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World Population Day 2014: I’ll Have What She’s Having

Two months ago today, South Park producer/animation director Eric Stough –addressing the 2014 graduating class at University of Colorado – offered some life-saving advice (at 13:48 in this video):

“In less than two hours you’ll walk through those gates with your hard earned diploma and it’s time to think about work, getting a job, climbing the corporate ladder, looking forward to raises, maybe buying a house with a partner and having a baby or two, and for Earth’s sake keep it to two.”

– Eric Stough, Producer/Animation Director of South Park

My stepdaughter Katie was in the crowd watching her boyfriend Connor graduate. She texted me about Stough’s advice. She knew I’d be excited. Yes, I have a one-track mind, focused on the sustainability of (what must become) an elegant human civilization. Yes, I make films and speak frequently about the overpopulated state of our planet. And, yes, it’s news when someone famous backs me up on this. In all fairness, a few of the rich and famous have spoken up about overpopulation – Jane Fonda, Richard Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Ted Turner, Australian millionaire Dick Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, Cameron Diaz, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama. But that’s too few.

 

“No decision any of us makes will have more effect on the world (and on our lives) than whether to bear another child. No decision then should be made with more care.”

– Bill McKibben, in his book, Maybe One

 

I wonder if even Eric Stough understood just how utterly, world-shakingly, important his advice is: “For Earth’s sake keep it to two.”

pregnantwomanThis Friday, July 11, is World Population Day, and this year’s UN-chosen theme is investing in young people. Growth profiteers will no doubt interpret this as a call for couples across the globe to get busy making babies. Babies are the feedstock of human resources – cheap labor, consumers to buy their products, and taxpayers to fund their growth subsidies. There will surely be a huge return on an investment in young people.

But no, I don’t think that’s the kind of investment the UN had in mind. It’s hard to tell, because the UN never steps up and boldly declares that the world is overpopulated and we ought to be doing something about that. No. Yet that is exactly what World Population Day ought to be about. Instead we’re stuck with a politically correct tap-dance around the issue. “Investing in Young People.” What the hell does that mean?

Here’s what it should mean: The most loving, compassionate thing we can do for young people, to ensure they have a shot at living good lives, is to conceive fewer of them. And start now.

 

“You know, I have often thought that at the end of the day, we would have saved more wildlife if we had spent all WWF’s money on buying condoms.”

– Sir Peter Scott, founder of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

 

So, yes, I was thrilled to hear a South Park creator suggest stopping at two. I stopped at two. I was paying attention back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich appeared on The Tonight Show and didn’t do a fancy side-step around the issue. I did not want my kids to have to carry an AK-47 to the market to get groceries. I did not want them to starve. Or live in climate hell. Or be a number. Or stand in ridiculously long lines to get a latte or see Avatar.

So anyway, here we are, approaching World Population Day 2014, and once again it falls to me to offer the unvarnished truth about the subject of population. We’re sitting at 7.2 billion. Scientists who’ve done serious work to figure this out tell us a good number, that would allow us to live modest but decent lives without robbing future generations of the resources and biocapacity to live decent lives, is probably close to 2 billion.

 

“[T]here are only two kinds of solutions to the population problem. One is a “birth rate solution,” in which we find ways to lower the birth rate. The other is a “death rate solution,” in which ways to raise the death rate – war, famine, pestilence – find us.”

– Dr. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb

 

It ought to be pretty obvious to us what we should do about it. Have 8 kids? No. 4? Not anymore. 3? Not at this time. 2? Maybe a few us could. The most loving, responsible family-size decision we can make, knowing what we know today about our overpopulated world, is to conceive zero or one child. Those who want more children can adopt all they want. If you aren’t satisfied with conceiving one child and adopting more, then you might want to ask yourself exactly why you are conceiving.

 

“If the world is to save any part of its resources for the future, it must reduce not only consumption but the number of consumers.”

– B.F. Skinner, Behavioral psychologist, author of Walden Two

 

It isn’t breaking news that the human race has overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. Estimates are we crossed that threshold some 40 years ago. So why have we done so little about it? Sure, we have outstanding global efforts to make affordable contraception available to anyone who wants it. We haven’t accomplished that yet because we don’t fund these programs adequately. Sure, some excellent efforts are underway to ensure women (who should have the final say-so about what’s going on in their wombs) are empowered to be in charge of the spacing and number of children they conceive. But even with these efforts, we are still adding about 80 million new hungry mouths to the planet every year. We don’t hear of an overpopulation crisis. There doesn’t seem to be an emergency.

