OverPOPulation in POP Culture

By Leon Kolankiewicz, CAPS Senior Writing Fellow
September 2013

Our celebrity-saturated pop culture has long been mesmerized by romance between those anointed by the media as Beautiful and Important People. The results of romance between the stars—baby bulges and  booms; glowing, expectant moms; doting or distant dads, and the ever-so-adorable starlet toddlers—are also a staple of the star-struck gossip rags whose blaring headlines and scandalous images clamor for  attention from shoppers in the supermarket checkout lines.

Who can resist the allure of babies born to the sexy Britney, or Angelina, or Kim, or to the elegant and regal Kate? The popular news outlets are  convinced we are all itching to gawk and envy and perhaps emulate. Here is the lowest common denominator at its finest. However, over the last decade or two, in a development that is little short of astonishing and aggravating—given overpopulation in America (316 million and counting) and the world (7.2 billion and counting even faster)—there has been a veritable glut of stories and TV shows that uncritically embrace mindless, extreme fertility.

The More the Merrier

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this fascination with supersized families has paralleled our proclivity to “live large” in general, through increasing consumption of supersized burgers and fries, an increased  incidence of obesity, supersized homes (McMansions), supersized cities (urban sprawl), supersized large screen TVs, and supersized vehicles (SUVs and pickup trucks). All are manifestations of the simple-minded Bigger is Better mindset, and of denial that perpetual growth and ever-increasing size have their downsides and are unsustainable.

Thus we have imbecilic reality TV shows like 19 Kids and Counting (formerly 18 Kids and Counting and before that 17 Kids and Counting) celebrating those fertile Duggars of Tontitown, Arkansas. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar married in 1984, but their eldest child was not born until 1988 because—shudder—they actually practiced family planning at first. Blaming a subsequent miscarriage on birth control, they opted to “allow God to determine the number of children” they would have. Ever since, in a display of uncontrolled fecundity right from the verses of the Old Testament, Michelle has given birth approximately every 1.5 years with no sign of letting up.

Practices among some evangelical Protestants in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, the so-called “Quiverfull Movement,” promote rabid procreation without surcease. It sees perpetual pregnancy and large and ever-increasing numbers of offspring as unmitigated blessings from God.

Adherents eschew any and all forms of birth control, even natural family planning that passes muster with the Vatican, i.e., the discredited, nominally effective “rhythm method.” Perhaps this outlook was demographically appropriate in a pre-modern era when extreme infant mortality rates claimed three out of four babies, but that era disappeared with covered wagons, sod houses and dirt floors. The real scandal is that the anachronistic spectacle of women serving as little more than reproductive machines—what birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger campaigned against early in the last century—should be hyped on The Learning Channel (TLC) and Discovery Health, cable channels originally and ostensibly dedicated to intelligent programming and intellectual advancement, not cheap, retrograde entertainment and  exploitation.

And 19 Kids is not alone in celebrating far-out fertility in the TLC and Discovery Health lineup. There’s also Jon & Kate Plus 8, about a couple with sextuplets and twins. It was his extreme exasperation with shows like these that sent unstable misanthrope James Jay Lee over the edge into madness.

Lee was the 43-year-old animal lover turned gun-toting militant who took hostages at the Silver Spring, MD, offices of the Discovery Channel in 2010. Fortunately, no one was harmed in this incident, except Lee himself, who was slain at the scene by officers. According to news reports at the time, Lee was demanding that Discovery devote air time to promoting solutions to the global population explosion and the threat it poses to wildlife and endangered species.

Nowadays, actress Angelina Jolie and partner Brad Pitt, dubbed “Brangelina” in the tabloids, get less fawning attention for their acting performances, love triangles and humanitarian work than for their growing brood of children. Three of their six children are adopted—highly admirable—and came from impoverished backgrounds in Ethiopia and Vietnam, but there was much media talk earlier this year about a fourth biological child on the way for Jolie.

When and if this happens, she will represent twice the fertility rate needed to stabilize a population (i.e., twice the replacement level fertility rate of 2.1). Moreover, as members of the super-rich, jet-setting elite, Jolie’s children will grow up having much larger per capita ecological and carbon footprints than average Americans or global citizens. The remarks from readers responding to a 2013 magazine article with the headline, “Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt Expecting Child No. 7,” are a telling if depressing commentary on the American public’s attitude towards population issues:

“It is no one’s business but their own how
many children they decide to have. Personally
… I think it’s terrific.”

“A HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to Brad &
Angelina!!! Happy for the kids, too!”

“Way to go. Good for them. They both want a
lot of kids and they love them all equally. This
is one great couple.”

“GOOD FOR THE TWO OF THEM!!!!!!!!”
“It’s nobody business, if she wants to have
15 kids so be it that’s their business. My mom
have [sic] 9 children, same father, married for
45 years so what’s the big deal.”

“Wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“As long as they can take care of them and
love them, more power to them. CONGRATS!”

