What if there were far too many people, but no one had the courage to talk about it?

November 30, 2008 | By | 73 Replies More

What if there were far too many people living on planet Earth, but no one had the courage to talk about it?

According to Global Population Speak Out, that is exactly our situation.

Consider that we repeatedly see news reports about scarce and dwindling resources (e.g., water, food, fish, fuel, topsoil), but these news reports rarely consider the exploding population on Earth as a major contributor to these problems.   This refusal to consider the carrying capacity of Earth is truly staggering.  As a thought experiment, consider how our “environmental” issues would be altered if each country had 25% fewer people than it currently does.  Or 50%.  Instead, we the human population of earth is at 6.5 billion, headed toward at least 9 billion by 2050.

When it comes to discussing sex, reproduction and birth control, we freeze up, even when out-of-control population growth threatens our way of life.   Why don’t we discuss this important issue of overpopulation?  We’re afraid that the conversation would get out of control and we’d insult each other.  Therefore, we choose silence, thus continuing on our path to horrific environmental decay that is ruining our standard of living.

GPSO has a plan for dealing with our collective reluctance to discuss this critically important issue. The trick is that we all need to jump in at once to draw attention away from the vast number of trivial stories that currently swamping our “news.” Many prominent scientists and other people of prominence have already made their pledges.  I sent in my pledge today and so can you.  GPSO also offers templates for letters to the editor and blog content.

Here is the recent GPSO press release:

Scientists from around the world have pledged to speak out publicly in February, 2009 on the problem of the size and growth of the human population. Speaking out as well will be environmental and science writers, social activists, and representatives of environmental groups. The event, called the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO), aims to weaken a decades-long taboo against open discussion of population issues.

So far, GPSO has received pledges from scientists and others in 16 countries, all agreeing to speak out during February. Many will do so through the print media. Others are planning interviews, talks, and conferences.

Endorsers of the project include, Stanford University scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel, and co-author of The Limits to Growth Dennis Meadows.

Those pledging to speak out include botanist and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Peter Raven, Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, University of Delhi professor of community medicine Jugal Kishore, University of Tehran environmental scientist M. F. Makhdoum, and social activists Jerry Mander and Harvey Wasserman.

One of the project’s endorsers, Ohio State University anthropologist Jeffrey McKee, said, “If you look at the key issues and goals of our time — economic prosperity, clean water, sustainable energy, and biodiversity survival — they all have a common denominator. They all point to the need immediately and responsibly to stem the growth of the human population, and to return our population size to sustainable limits.”

But, said environmental writer and GPSO organizer John Feeney, “Despite its central role in nearly every environmental problem, many have for years viewed the population topic as politically unpopular. In fact, despite the urgent need for solutions, it’s become taboo to state publicly that population growth must be humanely stabilized and reversed.”

He added, “Environmental groups have been reluctant to talk about it because they know it will trigger criticism and may compromise funding. Scientists have hesitated too, knowing any mention of population is sure to stir controversy.”

GPSO is designed to make it easier for participants to raise the issue by bringing together a collection of voices so participants know they are not alone in speaking out.

The project grew out of a simple idea, said Feeney. “We wondered, what if a large number of qualified voices worldwide, many of whom might not have emphasized the topic previously, were to speak out on population all at once? With any luck it will nudge the subject closer to the center of public discourse.”

Another goal of the event, said Feeney, is to bring new voices to the population issue. “This is a matter of profound importance. There are experts, such as the Ehrlichs, who address it regularly. But we need many more voices. We hope GPSO might help bring a few to the world’s attention. Our hope is that after February it will be a little easier to talk about population and there will be more people doing just that.”

Consider, further, this link to Miniature Earth.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Energy, Environment, Food, global warming, Politics, Reproductive Rights, Sex, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (73)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Worse than limiting children, we have a government that rewards larger families via tax deductions and welfare rules.

    Oh my godding kcuf. Here we are at that favorite bogey monster, the welfare mother.

    Dan, do you have any clue how the income-based child benefits in this country stack up against the extremely generous child benefit packages in the Scandinavian countries or Germany? How do their birth rates compare with ours? Do you seriously think people have more children to get the child tax credit?

