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Overpopulation: Then and now

Originally published on Oct. 20, 1994

If we do not straighten out our priorities soon, there may be nothing left on our planet to protect. 

This was one of many sombre themes David Suzuki delivered in a passionate speech to a receptive audience at the National Arts Centre on Oct. 14, 1994. 

By outlining the problems that face our world, Suzuki hoped to start a discussion leading to solutions. 

Suzuki, best known for narrating the “Nature of Things” television show, has written a countless number of books, and is a professor at the University of British Columbia. He was the keynote speaker for the 10th annual general meeting for the Council of Canadians. The Council was established in 1985 as an independent, non-partisan, public interest organisation with 30,000 members.

Suzuki’s main theme was that the environmental crisis we now face should be the top priority addressed by governments, businesses, media, and students alike. 

One of these crises is overpopulation. For 99.9 per cent of human existence, there was never a billion people. Today humans number over 5.6 billion, and the number is increasing exponentially. 

“The human population increase is unprecedented,” Suzuki said. “At the very time that our numbers are literally rising straight off the graph paper, human per capita consumption is rising even more steeply. The average Canadian today consumes over four times what their grandparents or great-grandparents consumed over the turn of the century,” he continued. 

The problem of overpopulation and consumption is further complicated by the fact that total food production has been declining since 1984. Erosion has resulted in a loss of 25 billion tonnes of agricultural topsoil per year. 

Furthermore, 17 out of 20 major fish stocks that humans use for protein are in a state of serious decline due to over-fishing and human induced environmental changes to their habitat. 

This will lead to catastrophe, said Suzuki. “For many people in the world catastrophe is already here. Every night a billion people go to bed hungry on this planet. And every morning, 45,000 of them never wake up. Three quarters of them are children under the age of five,” he added. 

We cannot reach 10 billion people in 30 to 40 years. There will have to be a massive die-off in the coming years, he continued. 

If population explosion and decline in food production were not enough, technological activities by humans are now affecting the very air, water and soil of the planet. These activities contribute to the extinction of over 50, 000 species every year — over six species an hour. 

“We have spread our toxic material all across the planet. Our industrial might is so great we are literally transforming the very atmosphere on which life depends,” he said. 

According to Suzuki, in order to have a healthy planet for future generations there has to be a major shift in people’s attitudes and a new respect and appreciation for all life. 

“We are made up of the carcasses of living things which have come from the earth. My friends tell me that we’re different because we’re smart; it’s true. We’re the most intelligent creature on this planet.” 

“But if we’re so bloody smart, we think that air, water, soil and other living things are what keep us alive. Why do we then act in such a destructive way to the life support system?” he questioned. 

One of the main problems is that our political and business institutions are currently incapable of dealing with the global eco-crisis. 

“Our political structures are too species-chauvinistic to really allow us to deal with this global crisis that envelops us as a part of the web of living things,” he said. 

“When you have a Minister of Environment, he’s not speaking on behalf of the environment, he’s speaking on behalf of human beings who vote and want to use the environment. The Minister of Oceans and Fisheries doesn’t speak on behalf of oceans and fish. The Minister of Forests doesn’t defend the forests,” he continued.

Our economic definition and view of progress, development and growth must change if we are to survive, said Suzuki. 

“Economics is viewed through totally chauvinistic eyes. We, one species out of perhaps 30 million on the earth, believe it’s our right to get value on everything else on earth. If we have a need for it or value it, it’s worth something. If we don’t have a need for it, it’s worthless. What an unbelievably arrogant assumption,” he said.

Economics students are taught that caring, cooperating and sharing are emotional and irrational acts, he said. They are taught that “acting in self-interest is rational, and that’s the basis of economics…I reject any kind of invention that says we must build it on self-interest and reject cooperation and sharing as a fundamental part of it!” he continued. 

Suzuki pointed out many problems all of which were linked together. These problems are effects of our social, political and economic systems. 

Once we acknowledge these problems, said Suzuki, then we can work towards solutions. 

Fun facts about this article:

  • Writer Samer Muscati is now the associate director of disability rights at Human Rights Watch. 
  • The population of the earth in 2021 was 7.753 billion people. 
  • Currently, more than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction