Myopia, GDP and other fertility drugs of the 21st Century

| September 17, 2019 | Leave a Comment

It is more important now than ever to talk about population. What will we do if we continue to grow at exponential rates? What are ethical, viable strategies to decrease population?

This is a blog in the MAHB Let’s Talk About Population Blog Series.


The MAHB is pleased to share with you our reflections on addressing overpopulation and an honest response to the issue. We invite you to join us on September 19th to continue this conversation and discuss our next steps.

Demographers are some of the smartest people I know—their discipline requires cross-discipline training. In addition to statistics and quantitative methods, they must understand economics, sociology, medical systems, how national and international policies are made, environmental constraints and degradation and principles of development. Demographers cannot be trapped in academic silos.

And yet too often, when confronted with the opportunity for a conference on over-population, vision narrows and the complexity shaved away. Too often the focus is on numbers—total population and tfr—inspiring us to build our conferences through the lens of numbers, and through that lens we see Africa, Asia and other brown nations. Western and advanced economies (AEs) are nearing replacement levels propelling white conference organizers to hold conferences focusing on the growing population in the emerging or developing economies (DEs).

To really understand and respond to overpopulation we must first remember that society is concerned about population because of the impact on civilization of too many people—if we destroy our natural ecosystems because of over-use, our life support systems begin collapsing and the collapse of civilization follows. Our concern is not with the number of people, but the Impact of people on the planet that feeds, houses, and inspires them.

In addition to using the lens of numbers, these AE conference organizers tend to forget the most basic education about environmental degradation: IPAT, the model for understanding the driving factors of the human predicament where Impact is a function of population x affluence x technology.

A valuable conference on overpopulation must address front and center affluence and technology (which is a proxy for social and technical interventions that might ameliorate the impact of just population x affluence). One approach would be to fund an educational meeting organized by the leading voices in the developing economies that focuses on “affluence” (consumption and dependence on growth) and their role in environmental degradation and the threat of collapse (impact). The outcome would be a clear statement of the ethical responsibilities of the wealthy and middle class and proposed strategies for meeting those responsibilities. Such a meeting might include topics such as GDP the fertility drug of advanced economies; role (if any) of borders in the 21st century; norm of one, preference for zero; equity in an inequitable world; and so forth.

These are the really tough issues driving over-population. There are other huge issues in the developing economies—and they need better funding, they need scaling, they need support from the AEs. It is perhaps too simplistic to say Africa isn’t driving us towards collapse, US consumption/growth is—but it is also not far off. It is fair to say that there are hundreds of effective ever-improving initiatives in DEs where population is growing; I cannot say the same for initiatives dealing with growth, consumption and the heavy footprint of the AEs.

Finally, I can’t leave this topic without noting another gross inconsistency in modern population conference planning: the refusal to go beyond population-stabilization, the denial of the need to go all the way to reduction in total population. Remember algebra: it is irrational to think of environmental and social impact without including population numbers and affluence and technology; we can’t expect to just stop growth in population and reduce impact to a survivable level—we are already in extreme overshoot.

Everyday we see signs of environmental degradation and threats to life support systems—air, water, biodiversity, soils, etc—stopping growth in total population without dealing with consumption and growth in consumption, will not save us from ourselves.

Often, we hear that “population” is a taboo topic. Perhaps we are afraid of it not because of the “personal” nature of talking about how many children people can have, but because we in the advanced economies are too cowardly to touch the real taboo—consumption, growth addiction, and equity.

The MAHB will be hosting a Zoom meeting on Thursday September 19th at 9am PST to discuss the next steps in collaboration on a population conference. If you are interested in joining this conversation, please email Brittany-  brittany@mahbonline.org 


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

The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.