[ I’ve summarized the 20 top reasons why population growth was abandoned by environmental groups and received little coverage in the news media the past 40 years. I highly recommend reading Beck and Kolankiewicz (2000) “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization” and Alan Weisman’s “Countdown: Our last, Best hope for a future on Earth?” for even more reasons why this happened.
Further reading with additional arguments: Lochhead, C. 2 September 2013. Why is linking population growth to environmental stress politically taboo? San Francisco Chronicle.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]
“There is no need to decide whether to stop the population increase or not. There is no need to decide whether the population will be lowered or not. It will, it will! The only thing mankind has to decide is whether to let population decline be done in the old inhumane method that nature has always used, or to invent a new humane method of our own.” Isaac Asimov, 1974.
“Unlooked for but swift, we have come on like a swarm of locusts: a wide, thick, darkling cloud settling down like living snowflakes, smothering every stalk, every leaf, eating away every scrap of green down to raw, bare, wasting earth…There are too many men for Earth to harbor. At nearly seven billion we have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity”. Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First.
1) The Consumption of Wealthy Nations is the problem. Not the Poor.
It’s both, obviously. Not one or the other. The famous equation to describe this is I = P x A x T, which translates to Human Impact (I) on the environment = (P)opulation times (A)ffluence times (T)echnology.
It is certainly true that wealth nations consume too much. The United States uses 7 billion tons of minerals a year. Per capita that’s 47,769 pounds per American: 1400 pounds of copper, 9 tons of phosphate rock, 300 tons of coal, 16 tons of iron ore, 700 tons of stone, sand, and gravel, and so on.
But the poor also have a huge effect on the environment:
- Slash and burn farmers migrate deep into rainforests on illegal logging roads and destroy them
- Extinction looms for many animal specues due to too much bush meat taken, especially in Africa
- Deforestation due to illegal timber harvests and to cook food
- Competition over scarce water
- Sewage and chemical pollution due to lack of treatment
- The poor relieve their excess population by migrating to developed nations or nearby nations, so population growth remains unchecked, the need or desire for birth control lessened, and the impact of even more consumption in developed nations receiving immigrants worsened
- Adopting the consumerism of rich nations and consuming more meat and other goods
2) It’s taboo to mention the link between poverty and population
Much of the misery and starvation in Niger is caused by having the highest birthrate in the world, which clearly reduces the slice of resources per person. But reporters never mention this connection since it is not politically correct.
3) Don’t worry, America’s birth rate went down
By 1973 the birth rate dropped below replacement level, so the media ran headlines declaring that the population problem was solved and that America had reached Zero Population Growth.
Not true! The population in the U.S. was, and is, still growing.
4) Feminists and Human-rights groups took over the Sierra Club
After feminists and human-rights advocates were put on the population committee at the Sierra Club, they fought to have empowerment of women as the main goal. Dave Foreman was on the committee and opposed this since the goal was population stabilization and then reduction. Empowering women might be a key path to that goal, but was not the goal itself.
The newcomers replied that any implied restrictions, such as a goal of population stabilization, was an assault on women rights to choose how many children they had. The mere mention of limits to growth was coercive.
The takeover of the Sierra Club population platform by people unaware or unable to understand “The Limits to Growth” and “The Tragedy of the Commons” was a tragedy. The Sierra Club was instrumental in making the topic of population taboo and politically incorrect.
Another big factor in why the Sierra club abandoned it’s population position was because David Gelbaum, who had given them over $100 million dollars, demanded they take this position or he wouldn’t continue to give them large donations (Weiss).
Since the 1980s there’s been little media attention to population growth, and close to none since 1994.
Not only did the Sierra Club and other environmental groups stop writing about population issues, they stopped reminding people that overpopulation is responsible for every single problem they were trying to “solve”. Clearly all of these problems would be reduced if there were fewer people:
- Climate change
- Oceans: acidification, overfishing, pollution
- (Rain)forest destruction for agriculture, cattle, construction
- Biodiversity loss (6th mass extinction)
- Providing a good education to children everywhere
- Feeding everyone
- Making jobs available for record numbers of unemployed youth
Martha Campbell puts this even more strongly – she sees hostility towards mentioning the population question due to universities teaching students that even discussing the connection between population and environment is not a tolerable topic of discussion and politically incorrect to even suggest that slowing population growth might protect the environment for future generations.
5) Cornucopians and Leftists Environmentalists also destroyed immigration and population stabilization goals
You’d think the Left would support conservation, but there are splinters who saw talking about overpopulation as blaming the world’s poor for their plight. Better to stop wealthy countries from consuming so much.
In 1998 the Bay Area Marxist group “Political Ecology Group” succeeded in killing a Sierra Club immigration-lowering initiative. Leftist ideologues also suppressed talk about overpopulation at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment because Chinese and India’s attempts to gain population stabilization were seen by them as coercive.
6) The American public is not scientifically educated and ignores warnings from scientists
Anyone who denies overpopulation is a problem ought to be called a population denier, just as those who insist there’s no climate change are called Climate Change Deniers. For some reason just about everyone, scientifically literate or not, ignores warnings about population:
- 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus
- 1968 The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
- 1968 The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich
- 1973 Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows et al
- 1980 Overshoot by William Catton (especially Chapter 2)
- 1992 World scientists’ warning to humanity. 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this appeal
- 1993 The Arithmetic of Growth: Methods of Calculation by Albert Bartlett.
- 1995 The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons by Hardin
- 1999 The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia by Garrett Hardin
- 2001 Global Biodiversity Outlook
- 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- 2006 The Essential Exponential: For the Future of our planet by Albert Bartlett (video)
- 2014 Nobel laureates call for a revolutionary shift in how humans use resources. Eleven holders of prestigious prize say excessive consumption threatening planet, and humans need to live more sustainably.
7) Educating Women to lower population a nice idea but…
As far as lowering population, Virginia Abernethy has some valid criticisms about whether this will work in “Population Politics: The Choices That Shape Our Future”.
