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An Overpopulation Failsafe?

14 November, 2022

The UN is marking 15 November 2022 as the day human population surpassed 8 billion people worldwide. Conspiracy theorists have falsely conjectured that a population control vaccine will be used to curb human numbers. The best-selling author, Dan Brown, created a character called Bertrand Zobrist who designed a preventive vector virus which randomly sterilised one-third of the world population. Hollywood’s answer was Thanos’ gauntlet allowing the evil supervillain to snap his fingers and make half the population disappear. An overpopulation fail-safe does exist, but it is nowhere near as fanciful as any of these ideas. 

The overpopulation fail-safe is hidden in plain sight, lurking, dormant within the bodies of a quarter of the world’s population. The name of this failsafe is tuberculosis infection, or TBI, an inactive contamination carried in two billion people worldwide, 95% of whom are found in low- and middle-income countries.  

People with TBI carry tuberculosis disease but are asymptomatic. Most people with TBI do not become sick and thus infectious. The switch turning a tuberculosis infection into active tuberculosis disease, in most cases, is malnutrition. Famine in North Korea between 1994 and 1998, for example, led to a 7-fold increase in tuberculosis. Overcrowded housing, air pollution and lack of health care help spread the disease. But, for the moment, people with TBI are walking around disease-free unaware of the sleeping microbe inside them. 

The Malthusian argument about overpopulation is that resources will become scarce as populations outgrow the carrying capacity of their territories. If healthy food, safe water and living standards decrease, then low- and middle-income countries will be hit first and hardest. The lack of food security and the high number of people living with TBI make these countries particularly vulnerable. Famine will trigger tuberculosis infections to become active tuberculosis cases. Deaths from tuberculosis and associated illnesses will be set to skyrocket and global population could potentially drop by up to a quarter within a very short space of time. 

Up until COVID-19 claimed the unflattering title of biggest global infectious killer, tuberculosis was the leading cause of mortality from an infectious disease worldwide outranking incurable conditions such as HIV / AIDS. In 2020, for example, 15% of the 10 million people worldwide who became sick with tuberculosis died from the disease. Sadly, the 2022 Global TB report showed TB incidence is on the rise. Tuberculosis is treatable, however, and should be nowhere near the top of these charts. Have elites been leaving tuberculosis untreated in low-income countries as an overpopulation failsafe?  

Keeping tuberculosis as a failsafe to curb population size is positively eugenic. Frontline healthcare staff caring for tuberculosis patients are not to blame. Rich governments provide tuberculosis healthcare programs with enough money to appear charitable but not enough to help them eradicate tuberculosis in their communities. This funding environment maintains the circulation of tuberculosis within communities thus ensuring high numbers of people with TBI.  

While community-wide screening in high income countries helped to reduce tuberculosis in high-income countries like Australia and The Netherlands, similar strategies have not been rolled out in low- and middle-income countries, with a province of Vietnam being one of the few exceptions. As a result, tuberculosis is uncommon in high-income countries but relatively common elsewhere. If global famine hits, high-income countries are largely protected but the other countries go down the gurgler. 

Using tuberculosis as an overpopulation failsafe is morally unpalatable. Is there some kind of evil genius at work here? It’s hard to point the finger at world leaders for something they have not done. By feigning ignorance, turning a blind eye or misdirecting attention, world leaders can attempt to abrogate responsibility. They will not even need to lift a finger to use tuberculosis to execute the overpopulation failsafe. Increasing prevalence of tuberculosis will appear like a natural, biological tragedy. Unless we hold them accountable now, world leaders will be able to throw their arms up and say, “Look, no hands!”  

A Decade of Lost Opportunities

14 November, 2022

Only eleven years after world population surpassed seven billion, the UN has announced an extra billion humans has been added to the planet. In 2010, Australian businessman Dick Smith launched the still unclaimed Wilberforce Award for leadership and communication about population growth alternatives. In 2011, National Geographic published a year-long series on world population called ‘7 Billion’. In 2013, Stephen Emmott published his contentious 10 Billion warning about the ‘unprecedented planetary emergency’ of overpopulation. If world leaders are finding these alarmist messages concerning, then what measures have they put into action? 

If concerns about overpopulation and carbon emissions are to be taken seriously, then the 2010s represent a decade of lost opportunities. Indeed, the issues of pollution and population are coupled. A 2009 study by Thomas Wire at the London school of Economics (LSE) showed that for every seven US dollars spent on basic family planning, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by one tonne. Less people, less carbon dioxide. Owing China carbon credits for the one-child policy, however, is not a popular thought. 

