Human population growth has exploded during the last century, decimating wildlife and devastating ecosystems. Without honest conversations about overpopulation, continued growth will likely condemn most wild animals to extinction and leave us with a much poorer planet
By Brad Meiklejohn
“Fewer people, more wild animals. Right now that feels like coming back from a time of illness.”
– Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future
There is a common myth that frogs won’t jump out of gradually heated water, allowing themselves to be cooked to death. But frogs are far smarter than people: they do jump out.
How is it that we are dumber than frogs? In the span of a hundred years, the number of people on Earth has quadrupled, from two billion to eight billion, the latest billion added in only eleven years. This slow-motion disaster used to garner headlines in the 1970’s. Concern about population explosion launched the first Earth Day and founded many environmental groups. Back then there was urgency about human overshoot. But then we gained another four billion people and somehow lost our minds.
Seemingly smart individuals now tell us that the world is running out of people. In the words of Paul Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb, these people are imbeciles, lacking in numeracy and ecological literacy. Critics dismiss Ehrlich because of his infamous bet with economist Julian Simon and claim that the population bomb never went off. Yet Ehrlich was prescient in many ways: as he predicted in 1968, shrapnel from the human population bomb has been eviscerating the natural world for the past fifty-four years.
Ask the other species sharing the planet with us whether the human population bomb went off. If you are a Great Indian Bustard, one of the largest birds on the planet, your population dropped from tens of thousands in the 1950’s to 128 today. If you are a salmon, your global range declined by 90% in the last century. If you are an elephant or a rhino, you are regularly slain for your tusks to serve the perverse pleasures of insecure men. The silent spring that Rachel Carson warned about is now our morning reality, with North American birds declining by 3 billion from 1950 to 2020. These beautiful creatures are not exiting the stage by choice – they are being shoved into the ditch.
It is fashionable these days to claim that overconsumption in the developed world, not overpopulation of the entire world, is the real problem. Yet overpopulation and overconsumption are joined at the hip, literally. Pick any country and consider the consumption of a family of eight in that country versus a family of four in the same country. Math matters: more people consume more stuff, regardless of where they live. Yes, per capita consumption is higher in some countries than in others. The last thing the world needs is more Americans, but the second to last thing the world needs is more people.
The impact of too many people goes far beyond mere consumption. More people take up more space, kill more things, clear more land, build more roads, erode more soil, appropriate more habitat, make more noise, burn more stuff, dam more rivers, make more heat, and dump more crap everywhere. If you think that overpopulation is not a problem, you need to get out more. The signs are everywhere to be seen, heard, felt, and smelt but paradoxically, not dealt with.
Air is naturally clear and should always be safe to breathe. But visit Bogota, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Karachi, Dhaka, Bangkok, and Los Angeles to meet the billions of people who live with air that is opaque, that burns the eyes, that is a foul brew of choking smog. Residents of Beijing cried when they saw blue sky for the first time in their lives during a brief pandemic lull that also allowed people in Delhi to see the Himalaya and Kilimanjaro to be visible from Nairobi. But then things returned to “normal”, and the pall closed back over their lives. Aside from pigeons and rats, most wild animals move out of cities in search of a better life.
Water is naturally clear and should always be safe to drink. But travel the world and smell with your own nose the many rivers that are running sewers of gray green goo and trash. The Yangtze, the Salween, the Indus, the Yamuna, the Ganges, the Tijuana, the Doce, the Marilao, the Buriganga, and the Rio Grande are so vile that it is risky to step into them. Rivers everywhere are convenient conveyor belts to carry away diapers, tires, pop bottles, snack wrappers and worse. For most people on the planet, clean water only comes from a bottle. I challenge you to name a major river that you are willing to drink straight from. Just imagine life for the fishes, birds, otters and turtles that swim in and feed on these fetid waters. What runs in our rivers soon reaches the sea, where gyres of trash choke turtles, whales, and albatross and wash up on our once-pristine beaches.