    Monbiot writes:

    Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenicists warned that white [substitute smart here, Grumpy] people would be outbred. In rich nations in the 1970s the issue was over-emphasised, as it is the one environmental problem for which poor nations are largely to blame.

    This time the conversation will be different, honest!

    Erich: I read the article you linked to by Feeney Growth is Madness

    He writes:

    … we need to get our factors and products straight and realize both population and per person consumption require our complete attention.

    I agree with this completely.

    Back to the social justice issue. The US could be a leader in supporting women's reproductive rights worldwide. A new administration promises some hope, but our moral authority is considerably diminished by this wretched crime of a war over controlling the oil we need to fuel our wasteful habits.

  2. Vicki writes:—"Mark, yes we have left the realm of reasonable conversation if you think appropriate technology is a slippery slope to squatting in a mud hut cooking over a wood fire."

    I don't, but I wanted to push the point to an extreme. Who gets to determine "appropriate"?

    "Go ahead and cling to your 20th century mindset, I’m sure you’ll find that living in a car-centric city is just dandy when you get too old to drive."

    You have a Thing about cars. Tell me, if I lived alone, would it be okay with you if I had a car? If so, then the fact that my wife and I have totally separate daily responsibilities requiring one for each of us doesn't count? Hmm.

    (An absurd point, perhaps, but there are lots of people who if forced to ride bikes now would likely kill themselves doing it. Just so you know.)

    "I think you’ve made your response to “humanity’s greatest crisis” quite clear, thanks."

    You're welcome.

    "And I think we’ve also made clear what the real taboo subject is here."

    No taboo subjects at all, at least not as far as I'm concerned. You can berate me all you want for living in a two-car house, as long as I can berate you for reproducing. I think it's awful that I require a personal vehicle. I would like to work at home, so I don't have to go to a Job elsewhere. I've worked very hard to do that. But I haven't managed it yet.

    The thing that irritates me, I think, is your implicit assumption that everyone's circumstances are somehow equal, or should be. That my life, which you know nothing about, should be open to a calculus based on your assumptions about what the Greatest Crisis not only is but how it must be addressed.

    My argument with the young woman which seems to have set you off was an argument about choices, because she was in fact of a mind that abortion is absolutely wrong under all circumstances, that there could be no moral circumstance under which it was acceptable. For me, it's all about choice. In everything. Without it, I see no point in having any kind of civilization. Having said that, no one can arbitrarily start dictating the nature of those choices for others, so I'm with you on the justice issue as far as it goes.

    So if the carbon footprint of a household is X with one car or two, what difference does it make if in getting rid of one the footprint remains at the same level, but the quality of life (a choice) is diminished? See, you completely missed that little bit.

    As for single-handedly changing the entire governmental accountability structure in our community so we can meet your criteria for Sustainable … nice idea. I'm still trying to get to the point where I can work at home. We all do what we can. If some of us don't do what you think is acceptable, well, that's not your place. Is it?

  3. Vicki Baker says:

    The thing that irritates me, I think, is your implicit assumption that everyone’s circumstances are somehow equal, or should be. That my life, which you know nothing about, should be open to a calculus based on your assumptions about what the Greatest Crisis not only is but how it must be addressed.

    Mark, I though we were having a discussion about how to address the issues raised by the Global Population Speak Out – how population growth and per peson consumption are threatening an ecological crisis. What irritates me is that you assume that you think your choices, and the collective choices of your community to engage in unchecked sprawl and other harmful practices, should not be part of this discussion. Not your choices per se, just the attitude that you get more of the pie because… well, just because. I could have picked some other example than driving, but it's I'm most familiar with the resource use and impact issues there. I question the idea that a society where everyone "needs" a personal weapon of mass extinction is really that sane.

    You can berate me all you want for living in a two-car house, as long as I can berate you for reproducing.

    Do you feel a need to do that? Go ahead. I promise I won't go all pageant mom on you. I'm really curious as to what it would look like. I do know something about how you're contributing to global warming and resource depletion given the mileage you rack up, but what, really, do you know about me and my family life?

  4. Vicki writes:—"What irritates me is that you assume that you think your choices, and the collective choices of your community to engage in unchecked sprawl and other harmful practices, should not be part of this discussion."

    I don't feel that way. But we each get to deal with what we can as best we can.

    —"Do you feel a need to do that? Go ahead."

