World Population Day – 6 Obstacles to Sustainable Population
Six things stand in our way.
This week a few human rights and too few environmental organizations will observe World Population Day. In 1989, as world population passed the 5 billion mark, the United Nations declared July 11 World Population Day. In the 23 years since, we’ve added another 2 billion.
The UN’s latest mid-range scenario has us passing through 10 billion before this century ends. We’ve been adding a billion to the planet about every 12 years, but the UN expects fertility rates to decline such that it will take nearly 80 years to add the next 3 billion. This scenario also has us hitting peak population just after 2100. Some feel this means population growth is no longer a concern.
I’m as worried about population growth today as I was when I decided twenty years ago to stop at two children. Why? Today alone we’ll add more than 200,000 to the planet. This week we’ll add more than a million – over 80 million this year. Yet according to data from the Global Footprint Network, published in the WWF’s Living Planet Report, the current 7 billion of us are living like there’s no tomorrow. We’re pushing other species off the planet at a record rate, draining the world’s major rivers and pumping aquifers dry, liquidating fertile soils, toxifying our land and waters, and heating up our climate.
We’re doing this while half the world’s population lives at a lifestyle we’d consider impoverished. We’d like all the people on the planet to have an opportunity to live like we do. Unfortunately that’s just not possible. The scientists crunching the data tell us it would take 5 Earths to support all 7 billion of us living like North Americans. Even if we could pull this off for a day or a week, it’s not sustainable and we’d very quickly destroy the life support systems upon which we depend.
So it’s a sticky wicket at 7 billion, and the problem is amplified if we go to 10. Clearly those of us living materially rich lives need to scale back our levels of consumption. But that is not enough. The prospects of achieving worldwide economic justice and equity do not get better as we overpopulate the planet.
The good news is we don’t have to follow that UN scenario. It’s not inevitable. It is physically possible for population to peak at 8 billion or even less. Families the world over can begin today making informed, responsible decisions about family size. What stands in the way?
1. The myth that growth begets prosperity – We are convinced our recent 200-year binge (harnessing the power of fossil fuels, industrialization, globalization, settling and exploiting the frontiers of the Americas, etc.) is the way life is supposed to be. These exploits allowed us to improve our lives, and they were accompanied by explosive population growth (1 billion in 1800, 8 billion in 2000). We think we can repeat this binge behavior going forward. In fact, many of us believe we must. The evidence and the science tell us clearly we cannot. We can take power away from this mythology by pointing it out whenever it is repeated or used to guide behavior or policy. We must be relentless in demolishing this myth.
2. The assumption continued population growth is inevitable – Many also have the impression it would take decades to change that steep upward trajectory. But all the talk about demographic momentum assumes people of reproductive age will not dramatically alter the choices they make. We can get over this hurdle. It just takes a little information. Growth can stop 9 months from now if it’s enough of a priority.
3. Our fear of addressing the issue – The “population taboo” has many forms. We think it’s an inalienable right to reproduce as many offspring as we wish. It’s none of our business to suggest someone else limit family size. Some critics leap to the conclusion that sustainable population advocates in the developed world are trying to avoid addressing our overconsumption and blame humankind’s unsustainability on the procreation of people in the developing world.
For these and other reasons many good people avoid the topic. It’s become politically incorrect to use the word “overpopulation.” “Population dynamics” has replaced “population growth.” “Reproductive health” is mentioned instead of “contraception.” We see it at the UN and in statements from environmental and human rights groups. This PC approach to the topic pervades most of our media.
Perfect examples are statements from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. From an early World Population Day 2012 message:
“A world of 7 billion is both a challenge and an opportunity with implications on sustainability, urbanization, access to health services and youth empowerment.”
A challenge and an “opportunity?” Give me a break! And from his actual World Population Day 2012 statement:
“Multiple crises — food, fuel and financial — have caused significant suffering and served as a wake-up call about the need to pay far more attention to the building blocks of sustainable development. Reproductive health is an indispensable part of the sustainable development equation.”
That’s the best he can muster. In his defense, he does go on to actually use the word “contraceptives.” That in itself is astounding progress. But he does not have the cojones to tell the full truth. Here is what he ought to say (my words now):
“The world is overpopulated. We must find humane, voluntary ways to bring population growth to a halt as soon as is humanly possible. And we need to do this in the developed world as much as in the developing world.”
This is a tough beast to tame, but I’m going to suggest the George Carlin approach. Let’s get over our goody-two-shoes fear of the truth. Stop beating around the bush. Use the words. Our planet is overpopulated. Population growth is not good for our children. It would be in their best interest for us to conceive fewer of them. You can say it! It’s the compassionate, loving, humanitarian thing to say. If we say it and write it enough, world leaders may follow (the irony is not lost on me).
Let’s also admit the developed world is overconsuming and we must deal with that issue simultaneously. And if we’re overconsuming, that means we North Americans and Australians have a population problem, too (Europeans not so much; many of these nations are experiencing population decline – which they should embrace with joy).
4. Our culture is addicted to growth – Our cities, states and nations compete to have the fastest growth. We pursue population growth because we connect it with economic growth, which is of course the Holy Grail (and a subject for another day). It’s impossible to have a sustainable world in which most of the geopolitical units are pursuing growth. Frankly, it can feed a hypocrisy in which rich cities and countries increase population and footprint, while thinking birth control for poor peoples and nations will solve our sustainability problem. It’s all nonsense. Of course we need to expose this mythology for what it is, and progress to more enlightened, sustainable prosperity strategies.
5. Propaganda from growth profiteers keep reasons 1-4 in play – We are programmed from birth to believe in and worship everlasting growth. News media and advertising reinforce that indoctrination on a daily basis. Some of this happens innocently enough – because journalists grow up with the same programming. However media companies and business tycoons benefit from a growing market so they intentionally serve up a steady diet of pro-growth Kool-Aid.
6. Family planning under attack – Lastly, we have the ultra-conservative attack on funding of family planning. I’ll say it: access to contraception. As more and more people come to understand that limiting family size is critical, compassionate and responsible, I think we can prevail. It starts with having frank dialog about it. World Population Day 2012 seems like a good day to start.
Dave Gardner directed the film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and has created www.worldpopulationday.org, to encourage honest conversations about overpopulation. To order the film or find a screening near you, visit www.growthbusters.org. Both are non-profit projects of Citizen-Powered Media. Permission is granted to publish this essay elsewhere in its entirety, provided full credit and link back to these sites is included. An edited version of this essay was published here in the Colorado Springs Independent.
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