Natural quiet allows you to hear the wind in tree branches and the chatter of bird song. But the clatter of human cacophony drowns out natural quiet across the globe. Precious and rare are those moments when we outrun the noise of planes, cars, music, gunfire, sirens, doors slamming, rumble strips, or the neighbors fighting. Many people on the planet have never experienced natural quiet. If you are a warbler with a high sweet song, what chance does your voice have against the thumping bass rhythm of gangsta rap?
Nature should be abundant, vibrant and accessible to all. But now we are left with the scraps of the vast tapestry that the human population bomb shredded. It is not normal to go a day, much less a month, a year or a lifetime without seeing a native bird, a native fish, or a native plant. Yet that is the fate of billions of people who register not even a whimper of complaint because they simply do not know what they are missing. Nature is not accessible to most of the human population because Nature has been wiped out by the human population.
Why are we doing this to ourselves? Even here in North America we put up with grinding traffic and constant crowding, the pushing and jostling and shoving as more of us jam into less space. We always seem to be waiting in some endless line, at the airport, at the grocery checkout, and now even on our favorite trails or just to stand on a mountain peak. If you think it is bad now, visit India and get a glimpse of our coming decade when the next billion arrives.
What are we getting in return? A planet of bland sameness, a Starbucks on every corner, a longer but meaningless life as we amuse ourselves to death. Humans, like crows and cockroaches, are infinitely adaptable. We add 80 million people each year – we won’t be running out anytime soon. Our biggest mistake of the past thirty years was arguing that overpopulation represented an existential threat to humanity. When the forecast famine and starvation didn’t materialize, overpopulation was dismissed as a hoax.
Utilitarian concerns about the risks of overpopulation also miss the mark. I have never been persuaded by the “wise tinkerer” or the “essential rivet” arguments, that we need to save all the parts and pieces of nature because one of them just might be vital to our survival. We’ve thrown away everything but the gas pedal and yet this baby is still doing a hundred miles per hour. Most of the species on the planet are seemingly superfluous to human needs.
If people are doing just fine, why care? Why care about tigers and rhinos and elephants and salmon and bustards and warblers and whales? Why care about a stream to drink from, a beautiful mountain vista, a fresh breeze? Why care about the millions of years of evolution that brought us to this point on the only planet we have? For those of us who are awake, who have traveled the world and seen things as they are, who have experienced the last remaining wild remnants, and caught a fleeting glimpse of the fading glory, we have no choice but to care.
If you do care but aren’t doing anything about human overpopulation, you are merely kicking the dog because you can’t deal with the real problem. As conservationists, we are fiddling while the planet burns. World Wildlife Fund just celebrated a minor uptick in tiger numbers, while noting under its breath that the range for tigers has shrunk by 95% and they are now extinct in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and probably Malaysia. This isn’t conservation – it is triage.
Land conservation serves as check on human expansion. But what will happen when the pressure gets even more intense? Our protected areas are already isolated islands in an ocean of humanity, with a rapidly rising sea level. Rangers in India’s Kaziranga National Park killed fifty-five armed intruders in the last decade to defend Greater One-horned Rhino from the lucrative poaching trade driven by impotent old men. This story is repeated daily across the world as our conservation areas are tested by the tide of humanity. Fortress conservation can only work so long as the ramparts hold, but how long will they hold?
For too long we have turned away from the root problem of overpopulation, fearful of being labeled racist or misanthropic. We need to reclaim the conversation that was hijacked in the 1990’s – we wasted thirty years being too timid. Push back against those laptop warriors who claim the problem is overconsumption, not overpopulation. They need to get out of their comfortable cubbyholes and witness the devastation wrought by the population bomb. Connect the dots for the myopic so they see that climate chaos, wildlife extinctions, and declining quality of life all stem from the same source – too many people.
