Why We Must Talk About Population

Assadourian, Erik | October 10, 2017 | Leave a Comment

2 | 4 | 8 by LIZ | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Erik Assadourian responds to David Roberts’ Self-Censorship on Overpopulation. This article is cross-published by the Worldwatch Institute and Resilience.org.

Reading David Roberts’ recent explanation of why he never writes on overpopulation, I felt compelled to reply. While Roberts made a set of superficially convincing arguments, ultimately he’s wrong not to focus directly on the population pressures we’re facing. Not confronting population head-on is like looking out the window of a plane and realizing you’re about to crash but refusing to tell the other passengers about the impending crash. Instead you spend your remaining moments convincing people that it’s “empowering” to wear their seat belts. That it’s a good for their health to put their laptops away and hold their head between their legs. Sure, you’ll convince some—and those you do convince might be better off—but you’ll convince far fewer as the sense of urgency is gone.

Reducing the global population is essential in addressing humanity’s impact on the planet—along with reducing overall consumption (affluence) and the use of unsustainable technologies (all variables in the I = PAT equation). And after the missteps of the Sierra Club and some governments, Roberts can be excused for why he feels it may be smarter to simply address the P in the equation indirectly by focusing on women empowerment and providing good access to family planning (and I would add providing comprehensive sexuality education to all children, as Mona Kaidbey and Robert Engelman and discuss in EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet). But that won’t be enough.

Stabilizing population is urgent. The goal should not simply be to nudge along a little less growth so population stabilizes at 9 billion rather than 9.5 or 10 billion. Instead, we need to make a long term plan to get population back to a manageable range. How far to scale population back, as noted 10 years ago by Roberts in another essay on why he doesn’t talk about population, “is up for debate, but probably a lot.” Some, including Paul Ehrlich, have suggested the ideal population range is around 1-3 billion, depending on how badly we have damaged the Earth’s systems and how much we want to consume moving forward. If Roberts is serious when he says he wants poor countries to be less poor “than their forebearers” then that means the Affluence variable in the I = PAT equation will increase. Yes, affluence elsewhere must shrink in accordance (and I wholeheartedly agree that wealth inequities need to be grappled with as does consumerism more broadly), but our population—particularly the 2-3 billion of us in the global consumer class—is completely overwhelming Earth’s systems.

One-Planet Living

In Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Jennie Moore and William Rees explored what a one-planet lifestyle would look like (in a world with 7 billion not 9.5 billion) and their analysis shows that if we lived within Earth’s limits, gone would be the days of driving personal vehicles, flying, eating meat, living in large homes, and essentially the entire consumer society that we know today. Frankly, that’s fine with me, considering the ecological, social and health costs of modern society—but most will not accept that. And considering that—and that policymakers and economists and even most environmentalists still believe further economic growth is possible and even beneficial—it’s increasingly hard to imagine any scenario other than a horrifying ecological collapse in our future.

That is another reason why we should prioritize population degrowth. Every million people not born is a million not to die when climate change brings about terrible flooding, droughts, disasters and famines it will in the increasingly near future. And please don’t take this to the absurd extreme of ‘well, let’s just stop reproducing altogether and then there’ll be no suffering.’ I’m not saying people should have no children at all (here’s another Tucker Carlson video for you to enjoy, this one with the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement).

But people should have far fewer kids—particularly in overdeveloped countries like the United States. I personally chose to have one child, even though both my wife and I would like to have a second. But I deemed it morally irresponsible, or in the words of bioethicist Travis Rieder, not ‘honorable’ to have a second, particularly knowing what’s in store for our kids in the coming century, and knowing that by living in the United States, I am a ravenous consumer no matter how hard I try to be otherwise.

Historical Efforts

Roberts also selectively focuses on history to better make his point—providing examples of the Sierra Club brouhaha but not the work of all the population organizations that helped shift population trends in a positive direction. And while there have certainly been tragic missteps—such as India’s efforts at forced sterilization—there have been unqualified successes. In his book Countdown, Alan Weissman describes the amazing case study of Iran, which through a focused campaign, reduced population growth dramatically. Yes, the primary tactics were to provide free family planning and education, which I don’t think anyone will disagree are very smart tactics, but the government was clear in its goal and the urgency—and also supplemented its efforts with social marketing to create a smaller “normal” family size, including advertisements on TV, banners, and billboards explaining that “One is good. Two is enough.” Similar successes can be seen in the efforts of the Population Media Center that uses soap operas to shift norms around population size.

While I don’t know if the numbers were or could ever be estimated, efforts like Iran’s and PMC’s, like Stephanie Mills committing so publicly to never have children at the height of her reproductive years, and Paul Ehrlich capturing the public’s attention with his warnings about the population bomb, all of these helped focus our collective attention on population issues in the 1960’s and 70’s and certainly helped slow population growth.

Ultimately, Ehrlich, with as much criticism as he receives, was not wrong about the population bomb. His warnings and the efforts they helped trigger—along with the Green Revolution—allowed us to extend the fuse. But in all those years, the fissile material has also been building, and when the bomb finally explodes, the shockwaves will be felt around the world. In fact, even Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution warned, “Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong,” which Borlaug noted cannot continue indefinitely unless we cut down our forests, which he implored us not to do, “the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before.”

Borlaug scared the baby.
Borlaug scared the baby.


On Immigration

As for immigrants—sure it probably wasn’t the best idea for Professor Phil Cafaro to go on Tucker Carlson’s show to support anti-immigrant sentiments, but Cafaro’s point is valid, even if uncomfortable and confusing for progressives. Until America has a one-planet footprint, all new immigrants are going to increase global impacts because they’ll consume more in the US than in their home countries. (This even suggests all adoption ideally should be domestic, which opens a-whole-nother can of worms!)

