Reduce population growth

On this page:

  1. Quick revision of the problem
  2. Population solutions are positive!
  3. Richer nations don’t have as many kids: the demographic transition
  4. Poorer nations can transition too! Kerala, India.
  5. Education and opportunity for women
  6. Backwards feedback loops
  7. Does IPAT doom us?
  8. Any first world growth demands open population debate!
  9. Conclusion
  10. Population Campaigns and further reading

1. Quick revision of the problem

Common sense tells us that a finite planet cannot support an infinite number of people. My summary argument is that by almost any measure we apply, we are both consuming more of the earth’s resources than ever before, and growing in numbers more than ever before. It’s not just that we consume more, it is also the sheer number of consumers. Our species is growing at more than 75 million people a year.

2. Population solutions are positive!

As I have already suggested, campaigning directly for “Population control” can raise all sorts of hackles. Population campaigners are often portrayed as belonging to some sort of global eugenics conspiracy or secret society for world domination (which should be distinguished from my contributing to  an open, democratic, public discussion about the benefits of world government. Sadly I have not yet been paid a billion dollars by the Bilderberger group for putting this opinion on my blog. 😉

Preventing overpopulation does not have to be seen as a negative attack on the human species. Indeed, it doesn’t even have to mention population control at all! This is because the factors that lower population growth and stabilise national populations are good things to campaign for in and of themselves.

3. Richer nations don’t have as many kids: the demographic transition

As the wiki explains:

  • In stage one, pre-industrial society, death rates and birth rates are high and roughly in balance.
  • In stage two, that of a developing country, the death rates drop rapidly due to improvements in food supply and sanitation, which increase life spans and reduce disease. These changes usually come about due to improvements in farming techniques, access to technology, basic healthcare, and education. Without a corresponding fall in birth rates this produces an imbalance, and the countries in this stage experience a large increase in population.
  • In stage three, birth rates fall due to access to contraception, increases in wages, urbanization, a reduction in subsistence agriculture, an increase in the status and education of women, a reduction in the value of children’s work, an increase in parental investment in the education of children and other social changes. Population growth begins to level off.
  • During stage four there are both low birth rates and low death rates. Birth rates may drop to well below replacement level as has happened in countries like Germany, Italy, and Japan, leading to a shrinking population, a threat to many industries that rely on population growth. As the large group born during stage two ages, it creates an economic burden on the shrinking working population. Death rates may remain consistently low or increase slightly due to increases in lifestyle diseases due to low exercise levels and high obesity and an aging population in developed countries.

Hans Rosling’s talk at TED 2010 is a classic for illustrating this point. Watch his 10 minute presentation involving ‘analogue’ Ikea buckets to illustrate population growth. But then stay tuned for his digital population map. This shows how the fertility rates of developing countries has changed since the 1960’s. Watch what happens to the number of babies women in developing nations have as the country moves from poverty and low child survival rates to some economic security and higher child survival rates. They feel secure enough to have less children!

So what is wrong with being a bit more like Bono and campaigning for the end of poverty, debt relief in Africa, treatment and prevention of AIDS, fresh drinking water for kids in developing nations, food and education programs, and sponsoring a child’s education in the 3rd world? (Which I have done the last 25 years). All of these positive social justice issues can eventually contribute to a demographic transition even if the country semi-industrialises, as we shall now see.

4. Poorer nations can transition too. 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 climate author and sustainability guru 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?

5. Education and opportunity for women

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.”

So again, what is so hard about campaigning about overpopulation? If we frame the debate around the causes above, surely we’ll gain nothing but praise for our cause?

But if they were at all to mention that these grand movements could also lead to population stabilisation, the conspiracy theory nutters would be all over them like so many sticky tar-babies. Indeed as one Gristmill author 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.

Population — Quit talking about it already

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.

6. Backwards feedback loops

Yet in developing nations, this situation can very quickly work in reverse in a negative feedback loop sending them back into crushing poverty and the desperation that leads to population growth again.

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.

7. Does IPAT doom us?

­IPAT is the classic formula that emerged in the 1970’s that described our total environmental IMPACT as:

IMPACT = Population * Affluence (consumption) * Technology

I = P * A * T

The basic point was that if there were already too many of us using using too much stuff with the wrong polluting technologies, then more of us would make the situation even worse.

So for illustration purposes only (which is what IPAT is all about really), let’s pretend that an American consumption level has an IMPACT of 1, and dirty energy multiplies that by 2. The Footprint PDF shows how carbon emissions alone push us way past ‘one planet living’ (the green line, or world biocapacity). In other words, fossil fuels equal all our other impacts combined, effectively doubling our environmental footprint!Footprint 2012

So let’s express the graph above in IPAT.

IMPACT = Population * Affluence (consumption) * Technology

Impact =  7 billion * 1 American lifestyle *  2 energy footprint = 14 billion.

That’s terrible! That impact of ’14 billion’ describes today’s world, with polluted rivers, shrinking rivers, dying fisheries, impoverished croplands, growing deserts, toxic oceans and climate change.

What if we cleaned up the energy? What if we did what the French have already done, and ran an emergency 20 year program to replace ALL our coal with clean nuclear energy, and used nuclear energy to recharge alternatives to oil? If we did that, we could halve our global ecological impact. Our ecological impact would be under the world biocapacity, otherwise known as ‘one planet living’.

Impact = 7 billion * 1 consumption *  1 energy footprint = 7 billion.

According to the graph above, clean energy alone has put us back into one planet living. We can also improve the technologies and behaviours for how we use water, farming, forestry, fishing, cities, etc.

Indeed, Worldchanging imagines modern industrial ecosystems that restore the world instead of destroy it, that have  ‘handprints’ of stewardship not ‘footprints’ of destruction. We can get there. We just have to get the legislation through as soon as possible. And we may just discover that a nuclear green world of 10 billion people is an awesome place to enjoy!

8. Any first world growth demands open population debate

Even though I’m for the positive solutions in developing nations, it seems we must fight denial of the limits to growth when our governments appear so addicted to it!

Professor Albert Bartlett wrote the Massive Movement to Marginalize the Modern Malthusian Message, and it is uncomfortable to hear how so many environmentalists have been completely marginalised by mentioning the “P” word.

Malthusian remains an ugly word, but also remains ecologically 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, but even the wonderful technologies I mentioned above cannot realistically reduce our environmental impact down past zero. The precautionary principle should most definitely apply against any significant population growth occurring in first world countries, especially over-consumers like us here in Australia!

9. Conclusion

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 scientists and authors are questioning how long we have before ecosystem services collapse.  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.

10. Population Campaigns 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 essays on Carrying Capacity

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

3 Responses to Reduce population growth

  1. pyrotex says:

    How large a human population can the Earth sustain? That depends on what condition we leave the Earth in. Had we stopped pop-growth back in, say 1960, we might have been able to creep up to 4B or 5B people sustainably today. But we didnt’. If we do not stop pop-growth until after the rain-forests are gone, and insect diversity is devastated, then we might be lucky to have the Earth sustain 1B. And a very bleak Earth it will be.

    • eclipsenow says:

      Yes, good point Pyrotex… I hope my argument above doesn’t sound like I’m recommending we try and stuff as many human beings on the planet as we can! I guess I’m just trying to look realistically at the trends, and what might happen as a result and where we can find good solutions in the “T” in I=PAT.


  2. Pingback: Reduce population growth | Eclipse Now

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