about overpopulation regard pollution and the supply of food, natural resources, and land. But statistics (at least for now) give little cause for alarm. The UN has known for a very long time that there is enough food around the world to make most people obese – in fact, it’s the first thing mentioned on the WFP website. Additionally, population growth rates almost universally decline as nations develop, as seen in the demographic-economic paradox, especially as couples naturally choose to delay marriage and family establishment.
There are places where overpopulation is a legitimate and serious concern. I recall the social panic and debate widespread in Singapore following the population White Paper released by the government projecting 6.9 million people on the island city – already the world’s second most densely populated country – by 2030. Or, of course, the sudden energy among Reproductive Health Bill advocates when the 100 millionth Filipino was born. For such countries, the issue is imminent: do we have enough resources or not?
Ah, but here is where we see problems in the very paradigm of where overpopulation is debated. It’s the issue of ‘too many, or not enough’. Even where there may be too many, a common counter-argument regards the potential for them to produce and contribute to society. But if you’re arguing along that line, isn’t the person just a factor of production in an economic engine? Or if you say that there are too many people, isn’t the person just a liability? Aren’t we forgetting that it’s the people’s wellbeing that we should be concerned about, and that’s why we’re debating population in the first place?
The answer, strangely enough, takes me back to that first geography lesson. The world is a finite place – indisputably so. That means we should develop a relationship to nurture it. And, it has a relationship with us so that we may grow and contemplate our place in the world. This is not about cost-benefit or transaction between humans and the environment: we are more than economic entities. We need to manage a population to remain sustainable. But too often population control compromises the very nature of who we are, fixating ourselves upon utilitarian notions which often disregard local morals. We need to clarify what exactly we are ‘sustaining’, with a strategy that, first and foremost, respects ourselves.