Starting to Talk About Population

How does population affect the environment? It can be a hard subject to talk about, but here are some resources to help learn about the issues and start conversations.
By Megan Phelps
Sept. 23, 2008
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Our global community is growing all the time. The Earth is now home to 6.7 billion people, and the question is looming: Just how many of us can the planet support?
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In many discussions about the environment, population growth is the last thing anyone wants to talk about. For one thing, family size is a subject that quickly becomes very personal. And when you consider that one of the most important decisions that people make is whether to have children — and if so, when, how many and with whom — it’s no surprise that even theoretical discussions about population concerns and family planning can turn into awkward conversations.

Nonetheless, global population growth is an issue that begs to be discussed. After all, population size is directly tied to many other issues that affect everyone on the planet — access to clean air and water, wealth and poverty, and global supplies of food and energy.

So let’s start with a simple question. How many of us are there?

By the Numbers

As I’m writing this, the population clock on the U.S. Census Bureau Web page estimates world population as 6,724,401,912. What do you want to bet that’s off by at least one or two people? But you get the idea the clock is meant to convey: World population is growing rapidly and continuously, and 6.7 billion is a good estimate of where we are today. Another population counter on this page puts the U.S. population at about 305 million.

Trying to predict future population growth requires a little more guesswork. For a good discussion of this issue, check out this recent article from the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute. It notes that most demographers expect that by 2050 world population will be between 8 billion and 11 billion people. However, as the author points out, these estimates assume a slowdown in birth rates that may not materialize. Here’s a graphic showing different population projections based on high and low estimates of growth. And that leads us to a more difficult question: What do these different possibilities mean for the planet? How many people is too many?

A Global Issue

There’s a lot of debate about how many people the Earth can reasonably sustain, but you don’t have to look far to find evidence that we’re already experiencing a few problems. Here are a handful of articles linking population growth to the loss of forests and biodiversity, and increases in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Population growth also puts a strain on water resources and food supplies.

Another issue to consider: While global population is growing, it isn’t growing evenly. Here’s a graphic that shows population trends by continent. One significant cause for concern is that some of the poorest parts of the world have rapidly growing populations, which could put an even greater strain on limited resources in those areas. On the flip side, population growth in wealthier countries can also cause problems, because richer countries tend to use more resources per person and produce more greenhouse gas emissions. For example, China recently overtook the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but that’s remarkable given the fact that China has a much larger population. In fact, when you look at per capita emissions, it's clear that the United States is still producing far more than our share of carbon dioxide.

To further complicate the issue, it’s worth mentioning that while population growth can cause social strain, so can population decline. That’s because when birthrates fall dramatically there aren’t as many younger workers to help support aging populations. That’s already an issue in some European countries. One solution is for countries with falling populations to open their doors to more immigration, but that’s another thorny issue around the world.

Starting the Conversation

OK, so if we believe that population growth at its current rate is a problem, what should we do about it? Should those of us who are of childbearing age decide to have fewer children? How many children per person would be ideal? Should governments or international organizations provide help for people who want to have fewer children but don’t have access to health care and contraception? And if that’s the case, at what point should government policies stay out of decisions on family size because it’s too invasive?

Just as importantly, how do we talk about these issues with other people who may have very different opinions? There are now almost 7 billion people on the planet, and we have a wide variety of opinions on population growth and all the related issues of sex, religion, money and politics.

Fortunately, there are some great resources for learning about population issues, and lots of people sharing their thoughts on it. Here are a few resources worth checking out.

* More: Population, Nature and What Women Want. This is a thought-provoking new book by Robert Engelman, the vice president for programs of the Worldwatch Institute. He’s got an interesting take on population issues that considers both the big picture demographic trends and how they affect people — particularly women and children — around the globe. (Engelman also blogs about population; you can read more of what he’s written here.)

* The United Nations Population Fund. There’s a lot of good information about population issues on this site, especially as they relate to the issues of human rights and poverty. Some of the most interesting sections are the case studies. These pages discuss programs that are addressing population issues with people from different cultures, and encouragingly, finding ways to do so that everyone can agree on. A common goal is to improve health care access for women and children.

*Also check out our thoughts about population issues here on the Mother Earth News Web site. Our publisher, Bryan Welch, frequently writes about population for his blog, Rancho Cappuccino. We’ve also started a forum page where you can weigh in with your own thoughts on population issues.

Do you have other resources related to population that you’d like to share? You can list them in the comments section below.


Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .


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Post a comment below.

 

Ruth_16
7/23/2009 11:18:04 AM
The two most revealing articles to be found on this topic are at www.populationelephant.com For sure read "The problem with the number" which totally exposes the inaccuracies of the U.N.'s projections.

Donna_46
3/30/2009 11:39:41 AM
I took myself out of the gene pool. Until we begin to teach our children (inculcate) principles in them, right and wrong , we will reap what we sow (blessings or maledictions).

