By JR, January 2022
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Back in the early 1970s I can
remember reading the compelling arguments of Stanford University zoology
professor Paul Ehrlich’s still in print book The Population Bomb. This
was when the human population of our planet was between 3 and 4 billion which
Ehrlich claimed was far too many. Today every species on the planet, save
humans, is in extinction mode.
However, broaching earth’s
overpopulation problem of we humans is not considered politically correct. To
hell with political correctness, I say. Anyone with a rudimentary high school
understanding of exponential functions can understand our predicament. There are
many reasons for humans reproducing like rabbits and viruses. Sex is fun is one
reason - combined with no protection and the churches both Christian and Muslim
is the other. Not only do many Christian leaders rant and rave against abortion,
they instruct their flock (yes, they are sheep) not to use birth control. “Go
forth and multiply” the Bible commands as the resources are gobbled up by the
ravenous species zoologist Desmond Morris referred to as the “naked ape”.
Moreover, with a global epidemic of
obesity, people are taking up even more disappearing space as the typical
spectacle television programs are devoted not only to bloodthirsty cage
fighting, lotteries and online gambling (including professional sports which
were illegal during a more civilized era), but to people weighing in at 600 –
1000 lbs. But there’s always “life coaches” (yes, I’m serious) and more recently
an inane endlessly advertised online New Age outfit called “Noom” for people
with zero will power to remove their lard arses from the couch and lose weight.
Forget the thousands of self-help bullshit books on weight loss; hasn’t anyone
heard of “eat less and exercise more?”
Some startling facts on exponential
global human population growth:
1804 - 1 billion homo saps
1927 - 2 billion homo saps
1974 - 4 billion homo saps
2022 - 8 billion homo saps
The last statistic is about 5
billion more people that our contaminated overheated greenhouse gas domed pale
blue dot can handle....
The stark realities are we face
multiple political, moral, economic and serious existential threats, one of
which are the declining IQ’s as the oligarchic technocrats, mind destroying
marketing, blood sports and online gambling are just a few of the cultural
forces that are producing a generation of unthinking ADHD zombies who are having
too many kids and dogs. I submit that our beleaguered planet can sustain at most
somewhere between 2-3 billion people. Mao Zedong had a brilliant idea with his
one child family rule. Many people, primarily those of superior intelligence,
are deciding not to bring a child into a FUBAR world that resembles a lunatic
asylum. Anyone who has visited or watched documentaries on the arm pits of the
world such as Mumbai, Jakarta, Calcutta, Delhi, Mexico City, San Paulo, Cairo,
Manila, Shanghai, Beijing, Johannesburg and even US cities such as New York, LA
or Detroit know these places are for the most part unliveable. The homelessness,
filth, squalor and putrid odours are just a few of the features of these hell
holes. Even taking a holiday to privatized national parks we are faced with
clogged freeways, wall to wall people when we arrive at our destination as
idiots with jet skis, ATVs and other noise making machines rip up the
hinterland. Staying home in your below ground basement is the safest and most
peaceful way to take a break from the insanity of city living.
Photo from The Guardian
article in 2018 by Paul Ehrlich, “Collapse of Civilization is a near
Certainty within Decades”
Listen to Dr. David Suzuki on
exponential growth and the contradictions therein - human populations and the
folly of never ending economic growth on a finite planet being just two of them.
David Suzuki speaks about overpopulation - YouTube
Over two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus
predicted that the growth of human population would soon outstrip the food
supply. Although this may ultimately be correct, he was off on the timing.
Since his dire predictions, there have been
numerous famines, food shortages and conflicts over resources, but we have not
yet had a global food shortage…. if we take the total amount of food available
and divide it by the total number to be fed. However, this assumes a perfect
system of distribution which is far from what’s available. Food distribution
within the most seriously deprived areas of the world are generally inadequate,
often deteriorating through neglect or conflict.
Malthus and other doomsayers could not have
predicted the tremendous increase in grain production using fertilizers,
pesticides, etc. and leading to the “green revolution”, or the spectacular
technological developments. Technology doubtless has had a profound impact on
food production. But it is not a magic wand. It is a mistake to extrapolate
from the increases in food production that occurred from the mid-1940s to the
mid-1980s. Technology was able to increase the fish catch tremendously, to the
point of depleting many of the world’s fisheries, but it cannot bring back the
fish whose stocks are rapidly disappearing world-wide.
Equally serious is grain production which many
experts believe may have reached a point of no return globally. Since 1984, the
annual percent increase in grain production has been less than global population
increases, and declined by 12% on a per capita basis. Furthermore, livestock
production and high yield crops require large amounts of water, and in key food
growing areas the demand for water is reaching the limits of the hydrological
cycle to supply irrigation water. Additional fertilizer on currently available
crop varieties is having less and less effect on yields even as it continuing
heavy use contributes to soil degradation. No new technologies (in irrigation,
fertilization, breeding or genetic manipulation) promise to lead to quantum
leaps in grain output.
A half-hectare of land a year is required to
feed a varied diet to one person. However, worldwide only one-quarter of a
hectare per person is available; this will drop to one-eighth hectare by 2035 if
current trends continue. Moreover, the impending peaking of the production of
conventional petroleum and natural gas is resulting in much higher prices of
these vital resources. This will hurt agricultural productivity and raise the
cost of transportation.
Given all these negative trends, it seems
prudent to heed the warnings of the scientists… and of Mr. Malthus.
Human population growth (10,000 an hour)
seriously threatens global peace, stability and our very survival on dying
planet. Human overpopulation is the primary cause of humankind’s most
challenging problems, including climate change (aka global heating) and the
greatest obstacle to overcoming them. Consider the Population Clock and the
Doomsday Clock (100 seconds to midnight as of 2021).
World Population 2020/2021 (populationu.com)
Current Time - 2021 - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (thebulletin.org)
Some relevant quotes:
The latest phase of technical-scientific progress, with its fantastic
increases in population, has created a situation fraught with problems of
hitherto unknown dimensions - Albert Einstein
Those who in principle oppose birth control are either incapable of
arithmetic or else in favor of war, pestilence and famine as permanent features
of human life -Bertrand Russell
Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is
either a madman or an economist - Kenneth Boulding
We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it,
buried things in it, chopped down its forests, leveled its hills, muddied its
waters, and dirtied its air. That does not fit my definition of a good tenant.
If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago -
Rose Bird, Chief Justice, California Supreme Court (1936-99)
Family planning… is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the
Dark Ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague
of overpopulation is solvable by means we have discovered and with resources we
possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but
universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the
billions who are its victims - Martin Luther King
On my 70th Birthday I was asked: What are Mankind’s prospects? My reply: We
are behaving like yeasts in a brewer’s vat, multiplying mindlessly while
greedily consuming the substance of a finite world. If we continue to imitate
the yeasts we will perish as they perish, having exhausted our resources and
poisoned ourselves in the lethal brew of our own wastes. Unlike yeasts, we have
a choice. What will it be? - Farley Mowat
The accusation that a stand to reduce immigration is racist is music to the
ears to those who profit from the cheap labor of immigrants. They are the same
people who love to see environmentalists make fools of themselves. And there is
no environmentalist more foolish than one who refuses to confront the fact that
uncontrolled human population growth is the No. 1 cause of the world’s
increasing environmental problems - Captain Paul Watson
In the last 200 years the population of our planet has grown exponentially,
at a rate of 1.9% per year. If it continued at this rate, with the population
doubling every 40 years, by 2600 we would all be standing, literally shoulder to
shoulder –Professor Stephen Hawking
Articles from the humanist periodical Free Inquiry:
Immigration and the Human Future
By Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry, June / July 2015
The March 4 New York Times headline said it all: “Ethiopia, Former
Resident of the Bottom, Aspires to the Middle.” It’s the recurring story of the
twenty-first century: nation after nation, once mired in poverty, achieves
economic breakthrough. Its people thrill to the prospect of aspiring to live
well—that is, like Americans. China did it first and surely on the largest
scale, elevating hundreds of millions into middle-class lifestyles. Every few
weeks, it seems that another country large or small claims its place on the
economic escalator. Congratulations, Ethiopia: it’s your turn today.
