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World Population Day: let overpopulation topic out of closet

July 11 is World Population Day, as declared by the United Nations in 1989 to raise awareness of global population issues. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of awareness out there. Of the 6.77 billion people on the planet, too few have either the courage or the awareness to weigh in or do something about the subject. Overpopulation is the proverbial elephant in the room, and it is a big one.

There is widespread agreement among scientists that we are in overshoot. According to Global Footprint Network, 1.3 planet Earths would be required to sustainably meet the needs of our current population at present levels of consumption and waste. If we continue current upward trends in consumption and population, by 2035 we’ll need 2 Earths. This means we are not acting sustainably. We are using up stuff that we, and/or future generations, are going to need.

The rate at which we use up stuff is commonly represented in the famous IPAT equation developed by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren. Simplified, it states that human impact = per capita consumption X population. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out from this equation that perpetual increase in either consumption or population would require a like decrease in the other in order to avoid increasing human impact on our ecosystems and resource base.

Or maybe it does. Because all too often we do ignore population’s role in the equation. It’s not politically correct to suggest humankind and the world we live in would benefit greatly from stabilizing or even reducing our total population. We will do anything to avoid addressing that subject. We’ll flush our toilets every other day, breathe toxic air, destroy fisheries, and take our chances with nuclear power or “clean” coal. We’ll pour millions of dollars into efforts to restore rivers and streams, protect endangered species, or develop alternative energy sources. But we won’t even spread the word that voluntarily limiting family size would be a prudent and effective way to move toward sustainable equilibrium. That is a shame.

It is telling that in his World Population Day message, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon does not call for worldwide education about limiting family size. No, the politically correct thing to do is skirt the issue and call for opportunity, equality and reproductive health for women. Granted, these have proven to be important factors in reducing fertility rates. But I have to wonder, why can’t we also talk about making responsible decisions about family size?

London Mayor Boris Johnson captured this dilemma succinctly in Global over-population is the real issue, a commentary on this subject, published in The Daily Telegraph in October of 2007 (before he was elected mayor).  A few highlights:

…that single biggest challenge is not global warming. That is a secondary challenge. The primary challenge facing our species is the reproduction of our species itself.

 The UN last year revised its forecasts upwards, predicting that there will be 9.2 billion people by 2050, and I simply cannot understand why no one discusses this impending calamity, and why no world statesmen have the guts to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.

This commentary was so incisive it earned Johnson a Global Media Award last year from The Population Institute.

How the hell can we witter on about tackling global warming, and reducing consumption, when we are continuing to add so relentlessly to the number of consumers? The answer is politics, and political cowardice.

It’s interesting at the G8 Summit this week, leaders fretted and prattled on about staving off climate change, but lacked the courage and resolve to worry less about economic growth and worry more about whether there will even be an economy in the face of this century’s predicted climate disruption. Did they dare to discuss population growth?

Back to Boris Johnson’s 2007 commentary:

…humanity bleats about the destruction of the environment, and yet there is not a peep in any communiqué from any summit of the EU, G8 or UN about the population growth that is causing that destruction.

In our own communities, local governments routinely issue warnings about the need to build more freeways, expand mass transit, alter land use practices, build more dams and power plants, and no doubt raise taxes, in an effort to accommodate projected population growth. We are always accommodating it. In many, many cases we are actually encouraging and incentivizing it. Never willing to do anything about it.

This year, on July 11, World Population Day, let’s resolve to talk about global overpopulation more often. Let’s begin to recognize that our communities, our states, and even our nations, often have policies which incent population growth. Let’s take population growth out of the closet, so all these entities can begin to move toward sustainable population policies that aim for stable, if not declining, populations.

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