Growthbuster
12/30/2008 12:07:08 AM
1. Make sure everyone understands we have more people now than the Earth can sustainably support. 2. Encourage people to plan their families and make responsible decisions about family size knowing the ramifications of larger families and continued population growth. 3. Make family planning services universally available. 4. Eliminate all the financial incentives governments provide for having children. If necessary implement financial disincentives for larger families. 5. Stop automatically adding the word "control" to the conversation everytime sustainable population levels are discussed. Control will only be necessary if we can't all wise up and start voluntarily making responsible decisions about family size. It's an obligation we each have to our own children - the obligation to leave them a world that has half a chance of meeting their needs. You might find this Population Solution PSA interesting: http://vimeo.com/2495995 Dave Gardner Producer/Director Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity www.growthbusters.com

Wolfger
12/29/2008 8:20:55 PM
The better informed one is the more likely one will realize that human overpopulation will be a real problem within the next 50 years. So what to do? Personally, think two children per family. Worldwide, help people control their fertility voluntarily. Wondering how you can reduce the carbon footprint of humanity? Consider this: Every effort should be made to help women control their fertility voluntarily (In the US half of the 6 million annual pregnancies are unwanted of which 1.4 million result in births). Every avoided pregnancy will avoid the lifetime generation of around 1500 tons of CO2 in the US and 300 tons in the less developed nations. To help in this effort, carbon offset indulgences could be directed toward one of the groups listed below. On average, worldwide, $38 will avoid one pregnancy. http://www.plannedparenthood.org http://www.ippf.org/en/About/ http://www.pathfind.org/

Robert_3
12/10/2008 6:43:05 PM
First of all, thank you Mother Earth for having the courage to write about the need for discussion and analysis of human population growth and the consequences. To those of you who have reacted in panic mode, please realize that no one is trying to mandate legislation that would reduce your options as parents. We are discussing this subject as responsible, intelligent, logical human beings who love the earth and everything in it, including those of you who have 12 children. (My grandfather had 11 siblings! :-) I've studied this issue for over 10 years and have attended conferences on aging and on population and I believe strongly that education correlates most strongly with a lower birth rate, and the amazing thing is that each unit of additional education in any field tends to reduce family size. So go out there and get a degree, get your masters, your doctorate, take cooking classes, certifications in anything and everything, but just keep learning and studying! Peace, Robert

sjp
12/7/2008 9:38:39 AM
Population - personal decision. Commonsense tells me that unfortunately Darwin's theory will come into play one day. With our human intelligence - one might think that we would not let it go that far. Time will tell the story. Resources have limitations too. Sandra Placco

MC_2
10/23/2008 3:05:49 PM
My husband and I have 2 kids and one on the way; it is a decision I do not really want to make, but after the birth of this one I'm getting sterilized. Why?? Three kids replaces us and gives us one for "caregiver insurance." Meaning that, assuming we raise them well, one child can precede us in death without the burden of our end-of-life care falling on one lonely set of shoulders (something I'm facing now as my father's only child, my grandmother's only surviving relative, and the wife of an only child-- with Granny needing help now and Dad, Mom, and Dad waiting in the wings, we will be in the "sandwich position" until we are in our late 50s or 60s ourselves, with no relief in sight, at least until our oldest child, now 7, can "grandma sit" many years down the road). Between us and another couple we know, who want no children whatsoever, we figure three lets them have an "accident" or a change of heart without the four of us, on average, actually adding anything to the population once we're subtracted (hey-- they're all obese and sedentary, and I smoke, so subtraction's probably coming sooner rather than later). I tend to agree that population control isn't and should not be a government's decision-- yes, China's been successful in reducing its numbers, but look at the price. Differentially abled children-- and for that matter female children-- have been abandoned or killed outright in sizable numbers. China's a really crummy place to turn out, say, autistic. Or paraplegic. Or with Down syndrome. Or, too much of the time, female. I don't want to feel the need to kill or abandon my child simply because it is not the child I wanted and I don't get another chance. I don't want to force that choice on anyone else, either. The dropping death rate also contributes to the problem-- but does anybody want to still be healthy and enjoying life when t

Donna_2
10/3/2008 2:43:40 PM
Overpopulation is not the problem. Greed is the problem....it always has been and always will be in the fallen state of mankind.

Donna_2
10/3/2008 2:42:00 PM
Overpopulation is not the problem. Greed is the problem....it always has been and always will be in the fallen state of mankind.

Aly Van Dyke_2
10/1/2008 11:51:18 AM
China is the world's most populated country now, but India is expected to pass China's population within this century. To curb the population growth, India left it up to states to decide how they would approach the issue. The two states with the most success actually used two very different methods of population control. One state used coercive control by means of social pressures, such as tax rebates and incentives for people to have fewer children - much like China's one-child per family plan. The other state expanded its social justice platform, giving more rights to women in particular. Both options worked, but the latter took less time. Some say we don't have time to wait for population to adjust with increased social justice. Others say fixing the root of the problem will yield better long term results and increase general happiness for all. I tend to side with the social justice method. If we're going about fixing one cultural problem, why not fix another in the process? Population needs to decrease and universal social justice needs to increase. Seems like we'd be killing two birds with one stone (yes, I know that saying is barbaric, but it fits here).

