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.
Thanks to Darryl Murdock and Adam Simmons of Project Geospatial for the opportunity to discuss the book. Its a great way to kick off EarthWeek, as we approach the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday April 22nd! Give it a watch on YouTube, since the visuals go a long way to communicating the issues. Or, for those of you who like to multitask, check out the podcast.
Stay tuned for more discussions with Project Geospatial, since Adam's book did not arrive on time for him to have many questions, and he wants to reprise the conversation!
I like to think that I am the first to admit when I am wrong. When I penned my open letter to President Xi (pg. 277) in the Spring of 2019, there were many indicators that China might swing to a pronatalist policy in the face of declining rates of population growth (https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/05/beijing-wants-babies-xi-jinping-natalism-china/). Not declining population growth, because China’s population was and is still growing. It is just growing at a lower rate of increase. Stabilizing population growth was the intentional goal of China’s One Child Policy instituted more than 40 years ago, in 1979 - as unethical and inhumane as its implementation ended up. Yet, with the rise of China's behemoth capitalist economy, the obsession over GDP growth has managed to reshape the narrative around fertility. Economic advisers, including Chinese government economic advisers, as I say in my book, have a tendency to advocate for higher rates of population growth in order to drive GDP.
Yet, later in 2019, the Chinese government appears to have taken a very different tack. In the face of declining positive rates in population growth, rather than embrace a pronatalist policy, the Chinese government decided instead to face the reality of an aging population head on, and instead launch a comprehensive set of initiatives focused on reorganizing and investing to thrive under an aging population. It is a vision for providing an aging population with a life of dignity that supports China’s long term success as a society and economy. This pronouncement was made in November 2019 (http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2019-11/21/content_5454347.htm - CCP Central Committee and State Council issue Medium and Long-Term Plan for Proactive Response to Population Aging, Xinhua, 21 November 2019.), and since it is in Mandarin on a Chinese government website, I am going to forgive myself for missing it until this article by the US Army Foreign Military Studies Office (https://madsciblog.tradoc.army.mil/207-china-issues-new-plan-to-address-aging-population/) came across my inbox in February. USA FMSO is a rather obscure place for me to run across this topic, if you ask me. But, for some reason I did not see this covered in the wider mainstream press, despite the fact that this could very well be one of the most consequential public policy decisions regarding global population we will see anytime soon.
This leaves me to wonder. Did President Xi decide that China's population should not exceed a certain size, given the challenges of securing vital resources, from across the globe, to sustain such a vast enterprise? Or, did he decide that it is indeed time for fertility growth to drop "below replacement value", and to steer China through an era of population degrowth? Or, did he actually ask himself the question "How Many People Can The Earth Support?" and realize that China's (declining rate of) population growth was enough to cripple our planet?
Regardless, it appears that China's official policy has shifted to contribute to a larger zeitgeist, where we all shake off the insatiable need for population growth. If China could bend its own population curve, as Japan has, we would be taking one more step toward a more sustainable planet where humanity could thrive without undermining the ability of our planet to support us.
We'll see. Still, i would love to hear President Xi's answer to the question posed to him in my open letter. How many people does President Xi believe the Earth can support without incurring long term ecological debt?
The BioScience Article, and the 11,000 Scientists Who Agree the Human Population Needs to Stabilize and Decline
For a long time, the climate community has been loath to discuss the role runaway population growth has had on climate change. That all changed recently, as an article in BioScience showcased the consensus of 11,000 scientists on the actions required if we are to avert ecological catastrophe from climate change.
The article called out 6 areas for action entitled Energy, Short-lived pollutants, Nature, Food, Economy and Population. Each are critical, for sure. We have heard commentary on the first 5 of these areas from the climate community for years. But, this sixth area of population was new, and critically important. Their statement on population is as follows:
"Still increasing by roughly 80 million people per year, or more than 200,000 per day (figure 1a–b), the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity. There are proven and effective policies that strengthen human rights while lowering fertility rates and lessening the impacts of population growth on GHG emissions and biodiversity loss. These policies make family-planning services available to all people, remove barriers to their access and achieve full gender equity, including primary and secondary education as a global norm for all, especially girls and young women (Bongaarts and O’Neill 2018)."