In fact, we are lulled into complacency by several phenomena:

  1. We are told fertility rates are declining and population growth is going to come to a stop. We don’t have to do anything.
  2. Besides, we apparently have a sacred right to conceive as many little consumers as we desire, and you have no right to even suggest that moderation could be wise.
  3. We are told that declining fertility rates are going to make it hard to grow our economies and fund our pension systems, so we’d better make more babies.
  4. Population growth is still pursued and celebrated by cities, states, provinces, nations and the growth boosters who profit.
  5. We are told the amount of population growth for the next 100 years is already baked into the cake. It’s predestined.
UN Population Chart 2013 medium

Click on image to enlarge

A quick note about #5: News stories tell us we’re going to add over 3.5 billion more people to the population by 2100, and scientists are working very hard to figure out…

  • How we’re going to grow enough food to feed them
  • How we’re going to provide them with water
  • How we’re going to keep the fisheries from collapsing
  • How we’re going to preserve enough habitat to avoid mass extinctions
  • But not how we can humanely stop that population growth before it reaches this super-crisis level

Yada yada yada. You’ve heard the saying, “shit happens.” Well, apparently that “shit” is “population growth.” Whether it’s in your town, your country or the world, there is a universal assumption that those people are coming and we’d better damn well be ready for them.

My good friend Dave Paxson, who founded and has been running World Population Balance for over 20 years, recently slapped me in the face with this crazy notion:

“World overpopulation is solvable.”

We know the problem. We know how to fix it. We have the means. And we don’t have to wait 100 years to see results. It might surprise you (unless you’re an obstetrician) that we can start seeing results in 9 months. Several number-crunchers have crunched, and we are told that if we have a global average fertility rate of 1, world population can be under 4 billion in 100 years. A world population in 2100 of 10.9 billion is only destined if we sit on our hands and continue to assume that cake is baked.

But it’s not, so I’m doing my part this year with an idea I think will accelerate the “cool” factor of having a small family. Ten years ago it was common to see big Chevrolet Suburbans (the state car of Texas) swinging through the Starbucks drive-thru with huge stick-figure families on their rear windows, declaring 6 kids a source of pride.

Decal 23When I set out to make this video about stick-figure families, I was pleasantly surprised at how difficult it was for me to get shots of big stick-figure families. They are already becoming passé, much to the chagrin of growth profiteers like Rupert Murdoch and Sam Walton’s heirs. Smaller families are in. Romney-style, quiverful families are out.

The video introduces Think Small Family Stickers, which allow those of us who have chosen to have small families to express pride in that. If these stickers catch on, we can have a worldwide wave of small-family popularity – exactly what we need in an overpopulated world. See how/why others are using their stickers, learn how to get your own, and share your story at our Think Small page.

We shouldn’t have to work so hard to make small families cool, but we do. On top of that list of phenomena that encourage our inaction on overpopulation, we also have to overcome a longstanding social norm that women have a prime directive – to make babies. This is so strong that, even in this day and age, women still feel tremendous social pressure to start a family. No particular reason is needed. It’s just what you do. Just as South Park’s Eric Stough intimated: graduate, get married, buy a house, start a family.

There’s a surprisingly long list of strong women who are working hard to put that expectation to bed. Grist Senior Editor Lisa Hymas has written brilliantly and extensively in defense of a woman’s right to choose to be childfree. London Times columnist Caitlin Moran has written quite humorously about it:

“Particularly First World babies, with their ferocious consumption of oil and forest and water, and endless burping-out of carbon emissions and landfill. First World babies are eating this planet like termites. If we had any real perspective on fertile Western women, we’d be jumping on them in the streets, screaming, ‘JESUS! CORK UP YOUR NETHERS! IMMUNIZE YOURSELF AGAINST SPERM!”

– Caitlin Moran

(Moran makes an important point. Some may be tempted to point out that in the “first world” (industrialized nations) the fertility rate is already near or even below replacement level. That does not mean we aren’t overpopulated, especially when you consider our huge footprint. So, yes, much of this blog post is focused on our behavior in the Global North. Planning a small family (and carrying out that plan) is a crucial strategy in every part of the world. There simply is not a country or region that will get better with added population. Some love to question the ethics of anyone in the, let’s call it OVER-developed world who dare to suggest people in other nations should practice family planning; who are WE to preach when we are such rampant over-consumers? Well, it’s much more palatable for us to suggest a wise strategy for people in Nigeria if we are cleaning up our own back yard. So, yes, we need to educate and inspire young couples in the industrialized world to think even smaller.)