The main reason it won’t work is that it’s too late. We’re too far into overshoot beyond carrying capacity once fossil fuels start declining.
Though it’s still a good idea, so that as energy, natural resources, and population decline, educated women perhaps will fight the loss of their rights because they’ll know it doesn’t have to be that way.
8) Only humans matter, screw the other species on the planet
Nearly all the optimistic books written with the general theme of “YES WE CAN SUPPORT 10 BILLION PEOPLE” ignore other species on the planet. All that matters are human needs. The human-caused mass 6th extinction is well underway. The idea that we can kill off most other species and maintain a population of 10 billion is absurd.
9) Anyone who wants to limit immigration or population is portrayed as a racist
Have you ever seen anyone on TV or in newspapers who stated their reason for wanting reduced immigration and population was their concern over loss of biodiversity, increasing pollution, declining aquifers, fisheries, forests, energy, and other resources? And if they were allowed to speak about environmental issues, they would still be accused of hiding their REAL motivation, which was racism.
Hell no. Only hateful racists are interviewed and their views linked to eugenics, genocide, and colonialism. They are portrayed as not trying to curb all growth, but only that of undesirable people such as the poor or undesirable races.
Many systems ecologists have estimated that without fossil fuels, the United States could support at most 100 million people. The media should be asking people how we can go from 320 million to 100 million without birth control, abortion, and limiting immigration.
I personally think it’s less than 100 million due to what we’ve done to our topsoil, aquifers, massive dieoffs of marine life from eutrophication (due to fertilizer runoff), the lack of land to grow food on once the 4x to 5x intensification of food produced due to natural-gas fertilizers is no longer attained, phosphorous depletion, invasive species, and a whole lot of other ecological showstoppers covered elsewhere on this site.
10) The Sierra club and other environmental groups abandoned immigration level goals
in 1989 the Sierra Club’s stand was that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.”.
But in the 1990s conservationists feared alienating leftist and racial rights groups and dropped immigration to stabilize population from their platforms.
Since then immigration has grown immensely. Until 1965 levels were about 200,000 a year. In 1965 it leapt to 1,000,000, and in 1990 to 1.5 million.
Immigration is now the main cause of increasing population growth in the United States. Between 1900 and 2000 the population almost quadrupled (76 to 281 million), with the largest 10 year increase between 1990 and 2000 (32.7 million).
11) We must have more population growth to fund retirees and grow the economy
That’s clearly a crazy Ponzi scheme that can’t go on forever on a finite planet.
It is also a way to have cheap labor once you’ve got many people competing for jobs, and perhaps the real reason why the elites wanted population growth.
12) Immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want
Who benefits from immigration? Businesses that want to pay people less. Everyone else loses. Wages would be much higher if there weren’t so many people competing for every job, which drives wages, safety, and working conditions down.
13) We’re wealthy, so we’re obliged to offer shelter to immigrants, and we are a nation of immigrants
Just because we can’t control other nation’s population policies doesn’t mean we should reward them for reproducing beyond their carrying capacity. Since developed nations consume many times more resources, immigrants from India to the U.S. magnify resource depletion 40-fold, since Americans consume 40 times more per capita than Indians.
14) Nature keeps us alive
People are brainwashed by viewing the world through economic filters, forgetting that forests, fisheries, wetlands, aquifers, healthy deep class 1 and 2 topsoil, and other resources are essential for survival, and can be diminished and even depleted.
15) 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development
The Catholic church and well meaning but ecologically ignorant activists at this conference shifted the goal of population stabilization and growth to empowering women. They labeled attempts by China and India as coercive, and thereby killed family planning, replacing it with empowerment and reproductive rights and health, because now family planning was spun as being coercive.
Perhaps they forgot that women are coerced into unwanted pregnancies and often die or are severely injured in childbirth. One of the results of this conference is that many poor women have little or no access to family planning and as a consequence are unable to control their bodies, how many children they have and when they have them.
This conference discouraged discussing the connection between population growth and environmental destruction, because to do so was seen as anti-woman. Anyone who persisted in talking about population growth was dismissively labeled a Malthusian.
16) Standard demographic theory
It was assumed that women would want fewer children as their nation modernized and more women were educated.
A better theory and one that matches reality, is that if men and women can gain easy access to birth control, they will have fewer children.
For example, in Thailand, where family planning is easy to obtain, women with no education used birth control as much as educated women. In the Philippines, where birth control is hard to get due to the Catholic Church, uneducated women don’t use contraception because they can’t get it.
If women could gain access to birth control, the population growth rate would go down.
Women aren’t stupid, they know that childbirth is dangerous – the risk of death or injury is very high. Women would rather stay alive to take care of their existing children. One million children are left motherless every year – childbirth kills 287,000 women and injures another 10 million every year according to the World Health Organization.
17) It’s Human Nature not to worry about overpopulation
In the end it may be that we’re not wired to worry about this issue. Everyone loves babies. We’re tribal. We’re optimistic.
18) Don’t worry: the fertility rate and disease are driving population down
Worldwide, family planning brought fertility rates down from 5.5 to 2.5 children per woman. Therefore the media reports: the population explosion is over. But the rate is still above replacement, the population is still growing exponentially. Just a bit more slowly.
19) Propaganda from anti-abortion activists, religious leaders, and right-wing think tanks
The most extreme are not only against abortion, but even family planning. Catholics and Right-to-Lifers strategized to convince people that there was no population problem, since that’s one of the reasons many people supported legal abortions.
Islamic countries are thought of as living in the Dark Ages, but some Muslim countries are the most advanced in family planning. In Iran, subsidies stop after a third child and classes in modern contraception methods are required before a marriage license can be obtained.
Capitalists have succeeded in painting environmentalists with negative terms such as being overly concerned about the environment, which threatens jobs and that their concerns about pollution and endangered species are overblown.
20) Many people don’t understand how powerful exponential growth is
Population doubling times
|Years||Billions||Years to add 1 billion more people|
Source: Scheidel (2003)
21) Republicans cut funding for international family planning programs
Not to mention how hard they’ve fought birth control and abortion at home. Reagan, Trump, and George W. Bush all harmed efforts to provide women in developing nations with birth control and abortions. Because of lack of birth control and abortions, Mexicans and other central americans have far more children than their nations can support, so of course they come here, as do legal immigrants from overpopulated nations. The U.S. functions as a safety valve for nations that can’t control their own population and delays revolution and starvation a bit longer.
22) It’s easier to blame climate change than do something about population
If politicians really wanted to make a difference, they’d put limits to growth in their city limits, based on water availability and so on. In two thirds of California counties, humans sparked 95 to 99% of the fires, not climate change, according to professor Keeley at UCLA. He said “To me, climate change is a distraction from the population problem…they’re comfortable with global warming because they can’t be held accountable, whereas population growth is something that much more directly affects their constituents, right now (Bland 2019).
Aldo Leopold: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us”.
Leon Kolankiewicz “Our species is unique, because here and now only we have the ability to destroy, or to save, biodiversity. Only we have the ability to care one way or the other. The destiny of all wild living things is in our hands. Will we crush them or let them be wild and free? Limiting human population will not guarantee success, but not doing so means certain failure”.
Isaac Asimov: “Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears”.
APPG 2007. Return of the Population Growth Factor: Its Impact on the Millennium Development Goals. All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health.
Asimov, I. 1974. The future of humanity. Newark college of engineering. asimovonline.com.
Beck and Kolankiewicz. 2000. “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization”
Bland, A. 2019. So why isn’t anyone talking about population? East Bay Express.
Cafaro, P, (ed) et al. 2013. “Life on the Brink. Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation”.
Erb, Karl-Heinz, et al. 2009. Eating the Planet: Feeding and fuelling the world sustainably, fairly and humanely–a scoping study. Social Ecology Working Paper no. 116. Institute of Social Ecology and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Erlich, P. 1970. Population Resources Environment: Issues to Human Ecology.
Hays, S. 1987. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985.
IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences) 2013. Geoindicators. Soil and Sediment Erosion.
Levinson “The Box”
Meijer, R. I. Apr 16 2014: Overpopulation Is Not A Problem For Us. Theautomaticearth.com
Scheidel, W. 2003. “Ancient World, Demography of”. Encyclopedia of Population.
Homer-Dixon, T. 2001. Environment, Scarcity, and Violence.
UNFAO 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization.
Weiss, K.R. October 27, 2004. The Man Behind the Land. Los Angeles Times.
[Here are excerpts of a more nuanced look at overpopulation denial ]
Diana Coole (2013) Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question, Environmental Politics, 22:2, 195-215.
During the 1960s and early 1970s population growth was regarded as an urgent environmental issue. Since then the topic has fallen into abeyance. Despite continuing demographic expansion and anxieties about a range of socio-ecological problems – from the stresses of high-density urban living to climate change, water, energy and food insecurity and loss of biodiversity – there is currently scant consideration of the benefits of population stabilization or decline.
Indeed, the problematization of population numbers is widely disavowed or regarded with profound suspicion. Why have we become so reluctant to ask whether we are too many or to countenance policies that might discourage further growth? I identify five discourses – population-shaming, population-skepticism, population-declinism, population-decomposing and population-fatalism – that foreclose public debate and subject them to critical analysis.
In 1950 world population had recently exceeded 2.5 billion. By 1990 it had doubled and by 2020 it will have tripled. October 2011 marked one among numerous demographic milestones on this expansive journey as the 7 billion threshold was crossed. This is in line with conclusions to the United Nations’ 2010 revision that ‘world population is expected to keep rising during the 21st century’, albeit more slowly during the latter part. It projects some 9.3 billion of us by 2050 and over 10 billion by the century’s end (United Nations 2010). Such an ongoing increase surely conveys an alarming story to anyone concerned about environmental sustainability and social wellbeing. Or does it? I ask why concerns about population growth and over-population have virtually disappeared from the political agenda of developed countries, especially, since the mid-1970s. Have they simply forgotten about, even resolved, the issue? Or is it rather, as my analysis suggests, that problematising it has been foreclosed? For despite periodic eruptions of concern among democratic publics, members of the policy community have been noticeably reluctant to address these anxieties. Even among critical theorists and Greens, scant attention has been paid to the topic over recent decades.
These are analytic distinctions. In practice the discourses overlap or work in conjunction, the most obvious factor they share being antipathy to the Malthusian equation between population growth and resource shortages. But these are not merely analytic categories; they are also profoundly political. Each has a distinctive genealogy in terms of its ideological and professional investments, the political interests it serves and the narratives in which it is embedded. The more that key demographic variables become amenable to policymaking, the greater the impact of the discourses that frame them. It is not my contention that arguments for disavowing the population question are simply specious; but I do think they warrant critical investigation. Do they offer good enough reasons for excluding population talk from public debate or for dismissing certain types of policy intervention?
My analysis shows how a taboo on considering the merits of population stabilization is complemented in developed countries by a policy framework that favors higher birth rates and net inward migration as a condition of sustained economic growth.
Population talk in more developed countries operates at three levels: concerning their own demographics; concerning trends in developing countries; and regarding global numbers more generally. Regarding their own population size, first, it is helpful to summarize a few salient elements of Malthus’ argument in An Essay on the Principle of Population (2004 ). Malthus claimed that while the means of subsistence develop in a linear manner, population grows exponentially. These different tempos reach a critical threshold as productive land is exhausted; a situation of disequilibrium he associated with more developed countries like Britain. Either population growth must thenceforth be reduced through rational means, notably by sexual abstinence, or, if these ‘preventive checks’ fail, more painful ‘positive checks’ will ensue as the unsustainable excess falls victim to famine, disease or war, thereby restoring balance (Malthus 2004).
