Our Population Challenge goes well beyond climate change

| February 7, 2020 | Leave a Comment

Year of Publication: 2020

Author(s): Brian McGavin

Do we plan for a secure and better life, or carry on blindly toward a minefield of lethal limits?  

Most people are left in ignorance by politicians and mainstream media, who rarely think beyond the here and now. When informed about unsustainable consumption and human population growth they are shocked by the depth of interconnected challenges and the steps we need to take for a sustainable future, that go well beyond action on climate change. 

The media invariably cloak population growth in terms of ‘increased demand’ – which narrow thinking growth economists portray as ‘good’ for growth. The key ‘upstream’ challenge of overpopulation is at best ignored for ‘downstream’ sticking plaster responses by politicians and too often by ‘Greens’ who target ‘rights’ over ecological and resource realities. 

The type of powerful question recently put to democrat candidate Bernie Sanders – and his reply was notable. We need to frame more clear questions to our politicians like this.  

“Human population growth has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The planet cannot sustain this growth. I realize this is a poisonous topic for politicians, but it’s crucial to face. Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact. Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?”   Sanders started his response unambiguously: “Well, Martha, the answer is yes.” 


Green NGO issue avoidance

A WWF reference to ‘mitigate human and elephant conflict’ in a newsletter doesn’t shout ever more human overpopulation pressure as a causal factor, or anything WWF wants to do about this. WWF advertising is a constant reset button of ‘save’ animals and give us money so we can fight this decline – and it has been going on for over 50 years, as our amazing bio-diversity crashes. Extinction Rebellion focuses on climate change and ecological collapse. 

We face Systemic Population Denialism that is intellectually bankrupt and dangerously ignorant.  When we raise our voices, we are obstructed by ill-informed media commentators with predicable recycled challenges on ageing population scares and how we need to increase births and immigration. Low birth-rate countries like Japan are NOT suffering a socio-economic crisis – and there are still 38 million people in the Tokyo metropolis alone! 

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger observes: ‘Good democracy relies on good information’.

Professor John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientist in March 2009 warned thatOur food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.”   

In 2017 over 20,000 scientist in 189 countries signed a Second Warning to Humanity, warning that humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving foreseen environmental challenges and most of them are getting much worse.   

We simply don’t have the time for a gradualist message and we have to speed up the timeframe for action in people’s minds.

Simplistic propositions that developed economies were ideally placed to take in Africa’s exploding populations need shredding, as it is the sort of ignorant thinking deployed by so many ill-informed, growthist commentators. Others are China’s one-child policy denying human rights and Malthus’s dire predictions were wrong as we are still here!  These arguments can be demolished. But how do we answer the question: This is all so depressing, do we have any good news?   We need to deploy powerful answers: 

At the heart of green politics is the simple premise that our prosperity depends completely on a healthy, functioning planet. Go on abusing the planet, go on ignoring climate change, go on ignoring population growth, and all else fails – including our deepest yearning for human rights.    (Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist)

Linking overpopulation, climate change and biodiversity loss needs clarity. Many people will not connect population growth or immigration to threats to biodiversity. Many say that billions of poor people in the world are not responsible for climate change. But all of us need food, water and housing and create pollution, Overpopulation and demand drives people to destroy the very resources they need to survive – freshwater, soils and forests. Just as encouraging the development of a vastly over-consuming public to promote endless economic growth, patriarchy, religion and a desire by some for large families are very serious problems with many impacts. Few acknowledge that overpopulated countries will suffer most. 

Protecting the planet and its systems must be a top priority, but the climate conference in Madrid and the Davos Forum kick the can down the road. Social justice follows Ecology, not the reverse. 

Professor William Rees, co-founder of Global Footprint accounting says: Many ‘kids on the street’ would likely be horrified to learn the social and economic consequences of our actually slowing climate change by currently available means (e.g., phasing out fossil-fuels by 2050). Are people aware that dramatic action to control climate change would collapse the current economic system? They are all on the same growth-oriented economic page looking for short-term fixes.  

We are on ‘a finite planet’ where rising populations face critical challenges of climate change, rapidly declining fresh water, oil energy and topsoil depletion that keeps our whole food production and global economy running. And these are just a few of the issues the media and politicians fail to talk about.