Demographers are sanguine that population growth is slowing and that human numbers will eventually plateau at ten billion by the end of this century. If eight billion is a disaster, ten billion will be a living hell that dooms most wild animals to extinction or a marginal zoo-like existence. By the time the supposed “demographic transition” occurs to lift up all of humanity, the planet will be a giant feedlot. There are too many of us already, so we need to start shrinking the human enterprise. Responsible demographers believe that two billion people, the human population in 1920, would allow other wild critters to thrive. 1920 seems like a dream time when elephants still wandered freely across Africa, tigers prowled the jungles of Asia, fishes teemed in the oceans and man was still one among many.
How do we get out of this boiling water? We don’t have to accept as inevitable another billion people in the next decade, another two billion by mid-century. Ignore Elon Musk and have fewer babies. Adopt, delay, reduce or abstain. Celebrate your child-free friends. Consider all of Nature to be your progeny and your legacy. The wild creatures of the world beseech us: Live long and die out!
Brad Meiklejohn is a conservationist, explorer, birder and writer based in Alaska. He is the author of The Wild Trails, and can be reached at Bradmeiklejohn@aol.com.
The article was first published at Rewilding Earth and is reprinted here with their permission.
17 thoughts on “Boiling Frogs”
Thank you for elucidating what should be plain common-sense.
But if millions live in tall concrete blocks, surrounded by tar and cement, with very little access to the real, natural world, there is limited scope to instil common sense.
Shifting baselines are one of the greatest tragedies. People have no idea what’s been lost.
I was watching an old movie the other day, and a character was drinking out of a river. I thought, wouldn’t even dream of doing that today!
A brilliant article – thank you for republishing it.
In my opinion, the best article on the horrors of perpetual population growth I have seen in the past 40 years! It should be given as much visibility as possible by every populationist and populationist organization as possible as quickly as possible.
Forty years ago in an open letter to the heads of all populationist organizations I provided population figures at the founding of each organization, as well as the then current population. One leader asked, “So, what would you do?” My response: “Something else.”
Thirty years ago, the 5bn humans were in desperate trouble with environmental decline and ecological overshoot. Along came global climate policy. Now, global population is 8bn, emissions have risen apace with population, and the humans are in even more desperate trouble.
A person with any training in logic might almost conclude, global climate policy (hi, net zero) isn’t working so well. It suits the endless-growth set, to reach the opposite conclusion.
Brilliant article, thank you.
Boiling frogs? Well, how about media? Nowhere has that approach been used more effectively than after the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine and passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act when ALL of media slowly morphed into “news” organs that are now ALLOWED to put out only that which Big 6 Media (owned by a staggering web of Wall Street oligarchs) want put out! I, as a journalist, began to watch in bafflement, for example, in the early 1990s, when headline news became ONLY ABOUT THE ECONOMY and while population/environmental stories disappeared!
And, let me point out, that there is no more stunning example than their ignoring POPULATION GROWTH IN THE U.S., which has EXPLODED from 200 million in about 1967 (just about when “immigration reform” began exploding our numbers) to 340 million today, with it of note that just between 2006 and 2023, THE UNITED STATES ADDED 40 MILLION PEOPLE! Come on, folks, has any of you seen EVEN ONE NEWS STORY OR HEADLINE ON THAT?
The point being, it also helps when the frog is sitting in a pan that is beginning to boil and media are careful to make sure we’re NOT EVEN AWARE OF THE BOILING PAN, or even that the stove’s turned on!
Great article. Please send to Nicholas Kristof at nytimes as an antidote to his anthropocentric views !
I think this is a very good article in both content and style. The boiling frog metaphor should be retired, it’s way overused and I don’t like people thinking any animal will let us boil it to death without a fight (one of the many crimes against animals we routinely commit).
