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Opinion: Overpopulation is the Wrong Focus For Environmentalists

3p Contributor | Sunday July 11th, 2010 | 15 Comments

By: Fred Pearce

A green myth is on the march.  It wants to blame the world’s over-breeding poor people for the planet’s peril.  It stinks.  And on World Population Day, I encourage fellow environmentalists not to be seduced.

The actor Jeremy Irons has announced that he plans to make an Al-Gore style movie about the population problem.  The screen idol with a social conscience — who famously has seven homes and a pink castle in Ireland – says his inconvenient truth is that “there are just too many of us”.

Overpopulation is driving global warming, mass starvation and accumulating pollution, making the planet uninhabitable.  Irons thinks a new plague, like the Black Death 700 years ago, is going to be nature’s way of solving the problem.

He is far from alone in thinking that all efforts to save the world are doomed unless we “do something” about continuing population growth.  But this is nonsense.  Worse, it is dangerous nonsense.

For a start, the population bomb that I remembering being scared by forty years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast.  Back then, most women round the world had five or six children.  Today’s women have just half as many as their mothers – an average of 2.6.

Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere.

This is getting close to the long-term replacement level which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3.   Women are doing cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to, but for their own good, the good of their families — and, if it helps the planet too, then so much the better.

This is a stunning change in just one generation.  Why don’t we hear more about it?  Because it doesn’t fit the doomsday agenda.

Half the world now has fewer than the “replacement level” of children.  That includes Europe, North America and the Caribbean, most of the Far East from Japan to Thailand, and much of the middle east from Algeria to Iran.

Yes, Iran.  Women in Teheran today have fewer children than their sisters in New York – and a quarter as many as their mothers had.  The mullahs may not like it, but those guys don’t count for much in the bedroom.

And China.  There, the communist government decides how many children couples can have.  The one-child policy is brutal and repulsive.  But the odd thing is that it may not make much difference any more.  Chinese women round the world have gone the same way without compulsion.  When Britain finally handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it had the lowest fertility in the world — below one child per woman.

Britain wasn’t running a covert one-child policy.  That has many children Chinese women in Hong Kong wanted.

What is going on?  Family planning experts used to say that women only started having fewer children when they got educated or escaped poverty. Like us.  But tell that to the women of Bangladesh.

Recently I met Aisha, Miriam and Akhi – three women from three families working in a backstreet sweatshop in the capital Dhaka.  Together, they had 22 brothers and sisters.  But they told me they planned to have only six children between them.  That was the global reproductive revolution summed up in one shack.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest nations.  Its girls are among the least educated in the world, and mostly marry in their mid-teens. Yet they have on average just three children now.

India is even lower at 2.8.  In Brazil, hotbed of Catholicism, most women have two children.  And nothing the priests say can stop millions of them getting sterilised.  The local joke is that they prefer being sterilised to other methods of contraception because you only have to confess once. It may not be a joke.

Women are having smaller families because, for the first time in history, they can.  Because we have largely eradicated the diseases that used to mean most children died before growing up.  Mothers no longer need to have five or six children to ensure the next generation.  So they do not.

There are holdouts, of course.  In parts of rural Africa, women still have five or more children.  But even here they are being rational.  They need the kids to mind the animals and work in the fields.

But most of the world now lives in cities.  And in cities children are an economic burden.  You have to get them educated before they can get a job.  And by then they are ready to leave home.

The big story is that rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic, secular or devout, with tough government birth control policies or none, most countries tell the same story.  Small families are the new norm.

That doesn’t mean women don’t still need help to achieve their ambitions of small families.  They need governments or charities to distribute modern contraception.  But this is now about rights for women not “population control”.

It is also true that population growth has not ceased yet.  We have 6.8 billion people today, and may end up with another two billion before the population bomb is finally defused.  But this is mainly because of a time-lag while the huge numbers of young women born during the baby boom years of the 20th century remain fertile.

With half the world already at below replacement birth rates, and with those rates still falling fast, the world’s population will probably be shrinking within a generation.

This is good news for the environment, for sure.  But don’t put out the flags.  Because another myth put out by the population doom-mongers is that it is all those extra people that our wrecking the planet.  It isn’t, Mr Irons.  Not any more.

Rising consumption today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head-count.  And most of that extra consumption is still happening in rich countries that have long since given up growing their populations.

Virtually all of the remaining population growth is in the poor world, and the poor half of the planet is only responsible for 7 per cent of carbon emissions.

The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 40 Nigerians or 250 Ethiopians.   How dare rich-world greens blame the poor world for the planet’s perils.  How dare a man with seven homes point the finger at poor over-breeders.

Some greens need to take a long hard look at themselves.  They should remember where some of their ideas came from.