It is hardly surprising that such views should have provoked antagonism. Anti-natalist ideas about curtailing the proliferation of the human species challenged deep-seated traditional beliefs. In raising the specter of excessive numbers, the population question crossed vitalist and religious taboos regarding the sanctity of life and privileging of human life. It challenged Enlightenment ideas about humans’ mastery economists’ views on the engine of prosperity, humanity’s most fundamental ideas about the sacred, life and death, as well as on some of its most enduring identities and rituals regarding the family, marriage and sexuality.
Demographic change entails three principal variables: fertility, mortality and migration. All provoke profound ethical questions, especially once the state involves itself biopolitically in their modification. During the 1960s, Malthusianism nevertheless acquired fresh resonance in advanced industrial countries where there was renewed anxiety about a population explosion (Ehrlich 1972, Meadows et al. 1972, Goldsmith and Allen 1972). Despite the post-war baby boom the rate of increase here was relatively modest, but the multiplication of increasing affluence by larger numbers suggested imminent catastrophe.
The Malthusian alternative between choosing limits or facing disaster was widely spoken about. New reproductive technologies and feminist challenges to conventional gender roles seemed to make population stabilization more viable, yet the task of restoring equilibrium between population and environment seemed no less difficult given predilections for sustained economic growth. Reducing population nevertheless became integral to an environmental sensibility that mobilized new social movements and found common cause with new left critiques of consumer capitalism (Marcuse 1964, 1972). Limits-to-growth arguments accordingly provided the framework for a radical discourse in which economic and population growth were recognized as mutually reinforcing and equally exponential, thus exceeding the capacities of a finite planet. Restoring balance suggested a fundamental social transformation in which fewer people might use technology creatively to improve the quality of lives sustained by less toil, wasteful consumption or excessive reproduction but enriched by a more harmonious relationship with nature. By 1969 even President Richard Nixon was warning Congress that the domestic pressure of 200 million Americans was threatening democracy and education, privacy and living space, natural resources and the quality of the environment (Nixon 2006, pp. 775, 777). Official reports to both the American (1972) and British (1973) governments advised stabilizing population numbers in the national interest. Yet this antigrowth orientation would shortly fall into abeyance, with the very language of limits or constraint being rejected.
On a second level, developed countries express concern about population growth in developing countries, where most increase now occurs. I want to emphasize here the way this concern rebounded to reframe their own views on the population question. On the one hand, radical arguments for controlling fertility in economically advanced nations were complemented by support for population control policies in the global South, where they provoked accusations of racism. My account of population-shaming shows how third-world suspicion about first-world motives rebounded to render the topic uncongenial to democratic publics.
On the other hand, while many governments in developing countries still struggle to contain their burgeoning populations (United Nations 2011), new anti-Malthusian discourses in developed countries are helping to reframe their views, thanks to the circulation of transnational discourses through bodies like the United Nations or World Bank and via non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academic currencies. So even here, the epic story of runaway population growth that formerly galvanized efforts at fertility reduction has become muted: despite regional demographic differences, discursive frameworks are increasingly global and hegemonic.
Population-fatalist. These generally recognize that the multiplication of relatively small but expanding ecological footprints in poor countries plus the larger ones imprinted by richer individuals are collectively responsible for exacerbating phenomena like climate change (Wire 2009, O’Neill et al. 2010). As the Living Planet Report 2008 concludes, ‘with the world already in ecological overshoot, continued growth in population and per person footprint is clearly not a sustainable path’ (WWF 2008, p. 29).
While such claims suggest that world population numbers are hesitantly being re-problematized, demographic solutions are routinely rejected as too controversial or inefficacious to contemplate.
Discourses of dismissal and disavowal. Population-shaming. Among my five silencing discourses, population-shaming is most indicative of the poisonous legacy of North/South relations. Like population-skeptics, its protagonists reject claims that there is an objective demographic growth problem. Rather than charging neo-Malthusians with misplaced anxiety, however, they suggest that ostensible concerns about over-population are a subterfuge for pursuing heinous ulterior motives (Furedi 1997). The humus of population-shaming is a pervasive suspicion that limiting population actually means limiting certain categories of people who are deemed redundant or undesirable. Those who persist in advancing such arguments risk public humiliation for playing a numbers game that is interpreted as a blame game: one in which the world’s problems are refracted through population growth and blamed on the incontinent fecundity of the less privileged, whether they be the poor, women or inhabitants of the global South.
Sometimes advocates of population stabilization are presented as misanthropic people-haters, as when Murray Bookchin (1991, p. 123) asserts that deep ecology ‘blames ‘‘Humanity’’ as such for the ecological crisis – especially ordinary “consumers” and “breeders of children”. Sometimes they are charged with misogyny, inasmuch as women’s fertility is blamed for under-development or family planning programs are credited with promulgating unsafe contraceptive procedures (Hartmann 1987, Rao 2004). But the most serious charge concerns racism, linked here to colonialism, eugenics and genocide. As an article in the New Statesman (2004) states: ‘We dare not discuss population growth lest we be called racist’. But why is this association so pervasive?
