Accepting the people problem

Your Turn

| July 11, 2012

This week, too few of the world's environmental and human rights organizations are observing World Population Day. In 1987, as Earth's population passed the 5 billion mark, the United Nations declared July 11 as World Population Day.

In the 24 years since, we've added another 2 billion people. The U.N.'s latest mid-range scenario has us passing through 10 billion by the end of this century.

We've been adding a billion to the planet about every 12 years, but the U.N. expects fertility rates to decline such that it will take nearly 80 years to add the next 3 billion. This scenario also has us hitting peak population just after 2100. Some feel this means population growth is no longer a concern.

I'm as worried about population growth today as I was when I decided 20 years ago to stop at two children. Why? According to data from the Global Footprint Network, published in the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report, the current 7 billion of us are living like there's no tomorrow. We're pushing other species off the planet at a record rate, draining the world's major rivers and pumping aquifers dry, liquidating fertile soils, toxifying our land and waters, and heating up our climate.

We're doing this while half the world's population lives a lifestyle we'd consider impoverished. We'd like all the people on the planet to have an opportunity to live like we do.

Unfortunately, that's just not possible. The scientists crunching the data tell us it would take five Earths to support all 7 billion of us living like North Americans. Even if we could pull this off for a day or a week, it's not sustainable and we'd very quickly destroy the life-support systems upon which we depend.

So it's a sticky wicket at 7 billion, and the problem is amplified if we go to 10. The good news is we don't have to follow that U.N. scenario. It's not inevitable. It is physically possible for population to peak at 8 billion or even fewer. Families the world over can begin today making wise decisions about family size.

What is keeping us from doing this?

First, there's the assumption that continued population growth is inevitable; that it would take decades to change that steep upward trajectory. We can get over this hurdle. It just takes a little information. Growth can stop nine months from now if it's enough of a priority.

Second is our fear of addressing the issue. The "population taboo" has many forms. We think it's an inalienable right to reproduce as many offspring as we wish. It's none of our business to suggest someone else limit family size. It's become politically incorrect to use the word "overpopulation." "Population dynamics" has replaced "population growth." "Reproductive health" is mentioned instead of "contraception." We see it at the U.N. and in statements from environmental and human-rights groups. This PC approach to the topic pervades most of our media.

This is a tough beast to tame, but I'm going to suggest the George Carlin approach. Let's get over our goody-two-shoes fear of the truth. Stop beating around the bush.

Use the words. Our planet is overpopulated. Population growth is not good for our children. It would be in their best interest for us to conceive fewer of them. You can say it. It's the compassionate, loving, humanitarian thing to say.

Third is our culture's addiction to growth. Our cities, states and nations compete to have the fastest growth. We pursue population growth because we connect it with economic growth, which is of course the Holy Grail (and a subject for another day). It's difficult to have a sustainable world in which all of the geopolitical units are pursuing growth. Of course we need to expose this mythology for what it is, and progress to more enlightened, sustainable prosperity strategies.

Lastly, we have the ultra-conservative attack on funding of family planning. I'll say it: access to contraception. As more and more people come to understand that limiting family size is critical, compassionate and responsible, I think we can prevail. It starts with having frank dialogue about it.

Dave Gardner directed the film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and has created a website,, to encourage honest conversations about overpopulation.


Comments (9)

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Thanks to the Indy for publishing this. I've posted a little more detailed version under Population News at

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Posted by Dave Gardner on 07/11/2012 at 8:30 AM

Ben Wattenberg authored a fine book called "FEWER" about demographics and population change, which is excellent reading material. Check the review on Amazon:…

Myself, I stopped at zero children, no need to add to the squirming masses. If we can get the population down to parity with available jobs on this planet, we should be able to achieve a living wage for most humans instead of the current misery.

More than ever we need organizations like Planned Parenthood to disseminate quality information about family planning, birth control and associated products. At the same time we must ignore nonsense from Popes and all religious zealots that work to deny people access to birth control and reproductive rights.