That’s not to say we should ban immigration or foreign adoption, but it means we should have a clear plan around immigration (along with one on reducing American consumption) and we should offset immigration by reductions in births of Americans (easier done if we have a population goal in mind for the United States). This offset is essentially what’s happening in European countries that have smaller than replacement rate birthrates—but the problem there is that this cultivates anti-immigrant sentiments as white European populations darken. With America at least, we have always been an immigrant nation so theoretically we could adapt, though obviously the current administration and its supporters are fomenting the same fears and biases that Americans have shown since its early days, as waves of immigrants from Ireland, Southern Europe, China, and Mexico started arriving.

Setting Goals

Is it so scary or morally fraught to start advocating for a smaller global population—or at the very least start talking openly about population challenges? Is it impossible to imagine nurturing a one-child family size norm in the US and Europe (where each child’s impact is many times greater than a child’s in a developing country)? One is good. Two is enough. Three is too many.

As Roberts notes, momentum is already bringing us toward smaller family sizes—but that same momentum is also bringing us toward higher consumption rates. Some smart social marketing and celebrity modeling could bring us toward reductions in population (as well as consumption) quicker. Breaking the myth that sole children are spoiled and lonely—as Bill McKibben did in his great book Maybe One—would be a good place to start. As would showing the economic and environmental benefits of having one child. And so would making it cool to have one child. Perhaps that’s the marketing slogan we use: “It’s Hip to Have One.”

And let developing countries shape their own population targets so as to avoid the obvious criticisms of imperialism (maybe it’s even time for a Framework Convention on Population Growth to go along with the Framework Convention on Climate Change—so all countries can feel ownership in this effort). But clearly, population stabilization is as important in developing countries—not because of the immediate effects on human impact (I), but because as Earth systems finally break down after the decades of abuse we’ve delivered, people are going to retreat from their flooding towns, their drought stricken lands, their war-torn regions, and they’re going to have to go somewhere. And then the right-wing extremists will say “we told you so,” waving their copies of Camp of Saints in their hands as they do, and be perfectly poised to take over more government institutions—and that may be the population crisis’ scariest outcome of all.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and a sustainability researcher who is primarily focused on rooting out the plague of consumerism and overconsumption, but recognizes that population is also a major threat to human civilization and the thriving of the biosphere.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/must-talk-about-population/

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  • Greeley Miklashek

    Great conversation but here are a few additional facts to ponder: (1) population density stress can be identified as causal in ALL human “diseases of civilization”, none of which are found in traditional hunter-gatherer populations; (2) animal researches by John B. Calhoun and others have demonstrated a “kill-switch” phenomenon, which occurs at a high population density, whereby ALL reproduction ceases across the entire popluation–W.C. Alee first discovered this in crowded fruit flies in the 1920’s; (3) moralizing about the need for population reduction due to “overshoot” hasn’t worked. Hagai Levine in Israel has published a paper recently on the 50-60% decrease in sperm counts among Western men and warns of an IMMINENT population crash and human extinction. In the US, infertility has increased 100% in the past 34 years: 8% in 1982, but 16.7% in 2016. ONLY self-interest will change our behavior. Stress R Us (available as a free PDF on this website e-library)

    • Anthony Judge

      Excellent points, succinctly made. As I have pointed out however, the question is both why there is general indifference to such points, and a failure to ask why that is the case. Making catastrophic points about population is valuable but the challenge is why we are unable to address the psychic numbering they have by now engendered. Presenting more catastrophic points may be a valuable safety valve for some, but does it enable us to engage with cultivated indifference?

      • Greeley Miklashek

        Did you know that it was population density stress that was causing ALL the diseases that you and your family have had to seek medical attention for? Do you know exactly what neuro-endocrine mechanisms are causing these diseases? I have read everything I could find on this subject and never seen these mechanisms described anywhere else, so I wrote “Stress R Us” over the second half of a 40 year medical career. This is not some well meaning intellectual exercise, as so many of our erstwhile efforts seem to be. It is, rather, the shocking truth of why we Americans are so sick and getting sicker daily: 85% see a physician at least annually, 4.3 billion Rx are consumed annually, 1/5 will suffer a Major Depressive episode, 1/6 have taken psychotropic meds, 1/6 are now infertile and climbing rapidly, over 50% will have either cancer or heart disease or both by age 65, 1/3 American adults have high blood pressure and a growing number are untreatable, neuro-developmental disorders are ever more prevalent as are sexual identity problems, etc. These are facts we either choose to face or avoid facing. And the real clincher is that our hunter-gatherer fellows still living traditional life-ways have NONE of these diseases. NONE. NONE. NONE! Want the facts on the personal, individual health destroying effects of overpopulation? Read the free e-book PDF in the MAHB library on this website: “Stress R Us”. My patients over a 40 year medical practice brought me to these conclusions in my efforts to alleviate their suffering and they made me promise to share this information with a wider audience. Good luck! Questions? Suggestions? Email me at: gmiklashek950@gmail.com

  • trilemmaman

    Here is what the population experts said decades ago…. WHY do effective pathways to POPULATION reduction continue to be ignored by many focused on “OVER-POPULATION”?

    “The critical prerequisites to reduced fertility are five: adequate nutrition, proper sanitation, basic health care, education of women, and equal rights for women.”
    Paul Ehrlich, The Population Explosion. 1991

    The secret key that unlocks the door on the impasse in Cairo at the World Conference on Population can be mouthed in one word: women. To be absolutely precise: poor women. Compared with this, everything else is probably a time-consuming sideshow. …Investment in education is probably the single most rewarding activity for any government at any level of development. …Improving female opportunity and income will lower child mortality and morbidity. Over the long run, this will inevitably encourage women to have less children. …Take care of women’s poverty and population will probably look after itself. Jonathan Power, “The Cairo Conference and the plight of Women, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept 10, 1994.

    “The U.S. can play the key role in changing the world’s approach to stabilizing population. With some people, that’s a touchy issue, but it doesn’t have to be controversial. Some of the most effective ways to stabilize population include raising child survival rates and promoting more education and literacy, especially for women. When that happens, family sizes go down.”
    Al Gore, Vice President, responding to question, What should be the No. 1
    environmental priority? “Al Gore’s Battle Plan”, USA WEEKEND, April 9-11, 1993.

