Visions of a fallen world: What our crowded, imperiled planet really looks like

Mar 2, 2015 by

A new book skips over the statistics and gets right to the emotional core of overpopulation
Lindsay Abrams  SALON.COMFoul-Water-Oil-Fire-1280x9601-620x412

The more than 7 billion humans alive right now are, there by virtue of our very existence, unhealthy contributing to a problem of a planetary scale — and we could number as many as 5 billion more by this century’s end. We’re taking up so much space, thumb and so quickly, that the planet lost half of its total population of wildlife in just four decades. Climate change, spurred on by our voracious appetite for fossil fuels, is threatening Earth’s very future.

The logical arguments for getting population under control are compelling, says Tom Butler, editorial director at the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Yet somehow, they just aren’t working.

So, Butler tried a picture book — a large-format coffee-table book, more like, featuring images of a world overrun by human activity, produced as part of the Global Population Speak Out Campaign. (You can read it online, for free, here.)

“We wanted to jump over those old and rational arguments and try to go straight to the emotional center of a viewer, someone who has never thought about the population question, and say: Here is how the earth has been transformed,” Butler explained. “Take a look: 7.3 billion people on the planet, trying to get by, living as they do, have profoundly altered the planet and here’s what it looks like.”

“Now, tell us, after you’ve seen that, that there’s not an issue here and we shouldn’t be talking about this human population trajectory.”

Not every image included in the book is, on its own, shocking. But taken together — sprawling cities, mountains of waste, Black Friday crowds and tightly packed factory farms — they demand attention, and provide a convincing argument for bringing overpopulation and consumption (and both our numbers and our behaviors, it argues, matter) back to the center of the environmental movement.

“The ways that the world is being transformed do not come from human malevolence,” Butler, who edited the book, told Salon. “I don’t think people wake up in the morning, whether they’re in the agricultural business or the energy sector, and say, ‘Well what can I do today to kill the planet?’”

“But the vast majority of people get up every day and are embedded in a system, an economic, social, political system, that seems like normality to them but the effects of that in aggregate are harming the biosphere and making it less and less likely that humanity will have a flourishing future.”

Acknowledging that there’s a problem, Butler added, may be the hardest part. “The response to this problem, the actual strategies and tactics to address it, are straightforward, they are known, they are affordable,” he explained. They include solutions, such as providing girls and women with education and access to family planning, that have benefits beyond just helping to limit population growth. “The only problem,” Butler said, “is that we do not have the political will to implement them in a way that is commensurate with the scale of the problem.”

To see that problem laid out, check out a selection of photographs from the book, below:


John Stanmeyer
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot – Slide #1 via @Salon
Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.
Lu Guang
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China
Carolyn Cole/LATimes
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti
Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

“Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA
Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.
Garth Lentz
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada
Cotton Coulson/Keenpress
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway
Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.
Stephanie Sinclair
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.
Mike Hedge
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million
Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.
Daniel Dancer
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon
Peter Essick
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.
Daniel Beltra
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico
Ian Wylie
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Slide 13

Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.
R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.
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Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff

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