Half a year before I published A Planet of 3 Billion, Rob Harding proposed the creation of a United Nations Framework Convention on Population Growth. You can find the original post here at Stanford’s Millenium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere. The proposal was also published at the Overpopulation Project which you can find here.
In previous posts, I have rallied behind the concept of creating an 18th Sustainable Development goal which is focused on curbing runaway population growth and bending the global population curve to achieve a lower, more sustainable population plateau. Whether the SDG process might be reopened to add this 18th SDG is anyone’s guess. Certainly if they do not, we will overshoot all of our SDGs. Sigh.
Rob’s approach would serve a similar purpose. It would allow us to recognize that we (e.g., humanity) have exceeded our planet’s carrying capacity, and are accruing long term ecological debt that is threatening our planet and our species. And, it would allow us to collectively set goals for bending the global population curve in a particular timeframe. After all, what are goals with out due date! I have argued for a goal of 1.5TFR by 2030, but we could negotiate that within the UN process. Rob’s proposal is modeled on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has negotiated targets for carbon emissions. Yet, it completely failed to appreciate the role of runaway population growth in fueling climate change. History will look back on this failure with contempt.
So, why not just add discussion of runaway population growth to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change? Well, as I have said elsewhere, climate change and our collective carbon footprint is only one small part of our larger human footprint. And, to properly grapple with runaway population growth, a substantial agreement with many moving pieces would be required. It is not as simple as setting targets. Population issues touch every single Sustainable Development Goal, and every aspect of human rights discussions across the UN and its member nations. We have it at our fingertips to embrace just, ethical, and empowering strategies - particularly focused on women and girls - that can help us bend the global population curve. But, all nations would need to agree to them.
As such, I completely endorse Rob’s proposal to establish a UN Framework Convention on Population Growth - as an update and friendly amendment the Cairo Consensus established in 1994 during the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development.
I strongly recommend that everyone read this article in Frontiers in Conservation Science, by a group of prominent scientists who argue that:
”It is therefore incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and “tell it like it is.” Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”
As one might imagine with Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich as co-authors, runaway population growth plays a prominent role in their thesis, as does overconsumption. While they “contend that only a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges facing the international community might allow it to chart a less-ravaged future,” they are short on any realm productive path forward.
I wonder what they might think about my proposal in the Journal of Population and Sustainability to target a Total Fertility Rate of 1.5 by 2030. This is a practical, if audacious, goal which if met would actually enable us to meet the larger suite of Sustainable Development Goals that we are currently managing to overshoot. Bend the global population curve. Save our planet and our species.
As a side note, it is heartening that Greta Thunberg actually tweeted out a Guardian story about this article. It seems that she is beginning to embrace the realities of how runaway population growth is driving climate change, and how we must stabilize and then decrease population if we are to avert climate catastrophe - as was clear in the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, November 2019.
Thanks to Jack Humphrey for hosting me on his “Rewilding Earth Podcast”, as part of the Rewilding Institute, to discuss “How To Have A More Constructive Conversation About Human Population Issues”. I am quite pleased with how this conversation played out, and all of the issues we were able to explore together. Rewilding is crucial if we are to rebalance our planet and our species, after humanity has annihilated so much of our planets natural habitat. While there are always opportunities to rewild in the face of runaway population growth, it will continue to get harder and harder as humanity’s ecological footprint continues to grow with population growth. Bending the global population curve is key to enabling broad based rewilding strategies that can help avert ecological and climate catastrophe. So, if you are at all interested in these topics, give this one a listen!
Everyone should make sure to tune in to #OvercomingOvershoot. I posted last month about it, but here is a bit more.
