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Is the way we think about overpopulation racist?

Half the world lives in urban areas, yet environmental concerns about megacities often focus on developing economies. But consumption is as important as population

By Fred Pearce  /  The Guardian

Indians crowd in December, 2016, at the India Gate war memorial on New Year’s eve in New Delhi, India.

Photo: AP

It is just 50 years since the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb galvanized the global discussion on overpopulation. Published in 1968, his million-selling Malthusian polemic suggested that over-breeding poor countries were killing the planet. And it began in a megacity: India’s capital, Delhi.

On the first page, he wrote of a taxi ride “one stinking hot night in Delhi. We entered a crowded slum area. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window begging. People defecating and urinating. Since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”

But did he? Was he describing a city stretched beyond its limits, in a world similarly stretched? As the Australian demographer Jack Caldwell later pointed out, he could have seen as many people in similarly crowded conditions during any rush hour in London, Paris or New York.

“What he did see were poor non-Europeans,” Caldwell wrote.

This is the rub when we express fears about the teeming megacities of the developing world. Whether it is Delhi or Dhaka, the shanty towns of Nairobi or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, are we just reacting badly to people different from us? Is there sometimes a tinge of racism in our environmental concerns?

Ehrlich was not wrong that cities matter hugely for the future of humanity. Our planet is crowded and half of us live in urban areas. That figure is predicted to rise to 66 percent by 2050. It is the giant urban areas of developing countries such as India that are experiencing most of the growth.


Despite appearances, cities are not the cause of rising human numbers. In fact, they are the solution.

But are these megacities really the problem, or just the most visible manifestation of our crowded world? And, if they are a problem, is it the cities of the rich or the poor world that should concern us? Despite appearances, cities are not the cause of rising human numbers.

In fact, they are the solution. People in cities almost everywhere tend to have fewer children than their compatriots in rural areas. The average woman in Kenya has 4.3 children, whereas those living in the capital, Nairobi, have just 2.7. In India the average is 2.4 children, but in Delhi it’s just 1.6 and in Mumbai 1.4. That’s lower than London, where the average is 1.72.

This demographic divide between town and country is not so surprising. On a rural farm, children are handy for looking after the goats or helping with the harvest. In cities, they are expensive to feed and need educating before they can start earning.

Urban numbers are rising only because of the global rush of migrants from rural areas to the cities in search of jobs. Once there, they swiftly adopt small families as the norm. Anyone concerned about overpopulation should cheer them on.

Of course, that is not the whole story. While cities are defusing the population bomb, they are also creating a consumption bomb. Urbanites consume more stuff. Cities may house half the world’s population, but they consume three-quarters of the materials we take from the planet — whether that’s minerals or crops, timber or meat.

Cities are heavily dependent on the world beyond their limits. These hinterlands provide water, materials and food, as well as human resources such as commuters. One study found that London consumes almost 40 million tonnes of construction materials, 2.4 million tonnes of food, 2.2 million tonnes of paper, 2.1 million tonnes of plastic, 0.4 million tonnes of glass and 1.2 million tonnes of metal. Its citizens drink, shower and flush a billion tonnes of water. Meanwhile it disgorges 8 million tonnes of sewage and 4 million tonnes of household waste.

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