Overpopulation has become the ‘third rail’ of contemporary environmentalism: no major organization wants to touch the issue anymore. While it had been one of the driving concerns of early environmentalism up until the 1970s, exemplified by such seminal texts as Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet (1948), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and the Club of Rome’s The Limits of Growth (1972), concern with population control has since dropped off the list of popular environmentalist causes. One of the primary reasons for this is undoubtedly that the discourse of overpopulation was found to be freighted with unsavory political associations: in many cases, concern over population seemed like a threadbare cover for racist and classist resentments, or just plain misanthropy, as when James Lovelock famously diagnosed the planet with a case of “disseminated primatemia,” likening humans to pathogenic microbes. Concern with overpopulation was impugned as the expression of a neocolonialist mindset, one that implicitly dehumanized the peoples whose population was said to be in need of control. Environmental problems, it was argued, were not an issue of overpopulation in the Third World, but rather of overconsumption in the First. Famine and poverty were not effects of resource scarcity, but of a failure to distribute properly what resources were available.
However, recent years have seen a quiet resurgence of Neo-Malthusian thinking, and of the apocalyptic scenarios with which it has been so often aligned, that makes it imperative to revisit these debates. Since the turn of the century, a growing choir of political and military analysts has been prophesying an imminent era of resource wars. Anxiety over economic competition from migrants has fueled nativist movements around the globe. Stephen Emmott’s incendiary pamphlet 10 Billion (2013) closes with the response of one of his colleagues to the question how to best prepare for life on an overpopulated, ecologically degraded planet: “Teach my son how to use a gun.” Such developments seem to bear out the dire warnings of historian Timothy Snyder: in Black Earth (2015), he argues that just as Malthusian fears were an important ideological driver of Nazi Germany’s genocidal warfare in Eastern Europe, they might once again be used to justify the abrogation of basic human rights. Yet all of this only makes it more pressing to find responsible ways of addressing the issue. Even if one does not consider population growth as a primary cause of ecological degradation, there is hardly any environmental problem that is not compounded and aggravated by it. While it is true that overconsumption in the “global North,” where populations are shrinking, must bear most of the blame for climate change and many other large-scale problems, it is also clear that rapidly expanding human numbers in poor countries produce problems of their own. Often, traditional methods of resource extraction and land cultivation which were sustainable while the human population was small have become ecologically destructive simply because more people are now practicing them.
The aim of this special section is not only to re-assess the long-standing debate on overpopulation in light of these developments, but more importantly to examine the cluster of tropes, narratives, and images which have become attached to this idea, and which we propose to designate as the “Malthusian Imagination.” Even while the issue of overpopulation disappeared from mainstream environmentalist discourse, it continued to flourish in the realms of literature and popular culture. The “mad environmentalist” hatching a secret plan to rid the world of surplus population became something of a stock character (e.g. in Lionel Shriver’s Game Control, 1994; Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, 1995; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, 2003; Dan Brown’s Inferno, 2013; or Dennis Kelly’s TV series Utopia, 2013-14). Many of these texts and films engage in complex balancing acts, acknowledging the legitimacy of the concern even while they disavow the violent means by which it is pursued.
The questions we would like contributors to address include, but are not limited to, the following: