Sharp Danger but Grounds for Hope

Joe Bish

Since the late 1960s, human population growth has been presented constantly, often dourly, as part of an overwhelming problem. There are good reasons for the sense of consternation and urgency behind the warnings regarding population that the scientific community has relayed to the general public over that nearly fifty-year span. To get a sense of the enormity of the issue, let’s take a quick look at our species’ recent demographic history.

It is estimated that the world population reached one billion in 1804. Another 123 years passed before it reached two billion in 1927, but only thirty-three more years were required to reach three billion, in 1960. Thereafter, global population reached four billion in 1974 (fourteen years), five billion in 1987 (thirteen years), six billion in 1999 (twelve years), and seven billion in 2011 (twelve years).

Importantly, this rapid increase is no longer due to a high growth rate acting on a relatively small population base. For example, as recently as the year 1967, a population growth rate of 2.11 percent acted on a total population of 3.4 billion to produce annual global population growth of seventy-three million people.

Now, the situation is the opposite. The global growth has fallen by 50 percent—a good thing, to be sure. But, this lower growth rate of 1.1 percent is now acting on an enormous total population of 7.3 billion. Counterintuitively, this is resulting in even larger annual population growth than in 1967—over eighty million additional people per year. This gigantic total growth works out to eye-popping numbers: 1.5 million more people added to the planet every week, over 220,000 people per day. That is nine thousand more people every hour, or 150 more people per minute. Almost three more people every second. And we expect the Earth to automatically and easily provide land, food, shelter, and other resources for all of these newcomers, plus all of us who are already here. This is a very tall order for a finite planet to handle. In fact, based on global extinction rates, destroyed habitats, altered chemistry of oceans and atmosphere, changing climate, and toxification and pollution of the environment, it is clear we are already asking way too much of the Earth. The addition of billions more people by century’s end—which is what most experts expect will happen—bodes ill for life on Earth.

A new programmatic effort by my employer, Population Media Center—called the Global Population Speak Out—seeks to raise awareness of the crucial role population will play in the future evolution of humanity and our relationship with the ecosystems in which we are embedded. And while the urgency of late twentieth-century population messages remains, Speak Out organizers also make a concerted effort to frame population as part of the solution, since early population stabilization, as in the United Nations’ low variant projection (see below), can be a powerful contributor to solving today’s most pressing ecological and social challenges.

The United Nations (UN) issues biannual population projections for each country and for the planet as a whole. The most popular set of projections consist of the aforementioned “low” variant, the “high” variant, and the most commonly referred to “medium” variant—which, in layperson’s terms, is the UN’s best guess as to what will actually happen. In the 2012 update, the low projection for the year 2100 was 6.7 billion, the medium was 10.9 billion, and the high was 16.6 billion.

That is a huge variance—which presents an opportunity. The future of our human population trajectory depends largely upon the investments made right now in providing family planning information and services globally, but also upon successes in the battles against such human-rights violations as gender-based violence, genital mutilation, fistula-based ostracism, forced prostitution, slavery, and child marriage. It should be obvious which population future would likely be more sustainable and that these injustices need to be eradicated anyway.

This point is worth emphasizing: In the twenty-first century, working on the population issue means working against the low status of women around the world and especially against oppressive cultural practices. After all, these are important factors that significantly contribute to high fertility and population growth, because they rob women of social power, self-determination, and true choice about how many children to have and when. If we are successful in weakening and eliminating these scourges—along with expanding access to family planning information and services—global population will stabilize and begin a gradual decline sooner rather than later. No doubt the natural world will applaud this, as will the individuals around the world who will benefit from strengthened human health and rights.

That is why it is legitimate to attach a great deal of hope to the population issue. Good population activists should continue relentlessly to educate the general public that the UN’s low variant population projection shows a possible global stabilization as soon as the year 2049. Achieving this stabilization will be a challenge, but it is very much doable.

The UN estimates that it would cost an additional $3.5 billion per year to provide contraceptive information and services to the more than 225 million women in the developing world who want to avoid pregnancy but who are not using a modern method of contraception. (That’s less than 4 percent of what Americans spend on beer each year!) It’s a very small price to pay for a more sustainable world. Combine those investments with efforts through entertainment mass media and other means to improve attitudes and behavior toward girls and women in the developing world, and we can maximize the chances of stabilizing world population at 8.3 billion and then begin a gradual reduction in the total number of humans on the planet as soon as the year 2049 (as outlined in the UN’s low variant projection). That is just thirty-five years from now. This would be a wonderful moment in the evolution of humankind—and it would help to solve other crucial social and environmental challenges.

If we can achieve the low variant projection, by 2100 global population would be just 6.7 billion—more than four billion fewer than can be expected in the business-as-usual, medium variant projection of 10.9 billion. Put another way, working hard to realize human rights, elevate the status of women, and share family planning tools and information around the world will result in Earth and her ecosystems being asked to carry four billion fewer people in the year 2100. This is equal to the current combined populations of North America, Central America, South America, Oceania, Europe, Africa, and India. This is what is at stake—and it should be clear that a future that achieves the low variant population trajectory is a future worth working toward.

In its November 2014 report for policy makers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states clearly that “Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-twentieth century.”

Meanwhile, a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States (PNAS) titled “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions” demonstrated that slowing population grow
th could provide 16 to 29 percent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

Mitigation strategies, such as alternative energy generation, energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage are crucial to the planet’s climate future, but nobody should forget that programs that address unmet needs for family planning and reproductive health services around the world are also an indispensable part of a good long-term strategy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Look no further than a 2009 study titled “Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals,” which examined the relationship between population growth and global warming. It determined that the “carbon legacy” of just one child can produce twenty times more greenhouse gas than a person will save by driving a high-mileage car, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs, and the like. The study concluded: “Clearly, the potential savings from reduced reproduction are huge compared to the savings that can be achieved by changes in lifestyle.”