    “Population declines as economic welfare increases. The way to end population pressure is to increase economic growth and economic welfare – egalitarian growth is what is needed. That will reduce population. There is no other way to do it.”
    Noam Chompski, Interview on WAMU radio, 12-10-93.

    “And finally, as we shift from a narrow focus on population control to a broader agenda of health, development, and human rights, we must redefine the objectives of family planning and reproductive health programs, and also the standards by which we measure program success.”
    Statement of Timothy E. Wirth, Under Secretary for Global Affairs.

    “Development is the best Contraceptive” Third World Slogan

    At the Earth Summit in Rio, a large gathering of women raised serious concerns about the linkages being made between population and the environment. They challenged the importance of population as a cause of environmental degradation and instead blamed poverty, over consumption, industrial development patterns, and militarization. Emphasis on demographic factors was seen as leading to coercive family planning policies and the abuse of women in many countries.
    Susan Weber, Executive Director, Zero Population Growth 11-5-92

    “Only by guaranteeing women’s fundamental rights — to health care, education, and equal status with men — will we begin to solve one of the root causes of environmental problems: population growth”
    Patricia Waak, Director of Audubon’s Population Program, Audubon Activist., March 1992.

    “The solutions to the problems of rapid population growth are clear and well understood…there is still a need to increase substantially the availability of information and assistance on voluntary family planning.
    Much can be achieved just providing contraceptive options for those who cannot obtain them due to financial, social, or political restrictions. More fundamentally, we must deal with the economic and social problems that are the root causes of high fertility rates: widespread poverty and the oppression of women. When women everywhere have control over their own reproductive decisions, fertility rates drop. That means that, in addition to its justice, promoting women’s equality and greater access to health care and education will help produce declining fertility and eventual stabilization of population.”
    Howard Ris, Executive Director, Union of Concerned Scientists, Sept. 1992.

    “But access to contraception is not the only determinant of family size. Japan’s contraceptive use is roughly that of Costa Rica; its fertility rate is less than half. In the mid-19th century fertility in America, where land was plentiful, was one-third higher than in France, where the law divided farms into ever-tinier holdings. Though contraception matters, so do attitudes. For people to want to have fewer children, the incomes of the poor must increase and child mortality must decline. Above all, women need schools and jobs…Educating women can be less intellectually challenging than keeping the planet cool, but few investments do more for development and the environment.”
    The Economist, “The Question Rio forgets” May 30, 1992.

    The reduction of child mortality through better medical care also turns out to have a stabilizing effect on population growth. It tends to remove the fear of losing an only son, and reduces the temptation to have many sons as an insurance policy. Finally, there is evidence that female participation in the skilled labor force combined with access to credit facilities tends to limit the size of families. In fact, the better women are treated and the better educated they become, the more committed they are to limiting family size.
    Cord Meyer, Nationally syndicated columnist, “Crowded World Warning”, Washington Times, 6-6-92

    “… population growth rates are affected by many complex conditions besides food supply. In particular, a set of socioeconomic conditions can be identified that motivate parents to have fewer children…These
    conditions are: parental confidence about the future, an improved status of women and literacy. They require low infant mortality rates, widely available rudimentary health care, increased income and employment, and an adequate diet above subsistence levels…It is essential that these improvements be spread across the population; … It is not necessary that per capita GNP be very high …”
    William W. Murdoch and Alan Oaten, “Population and Food: Metaphors and the Reality”, BioScience, Vol. 25, No. 9, Sept. 1975

    “Family planning has won acceptance in a wide variety of economic and social environments. Acceptability is enhanced by promoting other human rights — economic security; adequate housing and community services; education and health — by support for women’s social, educational and
    employment rights; and by a human- centered approach to development. Put simply, family planning is encouraged by a society in which basic needs are met and in which women participate on an equal basis with men.”
    Dr. Nafis Sadik, UNFPA Exec. Director, UN State of the World’s Population 1991

    “The surest way to achieve a sustained decline in fertility is to give a new priority to ‘social’ or ‘women’s resources’ investment, to improving mother and child health, women’s status and education and to making family planning as widely available as possible to both women and men.”
    Dr. Nafis Sadik, UNFPA Exec. Director, UN State of the World Population 1990.

    Access to family planning services, however, will not by itself stabilize population growth.
    Lester Brown and Jennifer Mitchell, Worldwatch Institute,
    “Stabilizing Population” ZPG Reporter, April 1998.

    The story of environmental destruction is not a simple tale of “overpopulation”…Clearly, economic policies that help alleviate poverty in developing countries can have important environmental benefits. Improvements in land tenure policies are also powerful instruments of environmental policy. Health and family planning programs that reduce birth and death rates also promote sustainable development…. Economic policies should provide for broad based growth to reduce poverty and provide economic opportunity, especially to women, who are under-represented in the Costa Rican workforce. Fertility rates in Costa Rica are still high for a country with good health and family planning services available…. Although in the Philippines the task is more daunting, changes in policy can alleviate poverty and environmental stress and bring population growth rates down. Extending enforceable property rights to
    indigenous agriculturists is a necessary first step, making a reality of their constitutionally recognized rights. Since the majority of the Philippine population lives in poverty, economic growth to provide jobs
    must be a priority. And, finally, the scope for improving health and family planning services is very large. Fertility rates cannot be expected to come down until these basic services are available to the poor and in
    rural areas.
    Maria Concepcion Cruz, Carrie A. Meyer, Robert Repetto, Richard Woodward,
    “Population Growth, Poverty, and Environmental Stress: Frontier Migration in the Philippines and Costa Rica,” World Resources Institute, Oct. 1992.

    Birth rates decline when women’s social, economic and health status improves and general living standards rise. The political and economic mechanisms operating within the prevailing world order and within each country, which create and perpetuate poverty, inequality and marginalization of people in the South — and increasingly in the North — must be transformed.
    NGO Treaty on Population, Environment and Development.