The grand-daddy of demographic doomsters was Bob Malthus, an English clergyman who got famous by warning 200 years ago about population growth.  Like Irons today, he believed that the world’s population would keep increasing till it was cut down by disease or famine.

Irons is a Malthusian.  But he would be horrified to learn that back in the ferment of the industrial revolution, his hero was a favourite of the evil mill owners and a scourge on anyone with a social conscience.

Malthus hated Victorian charities because he said they were keeping poor people alive to breed.  Better that they die, he said.  He believed the workhouses, where the destitute ended up, were too lenient and successfully campaigned for a get-tough law known at the time as Malthus’s Law.

The novelist Charles Dickens, a social reformer, attacked Malthus in several of his books.  When Oliver Twist asked for more gruel in the workhouse, that was a satire on Malthus’s Law.   In Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was a caricature of Malthus.  In Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind, the unfeeling headmaster of Coketown, had a son called Malthus.

I think Karl Marx, another contemporary, was spot on when he called Malthusian ideas “a libel on the human race”.  And we are seeing the truth of that today as, round the world, women are voluntarily cutting their family sizes.    No compulsion needed.

The population bomb is being defused right now — by the world’s poor women.  Sadly, the consumption bomb is still primed and ever more dangerous.  Now that would be a proper target for Mr Seven Houses.

Fred Pearce is author of The Coming Population: Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future (Beacon Press, 2010)


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  • Bugmenot

    Rising consumption AND rising population BOTH combine to increase humanity's damaging effects on the biosphere. It's ignorant to declare that one of these two essential factors can be safely ignored. If population growth appears to be slowing, it is because people are working towards this end. The decline in growth is deliberate and difficult to achieve, it is not accidental. Those who clamor against population awareness work towards reversing this trend for the worse.

  • nickaster

    Well… hold your horses here. As Bugmenot says above, it is the combination of factors that is the problem. Population grown is a tremendous problem and we're likely to see 12 BIllion before things stabilize (So I've read) – and that's assuming we do things right. That many people is going to create enormous problems whether they're in poverty or not.

    The answer is not to happily ignore this issue. The answer is to continue to ensure that sustainable economic growth finds its way to the poorest countries and, possibly more importantly, that women have access to education and their own economic opportunities, not to mention available birth control.

    Those thing will stabilize population, and that's the easy part. The hard part is finding a way to deal with consumption. A book written on that topic would probably be a lot more useful!

  • M-A

    I completely agree with Bugmenot and nickaster above, and must admit I was rather appalled by the wording of the article by Mr Pearce. We cannot simply focus on problems related to overconsumption and lay the blame just on rich countries. The middle class is rising in many transitional economies where the population size is still growing, and where environmental laws are either non-existent or not applied. Think of Indonesia for example. Meanwhile, according to the UN, feeding the world's expanding population will increase water demand 70-90% by 2050 without improved agricultural methods. So can we just ignore population control?

  • Stace

    I think it's great to have different opinions and perspectives on 3p, but this is a terribly written article. Is the whole book like this? Or is this just one of those “attention grabbing” books that will sell a lot of copies just based on causing controversy? Does this guy really think we can just sit back and ignore population grown, especially where the problem is at it's worst? In the poorest countries in Africa, the birth rate is still over 7 per woman. Granted it's going down, but it's still a massive problem that needs attention.

    Pearce is right that population growth is slowing, and we should celebrate that fact, and learn to work economic models that can thrive even when population doesn't. But there's something really weird and blase about the way this piece is worded that seems really out of place… I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems awfully dismissive of real problems!

  • guest!

    I must say, he is quite the ranter.

  • RP Siegel

    Sustainability is mostly about humans consuming resources and disposing of wastes at a rate that is no more than what nature can comfortably handle. So of course the number of us matters. If there were only a million people spread across the whole planet, they could do pretty much whatever they wanted to with little impact on the planet's ability to support life (local impacts notwithstanding). The reason that there are so many of us, is technology, driven by fossil fuels, which has enabled enormous increases in food production and health care, the two biggest contributors. These are indisputable facts. The question of how to address our current situation, quickly devolves into opinion, especially when it comes to population. It's easy to point fingers at developing countries and say that they should curb their populations when, in fact we are the ones making the biggest impact. The US, with 5% of world population is responsible for somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of global warming emission. Furthermore, as Donella Meadows pointed out 30 years ago in Limits to Growth, as standard of living goes up in poor areas, birth rate goes down, primarily due to women becoming educated. So the correct approach is to reduce per capita consumption in the developed world, while improving standard of living in developing ones. In order to make this work, we need to redefine what standard of living is, transforming it from the accumulation of material goods to an increased sense of meaningful connectedness within and between communities in a world of people living in peace and harmony among themselves and with the natural world.