    I don't. But you seem to feel the need to put my choices under a magnifying glass.

    —"do know something about how you’re contributing to global warming and resource depletion given the mileage you rack up, but what, really, do you know about me and my family life?"

    Nothing but what you've posted here. Just as you know nothing about my situation other than what I've put here. Yet you've decided what is or is not discussable, what my attitudes are or are not, largely, it appears, based on the fact that we have two cars.


  5. lisarokusek says:

    Wow, a really spirited discussion, and more than slightly cranky but still smart. I love this group. But damn, you walk a away for a bit and all heck breaks out…

    Vicki: My social justice focus might have been oblique in my first comment on this topic because I was focusing on the knee jerk reaction so many people had when I brought up the topic of population growth. In a lot of test conversations people got downright offended at the thought that we as individuals don't have the right to procreate. It seemed to be tied up with separating us from the animals. People seemed to unable to separate uncontrolled reproduction from innate humanness. One guy said talking about population control was sick because it made him feel like humans were animals – it negated the human mind. I found that thinking fascinating, and very alien to me. I have no problem thinking of myself as an animal.

    To me, acknowledging the population problem as a planet comes first, then we, as a planet, as a whole, must fight our many biases – geography, development, racism, sexism, and various xenophobias to figure out a solution that is just for all and takes into account the good of the whole while not exploiting a few. Thats the challenge.

    I am aware of my privilege as a (comparably) rich white female with a technology fetish and am painfully aware that my footprint is not nearly as balanced as it ought to be. We also own 2 vehicles, though I rarely drive because I am fortunate enough to work from home. I don't ride my trike to the grocery, though, and that is a wasteful thing. I own that wastefulness and am working on it, but my wastefulness doesn't mean I don't have otehr things of value that I am doing.

    I do think that it is important to heighten awareness of the many facets of exploitation and privilege that create the foundation of our civilization and economy and society, but am not sure it is helpful to do it with a baseball bat. I don't know the answer here, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a good thing. Rich people can do good things, white people can discuss racism, straight people are not evil and those of us fortunate to be born in areas of the globe that have QuikTrips and escalators and electricity (with or without penii and/or children) can and perhaps must discuss the direction our planet takes regarding sustainability but must not do it in a vacuum without other cultures countries and lifestyles.

    I still think population growth is of concern even while I am also aware that my privilege and lifestyle has been created on the backs and with the blood of less fortunate people, many of whom have to have a number of children just to have one live to keep them alive when they are too old to work.

    I think that the points Vicki raises are important, and agree that social justice awareness is an essential point from which the discussion must flow, but am equally interested in the widespread human need to see ourselves as special, as set apart from the rest of the planet as a non animal…and an example of that is the reaction I encountered to discussions about population growth and balance.

    Clearly some of this comes from the "be fruitful and multiply" and "humans are in charge of the earth" rhetoric present in various religions, but these were not religious people, though they seemed to cling to that prejudice.

    That may be why I focused on that particular point in my first comment, but please don't think that because of that focus social justice is not on my mind. I do think, though, that if we as a planet do not deal with this reality many personal freedoms and preferences (not just unlimited reproduction) will disappear. We simply have to look at sustainability as a planet, not just as a country, or a continent or an individual choice.

    Eventually, because we are not separate from the ecosystem, the choices will be made for us. If we leave it to chance with no discussion at all then the people without privilege will suffer the most, which would be business as usual.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm cross-posting this headline because it's good fodder for discussion for at least two posts. From today’s headlines: “Arkansas family welcomes 18th child, a girl”

    ROGERS, Ark. – An Arkansas woman has given birth to her 18th child. Michelle Duggar delivered the baby girl by Caesarean section Thursday at Mercy Medical Center in Rogers. The baby, named Jordyn-Grace Makiya Duggar, weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces and was 20 inches long.

    “The ultimate Christmas gift from God,” said Jim Bob Duggar, the father of the 18 children. “She’s just absolutely beautiful, like her mom and her sisters.”

    The Duggars now have 10 sons and eight daughters.


  7. Vicki Baker says:

    I'm not really (that much of a) bike Nazi in real life, but I admit it's fun to see people act as if you've threatened the very foundations of civilization by suggesting it's kinda weird to think it's normal to need a gallon of gas just to get through the day… It's a sick selfish pleasure I know. I took Mark's story about making his friend cry as a license to needle him.