First, despicable motives are attributed to population agencies, which are condemned for disguising their real aims through humanitarian rhetoric. This allegedly hides their true agenda (racism) and practices (coercive), which are claimed ‘in fact’ to represent the dictates of international institutions and national governments. International agencies are charged not only with sponsoring compulsory sterilisation but also with ‘withholding from some populations aid for food or sanitation infrastructure’ with the specific aim of culling the world’s poor. Multinationals’ ‘thirst for profit’ is presented as complementary to a broader racist project in which ‘poverty and disease become indirect tools of population control’. In short, both sorts of Malthusian check are identified here: the preventive type being imposed coercively and the positive kind cynically being left to run its course. In the context of developing countries they acquire distinctly racist significance. Such charges are not unfounded, with India especially commending itself as the referent for Hardt and Negri’s invective. Mass famines there had sometimes been presented by colonial administrators as salutary checks on overpopulation. Neo-Malthusian views would subsequently persuade the new republic to initiate the world’s first family planning program (1952) but it soon found itself dependent on foreign aid and mired in geopolitical interests. While at home Americans were fretting about the domestic effects of a population explosion on the environment, abroad their Cold War anxiety linked population growth to social instability and hence vulnerability to communism. Following disastrous harvests in the mid-1960s, food aid to India was used by the Johnson administration as leverage to insist on a robust family planning program whose respect for human rights was noticeably deficient (Caldwell 1998, Rao 2004, Connelly 2006). These equations formed the basis for considerable hostility to the population establishment and its Western supporters, with opposition being eloquently rehearsed by third world delegates to Bucharest in 1974 (Finkle and Crane 1975, Hodgson 1998). They interpreted population policies advocated by the US government as neocolonial and racially-motivated while accusing the West of blaming population growth for poverty rather than recognising the international capitalist system as the principal cause of under-development.
Because they are unspecific about these circumstances they imply that all family planning programmes with wider demographic goals are coercive and racially-motivated. Despite Multitude’s focus on the poor, its authors ignore the bleak effects of rapid population growth on the everyday lives of those who inhabit slums or the misery of unwanted pregnancies for those whose need for contraception remains unmet (Davis 2006, Stephenson et al. 2010). Nor can they consider the global consequences of increasingly affluent populations, since ecological concerns have been ruled out as mere hypocrisy.
A second association between population policy and racism is made via allusions to eugenics. Hardt and Negri condemn those who are ‘concerned primarily with which social groups reproduce and which do not’. For much of the twentieth century the project of improving the species’ genetic stock had influential adherents but by the 1920s, negative eugenics entailed sterilising the degenerate: the insane, the criminal, certain races. This policy gained its most notorious expression under Nazism as population policy became genocidal. The link in Multitude is undoubtedly reinforced by its authors’ indebtedness to Foucault, who explains that treating population as a matrix of different races permits the state to kill others as a condition of making life healthier (Foucault 2003, p. 245). In an age of colonial ambitions race accordingly justified genocide, while for eugenics programmes killing the enemy was a way to purify one’s own race. Historically, such references remain very powerful. Yet again, the link to population policy is specific and contingent. It is surely not a good enough reason to avoid population talk in the current century although it does provide a good explanation for our proclivity to do so. In a third linkage, Hardt and Negri refer to ‘racial panic’: a phenomenon elsewhere referred to as ‘race suicide’. In light of the decline of white European populations, they argue, perceptions of a demographic crisis primarily concern racial composition: the increasingly ‘darker color’ of European and world populations. ‘It is difficult’, they argue, ‘to separate most contemporary projects of population control from a kind of racial panic’. The term race suicide emerged early in the twentieth century when President Theodore Roosevelt condemned families who chose to produce merely two progeny: a nation that wilfully reduced its population in this way would deservedly commit race suicide, he maintained, adding that the differential fertility rates among Anglo-Saxons and immigrants might deliver an especially regrettable form of race suicide (Roosevelt 1903). It is indeed the case that population policies have sometimes been motivated by nationalist or ethnic desires to increase a people’s powers by multiplying more strenuously than its competitors. But this is not limited to white European populations; it is more typically associated with selective pro-natalism and population concerns are not reducible to eugenic ambitions, especially when it is the affluent who are most unsustainable. Hardt and Negri are helpful for illustrating how vulnerable demographic policies, especially those designed to achieve differential birth rates, are to racism and xenophobia and how susceptible to entanglement in broader geopolitical struggles. The warning remains salient inasmuch as such connections have acquired renewed resonance in light of unprecedented migration flows since the mid-1990s. In developed countries, immigration has replaced fertility as the principal demographic variable provoking public anxiety about population growth (United Nations 2000, Coleman 2010), with concerns about overcrowding and the environment again being interpreted as cloaks for racism. The connection certainly reinforces the sense in which population numbers are an inherently controversial issue. But does it not also show why anxieties provoked by demographic change must be subjected to public deliberation rather than being summarily rejected as too shameful to acknowledge?
Population-skepticism Although demography is for the most part an arid quantitative discipline, it also has its own narratives and these provide conduits investment. This section begins with a brief discussion transition theory (DTT), which is currently the dominant narrative and is responsible for population-skepticism among experts. By skepticism, here, I mean doubt that there is any longer a population problem since fertility is declining almost everywhere. In the latter part of the section I consider a more political variant of population-skepticism that suggests population growth is not detrimental anyway. In this case I show how the population-skepticism promulgated by demographic revisionists neoliberal and social conservative values. skepticism are hostile to an alternative Malthusian narrative. In the first case this is judged anachronistic; in the second it is rejected as predicated on fundamental misunderstandings of modernity’s capacities for sustained growth.
DTT comprises one of the great narratives of modernisation (Kirk 1996, p. 384). As Lee and Reher (2011, p. 1) write of transition, this ‘historical process ranks as one of the most important changes affecting human society in the past half millennium, on a par with the spread of democratic government, the industrial revolution, the increase in urbanization, and the progressive increases in educational levels of human populations’. DTT identifies four demographic stages that are integral to modernisation. Relatively stable populations with high fertility and mortality (DT 1) are disrupted by biopolitical regimes that reduce mortality rates. This causes rapid population growth because there is typically a lag before fertility drops correspondingly (DT 2). Thereafter, low mortality is matched by low fertility: the transition proper. Growth nevertheless continues thanks to the momentum of large, youthful populations (DT 3). Only in a final stage is transition completed as the population ages and growth stops, thereby restoring equilibrium albeit at a higher level (DT 4). This account stifles the population question by contextualising it. If population growth is caused by the second stage it is observed most anxiously in the third, yet by then fertility is already falling. While developed countries are currently in the final stage of transition, exponents of DTT maintain that most of their developing counterparts are advancing through the third stage and all are expected to follow suit. There is indeed considerable empirical evidence supporting fertility transition and the theory is useful for classifying the demographic situation in particular locations. It is nonetheless worth making some critical observations about the theory’s predictive powers and its relevance for the future, given that transition is routinely cited to justify demographic complacency.