But is what is good for Ethiopia—or China, or Indonesia, or India, or
Malaysia—good for the planet? Can our world, its climate and ecosystems, survive
a future in which billions worldwide live, consume, and pollute like Americans?
Are there even sufficient natural resources to allow burgeoning billions
to enjoy Western living standards? Before the world financial crisis of
2007–2008, we experienced a global economic boom. Demand surged. As noted, vast
numbers enjoyed their first access to life Western-style. The result was a
crisis of scarcity. Commodity prices skyrocketed across sectors ranging from
foodstuffs to industrial raw materials to energy. Food riots erupted in
third-world countries, often related to the diversion of agricultural land to
produce energy crops such as corn for ethanol. Americans got their first
experience of paying well above four dollars per gallon for gasoline. The
ballooning price of nearly everything was most likely a signal that, when
operating at full throttle, the global economy demanded more resources more
quickly than the planet could supply. Before that lesson could sink in fully, in
fall 2008 the world economy nearly collapsed. Economic activity plummeted,
pushing demand—and prices—back into manageable territory.
In recent years we’ve seen tentative steps toward recovery, usually accompanied
by spikes in commodity prices. One day, the current recession will end, and
demand will return to or exceed 2007 levels. Is our world any more ready to
satisfy the demands of simultaneous full-throttle economies all over the world?
Perhaps more urgent, can the planetary biosphere survive even a serious attempt
to operate this way?
We Cannot Delay Discussing Sustainability Any Longer
A landmark paper published by eighteen researchers in the journal Science this
past January reports that in four of nine documented “planetary boundary” areas,
human activity has already burst through sustainable levels. Never mind what the
world will be like in the future when there are eleven billion of us—or
seventeen billion of us, depending which United Nations (UN) estimate you
consider more likely—the way 7.3 billion humans live and consume right now is
pushing ecosystems toward calamity.
Secular humanists are supposed to be optimists. When it comes to the future of
our planet—or at least, to the capacity of its surface to continue to sustain
human life—this secular humanist finds optimism increasingly difficult to
uphold. “Two out of three countries are already consuming more individually than
each can produce sustainably from its own resources,” warned one 2014 study. We
are deluged by reports that humanity demands more of our Earth’s air, water—even
of the planet’s crust—than can be borne.
Climate appears to be transforming with a speed and relentlessness that makes
our Kyoto-era hopes to limit warming to two degrees Celsius seem quaint. Climate
change, overfishing, the agglomeration of plastic junk, and nitrogen and
phosphorus runoff from mechanized, chemicalized agriculture seem to be in a race
to see which will sterilize the oceans first. On land and sea, species are
vanishing at a clip seen only during the great die-offs separating key epochs of
prehistory. Arctic ice is vanishing; the estimated speed of Antarctic ice-cap
melting rises with each new research report, fueling speculation that sea levels
might rise by tens of meters before this century ends. In any case, as
researcher Christopher Clugston suggests in this issue, we are likely to be
tripped up by fast-erupting shortages of affordable natural resources before any
of those scenarios come to fruition. (Could it possibly be humanity’s best hope
that a deadly economic crash caused by resource scarcity might bring us low
before we can finish off Earth’s biosphere?)
In this situation, it is dismaying to behold the active antipathy, even among
green activists confronting other aspects of this crisis forthrightly, to admit
the pernicious role of human population growth in making every sustainability
dilemma worse. As population expert Robert Walker asks in this issue, “If
humanity is breaking ‘planetary boundaries’ and imperiling, in the process,
humanity’s future, why aren’t more scientists speaking publicly about the
population trajectory and its implications?”
Indeed, across much of the world, experts seem less worried about overpopulation
than they are about population decline. “Nearly half of all people now
live in countries where women, on average, give birth to fewer than 2.1 babies,”
report researchers Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter. Countries including
Germany, Italy, and Japan are deeply anxious that as population declines, there
won’t be enough taxpaying workers to support the social services that more
numerous elderly cohorts will require. Even in the United States, birthrates
have declined for a sixth straight year. America’s population, too, would
decline if not for a steady flow of immigrants, legal and illegal, and the
higher average fecundity characteristic of recent immigrant families.
But Wait—Isn’t the World Overpopulated?
Haven’t experts been raising that alarm since, oh, the 1950s, when the globe
held a mere 2.5 billion humans? There are 7.3 billion of us now. Reversing
earlier, more optimistic estimates, the UN now projects that human numbers will
swell to eleven billion by the end of this century. (And that’s the midline estimate.
The same study’s worst-case estimate is almost seventeen billion.) It is
hard to see how our planet could sustain eleven billion people, even in great
poverty; how can our biosphere withstand the impact of eleven billion
people—much less seventeen billion—especially if many or most of them strive to
live like modern-day Americans? Obviously, such a nightmare scenario is not
sustainable. One recent study noted that if every member of the current population
of seven billion lived like Americans they would require five planet Earths to
supply all that they’d consume. How many Earths will seventeen billion require?
Oh, that’s right—we only have one.
Given all of this, why don’t we see more countries embracing the goal of
reducing their populations? Why aren’t more specialists scrambling to make
feasible a century or two during which each generation is smaller than the one
before it? Actually, some are. Economics journalist Nathan Lewis described
present government social-welfare policies that demand continuous population
growth as “Ponzi schemes”—on Forbes.com, no less—and wrote that “the notion that
a shrinking overall population naturally causes or leads to economic decline” is
“[p]erhaps one of the silliest myths around today.” Even mainstream commentator
George Friedman of the forecasting firm Stratfor writes that population decline,
should it come, will be eminently economically manageable. Meanwhile, the Center
for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (steadystate.org) is bringing
together economists and other specialists to work out how the global economy
might survive—even thrive—after weaning itself from the false standard of
Finally, in a world so overpopulated, how can it be that some countries still
clamor for immigrants—and that other countries are eager to supply them, in some
cases despite strong economic growth at home? What does it mean when a country
such as the Philippines sends fully 10 percent of its population abroad
to live and work in other countries—not accidentally but as a deliberate
government-supported policy to train future “economic exiles” to labor as cooks,
drivers, gardeners, and mechanics in foreign countries—hailing them as “national
With this issue’s cover feature, Free Inquiry returns to a perennial
topic: human overpopulation and its consequences. We have visited this subject
before. Our August/September 2004 issue asked experts to suggest an optimum
population for the United States and the world. Opinions varied widely, but
every authority agreed that the optimum number was far smaller than the actual
population. In April/May 2009, we asked whether human numbers were making the
day’s economic and environmental crises worse. The answer was yes, though even
as that issue’s authors were completing their articles, the global economic
collapse had begun, reducing economic activity to bearable levels, at least
Posing the Tough Questions
In this issue, we will examine population issues once again, this time
emphasizing contemporary concerns including climate change, biodiversity
erosion, and immigration policy. Immigration policy? Yes, immigration impacts
population issues in uncomfortable ways, as it has for many years.
In a 2011 editorial, I suggested that the United States should view its
immigration policy not in terms of racial equity or fairness but strictly in
terms of population: “Perhaps we need to ask more openly how many more people of
any ethnic background America can afford to feed—or how many more can be
supported by available and sustainable freshwater supplies. Perhaps we
need to consider that the last time America welcomed immigrants at a rate
anything like today’s, it was the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, when
the manufacturing economy demanded large numbers of workers at every skill
level. Last time I looked, employment prospects today were far less rosy.”
