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Roles of Population and Consumption in Overshoot

The second in the GrowthBusters webinar series, Solving Overshoot: End Overpopulation or Stop Overconsumption, went by too quickly. At the end of the hour there were 26 questions we hadn’t had a chance to address. Our panelists, Paul Ehrlich and Madeleine Somerville, were kind enough to provide written responses to these. I will share these here on the GrowthBusters blog over the next several days.

I recommend you subscribe to the blog now to make sure you don’t miss any of these. See the subscription box to the right. Subscribing will also ensure you get notice of the next webinar in the series. While I’ll post nearly every day to get through these questions, normally the blog posts are pretty sparse (subscribing won’t clutter your inbox in 2017). If you’re a GrowthBusters member, you will get webinar invitations regardless.

If you didn’t attend the webinar, here is a very brief introduction of our two panelists:

Paul EhrlichDr. Paul R. Ehrlich: the Stanford University biologist most known for co-authoring, with his wife, Ann, The Population Bomb, in 1968. Paul gained fame appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over 20 times, discussing environmental concerns. Paul is very well respected in the scientific community, and his resume is impressive. He and his wife have authored many fine books in the decades since that landmark work.


Madeleine SomervilleMadeleine Somerville: author, blogger and columnist. She wrote the book, All You Need Is Less: A Guilt-Free Guide to Eco-Friendly Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. Madeleine wrote a column for the UK Guardian for a time, also called All You Need is Less.


Today I’ll share four questions from the webinar, along with responses from Madeleine and Paul:

1. Benjamin Dancer asked: “Can we solve this problem with human rights and contraception or do we need coercion?”

Paul Ehrlich:  Let’s try full rights/opportunities for women, and access to modern contraception and abortion for all first.

Madeleine Somerville: I think the best option is focusing on human rights and safe, legal, affordable (or free!) access to contraception and abortion, paired with educating and raising awareness.


2. Karen Shragg directed this question to Madeleine: “for Madeline – overpopulation is also a relationship.. even if a person in a developing country has very little and doesn’t contribute to carbon footprint.. if they grow their population beyond the limits of the water in their well, they will die. And they will have died of overpopulation. SO can we say that overpopulation impacts the developed world and developing world very differently? One being local and one being more global?“

Madeleine Somerville: We in the developed world are able to ignore the effects of overpopulation in a way that is almost impossible in the developing world. If we run out of food here, there are grocery stores, markets, food banks and shelters. If food runs out in an area where, as you say, they’ve grown their population beyond the limits of the environment they must relocate or will suffer almost immediately.

This is why this issue is such a challenge to discuss, especially in somewhere like North America (and especially in Canada). Space is abundant, food is plentiful, stores are full – we can – and do – ignore what it costs our earth and those living half a world away to keep it that way.

Paul Ehrlich: Pretty much true.


3. Chris Bystroff asked Madeline: “When women are asked their desired family size they universally give a number far lower than their actually family size.  Why? Who is in control? (data from Guttmacher Inst)”

Madeleine Somerville: It’s hard to answer without knowing the parameters of the study, but my guesses would be:
– Unexpected pregnancies and/or beliefs that prohibit contraception/abortion

– Pressure from partners/family/culture

– Regret/stress? Kids are hard work! It’s easy to want four kids until you actually have four kids and realize how much it requires of you.

Paul Ehrlich: Men play a major role in family-size preferences in many countries.


4. Karen Pitts asked Paul Ehrlich: “Paul Ehrlich, how much money do we need each year to meet the worldwide unmet need for contraception? How much are we spending?”

Paul Ehrlich:  Haven’t time to look up, but it would be a trivial bit of the U.S. arms budget.


This is the first in a series of webinar follow-up posts. See the second post here. And the third post here.


GrowthBusting Tool KitGet your growthbusting toolkit at our store: note cards, small family stickers, t-shirts, bumper stickers and more. GrowthBusters members at the Growth Buster or higher level always get 15% off. All paid membership levels will get free access to future webinars. Membership info here. Learn what your membership supports here.

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Comments (5)

  • Avatar



    I have come to believe that even in the USA, Overpopulation is a bigger factor than overconsumption. In the 1970’s, when the Sierra Club would say the P word, they stated that the USA is the most overpopulation nation – because of our impact. We are now almost double that size, and adding a Chicago every year. Consumption, without being driven by pop growth, does not have that impact.

    Please read my brief paper at

    I think you will get a better feel for the huge impact our Overpop is having.

    Thank You.


  • Avatar


    In reply to Dancer’s question (Will contraception & female education alone work, or do we need coercion?) – As a gentler form of coercion, how about a virus (“Inferno” the book version)? If you read the book, the protagonist succeeded in releasing his virus. But when scientists studied it, they found that it did not cause death. What it caused was 1/3 of people infected to go sterile. So, in the book version, scientists decided to let it go and do its work. I’d be happy to contribute to any such biotech solution to overpopulation.


    • Avatar

      Joan A Philips


      I don’t think the Inferno solution would work because the 2/3 fertile women would have more babies to make up for the sterile 1/3. My ideal solution is to shrink the fertile period from ages 12-50 to ages 25-35. How we would do this I don’t know. Another possible solution is a virus that would make all women sterile after their second birth. Actually, I think that if we simply stop encouraging women to have more babies and give them alternatives it would be enough.


      • Avatar

        Nancy Kellogg


        Social and economic inequality cannot be solved with technology regulation. Read The Handmaiden’s Tale and Promises I Can Keep. It’s complicated. I like the bumper sticker ‘If you control my reproductive rights can I control your reproductive rights?’
        Consumer less in a materialistic, capitalism society is a challenge indeed. SCORAI posts solutions used worldwide for our transition period to post carbon solutions.


  • Avatar

    Dr. George F Gitlitz


    Came across this paper recently, with a quote from the IPCC that I hadn’t been aware of:
    * Guillebaud, John: Voluntary family planning to minimize and mitigate climate change
    BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 20 May 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2102
    “Some support for family planning as an intervention has existed, intermittently, from the early days of climate concern.17 18 19 20 21 More recently, the Royal Society’s 2012 report on climate change, People and the Planet, highlighted “the importance of both slowing population growth and reducing per capita CO2 emissions to stabilise the global climate” (box 2).23 And, after decades of silence, in 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated, “CO2 emissions could be lower by 30% by 2100 if access to contraception was provided to those women expressing a need for it … This is important not only in poor countries, however, but also some rich ones like the United States, where there is unmet need for reproductive health services as well as high CO2 emissions per capita.”24”
    And a question for Dr. Ehrlich: Why is it apparently impossible to get the New York Times to address the issue of population as it relates to climate change? I mean the Editorial Page, the columnists Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, Thomas Egan, Roger Cohen, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd. Even Nicholas Kristof, though he’s as socially progressive as anyone in the world. And the reporters who cover the climate “beat” — Justin Gillis, Coral Davenport, and the rest. I’ve felt for a long time that we’re never going to become “mainstream” till we break that barrier. Would appreciate your take on it.


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