It claims universal applicability but European experience provides its template and ideal. A problem arises insofar as diverse transitional patterns are classified as manifestations of a deterministic mechanism guaranteeing that transition will everywhere be completed. This greatly enhances the sceptical potency of the theory but like other modern end-of-history arguments, it relies on dubious teleological assumptions to inflate its predictive claims. For example, DTT presupposes that secular, Western attitudes to contraception and family size will prevail, yet it is by no means certain that this can be relied upon in a multicultural world in which religious, patriarchal cultures are gaining relative demographic advantage (Norris and Inglehart 2004, Kaufmann 2010). It assumes there is no Malthusian trap whereby high fertility forecloses opportunities for development, for example by suppressing capital accumulation. While current projections are broadly congruent with DTT expectations, this is unsurprising inasmuch as projections must extrapolate from current trends, a practice that relies on assumptions themselves furnished by DTT optimism. Projections ‘must not be confused with current reality’ precisely because their ‘assumptions reflect the spirit of the era in which they are framed. To them are transmitted its hopes and fears’ (Le Bras 2008, p.153, van de Kaa 1996, ONS 2008, pp. 23, 24). Their uncertainty is indicated by the production of several variants. So while the UN’s oft-cited medium variant for 2100 is 10.1 billion, this increases to 27 billion were 2005–10 fertility rates to remain constant (United Nations 2010, p. 1). In short, there are no guarantees that fertility will decline universally or irreversibly. Ironically, since worldwide completion of transition relies on contingent factors such as the willingness of international donors to fund family planning programs, population skepticism helps to disincentivise the very policies fertility decline depends on and to challenge projections’ accuracy.
Let us assume, however, that population does stabilise around 10 billion or perhaps declines thereafter. Would this be a good enough reason for dismissing population growth anxieties, as sceptics do? Might environmentalists not still wonder whether such levels are sustainable or desirable, especially when coupled with aspirations for global economic development and equity and in light of current ecological challenges? Should those who currently urge pronatalist policies in order to increase the post-transitional birth rate as a driver of economic growth not be challenged to justify their arguments in relation to the longer-term wellbeing of future generations and the planet? There is an important distinction here between skepticism levelled at the prospect of continuing demographic growth and normative doubts regarding the social benefits of living at thickening densities. Yet it is partly to suppress such reflections on the merits of returning to smaller populations, I now suggest, that population-skepticism has been embraced by neoliberals as an antidote to limits-to-growth arguments. An excellent place to start disentangling this political dimension of population-skepticism is the ‘Policy Statement of the United States of America at the United Nations International Conference on Population’ (The Whitehouse 1984). My analysis is designed to show the high ideological stakes the population game had assumed by the 1980s as neoliberal interests invested in population-skepticism. Despite developing countries’ antagonism to Americanled initiatives on population control in Bucharest, many had introduced donordependent, national family planning programmes by the 1980s because they regarded population growth as detrimental to development. It was in this context that the intervention of the Reagan administration, in an official document preparatory for the Mexico City conference (1984), represented a dramatic shift in perspective. The Statement insists that centralised targets for reducing population have no place in ‘the right of couples to determine the size of their own families’ (The Whitehouse 1984, p. 578). Such arguments have affinity with populationshaming but with two important differences. From the neoliberal perspective it was East/West rather than North/South political relations that were at issue, while the link between population policy and coercion was made from the point of view of the political right rather than left. A dichotomy was now constructed between coercion and voluntarism, the implication being that reproductive rights are antithetical to state intervention because this is ipso facto coercive. Population-skepticism is advanced here by displacing the problem of population growth onto a problematisation of the (socialist) authoritarian state.
While exponents of DTT are sceptical that population increase remains a problem since growth rates are slowing, the Whitehouse (1984, p. 576) advanced the bolder claim that growth is itself a ‘neutral phenomenon’. ‘The relationship between population growth and economic development is not necessarily a negative one’.
Julian Simon (1977), one of demographic revisionism’s principal proponents, maintains that population growth is in the longer run beneficial for economic growth and the environment because more people are a spur to and resource for hard work, ingenuity and technological innovation. This approach continues to furnish the standard riposte to limitsto-growth arguments: bigger populations are held to be sustainable because the inventiveness of more people will endow ecosystems with the resilience needed to accommodate them
Where population growth remains a problem, free markets were presented by the Reagan administration as a panacea. Thus ‘economic statism’ not only hinders development by stifling individual initiative; it also disrupts ‘the natural mechanism’ for slowing population growth. This natural ‘controlling factor’ is glossed as ‘the adjustment, by individual families, of reproductive behaviour to economic opportunity and aspiration. Historically, as opportunities and the standard of living rise’, it is argued, ‘the birth rate falls’. This is allegedly because ‘economic freedom’ engenders ‘economically rational behavior’ that includes responsible fertility choices
The ideological intentions of the Statement were made clear by a lightly-coded attack on the American new left. The Whitehouse policy response to population is advertised as ‘measured, modulated’, as opposed to ‘an overreaction by some’. Overreaction (in response to imminent environmental crisis) was identified in 1984 as an unfortunate consequence of rapid population growth having coincided with two regrettable factors that ‘hindered families and nations’. The first was foreign socialism; the second involved the counter-culture’s alleged ‘anti-intellectualism’, attributed here to anxieties caused by the West’s rapid modernisation. Cultural pessimism, rather than material concerns about sustainability, was thus identified as the source of domestic population anxiety. This interpretation left the way clear for a ‘rapid and responsible development of natural resources’, that is, the sustained economic growth through technologically-enhanced development that revisionists and neoliberals associated with population growth. For the radical right, in sum, the problem of population growth simply evaporated since in the West it had been merely a delusion of left-wing infantilism, while in poorer countries the solution lay in liberalised markets whose congenial effects on fertility choices would be complemented by the efficiency of privatised health services.