Thanks again to Gary Wockner for hosting me and my amazing colleague Dr. Phoebe Barnard (who was one of the lead authors of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency in BioScience in November 2019) for a discussion about my book A Planet of 3 Billion on his new podcast series #OvercomingOvershoot, this episode entitled “The Human Impact Crisis”. Sponsored by EarthX, this new podcast series was formulated to help us all better understand how runaway population growth and overconsumption have led us to overshoot our planet’s carrying capacity. I would encourage everyone to listen to the whole series available on EarthX OnDemand, where our episode was preceded by amazing guests such as: Episode 1’s Tom Butler, editor of the new book Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot. And, Episode 2’s Laurel Hanscomb, CEO of the Global Footprint Network. Stay tuned for what promises to be an insightful series of episodes that will address the complex and overlapping issues surrounding humanity’s overshoot of our planet’s carrying capacity.
If you have made it this far in the the blog, you will realize that we exceeded our planet’s long term ecological carrying capacity decades ago, and that runaway population growth is leading us to accrue ecological debt at an alarming rate that promises to undermine the viability of our planet and our species. I argue that there is a clear need to curb this growth, bend the global population curve, and decrease the human population to a level that can live in balance with our planet’s resources.
In this context, I would like to share with you my call to achieve a global Total Fertility Rate of 1.5 by 2030, published in a recent article in the Journal of Population and Sustainability. Thanks to the kind invitation of its editor, Dr. David Samways.
While the global TFR is currently at 2.45, it is important to understand that many urban areas and some nations already have a TFR of 1.5 or below. These patterns are driven by women’s empowerment, their education and integration in to the workforce, and and access to family planning technologies. This global TFR is projected to continue to trend downward. In the Summer of 2020, an article in Lancet determined that investment in women’s education and access to family planning technologies is, in effect, ahead of schedule, projecting that TFR would fall to 2.1 (replacement level) by 2064, with population peaking at 9.7 billion – well ahead of United Nations estimates. So, why should we not further accelerate this trend, by investing further in women and girls, worldwide?
To me, our understanding of the factors driving this inevitable bending of the global population curve is very encouraging. And, it forces us to ask the question, what investments could be made to accelerate this inevitable trend. Moreover, what levels of investment would be required to achieve this goal of 1.5TFR by 2030. These things are knowable, and doable. They simply have not been the object of our inquiry as we have all been lulled in to assuming that runaway population growth itself is the inevitable trend.
I invite all of you to join in this challenge, and to help integrate this goal in to the many complementary activities that are already afoot for the 2020’s. So many of you are touching one of the levers that could help bend this curve, and you may not even know it. I look forward to discussing with you how your corner of this very complex world might contribute to achieving this goal, as we all strive to make the world a better place.
“When we educate girls, and when we empower them and give them the quality education that they need, it actually helps us to tackle climate change because when girls are educated, they have fewer children,”
- Malala Yousafzai.
Congratulations to the Malala Fund for their gift from Apple’s climate program (https://www.fastcompany.com/90582955/why-apple-is-giving-to-the-malala-fund-as-part-of-its-climate-program). Kudos to Apple for recognizing the truth that empowering and educating women and girls can help us avert climate catastrophe by reducing fertility, and bending the global population curve. And, there is no better partner for empowering and educating women and girls than Malala and the Malala Fund.
This gives me great hope that a global network of women and girls is emerging, that will build bridges across various regions and cultures, in a way that accelerates the inevitable bending of the global population curve, through the empowerment and education of women and girls.
Thanks to Gary Wockner for hosting me for a conversation on EarthXTV’s #OvercomingOvershoot program exploring the intersections of our planet’s carrying capacity, human dominance and the climate crisis. It was a pleasure sharing the stage with my colleague Dr. Phoebe Barnard who was one of the lead authors of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency in BioScience in November 2019.
We, as a global community, recently made a major leap forward in our conversation about population. To little fanfare, outside of the conservation community, the International Union for Conservation of Nature passed a motion entitled “Importance for the conservation of nature of removing barriers to rights-based voluntary family planning” making it global policy. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the IUCN members that spearheaded this effort - the Margaret Pike Trust and the Population and Sustainability Network with consponsors @NNF_Namibia, @NatureUganda, @pheethiopia, @SAWCtweet, @BornFreeFDN, @wti_org_india, and @FZS_Frankfurt.