I also agree that utilitarian arguments for environmental protection are unconvincing. Not only are they immoral (we should only preserve what’s useful to us), but when tragedy does not strike, the argument becomes ineffectual. I don’t believe we actually need biodiversity or even a healthy planet, at least for now. We’re actually thriving in this dump. We should preserve the natural world for its own sake and because we have a moral duty to do so, and because it makes our life richer, yes, but not because we “need” to. We’d probably be better off materially if some animals went extinct – I can think of a couple. We still shouldn’t do it.
The only thing I don’t like about this article is that it clearly comes from a very privileged perspective. This person (I apologise if I’m wrong) appears to have traveled the world, which is something only a surprisingly small fraction of humanity has the means to do, and which actually contributes to the devastation of the planet. Tourism is well-documented to be a very destructive industry even if you do it carefully.
For everybody’s sake, I think we should start with preserving nature next door and holding that up as an example.
I am also a big fan of pigeons.
Except for one person on the planet, we are all privileged. Some are tall, some are handsome, some are good looking, some are rich, some have two legs and two arms. Some don’t.
It’s what you do with your privilege that matters most. Yes, I have traveled the world but I have used that perspective to drive my conservation passion and action. What, oh dear reader, have you done?
You don’t have to go far to see the problem, but many who’ve gone all the way round still fail to see it.
In my own defense, I never had children. And you?
I’m sorry, but at this point in time and given all we know and how dire the situation is, anyone who says “yes, I fly around the world, but I do it to gain perspective”, has no credibility to me. It’s like saying “yes, I have five children, but I want to raise them to care about the environment”.
I think there are a lot of people by now who already know how bad the situation is, and they are spread around the world. We don’t all need to go look for ourselves and come back to tell.
One of the main reasons why so many people refuse climate or any environmental action is because they feel they are being asked to make difficult changes while the people telling them to do not and live in luxury (I’m speaking in general here). And economic privilege is very different from being born pretty.
As powerful as words are, actions still speak louder.
Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences on display here. Despite knowing nothing about me and sharing a common concern for overpopulation you still find cause to attack me.
It’s a common problem with the left. We eat our own if they don’t meet our purity standard. Everything is never enough.
Dear Jain, I stand behind my actions. You can look them up.
I did not attack you personally, all I said was that I thought the article was very good and that: “This person (I apologise if I’m wrong) appears to have traveled the world, which is something only a surprisingly small fraction of humanity has the means to do” and that the perspective seemed “privileged” (which these days might seem like a horrible thing to accuse someone of, but like you said, privilege does exist and some of it is involuntary).
You took offense and “attacked” me back but I did not intend to offend. What I meant was that it’s great to write beautifully about how we need to take better care of this world, but not traveling much IS one of the main ways we do that. I only based my opinion on what you wrote because we are talking about the article, not you (or me) as a person. I don’t think I need to research you if I only intend to comment on what is written here, which is what everyone else in this thread is doing.
I do not consider it a small difference, I think consumption IS crucial and so is how people who profess to care about the environment, as both of us do, present themselves to the world. I am doing research into the impact of tourism and travel and it is massive.
I don’t think it’s about purity standards but how people who have the concerns me and you share appear to those who do not, and whom we might seek to convince.
Two days ago I forwarded this article to 51 friends and family members, who I thought might be receptive, with the following introduction:
“A Song of Lamentation . . . this is a powerful, almost lyrical, song of grieving for Man’s destruction of our planet and its wild creatures.
The world that the author describes is not the world of pretty Cotswold villages and Scottish Highland vistas, beloved by consumers of tourism marketing products, nor even the well ordered work-a-day world of most European citizens.
It is the noisome reality of the world’s mega-cities and their slums, the fouling of rivers and seas, the despoiling of forests, formerly teeming with wildlife, and the inexorable increase in the barren wastelands of the globe.
The author writes beautifully . . . and the sands of time are running out for us and for Nature.”
I am grateful to the author, but I cannot speak for anyone else.
A brilliant article. Well done!