New Economy Journal

Denying overpopulation is a double tragedy

The Ecological Economics Issue

Volume 1, Issue 4

July 3, 2019

By - Haydn Washington

Piece length: 2,131 words

Cover photo by Imre Tömösvári on Unsplash
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Introduction

We need to ask ourselves some questions. Is there an upper limit to human numbers and human consumption? Can our economy keep growing forever? Should we just deny such difficult issues, and keep walking towards the abyss of societal and ecosystem collapse?[1] After 40 years as an environmental scientist and activist, I now realise that if one wanted an easier academic life, one would avoid the topics of overpopulation, overconsumption and the endless growth economy. However, given these are the three key drivers of unsustainability, it would be insane to ignore them., something very much NOT in our interests or those of the wondrous diversity of life we share this planet with. That these are the key drivers of unsustainability was noted in the IPCC “Climate Change 2014” Synthesis report:[2]

Globally, economic and population growth continued to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.”

The Second World Scientists Warning to Humanity has also stated:[3]

We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.”

Similarly, the IPBES extinction report notes that “Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption”. It goes on to say:[4]

… a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.”

Despite these key reports accepting that overpopulation, overconsumption and the growth economy are key problems for society, these findings have largely been ignored and denied, even by otherwise ‘green’ and environmentally-thoughtful people. Apart from daring to question the growth economy, nothing seems to raise such outrage in mainstream society as suggesting we should ‘limit human numbers’. Into it comes issues such as religion, racism, social and ecological justice, equity, and poverty.[5] There is also no more ‘taboo’ issue politically than population. Collectively, the public and governments have been shying away from it for decades. Yet Hulme notes,[6] that if there is a ‘safe’ level of greenhouse gases to avoid runaway climate change, then is there not also a desirable world population?

Think of both our footprint but also the number of feet!

Unsustainable population growth pushes the world beyond its carrying capacity,[7] being the number of people an area can support sustainably and indefinitely. The world is finite, and we know that human numbers have grown exponentially and are far larger than ever before in history. Our global population is more than 7.7 billion people. Despite the declining global Total Fertility Rates (TFRs), population momentum is projected to cause global population to rise to 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.[8] So the idea commonly trotted out by the media and a number of scholars that the population explosion is ‘over’ is clearly wrong.[9] All environmental data shows that the world is in ecological overshoot, with massive extinction underway – as a result of our current 7.7 billion people. Adding another 2.1 billion by 2050, and 3.5 billion by 2100, would cause further massive impact, major clearing of native vegetation (to produce food), major escalation of greenhouse gas production, major ecosystem collapse and an even greater mass extinction than the one we’re witnessing now.[10] The full ramifications of overpopulation are well shown in the “Human Overpopulation Atlas” by Joao Abegao.[11]

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which alerted the world to the dangers of exponentially growing population. He was later part of coining the entity:[12]

Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Otherwise known by its acronym, I = PAT. Our impact on the Earth is thus the number of people times their affluence (per capita consumption of resources) times the technology we use. We need to target all three components of I = PAT if we seek to reduce human impact: reducing population, limiting affluence and cleaning technology.

What is an ecologically sustainable global population?

Biocapacity data suggest that if we made no change at all to consumption patterns, we could currently sustain a population of 4 to 5 billion. Our ecological footprint suggests no more than 4.7 billion people,[13] but not if every one of us lived at the US standard of living, where the Earth could sustain only a quarter of today’s population, or 1.75 billion people.[14] If we were to move to the European standard of consumption it would sustain 2 billion people.[15] If everybody on Earth shared a modest standard of living, midway between the richest and the poorest, that figure would be around 3 billion.[16]

The world is clearly already overpopulated in regard to sustainability. We cannot live in harmony with nature when our numbers are degrading the world’s life support systems and causing ecocide – ecological genocide.[17] It is also worth considering that human actions have already degraded the ability of the Earth to support people. This is made clear by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which stated that 60% of ecosystem services were degrading or being used unsustainably.[18] Hence Prof Paul Ehrlich comments that he used to think the ecologically sustainable world population was 2 billion,[19] but, given the ecocide society has caused, now thinks it more likely it is 1 billion. More recently he has been quoted as saying it is 1.5 billion.[20]

Engelman argued in 2012 we could stabilise world population at 8 billion if we applied the strategies suggested later.[21] Society didn’t act then, so Engelman suggests we could halt population growth before mid-century at a level below 9 billion.[22] Then we would need to reduce population over time towards a lower, ecologically-sustainable number, at least half that. While population remains in the 7-8 billion range, greenhouse gas production and material use will have to come way down from Western levels if we are to rapidly reduce the overall impact.[23]

Why is overpopulation such a diabolical policy issue?