    Obviously, we are all deeply implicated in all kinds of horrible things, not least this war of blood for oil.

    LIsa writes:

    "people got downright offended at the thought that we as individuals don’t have the right to procreate"

    Actually, the right to reproductive freedom is currently defined as a human right.

    Do we need to revisit the accords worked out around the issue of reproductive health and human rights since the '70s, when Ehrlich was talking about population control and Gandhi's forcibly sterilized poor Indians? Or should we work to implement the Cairo and Beijing accords?

    Jane Goodall has it right in the video I posted earlier: no one likes to be controlled. And as she also points out, the poorer cultures most demonized in this debate are well able to grasp the concept of living within limits, unlike richer countries who can write checks on other people's resources due to their economic and military power. As in the example of Thailand, societies can turn on a demographic dime in the right circumstances. I doubt there's that amount of flexibility in our economic structures, which is why I feel the need to challenge them quite strenuously.

    Re: population "control" and treating people as animals.

    Through my work with immigrants and at-risk youth, I've seen first-hand the kind of demonization that goes on. And the first place people go is to compare the unwanted fertility of other groups as animal-like. Once I was accompanying a young pregnant Cambodian woman to some official appointment or other and had the charming experience of hearing the social worker remark to me "These people breed like rats," thinking the woman could not understand. And of course, the animal-ness of pregnancy and birth and small incontinent humans really freaks some people out.

    Also, think how we "control" animal populations.

    The fact is, we are human animals, and we can imagine the consequences of our actions and make choices. I think that's a better framework for this discussion, rather than "control".

  8. Vicki Baker says:

    Re: the Duggars – they are apparently Chrisian Dominionists and followers of the Quiverfull movement. This isn't about cuddly babies, it's about raising warriors for God, and they are quite open about it. The children themselves are objects to be controlled and manipulated, often with the help of BIbilically based baby beating manuals. It's a Gitmo approach to parenting with techniques like "blanket training," which basically means training a child to stay on a blanket no matter what by placing toys out of reach, and then swatting the baby when s/he crawls off the blanket toward the toy.

    In fact, the family values crowd like James Dobson will often compare children to animals and stress the need to punish, control, and hit them.

  9. We are not "just animals"! If that was the case we would neuter and spay all those who don't deserve to procreate. We do the same thing with our pets. Overpopulation problem resolved.

    There are a couple of authors on this blog who insist that human beings are "just animals". This is true in some sense, we derive from animals, there are still mechanisms hardwired into our brain that turn us into animals when the right environmental triggers sets in, but we also have things like culture and ethics and these make everything a little bit different.

    And by the way, I'm not even sure if taking away a pet's ability to procreate to be ethical.

    Vicki is right, you can't have an x-time higher consumption of resources and then criticize others for straining the Earth's capacity by having children.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Proj: I don't remember ever claiming that we are "just animals." Are you suggesting that writers on this site are suggesting that humans deserve no better fate than mice, so we can poison them and trap them whenever humans bother us? You will not find ANY suggestion of that by me. I'm betting that you will never find any authors of this site suggesting that we are "just animals," using that phrase.

    Far to the contrary. I have often argued the indisputable fact that humans are animals. Do you disagree? I've also argued that we are extraordinary animals. As animals, we are embedded into our earthen environments, not spirits gliding over the surface of the Earth. I've long argued that humans are best understood from that starting point that we are animals. To fail to do that leads to much confusion and mischief.

    As animals, humans are "bodies," not "mere bodies." And by "bodies," I mean this.

    That we are animals (again, this is indisputable that we are animals) doesn't mean that there is no such thing as morality and that people can do whatever the hell they want to each other. It is a huge and unsubstantiated fallacy to make such an argument that because humans are "animals" that nothing matters and that anything goes. Because we are the extraordinary sorts of animals that we are, we are guided by "moral imagination" of the type suggested by Mark Johnson, in his book, "Moral Imagination." I plan to be writing more on this topic in future posts.

  11. Erich, this is what Lisa wrote

    In a lot of test conversations people got downright offended at the thought that we as individuals don’t have the right to procreate. It seemed to be tied up with separating us from the animals.

