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?
In the recent book review by The Overpopulation Project, I was alerted to a colossal oversight in my book research. To be fair (to myself!) the article in question was published while I was completing my book. Nevertheless, that I missed this article in the rollout of my book is somewhat disheartening. The work by Lianos & Pseiridis, concluded that a population of 3.1 billion humans would be sustainable if relying on an average European standard of living. The Overpopulation Project provides a fantastic review of their article here.
This review makes the distinction between studies which have claimed to have ascertained the ‘maximum’ carrying capacity of the planet, versus the ‘optimal’. The review characterizes my book - A Planet of 3 Billion - as seeking an ‘optimal’ carrying capacity, while the progenitor of the question which inspired my book - Professor Joel Cohen, in his book How Many People Can The Earth Support explored the maximum. I did not use that language in my book, but I appreciate the distinction.
The 3.1 billion carrying capacity established in their study is based on a “comfortable European living standard’. This, indeed, is something I flirt with when considering Mathis Wackernagel’s analysis in his article “If We Were All Swiss”. Yet, my number comes in a bit lower...closer to 1 billion, if not for my relentless technological optimism. My title is A Planet of 3 Billion, after all!
Honestly, their reliance on economic statistics rather than geographic analysis leaves me a bit adrift. However, I look forward to the opportunity to compare notes and analytical approaches to determining our planet’s long term ecological carrying capacity as it relates to human population size.
Stay tuned. Perhaps the title of my next book release will be A Planet of 3.1 Billion! Or, we may combine notes, finding that our collective analysis of the human footprint is worse than we, apart from each other, thought. A Planet of 1 Billion? I hope not. While it is feasible for us to approach 3 Billion by 2100, 1 billion feels a bridge to far. However, I remain open minded. And, so should you.
Thanks to Frank Götmark and his colleagues at The Overpopulation Project for their recent review of A Planet of 3 Billion. We appreciate the thoughtful critique,
While we prefer to the term “runaway population growth”, and prefer to first ask the question “How Many People Can The Earth Support”, seeking an thoughtful and considered answer, before invoking the term “overpopulation”, the work by The Overpopulation Project is thoughtful and deserving of a comprehensive review by anyone who is haunted by the implications of runaway population growth. Their website is a treasure trove of thoughtful analysis. Pleasure give it a measured read, even if you too avoid the term “overpopulation” when you approach this complex set of issues.
Thanks to the Columbia University Alumni Bookshelf for including A Planet of 3 Billion in its august collection.
Thanks to www.EarthOvershoot.org for their review of A Planet of 3 Billion. Make sure to watch their documentary 8 Billion Angels to better understand the challenge we face. Make sure to listen to the introductory remarks by our own Dr. Jane Goodall. Then ask yourself why has the larger conservation and climate change community failed to pick up on the ecological concerns over runaway population growth that are shared by Dr. Jane Goodall, Professor E.O. Wilson, Sir David Attenborough, Morgan Freeman, and so many more.