I have asked in the past why population is such a diabolical policy issue.[24] My answer was that it is because it cuts at the heart of the received wisdom of a million years of human evolution, where ‘more’ people was always seen as being better. Collins believes that at the core of the population problem is a “conflict of rights” - the right of the individual to reproduce, and the right of other species to continue to exist.[25] It is very hard for us to understand in our hearts that now “more” is no longer better. Add to this the religious discouragement of birth control methods (e.g. the Catholic Church). Add to that the fundamental desire of governments to have more citizens and greater power. Population ecologist Meyerson explains:[26]

“Conservatives are often against sex education, contraception and abortion and they like growth – both in population and in the economy. Liberals usually support individual human rights above all else and fear the coercion label and therefore avoid discussion of population growth and stabilisation. The combination is a tragic stalemate that leads to more population growth.”

History shows a worrying decline in discussion of overpopulation by the UN and others.[27] In 1994 the UN ‘Cairo’ conference stopped talking about ‘family planning’ and instead spoke only of “women’s reproductive health” (funding for family planning then declined worldwide). At that time population control became something of a taboo word, as it was portrayed as infringing on “women’s rights”. Many in the Left have referred to the short-lived and unsuccessful forced sterilisation program in India, suggesting (erroneously) that most family planning was coercive.[28] In fact, family planning is about giving women the choice as to when to use their right to have children. In fact, if family planning and contraceptives were made universally available, the evidence is that population growth would stabilise and then start to decline.[29]

Butler notes that both climate change and the extinction crisis are merely symptoms of ecological overshoot by an obese humanity. Interestingly, I have found that even many climate scientists and activists fail to understand that climate change is actually a symptom of overpopulation and overconsumption. Overpopulation means cutting more forest for farmland, over-farming land so that it erodes, killing more “bush meat” (wild animals) for food, and over-fishing the rivers and seas.[30] It means burning more fossil fuels or clearing and burning more forest as a way of fueling “development”. Many scholars write of the need for a “smaller ecological footprint”, but as Dietz and O’Neill point out: “we need smaller footprints, but we also need fewer feet”.[31] And yet, despite all this, talking about overpopulation remains controversial.

Is talking about overpopulation anti-human?

The Discovery Institute has a video called The War on Humans which argues that any argument against population growth is anti-human. They claim that anti-human activists want to reduce the human population by 90%. Clearly they believe talking about overpopulation comes from a hatred of humanity.[32] Of course, no serious evidence to support this is presented. Environmental scientists and scholars who point out the danger of overpopulation do so for two key reasons. The first is that overpopulation is causing ecocide and the extinction of life. The second is that this ecocide is likely to lead to famine and war, and a major loss of human population that could be as high as a billion or more. The loss of nonhuman life via massive extinction would be a tragedy. The loss of human life due to pushing ecosystems into collapse (including agro-ecosystems) would equally be a tragedy. Thus, talking about overpopulation is not anti-human but completely pro-human. I have never met a population activist who wanted to see the death of hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of people. Their population activism is precisely because they seek to avoid a human predicament where billions starve and die (human and non-human). The ‘anti-human’ epithet is thus an easy thing to say, but has no evidence to back it up. Breaking the denial dam about overpopulation is thus one of the most pro-human (as well as pro-nature) things any of us can do.

Solutions – the big picture

Campbell concludes we can break the spiral of silence about overpopulation by showing that it: 1) Makes it impossible for the poor to escape poverty and ecological degradation; 2) High fertility is not due to women’s desire to have more children; 3) Fertility can decline when women are given freedom to control their fertility via family planning.[33] The first step is to accept that we have a problem. Then we need to abandon denial, and discuss and immediately implement solutions. Engelman shows that overpopulation can be tackled by nine humane (non-coercive) strategies to stabilize population:[34]

  1. Assure universal access to a range of safe and effective contraceptive options and family planning services for both sexes.
  2. Guarantee education through secondary school for all, with a particular focus on girls.
  3. Eradicate gender bias from law, economic opportunity, health, and culture.
  4. Offer age-appropriate sexuality education for all students.
  5. End all policies that reward parents financially if they are based on the number of their children.
  6. Integrate teaching about population, environment, and development relationships into school curricula at multiple levels.
  7. Put prices on environmental costs and impacts.
  8. Adjust to population aging rather than trying to delay it through governmental incentives or programs aimed at boosting childbearing.
  9. Convince leaders to commit to ending population growth through the exercise of human rights and human development.