Facing wilful ignorance Population Concern organizations need to set out the facts with a simple challenge: if you thing we are wrong PROVE IT!  We could add: support the ideal of a one-child transition until all of our food, water, climate and extinction emergencies are under control. Demographic and resource projections clearly show this transition offers greater sustainability. 

Given the immense challenges that will likely see starvation and conflict over remaining resources in the lifetime of people alive today, why would we think it better to create energy shortages, food shortages, lowered quality of life, a housing crisis, grid-locked traffic, bio-diversity loss, and many more calamities caused by ever increasing population pressures?  Being ‘coerced’ into vegan and insect eating diets and increasingly restricted quality of life as key resources decline, hoping for some techno-fix, makes limited sense when we have a relatively simple, equitable and achievable path to transition to a lower sustainable population.

A lower population offers an enormous upside to environmental and social problems.   

  • We avoid awful things like mass starvation, resource wars, rising pollution and catastrophic biodiversity loss and gain many other benefits.
  • Small families in developing countries enable parents to afford their children’s education.
  • A stable population would quickly end a never-ending housing crisis, pressure on schools and health services. When you keep adding ever more people you simply drive humanity to a lower and lower standard of living. 
  • Climate breakdown is already an acknowledged danger, yet governments ignore the simple, most cost effective step we can take to reduce emissions – having fewer children. Several studies have shown this. (See www.drawdown.org and Wynes and Nicholas).   

If current birth rates persist, UN 2017 figures project world population could exceed 26 billion by 2100. This is never mentioned. But there is nothing unrealistic about a trajectory we are currently on, even though it would trigger mass famine.   

Turkish President Recep Erdogan in December 2014 called for married couples to have at least three children, saying “birth control is a treasonous act that will render Turkey extinct.” He is one of many ill-informed political and religious leaders we need to challenge, clearly and simply on the consequences of overpopulation threats to sustainability and food security. The denial of fertility management services translates into coercive child-bearing. 

The ‘coercion’ taboo

Population concern organizations invariably run scared of any hint of population coercion, even as we face wipe out through the ignorance of people who insist they have the right to have as many kids as they want even if they can’t support them and the burden is shifted to others. This can’t be sustained much longer as resources decline and societies start to fall apart.  

In fact, society readily accepts values that could be interpreted as ‘coercive’ for the common good, with legal sanctions on the ‘freedom’ to drive at high speed in built up areas and fiscal incentives to discourage harmful behaviour. If we are to have any chance of a sustainable future we need to ‘incentivise’ fewer births rather than more, through the tax system and increase understanding so people make informed decisions.  Several countries, like Taiwan, Japan, Iran and Bangladesh) have transitioned to lower birth rates without coercion. 

If governments won’t talk population, then they are not serious about cutting emissions, ensuring food supplies and a secure quality of life for our future. 

HavingKids.org subtly turns this round by emphasizing the rights of children to a sustainable future, rather than the ‘rights’ of parents to have large families. Some say we should avoid worrying narratives, and instead tell stories about rewilding and ecological restoration. 

We have to wake people up to the critical resource challenges facing us all in the lifetimes of people alive today, not least high fertility and persistent hunger in already failing states, topsoil, fresh water and oil energy depletion that will impact on mass food production and the ability to transport food aid to failing states. A huge problem is that alternative energy sources are poor net energy performers in the input energy needed for a given energy return.

Several tactics are widely used to try to suppress discussion. There are common sense answers to all these challenges.   

Population shaming Worrying about population growth and advocating for stabilisation and reduction is motivated by morally reprehensible characteristics like racism.

Population growth is good. Economies thrive with more people – increasing consumption. Population and technology gamble will resolve environmental problems of more people. Population fatalism Population may be a problem but there’s nothing we can do about it.   

Large families are caused by poverty. But large families amongst the rich go unnoticed. Regular TV shows showcase large families without any thought of the impact on others. 

Lack of infrastructure is the fault of austerity not demand. Lack of housing and hospital beds is blamed on government cutbacks. We simply turn swords into ploughshares and infrastructure will be delivered. The fact that we need to reduce total throughput and impact is ignored.  