Figure 1: Population growth mapped against observed global mean surface temperature change from 1850 to 2020 (data from IPCC report 2021).   

The same year that Thomas Wire was making his calculations at LSE, a conference was held at UCLA entitled The World in 2050: A Scientific Investigation of the Impact of Global Population Growth on a Divided Planet. Experts estimated that there were 78 million more births than deaths that year but over 80 million unintended pregnancies. Hypothetically, were it possible to empower people to avoid unintended pregnancies across the globe, then supposedly population growth could have been turned into population decline.  

With the oral contraceptive pill soon to go off patent, spirits were high. However, big pharmaceutical companies worked to keep steroidal contraceptives available only through medical prescription despite little if any medical justification for this cautionary action. Keeping steroidal contraceptives available only through medical prescription enables the pharmaceutical companies to exploit doctors as their unpaid sales force, whilst at the same time maintaining a relatively high price for a product that is off patent. Oral contraception being out of reach for women and completely unavailable for men contributes to 121 million unintended pregnancies each year. Avoiding unwanted pregnancies could potentially more than cancel out the annual 90 million more births than deaths each year. 

Solving climate change by curbing population growth is not a singular answer. After all, 95% of population growth occurs in low- and middle-income countries while high-income countries produce upwards of 86% of carbon emissions. Offsetting consumption in high-income countries by reducing population growth in low-income countries is not an equatable solution. Furthermore, holding mothers morally accountable for the future carbon emissions of their children is an unethical position. People in high-income countries cannot keep consuming at current levels and expect the problem to be solved by parents in low-income countries having less children. 

So, is a child the biggest carbon footprint a person can have? Education, late marriage, access to contraception, safe abortion, and family planning are important in their own right. As an added benefit, these measures not only help to keep population in check, these measures also help to reduce carbon emissions. Making every child a wanted child is desirable and technologically possible. Cultural, religious and political barriers have not been the only obstacles. The profit-driven interests of large multinational pharmaceutical companies have also stood in the way. Even if the population question and carbon fumes were not an issue, isn’t denying people access to their reproductive rights, in and of itself, a human rights abuse? 

How to write a book review

20 December, 2016


An infographic I recently stumbled across stated that “reading one hour per day in your chosen field will make you an international expert in 7 years.” Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly motivates me to put down my smartphone and pick up a book.

booksTo drive my reading behaviour, I use carrots and sticks. I think about the rewards, weigh up the consequences, and set myself goals. One way to drive my active reading is to write reviews about books in my field. Writing book reviews offers a chance to keep up to date with current scholarship in my field, develop my comprehension and analytical skills, and publish work that demonstrates my engagement with a specialised area of research. Often, writing a book review for an academic journal also means receiving a free copy of the book (but sadly, not always). This post is targeted at postgraduate and early career researchers who are looking to review a non-fiction book for an academic journal.

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Tuberculosis and ethics

24 March, 2016

World TB day_Design by Priyanka Desai_CHAI _PNGIt’s World TB day and a few initiatives are underway! But, before you read on, you can update your profile page on facebook, twitter, etc. using this beautiful floral emblem designed by Priyanka Desai from the Clinton Health Access Initiative: WORLD TB DAY Profile Floral Emblem

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Why the world needs anthropology

4 December, 2015

Standplaats Wereld has just published a nice report by  Giulia Sinatti from the recent symposium, “Why the World Needs Anthropologists – Burning Issues of Our Hot Planet” in Ljubljana. The symposium featured keynote addresses from anthropologists Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Genevieve Bell, and CM’s own Joanna Breidenbach.

The title of the article, “Anthropologist? You’re hired!”, is perhaps a little unfortunate because it suggests that the main issue is the employability of anthropologists (always an interesting topic) but the discussion focused much more on what anthropologists have to offer in dealing with a range of globally pressing concerns. For Eriksen, it is anthropology’s capacity to link local contexts with broader scales that allows anthropologists to make a unique contribution to decision making processes. For Bell, who leads a research team at technology firm INTEL, anthropologists can intervene in and humanise design processes by understanding how technologies are cultural artefacts that coalesce various fears and desires. Breidenbach links her anthropological perspectives to the crowdfunding philanthropic site, She emphasises the complex, contextual and multi-faceted perspectives that anthropologists bring to real world problems and the capacity that they have to build bridges between academia and the public (although I would add, somewhat wryly, that this seems to work much better in theory than in practice).