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  • http://twitter.com/rolivier79 rolivier79

    I agree that there are a lot of poor people starting to have less children, but there are also a lot more poor people. There are still 2 billion poor today that have 5-6 children as there were in the 1960's. The difference is that world population was around 3 billion in 1960 and today it's at 6 billion. So what about the extra 3 billion people in those 50 years? They are in the demographic being described in this article that have brought the percentages down. They do not have 5-6 children, but they are also not as poor as the 2 billion that still has 5-6 children. We still haven't found a means of curtailing child growth with the poorest 2 billion.

    . Hans Rosling has a great demo

    http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_on_global

  • Ross Crouse

    Mr. pearce is simply wrong. It doesn't matter if the rate of population growth is decreasing; the total is still rising exponentially. We are predicted to go to ten billion in 35 years. The Planet is finite and the consumption of resources (regardless of location) will see exponentially decreasing amounts of resources, increasing stresses on societies, regardless of location of those societies. Political vote-netting will see immigration continue, as the disbursement of people from crowded nations spreads the global population to developed countries, and illegal migrations will continue.
    We will kill ourselves collectively as we continue to propagate ourrselves individually, in mental isolation from the well-being of the larger global human population. It is the cumulative environmental impact caused by an exponential increase in human numbers, that will doom humanity.
    As well as ever-incre4asing shortages of all resources, there is the loss of habitat of plants and animals that human beings depend upon.
    Fred Pearce is totally wrong. Ignore him.

  • SeaKat

    Right off the bat his 1st paragraph is wrong – it's not just the poor people that need to stop procreating it is ALL people. That sorta makes the rest of his article meaningless.

  • ProfBob

    I find in reading those sites that say that population problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series “In Search of Utopia” (http://andgulliverreturns.info), it blasts their lack of evidence relative to their calling overpopulation a myth. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half.
    The outdated fertility replacement rate of 2.1 is also clarified.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_L75MJEQOQJZS4RQ6KXLKMOBXNU Ewout

    We are already at 6 billion. That is too much for the earth to support – think about dropping ground water levels, depleted fossil fuel reserves, encroaching deserts etc etc. And in many African and middel eastern countries, populations still grow at rates > 2% per annum.
    Even if we manage to stabilise at the current level, we cannot sustain that. Fred Pearce is way too optimistic. I do not condone his blaming of Jeremy Irons as being a being an irresponsible Malthusian.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/YOB7O67622I3J3H6AUJ4Z7ELNU Alan

    People like to point out that Americans have a high per capita carbon foot print. While true, the comparison is sort of a straw man. Carbon footprint should be looked at in terms of GDP. Yes, Americans have a high per capita footprint because Americans are nearly a quarter of the world's economy. From this perspective, our “per GDP” footprint is in line with the rest of the world. Now I'm not saying that Americans should not conserve — of course we should. Americans should conserve, reduce, recycle, and invest in energy efficiency, clean energy, and waste reduction. Conservation would benefit us (we would be healthier more efficient people) as well as the world. But let's not be disingenuous and claim that our carbon footprint is way out of line, because, economically speaking, its not.

  • http://myspace.com/timbravo Tim Bravo

    I'm not understanding where you think warning about overpopulation is dangerous. We're not GOING to be overpopulated, we ARE overpopulated. We ARE taxing the planet and her resources. Have been. Increasing awareness is essential to decreasing population by choice.

  • orsak

    There are so many things wrong with this article I don’t know where to start – and I’m too tired. Suffice to say that overpopulation is absoulutely the most important problem facing society today, period. While it is true that some countries have experience lower birth rates, other countries have continued to grow and it matters not when at a minimum we’ll be replacing and already overpopulated planet with the same number of people. I’ve spent my entire academic life and professional career trying to better understand the wonder of our planet and conserve our natural resources. I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you that we are are causing irreversible harm to the earth’s ecosystem. From traffic, to pollution, crime, poverty, habitat loss, overfishing, and the list goes on and on; they all come back to too many people. There are many things I don’t know, but I know overpopulation is a very real threat, and in my opinion the greatest threat facing mankind.

  • Shari Long

    I know I am late coming to this discussion, but what Mr. Pearce also misses is that not only are women still producing, regardless of the fact that by the time their children are of adult age there very well may be NO WORK or means of support for those children. They will be forced into poverty as their parents sure aren’t going to be able to support them. And, not to be cruel, because I am 50, but our older people are living MUCH longer. It used to be that there was always some sort of population readjustment via death. But that is not happening. Which also explains the depletion of our social security safety net. Almost all of the money I have paid in to for SS will be utilized by those who retired before me. I may not have a nickel to my name when it comes to my time. And my 401K is now virtually non existent (thank you Wall Street)