As it turns out, the news reports from earlier this year were inaccurate. So, she’s not pregnant again—yet. The lurid story of “Octomom” generated a less enthusiastic reaction. Nadya Denise Doud-Suleman, a/k/a Octomom, from Southern California, came to the nation’s attention when she gave birth to octuplets in 2009, only the second full set of octuplets ever to be born alive in the U.S. These eight children, conceived via in-vitro fertilization, were in addition to the six children she already had, also conceived artificially. What bothered the public was not so much that this one woman alone had added 14 new resource consumers to an already overpopulated America, but that she had the audacity and irresponsibility to do so while on the dole, subsidized by stressed-out taxpayers and over-strapped governments struggling to make ends meet.

Nowadays, immigrants and births to immigrants account for more of America’s population growth than births to Americans, even including the Duggars, wannabe Duggars and Octomom. Here too, pop culture tends to put a positive spin on it, completely and willfully oblivious to the problems of immigration en masse, dwelling instead on the heartwarming “nation of immigrants” myth, the prejudice immigrants face, how immigrants appreciate America and love their families more than Americans do and a multitude of other “stories.”

Bigger Is Better … Until It Isn’t Anymore
As the above examples from contemporary pop culture suggest, there is not exactly a groundswell of ecologically and demographically informed opposition from the American public to our country adding some 30 million new residents decade after decade. There seems little awareness that this growth trajectory is projected to continue throughout this century, with no peak in sight, swelling our ranks to nearly half a billion or more.

For several decades, immigration has accounted for the lion’s share of this growth. If our population keeps growing rapidly in the coming decades, it will be because America has been unwilling or unable to  downsize mass immigration, that is, to cut our net annual intake of a million plus by half or perhaps, as Californians for Population Stabilization recommends, not more than 300,000.

Yet in spite of the underlying population, environmental and quality-of-life concerns that motivate leading activist groups like CAPS and NumbersUSA, most of the political and popular grassroots opposition to  illegal immigration and high levels of legal immigration is rooted not in concern about U.S. overpopulation, but rather in concern about law-breaking, disrespect for national sovereignty and culture, and economic issues such as wage depression and unemployment. These issues are very important, but over the long run, the environmental impact of rapid, unending population growth is arguably the most important issue of all. Yet it simply does not generate the same intensity of indignation.

When the U.S. Census Bureau released the results of the 2010 Census in 2011, virtually all the reporting and commentary in the mainstream media focused on shifts in the racial and ethnic composition of our  country and shifts in where people lived. There was little or no reporting or comment on the fact that America’s population grew by 27 million from 2000-2010, the third-most of any decade in our history, or on the implications of this relentless upsurge for our environment, quality of life and prospects for sustainability.

Nevertheless, an enduring concern about overpopulation is part of our national zeitgeist ever since the Baby Boom and continuing on through the Immigration Boom. And it is reflected in popular culture, if in a more muted than overt way.

Science Fiction Writers Boldly Lead the Way
Not surprisingly, it is in the realm of science fiction that overpopulation figures most prominently, usually as a setting or background, but sometimes as a key element of the plot itself. As the website Science  Fiction Ruminations explains:

An overpopulated world is often characterized by a breakdown of existing cultural and moral barriers, the “mechanization” or increasing “programmability” of mankind, societal good increasingly aimed at  production or reproduction, landscapes plagued by extreme pollution (disease, extinctions, etc.), and of course, a protagonist with traditionalist philosophies (for example, remembering the allure of “working the land” in the past less-populated world).

The same website lists literally scores of science fiction novels or short stories from the 1950s onward in which overpopulation figures prominently, by such well-known writers in the genre as Isaac Asimov,  Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Anthony Burgess, Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin and many others.

Overpopulation was a central plot element in the classic 1973 cult film, Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. Planetary degradation or destruction from over-exploitation by humans or aliens (who invade or raid the Earth looking for resources or a livable environment) is a persistent theme in sci-fi movies, including Independence Day, Waterworld, the Terminator series, the Planet of the Apes series, some of the Star Trek movies and the Mad Max series, as well as the lovable WALL-E.

But it hasn’t only been science fiction that considered the consequences of overpopulation in pop culture. It figured in Rapa Nui, a 1994 movie co-produced by Kevin Costner that was a fictionalized account of the documented destruction of forests and inter-ethnic conflict on Easter Island.

Astronomer Carl Sagan’s popular educational series on PBS, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, first broadcast in 1980, cited overpopulation as one of the main threats facing a sustainable civilization on Earth. Al Gore’s bestseller Earth in the Balance, published in 1992 just before he became vice president, also conspicuously featured overpopulation as a main stressor of the Earth’s environment. And the prolific essayist and veteran traveler Robert D. Kaplan published a cover story in the influential Atlantic Monthly in February 1994 entitled, “The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” This article was said to have influenced President Bill Clinton, but unfortunately, apparently not enough to induce him to try to actively avert or intervene in the genocide of hundreds of  thousands of Tutsis by extremist Hutus in overpopulated Rwanda later the same year.

