In the 21st century, with the world in the midst of an environmental crisis, resources are becoming scarcer than ever before. Organisations like the United Nations are coming out with reports, almost annually, detailing how the clock is ticking and what we have done to the planet is irreversible. As with any crisis this serious, people have sought to understand the reasons behind the same. In Western political discourse, the blame is often put at the feet of the East. In the “Tragedy of the Commons”, Garret Hardin, a respected scholar, put the blame for resource scarcity on overpopulation. Even a primary reading into the topic, however, shows that this assertion is baseless.
For a start, Hardin is a racist, who blamed ‘those from the Orient’ for breeding like rabbits. Echoing the sentiments of many white men with a superiority complex including Winston Churchill, most in the West propagated the narrative that citizens of the Third World were not civilised and hence, had multiple children. This racist overtone has transformed into an undertone. Today, the word ‘civilised’ has been replaced by ‘educated’, but the shaming of the poorest continues. On the face of it, overpopulation is indeed a problem. However, it is not due to a paucity of resources that access is limited. Our problem is not that we don’t have enough to go around; our problem is that what we have is concentrated in the hands of too few. The West must not get away with absolving itself of the blame for our resource crisis today. It is the industrial revolution and the overexploitation of resources in the developed world that has brought us to this stage. For them to now blame the Third World reeks of privilege and hypocrisy.
Irrespective, let us look at overpopulation in greater detail. According to Catalina Herrera, assistant professor at Northeastern University, “The dynamics of who is making the decisions about fertility and family planning are important for the welfare of the entire household.” This decision must not be imposed on people a la China’s One-Child policy, lest their freedoms are curtailed. Understanding why people have so many children and then addressing those concerns is the only effective way to curb overpopulation. Mahboob Mamdani’s findings in rural India saw that most parents saw children as potential caretakers and felt that by sheer numbers, an increase in children meant an increased possibility that at least one of them might break the vicious cycle of poverty. Systemic inequality is so pervasive and entrenched that for generations, the poor have gotten poorer. In a system rigged against them, they are unlikely to have fewer children since these children are potential lifelines that might lead them out trouble. For overpopulation, a change in the system that might break the vicious cycle of poverty is the first step. If one has access to a better life in rural India, they might not wish to have as many children in the first place. As for ecological calamities across the world, we must not blame the disenfranchised. Instead, those responsible must be held accountable so that we can work together towards solving our problems, one step at a time.