When I reached out to the primary authors, William J Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, William R Moomaw , about the thesis of my book, I was pleased at their positive and supportive response. It was refreshing to hear a scientific consensus unconcerned about wading in to the population discussion, despite the chronic population taboo that has led many scientists to avoid the subject.
I was particularly taken by the response from Dr. Phoebe Barnard, a conservation biologist, global change scientist, and sustainability strategist who has spent much of her professional career in Africa. Her blog post from a few days later not only captures our exchange, but gives you a glimpse in to how her personal experience informs her worldview on population and ecology. She was kind enough to mention my book. Please give her blog a read, and then share your own thoughts with the world.
Greta Thunberg has captured the attention of billions, worldwide with her calls for action over the #ClimateEmergency by which she sees the world engulfed. If you would have asked anyone a few years ago how they thought the final awakening to climate change would occur, no one would have responded that a 16 year old Swedish girl with Aspergers would be the messenger. Alas, reality once again is stranger than fiction.
Thunberg is beyond her years, and unusual in her commitment and sustained focus on what she sees as the biggest challenge to our planet and our species. So many of us note this existential crisis in passing, and then go about our business burning fossil fuels, eating meat, and…procreating. And while Thunberg has been vocal about the first two, she has been silent on the third. Perhaps she is unaware that the global population has doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970, and that it is humanity’s runaway population that is the primary driver behind climate change. For those not paying attention, we just passed 7.7 billion, growing more than 80 million annually.
Thunberg is absolutely correct that humanity needs to undertake a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels. She is also correct that the global food system that allows humans to put tasty and nourishing food in our bodies must also fundamentally transform before our historic wildernesses – both terrestrial and maritime, are annihilated. But, even if these transformations are aggressively embraced by political leaders, policymakers, business leaders, professionals, journeymen of the productive class, and everyday citizens – we still will not be able to survive continued runaway population growth.
Thunberg is 16. So, it is unfair to criticize her for failing to recognize the population ‘elephant in the room’ when far older, far more educated and more worldly individuals are completely unaware of the population/climate nexus, or the broader population/environment nexus which accounts for all of the other ecological burdens caused by the larger “Human Footprint”. She is simply suffering the same cultural blind spot that most of the world has suffered from since abandoning the open discussion about the perils of runaway population growth back in the 1970s. Leaders of that era wrongly concluded that somehow, near vertical population growth would have no negative effects. Leaders of that era concluded that “Malthus was wrong.”
Indeed, Malthus was wrong. Indeed, humanity and its innovations could manage to feed a fast and continuously growing population. But, Malthus asked the wrong question. It is not “how many people can we feed?” It should be “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” And, while Professor Joel Cohen of the Columbia Earth Institute, in his 1995 book entitled just that, came to no real concrete conclusion, subsequent analysis has provided us a sound basis for estimate to conclude the unique and finite geography of our Planet Earth can sustain no more than 3 billion modern industrialized humans without accruing long term ecological debt. It is not just about atmospheric carbon and climate change, as many protesters will myopically have you believe. The larger human ecological footprint is much, much worse. As I like to argue, climate change is twice as bad as you think, yet only 1/10th of the problem”. And, it is driven by population growth.
As we hurdled past a population of 3 billion in the middle of the 20th century, this ecological debt has accumulated to a level that we can no longer service, and it is now coming due.
It is time that world leaders stop infantilizing everyone when discussing climate change. Stop worrying about how climate change anxiety will impact the mental well being of the next generation. It is time for everyone to sit their kids, their families, their neighbors, and the colleagues down and have an honest discussion about “How many people do you believe the Earth can support?” Then, perhaps, everyone will wake up to a real discussion about our planet’s actual carrying capacity, and attempt to live within it.
Most importantly, perhaps then societies across the globe will recognize and embrace the fact that it is women’s empowerment, women’s education, women’s integration in to the workforce and their access to family planning technologies that is the only real path to ecological salvation, and a planet that can actually sustain the human species over the long run.