Author Paul Murtaugh also noted: “In discussions about climate change, we tend to focus on the carbon emissions of an individual over his or her lifetime. Those are important issues and it’s essential that they should be considered. But an added challenge facing us is continuing population growth and increasing global consumption of resources. . . . Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”

Going beyond the single issue of human-driven climate change, it is clear that human population size and growth impacts a multitude of other environmental issues, especially the catastrophic loss of biodiversity now taking place worldwide.

Population activists were not surprised when, in June 2013, a study titled “Human Population Density and Growth Validated as Extinction Threats to Mammal and Bird Species” confirmed what everybody knew already: as human populations grow, human demands for water, land, trees, and fossil fuels also grow. Unfortunately, the price of all this “growth” is paid for by endangered plants and animals.

“The data speak loud and clear that not only human population density, but the growth of the human population, is still having an effect on extinction threats to other species,” said Jeffrey McKee, professor of anthropology at Ohio State and lead author of the study. The findings suggest that any truly meaningful biodiversity conservation efforts must take the expanding human population footprint into consideration.

Every year there are fresh reports about the senseless slaughter of elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, and other “mega-fauna.” Some of their population decline is attributable to poachers seeking to harvest ivory or other body parts, but much of the dramatic decline has been caused simply by ever-increasing loss of habitat. Many of these animals live in areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where human fertility rates equate to a doubling of the human population every thirty or forty years.

Globally, over 220,000 people are added every day—and each requires sufficient land, water, shelter, food, and energy for a decent life. This growth, on top of the already existing 7.3 billion people worldwide, constitutes an incredible drawdown of Earth’s regenerative capacities. Even without poaching and overconsumption, the sheer numbers don’t leave much for wildlife.

Interestingly, attitudes about human population size and growth—assuming a person has thought about these issues at all—often serve as telling proxies for attitudes about humanity’s place in nature. There are many with ideological or vested interests who are either agnostic on the population issue or, even worse, simply don’t care about the rights of other species to exist. Some think endless population growth is both desirable and possible, while others think the problem will solve itself. They are wrong.

People’s perceptions of the population issue are important because human population stabilization and subsequent consolidations are fundamental steps in the global human behavior change required for a sustainable future. They are not “silver bullets” able to guarantee sustainability on their own, but they impact all other sustainability issues. Accepting the need for population stabilization and subsequent decline is a crucial mental turning point, wherein a person moves from allegiance to human exceptionalism and human entitlement to a more humble and self-modest conception of humanity’s place within the planetary whole. The primary driver of thinking is no longer centered only on humans and our needs and wants, but rather is conscious of the entire ecosphere and the rights of other species to exist.

This brings back full circle to the Global Population Speak Out and its featured activist tool: an amazing new book titled Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (OVER), published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology (FDE) in partnership with Goff Books. This volume weighs in at almost seven pounds and features more than three hundred pages of stunning, full-spread photography. Best-selling author Alan Weisman has called it “relentless” and “compelling.” FDE granted Speak Out four thousand copies of this momentous book to spark an international campaign.

Overdevelopment - Overpopulation - Overshoot book cover and inside

Thanks to the Speak Out’s international reach, OVER is opening eyes and striking the hearts of concerned citizens, scholars, students, and scientists all over the world. Speak Out has already arranged for books to be sent to activists in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Mexico, New Zealand, Guyana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sweden, Germany, Serbia, Korea, Ireland, and India—and expects many more countries to be represented once all is said and done. One key feature of Speak Out is the crowd-sourcing model being used to distribute copies of OVER. Anybody can submit a proposal to receive multiple copies of the book by visiting the campaign website, In a nutshell, Speak Out seeks to tap into the creativity and innovation of the grassroots by soliciting proposals for using the four thousand copies of the book to spread awareness, promote discussion, and inspire positive action toward biodiversity conservation, sustainable economies, and global population stabilization.

Speak Out does not shy away from emphasizing the problems caused by the enormous size of the global population or its ongoing rapid growth—indeed, these tremendously important issues are the reason Speak Out exists in the first place. However, Speak Out does not repeat the behavior of so many population advocates throughout the years: presenting the population issue as a scary, intractable problem. That strategy has proven to be nothing but a surefire recipe for producing public disengagement and apathy. Neither is population presented as a silver bullet for all the planet’s woes, a presumptuous and off-putting meme that sows division rather than unity across the activist community. Instead, the issue of population is presented as a viable contributing solution for the great global sustainability challenge—population stabilization and decline are not in themselves sufficient to steer the human enterprise back onto a path of sustainability, but they are a necessary part of the process. Pleasingly, the ways to address population most effectively also improve lives at the individual level: empowering women, educating our youth, and expanding family planning information and services.

Speak Out is a global community devoted to bringing the population issue back into the mainstream consciousness as a solvable, compelling, and sensible issue that integrates with a
wide swath of environmental, humanitarian and socioeconomic challenges that most sensible people would like to see solved as soon as possible. The controversy has faded. Only the work remains.

Joe Bish is director of Issue Advocacy for the Population Media Center and oversees the Global Population Speak Out campaign. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing.

Joe Bish

Joe Bish is director of Issue Advocacy for the Population Media Center and oversees the Global Population Speak Out campaign. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing.