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Planetary Emergency Calls for Drastic Measures

Here’s the 5th installment of questions from our Solving Overshoot webinar. I’m sharing the questions we didn’t have time to address, and I’m including comments received from Madeleine Somerville and Paul Ehrlich, our panelists. If you missed the first few installments, start here with installment one. Your comments are welcome below. I think today’s questions are particularly important, so I’ve jumped in and offered some of my own thoughts. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

16. Chris Bystroff asked: “Paul– Will accelerated growth lead to a cataclysm, like a nuclear war or something else, sooner? And if so would it be less damaging than waiting until the population doubles again?”

Paul Ehrlich: Nuclear war would likely result in no significant recovery – worst possible of the causes of collapse we’re facing.

Dave Gardner: Interesting question. I think we’re living a slow-motion cataclysm now. A rapid collapse earlier rather than later might leave our ecosystems a little more intact. I’m pretty sure population cannot double again. We don’t have the fossil fuels to supply, or the atmospheric/climate capacity to process waste from, a continuation of the green revolution – and only the most optimistic and clueless economists believe we’ll have yet another breakthrough to feed 14, or even 11 billion.

17. Tristan Wolf asked: “Camilo Mora has discussed the idea of a “Climate Plague” in the 2020’s, that at this point we may be facing a problem that has traveled to far to fast to save. Do any of you think that the global population reflects this problem? That we are approaching a point of no return? if so, do you think we will suffer a similar fate on the global scale, akin to that of china’s suffering after their population spike?”  A collapse looks almost inevitable, and soon (Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B .)

Dave Gardner: There is no doubt we’re fast approaching a point of no return. Current behavior suggests collapse is inevitable, but here we are having conversations that could lead us out of the woods. It’s a long shot, but we’ve got to try!

18. Karen Pitts asked: “Madeline, do you think telling people it is not ethical to have more than one child is the answer, or do you think women would have fewer children if their birth control was effective or if they can’t access or afford contraception?”

Madeleine Somerville: We’ve already seen a reduction of family size in most (if not all) areas where safe, legal contraception is available. When women are allowed to choose their own family size, births tend to decrease. I think this trend would continue, especially in the developing world where women know intimately the harsh realities of the world a child would be born into. In the west, many women are choosing to remain childfree, for reasons environmental and otherwise.

Dave Gardner: I don’t believe there is one answer. We need to be working on all fronts because we are so far into overshoot:

1)make affordable contraception widely available
2)educate and empower women to resist patriarchal pressure to marry young and/or have large families
3)educate men and encourage them to take some responsibility here (including vasectomies)
4)accelerate the adoption of a small-family norm in both (over)developed and developing nations
5)don’t forget that we’ve got to end the obsession with economic growth and scale back consumption in the (over)developed world.

We should not settle for replacement-level or barely sub-replacement-level fertility; this is an emergency.

19. Comment from Anonymous Attendee that I felt must be addressed: “According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Population Data Sheet, the US experiences a net birth rate of 4 people per 1000 (12 births and 8 deaths).  Canada’s net birth rate is 3 people per 1000 (11 births and 8 deaths).  The Net Migration per 1000 in the US is 6.  In Canada is 4.  By contrast the “Less” and “Least” Developed nations are experiencing 15-26 net births per 1000 with 0 or negative Net Migration.  In other words, net birthrates in North America is not the problem.  Overpopulation appears to be primarily a problem among the less developed nations.  By contrast, overconsumption is our problem.  It appears that in North America, we need to focus on economic growth and a steady state economy.

Paul Ehrlich: The I=PAT equation solves this – you can’t separate population and consumption, where the basic problem is largely aggregate consumption.  Roots of the equation are in Ehrlich PR, Holdren J. 1971. Impact of population growth. Science 171:1212-1217.  See also Ehrlich P. 2014. Human impact: The ethics of I=PAT. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 14:11-18.

Madeleine Somerville: Yes, this is the basic issue I tackled in my Guardian column. Western birth rates are declining yet our consumption is still wildly out of control. Perhaps we need a double-pronged approach where we focus on reducing consumption in the developed world and reducing population growth in the developing world.