    The synergism between this array of child survival actions and effective family planning programs means that the two together can bring about population stabilization at an earlier date and at a lower level than
    either acting alone. The 1990’s offer a remarkable opportunity to use this synergism — as many developing countries are now at the critical “point of parental confidence” where further reductions in child deaths are likely to bring even greater reductions in births. The experience of individual countries shows the power of this combination. If all countries were to achieve the same under-five death rates and the same birth rates as Chile or Sri Lanka, for example, then the world would see approximately 10 million fewer deaths each year — and approximately 20 million fewer births.
    Children and Development in the 1990’s, UNICEF.

    It has now become essential to find a sustainable global population balance. This is an immediate priority. It includes eliminating absolute poverty everywhere. Observations of many cultures have consistently shown that family size declines as a satisfactory minimum standard of living is reached. Mothers who believe that their first few children will live, and that they will have some old age security, will have fewer children if they have access to birth control methods.
    Andrew Beath, Founder and President of Earth Trust Foundation, “Poverty and the Environment”, Field Notes. Katalysis newsletter, Winter 1992-93.

    All Governments should strive for universal access of women to primary health care that includes reproductive health, maternal and child health and family planning information and services through programs that are women-managed and women-centered. The first action of the first recommendation in the National Wildlife Federation, “Population, Development and Environment: an NGO Position paper
    for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (Draft 4-14-93).

    Family planning alone cannot achieve population stabilization, Judith Bruce tells Congress. Achieving population stabilization will take more than universal access to family planning. It will not occur without
    “selective, creative, and morally sound social and economic investments.”
    Judith Bruce, Sr. Associate, Population Council testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Sept. 1993. Reported in Population Reference Bureau “Global Stewardship” Jan 1994.


    Throughout most of human history, lactation has been nature’s contraceptive, keeping births spaced well apart and optimizing the health of the mother and her infant. The contraceptive effect of breast feeding
    has been the single most important determinant of human fertility rates in traditional societies without access to modern forms of contraception. Even today, breast feeding may still prevent more pregnancies than all modern forms of contraception combined in many developing countries.
    Dr. Roger Short, Monash Univ. Melbourne, Australia. “Making Good Use of Nature’s Contraceptive,” Network. Family Health International news letter, Oct., 1992.

    When Performed correctly as the Lactational Amenorrhea Method, breastfeeding provides contraception that is 98% effective.
    Sara Townsend, “The ‘New’ Contraceptive Method of Breastfeeding,” Network,
    Family Health International news letter, Oct., 1992.


    Evidence from a cross section of developing countries shows that where no females are enrolled in secondary school, the average woman has seven children during her reproductive lifetime. But where 40% of all women have had a secondary education, women average only three children.
    Werner Fornos, President of Population Institute. Testimony before the
    House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, March 1, 1993.

    The importance of education, especially education for women and girls, as an indispensable tool for the improvement of the human condition, cannot be overemphasized.”
    Draft Final Document of the International. Conference on Population and Development, Feb. 1994.


    If our consumption and waste output levels do not change, the 57.5 million extra Northerners expected during the 1990’s will pollute the globe more than the extra 911 million Southerners.
    Paul Harrison, The Third Revolution, 1992.

    Wasteful consumption and the racism, economic injustice, and gender inequality…are fueling population increase. Carol Benson Holst, Ministry for Population Concerns. Population Reference Bureau “Global Stewardship” Jan 1994.

  • Arnold Byron

    My comment will be about what we need to say and where we need to say it.

    The easy part is the where. The conversation needs to be carried to the people: in clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Soroptimist, Masons, Elks, Eagles; in churches; on college campuses; in union halls; at political rallies; and anywhere people meet.

    The hard part is what we need to say. The following is what I think needs to be said. We need to talk about The March of Humanity. Humanity started with just a few people in a world filled with resources, a regular Garden of Eden. Now humanity has turned the garden into a dung heap. We are wasting resources (soil, water, phosphorous, potash, etc.) and recklessly causing the extinction of plants and animals. Our population has grown from just a few to over seven billion people. Will it ever stop growing? What are the chances that the population will outgrow the resources to such an extent that the population will not be able to sustain itself? Will the human race crash and burn? How likely is it that the march of humanity will lead to the extinction of the human race?

    It has been a long march and humanity has been sustainable for most of the way. If the population became too many in one place they merely moved on to a less populated place. But there were diseases and plagues that kept their numbers in check. Prejudices and wars also helped keep the population in check. The human race grew slowly. Now modern medicine allows humanity to grow nearly unchecked. War, weather and other destructive forces happen in modern times but the population continues to grow. There will be no end to population growth unless an effort is made to reduce the number of people on Earth. The next step in the march of humanity is population control.

    The mathematics of population control is easy: one to reduce, two to maintain. Let me state the formula for population control. For reduction, one child is raised to adulthood by two people. For maintenance, two children are raised to adulthood by two people. Rules to allow this formula to work will need to be promulgated. A new paradigm will be created for humanity. It will be different from what we know and accept at this time. But the paradigm for the future will be accepted by the people living in the future. The rules of population control will be as follows. For population reduction the male will subject himself to a vasectomy after he has fathered one child. For population maintenance this will happen after he has fathered two children. For population reduction the female will promise legally and bindingly that she will not get pregnant after having given birth to one child and that if she should get pregnant she will carry the pregnancy to term and give the child up for adoption by two people who are not able to have or choose not to have children of their own. For population maintenance the rule will be the same except it will be activated by the birth of a second child.

    In the future divorce and adoption will be different than they are now. During a time of divorce the child will stay with the father because he has given up his ability to produce more children. If the woman remarries a man who has a child, she will raise the child of her new husband. If she remarries a man who has not fathered a child the court will allow her another pregnancy with her new husband. At this time adoption is secretive. In the future adoptive parents will become part of the extended family. Yes, rules will change, but life will go on. Tell me, “where in the universe is the rule that says future generations must live exactly the same lifestyle as the current generation?”