Immigration is the chief reason that U.S. population is still growing—native-
born Americans reproduce below replacement level, if more enthusiastically than
the Japanese and many Europeans. U.S. politicians and pundits equate population
growth with economic growth; yet America is seriously overpopulated. That may
seem counterintuitive when we compare the United States to countries such as
China or India, but take into account average Americans’ high levels of
consumption—to say nothing of average American levels of rubbish disposal and
the carbon emissions associated with typical American lifestyles (a recent study
estimated that over his or her life, one American child will generate 169 times
as much CO2 as a Bangladeshi child). Suddenly, it makes sense that
with its current 320 million people, America might be overpopulated.
Ponder this: what will the residents of America’s Plains drink when the Ogallala
Aquifer goes dry? What if current weather patterns in the Southwest under which,
at the beginning of 2015, 20 percent of the nation’s land area was experiencing
drought rated severe or worse—become the new normal?
The Trouble with Immigration
The trouble with immigration has nothing to do with ethnicity or culture. It has
to do with the fact that the United States just can’t sustain vastly higher
numbers of Americans. (In the long term, it probably cannot sustain the number
it already has.)
For that reason, I suggest that Americans need to rethink the one-time ideal
captured in that beloved Emma Lazarus poem incised into the base of the Statue
of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor” made sense when the country was
growing rapidly and had a nearly limitless demand for labor, skilled or
otherwise.* But it was always poetry, not policy—and in the face of
today’s sustainability crisis, it may be time to embrace a new realization that
America’s shores are teeming, too.
Today, untrammeled migration probably harms both the “sending” country and the
“receiving” country. High emigration rates encourage governments in countries
such as Mexico and the Philippines, to name just two of many, to put off dealing
with domestic dilemmas such as excessive birthrates or the economy’s inability
to provide jobs for the domestic population. In countries such as the United
States, high rates of immigration license governments to avoid confronting the
fact that their social-service infrastructures are Ponzi schemes, unable to
survive unless each generation of workers is larger than the previous generation
of retirees—to say nothing of the fact that endless population growth stresses a
finite planet in ways that are simply, literally intolerable.
We cannot go on living like this—so we won’t. The question is if, or how, we
will manage the inevitable decline—or will we land with a thud?
Might it be time to close America’s borders, not out of fear of some imagined
ethnic onslaught but simply because America—yes, even America—is unable to
sustain more people? Is America full? And why is it that in all the
fevered rhetoric that spews forth from Washington on the vexed topic of
immigration, one scarcely hears a single voice portraying it as a population
issue? (Actually, a very few voices are being raised, among them
philosopher/ecologist Philip Cafaro, whose book How Many Is Too Many? The
Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States, is review
on page 43.)
Why Population Matters
To paraphrase an argument that population advocates have been making for
decades, imagine any of the manifold crises confronting humanity—species
extinction, deforestation, climate change, groundwater depletion, overfishing—close
your eyes and pick one. Would any of these dilemmas become easier to conquer if
only there were more people? Conversely, can you imagine that any of those
dilemmas would not become more tractable, perhaps even solvable, with fewer
people? As Cafaro has noted, “lessening the human footprint is inseparable from
limiting the number of human feet.”
Secular humanists know better than most that no god gave us title to this planet
and its ecosystems. We know that the human race is a cosmic accident, that the
universe might very well never have given rise to us—and that if we foul our
planetary home so utterly that we go extinct, nothing else in the universe will
likely even notice. Sixties art-rocker Shawn Phillips captured the core dilemma
facing human beings today in one of his later lyrics: “What most of them don’t
realize is that the only difference it makes is to them.”
Is it already too late for humankind? Has the process of making our world
unlivable lurched too far along to stop? Frighteningly, that is unclear. What is
clear is that if our species is to have any chance for long-term survival, we
must get serious about becoming sustainable. That, in turn, will require getting
serious about human numbers—not just about stopping their growth but about
significantly reducing them, for all that most of us are coming to this
realization decades too late. And that—here in the high-consuming,
high-disposing, high–CO2 United States of America—may demand our rethinking
comfortable old memes about America as the country that opens its arms to the
*Admittedly, in saying even this, I am disregarding the fact that the
growth of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America was made possible only
by rapacious and irresponsible exploitation of nonrenewable natural resources.
Nonetheless, while the nation had a continent to rape, few scruples about how
many ecosystems it destroyed, and fewer scruples about how many of its eager
immigrants it killed
or maimed in the name of “breakneck” growth—an apt term, that—America needed all
the strong backs it could attract.
Achenbach, Joel. “Scientists: Human Activity Has Pushed Earth Beyond Four of
Nine ‘Planetary Boundaries.’” Washington Post, January 15, 2015.
Dietz, Robert, and Dan O’Neill. Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable
Economy in a World of Finite Resources. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Flynn, Tom. “A Discussion Long Overdue.” Free Inquiry, December
Friedman, George. “Population Decline and the Great Economic Reversal.”
Hance, Jeffrey. “Unrelenting Population Growth Driving Global Warming, Mass
Extinction.” Mongabay.com, June 26, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2014.
Kushkush, Isma’il.“Ethiopia, Former Resident of the Bottom, Aspires to the
Middle.” New York Times, March 4, 2015.
Lewis, Nathan. “Economic Abundance with Shrinking Population: Why Not?”
Forbes.com, August 28, 2014.
Population Matters, “Two Out of Three Countries ‘Ecologically Overshot.” http://populationmatters.org/2014/population-matters-news/countries-ecologically-overshot.
Accessed July 24, 2014.
Renton, Alex. “The Disaster We’ve Wrought on the World’s Oceans May Be
Irrevocable.” Newsweek, July 11, 2014.
Sackur, Steven. “The Country Training People to Leave.” BBC, March 8, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31762595.
Accessed March 10, 2015,
Teitelbaum, Michael S., and Jay M. Winter. “Bye-Bye, Baby.” New York Times,
April 4, 2014.
Four Out of Five
Scientists Agree that Population Matters
By Robert J. Walker, Free Inquiry, June / July 2015
Does population growth matter? Of course it does. It would be silly to suggest
otherwise. We live on a finite planet with finite resources, and while humans
may one day inhabit other worlds, less than .00001 percent of those living on
Earth have a realistic chance of ever residing on another planet. The rest of us
are stuck. So let’s face it, we are not getting out of this world alive, and
today’s world, quite frankly, is not what it used to be.
A poll released this year by the Pew Research Center revealed an overwhelming
majority of American scientists (82 percent) regard population growth as a major
challenge, almost as many as those who believe climate change is mostly due to
human activity (87 percent). The poll also discovered that a clear majority of
Americans (59 percent) are concerned there won’t be enough food and resources to
accommodate a growing world population, though the level of concern in the
scientific community, as with climate change, is noticeably higher.
On one level, at least, the results are not surprising. For decades, scientists
have warned that humanity is overusing planetary resources and inflicting
dangerous harm on the environment. Earlier this year, eighteen scientists
authored a paper in the journal Science warning that humanity is
encroaching on nine “planetary boundaries” and has already crossed four:
deforestation, the extinction rate for plant and animal species, the level of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the runoff (from fertilizer) of nitrogen
and phosphorous into the ocean. Their warnings are built upon an ever-growing
indictment of what humanity is doing to the planet.
There is no shortage of jaw-dropping factoids to choose from. Here are a few
• About half the
world’s tropical forests have been cleared already. The United Nations (UN)
estimates that eighteen million acres of forest are lost every year, an area
roughly the size of Panama.
• The rate of plant
and animal extinction is about one thousand times higher than the natural rate.
Scientists are calling it the “sixth mass extinction” in Earth’s history.
• For most of Earth’s
recent history, our atmosphere has contained about 275 parts per million (ppm)
of carbon dioxide (CO2). Today, we are at 400 ppm and climbing, a
level that essentially locks in significant climate change.
