Steve Irwin’s Daughter and the “Threat” of Overpopulation

Steve Irwin's family launches Goulburn Valley Fresh - SydneyA few days ago, a friend posted a link to an article about a thought piece written by 14 year old Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late television personality Steve Irwin.

Bindi was tasked with writing on why she chose to pursue wildlife conservation as her life’s work. Instead, she went on a rant on what she believes the most pressing problem facing humanity today: overpopulation.

Here’s what she wrote:

An average of 150 people is born. Every. One. Minute. This means, every day approximately 489,600 people are born.

How can the poor have any improved lifestyles with more people to share fewer resources?

These are alarming figures as earth only has so many resources and cannot keep up with our ever growing population.

Now, I’m not saying that there is any one answer. This is an extremely delicate topic and one certainly not to be taken lightly. I’m just suggesting that perhaps this is an issue we should start discussing as a society.

Maybe family planning is one solution. Some women don’t get the freedom of choosing whether they want many children or not. Surely when these women are living on $1.00 a day it would be easier to feed 5 children than 10.

Now, I’m inclined to forgive her, as she was only 14 at the time of writing, but as a public figure, she’s fair game to be raked through the coals like anyone else.

Moreover, her basic view is not uncommon in any political circle: The world is facing a crisis because poor people are having too many kids and we need to stop it. A view that I find incredibly reprehensible. Here’s why:

1. The irony is incredible

It is true that population growth is highest among the poorest of the poor of the world. It is also true that extremely wealthy regions like Japan and Europe are facing the spectre of population shrinkage, and that population growth in North American is flattening.

It is also true that wealthy regions like Europe, Japan and the USA are consuming the lion’s share of resources and belching out copious amounts of pollution. The rural poor in Africa subsist on domestically produced corn grown on their own land often without pesticides, fertilizers and machinery (since they can’t afford it).

Moreover, they are good recyclers. They are reusing the first world’s trash. They wear our clothes, use our electronics and drive our cars and recycle all three when they reach the true point of no return (which is a long, long road).

Though I question whether the archaic agricultural methods in Africa are truly environmentally friendly, we do need to ask ourselves, who is really threatening the health and welfare of the earth here?

2. Bindi, like many people, displays an incredible ignorance as to what the true problems of developing countries are.

Poor people in developing countries (yes, the one’s who make all the kids) often eat what they produce. Developing countries themselves, lacking trade linkages and cash, often subsist only on what they can produce domestically. Thus, rather than being a drain on the world’s resources, as Bindi would suggest, they are most self-sufficient (though lacking as a result).

Environmental degradation usually occurs because, since households are producing their own food, agricultural practices are inefficient. They don’t rotate their crops. They don’t irrigate properly so that they have to over plant crops and take up more space. Inefficient regulating bodies and weak governments fail to manage water resources properly.

Most salient, is that poor countries (at least in Africa) are caught in a trap where they have trouble selling agricultural products between regions and across borders.

If Kenya experiences a drought, it can’t just import food from Zimbabwe because 1) there is no history of trade between Zimbabwe and Kenya and 2) the transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist. In the States (and Europe) we have solved the problem of trade linkages and the movement of goods which, in large part, explains why we are so wealthy. We are able to diversify our risks and there is no more risky venture than growing crops.

The problem isn’t too many kids, but a failure of development.

3. Bindi fails to recognize the agency of Africa and Africans

In another news story, she was quoted as saying that 7 year birth control implants should be provided for 11 year old children in developing countries.

“There’s such a thing as seven-year-implants, so if you had a girl that was 11 years old and gave her the seven-year implant she wouldn’t be able to have kids until she was 18.”

Of course, I am all for expanding access to birth control, family planning and women’s health resources in developing countries. Actually, I support expanding access to these things all over the world. Women, being in charge of birthing children, should be allowed to choose whatever path is right for them without interference.

I feel that what Bindi is suggesting (assuming she has any idea what she is suggesting) is that women not be given a choice at all. She’s suggesting state interference in reproductive affairs in countries. It’s always been interesting to me that, in conversation, China’s one child policy (which, minus the loss of a public sector job, really amounts to a tax on children) gets maligned so heavily in the States, but people have no qualms at all about forced sterilization and forced birth control for Africans. (Note: Bindi did not suggest forced sterilizations.)

Of course, forced sterilizations do happen in America, Kenya and Namibia.

To me (and seemingly me only), the message behind Bindi’s suggestion that 11 year olds be given seven year implants seems to be that Africans can’t take care of their own affairs. Even in development and public health circles, many people are of the opinion that Africans are incapable of taking care of themselves. I disagree. After colonization, independence, civil wars, decades of crushing structural adjustment failures, prolonged negative economic growth and failure after political failure, African countries are zooming back.

Kenya’s government restructuring and ratification of a new constitution following one of the worst and most violent elections the world has ever seen should be proof that Africans can take care of their own affairs.

Of course, it turns out that Bindi Irwin is loosely aligned with the nationalist and anti-immigration group, the Stable Population Party. A faux environmentalist group, their intro speaks for itself:

INTRODUCTION: BETTER, NOT BIGGER

The Population Party is a sustainability party with a major focus on the everything issue – population. A stable and sustainable population will help create a better quality of life for all Australians, present and future, and provide a positive example for the rest of the world.

Australia’s population is currently growing by over 1000 people per day. That adds up to over one million people every three years – the size of Adelaide! It’s no wonder Australia’s quality of life is being degraded.

From a population of 23 million today, under Liberal/Labor/Greens policies we are on target for 40 million by 2050 – and rising! We say let’s slow down and stabilise at around 26 million by 2050.

In a finite world, more people means fewer resources per person, leading to poverty and conflict. Australia’s finite natural resource base is the true source of our wealth – not our rapid population growth that both dilutes and erodes it. To meet the huge costs of population growth, Australia is using finite and non-renewable resources that should be saved for our children and grandchildren.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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