    In paragraph 6 of an earlier entry to this blog page trilemmaman alludes to a draconian world government enforcement program. He also alludes to the importance of humanity coming to grips with the seventeen sustainable development goals as set forth by the United Nations. I agree with trilemmaman that worldwide government programs can devolve into unfair and draconian abominations. However, just because something is worldwide doesn’t automatically make it bad. Political agencies that are properly constructed and conscientiously tended can last and do good things for a very long time. My thought is that a worldwide government can, if properly constructed, tackle the 17 SDGs and improve life for all of the planet’s inhabitants.

    I have devised and set forth the broad elements of a temporary worldwide government that would be given the authority and ability to tackle the 17 SDGs and solve global warming. My ideas are laid out in chapter 12 of my book entitled Of Population and Pollution – A Global Warming Primer. Chapter 12 is entitled A Plan for the Nations. You can read chapter 12 here https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/ByronA_Chapter12ForDistribution_10Aug2017.pdf

    What I have written in the above paragraphs is the information that you will need for a presentation to a Rotary Club or a college campus. The information is controversial. Few people think the approach I have laid out is acceptable or even sane. But if the information is presented often enough there will come a time when the critical mass of public opinion will be on our side. I strongly believe what I have written above and in my book will put humanity on an action path to not only end global warming but also to begin lifetimes of good health, safety and happiness for a human race in sync with available resources.

    I ask any reader of this comment to tell me why my program will not work. But I have some rules. I won’t accept if you say I’m crazy, because I know I am not. I will not accept if you say that forcing men to have vasectomies is forced sterilization, because if it is required of everyman then it is a way of life. Forced sterilization occurs when one group requires of others what they will not do to themselves. I won’t accept if you say the plan is not what people or governments want. We cannot know because we have not yet tried to sell the plan. My ask is that you please try to come up with valid reasons why you think my plan will not work. If, however, you think my plan will work, please say that; and give any positive reasons.

    Thank you for joining in. If this idea will work, then it needs to be pushed. And soon, because we are running out of time. Perhaps another idea will work better. If a better idea is out there, it needs to be found soon because time will not wait.

  • Tormod V. Burkey

    Though the promotion of one child families pisses off those of us who stopped at zero.

  • Albert Rich

    Evidentially there are a number of us who think a) human population should be reduced in a timely, even-handed manner to a level the planet can support; and b) some form of legal mandate will be required to achieve that.

    I think there should be a law that no person shall bear more than one child. When a sustainable population level is achieved, the limit should be raised to two. The law should be globally enforced with no exceptions for race, sex, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

    The prospect of soon being able to double the rate provides positive incentive for accepting the law, and for rapidly achieving its goal of sustainability. Also, this happy ending will clearly distinguish us from the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” mentioned in Assadourian’s article.

    So my question is: Why is there no organization clearly espousing such ambitious, essential and ethical goals?

    Note that Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) espouses limiting growth and population stabilization. World Population Balance espouses achieving a sustainable population, but only using voluntary methods.

    • Anthony Judge

      It is a delight to note the question of Albert Rich:

      “Why is there no organization clearly espousing such ambitious, essential and ethical goals?”

      More generally however, is it not the case that proponents of every strategy frame their goals as “ambitious, essential and ethical” — from their own perspective of course. That would include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Communism, Atheism, and the like — even those usefully distinguished politically in terms of Al_left or Alt-right?

      Of course all those who do not subscribe to the preferred strategy are clearly “wrong” in the most absolute of senses (even “evil”) — perhaps to be nuanced in terms of misguided. What then?

      The strange situation in which the wider “we” now finds itself is that disagreement on these matters cannot be discussed meaningfully. Discourse is reduced to “I am right” “You are wrong” (the title of a book by Edward de Bono). Our enlightened position is non-negotiable and not open for discussion.

      I argued in a previous post that we needed a new approach to these dynamics. Of course my argument is paradoxically subject to the same constraints in that it is meaningless to those with other convictions — including Albert Rich. A new perspective is required on such matters — fruitfully allowing for the many who consider any such perspective irrelevant

      Hence my question in the previous post as to why we cannot address the need for such a mode of discussion in preference to promoting strategies that have been vainly promoted for decades

  • Anthony Judge

    Having written many pieces on the population/overpopulation issue, my concern is increasingly with why we are unable to talk meaningfully about population in such a way as to engage those with variously contrasting views. We do not even have a map of the positions in the debate as a guide to systemic reflection. The why may be of greater significance than assertions.

    The focus on why we “should” talk about population smacks of an outdated modality. Everyone has views on what everyone else should be doing. Would the world not be a better place if everyone did what others consider they ought to do? The young react strongly to arguments as to what they should do — so perhaps that suggests clues to the efforts with respect to population.

    My favourite analogy derives from the well-developed collective ability to engage with radioactive and biochemically hazardous materials — potentially offering clues as to how we might deal with “hot topics”: Overpopulation Debate as a Psychosocial Hazard: development of safety guidelines from handling other hazardous materials (https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/musings/psyhaz.php)

  • Max Kummerow

    Well, a few of us are talking about population anyway. That’s good so far. Back in 1970 almost everybody talked about population and fertility began falling. Then the topic got toxic thanks to an anti-abortion campaign, people stopped talking and fertility decline stalled while population increase continued as fast as ever (a billion every 12 years, 40 Australias).

    There are always many “auxilliary conditions” or side conditions or unstated omitted variables in any model. When I say “We should reduce fertility rates” I am leaving open how to do it, but the best way, my unstated assumption, is that fertility can fall (and has fallen) by persuasion and policies democratically chosen by informed citizens. Unfortunately, most countries are pretty far from informed citizens on this issue, in part because so few talk about it anymore. So we (meaning people concerned about the future) have a lot of work to do to get the word out. A first step is to talk about population again and connect growth to problems people worry about like climate change, immigration, poverty, war, species losses, etc.