• It is not just the
atmosphere; we are also changing the chemistry of the oceans. The increase of CO2 in
the oceans is, in terms of magnitude and rate, the highest it has been in about
twenty million years, and no one really knows what that means for ocean life.
• Coral reefs support
an estimated 25 percent of all marine creatures, but pollution, global warming,
and other human-driven factors are expected to kill 30 percent of existing reefs
in the next thirty years.
• About 90 percent of
the ocean’s population of large fish has been wiped out by overfishing and other
• The Global Footprint
Network, which promotes the concept of the “ecological footprint,” tracks our
use of renewable resources and estimates that we are overusing our renewable
resource base by about 50 percent; by 2030, it estimates that we will need two
Earths (which we don’t have) to sustain us for the long haul.
Given the levels of scientific concern about these and other indicators of
planetary overshoot, it is remarkable that more scientists are not talking
publicly about population. When it comes to climate change, there is no shortage
of scientists willing to speak out about the need to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. So if humanity is breaking “planetary boundaries” and imperiling, in
the process, humanity’s future, why aren’t more scientists speaking publicly
about the population trajectory and its implications?
Good question. The answer, I suspect, is many scientists do not want to
“intrude” into decisions regarding how many children women should have. Very few
scientists, I suspect, believe that women should be coerced into having fewer
children. Most scientists, simply put, do not want to trample on reproductive
rights. Good for them. Women should be able to decide, free from coercion, how
many children they will have and when.
In reality, however, many pregnancies are unintended, unplanned, or unwanted.
Even in the United States, where we consume a disproportionate share of the
world’s resources, almost half of pregnancies are unintended. In developing
countries, where large family size is a major contributor to hunger, poverty,
and environmental degradation, many women have little or no control over how
many children they will have. Population growth in many developing countries is
largely propelled by gender inequality and antiquated child-marriage practices
that effectively deny women the freedom to make informed reproductive choices.
There is, quite simply, a vast amount that can be done about global population
that is fully supportive of the reproductive health and rights of women. In this
country, we can stop the harebrained political assaults on family planning
clinics and increase the number of women eligible for contraceptive services
under state Medicaid laws. There are, unfortunately, plenty of reasons why my
own organization’s recent fifty-state report card on reproductive health and
rights gave fifteen states a failing grade of F and another nine a D. Despite
recent declines in the teenage pregnancy rate, America still has one of the
highest rates in the industrial world, yet many states continue to rely upon
“abstinence-only” curricula, which research has shown to be highly ineffective
in preventing teen pregnancies.
Overseas, there is much that can be done to expand and improve contraceptive
options for women in developing countries. At the same time, far more needs to
be done to advance gender equality, including the education of girls and the
elimination of child-marriage practices. In addition to combating hunger and
poverty, empowering girls and women in developing countries would do much in the
long term to reduce water stress and environmental pressures.
To be fair, the scientific community has not been entirely silent on population.
Twenty-three years ago, the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences issued a powerful joint statement on population growth and
resource consumption. Three years ago the Royal Society published a compelling
follow-up report, People and the Planet. Still, if more than four out of
five U.S. scientists believe that population growth poses a major challenge with
respect to food and resources, the public should be hearing a lot more from the
scientific community about the need to do something.
Just as there are climate deniers, there will always be population deniers who
refuse to acknowledge the impact population growth has on the planet. But that
should not deter scientists from speaking out. Population, in one form or
another, touches a whole host of scientific concerns, including climate change.
Recent studies indicate slowing population growth could make a major
contribution to slowing and ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Indeed, if world population grows, as currently projected, from 7.2 billion to
9.6 billion over the next thirty-five years, it is hard to imagine that we will
succeed in meeting the ambitious targets that must be achieved to avoid the
worst effects of climate change.
The unwillingness of scientists to talk about population is shared by other
professions. Many of those working overseas to alleviate poverty and hunger are
similarly reticent to speak about population. The evidence, however, is clear:
high fertility rates serve to perpetuate poverty, exacerbate food security and
water scarcity, accelerate d
eforestation, and make it more difficult to improve living standards. Population
growth, in other words, is a challenge multiplier, and for many developing
countries, the challenges are formidable.
By some measures, Niger is the poorest country in the world, yet its population
could easily triple over the next thirty-five years. Chronically afflicted by
severe drought and heavily dependent upon emergency food assistance for
survival, no one really knows how Niger will feed its projected population
Similarly, Yemen has been described as a hydrological disaster. Experts say
Sanaa, the capital, will run out of water within the next ten to fifteen years
when the underground aquifer that supplies drinking water to the city goes dry.
Take into consideration the never-ending conflict that afflicts Yemen, and it is
all too easy to understand why a growing number of observers classify the
country as a “failed” state. Yet despite its manifest difficulties, Yemen’s
population continues to grow and could easily double over the next fifty years.
Some people, even the well-informed, desperately want to believe that population
is no longer a problem. Citing the rapid decline in fertility rates during the
past half-century, some observers breezily dismiss population concerns and warn,
to the contrary, that the world is facing a “birth dearth.” In reality, however,
world population continues to grow; according to the “medium variant” projection
published by the United Nations Population Division, world population, currently
7.2 billion, will likely reach 9.6 billion by 2050 and nearly 11 billion by the
end of the century. That estimate, however, assumes that fertility rates will
continue to fall. If fertility rates remain at current levels, the UN says world
population will grow to 27 billion by 2100.
Others, while acknowledging these population projections and their implications,
still insist that it is wrong to talk about population and fertility. They argue
that access to family planning and reproductive health is a basic human
right—end of story, nothing more need be said. Similar arguments are made about
the education of girls and the empowerment of women. They believe we should be
doing those things because they are good for women; there is no need to point
out that they are also good for their families, communities, and entire
In truth, however, we are not doing enough to improve access to contraception or
to remove the cultural and informational barriers to contraceptive use. An
estimated 222 million women in the developing world want to avoid pregnancy but
are not using modern methods of contraception. That is about the same number as
fifteen years ago. Unless we develop a greater sense of urgency, that number
will not change. Put quite simply, we are not doing enough.
We need to bring a greater sense of urgency to the task. The right of women to
determine how many children they will have and when is not just a moral
imperative, it is a global imperative. A great deal hangs in the balance,
including what kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
Experience has shown that reproductive rights and gender equality, in
combination with access to modern contraception, promote smaller families. In
doing so, they also boost educational attainment, fight poverty, improve food
security, reduce pressure on water and other resources, and even help preserve
plant and animal habitats. It is a “win-win-win” proposition: good for women,
their families, and the world around them.
Let’s talk about population.
Funk, Gary, and Lee Rainie. “Chapter 3: Attitudes and Beliefs on Science and
Technology Topics.” In Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,
Pew Research Center, 2015. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/chapter-3-attitudes-and-beliefs-on-science-and-technology-topics/.
Accessed March 11, 2015.
O’Neill, Brian C., et al. “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon
Emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United
States of America, October 21, 2010.
Population Institute, “The State of Reproductive Health and Rights: a 50-State
Report Card.” January 2015. http://www.populationinstitute.org/external/50_state_report_card/PI-2392_Report_Card_4_pager.pdf.
Accessed March 11, 2015.
The Royal Society. People and the Planet. April 26, 2012. https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/projects/people-planet/2012-04-25-PeoplePlanet.pdf.
Accessed March 11, 2015.
Steffen, Will, et al. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a
Changing Planet.” Science, February 13, 2015.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “World Population
Prospects: The 2012 Revision.” http://esa.un.org/wpp/.
Accessed March 11, 2015.
Robert J. Walker is president of the Population Institute, which works to bring
human population into balance with natural resources.
