(A Trioir Films Production; released May 2011, Running time 60 minutes)
Last Halloween, by the U.N.'s best estimate, world population officially hit 7 billion, a milestone so frightening that it made the trappings of that already hokey holiday seem all the more specious. News reports made light of the timing ("You should expect more than ghosts, spirits and candy when Halloween arrives this year," cracked the Huffington Post), but the jokes couldn't help falling flat. For the news struck too close to humankind's familiar experience with population overshoot–which is that it's a temporary condition usually resolved by the dreaded Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence and Death–to be the subject of such lighthearted quips.*
Documentarian Christophe Fauchere, in his film Mother: Caring for 7 Billion, seeks to instill in us the proverbial fear of God that was missing from the flip news coverage. His documentary takes a penetrating look at overpopulation, what fuels it and why the world has become complacent about the issue after making a good start in addressing it during the late 60s. The film dispels some key myths about overpopulation–chief among them the belief that it's long been solved–even if it stops short of admitting the inevitability of a world population crash as the Earth's resources deplete. And it conveys its message in an engaging, visually immersive style that finds just the right balance between hard facts and ordinary human involvement.
The documentary talks with a wide array of experts, among them scientists, authors and activists, who speak to overpopulation's toll on resources, the environment and the lives of those trapped in deplorable conditions. Featured experts include Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown, who has been called "the guru of the global environmental movement"; Mathis Wackernagel, co-creator of the ecological footprint concept; and renowned reproductive scientist Malcolm Potts, whose seminal studies on maternal mortality helped catalyze the worldwide Safe Motherhood Initiative. At the top of their fields and the forefront of thinking on overpopulation, these experts are highly credible and acutely chosen.
Mother covers all of the main aspects of the population crisis but examines some more fully than others. It does the most justice to world hunger (particularly poignant is the statistic that a person could live for a year off the grain required to fill an SUV tank with ethanol). The film also takes an in-depth look at environmental destruction, inequity, the failings of the growth imperative and barriers to contraceptive access in the developing world. Topics given short shrift include water depletion, disease pandemics and climate change.
The first issue to be tackled is the misperception that overpopulation has been solved. This myth is tempting to believe because the rate of increase has been nearly halved over the past 50 years as a result of concerted efforts worldwide. But these efforts haven't been enough, since a slower-growing population of 7 billion is still one grossly out of synch with its resources. In short, we've undergone "a big cultural changeóbut not fast enough," says Paul Ehrlich, coauthor of the influential book The Population Bomb. Mother goes on to present us with a laundry list of other crises that have escalated along with population growth since 1970, the year of the first Earth Day: a nearly 50 percent increase in trash in U.S. landfills, 20 percent more CO2 emissions, 400 percent more endangered species and a current extinction rate of 150 to 200 species daily.
"The topic of population is also a victim of its own success," says the film's narrator, Traci Wilde, who goes on to explain that with the decreased growth rate, many countries have come to view the thinning ranks of their youth as a threat to their success. A number of countries have begun paying their citizens "bribes to have babies," in the words of population expert William Ryerson, so that there will be more people to support the aged population. Ryerson regards this as an untenable policy and says that the retirement age should be pushed higher instead, since many people who are near the current age cap could keep working for years to come.
The world's population is seven times what it was in 1800, an increase that Mother correctly attributes to the advent of cheap, plentiful oil. Indeed, among those who closely follow the oil predicament, it's conventional wisdom that population could never have soared so high without oil-based agricultural inputs. In the last century, crop yields have increased miraculously through what's been called the Green Revolution, which relied heavily on chemicals made from oil, such as fertilizer and pesticides. Mother, in its brief survey of the Green Revolution, reveals that its founder, the pioneering agronomist Norman Borlaug, never saw it as a permanent solution to the population explosion; rather, he saw it buying humankind at most another 30 years. Now that oil is in decline, it seems obvious that industrial agricultural, and along with it population, will be declining as well.
During the filming of Mother, the crew spent some time polling people on the streets about overpopulation. The results, shown in brief clips throughout the documentary, tell a lot about public awareness of the issue. "How many people were on the planet during the first Earth Day?" one pair of passersby is quizzed. "Maybe over a billion?" one of them says uncertainly (it was actually 3.7 billion). Asked what the third most populous country after India and China is, people variously answer Brazil, Indonesia and the United States. This last is the correct answer, with a present population of about 311 million and the fastest growth rate in the developed world.
So immediate is the population crisis that it's hard to think of plausible solutions to it. Thus, Mother is to be admired for not pretending to have any silver bullet; instead, it explores a set of intelligent responses and current hopeful trends. For example, it showcases the work of an organization called the Population Media Center (PMC), which specializes in "entertainment-education strategies." The organization produces TV and radio serial dramas whose characters are meant to be role models for the audience, and airs them in countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Niger. We hear from a young Ethiopian woman who credits listening to the radio shows for her decision to decline an arranged marriage proposal. We also learn that demand for contraceptives in Ethiopia has increased by 157 percent since the programs began airing.
Mother does, however, have a few gaps in reasoning that arise from not taking its premises to their logical conclusions. For instance, it puts a lot of stock in the notion that empowering women is key to addressing overpopulationóbut fails to mention that this would not lower population at anything like the speed required. Also, probably to avoid seeming alarmist or kooky, the film doesn't hazard a guess as to how many humans the Earth can support in the wake of the oil age, a figure that others have put as low as one or two billion.
As the 18th-century British economist Thomas R. Malthus is infamous for pointing out, nature will ultimately succeed wherever we happen to fail in culling our numbers. Mother may not quite be willing to admit this, but its message is nonetheless one that deserves to be heard and heeded. For who wouldn't be in favor of at least trying to influence the course of events, that the extent of human suffering might be lessened?
* Robert Engelman, "What a population of 7 billion people means for the planet," Guardian, July 8, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jul/18/population-7-billion-planet (accessed July 24, 2012); Tara Kelly, "World Population Expected To Hit 7 Billion On Halloween," Huffington Post, Sept. 24, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/24/world-population-halloween-2011-7-billion_n_979191.html (accessed July 24, 2012).