Such strategies do actually work. Using similar strategies, Iran was able to halve its population growth rate from 1987 to 1994.[35] The Population Media Center continues to successfully educate about such strategies.[36] Using such strategies, we could reduce global population to 6 billion by the end of the century and to a sustainable 2–3 billion by the end of the following century.[37] However to do this we must talk about it and break the denial dam that keeps overpopulation a taboo.

Conclusion

The denial of human overpopulation is a double tragedy, as it is a tragedy for both nature and humanity. We are faced with three major drivers of unsustainability – overpopulation, overconsumption and the endless growth economy. Clearly, talking about any of these is not easy, as society is in denial of all of them. Nevertheless, we DO have to talk about all of them. We must see and act on all the elephants in the room, and that means that overpopulation can no longer be ignored or denied (ethically or practically) if we are to live sustainably on Earth. Overpopulation and overconsumption are entwined and must be solved concurrently. However, while much of society and academia continue to ignore overpopulation as a key driver of unsustainability, any chance of being able to heal the world is vanishingly small.

 

  • [1] Washington, H. (2019) What can I do to Help Heal the Environmental Crisis? London: Routledge.
  • [2] IPCC (2014) ‘Summary for Policymakers, Fifth Assessment Report, International Panel on Climate Change’, see: http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WG2AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf (accessed 16 March 2018).
  • [3] AWS (2017) World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Alliance of World Scientists, http://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/sw/files/Warning_article_with_supp_11-13-17.pdf. (accessed 2 March 2019).
  • [4] IPBES (2019) ‘Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’’, press release Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, see: https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.
  • [5] Washington, H. (2015) Demystifying Sustainability: Towards Real Solutions. London: Routledge; Kopnina, H. and Washington, H. (2016) Discussing why population growth is still ignored or denied, Chinese Journal of Population Resources and Environment, 14 (2): 133-143.
  • [6] Hulme, M. (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • [7] Catton, W. (1982) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • [8] UNDESA (2017) World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, see: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html (accessed 26 Aug 2018).
  • [9] As discussed by Campbell, M. (2012) ‘Why the silence on population?’, in Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, eds P.  Cafaro and E. Crist, Georgia, US: University of Georgia Press: 41-55.
  • [10] Crist, E., Mora, C. and Engelman, R. (2017) The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356: 260-264.
  • [11] Abegao, J. (2018) Human Overpopulation Atlas: Volume 1, see: https://www.overpopulationatlas.com/.
  • [12] Ehrlich, P., Ehrlich, A. and Holdren, J. (1977) Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, New York: WH Frpeeman and Co.
  • [13] Engelman, R. (2013) ‘Beyond sustainababble’, in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • [14] Assadourian, E. (2013) ‘Re-engineering cultures to create a sustainable civilization’, in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • AWS (2017) World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Alliance of World Scientists, http://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/sw/files/Warning_article_with_supp_11-13-17.pdf. (accessed 2 March 2019).
  • [15] WPB (no date) ‘Current population is three times the sustainable level’, see: https://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable (accessed 17 March 2019).
  • [16] PM (2010) ‘Capacity population’, Population Matters leaflet, see: http://populationmatters.org/documents/capacity_leaflet.pdf (accessed, 15/11/11).
  • [17] Washington, H. (2015) Demystifying Sustainability: Towards Real Solutions. London: Routledge.
  • [18] MEA (2005) Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Wellbeing, Statement from the Board, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), see: https://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.429.aspx.pdf (accessed 19 Feb 2018).
  • [19] Ehrlich, P. (2013) Personal communication from Prof. Paul Ehrlich at the 2013 Fenner Conference on the Environment ‘Population, Resources and Climate Change’, Canberra Australia, see: http://population.org.au/fenner-conference-2013-summing.
  • [20] Carrington, D. (2018) Paul Ehrlich: 'Collapse of civilisation is a near certainty within decades’, The Guardian, 22 March, See: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/22/collapse-civilisation-near-certain-decades-population-bomb-paul-ehrlich.
  • [21] Engelman, R. (2012) ‘Nine population strategies to stop short of 9 billion’, in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • [22] Engelman, R. (2016) Nine population strategies to stop short of 9 billion. In A Future Beyond Growth: Towards a steady state economy; H. Washington and P. Twomey, eds. New York: Routledge.
  • [23] Engelman, R. (2013) ‘Beyond sustainababble’, in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • [24] Washington, H. (2015) Demystifying Sustainability: Towards Real Solutions. London: Routledge.
  • [25] Collins, P. (2010) Judgment Day: The Struggle for Life on Earth, Sydney: UNSW Press.
  • [26] Hartmann, B., Meyerson, F., Guillebaud, J., Chamie, J. and Desvaux, M. (2008) ‘Population and climate change’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 16th April 2008, see: http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/roundtables/population-and-climate-change.
  • [27]  Campbell, M. (2012) ‘Why the silence on population?’, in Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, eds P.  Cafaro and E. Crist, Georgia, US: University of Georgia Press: 41-55.
  • [28] Ibid.
  • [29] Engelman, R. (2012) ‘Nine population strategies to stop short of 9 billion’, in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • [30] Washington, H. (2015) Demystifying Sustainability: Towards Real Solutions. London: Routledge.
  • [31] Dietz, R. and O’Neill, D (2013) Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy is a World of Finite Resources, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers 78.
  • [32] Kopnina, H. and Washington, H. (2016) Discussing why population growth is still ignored or denied, Chinese Journal of Population Resources and Environment, 14 (2): 133-143.
  • [33] Campbell, M. (2012) ‘Why the silence on population?’, in Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, eds P.  Cafaro and E. Crist, Georgia, US: University of Georgia Press: 41-55.
  • [34] Engelman, R. (2016) Nine population strategies to stop short of 9 billion. In A Future Beyond Growth: Towards a steady state economy; H. Washington and P. Twomey, eds. New York: Routledge.
  • [35] Brown, L. (2011) World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
  • [36] PMC (no date) Population Media Center website, see: https://www.populationmedia.org/.
  • [37] Staples, W. and Cafaro, P. (2012) ‘For a species right to exist’, in Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, eds. P.  Cafaro and E. Crist, Georgia, US: University of Georgia Press: 283-300.

