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.
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?