Reduce population growth

My population post has turned into a WordPress PAGE on this link.

Note: This page is still being edited, a work in progress for a few months. (Very busy, and yet lots of reading is required).

On this page:

  1. Quick revision of the problem
  2. Population solutions can be positive, not negative!
  3. Education and opportunity for women — the example of Kerala, India.
  4. Public health, basic infrastructure, and financial security in old age
  5. First world growth, or, ‘When the “P” word MUST be discussed!’
  6. So… how many people Dave?
  7. Conclusion
  8. Campaigners and further reading

1. Quick revision of the problem
Remember my summary statement from the Impact of Growth

The good news is we can replace some measure of the other functions of oil with the products of local renewable ecosystem services. The bad news is those services are dying.

Then we concluded that the single greatest threat to viable ecosystems was not just our high consumption lifestyle, but also the size of the population that consumes.

And as Professor Richard Heinberg said…

“It is important to address individual “solutions” honesty and objectively. As we will see, some are actually quite promising in a limited sense. However, we must not allow our excitement over partial answers to cause us to lose sight of the real dilemma that confronts us — which, ultimately, is the fact that there are simply too many of us using too many of the Earth’s resources too quickly.
(From Powerdown — Page 119).

2. Population solutions can be positive, not negative!
As I have already suggested, campaigning directly for “Population control” can raise all sorts of hackles. Yet it doesn’t have to be so. Having a stable population is primarily a humanitarian concern. The factors that lower population growth are good things to campaign for in and of themselves.

Rock stars like Bono campaign for improvement of 3rd world conditions, funding for AIDS, debt relief, education and equal rights for women, clean water and basic infrastructure for all, and basic financial security for the world’s poor and elderly. Indeed, all the various campaigns that try to protect human dignity and basic economic opportunity for developing countries help the larger population cause. These are all ingredients that lead to the mysterious “Demographic transition” that we are after, and each is worth campaigning for in their own right. Indeed, one Gristmill author who takes overpopulation very seriously says:

It’s obviously relevant to the ecological health of the planet that there are so many human beings on it. In the long-term, we human beings need to vastly reduce both our per-capita and our aggregate environmental footprint. That almost certainly means scaling human population back from the 9 billion or so it’s expected to hit later this century — how far back is up for debate, but probably a lot. So why not talk about that more?
For me, as usual, it’s about effectiveness.

See Population — Quit talking about it already

So let’s look at the strategies we can campaign for in their own right that also have the wonderful side effect of population stability. After listing a few of these very positive campaigns, we will focus on any areas where population just has to be addressed as an issue itself, out in the open.

3. Education and opportunity for women: Kerala, India
Kerala district India once had a very high population growth rate in a poverty stricken area. Things have now turned around so much that Bill McKibben states on Wikipedia:

Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Consider: This small state in India, though not much larger than Maryland, has a population as big as California’s and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America’s and falling faster. Kerala’s citizens live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there’s truly no place like it.[11]

McKibben states it even more strongly on Utne Reader:

It is, in other words, weird–like one of those places where the starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off. It undercuts maxims about the world we consider almost intuitive: Rich people are healthier, rich people live longer, rich people have more opportunity for education, rich people have fewer children. We know all these things to be true–and yet here is a countercase, a demographic Himalaya suddenly rising on our mental atlas. It’s as if someone demonstrated in a lab that flame didn’t necessarily need oxygen, or that water could freeze at 60 degrees. It demands a new chemistry to explain it, a whole new science.

What could possibly be behind this exception to the rule? Once all the variables are removed, one of the main characteristics in nations that have beaten population growth is the empowerment and education of women. As Wikipedia says “Kerala’s gender relations are among the most equitable in India and the Majority World”.[73] and “Kerala’s literacy rate (91%)[75] and life expectancy (73 years)[75] are now the highest in India.”

The United Nations Population Fund puts it this way:

Every three years of additional education correlates with up to one less child per woman.

But why? Sharon Astyk writes:

The first factor, education, works in several ways. Literacy for women benefits families in a number of ways. It increases her health (a literate woman can read material about health and hygiene practices), it increases her family’s security (if her husband dies, she can get a better job), it increases her desire to see her children receive education and it increases her political power – she can read and understand national issues. Mandatory education for all children serves to remove children from the labour pool, and makes children not producers, but consumers, and thus parents are forced to view their children in that light.