This motion is a critical step forward by the conservation community, which has long discussed the many ways in which human habitats have encroached on, or even annihilated natural habitats. It is heartening to see that they finally, publicly made the connection between continued population growth and continued loss of habitat and biodiversity.
Make sure to give it a read, and get involved.
Thanks to Aditya Chaturvedi for his review of A Planet of 3 Billion entitled “Reinventing Economics for the Age of Autonomy”. When you write an interdisciplinary book, it is always interesting to see what thread a reviewer pulls first. Aditya clearly keyed in on my arguments regarding how the myopic views of Neoclassical Economists often end up influencing nations to pursue pro-natalist policies - and my call for “Reinventing Economics for an Era of Degrowth”. I actually really like Aditya’sformulation, as women’s empowerment, women’s education, women’s integration in to the workforce, and their access to family planning technology promise to unleash a level of bodily autonomy, economic autonomy, and social autonomy for women that will allow us to close the gap between demonstrated and desired levels of fertility. And, when the global population curve bends, we will truly need a new set of economic concepts if we are to successfully navigate to this lower, more sustainable population plateau.
In reading through the vast resources of The Overpopulation Project, I happened across this excellent article on “The Missing SDG” - or Sustainable Development Goal. The article was a reflection of a discussion held on November 7th, 2019, where around fifty people gathered in Ekocentrum, Gothenburg to discuss the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. While clearly there were many useful candidates outlined by others, I must commend Jenna Dodson and Patrícia Dérer from The Overpopulation Project for their presentation.
They argued for the 18th SDG to be “End Population Growth”, where they highlighted the role of population growth in driving biodiversity loss and climate change, problems that helped spur the creation of the SDGs. They argued that we need to address population growth directly, in order to achieve better progress for most of the other SDGs. Given how short we have fallen in the accomplishment of so many of our SDGs, I could not agree more. As Dodson and Dérer argued, if population increase remains unchecked, it will undermine achievement of the SDGs focused on ending hunger and poverty and reaching environmental sustainability. Of course, I would have preferred “End Runaway Population Growth”, since its runaway nature is the most problematic element.
(NOTE: I think it would be amazing if we were able to get Sir David Attenborough to amend his quote as The Overpopulation Project does in its article to say “All of our Sustainable Development Goals become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder - and ultimately impossible - to solve with ever more people.” Sometimes a simple edit like that could have a massive impact on the debate. If you know Sir David, please put in the ask!
Anyways, back to the meeting. Dodson and Dérer correctly argued that it is possible to influence future population growth through rights-based policies. They pointed out the obvious - but which is so often willfully ignored by so many - Demography is not destiny, but to some degree a political choice. They briefed on the proven policies, such as voluntary family planning programs providing free or inexpensive access to contraceptives, that can drive fertility rates down by avoiding unwanted pregnancies. They highlighted the social, economic and environmental benefits of small families. Theypointed out the importance of better-covered targets in the SDGs that also help with slowing down population growth, such as quality education and gender equality. At the end of the event, theIr was a vote of which candidate SDG concept should be the new 18th SDG. As it turns out, “End Population Growth” got by far the most votes. I bet “End Runaway Population Growth” might have gotten a few more!
If only the United Nations would address runaway population growth head on. Folks like John Wilmoth, the 10th director of the UN Population Divison within the Department of Economic and Social Affairs must be suffering such a massive cognitive dissonance, given the UN’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, while seemingly not seeing how runaway population growth is systematically undermining their accomplishment. When interviewed in this New York Times article for his response to the recent Lancet study about the potential for bending the population curve by 2064 at 9.7 billion he was quoted calling this a “problem.”
“It’s kind of an extreme assumption to think that countries aren’t going to think their way out of the problem for the next 80 years,” he said.
Why is this a problem? If he sees the ultimate bending of the global population curve as a problem, then clearly he does not see how runaway population growth will undermine the UN SDGs. Or he is not a big fan of the SDGs.
I would love to know How Many People Does John Wilmoth Believe The Earth Can Support?