Bibliography

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  • Assadourian, E. (2013) ‘Re-engineering cultures to create a sustainable civilization’, in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • AWS (2017) World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Alliance of World Scientists, (accessed 2 March 2019).
  • Brown, L. (2011) World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
  • Butler, T. (2012) ‘Colussus versus liberty: A bloated humanity’s assault on freedom’, in Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, eds. P. Cafaro and E. Crist, Georgia, US: University of Georgia Press: 160-171.
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  • Carrington, D. (2018) Paul Ehrlich: 'Collapse of civilisation is a near certainty within decades’, The Guardian, 22 March, See:.
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  • Crist, E., Mora, C. and Engelman, R. (2017) The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356: 260-264.
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  • Ehrlich, P., Ehrlich, A. and Holdren, J. (1977) Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, New York: WH Frpeeman and Co.
  • Engelman, R. (2012) ‘Nine population strategies to stop short of 9 billion’, in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • Engelman, R. (2013) ‘Beyond sustainababble’, in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. L. Starke, Washington: Island Press.
  • Engelman, R. (2016) Nine population strategies to stop short of 9 billion. In A Future Beyond Growth: Towards a steady state economy; H. Washington and P. Twomey, eds. New York: Routledge.
  • Hartmann, B., Meyerson, F., Guillebaud, J., Chamie, J. and Desvaux, M. (2008) ‘Population and climate change’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 16th April 2008, see:  http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/roundtables/population-and-climate-change.
  • Hulme, M. (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • IPBES (2019) ‘Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’’, press release Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, see: https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.
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  • Kopnina, H. and Washington, H. (2016) Discussing why population growth is still ignored or denied, Chinese Journal of Population Resources and Environment, 14 (2): 133-143.
  • MEA (2005) Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Wellbeing, Statement from the Board, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), see: https://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.429.aspx.pdf  (accessed 19 Feb 2018).
  • PM (2010) ‘Capacity population’, Population Matters leaflet, see: http://populationmatters.org/documents/capacity_leaflet.pdf (accessed 15/11/11).
  • PMC (no date) Population Media Center website, see: https://www.populationmedia.org/.
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  • UNDESA (2017) World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, see: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html (accessed 26 Aug 2018).
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  • WPB (no date) ‘Current population is three times the sustainable level’, see: https://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable (accessed 17 March 2019).

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