July 11 is United Nations’ World Population Day, and we submit a pair of graphs for the occasion. The first graph shows the incidence rate of the word “overpopulate” during the past two hundred years; the second charts the world population’s growth over that same period. Taken together, the graphs portray an inverse relationship between word and thing: in recent decades, just as the global population began to dramatically increase, the word designating that phenomenon went into steep decline.
Note peak in word incidence, circa 1960 (above); sudden angle and sharp rise in world population curve, circa 1950 (below).
The organization HowMany.org claims that a “population taboo” prevents coverage of global population issues in contemporary media and politics, and that as a result the root causes of the world’s social and ecological woes remain largely unexamined. There are exceptions, though, and the tide may perhaps be turning (one can see the suggestion of an uptick in the Google graph). But even a recent Thomas Friedman op-ed sporting the blunt, if not brutal, headline “The Earth is Full” somehow avoids using the word “overpopulation.”
As happens in catastrophes, words fail us. This conjunction of trauma and inarticulateness is memorably captured in the murderous words penned by “Father Time” in Jude the Obscure: “we are too menny.”