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Posted by OldCrank on 09/28/2012 at 5:47 PM

OldCrank, I read Fewer and found it wanting. Wanting more people, that is. Did that not bother you?

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Posted by Dave Gardner on 09/28/2012 at 10:58 PM

Your conclusions "What is keeping us from doing this" are simplistic and agenda based, to say the least. Let's break it down:
Your first example: "it just takes a little information" The people that actually care have embraced population growth since the 50's. What is left are people that do not care (mostly in third world countries) and people that believe more offspring is the way to advance their particular cause.
Your second example: Same answer as #1
Your third example: "our culture's addiction to growth". Once again, it is not "our culture" that is the problem, at least with respect to population growth.
And lastly: "ultra-conservative attack on funding of family planning" your true agenda sneaks out and it is pretty smelly. (This appears to have absolutely nothing to do with birth control and everything to do with the government paying for it. One wonders if you get your cue from Miz Fluke.)

I, for one, believe the UN numbers are understated. I think the population of the world will double in the next 50 years. Since we will not have figured out quantum physics by then in order to get us off of this planet, the world, as we know it, will cease to exist.
Now, the religious nut jobs (currently the Muslims) may indeed cause a world war prior to the 50 year scenario, and overpopulation (at least for a short period of time) will be protracted.

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Posted by smartestman on 09/29/2012 at 7:06 AM

Smartestman, sure I have an agenda (and it is simple): to leave for our children a world worth inheriting. I don't think you made your case, but you are certainly entitled to your opinion. I don't think it moves us toward a solution. Thanks for reading and responding.

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Posted by Dave Gardner on 09/29/2012 at 7:49 AM

You don't think I made my case? What about your case? I was simply pointing out the fact that you said nothing that made sense relative to overpopulation as well as your somewhat obvious attempt to push your liberal agenda i.e., you and Sandra Fluke's desire to have her neighbor pay for here birth control. Now, I don't have a problem with birth control (or reasonable abortion for that matter). I just don't think it right to force people that do not agree with that position to pay for it. Is that so unreasonable?
As to your grandiose proclamation that you want to "...leave our children a world worth inheriting" , doesn't everyone? And if so, wasn't your statement a bit pompous?
I would submit, if you are really serious about saving the world, you vote for anyone other than obama.

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Posted by smartestman on 09/29/2012 at 11:20 AM

Dave, hello. I got a flavor that Wattenberg was whining a bit about not maintaining the kind of growth rates that keep the economy humming along, something in the 3% rate, and that he was predicting bad outcomes from such a declining birth rate. Too bad for MacDonald's and Disney, eh.

I also got the flavor that we the people, world over, aren't going to go out and multiply to please the wealthy masters who want billions of excess workers on the scrap heap of labor.

I was pleased to learn from his book that birth rates are falling in all nations; even 3rd world types are getting educated about birth control and the lessening need for large families.

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Posted by OldCrank on 09/29/2012 at 2:54 PM

OldCrank, I think that's pretty accurate. Thanks for the productive discourse.

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Posted by Dave Gardner on 09/29/2012 at 9:15 PM

Dave, you're most welcome.

There's a new book out by James Kunstler called Too Much Magic. Though a bit extreme in his predictions and descriptive language, he makes a case that we are in "The Long Emergency" where the world's massive population is causing resource depletion and leading us to a major "contraction," from which we simply cannot invent our way of as we have in past crises, and that we can't even forge a consensus on what to do about it (gridlock in Congress and acrimony over Global Warming / Climate Change).

Meanwhile, author Michael Klare tells us is in "The Race for What's Left" that earth's resources are largely gone and competition (war?) for resources will intensify. Author Stephen Leeb made the same case in "The Oil Factor" back in 2003.

A good discussion of the issues derived from the people problem (and relevant books) is found in this article:…

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Posted by OldCrank on 09/30/2012 at 6:37 PM
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