Dave Gardner: Don’t you think net birthrates in North America might actually BE a problem as long as we cling to current rates of consumption and pursue 3%-plus annual economic growth? Yes, we have an overconsumption problem, but why should we “settle” for near replacement-level fertility in a nation of 325 million that might be living sustainably if it were 100 million? So far we’ve seen little evidence that humankind is willing to simplify and scale back our consumption, but plenty of evidence we’re willing to moderate our procreation. This tells me we shouldn’t stop pressing for additional progress on the latter, even while doubling our efforts on the former.

Read the next installment in this series here.


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Comments (7)

  • Avatar

    Karen Pitts


    We mustn’t assume that everyone in the U.S. has access to, (or has sufficient knowledge about) effective contraception. 40-50% of pregnancies are unintended. The unintended rate for teens and poor young adults is more like 70%. AND the current safety net of reproductive health and education (Title X, established by Nixon) is being severely threatened by Trump, Congress, and many state policies. AND the ACA does not cover everyone, and not all health providers do a good job of promoting or supplying effective contraception.

    With the dwindling middle class and the end of reproductive health safety nets, you can expect the US. birth rate to rise considerably. Conversely, the recent Choice Project in St. Louis and a teen LARC (Long-Acting Reversible Contraception) program in Colorado, have proven that birth rates (and abortion rates) can be lowered considerably with a good program of education and provision of a choice in free contraception, including free LARCs.


    • Avatar

      Brian Sanderson


      Further to Karen’s point, the propaganda to “grow population” is becoming more and more intense here in Canada. And it’s not just propaganda, also increased government funding to boost the number of children. All this when we really should be making contraceptives free for all.

      I know that people groan about conservatives when it comes to family planning. But, in Canada (and Australia) it is the left side of politics that even more strongly pushes population growth!


      • Avatar

        Dave Gardner


        I partially agree, Brian. While I’m not at all sure the progressives own it more than conservatives, I find it quite alarming to see see the “birth dearth” wringing of hands by those consumed with GDP growth mania. Insane.


    • Avatar

      Rob Harding


      Such great points, Karen. Thank you for sharing. I’ve recently been asking myself – what does a continued 40-50% unintended pregnancy rate in the U.S., an exceedingly wealthy country in most respects, tell us? I think both points you raised are paramount to address: (1) lack of access to effective contraceptives AND (2) lack of sufficient knowledge & awareness of contraceptives and sexual & reproductive health generally.

      The second question I ask is, what do these gaps in access and knowledge stem from? To me the issue of the knowledge gap might be more straightforward to address, and even more prudent to address since increased knowledge & awareness could on its own increase the level of access to effective contraceptives by way of simply allowing more people to know what options are available to them, how to pursue them if desired, and at what cost. To oversimplify for the sake of brevity, it seems that one major focus area for us all should be to effectively transition away from our current, and provenly ineffective, abstinence-only sex education programs to a nationwide comprehensive sex education program geared towards the needs of local populations, whoever that is depending on location. Clearly there is ample room for improvement in both rich and poor communities, as in those communities in between in terms of affluence.

      This transition is highly unlikely to occur during Trump’s presidency, but I believe that regardless of the current political environment it’s imperative that this be one element of what we devote resources to – at the local, state, and federal levels.


  • Avatar

    Kirsten Stade


    Great to see the focus on IPAT! The eagerness of conservation activists and others in the developed world to focus exclusively on consumption is understandable, especially in light of the tendency of climate change to eclipse all other environmental issues in the public consciousness. But the biodiversity crisis, habitat fragmentation and destruction, and other rapidly worsening environmental crises are enormously impacted by population growth in the developing world. We need to be willing to discuss and address this impact.


  • Avatar

    Cliff Terry


    I know people like Paul, Karen, and Madeleine have been spelling out the situation very clearly for years and years for those who will listen, but regarding the responses to the 4 questions above, I particularly want to compliment Dave for concisely summing up the problems and the solutions..


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