    A new feature of “free will” is that there are now public relations and advertising techniques and mass media capable of persuading people. The corporate world and oligarchies have figured out that they can control outcomes by spending money on marketing. The books, Merchants of Doubt, Dark Money, Democracy in Chains and Collision Course show how they do it. My fantasy is that billionaires and companies that care about the future may start, at some point, talking about population downsizing and ending economic growth because they care about the future. The size of the megaphone matters more, it seems, than the truth of the message. It is hard to sell an inconvenient truth. Profitable lies tend to prevail, at least until a collapse.

    As for demographic transitions, I meant to complain about so-called “demographic transition theory” (DTT, first proposed in the 1920s, repeated so often many believe it, but pretty much debunked by subsequent empirical research). The simplest version of DTT “explains” or predicts lower fertility as inevitable when infant mortality falls and incomes rise. That is enormously oversimplified. We now have 90 countries where fertility fell, for diverse reasons, with government policies often playing a big role (family planning clinics, outreach, advertising, etc.). Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood deserve some credit. There are still some countries and religious groups with low infant mortality and continued high fertility. African infant mortality fell a lot, but natural increase (births-deaths) remains stuck around 2.6% a year where it has been for decades.

    A lot can be learned about marketing fertility change and policies to encourage lower fertility from the diverse experiences in various countries and demographers research. We know how to accomplish fertility transitions, but it often takes leadership and money and grass roots organizing. Fertility transitions are closely associated with modernization, many other virtuous policies like education, health care and improved status for women, etc. Outcomes–incomes, life expectancy, health–are much better in low fertility countries. One of the hopeful points is that women have voluntarily reduced fertility in many countries. But not everywhere. It all depends.

    I think John Taves was trying to say with his (x-2)/x formula that with a given carrying capacity, fertility rates above replacement will eventually increase mortality rates. But that formula doesn’t make sense to me–maybe he could explain. A logistic function is the usual model relating population growth to survival and that function needs not only the growth rate, but also carrying capacity K, to make sense. Any growth above carrying capacity will result in 100% death for the excess population. Humans have a hard time relating to this because we use technology and crowding out other species to increase carrying capacity hugely. Unfortunately, we also have a tendency to use things up (soil, fossil fuels, climate, etc.) and so have been a collapse prone species–over two dozen historical collapses described by Tainter and Diamond.

    A spreadsheet excercise also can easily project changes in relative numbers where there is divergent fertility. Starting with equal numbers who have 1.5 and 3 children, in ten generations the higher fertility group’s proportion of the total grows to over 99.8%. Which makes the population fertility rate very near 3. So global fertility could rise if high fertility places don’t transition to lower fertility.

  • We completely agree with Assadourian that population is a subject that must be talked about. As evident in the comment thread here, it has been and continues to be a topic that raises peoples blood pressure and often calls for extreme measures to control the growth of the human population (visions of sterilization and genocide…). There are a number of studies that have shown that well educated women have fewer, healthier and better educated children. So having conversations and promoting positive actions to slow the growth of (and eventually reduce) the human population seems sane. Most of the actions that are typically suggested to slow population growth: educating and empowering women, and providing access to reproductive health care – have positive side effects the world over. Keeping conversations on how to confront population with an ethic of well-being for the planet and all of its inhabitants, including humans, can help lead us in the right direction.

    That said, having conversations about human population size should not be exclusive. It seems silly to think that we have to pick one problem to focus on and ignore the rest. As many have suggested, if consumer levels were much, much lower and humans lived in a different way, population might not be a problem. We take the stance that the factors influencing environmental impact (I=PAT included) are all so interconnected that it is difficult to talk about one without also addressing the others. Talking about the creation of a world where the well-being of each human and animal can be met and ecosystems can function normally should include conversations about population, but also about consumer habits, sustainable economies, food choices and waste, equality and justice and a myriad of other subjects that are interconnected with the long term goal of a healthy planet.

    • Greeley Miklashek

      The stable world-wide population of our ancestors, when we were living in ecological balance with the the rest of nature, was 4-6 million. So, are we not 1233-1850 times over-populated? Those ancestral populations had expanded as far as they could, which is our nature. We are severely out of balance today. Without oil and all of its petrochemical distillates, we would be a tiny fraction of our current numbers. We are massively overpopulated, when compared to our previously ecologically balanced ancestral populations.

  • trilemmaman

    Please consider some facts that counter your argument that ‘overpopulation’ is the key issue.
    1. We could reduce the number of people in the world to one billion and if they continued current consumption patterns of the US population (and our government’s laws that continue to ignore the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”) ..then the environment collapse we are now heading for would still happen.
    2. There have been 5 mass extinctions in the past (500 million years?) where up to 90% of all species on earth were wiped away… and each time the biosphere and species variations recovered. The earth is not in danger. We are.
    3. Paul Ehrlich in his second book identified five prerequisites to reducing birth rates. First was reducing infant and child deaths…which is a primary driver for parents in poor nations to have excessive births. 2nd was increasing female literacy. 3rd. Improve female economic empowerment and 4th female political empowerment. 5th I don’t remember…but it was NOT access to family planning. The bottom line…if we improve the quality of life and economic conditions for families, they chose to have fewer children. Increasingly, couples chose to have no children, for a number of reasons…one being they are TOO expensive (and troublesome) to raise.
    4. It is NOT the number of people that are the problem…but their consumption patterns that reflect a value system that has NO respect for their own health or the environment. Obesity and chronic diseases related to lack of activity is now a great killer than hunger, toxic waste, climate change, war, terrorism, or environmental degradation combined.
    5 If people valued their health and the health of the environment and spent their time and money on it…instead of the unsustainable consumption patterns the vast majority now spend their money on…economic growth could continue with increasing investments made in education and prevention of health and environmental problems. Protecting and restoring the environment is a job creator…if that’s what we value. That is the key task before us.
    6. IF people on this list serve are serous about reducing birth rates without the need for a draconian world government enforcement program that would most likely spark a violent counter ‘population control’ revolution — which would be even worse for making people value the environment…I highly recommend putting your intellectual and political energies into getting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals funded ASAP. This is the ONLY comprehensive approach that can effectively address all the global problems we now face (except asteroids and AI). And there is NO shortage of money in the world to make it happen. (FYI: $32 trillion is in offshore accounts put there by kleptocratic governments, CEO’s avoiding taxes, and criminal elements doing the same.).
    7. If you ignore these previous statements you are more committed to your point of view and a biased privileged opinion that will only make matters worse….than you are to what is really needed to achieve a sustainable world with ‘life, liberty and justice for all’.