China’s former One-Child policy was coercive and denied ‘human rights’. In fact, China’s one-child policy was widely supported by the people because they were well informed by the government on the benefits. It lifted millions out poverty, helped China’s spectacular rise in living standard and only applied to people in cities. People in rural areas could have two children.  Now China has dropped the limit, with a still huge population because it swallowed the scare that there will be too few young people to support the transient phenomenon of an ageing population.  

The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized.  We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more young people and more immigration to support an ageing population. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and many other ways. With typical short-term vision, we forget that all these extra young people get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this. China’s productivity gains from lower numbers will also mitigate ageing impacts.  

Malthus was wrong. We are doing fine. Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798 on the Principle of Population, predicting mass starvation if human numbers kept on rising, was only wrong in his timing.  He couldn’t then know of the one-time binge the discovery of fossil fuels would give to global economic growth and how oil enabled the development of intensive agriculture.                  

Escalating extraction costs and declining energy yields vital for extraction and maintenance are causing a world heading for 10 billion people before 2050 to scramble for the remaining biomass and minerals that make industry possible. We have made no alternate plans for running the complex operations of everyday life and are heading rapidly towards a minefield of lethal limits with little thought for the future.

The population problem solved? 

When rational men tell us that the population problem is solved, this should really make us stop and think. Fred Pearce, an Environment Consultant of New Scientist magazine claimed that global numbers will stabilise at 7-8 billion around 2040, and start falling after that. We are nearly at 8 billion now!   Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at Oxford in his 2013 book Population 10 billion, thinks we should not worry and we will deal with it when it comes!

Hans Rosling – Ecologically illiterate.

The late Hans Rosling’s acclaimed ‘Don’t Panic – The Truth about Population’, broadcast on the BBC in November 2013 sees statistician Rosling present a spectacular portrait of our rapidly changing world. With nearly 8 billion people already on our planet his message is surprisingly upbeat. Across many parts of the world families of just over two children are now the norm he says – meaning that soon the population explosion will be over.  His assumptions took place in a vacuum and failed to consider resource depletion, including oil that underpins intensive agriculture and the global economy, environmental degradation and climate change. Also, the impact of high-fertility populations on growing numbers. The pressures will be increased by a world population some 60% higher than the current level’. Rosling ignored the fact that while the proportion of people in poverty is shrinking, the number of such people in high fertility countries is rising. The fertility decline he celebrates has stalled.  

Sadly, politicians will jump on these dubious assertions to play down any need to engage with population concern. Pearce, Rosling and Dorling are a threat to a decent and sustainable future in their wildly optimistic take on rationality.

Then there are open borders social justice warriors blind to the consequences, stifling debate on anything they deem ‘taboo’ topics. This obsessive moralism often conflicts with common sense

We are facing a post truth age where one can replace scrutiny with bluster.

On a finite planet already in a 75% overload crisis, to continue to run the world with a “system” that allows every person the right to consume as much and as many resources as they can buy or borrow on credit – without any limit being applied is completely irresponsible.  Our overload on the Earth is still increasing and therefore requires some fiscal, welfare and socially progressive constraints, instead of using ‘human rights’ as freedom to have as many children as you want, consume as much as you want and as an open door lever for economic migrants. 

Migration pressures?

The pro mass migration lobby feeds on a political and media bias for the inherent benefit of immigration from developing nations to developed nations as an expression of human dignity. Lobbyists and many politicians claim we are more at risk of running out of workers than running out of fertile soil, fresh waters and biodiversity. They brand concerns over high immigration levels with ‘racism’ and ignore the impact of unsustainable population numbers on consumption, infrastructure, food security and our growing ecological crisis.  All of us are impacted by this. 

The idea that increasing legal migration is in developed countries self-interest as we need to revive flagging population growth is ecologically, economically and socially illiterate. Such fantasy economists and lobbyists simply have no concept of the impact of ever-growing numbers in a world of finite and diminishing resources.  UN effort would be better spent on focusing support and challenging poor governance in many of the sender countries.  

Do we seriously think that developed nations can take in everyone who wants to leave their own countries?  Africa’s population alone is set to more than double in 30 years, fuelling ever more poverty and migration. A Gallup poll in 2017 found that more than 700 million people questioned wanted to move permanently to another country, with over a fifth hoping to go to the United States. This is unsustainable. We can welcome migrants while establishing rules that do not threaten ecologically sound management policies.  