There are books about it, like Kidfree & Lovin’ It and No Children, No Guilt. There are websites like Kids? No Thanks! and Childfree Voices, Facebook pages and communities like GINK (green inclinations, no kids) and Childfree Me. There are YouTube videos: My Reasons for Being CHILD-FREE is quite thoughtful, including a brief statement about selfish reasons for bringing children into the world.

There’s an enlightening discussion of the pressures and issues surrounding family-size decisions in this episode of The Point. Host Ana Kasparian starts it off with, “as someone in my mid-20s I’m certainly feeling the pressure right now.” In this same episode, Jessica Valenti, author of Why Have Kids, sums it up nicely:

“Having children should be a pro-active decision rather than the default expectation. Right now the culture assumes that everyone wants children…it’s also part of a culture that tells women that the most important thing they could ever do is become a mother. And that if you don’t want kids, there’s something wrong with you, you’re selfish, that’s unnatural. So, instead of asking childfree people why they don’t have children or why they don’t want children, I THINK WE SHOULD BE ASKING PARENTS, OR THOSE WHO WANT TO BE PARENTS, WHY THEY DO WANT TO HAVE KIDS.”

A few interesting topics explored in that episode:

  • The cost to raise a child ($291,570 for middle-income parents in the U.S.)
  • Most kids, in the opinion of Jessica Gottlieb, are the result of a “drunk and horny” night.
  • People most often have a second child out of concern not to “screw up” their first child. The panelists offer evidence as to why this is misguided.

I do have a few gripes with the conversation in this show. One is that the only mention of overpopulation and sustainability is Kasparian’s offhand remark, “the environment is usually a good cop-out for people that don’t want to have kids anyway.” Another is the notion that the U.S. needs to be more supportive of parents, with things like a requirement that employers provide paid parental leave. On its face this seems like a good idea, but I’d love to see journalists and policy pundits begin exploring how we can excise from our system all or most of the financial incentives to have children. It’s time. We need a national campaign to reduce family size.

There are a number of other worthy efforts to get population reduction on the radar screen:

If you’ve got a great video, bumper sticker, photo, book, website, facebook group or other effort worthy of sharing, forgive me for leaving you out. Please comment on this blog post and let us know what you’re up to.

I was tempted to apologize here for the long rant. As Mark Twain famously wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” But no, I’m not going to apologize. All this needed to be written. If you’re still here, reading, thank you for caring. If we all care enough, we can solve the problem of overpopulation this century.

The best advice Eric Stough could have offered those CU graduates is, (my words here) “For all our sake, for Earth’s sake, for the sake of future generations, keep it to zero, or maybe one.”

Dave Gardner directed the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, is a founding contributor at Growth Bias Busted, and blogs almost regularly at www.growthbusters.org. GrowthBusters is a non-profit project that depends on your donation to keep things humming. Thanks for any support you can give.

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Comments (12)

  • Avatar

    Paul Potyen

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    Telling it like it is! Thanks, Dave!

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      Thanks, Paul. Glad you’re staying in touch. Come see us sometime!

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Rob

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    And yet no mention of immigration or the levels of unsustainable immigration both legal and illegal in the U.S. and other devloped countries. An observation of mine over the years has always been that certain people can certainly talk about overpopulation(Sierra club comes to mind) being a problem(which it is) but when it comes to addressing the huge issue of immigration they are amazingly silent. Whats up with that Dave?

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      I would love to get into that subject, but it is a topic that has so much baggage, prejudgment, and assumptions that I have to build up the stomach for it. What I have to offer on the subject are some very big-picture thoughts I’ve not seen articulated by ANYONE. The public discourse is missing the big picture. It will come.

      Reply

      • Avatar

        Brian Sanderson

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        Dave, I agree. It’s a minefield. We all should help you more. Good on Rob for breaking the ice on the immigration issue. I’ve posted a few off-the-cuff thoughts below.

        Reply

  • Avatar

    Rob

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    Dave,
    Yes the subject has a ton of baggage, prejudment and assumptions but to be honest I threw those to the wind a number of years ago. Either overpopulation is a problem and needs to be addressed wherever it occurs or it is not. I am extremely tired of the P.C. in the environmentalist community and I suppose I am pointing this out in making this comment. My understanding of the original Sierra Club’s views were that “Everything is local”. It is time that we start addressing it that way. Below is a link to a change In the Sierra Clubs policy which has them embracing CIR.

    http://www.progressivesforimmigrationreform.org/sierra-club-reverses-course-embraces-increased-immigration/

    I am so tired of the left claiming environmental protection as one of their core beliefs and yet they are destroying the environment with their policies on immigration. Dave I would certainly support your group if it addressed this issue. If growthbuster’s does not address immigration then I will not take it seriously. Thanks for all you do.

