‘It’s a massive injustice’: inside a film on the dangers of overpopulation | Documentary films

Bill Mai, a Kansas farmer, was 12 years old when his irrigation system, rigged to the Great Plains Ogallala aquifer, was installed in 1948. At the time, it was a great novelty which helped increase yield and profit. But the water has dropped about one foot every year it is in use, leading many to wonder about the future of it.

“It’s my responsibility to save the water. Just like it’s my neighbor’s responsibility to save that Ogallala [aquifer] water for future generations,” says Mai, who has transitioned from aquifer use to a dry land farm which does not use irrigation to conserve the water. Across the state, Lon Frahm, the owner of Kansas farm Frahm Farmland, has a different perspective. His corn farm receives its irrigated water from the same aquifer. He, contrastingly, doesn’t mull over its use: “We’re using it faster than it’s being replaced. So, we’ll just keep doing it until we can’t.” Later, he looks out at the family farm he inherited from his late father in the 1980s. Then, the 6,000-acre farm was in a large amount of debt. He turned it into a profitable 30,000-acre industrial farm. “So, am I good or evil?” Frahm ponders.

When asked why people might perceive him as evil, he sheepishly replies: “By wasting a limited resource that should be left for future generations.” It is this dichotomy of consumption and conservation that’s the root of the new documentary 8 Billion Angels.

It’s a film about the connection between climate change and overpopulation, demonstrated through the intersection between human geography and resource management. It’s the brainchild of producer Terry Spahr, who previously worked in the private sector but the realities of climate change frightened him into action.

“Even in my short lifespan, I’ve seen dramatic changes occur to the environment,” he said to the Guardian. “They happen slowly but they do happen. I just keep getting more and more concerned and worried about the trajectory we are on. Probably about 20 years ago, when we were around about 6 billion people – we’re now at about eight billion people – I remember seeing a sticker in a store that said, ‘We have 6 billion angels. Do we need more?’ And I thought, ‘Wow! They’re referring to people!’”

In 8 Billion Angels, the entelechy of overpopulation ultimately results in harmful pollution and depletion of reserves. It depicts a global growing population reliant on capitalism and industrialization which harms the present and future of the planet, reaping a miscellany of dramatic adverse effects. Overfishing and ocean acidification have made the waters less hospitable for fish, conclude scientists in Japan. In the United States, industrial agriculture degrades the soil so much, the farmers must put nutrients into the ground which harm the water supply downstream. In India, the Yamuna river is so polluted, it releases bubbles of methane. While the rich and the middle class are able to buy filters, the poor must drink the blackened waters and bathe in it.

The film illustrates how those with money in both developing and developed countries use more resources than their poorer counterparts. “Overpopulation sounds like a problem concerning the numbers of people, right? But it’s really not. Overpopulation is a problem of numbers of people consuming at a certain rate,” bioethicist Dr Travis Rieder of John Hopkins University explains. Class and country wealth often indicate how many resources will be used by whom. Denizens of countries with more means and access will use more but be sheltered most. Conversely, those who use the least resources will probably be the first to feel climate change’s effects and least able to escape it.

“Indeed, the bulk of our problems of [the] environment around the world were caused by the galloping industrialization of the advanced western democracies. I think it’s disingenuous of us to pretend that isn’t the case. They are today the flag bearers of environmental virtue. But for a century and a bit, they were the biggest polluters of the planet and on the planet,” says Shashi Tharoor, a member of Indian parliament. Even with 17% of the world’s population, he points out, India only has 4% of emissions.

Brownie Wilson of the Kansas Geological Survey and Bill Mai measure the diminishing levels of the Ogallala Aquifer on Mai’s family farm.
Brownie Wilson of the Kansas Geological Survey and Bill Mai measure the diminishing levels of the Ogallala Aquifer on Mai’s family farm. Photograph: 8 Billion Angels Productions

It’s a dilemma Spahr agonizes over. “[The poor] won’t have the resources to move if the region they live in start to be impacted by the rising tides of the ocean, or the saltification of the lands, or if climate change also changes the weather patterns to where it dries up or heats up the area to where it’s unlivable,” he said. “So there may be mass migration but the people in the developed world … are not going to experience these tragedies like the developing world. It’s a massive injustice.”

Still, the very accusation of developing countries driving rising populations could lead to a belief in eco-fascism, wherein people with resources could forcibly restrict the people without such resources. The bioethicists of 8 Billion Angels discourage such thinking, standing as a compass for morality and compassion while discussing the surprising solutions to decrease the population. A simple yet highly effective one is women’s education and reproductive empowerment. Because most countries are built on patriarchal societies, many women do not make their own reproductive decisions, leading to a rising birth rate. But when women are educated and empowered to make their own decisions, they often choose to have fewer children. India’s Kerala is used as a case study, where free and compulsory public education was mandated in 1819 for both boys and girls. The birth rate dropped. Similar things happened in Iran and Ethiopia where voluntary family planning was made available to citizens or even just openly discussed.

Though shrinking population growth is important, so is the manner of getting to the aforementioned goal, Spahr maintains. Doing so ethically, he reasons, will result in a much brighter future for all.

“Obviously, it is deeply fundamental and moral for the world to pursue growing smaller gracefully,” he said. “If we value human life and value animal life, [if] we believe in social and racial justice, and we support economic prosperity and environmental protection, then we must support and subscribe to a culture and practices and policies that embrace all the things [the film] talks about like, reproductive rights, girls education [and] gender equality.” He concludes: “All of these policies and cultures around us have clearly proven over the test of time to eradicate extreme poverty, to improve the lives of people and also, the planet.”

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