Before leaving this category of population-skepticism it is important to notice how social conservatism was also incorporated. Once population growth had been discounted as a relevant issue it became easier for social conservatives to instigate changes that would not only undermine support for population policies but also direct funding away from family planning programs. The defining issue here was abortion. While abortion had been viewed as an integral part of family planning by much of the population establishment, the Reagan administration’s emphasis on human lives included the unborn whose rights coincided with its pro-life policy. Population policies must, the Whitehouse insisted, be ‘consistent with respect for human dignity and family values’, including religious values. Abortion was now scuttled into the category of disrespectful (‘repugnant’) coercion. ‘Attempts to use abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive measures in family planning’, it stated, ‘must be shunned’ (The Whitehouse 1984, p. 578). This judgement was not merely rhetorical: it had immediate practical implications for family planning organizations, NGOs, the UNFPA itself, which now lost US funding even if they only in principle supported abortion.
By placing social and religious conservatism at the heart of American population policy, the Republicans gave succor to traditional antipathies to modern contraception and women’s reproductive autonomy while introducing an additional level of value-conflict into a field where secular attitudes had formerly dominated. This opened a new dimension in the population-silencing frame. Asking why population growth now attracts so little attention in the United States, Martha Campbell cites ‘anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks’ as a major cause (Campbell 2007, p. 240). As religious voices have become more strident in a context of multiculturalist respect for diversity and neo-conservative support, espousing population concerns that imply anti-natalism has correspondingly become more risky.
Skepticism also has a more political dimension inasmuch as it is reinforced by revisionist claims that population growth is advantageous: a view that is congruent with neoliberal desires for sustained economic growth and anathema to limits-to-growth arguments.
Population-declinism is a corollary of population-skepticism in that it is an expression of the final stage of demographic transition. It warrants its own discursive category, however, because it differs from skepticism in two significant ways: regarding mood and policy implications. Its affective tenor is quite different from the dynamic, pro-growth bullishness of political skepticism. A symptom of completing transition is that the population ages. This phenomenon engenders a sense of melancholia and loss connected to fears of relative decline; it is despondent about completing transition. Population declinism is currently powerful in precluding enthusiasm for population stabilization because rather than welcoming ageing as a sign that modernity’s enormous demographic expansion is ending, it promulgates images of enervation and decay in which the faltering powers and risk-averse outlooks ascribed to older people are attributed to whole regions (like ‘old Europe’). For declinists, low-fertility societies are destined to fail relative to more youthful, energetic competitors, with feebleness in the global economy accompanying weakness in the military theatre (Jackson and Howe 2008). The remedy is to encourage renewed growth. Such anxieties induce skepticism. While the latter rejects state interference in influencing population numbers, regarding it as unnecessary, inefficacious and coercive, population declinists do advocate interventionist policies. Unlike earlier limits-to-growth exponents, however, they promote pro-, rather than anti-, natalism, alongside immigration, in order to rejuvenate developed world populations (Commission of the European Communities 2005, Dixon and Margolis 2006). In 2009 almost half the governments in these countries regarded their population growth as too low
The power of declinism is such that this is rarely complemented by consideration of whether upward trends enhance quality of life or the environmental systems on which it depends
The principal danger of declinism is that it operates within a short timeframe that focuses on temporary fiscal and productivity challenges, yet its demographic remedies are likely to aggravate unsustainability later on.
Population-decomposing. A fourth category of silencing discourse
Talking about population as a totality that can be planned and managed has come to be regarded as not only political dangerous but also methodologically crude. This is a more elusive discursive effect than the first three categories but it has been effective in disenfranchising the population question in three ways: normative, methodological and ontological. Normatively, population-decomposing has been effective in rejecting ‘the numbers game’. This is congruent with population-shaming and political skepticism but this argument is rather different in its aversion to referencing population size as such. The numbers game is played by those who worry that the mass of human flesh is unsustainable or that thickening population densities degrade wellbeing.
Iconic texts like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were explicit about population being a numbers game. In light of an imminent environmental crisis, Ehrlich (1972, preface) defined population control as ‘the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs not just of individual families, but of society as a whole’. In other words, reproduction was understood as an other-regarding act. Ehrlich (1972, p. 3f.) had concluded that ‘no matter how you slice it, population is a numbers game’. He was probably referring here to the need for statistical familiarity with the properties of exponential growth, but to critics his work suggested an equation between the numbers game and state-imposed coercion. As a consequence the focus on population size and growth rates, especially when linked to targets and sanctions, fell into disrepute. This antipathy is encapsulated in UNFPA’s observation that since the mid-1990s, there has been ‘a shift in population policy and programs away from a focus on human numbers’ to a focus on ‘human lives’. Policies based on perceptions of a ‘race between numbers and resources’ are eschewed as synonymous with a ‘numbers game’ presented as antithetical to human rights (UNFPA, n.d., p. 4, UNFPA 2008, p. 1). In sum, even to focus on overall demographic quantities becomes anathema to personal choice and liberty. Reproduction is recast as a self-regarding act. One outcome has been to devolve population issues into matters of reproductive health and individual welfare entitlements.
The change of emphasis they entail has helped to exclude discussions about overall numbers while supporting the view that population is best approached at an individual or familial level.
Its disavowal of the numbers game, provoking critics like Ehrlich (2008, p. 107) to lament the way environmental repercussions of population growth now succumbed to ‘a narrow focus on issues of reproductive rights and maternal and child health’. The focus is in no way reprehensible but it has had the effect of displacing population growth as a global environmental issue. Campbell (2007, pp. 237, 243) cites Cairo as ‘the turning point in removing the population subject from policy discourse’, noting that talking about population became politically incorrect thereafter because it was perceived as disadvantageous to women.
