VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A series of advertisements displayed on Vancouver billboards and bus shelters this week encourage couples to do their part to control overpopulation – and fight climate change – by having fewer children.
“Conservation begins at conception,” one reads, while another tells commuters, “The most loving gift you can give your first child is to not have another.”
But critics say the ads represent more than an impolite presumption to dictate the personal choices of strangers. They say the billboards provide a stepping stone to “dark places” by inflaming unfounded fears.
‘Bunk’ science leads to ‘dark places’
“It makes me feel more at risk as a disabled poor person,” Gabrielle Peters, a writer based in Vancouver, said of the billboards paid for by World Population Balance, an American non-profit.
By blaming overpopulation for climate change and environmental degradation, she said the billboards revive a debunked theory known as Malthusianism, named for an 18th Century reverend, Thomas Robert Malthus, who warned humanity would soon outgrow its food supply.
His dire predictions never came to pass, but that didn’t stop others – including Nazi eugenicists and the author of The Overpopulation Bomb, a bestselling 1968 book – from remixing Malthus’s ideas to bolster their beliefs, Peters said.
“It’s based on bunk and it invariably leads into dark places,” she said.
Peters said that the theory of scarcity is especially alarming to disabled people, who “may not be highly productive in the eyes of capitalism” while consuming medical and other resources.
This thinking has led some modern academics to call for forced birth control and government-mandated licensing for parenthood, she said.
But Peters said her fear of this philosophy backstopping real-world action aren’t merely hypothetical. She cited a new “frailty scale” used to determine eligibility for health-care services in Ontario.
Fear of overpopulation fuels eco-fascist terrorism
The idea that urgent action is needed to control the world’s population also underpins a dark ideology known as eco-fascism. Two separate mass shooters – who killed 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, and 23 in El Paso, Texas in 2019 – both mixed racist, far-right politics with environmentalism to rationalize their violence.
Peters said she found it especially troubling to see the Vancouver billboards sounding the alarm about a non-existent crush of humanity against this backdrop and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It causes confusion, it causes fear, and it particularly targets and adds to the lack of safety for people who are already most at risk during the pandemic,” she said. “Why, in the midst of this time, do we have to re-argue all of the things that history has already sorted out?”
Dave Gardner, executive director of World Population Balance, acknowledged “a history of really bad thinking and bad action in the name of achieving a sustainable population.” But he said his group supports an “ethical, humanitarian and voluntary” solution to overpopulation.
“We need to realize that we’re not stuck replaying history over and over again,” he said.
Gardner said his message of population control via voluntary family planning is all the more important as a means of counteracting the solutions proposed by bigots and extremists.
“I believe that if we can put enough light on this topic, that it will actually [lead to] fewer of those nutcases doing that kind of thing,” he said, referring to the alleged terrorists in New Zealand and Texas.
Canadians already having fewer kids
While Gardner asserts overpopulation is an issue “that’s been brushed under the rug for so long because it’s uncomfortable for some people to talk about,” many experts and advocates dispute the very premise of the supposed problem.
Indeed, if there are more people on Earth there will be more total greenhouse gas emissions, according Darrel Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and co-author of Empty Planet: The Shock of Population Decline. But he said the problem with Gardner’s theory is neither Canadian nor global populations are ballooning out of control.
The 2016 census found Canada had a fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman – below the replacement rate needed to maintain the existing population – and dropping. And he expects that rate will drop rapidly as the economic uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic discourages people from having kids.
The United Nations predicts the world population will rise from its current 7.8 billion to roughly 11 billion near the end of the century before steadily declining thanks to dropping fertility rates. Bricker thinks it will peak around 2050 at eight or nine billion.
“They should be putting up billboards of congratulations, saying that the public has already achieved what these guys are asking for,” Bricker said of Gardner’s organization. “The public’s way ahead of them.”
(Gardner didn’t dispute the official fertility rate statistics but insisted they’re still not low enough to contract the population.)
Daniella Fergusson, a City of Powell River urban planner, echoed many of the concerns raised by Peters and said the billboards provided a “veneer of a polite conversation about personal choice.”
She noted Indigenous women have been forcibly sterilized in Canada as recently as 2018.
Gardner, she said, is focusing on the wrong contributing factors of climate change.
“There is so much evidence out there that it is not a population issue; it’s a consumption issue,” she said, noting wealthy countries such as Canada emit far more emissions per capita than less developed nations.
“The whole thing is just bonkers because, demographically, our population is already reducing anyway,” she said.
With files from Miranda Fatur and Paul James