    Take care,

    Rob

    Sincerly,

    Rob

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Brian Sanderson

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      Rob, you are correct, of course. We live in a globalized economy. Rich and poor are not neatly divided along national boundaries.

      But the fundamental unit of sovereignty is the nation state. Thus it is up to each nation to solve the problem for itself — and thereby demonstrate the virtue of population restraint. This cannot be done so long as nations like USA, Canada, and Australia accept the role of being dumping grounds for the excess population growth of other, irresponsible, nations.

      Without immigration, the population of USA would have stabilized at about 150 million. That would have done more for the world than any other previous achievement by any other nation at any time or at any place. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

      The simple fact of the matter is that the overwhelming number of poor people is a direct consequence of overpopulation. And, in our resource-limited world, we will remain trapped in a zero-sum game until population decreases. So long as population continues to expand, it’s a negative-sum game.

      I say: “Dump the left. Dump the right. I prefer reason over ideology.”

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Bob Abramms

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    Just released: New 2015 World Population Map. See: http://www.populationconnection.org/site/PageNavigator/PopulationMapnewsrelease.html
    and
    http://www.populationeducation.org/sites/default/files/resource_files/Population_Map_0.pdf
    and the press release
    HERE: http://www.expertclick.com/NRWire/Releasedetails.aspx?id=57631

    Cartographer Paul Breding says, “I thought there would be a few countries that might have lost population in that time, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Haiti, and Sudan. But surprisingly they all gained population. The only countries that lost population were in Eastern Europe!” Breding was astonished to learn The Middle East is growing significantly and that India will soon surpass China in population …probably between 2023 and 2028

    Details on the map (and how to order) are here: http://www.odtmaps.com/detail.asp?product_id=PopMap-2014

    Reply

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    Steven Earl Salmony

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    Notice the consciously ignored and deliberately unexamined ecological science of human population dynamics/overpopulation. In this instance science and humanity are failed by the very scientists who are thought to be faithfully dedicated to going wherever the evidence leads them, to discovering the way the world we inhabit actually works as well as the most accurate ‘placement’ of the human species within the natural order of living things, and to reporting objectively what is found to be results of inquiry. Recognize that virtually all scientific manuscripts are reviewed by two knowledgeable scientists with appropriate expertise who are expected to judge the validity of the research and report their findings. Not uncommon are the perfidious occasions when intellectual dishonesty and lack of moral courage lead referees and journal editors consciously to reject apparently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome research…evidence that is on the one hand irrefutable and on the other hand unbelievable. Understand the profound implications of this failure of scientists and other self-proclaimed experts to accept responsibilities to science and to perform duties in behalf of humankind and life as we know it. The body of scientific knowledge is not built up, scientists in other fields of inquiry are denied the breakthrough, and the human community is not allowed to see what could somehow be true and given the opportunity to act accordingly. New science is willfully denied. How can the human species be expected to adapt efficiently and effectively to the world in which we live when the reality of it is not seen?
    http://www.panearth.org/

    Reply

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      Brian Sanderson

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      As a scientist, I share your concern about the direction that science has taken with regard to human ecology. Journals have opted to be politically correct at the expense of scientific truth: http://users.eastlink.ca/~bxs/Nature.html

      The best scientific work on human ecology was done by: Paul Colinvaux (1978) “Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare”
      and in 1980 “Fates of nations: a biological theory of history”.

      Since Colinvaux, this branch of science has gone backwards.

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Dave Gardner

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    I didn’t mean to be absent from the continuing discussion, especially regarding immigration and national borders. I appreciate the recognition that it’s a challenging subject. And I repeat that I have yet to read or hear a discussion that actually addresses the real issues involved. Thanks for spurring me on to address it. It will happen.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Lucas

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    For my money you cannot beat Dave Foreman’s “Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife” for understanding the real issues involved in the links between US population growth the border and immigration.

    Still a dues paying member of Californians for Population Stabilization: http://www.capsweb.org/ as they are the best grassroots organization working for a national immigration that will bring about population stabilization.

    Reply

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