    I interpret this as human beings not having an innate right to procreate since they are not much more than animals.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's the poster-boy for the need to discuss population control: a now-famous 13-year old dad who doesn't have a clue about raising a child.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    This week, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), of which Mr Porrit is a patron, launched its "Stop at Two" online pledge to encourage couples to limit their family's size. If you polled mums and asked them for 10 reasons why they would not want more children the list would include money, sleepless nights and the strain on relationships

    Mr Porritt said earlier this month: "I think we will work our way towards a position that says having more than two children is irresponsible."


  14. Erich Vieth says:

    Here are the results of the GPSO (Global Population Speak Out). http://gpso.wordpress.com/pledgers-efforts/

    As you can see, there was a phenomenal response. I haven't yet visited any of these sites, but I plan to. This is too important an issue to fail to discuss it as responsible adults.

  15. Bob says:

    This reeks of Eugenics. Lets start exploring space instead of thinking of ways to kill us off.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thowing the word "eugenics" into the conversation is a way to kill the conversation, sidestepping the need to determine the carrying capacity of the Earth. This is all backwards, in my opinion. Let's set aside what we're going to do about the problem, if there is one, just for a moment. Let's first determine whether there IS a problem. Too many people shout "eugenics" because they lack the courage to determine whether there is a problem with overpopulation. In my opinion, they do this because they fear that there's no palatable solution.

      Again, the point of my post is that we should first determine whether there is a problem with overpopulation. The way that humans are savaging the Earth's resources and destroying biodiversity strongly suggest that there is a huge problem. Can we even have this discussion? Apparently not.

  16. Michael says:

    Your point is well taken, in fact here is a short list of rights.

    The Right to carry a concealed gun, requires a permit.

    The Right to drive a car, requires a license.

    The Right to cut another persons hair in exchange for money, requires a license.

    The Right to run a daycare or school, requires a certification and license.

    The Right to get married requires a class, blood test, and license.

    The Right to have as many kids as you possibly can, requires NO LICENSE. Why isn't there a license required for procreation? What is a fit parent?

    It's even worse than just over population. The amount of children in a family is usually inversely proportional to the intelligence of the parents and their ability to properly provide for and raise the children.

  17. Bob,

    While my sentiments lie in the direction of your suggestion (by all means, let us find another place, off the Earth, to live), the fact is the energy requirement to tranship enough people off the Earth to make any kind of a dent in the population pressure is, literally, astronomical. We'll make colonies, but the costs of moving billions of individuals off the Earth, and all the required work on the environment to which we'd be moving them to make it viable, beggars the imagination.

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    From NPQ:

    [T]he slum population constitutes a staggering 78.2 percent of the urban population in less-developed countries—fully a third of the global urban population.

    Not only are today's slums larger than in the 19th century, but they are more dense. Though they are low-rise structures, the square footage is tiny with a lot of people living in each shack. They are built haphazardly along narrow footpaths, not the broad grids of the inner city. A small fire can spread to destroy 1,000 units of housing in 15-20 minutes. Infectious diseases travel rapidly in such an environment.

    Slums as contiguous swaths of settlement are largest in Latin America—the largest being on the southeastern edges of Mexico City.


  19. Erich Vieth says:

    From the Independent:

    Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, and Professor John Guillebaud, vented their frustration yesterday at the fact that overpopulation had fallen off the agenda of the many organisations dedicated to saving the planet.

    The scientists said dealing with the burgeoning human population of the planet was vital if real progress was to be made on the other enormous problems facing the world.

    "It is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about" Professor Guillebaud said. "Unless we reduce the human population humanely through family planning, nature will do it for us through violence, epidemics or starvation."


  20. donna says:

    The biggest pusher of overpopulation is religion. Many religions stopgap any birth control, even the late great GWBush promoted abstinence only birth control because of his religion. I read an article today that said the administrations policy created a flood of births in Africa. The Catholic church is completely against birth control, there goes all of South America and half of Europe. What do you do about that? Here is a huge population that depends on their church doctrine to deliver their life path. If that life path says "Women, you have not the right to regulate the number of births you have, due to the Almighty God", how do you fight it? They will fight you to recognize the right to have as many children as their poor worn out bodies can suffer, or their land, or the world, because of their religion. God Bless.

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