Heads Count: Global Population Speak Out, February 2010

By Sharon Ede

It took virtually all of human history for our numbers to reach 1 billion in the 1800s. It took only about a century to add the second billion in 1930. We added the third billion in just 30 years and the fourth in only 15 years. We are now at 6.7 billion with projections of over 2 billion more to come in the next 40 years.

Global Population Speak Out

Creating a postgrowth world means moving beyond the growth consensus, which depends on more and more people consuming more and more stuff.

Once growth becomes uneconomic — hurting people and the environment, even if it seems to be desirable in the short term — then its drivers and the assumptions behind them should be open to debate.

To move beyond growth, we need to address how much we are consuming [and why], and how many of us there are consuming. Both are equally important factors in the equation of human impacts on the earth.

However, challenging either consumption or population is fraught with pitfalls, as there are currently social and political taboos associated with both.

Politicians of all flavours champion growth and encourage consumption at every opportunity — at the same time as people are being encouraged to reduce their greenhouse emissions, water use and other resource use. Which is it to be — the ‘eat more’ message or the ‘eat less’ message?

But if you think trying to talk about consumption — how people spend their money — is taboo, try starting a conversation about population.

The Population Taboo

If you raise the topic, there is a high likelihood that any attempt to discuss the issue will be taken personally, or will be turned back on the person who dared intrude in one of the most personal and intimate areas of the human experience. If you have kids, you are a hypocrite. If you don’t have kids, you won’t know what you are talking about, or you’re ‘anti-children’. You may be accused of being anti-immigration or being racist. At the most ridiculous extreme, US shock-jock Rush Limbaugh suggested that if New York Times reporter Andy Revkin was so concerned about climate change and population growth, he should take his own life. [Revkin had floated the idea of carbon credits for one-child families as “purely a thought experiment, not a proposal.”]

Anything to shoot the messenger and keep the taboo in place.

Anything to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging the issue, its implications and what can fairly and humanely be done about it.

It is a highly emotive topic, but if we are serious about ensuring that everyone’s kids — now and in the future — can have the best life possible, then we need to be able to have an open and honest debate about this issue.

Breaking the Taboo, Speaking Out

To help kickstart this conversation, The Population Institute has initiated a project called the ‘Global Population Speak Out’ (GPSO). The purpose of the GPSO is to weaken the taboo against public discussion of population issues by harnessing and focusing many individual voices — who otherwise might be more easily ignored or marginalised — in a co-ordinated approach :

‘GPSO was born of a simple idea: What if a large number of qualified voices worldwide, many of whom might not have emphasized the topic previously, were to speak out on overpopulation all at once? The strength of numbers might help weaken the taboo and bring population issues to a more prominent position in the global discussion.’

Being able to sensitively raise and effectively sustain conversations on this issue is critical to breaking the taboo. The GPSO has compiled a list of common objections and responses that emerge in the population debate.

Three of the issues often raised in population discussions include:

Consumption is certainly an issue, and it could be argued that if people in industrialised countries wish to consume at the level we do, that maybe there are too many of us! However we need to address both population and consumption in all countries — many non-industrialised countries have consumer classes, and there are a range of population issues in the industrialised countries also in relation to local carrying capacity [eg. water, sprawl] and population-related policies, what governments are incentivising, etc.

Not addressing overall numbers of people, on the basis that some people consume vastly less, assumes that those people will remain in a state of material poverty. Billions of people around the world need to have their material living standards raised to meet basic needs, and beyond, to enjoy a good quality of life. As a large percentage of humanity who currently have a low impact increase their demand for resources, there will be more competition for resources, which makes the situation more precarious for those who are already vulnerable.

As important as it is to reduce our per capita consumption, no living person can bring his or her resource consumption down to zero. Only the absence of a person can do that.

Global Population Speak Out

If we want to end extreme poverty and meet every human being’s needs, as well as ensuring we are not undermining the ability of the earth’s systems to meet those needs, we must address both population and consumption.

Population control, with its spectre of forced sterilisations and other draconian measures, are not what those seeking a discussion on population are advocating.

The most effective ways of addressing population are to empower women and girls through education and access [physical and cultural] to family planning, education and economic independence. This has been an integral part of lowering birth rates in industrialised nations.

Reduction of infant mortality and provision of a social safety net are also factors — if there is greater likelihood that children will survive, and that children will not be the only avenue of support in old age, people are more likely to choose to have smaller families [as they have done in industrialised countries, where women have greater economic and family planning choices, and there are low levels of infant mortality].

Far from violating human rights, seeking to prevent ecological collapse through addressing population and empowering women could in fact be the biggest step we could take to securing human rights.

In industrialised countries, the approach might mean reviewing levels of immigration, and removing any incentives to have children beyond the replacement rate of two children per family — this doesn’t mean you can’t have more than two children, just that you won’t be rewarded for having more than two.

One of the main concerns underpinning the fuelling of growth in industrialised societies is how are we going to take care of an ageing population demographic — we need more people of working age to support the increasing ranks of elders who live longer, who often require more [and more expensive] health care, and often end up in high levels of dependent care.

Until the 20th century, when improved sanitation and medical care enabled us to live longer lives than any of our ancestors, humanity did not have this problem at this scale. It is a real issue. But is this grow-more-young-to-support-the old approach — a population Ponzi scheme — simply deferring, rather than tackling, the problem?

Alex Steffen of Worldchanging expressed this in his 2008 article on ‘Peak Population’:

1) The longer population growth rates remain high, the more total people there will be on the planet when we reach peak population, so one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.

2) If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face — a comparatively less crowded planet is an easier planet on which to build a bright green future.

When that population wave eventually crests — and it will — how high do we want the wave to be?

We need to think more creatively about how to address this genuine social concern — how to care for our elders with dignity — but not by encouraging more population growth to defer an even bigger problem that will need to be addressed.

Taking Action

To help weaken the population taboo, the GPSO is asking people to sign a pledge to ‘…speak out in some way on the importance of addressing the current size and growth of human population during February 2010.

Speaking out could be via a letter to the editor of a newspaper or large scientific journal, talk back radio, social media or some kind of creative public action.

As of mid January 2010, there were over 230 pledges to participate in this project, which has been endorsed by Paul Ehrlich among many others.

For further information or to sign the pledge, go to:


And when the going gets tough, remember you are in good company in raising this important humanitarian and ecologial issue:

One of the greatest challenges today is the population explosion. Unless we are able to tackle this issue effectively we will be confronted with the problem of the natural resources being inadequate for all the human beings on this earth.

- The Dalai Lama [Statement by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the new Millennium January 1, 2001] www.fpmt.org/teachers/hhdl/newmill.asp

Originally published at http://postgrowth.org on January 17, 2010.




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Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).