The Moral Imperatives of
Being an Overpopulation Activist
By Karen Shragg, Free Inquiry, Volume 41, No. 4, June/July 2021
In his 2015 book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward
Truth, Justice, and Freedom, Michael Shermer makes a well-supported argument
that the secular domain has done more good for the world than the domain of
religion. He writes: “The scientific revolution led to the Age of Reason and to
the Enlightenment and that changed everything.” Further, he states, “these
changes reversed our species’ historical trend downward and that we can do more
to elevate humanity, extend the arc and bend it forever upward.”
“Not so fast,” I say to the founder of the Skeptic Society, “I am
skeptical.” Here’s the problem: The moral arc of humanity cannot continue to
go upward when the trend of the human population arc is also going upward.
As a science writer and ironically also a libertarian endless growth capitalist,
Shermer knows that the earth is a limited place with finite resources and that
humans are at a trophic level that is meant to be inhabited by a very
limited number of individuals.  As our numbers continue to climb in an
exponential infinitely upward curve, our resources decline and our density
increases; that brings with it an increase in scarcity. This is hardly a
scenario in which our collective morality will be well incubated.
Morality- encompassing such values as equal treatment under just laws, equal
employment opportunity with decent livable remuneration, equal access to
housing, healthy food, and the like - is profoundly threatened by the
far-reaching implications of overpopulation and often undemocratic unjust laws
written by the wealthy to serve their privileges and interests. Simply put,
whenever demand exceeds supply there will be immoral scrambles to get one’s
“fair share” (more realistically, whatever one can get).
Why are water wars a concern in the not-too-distant future? Because humanity has
done such a superb job using up the freshwater supply faster than it can renew
itself—all due to our ever-growing numbers. As our population grows, so does our
need to consume water for us and our livestock and for manufacturing and
I am a fan of Shermer and his work in the field of skepticism and secularism,
but not his neo-liberal Cato Institute version of capitalism. He ably presents
many examples in which science has contributed to an improvement in our
morality. But science is not wholly benign; it has contributed to both sides of
the overpopulation predicament. It has contributed both to increasing our
numbers and to the increasingly scary ways in which we die. Science has
increased our longevity with medical procedures and drugs even as it has given
rise to birth control. Science has made nuclear war possible and created
carcinogenic chemicals even as a whole scientific field developed to help solve
infertility. At the end of the day, the “birth” side of science has won, putting
unrelenting pressure on the biosphere as we continue to add over one million of
us to the planet in less than a week.
I am not naive enough to think that the world would be instantly more moral if
our numbers fell into line with our finite supplies of minerals, energy, water,
and soil. Furthermore, I know that in immoral and powerful and avaricious hands,
a doctrine with overpopulation as its main storyline would be disastrous.
What I am saying is that overpopulation, in and of itself, is a roadblock
to any kind of moral progress. Extending humanity’s moral arc, no matter how
secular and scientific we become, is impossible in this world of nearly eight
billion humans growing by 80+ million a year. The threats of overpopulation and
ecological damage are serious existential threats to our survival as we humans
seem to be the only species on the planet that are not threatened by extinction
- at least not yet. But that will come.
Each country has a moral obligation to its citizens and resources to assess its
own limits. Science and reason must be used to determine what the ecosystem can
sustainably afford to offer each person. As it happens, the scientists at the
Global Footprint Network (www.globalfootprintnetwork.org)
have already done this homework, and the result doesn’t look promising for the
I contend that the moral arc will continue to go down, and even crash, if the
population of our country and the world keeps going up.
If you accept my premise that scarcity brought on by too much demand on a
limited planet is a Petri dish for fostering disorder, social, political ,
economic dysfunction, corruption, greed and other unethical behaviors, then
opposing growth is our collective moral duty. My colleagues and I come from a
place of wanting to prevent chaos and aid the biosphere. We have taken on the
ever-more-perilous mantle of screaming about overpopulation because we see
the big picture. I have asked many of my fellow activists why they work on
this issue, and they all say basically the same thing: they want to save the
biosphere that supports us and the wildlife and open spaces they love.
8 Billion Angels filmmaker and overpopulation activist Terry Spahr says:
Global warming, food and water shortages, catastrophic storms, extinction of
species, plant and animal habitat loss …The list of environmental, social and
economic catastrophes affecting our planet with greater frequency and severity
goes on and on. If there was a simple root cause and a fundamental solution,
wouldn’t you want to know? 
The answer, of course, is unsustainable human population.
I would add that if you are dedicated to stopping those catastrophes, you are
exhibiting some pretty hefty moral chops.
Indeed we overpopulation activists are the ones holding on to the reins of
morality and justice. The world that Shermer discusses can certainly benefit
from more rational thought, but that must include thought and work on
overpopulation. Unless we start working on this critically important issue as a
moral imperative, morality itself will be rendered irrelevant, flattened by the
thundering feet of billions of desperate people.
 trophic level is the area of a food chain a given species occupies.
Because humans are at the top level supported by plants, insects, and larger
mammals, their numbers should be the least, much like the way an owl is in lower
numbers than skunks, which are in lower numbers than grasshoppers, and down to
plants, which must be the most numerous. But as top apex predators occupying the
highest level of the food chain, our forests are converted unsustainably to
cropland at the expense of the forests. Without forests, temperature cannot be
regulated and carbon cannot be absorbed. Essentially, we have turned the food
chain on its head, and the results are deadly.
Karen Shragg, director of the Wood Lake Nature Center in Minnesota, is an
overpopulation activist. She is the author of Move Upstream: A Call to Solve
Overpopulation (Freethought House, 2015).
Issues of often superfluous technology, an offshoot of
scientific “advancement” has become a serious detriment to human flourishing as
addictions proliferate. And what are capitalist and religious dogmas doing to
our planet, both of which consider the earth as merely a vehicle for human
exploitation and plunder? The results have been catastrophic.
The mainstream economics profession, for example, is based on the assumption and
delusionary belief that continual unlimited growth is possible and desirable.
Likewise, most politicians have a predisposition for growth because it makes the
problems they address - unemployment, poverty, diminished tax bases -more
tractable. Instead of having to divide a fixed pie, which gets you in trouble
with some constituents, you can grow the pie so that nobody has to make a
sacrifice or compromise. So there was - and is - a set of vested interests in
the notion of growth. Both market fundamentalists of the neo-liberal model,
including real estate developers, are accelerating our collective demise. The
real estate business is a sham of corruption, lack of democratic oversight and
odious palm greasing at City Hall as the citizens who want to maintain the
quality of their community and neighborhood are totally ignored.
Buying into the growth model only satisfies the myopic appetites of Wall Street
criminals and real estate vultures, creating a huge barrier to getting at the
source of the planet’s countless serious predicaments.
What Gives Overpopulation
By Karen Shragg, Free Inquiry, February/March 2022
Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of the ever-wise
Tom Flynn, who graciously printed so many of my articles over the years on this
topic because he shared my deep concern.
What more can be said about the oppression of overpopulation that I and my
colleagues have not pontificated on for decades? I hope the accompanying cartoon
I commissioned from artist Rah Lee of Singapore can help us to understand what
forces have allowed us to become so outrageously overpopulated in the first
place. What is significant about this illustration is that it dares to point
fingers at the four main reasons we came to gain so many humans so rapidly on
our planet. We must first acknowledge the reasons behind the addition of 5.5
billion people in the most recent 100 years and why we continue to grow by over
80 million per year, despite the pandemic. If we do not take a deep look into
this mirror, we will be unable to untangle ourselves from this unsustainable
Conversations about developed world consumption versus consumption in the
developing world do not help us address the complications of adding over 200,000
people per day to an already bloated planet. Without a doubt, human numbers are
anchored to consumption; this is clear. It is even clearer how richer countries
consume more resources per capita while stealing resources and opportunities
from poorer ones. But sheer numbers also matter, because no matter how low we go
on the energy/food chain, we cannot go low enough when billions share our niche
as apex predators. Many discussions and “aha!” moments need to be had, because
virtually all global discussions leave out the multiplying factor: the menace of
To explore the four legs of what I call “the oppressive iron stool of
overpopulation,” one needs to realize that they all work together to create our
unsustainable numbers. Overpopulation exists because there are more successful
births than deaths in the context of a landscape of limited resources. These
limited resources cannot be expanded with technology. Water is key. It has a
cycle that moves slowly through evaporation, condensation, and percolation. It
is needed by every human on the planet for drinking, cooking, washing, and
processing all energy and manufactured goods. Aquifers and rivers around the
world are certainly climate stressed, and water is also wasted on many
unnecessary projects, but this precious resource is also being reduced due to
the very human need of requiring fresh water to survive.