This decomposing trend has been reinforced by the way aggregated population numbers have come to be regarded as methodologically and statistically crude, thus further undermining the possibility of advancing (neo-) Malthusian arguments. Figures at a more fine-grained level make less obvious headline news or dramatic narratives. Complementing new emphasis on demographic complexity is a widespread view that population dynamics such as age composition or urbanization are more relevant for policymaking than broader trajectories of population size. This, too, dissolves narrative impact by translating demographic trends into numerous policy challenges. These disaggregating effects thus serve to de-politicize and de-problematize the issue because as data has been refined, the demographic phenomena that mobilized players of the numbers game are occluded.
Demography as a discipline has itself, moreover, become more closely modelled on economics and concerned with economic data, thus sharing with economics its own movement away from macro-level approaches towards micro-level, statistical studies where individuals feature as rational agents making choices on the basis of cost–benefit analysis. Le Bras maintains that every branch of demographic analysis has been renewed in this direction over the past two decades. ‘In fertility studies, the dominant position is now occupied by microeconomic models of the family’ based on work by Gary Becker and George Schulz (Le Bras 2008, p. xi). Ehrlich also argues that as a discipline, demography ‘has largely diverged from environmental concerns and the broad analyses of social structures’ it formerly undertook. It now ‘focuses on measuring and modelling the dynamics of various populations’: a process judged valuable but peripheral to ‘the really big demographic issue’ of the environmental cost of population growth and its rectification (Ehrlich 2008, p. 103). It might also be noted that macro-level analysis was formerly associated with structural, Marxist approaches that have themselves fallen from grace as planning regimes have succumbed to more laissez-faire frameworks emphasizing individual decision-making. In sum, the normative and methodological dimensions of population-decomposing together help to demolish the framework in which population numbers matter and in which society has an interest in and responsibility for sustainable levels. This makes it difficult to identify, problematize or debate population growth as a social issue amenable to democratic debate or collective action.
As advanced countries have developed service or digital economies, and as the more obviously material costs of industrialization have become less emphasized, so attention to the material needs and costs of more bodies, qua needy biological entities engaged in physical labor, has also waned. Diane Coyle (1997) writes evocatively of a ‘weightless world’ and urges governments to embrace an age of de-materialization. This complements a tendency to understand social systems in virtual terms, with production and consumption re-figured as virtual flows of data, symbols and images that can be regarded as having little actual impact on the environment. Yet a corresponding emphasis on the human capital that drives the knowledge economy detracts from the space that embodied humans require and ignores the consumer durables – like cars, refrigerators, plastics, swimming pools – they desire. It permits an illicit substitution of the idea of sustained, indefinite growth for earlier recognition of the material limits of a finite planet.
From a virtual viewpoint there is in this lightness of being no obvious limit to the numbers the earth can sustain or to their capacity to invent new technologies that will render resources infinitely elastic and felicitously ethereal. This surely rests on a dangerous illusion. Population-fatalism In a final discursive category, the term population-fatalism captures some contemporary British inquiries into challenges posed by population growth. Because these are testimony to renewed concern about expanding numbers, they are suggestive of a return of the population question. They are nonetheless distinctive precisely because their overall tone is not fatalistic: they are mainly confident that the challenges of 9 billion (70 million in the United Kingdom) can be met. But they are fatalist in treating population growth as a given; as an aggravating or critical factor they are powerless to change and reluctant to address. Instead, they identify challenges and calculate abatement costs. This distinguishes their arguments from: population-skepticism, which does not see population growth as a problem; population-declinism, which encourages population growth to foreclose shrinkage; population-decomposing, which disavows the very framework of numbers. But it shares their antipathy to antinatalist policy and is probably apprehensive about population-shaming.
The Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change is a good example of population-fatalism. Although population growth is included as a significant contributor to global warming there is no suggestion that a demographic element might be incorporated into climate change policy (Stern 2006, p. 12). This formula of neglectful concern has been the hallmark of other recent studies, which prefer technological solutions to controversial political interventions.
Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability cites population growth as an urgent challenge in light of the need ‘to ensure that a global population rising to nine billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably’ (Foresight 2011, introduction, p. 9). But in neither case is there any suggestion that further population growth might be tackled. The Economist’s (2011) ‘The 9 billion people question’ and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ ‘Population: One Planet, Too Many People?’ (2011) follow a similar logic, with (bio)technological solutions being proffered for a demographic fait accompli.
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s The Environmental Impacts of Demographic Change in the UK (2011) goes further by explicitly excluding population growth as an appropriate policy domain (Coole 2012b). Despite acknowledging that ‘total population is likely to continue to grow, at a historically relatively high rate’ in the United Kingdom and that some regions suffer ‘obvious pressure on infrastructure, services and environment’ (RCEP 2011, 2.22, 6.2), the report constructs an either/or choice between seeking to influence demographic change or trying to mitigate its environmental impact. It unequivocally opts for the latter, declaring the former not ‘a good basis for policy’ because unspecified ‘objections on social and ethical grounds would outweigh the environmental gains’
I have asked why, as the twenty-first century proceeds inexorably towards a world population of 9 billion plus, there is so little discussion of the socio-ecologically deleterious effects of continuing population growth. I identified five discourses that together explain why there is currently no politically acceptable framework within which population numbers can be problematized or remedial action commended. While they are mutually-supporting in their silencing effects, two of these discourses seem especially powerful: population shaming, because it renders the population question so morally treacherous, and population-skepticism, because of its complacency and its congeniality for hegemonic pro-growth ideologies. I have not attempted to refute such arguments but I have suggested that they are not good enough reasons for suppressing discussion about population numbers and the merits of fewer people, especially as renewed public concerns emerge over resource insecurity, biodiversity, climate change and high-density urban living.