Overpopulation: A Love Story (with audio)
On our capacity to love each other and (the idea of) the future.
My goal for Multitudes is for the publication to encompass the range of my interests.
Today, alongside an essay, I'm sharing a digitization I made of a rare analog recording by someone I admire—Lawrence Ferlinghetti—who started the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Through his work as a publisher, Ferlinghetti is responsible for spreading the ideas and art of the beat generation.
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This recording was only officially released once—over 60 years ago—on a record that is extremely rare (it was only included with the first printing of his book). I hope you enjoy it.
Recently, many in my generation have said they do not want to bring children into a world like this. There are many valid reasons to not have children, but this one feels tragic. The implied premise behind the statement is that we are heading towards a world that will be worse than the one they experienced growing up, and they do not wish to subject a child to it. Some of this is linked to a doom and gloom perspective in the well-intentioned but often off-the-mark climate movement.
“If we do not by human means limit our numbers, then numbers are going to be limited by more famines and shortages and consequent social conflicts.”1
- from an ABC news broadcast, 1974
Fear of the future is not a particularly new concept. Overpopulation was already a topic of concern in the early 1960s when Ferlinghetti wrote and performed his poem of the same name. It was the release of Paul Erlich's 1968 book, "The Population Bomb," that caused the concern to transform into what could more accurately be described as hysteria.
[Erlich] later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair “England will not exist in the year 2000.”2
- New York Times, 2015
This was not your typical person on the street corner holding a sign declaring the end of the world and getting little attention. Paul Erlich was a Stanford professor, and the book sold millions of copies. People took the idea incredibly seriously.
And then, nothing happened. In the decades since the book's publication proclaimed the end was near—and overpopulation would be the cause—the global population has more than doubled.
“The population bomb was defused by urbanization, by people getting out of poverty all over the world, by having enough to eat so you didn't have multiple children in the hopes that some of them would survive.”3
- Stewart Brand, 2019
I have noticed that when a news article goes viral but is later found to have gotten some key facts wrong, the retraction does not spread as far as the original. As a result, people may continue to believe false information because the original story was sensational, dramatic, or attention-grabbing compared to the corrected version. For many, the record is never corrected.
We are experiencing something similar with the climate movement today. The ghost of the population bomb continues to haunt us, and many believe that instead of working towards creating greater abundance, we might have to start lowering our standards.
Population has reached its limit
There’s standing room only
Nowhere to lie down anymore
Medical science must be abolished
So people can die when they’re supposed to
There’s still room under the surface
- from Ferlinghetti’s poem Overpopulation, 1961
The poem is meant to be funny. But knowing what we know now, it is also a bit scary. It is possible to imagine a future where we discourage scientists from finding ways to solve diseases (including the disease of aging). That or other adverse actions might be driven by those who believe humanity faces unsolvable problems and the best we can do is give up.
Ferlinghetti revised the poem multiple times throughout his life4, and 25 years after the initial version, he changed the ending:
And the only way
to limit population
is to limit love?5
"Serious People" tend to roll their eyes when love enters the chat. It is one of the rare ideas that liberals and conservatives can bond over. They might say, "you can't love your way out of climate catastrophe or inflation." This misses the goal of love, which is optimism—even when future pain and heartbreak are real possibilities. Both love and our capacity to solve big problems are worth the effort—despite the odds.
Happy New Year and enjoy the poem.
One reason I am continually inspired by Stewart Brand is because he is open to changing his mind when the facts change—an increasingly rare trait. Notably, he has also switched his views to being a proponent of nuclear energy.
"I see a poem as a wholly realized work of art going through revisions." - Ferlinghetti