You can help people far more cost effectively in nearby protected areas than importing millions into high-cost western countries. Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament warned in June 2018 that addressing the root causes of the migrant exodus requires a new partnership, and an ambitious 40b euro Marshall plan for Africa. Continued inaction will see millions seeking a better life in Europe, with devastating consequences for Europe and those seeking to migrate.  

As more countries struggle with poverty, conflict, extremism, corruption, climate change and natural resource depletion, huge sections of the world’s rapidly growing population will look in vain for a better life. Western states and lobbyists who support an ‘open border’ policy cannot possibly handle this influx without suffering growing internal decline, and increasing inability to support failing states to more equitable status.  

We need to all talk about this a lot more and rethink the out of date 1948 Human Rights Act and subsequent developments. What about everyone’s human right and other living creatures to have a decent habitable planet to live on?  Society has a right to expect its citizens to act in ways that do not endanger others.  Our children will not thank us for being driven to an abyss. 

Cycle of silence. 

Media coverage of environmental issues varies but remains historically low considering its critical importance. Recently there has been an upswing of concern with climate change and Extinction Rebellion, but the media soon drifts back to its focus on celebrity gossip, economic growth and sport.  Researcher Richard Thomas compared two years of UK broadcast news in 2007 and 2014 on the UK’s flagship news bulletins. By 2014 environmental coverage had dropped to just 0.3% on the BBC and 0.2% on ITV. This lack of scrutiny has let politicians off the hook.  

Another challenge is the media’s constantly framing any population decline as a ‘bad’ that has to be reversed for our continued well-being and economic growth. A typical example appeared in The Times (UK) July 4, 2019 headlining Italian birth rates fall to lowest since 1861.  Some key passages: “…Prompting fears that the country is facing a sharp demographic decline. Russia is facing an even graver demographic crisis after the UN warned that its population could fall to half the present level by the end of the century. Deputy prime-minister Tatyana Golikova: “We are catastrophically losing the population of the country. 

Italy and Russia are not alone in facing a demographic meltdown, as new births tumble across the European Union. (Yet the EU population is rising steadily – overwhelmingly through large scale immigration. Some countries are doing better than others.  France tops the chart. 

In Hungary women have been offered interest free loans of around £30,000 that will be written off when they have three children and large families will get seven-seater vehicles.   

Another country not in the article but with a ‘worryingly’ declining population according to many economists and politicians is ‘stagnant’ Japan.  Yet the greater Tokyo metropolis is currently the world’s most populated city at around 38 million. Japan is well organised and on current fertility rates is projected to leave the list of world’s largest cities to be replaced before 2100 by Lagos at 88 million, Kinshasa 83m and Kabul in 10th place at 50m. (Population predictions for the world’s largest cities in the 21st century, Daniel Hoornweg, University of Ontario and Kevin Pope) 2017). 

These cities are already chaotic at their current populations. Imagine them facing such numbers.    

Key questions are whether the world community will:

  1. a) Acknowledge biophysical reality and take all available ethical steps to limit the number of future births;
  2. b) Recognize that to restore ecological integrity (needed for the survival of civilization, not just other species), there must be a significant, controlled (50 percent+) reduction in energy and material throughput of economic activity.  
  3. c) Seriously contemplate measures for the more equitable redistribution of wealth to maximize numbers of people who survive the great contraction with dignity and minimize human hardship. 

  (Professor William Rees)                             


Sustainable numbers and UN Goals 

The Second Scientists Warning to Humanity in 2017 listed 13 action points. The last point (m) said: “estimating a scientifically defensible sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations to support that vital goal.”  Rallying nations is clearly the UN’s job, but how do we define what a long-term sustainable population is?  

Taking GFN data, the current global average ecological footprint per capita would mean a sustainable population size for the long term would now be around 4.4 billion. But since there is no allowance in this for leaving any bio-capacity to conserve biodiversity, or depletion of non -renewable resources, or the additional ecological footprint of further increase in the population, nor enabling developing countries to reach more equitable living standards, we have to look at a lower population stabilisation nearer 3 billion. 

The November 2019 UN Nairobi conference on Population marked the 25th anniversary of the original 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development. It is full of clichés, delusion, political jargon, issue avoidance and does nothing to even acknowledge that we are facing unsustainable growth in our numbers and consumption, driving ecological collapse. 