These kinds of discussions are interesting for me because they seem to revolve around a tension between the capacity of anthropologists to “talk back” to powerful institutional discourses and our desire to make our knowledge “useful” to precisely these institutions. If our primary capacity  is to provide the sort of nuance, context and complexity of “the local” that challenge the schematic view-from-above of institutions — in essence, a type of critique —  how do we convince these very institutions that these perspectives are useful to them? And what does it mean when they indeed recognise our gadfly interventions as “operationalisable”, to use a horrible term?

Come to think of it, perhaps the title of the article is actually on the money, so to speak, because in the end this comes down to anthropologists attempting to convince others to give us a job. And to do this we have to make a convincing argument that we are adding value in some sense. So the question behind this is not specifically why the “world” needs anthropologists, but why specific employers need us. Of course, this is a worthwhile question to ask — I’m all for anthropologists having jobs. And maybe we can make the world a better place by bringing more subtlety and nuance, and a multiplicity of perspectives, to decision making processes, whether they involve development initiatives, climate change policies, or the design of commodities. But I think we should probably also be up front about our self interest and to critically reflect on how this shapes how we frame the discussion.

For example, there seems to be a vaguely utopian promise running through the discussion: if only we can bring more subtlety, nuance, multifaceted perspectives etc into the decision making process, then we will have a more satisfactory, humanised, truly democratic etc outcome. This might be true. I, for one, often find myself thinking along these lines. But we might also question the assumption that the kind of knowledge anthropologists produce is inherently positive — that revealing the complexity of “the local” is an inherently good thing — particularly when our final obligation is to whomever is paying our salary.

I should emphasise that I don’t have a problem with trying to work out how anthropology can be made useful in various contexts, or trying to convince others of our inherent usefulness. At the same time I think that the discussion of “why the world needs anthropologists” should be broader than this, although I’m not entirely sure that I know how to express what I mean. Maybe I’m referring to the capacity of anthropology to do more than merely provide a more humane version of capitalism. Maybe I’m referring for its capacity as anthropology — the science of human possibility —  to provide the sort of critique of the contemporary that is not operationalisable in a narrow sense, but which instead provides truly alternative visions of ways to be human.

This would, I think, mean retaining (or resurrecting) anthropology’s grand — even megalomaniac — claims to be a universal science of the human. It would mean seeing our project as more than merely providing “context” or nuance, or “bringing culture in” to instrumentalist discourses. It would mean that we are involved in doing more than ethnography. In writing this, I realise that I might be arguing along similar lines to Tim Ingold, when he admonishes that anthropology should not be reduced to or equated with ethnography. Indeed, he sees this reduction as itself contributing to the decline of anthropology’s public voice.

In order to retain this broader vision of anthropology and its project, I think we need to be careful not to make our claims too “reasonable”. By this I mean justifying what we do in terms of other discourses, or arguing for our usefulness. Yes, this is an inherent aspect of being in the world and participating in a broader culture, but I think we should also hold on to the claims of a discipline that is in a sense self-positing, which provides its own reason for being, its own ground, and does not seek its meaning in terms of its service to other projects. This is a highly unreasonable, excessive, claim. But maybe the world needs that, too.

So perhaps the question that we should be asking is not, “Why does the world need anthropologists?” but rather, “Why does the world need anthropology?”

Australian Anthropology Annual Conference

30 November, 2015

The 2015 annual conference of the Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) will be hosted by the Anthropology Programme at the University of Melbourne from 1-4 December. This year’s conference “Moral Horizons” will address moral pluralities both within anthropological practice and in the rapidly evolving world the discipline researches.

Melbourne University will be hosting the annual conference of the Australian Anthropological Society this year. The plenary speakers are  Michael Lambek (University of Toronto), Nancy Scheper-Hughes (University of California, Berkeley), and Annelise Riles (Cornell Law School). The Distinguished Lecture will be given by Associate Professor Martha Macintyre (The University of Melbourne) on Tuesday 1, December, from 5.30pm to 7.00pm at the Carillo Gantner Theatre, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia. To browse the panels, timetable and events, check out the conference website:

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Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference final summary

18 September, 2015

Final summary of the Australasian HIV&AIDS Conference. Please read on…

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Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference 2nd last day

17 September, 2015

Summary covering the second last day of the Australasian HIV&AIDS Conference. Please read on…

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STI & HIV Congress ends, HIV & AIDS conference begins

16 September, 2015

The last day of the World STI & HIV Congress and the first day of the Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference. Please read on for a summary…

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World STI and HIV Congress day 3

15 September, 2015
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A summary of the third day of the World STI and HIV congress in Brisbane, Australia. Read on…

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