Women have high literacy rates and political power. Women are comparatively well protected from rape, and can choose their husbands. A 1994 study by Yale Economist Paul Schultz found that female literacy was perhaps the most defining factor in TFR in poor nations. In India, Kerala, with a 100% female literacy rate has a 1.7 TFR, compared to a 4.1 TFR in regions with a 30% literacy rate

Or, as Robert Engelman said (Vice President at the Worldwatch Institute), in his new book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want….

“By making their own decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their children, women ultimately bring about a global good that governments could never deliver through regulation or control: a population in balance with nature’s resources.”

Further reading:
Worldwatch: More on the book “More”.
Worldwatch: Fertility Falls, Population Rises, Future Uncertain
Paul Shultz’s 49 page report, “Why Governments should do more to educate girls” is HERE in PDF.

4. Public health, basic infrastructure, and financial security in old age
Another very popular campaign is working against hunger and poverty. At first glance, basic health care and nutrition would seem to ensure the survival of more children, and more people, and make the problem of overpopulation worse. However, the way human beings behave when life’s most basic needs are met contradicts this assumption. We really can campaign for these good things knowing that eventually it will help reduce the overall population problem. Here’s why.

Basic nutrition ensures proper development of babies and children, and that they can work and learn more efficiently.

Clean water and public health guarantees that more children will survive into adulthood, will reach their potential, will spend less time sick and debilitated and can contribute and work towards the success of their local village. The success of the local region’s basic economy then leads to an overall well being and survival of children that reduces the pressure to have more in case some children do not make it into their adult lives. A successful basic economy also leads to our next goal, which is:

A basic financial security or ‘safety net’ in old age. We are not talking about enormous superannuation schemes — it seems that just having the security that you are going to be able to eat is enough. Security in retirement and old age helps prevent the third-world mindset that having lots of children acts as a kind of “superannuation and retirement plan” for subsistence families.

There are many advances in renewable energy, clean water infrastructure, and sustainable Agrichar food systems that can add to the viability of traditional villages and basic infrastructure needs of the 3rd world. This is why many population campaigners understand the need for overseas aid. EG: See the Sustainable Population Australia Policy document footnotes after point 29. It’s all about foreign aid. We can solve this problem as we learn to be more equitable and share our resources and knowledge.

This is why the accusations against population campaigners are so harsh and unfair. “You just hate people don’t you? You’d be happy about all those African’s dyeing of aids.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from these epithets directed against us being so offensive, Disasters like the AIDS epidemic in Africa actually work against our cause.

As Sharon Astyk again:

What is true is that population instability does create poverty – for example, the death of 20 million people in Africa to AIDS has left economies stripped, societies filled with children and elderly people caring for them, while the central working generation is ill and dying. Into this situation comes greater poverty, lower educational levels for women, despair, greater need for young women to become prostitutes, and a rising birth rate in some places, massive economic gaps in others. A slow stabilisation of population is probably better than wild fluctuations brought about by short term conditions.

If we can just help meet the most basic human needs for clean water, food security and some education, 3rd world nations will have a hand out of the gutter and leapfrog past our silly “oil age” into something far more sustainable. We will see population levels stabilise and maybe even decline. Eventually, we might even learn some things about sustainability from them.

5. First world growth, or, ‘When the “P” word MUST be discussed!’
Demographic transition is the technical name we give to Majority world nations that have already moved through a variety of stages to finally have a stable or reducing population. Most first world nations would have decreasing populations but for immigration. We would already have achieved our goals of a stable population but for “politicians and the business lobby jump up and down shrieking that population growth is essential to maintain economic growth and living standards”. The Age This brings us to the first time the “P” word must be mentioned.