  • Mike Hanauer

    Roberts knows the truth but won’t say and defend that truth. That is not a public service, especially for a journalist.

  • stevenearlsalmony

    “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men {and women}.” — George Kennan

    Clarion Call for Changing the Global Food Narrative……
    Human overpopulation is the proverbial “Mother” of all human-driven global challenges to future human well being and environmental health. We must widely share and consensually validate the best available science regarding WHY absolute global human population numbers during my lifetime exploded at the rate of 80+/- million people per year and by 5+/- billion people in the past 70+/- years. How are we to address and overcome a problem of this magnitude if we fail to acknowledge and accept its actual root cause?




  • Jim Boyer

    Thanks for the article. We as a population on earth need to ‘grow up’ and learn that we are a part of earth not separate from. Unfortunately ‘we’ are so culturally different that no consensus of mission will ever take place. Human nature, to me, is crisis driven and World War 2 is the best example of a ‘coming together’ of humanity. Threatened by evil, the world came together, sacrificed and innovated to save civilization. Consequently, the future generations will need to be faced with the greatest threat of all, no oil, with a minor in environmental destruction before progress in responsibility for existence begins.
    I’m glad MAHB can keep this dialogue going and wish Stanford could make this issue more visiable amoung its students and its image to the world.

  • Jason G. Brent

    No nation on the planet (and all nations on the planet) can provide an ever growing economy, with an ever growing number of jobs, for an ever growing population, using an ever increasing per capita usage of resources. Any attempt to maintain economic and/or population grow must lead to the collapse of civilization with the deaths of billions and even the extinction of the human species. An increasing population demands an ever growing economy and an ever increasing number of jobs and the desire for a better life demands an ever increasing per capita usage of resources. Humanity is doomed in the very near future due to the power of compound growth, if humanity does not stop population growth today, and not tomorrow. Every human right, except the right to produce an excess number of children, is in some manner controlled by society when the exercise of that right harms another individual. Anyone who has an excess number of children is a mass murderer as having an excess number of children will cause the extinction of the human species. No one has stated one valid reason why having an excess number of children should not be controlled by society. In order to survive on the planet, the number of human beings must be reduced. Merely reducing the growth rate or even stabilizing the population level will lead to the near term collapse of society with the deaths of billions.Only coercive population control possibly reduce the number of humans on the planet in time to prevent the deaths of billions; voluntary control will not and cannot prevent the collapse of civilization. Jason G. Brent jbrent6179@aol.com

    • Albert Rich

      Amen! And the only way to get “coercive population control” evenly applied across the planet is to have some form of world governance, hopefully based on federalism and democratic socialism. Albert Rich

      • Greeley Miklashek

        What if people were informed that we all come with a built-in population regulation mechanism and that ALL human disease is a direct or indirect result of population density stress? Only with this personal realization will we make the free choice to limit our families to one-child, on average, which will be necessary to bring our world-wide populations down to the 1950 level of 2.5 billion by 2,100. Greeley Miklashek, MD

    • JohnTaves

      “Any attempt to maintain economic and/or population grow must lead to the collapse of civilization with the deaths of billions and even the extinction of the human species.” — WHY?

      Why do you think averaging too many babies for too long results in:
      1) population growth
      2) collapse of civilization
      3) human extinction?

      If we have not averaged too many babies for too long, then what regulates how many we average? Why isn’t human existence already longer than “too long”?

      What happens when we average too many babies for too long in a finite space such as Earth? Children must die. There is a simple formula for this. Children must die at the rate of (x-2)/x where x is how many babies we average. Notice that formula does not have human extinction in it, nor does it have collapse of civilization.

      Those deaths are happening right now and have always been happening. The reason the population has never grown exponentially for very long is not because we somehow magically manage to throttle our births, but because the finite nature of the environment causes child mortality to cancel the excess average number of babies we create. You can see these deaths today. They are the groups of people that suffer starvation related child mortality.

      In short, you are correct to say that the population cannot grow forever. You are incorrect to say that collapse or human extinction must happen as a consequence. The only thing that must happen, and is happening, and has always been happening is that children must die. There is no excuse for starvation related child mortality, except for averaging too many babies.

