The Dugong In The Room


It is inevitable that at some point during any given discussion about climate change, food security or our dwindling clean water supply, someone will shift in their armchair, remove their reading glasses and slowly disengage their pipe. Adopting a tone that even Prince Philip would find patronising, they will deliver the following statement: "Well of course, no one is mentioning the elephant in the room".

That elephant, of course, is global overpopulation, known in some circles as the population bomb. You know — where we suddenly reach a tipping point and there is a humanity explosion?

I’m not for a moment pretending that our great, green Earth isn’t actually hot, round and crowded, but the increasingly shrill pontification by population control zealots breaches way too many protocols for a civil and respectful society.

Like some quasi no-birther movement, advocates for zero population growth or — should we be so lucky — depopulation, have lots of proof to remind us all that our planet is stuffed. If you really feel like ruining your day, check out the live updates to global births, deaths and everything in between on this site. Essentially we are heading toward a population of 9 billion by 2050, an increase of 2.1 billion over 45 years.

Although the fertility rate in the developed world is falling — Australia’s rate is a slowly sinking 1.7, Hong Kong’s a flaccid 0.94 — the Less People Now movement look to the fertile loins of the developing world with great fear and agitation. They just seem to keep breeding at an alarming rate.

Unfortunately this perception of mass reproduction does not take into account either documented changes in human behaviour or geopolitics. In 1970, Hong Kong’s fertility rate was 3.6 and no one projected anything near the current rate. The global fertility rate is declining in the developing world too, but apparently not fast enough for the population shrinkers. The only thing worse than China or India suffering from poverty and hunger would be for their populations to mature to health and prosperity with disposable incomes … just like us! Which is where the knowing commentators seem to silently applaud every disaster, every pandemic and every "correction" as Mother Earth’s ability to adjust the scales and re-balance global population.

Of course, the big daddy of all corrections is climate change, which won’t be so calamitous for us perched on the moral high ground. Yet for the great unwashed, the masses out there in darkest Africa, the steaming sub-continent and bloated Latin America: woe to be you. Just recently Oxfam warned of the great disruption climate change will present to the distribution of human beings across the planet: 75 million people will migrate over 45 years. When you add it up though, 1.6 million per year doesn’t actually seem like such a big change compared to those currently displaced by war, famine and Sacha Baron Cohen.

The most irksome aspect of the overpopulation movement is their complete lack of faith and hope in human ingenuity. It’s like the Renaissance never happened. Don’t get me wrong, I think the majority of us are inherently stupid, typified by our daily self-inflicted rituals of working, Tweeting and reality TV. But there remain the helpful 0.5 per cent of the population who are exceedingly gifted and who time and again get the rest of us out of trouble. Without hope for technology, social movements and pithy community announcements, what hope is there for anything?

Bearing this in mind, it’s worth considering an alternative society built on the principles of population reduction. It’s one where we know that there are too many of us but where universal sterilisation or one child policies — here’s looking at you, Brangelina — are just too tricky to enforce.

Imagine a society in which we can finally ask, "What about all the good things the Black Death did?" A society in which it’s OK to observe that while pandemics may be indiscriminate, they sure are effective. A society that happily directs us to enjoy life to the full while it lasts but doesn’t pressure us to plan, prepare or worry about tomorrow. That’s goodbye to sanctimonious nicotine warnings and letters from superannuation providers, hello to breakfast donuts and steroids.

To jolt the death rate up a percentage point or five, we’ll need to think very differently. We could finally completely abolish this whole "speed limit" thing on our roads. Catholics like Miranda Devine — ahead of the field on this, as on so many other issues — have been advocating this for some time. Signage updates would include, "Please Smoke Here", "Safety Gear Unnecessary On This Site" and "Welcome, Curious Dog Inside". Just one Jonestown per week would help even out the statistics. Western governments could sponsor mass migration to locales like Zambia, where there’s a 53 per cent probability that you won’t make it to 40. This may sound bleak but you need to remember that when you’re dead, there’s no time for lamentations.

If we’re serious about population control, let’s dismantle those pesky border controls! Isn’t it time to tear down all those petty limitations on what we can and can’t bring in and out of the country? Ban IVF and when that’s done, let’s start the conversation about banning organ replacement. If we’re talking blue-sky solutions, how about re-engineering dialysis machines to deliver toxins of choice? Just you watch, we’ll all flock to whatever flavour of religion we want — like so many elephants to a graveyard.

Or, of course, we could all take a deep breath, look each other in the eye and start a conversation about some of the real elephants in the room.

I’d better go, Dumbo is looking tusky.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.