We continue to suffer from our success at populating every corner of the world
with our species. The world is bearing witness to the systemic failures caused
by the pressure that is put on our biosphere by the demand of billions of us,
but most of us don’t view those failures as connected to the entirety of the
growing modern human enterprise. We are experiencing many urgent problems
simultaneously that can all be traced back to the forces of overpopulation. From
the sixth mass extinction of species to our plastic-filled oceans, from natural
resource scarcity to grinding poverty, overpopulation is rarely tagged for being
the guilty party that it is. It can no longer be denied that it is pulling the
levers of un-sustainability behind a curtain of delusion. Mainstream media has
become an expert at ignoring this issue, often called the elephant in the room.
We must connect the dots so that we can stop spinning our wheels and start
coming up with real solutions that embrace rather than deny our biosphere’s
The Oppressive Iron Stool of Overpopulation
The easiest leg of the oppressive stool to describe is the total fertility rate.
Humans grow exponentially while resources decline, and therein lies the crux of
the problem. Even if a couple has only two children, and they in turn each have
two children, then given good health and no catastrophes, by the third
generation there will be eight added to their family tree. In the same scenario
but with one extra child, the third generation will have twenty-seven
grandchildren. The total fertility rate is affected in various ways by economic
opportunity, culture, infant mortality, access to birth control, and cultural
expectation of desired family size. The average number of children per woman is
a focus of much attention by population groups. They spend their donation
dollars and energy on encouraging small families with efforts to increase access
to birth control and empowerment for women. To coach people to have small
families is a great way out of overpopulation’s oppressive effects on nature and
natural resources. Unfortunately, these efforts are often resisted due to an
overall myopic view that somehow family size is a sacred choice that must be
immune from outside interference. The modern world does not operate with an
ecological worldview in which increases in human numbers result in serious
consequences. Instead, the world as we know it operates from an anthropocentric
vision in which the spread of the human enterprise is considered an overall plus
to our materialistic definition of progress.
The second leg of the stool refers to how the modern world has been successful
in curing diseases, decreasing infant mortality, and increasing crop yields. As
harsh as it seems, we are disturbing nature’s way of keeping us from being too
successful. What would happen if there were an explosion of great horned owls in
our forests? They would run out of mice and experience a die-off. As apex
predators, owls are supposed to be the fewest so that its supporting food chain
of plants, grasshoppers, and skunks can support them. Imagine a village living
sustainably for a thousand years using four wells to fulfill the needs of their
1,000 villagers. When its population grows because of interventions on its
behalf to cure diseases that allows the village to double its population to
2,000, the water in those wells will eventually dry up, forcing the villagers to
dig deeper wells and walk farther to get water. Success in increasing
populations by eliminating causes of death at some point challenges the ability
of the environment, and parenthetically our economies, to adequately support
those increases. We keep sending food to places where people are suffering from
warfare, droughts, and famines only to see the suffering continue when birth
control is not also part of the rescue plan.
The third leg, fossil-fuel–based neo-capitalism, plays an undeniable, deeply
embedded role in keeping our numbers high. We can’t brush our teeth without
using fossil fuel. We can’t heat or cool our homes, eat a meal, or turn on a
computer without using fossil fuel. Relatively cheap and easy to exploit, fossil
fuel has powered our proliferation as a species. It has kept our human-promoting
undertakings growing, from hospitals to transportation to the development of
cheaper ways of bringing food to our tables.
The promotion of so-called green energy sources as a solution fails us as well.
We don’t need green bulldozers; we need fewer bulldozers. Labeling resources
“green” by those who stand to benefit just keeps allowing for the continued
development of the biosphere. The fallacies of using energy-producing solar
panels and wind turbines to prevent the destruction of the planet is well
described in Ozzie Zehner’s book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean
Energy and the Future of Environmentalism (2013). Zehner states:
Environmentalists generally object to battery powered devices and for good
reason: batteries require mined minerals, employ manufacturing processes that
leak toxins into local ecosystems and leave behind an even-worse trail of side
effects upon disposal. Though when it comes to the largest mass-produced battery
powered gadget ever created—the electric car—environmentalists cannot jump from
their seats fast enough to applaud it.
His research was given oxygen when it became a part of Jeff Gibbs 2019
documentary Planet of the Humans.
The fourth leg of growth is the leg referencing a given country’s immigration
policy. It is easy to understand why it is such a touchy topic. In the United
States, we all know, love, and come from immigrants, unless we have only
indigenous ancestry. This has become the most avoided part of the overpopulation
discussion since abortion became wrongly conflated with it years ago.
Immigration, however, has a powerfully direct local connection to
overpopulation. As sensitive as it is, we must recognize its impact on growth.
Immigration is an important leg of the stool, even though it is experienced as a
local overpopulation phenomenon and not connected to increasing the overall
global population like the other legs.
Though overpopulation is a global problem, it is experienced locally. As
American ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out so many years ago, growth happens
locally and must be addressed where each of us lives. In Hardin’s essay, “The
Global Pothole Problem,”1 he told a story that used a metaphor of
potholes. They happen globally, but we must address them in our own
neighborhoods, because that is where the rules are made and enforced.
Immigration also has global climate effects. The more a richer country expands
its population due to immigration, the more resources will be consumed, creating
both pollution and scarcity. Immigration from poor countries to richer ones is a
trend that also increases the total amount of carbon produced as new immigrants
are likely to increase their global footprint upon adopting a more modern
U.S. population growth is mostly due to legal immigration, so encouraging
Americans to have small families is not destined to be a successful strategy
because it is being undermined by waves of new immigrants. If it is so bad, why
is the increase of immigration so consistently promoted? Immigration is
encouraged not only from a social justice perspective of helping the downtrodden
but also and mostly from industries throughout America who are out to increase
their profits by hiring workers who will accept lower wages. Roy Beck clearly
documents this historical reality in his 2021 book Back of the Hiring Line: A
200 Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias and Depression of Black
Wealth. In this game-changing book, Beck has paved the way for more rational
discussions about this leg of overpopulation’s causes. I hope we can move
forward without the constraints of political correctness and see the societal
and environmental benefits of putting caps on immigration.
Population in the United States has continued to grow to its 2021 numbers of
more than 332 million. When our numbers grow, our resources shrink. Open space,
fresh water, and energy are all in higher demand, and none of them is without an
endpoint. What does increase are all the things we dread: traffic, congestion,
crime, pollution, and loss of wildlife. As environmentalist Gary Wockner states
in his 2020 article “It’s Time to Talk about Population Growth”:
Human population growth is either the root cause, or a primary cause, of every
environmental problem we face on the planet, as well as every problem I’ve
worked to address in my career. A short list of the causes I’ve fought for:
protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, fighting fossil-fuel extraction and
climate change, and protecting free-flowing rivers and waterways. All are under
siege by human population growth as either the root cause or a primary factor.