  • Max Kummerow

    My first thought on Dave Robert’s “let’s not talk about it” was the practical question: How’s that working out for ya? Short answer, not very well. It is a myth that “automatic” fertility transitions occur due to falling infant mortality and higher incomes. Culture matters. Policy matters. Norms matter. Many variables matter. Empowerment of women matters but requires lower fertility. Kaufman, 2010, points out that “cultural selection” via divergent fertility rates has replaced “natural selection” in human evolution. During the 1970’s decade, when everybody was talking about population, world fertility rates fell by one child per woman (from 4.77 to 3.72, about 22%). During 2005-2015 world fertility fell by about 1/10th of a child per woman (from 2.57 to 2.45, about 5%). (World Bank WDI Data) From 1970 to 2010, world population growth fell from 2% to 1%, but population meanwhile doubled from 3.5 billion to 7 billion. You do the math. Falling fertility “bent” the exponential curve to linear, with a billion added every 12 years from 3 billion in 1960 to 10 billion projected for 2050. And growth does not stop until fifty years of demographic momentum dissipates as young populations age and have children after fertility drops below about 2.1 (replacement number of children). Most concerning, growth accelerated from 79 million in 2002 to 86 million in 2015, so the trend is in the wrong direction. With more than 100% of net growth in high fertility countries (since lowest fertility countries are shrinking), unless fertility norms fall, growth will continue to accelerate (Kolk, et al.) as the proportion of world population in high fertility cultures grows. Fertility norms tend to persist unless changed by major fertility reduction policies and family planning services initiatives. Infant mortality in Africa is a third or less compared to 1960 rates, but natural increase (birth-deaths) remains at 2.6% where it has been stuck (even increasing slightly this century) for decades. That implies doubling times around 28 years. The UN projects 4.4 billion Africans, up from 1.2 billion now, by 2100. Current natural increase, if unchanged, would make that 9 billion. Country fertility rates have diverged, ranging from 1.1 to 7. High fertility persists in some groups in developed countries. Fundamentalists of all religions have more than replacement numbers of kids, many secular people have less than 2. It comes out “Trump.” And “collapse.” It was certainly racist back in 1900 when Europeans advocated population control for others, but not themselves. But it is the opposite of racist to warn Africans that their children’s lives will be blighted by poverty caused by overpopulation if they continue fertility rates three times higher than Europeans. Advocating equal reproduction rights for all is not a racist position, but a pragmatic necessity to avoid rising death rates. I would argue that ignoring (not talking about population) divergent fertility is morally questionable in an overcrowded world with an unsustainable economy. How to talk about population is tricky, but we’ve got to get population back on the global agenda. Dave Roberts energy work has been brilliant. The same dogged insistence on science is needed to reverse population growth. All of these problems are interconnected. David Attenborough remarked that all problems eventually become unsolvable due to population growth. Keeping under the cumulative emissions cap will be near impossible with the global economy doubling every quarter century as the rich get richer and the poor have children. Population stability should be on everyone’s list–no more controversial than brushing teeth.

    • JohnTaves

      “It is a myth that “automatic” fertility”

      This started great and had me encouraged that I might find someone that properly comprehends the fundamental concepts with respect to reproduction in a finite space such as Earth, but I kept reading.

      “transitions occur due to falling infant mortality and higher incomes.”

      Ugh! Why do we care about “transitions”. What is the definition of a “transition”? This is where fertility drops from “high” to “low”. Of course we all agree that lower fertility is better than higher fertility, but let’s not be idiots and assume that “low” fertility is somehow:
      1) permanent or
      2) sufficiently low

      Population scientists have absolutely no reason to believe that either of those necessary attributes are true. They just mindlessly assume them to be true.

      Then you state that “Culture matters. Policy matters. Norms matter. Many variables matter. Empowerment of women matters but requires lower fertility.” If “matters” is the same as “correlate”, then OK, this statement is correct. If you intended to mean more than just correlate, then this is wrong. This statement provides the belief that if we get culture and policy and norms and many other variables set right, then somehow magically we will not overbreed. This is utter nonsense.

      Here’s a brutal fact that makes a joke of the beliefs derived from the demographic transition observation that our population scientists are so enamored with. If your descendants average more than 2, then your descendants will cause child mortality even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies, where “average more than 2” means they are creating more than 2 that make it to adult. They will cause child mortality at the rate of (x-2)/x where x is how many babies they average.

      Do you comprehend what I just stated? Can you find anyone that comprehends that and anyone that can comprehend what that means for the dumb ass conclusions scientists draw from the demographic transition?

    • Greeley Miklashek

      Speaking of “dogged insistence on science”, I have spent a lifetime practicing medicine and discovering the science behind ALL of our “diseases of civilization”. What is the science? Population density stress is the direct or indirect cause of ALL our ever increasing diseases. These mechanisms are described at length in my book length review, “Stress R Us”, available as a free PDF in the MAHB library. Low density, traditional living hunter-gatherers have NONE of our “diseases of civilization”, whereas over 50% of us “advanced” Westerners can expect to have either cancer or heart disease or both by age 65. How’s that for scientific fact? 1/3 American adults currently has high blood pressure. The neuro-endocrine mechanisms underlying our diseases has been known but under-reported, so “Stress R Us” reviews that obscure research and creates an overall picture that demands attention. Want to know what’s really making you sick? Read the book. I spent 20 years pulling the science together. Population density stress due to all the forces resulting from crowding is killing us off. Infertility is the ultimate “kill-switch” and is currently growing 100% over the past 34 years. 1/6 of American couples are infertile and the rate is growing. The only question is whether the growth rate is linear or exponential. Hagai Levine’s recent report alerts us to falling sperm counts: 50-60% over the past 43 years, and expresses his concern that we are rapidly headed for extinction as a species. Only self-interest will cause us to limit our reproduction. Does imminent extinction work for you? Stress R Us

  • InspireHard

    Population is a very important topic and a matter of great concern in every country. Countries like India and China needs some strict rules to get a control on overpopulation. Awareness to all and education plays a key role in controlling population. Thanks for sharing article on such a topic.

    • Albert Rich

      No, ALL countries need “some strict rules to get a control on overpopulation.”

  • Timothy Havel

    I think the main thing otherwise well-meaning people (let’s forget about the rest) misunderstand about overpopulation is that, much like climate change, it main impact will be felt by posterity rather than the current adult population. Also much like climate change, it has considerable “momentum” that makes it impossible to turn things around on a dime. Thus when people claim that the primary problem is overconsumption, they are making a statement about how the past affects the current situation, and missing the real problem. Sooner or later, the developing world is going to figure out a way to improve their living standards, and even if they manage to do it in a far more efficient and less environmentally destructive way than it has largely been done to date (a big “if”), there are still about six times as many people in the developing world as in the developed. And that disparity is not improving with time.

    My only other comment is that talking about what “we” should ideally be doing in the age of Trump seems about as effectual as the Catholic church’s doctrine on birth control. Better to join the Antifa while you still can …