Blaming the COVID-19 Pandemic on Too Many Humans:  a Critique of Overpopulation Ideology

A world gripped by a deadly virus has precipitated a deluge of punditry claiming to have found the primal cause of the pandemic. In a recent article Anthony Judge, for example, claims to have tapped into “the collective subconscious” to blame what he calls overpopulation. How well does this claim hold up?

Mr. Judge is concerned about “the epidemic of misinformation” regarding the cause of COVID-19 pandemic, “obscuring a neglected critical factor undermining global strategic viability.” Humanity, he posits, is “unconsciously endeavoring to communicate a vital message to itself…Collective Overpopulation Vitiating Individual Dreams.”

The problem of the pandemic for Mr. Judge has nothing to do with such ephemera as whether access to healthcare should be considered a human right, but something obvious only to the cognoscenti – there are just too many humans. The world’s epidemiologists and health experts, Mr. Judge admonishes, “have been lazily complicit” in not seeing overpopulation as the fundamental problem. Mr. Judge goes on to indict the world’s “international institutions” for being “so negligently complicit” of this “tragic form of ‘misinformation’” by making the “Big Lie” (his emphasis) of omitting the danger of overpopulation.

So, what is the connection between population and pandemic? Employing what he calls “root cause analysis,” Mr. Judge conflates “overpopulation” with “overcrowding.” The overcrowding he is concerned about is that found in “urban slums,” which he specifically cites in the article. That is, the overcrowding of poor people who cannot afford to live in what he calls the “sparsely populated areas.” Predictably, he does not cite the floor of the New York Stock exchange as an example of overcrowding.

Let’s test Mr. Judge’s hypothesis regarding the relationship between density of population and response to the pandemic. Take Belgium, where Mr. Judge lives. After the mini-state of San Marino, Belgium has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world at 82 deaths per 1000 people. Its population density is 974 people per square mile. In comparison, Singapore and Hong Kong are the two most densely populated territories in the world with 20,455 and 17,565 people/mi2 respectively, after the mini-territories of Macau and Monaco. Their death rates are only 23 and 4 per 1000 population, respectively. That is, Belgium has over 20 times the death rate of Hong Kong, while Hong Kong’s population density is over 18 times that of Belgium.

Overpopulation is blamed not only for pandemics but as the primary cause of the world’s myriad ills. Overpopulation, he judges, is also “a primary driver for recourse to narcotics and opioids.” Mr. Judge callously ignores poverty and myriad forms of discrimination as drivers for the sickness of substance abuse.

Consistent with those who espouse the overpopulation thesis, Mr. Judge yearns for an idyllic past when the planet was not as overrun by humans, say the Middle Ages. Since the 1300s, the world’s population has increased over 17-fold. But that much smaller population did not prevent the Black Death pandemic from taking an estimated 75-200 million lives back then.

In short, blaming the condition of humanity for pandemics is not supported by the facts. Densely populated places have succeeded well in containing COVID-19, while there have been far more devastating pandemics than the one we are suffering now, when there were far fewer of us on the planet.

Overpopulation ideology, as represented by Mr. Judge’s article, conflates overcrowding with overpopulation. If there were only three people in the world and they were are packed into a little cave, there would be overcrowding but not overpopulation. Mr. Judge’s sophistry and my critique are not new. Two hundred years ago, Karl Marx made a similar criticism of Thomas Malthus’ contention that the world was overpopulated. Malthus opposed the English Poor Laws because they relieved human suffering and thus encouraged poor people to reproduce. Malthus’ theory was a retrograde response to the French Revolution and the rise of the working class. Overpopulation ideology is misanthropic and reactionary in its origins and its modern expression.

Mr. Judge’s article is silent about our political system or economic order; it’s simply that there are too many people. Aside from being wrong, it begs the question, which people? The ones in slums? The poor? Thanks to Oxfam, we know just who the offending individuals are. A handful of multi-billionaires now have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

The objection to overpopulation ideology is not just an intellectual one, but whether such an ideological framework promotes solutions. The ideology of overpopulation poses the wrong causes while obscuring the right solutions.

World population growth rates are precipitously declining and on a trajectory to stabilize this century, with the current rate at 1%. Meanwhile resource consumption continues to increase at a rate of 6 to 7%. Clearly, something beyond simple demographics are at play, and that is what overpopulation ideology obfuscates. The relations of power call to be addressed in our quest of a better world. And this is precisely what the ideology of overpopulation obscures to the benefit of the powerful few and to the detriment of the multitude of humanity.

Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.