Indeed, the U.S. population continues to grow by 1,700,000 per year or 200 per
hour.2 Much of that growth is now due to immigration. According to
the Pew Research Center, “Looking forward, immigrants and their descendants are
projected to account for 88% of U.S. population growth through 2065, assuming
current immigration trends continue.” In addition to new arrivals, U.S. births
to immigrant parents will be important to future growth in the country’s
population. In 2018, the percentage of women giving birth in the past year was
higher among immigrants (7.5 percent) than among the U.S. born (5.7 percent).3
The wild world is being devastated by overpopulation and its continued
expansion. Extinctions must be addressed locally in each place where they are
threatened. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), over 60 percent of wild
animals are now gone, which has happened in the past forty years. We have added
4.5 billion people in those four decades, and yet in WWF’s Living Planet Report
of 2018, you will be hard pressed to find a word about overpopulation. Shame on
these wildlife advocates for using only euphemisms for human overpopulation with
terms such as “human activity” and “excessive overconsumption.” How can we save
wildlife when we are dishonest about why they are going extinct under our watch?
As I write this, COP (Conference of the Parties) 26 is ending once again without
a plea to deal with overpopulation. I was honored to be at COP 25 in Madrid
Spain in 2019 and speak with two of my fellow activists about overpopulation. I
soon realized how unaccepted this issue remains among the world’s climate
activists. As indicated in the cartoon, all these legs contribute to our
horrific problems of climate change. Our climate is getting measurably hotter,
resulting in more wildfires, stronger storms, and sketchy rainfalls affecting
crop success. To address the frightening fallout of climate change without
addressing overpopulation and the way each individual can’t help but contribute
to the production of greenhouse gases is a lot like trying to sweep up leaves
from a tree that keeps losing them. Yet that is where many of our devoted
scientists and activists remain, acting downstream away from the controversy and
far away from the solutions that have a chance of working to keep the planet
Over the years, I have worked with many people who have each been trying to
reach the captains of spaceship Earth with the message that overpopulation is
the iceberg that will sink us. The earth would be cooler, wildlife less
threatened, our survival less on the line if only we were given a stronger voice
and a courageous audience. I know that it is extremely challenging to focus on
even one leg of this overwhelming stool. Political quicksand surrounds each. It
is a daunting task to remain focused and create messages that people can hear
without taking offense. But in doing so they inadvertently make it seem that
theirs is the solution to the overpopulation predicament. But the truth
is that all these legs form the stool in an interconnected, interwoven way, and
all are responsible for our “success” as a species. It would be ideal if all
population groups—those that work strictly on immigration, those that work only
on fossil-fuel economics, those that work on family planning and total fertility
rate—joined hands to share their expertise and strategize on how best to tame
this beast together. For, if given a multiple-choice quiz about the answers to
alleviating the oppression on our planet by the iron stool of overpopulation,
the answer is D: All of the above.
This article has been adapted from Dr. Shragg’s December 2020 Forum Paper for
Negative Population Growth, Inc. (NPR).
 “Filters Against Folly,” Garrett Hardin, 1985.
 U.S. Census. Accessed January, 2020. census.gov/popclock/world.
 Abby Budiman, “Key Findings about U.S. Immigrants” Fact Tank News in the
Numbers, August 20, 2020.
Back in the early ‘80’s when I still
lived in Jackson Hole, a local reporter asked me who was most responsible
for the global environmental crisis. It was a very general question, so I
gave a very specific answer: “The Pope”, I immediately suggested, citing
overpopulation and his opposition to birth control, abortion and women’s
rights. I stand by that answer still, though I now realize that such
regressive sentiments are shared by the orthodox wings of nearly all
organized religions (in order to avoid offending her readers, the reporter
didn’t publish my response).
It has now been 11 years since I wrote “Wilderness and Overpopulation” (Wilderness
Watch Blog, March 2, 2011). A few readers took vitriolic issue with
that essay, but I stand by it. Since then, the global human population has
grown from about 6.9 to 7.9 billion, now increasing at roughly 75 million
additional hominids each year. In the U.S. during the last 11 years, the
population grew by about 20 million to 333 million today. Twenty million
additional humans is roughly equal to the total populations of New York
State or Florida. And although population growth in the U.S. has recently
stagnated in the wake of Covid, it is likely that without a concerted effort
and policy to stabilize and reduce our population, we’ll be back on track
toward 400 million before long.
I am no demographer. My passion is wilderness and wildlife. Yet I’ve been
alarmed about the growing human hoards since I first read “The
Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich back in the late 1960’s. I am still
alarmed, now more than ever, both because of our still-increasing numbers
and the direct link between population growth and the destruction of
wildlife and wilderness.
The refusal of many on both the political right and left to acknowledge
overpopulation as the root cause of most of our problems also alarms me. Not
just religious zealots but industrialists and right wing politicians all
clamor for unrestrained growth. But many on the left are equally obtuse,
valuing humans above all other life while arguing for reducing consumption
and waste rather
than reducing our collective biomass. We must do both! And the
United States is leader of the pack when it comes to profligate resource
consumption. Yet we avoid action on overpopulation at the peril of losing
what remains wild, natural and beautiful on this planet. As Ed Abbey once
noted, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”.
Human population projections vary, from stabilizing at 9 or 10 billion in a
few decades to continued growth to 12 billion or more by the end of the
century. Yet we destroyed wild nature on a massive scale with “just” 5
billion humans. We destroy it faster now at 7.9 billion, and one can only
shrink in horror at the prospect of 9 or 10 or 12 billion of us chewing up
whatever natural habitats that remain. After all, we are already in the
midst of the Earth’s 6th great
extinction – a human-caused debacle with climate disaster looming as the
potential coup de grace. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution,
over-hunting/fishing and poaching plus the spread of exotic species are the
primary culprits. Today’s extinctions are occurring at about 1,000 times the
pre-civilization background rate of natural extinctions, according to
experts such as the late ecologist E.O. Wilson. And although greed, waste
and inefficiency play a role, overpopulation is the fundamental driving
Viewed from the perspective of animal numbers and biomass, the picture is
even bleaker. According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund and others, in
the 50 years from 1970 to 2020 the Earth’s human population roughly doubled
from 3.7 million to 7.8 billion, while during that time period the number of
wild animals (vertebrates only) on the planet declined by 70 %! And humans
plus their livestock now account for 95% of the total mammal biomass on
Earth! Indeed, human population growth and the destruction of wildlife are
the undeniable cause and effect of ecological disaster. At the local level
or on a global scale, and everything in between, more people nearly always
equals less wildlife and less wildlife habitat.
Many people don’t realize that the destruction of biodiversity isn’t just
about the loss of species and distinct subspecies. Species extinction is the
ultimate manifestation of population growth and associated forms of habitat
destruction. Yet when any natural habitat is logged, mined, drilled, fenced,
roaded, over-grazed, border-walled or converted into strip malls,
subdivisions or cultivated farms, local populations of plant and animal
species bite the dust. As local populations disappear, with them go genetic
traits that might otherwise have proven beneficial, leading to new or better
adapted forms of life. In other words, even if a species is elsewhere
secure, the broad-scale loss of local populations due to expansion of the
human enterprise knee-caps the very process of evolution, the driving force
behind life on Earth. This is a rarely discussed and tragic aspect of the
Fly over our country’s heartland in a window seat and literally for hours
one sees little but cultivated farmlands, literally hundreds of thousands of
square miles where nature has been almost entirely obliterated in order to
feed the ever-expanding mass of humanity. Most of that farmland, by the way,
was once a magnificent expanse of prairie, an ocean of grassy biodiversity
teeming with wild evolving life that in our landscape amnesia, society has
Unmitigated land-eating sprawl (Phoenix, for instance), strip malls, strip
mines, gigantic-scale monocultures, massive areas of deforestation,
livestock-induced desertification, plastic-clogged oceans and waterways,
plugged up rivers (reservoirs), not to mention mind-boggling traffic jams,
overcrowded national parks, wars over territory and resources, even
genocides and more are all related to overpopulation. And then there is the
climate crisis wild card. Human overpopulation is the fundamental driving
force behind nearly all environmental and social ills, yet this travesty
rarely punctures the public discourse.
