Population Boom: documentary review

Originally posted on April 27, 2015

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

The award-winning documentary Population Boom, released on DVD this month, follows quirky Austrian filmmaker Werner Boote (Plastic Planet) around the globe as he investigates whether there are too many people on the planet. Standing in the middle of the street, reading a local newspaper, and holding a World Bank umbrella, Boote visits at least eight countries, talking to people ranging from government officials to average townspeople. He ruminates on the question, “Who is really one too many?”

Boote’s take on the population boom is rather unconventional, given the largely-unquestioned assertion since at least the 1960s that the world is overcrowded. Population Boom intentionally questions this assumption. He discusses the exponential rise in population since the 1940s, with 5 billion people on Earth in 1987, rising to 6 billion in 1998, and topping 7 billion in 2011. But he also shows us wide open spaces with very few people. He states that if the entire human population lived in his country, Austria, we would each have 11 square meters, which is quite a bit if one thinks about Manhattan apartments. He sums up his main point thus:

Although consumers in the rich countries use up the most resources and generate the most garbage, they are arrogant enough to insist on population reduction. They warn, “Where will we be when the people in the developing world start demanding more resources and energy? Today’s piles of rubbish are already high enough!”

After a primer in Malthus’s population predictions and the expressions of concern of population analysts over the course of the last century, we meet Enrique Mendoza Morales, who represented Mexico in the 1974 UN summit that focused on the problem of overpopulation. Morales points to the fear of the spread of communism as a main reason Western powers wanted to control population. Kenyan author Ndirangu Mwaura also sees Western desire for power as a main reason others want to control the population in his country. He says there’s a big difference between overpopulation and congestion. If the infrastructure in Kenyan cities were better, overpopulation would not be a problem. Similarly, Obadias Ndaba of the World Youth Alliance, Africa, says that it’s easy to blame the problems of food shortages and environmental degradation on overpopulation in Africa, but that the continent would have to increase its population density by four times to rival the population density of Western Europe.

Boote takes the viewer on a tour of countries with various approaches to population control, notably China and Japan. Although China’s one-child policy worked and there are 400 million fewer Chinese than there were before this policy began, this has not helped curb environmental degradation in China. On the contrary, having only one child has freed up Chinese people to have more disposable income, and therefore to consume more per person. At the same time, the social fabric of Chinese life has had to adapt greatly to so many one-child families. In Japan, though no one forced a population decline, we visit a grade school that had to close down because there were not enough children in town for it to remain open.

This film is intentionally provocative, playing with the assumptions that we are told are certainly true: that overpopulation in “developing” countries contributes to environmental degradation and climate change. I appreciate Boote’s questioning of that assumption, but I would have liked to see him make more of a case for the destructive nature of those populations with a smaller birth rate. Early in the film he states, “The biggest culprits driving climate change are the industrialized nations,” but he does not develop this thought much until the end.

Toward the end of the film Boote interviews several people who point to fossil fuel consumption as the main problem, rather than overpopulation. This is where the argument begins to make environmental sense. Elizabeth Hartmann of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, MA, points out that the US military is the largest single consumer of fossil fuels in the world, with a daily consumption rate higher than the whole country of Sweden. Hartmann recognizes that it’s not the poor people in countries with high birth rates who are consuming the most fossil fuels, so it is “ludicrous to be pointing the finger at population and climate change.” Only because those of us living in Western countries want to continue to deny the need to change our own lifestyles do we happily pin the problem on someone else.

Boote’s point would also have been more clearly made if he had given some statistics regarding the differences in per capita consumption between the majority world and the “developed” world, such as graphics showing the increased rate of consumption per capita as the birth rate decreases. Those teaching from this film would want to gather such statistics prior to showing the film in order to really drive the point home.

I would recommend this film as a conversation starter in classrooms and community groups, but I also find that by being intentionally provocative, this film does not do much to nuance the position it stakes. Although the population may not be too large for the planet to handle in theory, I would have liked to see at least some acknowledgement about the fragmentation of natural habitats, the changes in ecosystems due to human encroachment, and the disruption of ecosystem services that occur in many areas of high human population. Perhaps we could create a world in which the population could continue to expand if we reduced per capita consumption and created more environmentally healthy ways to deal with human transportation, garbage and waste, and mining and manufacturing practices, but it is not sustainable to continue to multiply (or even stay at the current population) without these societal changes. This is largely not the fault of those living in poorer countries, but the carrying capacity of the planet is currently at risk due to human consumption and degradation of resources. Though population is only one factor in the equation, it is not helping the situation.

News Reporter
Cherice Bock edited Whole Terrain's volumes 22 and 23, "Trust" and "Breaking Bread." She is currently a general editor and works mainly on soliciting, editing, and creating web content.

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