However, perhaps the high water mark of overpopulation’s reach into pop culture took place way back in the late 1960s and into the 1970s when the author of The Population Bomb, biologist Paul Ehrlich, made more than a dozen appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, watched by millions.

Sadly, even with America continuing to add 3 million and the Earth 80 million year in and year out, there is far less popular media attention given to overpopulation now, and less popular awareness as a result, than in past decades. Perhaps it just isn’t considered news anymore, not sexy or hip. It’s old news, a jaded, faded story fretted over by greybeards.

But this just might be changing.

Summer 2013 Sees Pop Culture Rediscover Overpopulation
After a long hiatus, pop culture rediscovered overpopulation in the summer of 2013. The perils of too many people figure prominently both in a blockbuster science fiction movie and a No. 1 bestselling book.

The movie is Elysium, directed by South African auteur Neill Blomkamp, now based in Vancouver, Canada. It features sex symbol and liberal icon Matt Damon as an ex-con turned swashbuckling liberator. The novel is Inferno by Dan Brown, who stormed the book world a decade ago with his mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code. His new book continues the adventures of Harvard professor of “religious symbology” Robert Langdon.

High-profile attention to overpopulation is welcome. Unfortunately for population activists and immigration restrictionists, neither the film nor the book promotes realistic or humane solutions to the real dilemmas we face.

But perhaps this is too much to expect of Hollywood or pulp fiction. Realistic and humane solutions would neither be stirring nor shocking enough to sell tickets and books to a mass market.

Set in the year 2154 in Los Angeles—or “Lost Angeles,” as my fingers first typed instinctively—the dystopian film Elysium is about two worlds. The first is an overpopulated Earth that resembles one vast,  teeming slum and fetid garbage dump. (Indeed, scenes were filmed at Mexico City’s largest garbage dump.) The second is an orbiting ring-world paradise named Elysium, to which Earth’s rulers and the rich have decamped, escaping the squalor and ruin that are all that remains of the Home Planet after centuries of human exploitation.

Elysium is like a gated community on steroids, catapulted into orbit and sealed off from the despoiled Earth and the huddled masses, not just by gates, fences and firewalls, but by the icy vacuum of space—the ultimate guarantor of security, it would seem. Elysium appears to consist largely of golf courses, gardens, swimming pools and mansions, accompanied by soothing classical music.

Absent are the agricultural production, photosynthesizing forests and fields of a self-sustaining ecosystem—meaning either that director Blomkamp is ecologically ignorant, or that Elysium depends on a  depleted Earth for these critical resources, or both.

Elysium is an extreme version of what human ecologist Garrett Hardin had in mind when he penned his classic and controversial essay, “Living in a Lifeboat” (sometimes called “Lifeboat Ethics”). Immigration to Elysium is all but impossible for the lumpen proletariat stuck on godforsaken Earth. Blomkamp is engrossed by the frightening, fascinating and promising prospects for the human future, ranging from genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, pathogens, nukes and the erosion of America’s “hegemony” to the prospects for Malthusian collapse. Such a collapse could lead to human extinction on the one hand, or on the “bright” side, a long and perhaps permanent retreat to the Dark Ages.

I will not spoil the story in Elysium, except to say that strict immigration controls are breached before its end. Disappointingly though, any numerate, ecolate observer would share the reaction of this review in  Wired magazine:

Blomkamp’s call for reform in Elysium involves an attempt to solve the complex problems he’s forecasted in an extremely simplistic and nighmagical way…

The preachy and simplistic “feel-good” ending completely lacks any sense of proportion and scale.

Dan Brown’s novel Inferno provides readers a primer on exponential population growth:

Consider this. It took the earth’s population thousands of years—from the early dawn of man to the early 1800s—to reach one billion people. Then astoundingly, it took only about a hundred years to double the population to two billion in the 1920s.

It’s almost as if Brown were channeling the late Dr. Al Bartlett’s presentation, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy—Sustainability 101,” and its provocative claim: “The Greatest Shortcoming of the Human Race is our Inability to Understand the Exponential Function.”

A rogue scientist who understands the exponential function all too well decides to “solve” overpopulation with a bioengineered plague.

Suffice it to say that like all of Brown’s thrillers, Inferno is filled with excitement and intrigue—though not proven, humane solutions to humanity’s overpopulation predicament.

It’s an interesting sign of the times that pop culture has more to say about overpopulation’s negative impacts than do environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the National Wildlife Federation.

Yet as the first part of this essay shows, popular culture also promotes endless population growth by uncritically touting the virtues of large families and mass immigration, looking only at the benefits and not the costs. This too both shapes and reflects the American public’s schizophrenic attitude toward the overpopulation phenomenon. And it’s why, more than four decades after scientists and activists first sounded the alarm about “too many people,” there is still no firm national consensus or resolve on what to do about population growth in America. Lacking that, we take the course of least resistance, so that the numbers just keep stacking up higher and higher, until …

Leon Kolankiewicz is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow, environmental scientist and planner.

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