In the U.S., our public lands are also under siege by various manifestations
of over-crowding including growing armies of destructive off-road vehicle
recreationists. Plus, population growth encourages more resource extraction
on public lands, such as logging, mining, oil drilling, and livestock
grazing, in order to feed, house and transport the growing population. Even
the race to build more wind and solar projects has environmental costs that
are exacerbated by the growing mass of humanity and its needs. And studies
also show that having fewer children is by far the most efficient way to
reduce one’s carbon footprint.
Population growth and development on adjacent lands damage and isolate
Wilderness areas and national parks. As these nature reserves become more
hemmed in by humanity’s ever-expanding footprint, their ability to protect
biodiversity, evolution and natural processes diminishes. If nothing else,
ecologists have taught us that species and populations tend toward
extinction as habitats shrink and become increasingly isolated. That’s due
largely to inbreeding depression, genetic drift and the vulnerability of
small isolated populations to environmental cataclysms such as disease,
wildfire or a volcanic eruption. Isolated national parks and wilderness
areas become “WINO” nature reserves: wild in name only. For example, studies
have documented the copious loss of native species in U.S. national parks
due to varying degrees of isolation. Yellowstone is one exception, still
harboring at least small populations of all known native vertebrates, mainly
due to its size and the large designated wilderness areas that buffer most
of Yellowstone’s boundaries.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. population has grown by about 20 million
during the previous decade. Most of that growth is due to immigration, as
the U.S. birthrate has dropped to near replacement levels (yet many other
countries are still experiencing rapid population growth). This is not
anti-immigrant; it is a simple fact. I am the grandson of Russian
immigrants. One way or another we are all descended from immigrants. Four
demographic factors determine population trends: births, deaths, emigration
and immigration. In order to stabilize and reduce the population of the U.S.
we must limit either births or immigration or some combination of each (or
increase the death rate, which most would agree is not the best option).
Make no mistake, overpopulation is a global problem, and although some
western countries have low birth rates, rapid population growth elsewhere
spills over, like an overflowing water fountain. To stem this global
problem, each nation needs to have policies in place to halt population
growth. Stabilizing and reducing the Earth’s human population is every
nation’s responsibility. Recognizing that immigration is part of the
demographic equation simply acknowledges basic mathematics.
Certainly, recent immigrants are rarely conspicuous consumers. Many of them
immigrate to escape violence and political retribution in their home
countries. We need to make room for political refugees. I am on board with
that. But we cannot simply continue to accommodate more immigrants without
making fewer babies (“carbon bombs”). This is a touchy subject, I know, and
there are no easy answers. But right now a comprehensive U.S. population
policy is completely lacking.
Here in the U.S. more people mean more sprawl, highways, parking lots,
concrete, crowding, plowed farmlands, resource extraction and yahoos tearing
up public land on off-road vehicles (ORV’s). According to a study by Numbers
USA, in a recent 15 year period we lost about 18,000 square miles of
undeveloped lands to sprawl. That is about 11.5 million acres, or the
equivalent of over 5 Yellowstone National Parks! And 67% of that acreage
loss was due entirely to population growth. It makes little difference to
imperiled wildlife whether urban sprawl houses Central American immigrants
or Utah Mormons (Utah has our nation’s highest birth rate).
Many facets of habitat destruction are simply a function of numbers. Look at
India. Or New Jersey. Jam packed with humanity, there simply isn’t much room
for nature. Everyone needs housing, food, plus transportation and associated
infrastructure, no matter how careful they are to consume less and recycle
So yes, of course, overpopulation is global and we in industrial nations
need to consume less and become less wasteful. We need to abandon the use of
fossil fuels. Soon. To halt population growth, good health care and family
planning, including access to birth control and abortion, must be available
to all, everywhere on the planet. Women must become empowered, a tough
challenge in countries ruled by religious fundamentalists. Also, human males
can impregnate females 365 days/year – unlike women who can’t get pregnant
more than once in nine months. Males must take more responsibility for birth
control. In addition, our government should implement foreign policies that
minimize refugees. And tax systems should reward small families and penalize
big ones (Good luck with all of that).
Moreover, economies that rely on perpetual growth are not sustainable.
Economies in the industrialized world are already too big, their national
products too gross. So, we need to re-tool economic systems so that they are
not dependent upon perpetual growth. In college, I nearly flunked Economics
101, so I admit to having no idea how to remove growth dependency from
global economic systems. But the survival of life as we know it on Earth
depends upon doing exactly that. Of course, a by-product of declining
populations would be a welcomed halt to economic growth.
Human nature is a tough nut to crack. I’ve yet to see evidence that we can
get nearly 8 billion humans in sync with everything that needs to be done.
Witness the failure of the Biden Administration to get even its minimal baby
steps toward climate action through Congress.
A word about news-media. It is complicated in this age of social media and
its related deluge of misinformation. Yet we “wild preservatives” (an
Abbeyism) could do a better job educating and cajoling news editors, TV and
radio commentators, reporters, bloggers and others with a forum. Think about
it. How often do we see or hear a news report that discusses population
growth in the context of environmental destruction? Rarely. On rare
occasions when it is mentioned, it is usually in the context of problems
such as traffic jams or human health issues. Typical news is entirely
anthropocentric. Yet as we quibble about the arrangement of the deck chairs,
the Titanic continues full speed ahead, icebergs be damned.
Carrying Capacity is a fundamental ecological concept. Exceed it and your
environment fails to provide life’s necessities. Nature has evolved to keep
species in dynamic balance with their habitats. Extirpate the wolves and the
elk overpopulate. Too many elk gobble up the willow and aspen and therefore
beaver disappear because aspen and willow are their primary food. So the
biologically diverse wetlands that the beavers produced also disappear. Too
many humans gobble up wild nature nearly everywhere on Earth, resulting in
massive documented depletion of wild habitats and life. We humans live an
illusion: we pretend that technological or behavioral fixes allow us to
circumvent nature’s laws. But they do not. The inevitable is here. Has been
for decades. Look around. Less than ten percent of the U.S. south of Alaska
is still in a wild condition. We’ve already destroyed so much, yet we remain
in denial, oblivious to the root cause of nature’s demise: overpopulation.
When you get right down to it, more babies equal less nature, whether those
babies are born in Utah or Columbia or Siberia. The more people, the more
nature bites the dust, in literally every country and habitat, from the
Arctic to the Amazon to the depleted depths of the oceans.
We cannot recycle our way out of this mess, and buying an electric car won’t
counter the annual loss of millions of wild acres due to human expansionism.
Scientists estimate that there are somewhere between 10 and 30 million
species of multi-celled organisms on Earth, while just one species now
dominates essentially every corner of the planet. That’d be us. We are
already severely overpopulated. The 6th Extinction
is proof. So is a drive through Denver – or most any other gigantic growing
mass of over-crowded urban humanity. Although this is subjective, I suspect
that the true carrying capacity for humans on Earth is closer to 2 or 3
billion, rather than today’s 7.9 billion.
So yes, be sure to recycle. Buy an electric car. Eat less meat. Work to
elect politicians who will promote wild wilderness and renewable “green”
energy. Install solar panels on your roof. But also limit reproduction and
help to bring the population conundrum into the public debate. Accept no
excuses from governments, industrialists, news editors, religious fanatics,
anthropocentric humanists or anyone on either side of the political divide.
Because ultimately, even the Pope requires a habitable planet, despite the
widespread myopic illusion that growth has no limits, a philosophy that
viewed rationally is absolutely utterly and patently insane.