One Minute To Midnight

by Emma Gallagher

We’ve all heard the phrase One Minute to Midnight used to catastrophize the world’s use of resources and encourage a sense of urgency about the way we treat the earth and the emergency hurtling towards us. One particularly gripping use of this phrase comes from Dan Brown’s Inferno;

 “A beaker, with a single bacterium in it, one that divides and doubles every minute, if you place the first bacterium into the beaker at 11:00 and it is completely full by 12, at what time is the beaker still only half full? 11:59. That is what time it is for us. In 40 years, 32 billion people will fight to survive. They’ll fail. We’re a minute to midnight.” 

A compelling argument, throughout the book you can’t help but consider the side of the villain. Yes, he wants to kill off half the population, but he truly believes it’s in society’s best interest. The threat of overpopulation, of a doomsday future where we fight with our neighbours over basic resources, where we have finally stretched the earth past what it is capable of sustaining and cause our own extinction. It’s not a new idea, but it’s also not necessarily a correct one. 

“it feels like the world is spinning out of control. And honestly, it is, but the number of people isn’t the problem. Greed is.”

It took mankind about 100,000 years to reach the first one billion people, but only 100 years later we reached two billion, 50 years after that we reached 4 billion. It’s difficult not to be slightly intimidated by those kinds of numbers. It feels like the world is spinning out of control and honestly, it is, but the number of people isn’t the problem. Greed is. 

If we want to talk economics for a moment (bear with me), let’s look at the Malthusian trap. This is the idea that as we advance technologically, we begin to live above subsistence level; everyone has more than enough. Rather than maintain this level, however, we expand the population, so we’re right back where we started. We grow to keep up with our capabilities. But things are starting to change, we’re stretching the limits of these capabilities, why all of a sudden does it seem like these ever-expanding resources are becoming finite? 

“greed is why Ireland has a record breaking 10,000 homeless people, but last year reported over 180,000 vacant homes”

Humans are driven by greed; we cut, we destroy, we take, we consume. We have done irreparable damage to habitats, wildlife, and nature as a whole, all for our own progress. That greed is why Ireland has a record breaking 10,000 homeless people, but last year reported over 180,000 vacant homes. There is a global energy crisis, with millions of people fearing for their livelihoods this winter, and we watch the super-rich pick cars to match their Instagram aesthetics and shoot themselves into space for fun. Yes, I am still going on about that, because, yes, it was ridiculous. 108 billion pounds of food is wasted every year in the United States, and yet the numbers of people registering with food banks are growing exponentially, because philanthropy isn’t profitable.

The rhetoric of overpopulation as the most pressing issue right now is ridiculous. It’s a way for those who know they are the problem, to pass blame onto others. Pass blame onto those who cannot afford contraceptives, or who may not have been able to access the education to know they even needed them. This rhetoric is a dangerous one, it’s discriminatory, and, honestly, it’s racist. 

“This rhetoric of how overpopulation is the biggest issue right now is ridiculous. Its a way for those who know they are the problem, to pass blame onto others.”

The Global South is made up of a cruel paradox: it is filled with communities who do the least environmental damage, yet somehow bear the worst of the effects of climate change. Subsistence farmers lose significant portions of their income due to irregular weather patterns, caused by the actions of the Global North. The average family size in Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the highest regional rates globally, so the claim that the problem with society is that there are too many of us directly targets the conversation towards communities in these areas. It shifts the blame away from those who know they personally are actively causing damage to the environment, and onto those who are doing the best with the consequences they are forced to suffer. There are many ways this rhetoric can cause damage, such as encouraging white nationalism as people refuse to accept climate refugees. Yet again those suffering the direct consequences of our actions are not welcome to our help in times of need. 

Maybe humanity will be a self-destructive force, the cause of our own downfall, but it won’t be because of overpopulation. We have enough food to feed everyone who is hungry, we have the money to help everyone who needs it. We do not have an overpopulation problem; we have a sharing problem. It might be one minute to midnight, but we are capable of entering into tomorrow, safely, sustainably, without greed, without selfishness, and without overconsumption. The future lies in the hands of the 1%, don’t let them blame the other 99% for being too big.

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