Under the event aims and ‘Commitments’ it showed the level of support for particular aims:                                       Achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health care – 43% support. Draw on demographic diversity to drive economic growth and achieve sustainable development – 23% supportThese are amazingly low percentage commitments considering this event has been active for 25 years and the emphasis on driving economic growth and achieving sustainable development shows we are in political fantasy land again. 

“Bishops in Africa have raised concerns about the agenda of the Summit, saying: ”The meeting will be destructive to humanity and the values around human life“.  

These people, through their moral beliefs and one-dimensional thinking are in fact driving us to mass starvation and collective genocide. They have no understanding of real sustainability in an increasingly resource scarce and degraded world.

As the evidence mounts, in a highly connected world, we no longer have the excuse that we are unaware (or don’t care) about our continuing unsustainable trajectory. 

Family Planning and the 69 FP2020 countries – More fertility Challenges.

A key mainstream issue is widening access to reproductive health and fertility management. 

FP2020 is an outcome of the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning where more than 20 governments made commitments with NGOs and Foundations to address the financing, and cultural barriers to women accessing contraceptive information, services. 

Total spend in the 69 FP2020 countries was US$3.37 billion in 2016.  Of which 34% came from Domestic Governments; 48% International governments and Foundation donors; 14% personal purchase (estimated from Demographic Health Survey, low/ middle income countries).     

By mid-2019, 46 of the 69 target countries had made commitments to FP2020.  But 23 countries have still not committed to FP2020: Western Sahara, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Timor-Leste, Sudan, Tajikistan, Sao Tome and Principe, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua, Mongolia, Lesotho, Honduras, Iraq, Guinee Bissau, Eritrea, North Korea, Djibouti, Congo, Comoros, Cambodia, Bolivia and Bhutan.  Seven countries, account for more than three-quarters of domestic expenditures on family planning: India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Philippines, and Kenya. Total fertility rates in these countries in 2017 were: 2.24, 2.32, 3.55, 3.33, 2.05, 2.58 and 3.52, respectively.   (Source: World Population Review 2019).


Population concern organisations focus on making ‘contraception’ and education of girls widely available as the only answer to population growth. Yet abortion intervention plays a far bigger role in our social fabric than people might expect – preventing about 24% of UK births in 2018. The number of UK women who had previous abortions was 39%.  If we didn’t have relatively freely available abortion there would be a huge spike in birth rates. Currently 45 percent of the 6 million pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended.

War makes fools of us all People are horrified at the sheer stupidity of manic global turf wars for domination in fragile countries across the Middle East and Africa, when we face such urgent global crises to resolve. We must appeal to sanity and wider issues we must tackle.  

We should be doing far more targeted outreach to politicians, media and the education sector. It still isn’t happening. Where are the punchy briefings to governments and media?  The cost is minimal but the building of understanding is vital.  

Population Stupid statements (boxed highlight in article)

A collection of depressing and revealing ‘population views expressed by commentators in the media. Many ignore “doomsday” warnings, not because there is no supporting evidence, but because it does not fit with their long-held convictions of how the world works. Other tactics include ‘the practice of ‘Defamation’ to censor inconvenient truths. 

Being a ‘National Treasure’ appears to be a license to talk rot.  (Alex Massie. The Spectator, 26/9/2013)….“Take, for instance, the curious case of Sir David Attenborough. The poor booby is another neo-Malthusian. Which is another reminder that expertise in one area is no guarantee of good sense in another.” 

Australian bishop raps Green Party campaign on population fears 19/8/ 2010. Bishop Anthony Fisher has criticized the country’s Green Party for its negative attitude on population. “The fears of a population explosion are absurd. Australia has close to the lowest population density in the world. Most of our country by far is uninhabited.”   (Yes – it’s desert!) 

Caroline Boin from the International Policy Network, claimed “more people was good because it meant there would be many more inventive minds to help solve any resource problems with technical fixes.” Newsman Jon Snow said “Isn’t 6.8 billion people enough?”  (C4 News 18/11/09)

We have to change the mind-set of political leaders. Swedish Minister Ylva Johansson said her country “would take in refugees and “improve its population demographics “with a smile.  

Brian McGavin is a UK-based writer, environmental campaigner and co-director outreach Scientists Warning to Humanity.

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.