Vested interests: Population growth as artificial economic growth
(more soon)

Confronting denial
We must fight denial of the problem when our governments employ “specialists” that try to disprove the thermodynamic realities of the population issue. Please read Albert Bartlett’s The Massive Movement to Marginalize the Modern Malthusian Message. Yes Blogger: Eclipse Now – Edit Post “Reduce population growth”. Malthusian remains an ugly word, but also remains thermodynamically accurate. There will be all sorts of pressure to drop Population off the radar, even from within the sustainability movement itself! As David Nicholson-Lord writes,

So why isn’t the green movement talking about population any more? In its early days, back in the 60s and 70s, population growth was a mainstream concern. Groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE), WWF and Oxfam took well-publicised positions on population issues – endorsing the Stop at Two (children) slogan, supporting zero population growth and publishing reports with titles such as Already Too Many (Oxfam). These days, Greenpeace declares that population is “not an issue for us” and describes it as “a factor [in] but not one of the drivers of” environmental problems.

FOE last year tried to answer some “common questions” on the subject, including: “Why isn’t Friends of the Earth tackling population growth?” Oxfam, which as recently as 1994 published a report entitled World Population: The Biggest Problem of All, now does not list it among the dozen or so “issues we work on”, and nor does it figure in the “What you can do” section of WWF’s One Planet Living campaign.

The green lobby’s main argument is that numbers do not matter so much – it is how we live and consume that counts. FoE even remarks that “it is unhelpful to enter into a debate about numbers. The key issue is the need for the government to implement policies that respect environmental limits, whatever the population of the UK”. It is a statement that seems to treat population and environmental limits as entirely separate subjects.

There are two powerful counter-arguments to this. One is common sense: that consumption and numbers matter and that if a consumer is absent – that is, unborn – then so is his or her consumption. The second is the weight of evidence. Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, told a parliamentary inquiry last year: “It is self-evident that the massive growth in the human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor.”

The Friends of the Earth seem all for reducing Impact through lessening Affluence / consumption and Technology. However, as we have seen, this is fundamentally flawed. IAT can be reduced by 50%, but if we then let P grow by 50% we are back where we started. If P grows above 50%, our ecosystem services will be worse off than they are even now! We simply must remember IPAT.

6. So… how many people Dave?
The bottom line from many experts is that the world’s ecosystem services are in such a bad way, and the fuse on these potential time bombs are all so short, that we should be implementing worldwide population policies as a matter of national security. When a Pulitzer prize winner like Jared Diamond says we have 2 to 3 decades to resolve these issues one way or another, we know that it’s time to take the precautionary principle seriously and get cracking!

IPAT seems simple, but the variables are enormous. Respectable peak-oil authors such as Richard Heinberg have argued quite decisively for a post-oil world population of only about 2 billion, given that this was roughly the world population before industrialization and modern agriculture. Others like James Lovelock estimate the figure to be even lower, around only 500 million! However, while I hold these authors in high regard, I do wonder if anyone can have all the latest data on renewable energy improvements and agricultural reforms. If we can solve global warming through Agrichar, reduce city footprints through Ecocities, run our society on renewable energy, and generally heal local ecologies for local economic stability, I’m sure our overall footprint on the earth will be radically reduced. IPAT is still true, but the AT are radically reduced in my idealized picture of the world.

However, this picture remains a pipe-dream until we actually build all of this infrastructure. And how are we going to afford this when the world’s marketplace is bankrupted by peak oil, and with what energy are we going to build all of this after peak oil and gas?

All of these innovations in city planning and renewable energy remain utopian fantasies until governments, laws, people, and cultures change to implement them. So ultimately population targets must employ the precautionary principle in setting the limit that as low as humanely possible.

We have an oil crisis now.
We have an ecological crisis now.
We have a global warming crisis now.

We also have exponential growth in human knowledge, and the ability to change cultures, energy systems, city plans and zoning, and enact emergency legislation for the new conditions we will face. We can and do adapt to new realities. Will we do so in time? Will people care enough? What will you do to help alleviate this situation by spreading awareness?

8. Conclusion
I’ll leave you with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Science Department statement.

To sum up, the warning from The Club of Rome remains valid. The British science writer H.G. Wells once said that life was a race between education and disaster. The Club went to the effort of issuing the warning not out of a sense that we are all destined to be destroyed in an environmental catastrophe, but in the optimistic belief that it is possible to build a better world and that humankind can be mobilized for that task.

Campaigners and further reading
Sustainable Population Australia has a page of the challenges we face, the policy solutions, and what you can do.

Optimum Population Trust (in the UK) has some fantastic essays and campaign tools.

Bruce Sundquist has heaps of essays on Carrying Capacity

See another Albert Bartlett essay, Is there a population problem?

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