Tom Bolin
10/1/2008 1:54:21 AM
First of all I am concerned with the ideal of regulated family size. Any government will regulate until they have absolute control over its population, because absolute power croups absolutely. Even here in America the government is constantly trying to chip away at our freedoms with laws and regulations. Today we are less free than we were when I was born 60 years ago. A person’s body, family, and home should be out of the reach of government control. Now to population, Mother Nature has always controlled the population of all of the species on this planet. This was done with natural selection and the survival of the fittest. However man developed a larger brain and learned to out do Mother Nature with Technology. For instance, with the development of just 2 drugs, Penicillin and Tetracycline mankind has raised the life expectancy form 47 years to 67 years. Fewer people died from pneumonia and cholera or other life threatening diseases. What medicine didn’t take cure of government regulations did in the handling of sewage and waste. We have thousands of Doctors that have worked their entire career and never seen a case of cholera. With other advances in medical care the life expectancy is about 82 years, and scientist are saying that by the year 2025 – 2050 the life expectancy will be between 125 – 150 years. Modern medicine has also increased the population in another way. Pre-modern medicine 1 in 8 births either the mother and or baby died now it is grater than 1 in 500 births. I am into Genealogy and from reading old records I can tell you that per-capita family sizes has reduced dramatically, but we as a species are living longer. Just in my lifetime the life expectancy has doubled and in my grandsons lifetime (he is 8 months old) it may double again. Yes our population is going to swell but is isn’t due to the birth rate it is due to the decline of death rate.

APhotoWizard
9/30/2008 1:56:53 PM
If you are not concerned with the population growth then watch this series of short movies and you will be. If you are concerned it will scare your socks off. There are no ads only one man, Dr. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado at Boulder, explaining to a class of students the real cause of the split in the discussion on this list. Yes, there is no problem at the moment, but there clearly will be and sooner than most expect. Take a look you may be surprised to learn it is about one minute till noon. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2008/09/18/the-most-important-video-you-ll-ever-see.aspx?source=nl - Jerry

Ryan_1
9/29/2008 11:39:24 PM
I think the comments so far go a long way toward proving the author's point about this being one of the more uncomfortable topics out there. Regardless, it is important: how many children to have IS a very personal choice, and if we don't have this discussion now then political decisions related to it will be made without such discourse. I personally feel that overpopulation is a problem, but not as much as many people whould have me believe. I think this article does a good job of conveying the complexity of the issue—namely that a 10-person family in almost any developing nation is less damaging to the global ecosystem than a similar-sized family in the U.S.—without trying to hand-feed us ridiculously simple-minded solutions. In my opinion the solution is as complex as the problem, and is the same as the solution for all the other primary global problems: achieve social equity, global quality education for all, and food security for all. No short order, but it is the only real answer. It is pretty commonly known that the more educated people are, the fewer children they have. Like all statistics, there will always be exceptions; however the average reduction in population growth that would result from an effective universal education system (as opposed to the broken one we are currently burdened with) would most likely be more than enough to keep local populations in check. Universal education requires social equity, but it is also the most effective way to achieve social equity: better educated children learn better to think for themselves and will be less saddled with their parents' bigotry. As for food security, if everything were switched to sustainable mostly-local food production that valued life over production (we have the opposite now) we could feed current populations on less land using vastly less energy and releasing much fewer greenhouse gasses, not to mention the numerous other poisons that come from industrial agriculture

M C_1
9/29/2008 5:04:19 PM
I have 6 children and I am not ashamed of this. Population control is a scary thing. Our resource issues come wasteful people not to many people. My family uses less resources then most families half our size. I know that many Mother Earth News readers are large families and if they are going to insult us with this ignorant scare of overpopulation they will lose subscribers. Those that think we are overpopulated need to take a long ride through rural America. They need to look at all of the land that the government is paying people NOT to farm and look at the abundance of food that rots in feilds and orchards. And as for fuel? I use half the gas or less then most American families and my utility usage is less as well. Its called conservation... M C

vacuum1313
9/29/2008 1:32:16 PM
Overpopulation is NOT a myth. Each country has a differing carrying capacity related to the ecosystems within the country. Some have more water, some less, some have fertile soils, some are deserts etc. Many countries have gone far beyond this carrying capacity. Food and water as basic survival needs should be the basis for determining this for each country. This then can be the basis for determining social policies. Instead of countries legislating "how many children" they legislate free services for that many children and user pay for anything over that. For example an overpopulated country might provide free medical services for the 1st child and user pay the FULL cost for more. Also international aid might be predicated on countries adopting such policies AND enforcing them. Aid is voluntary, not a right, and if a country is to be helped it must be seen as helping itself. This avoids the question of dictating family size/structure but provides significant incentive to reduce family sizes.

ccm989
9/29/2008 1:02:26 PM
Population control is vital. In this world of diminishing natural resources and a growing population, soon we will be fighting over oil, food and water. Actually we are already fighting over oil! We need better technology to spread the use of clean energy (even if it is more expensive to initially install) and reduce our dependence on oil. We need the whole wide world to recognize the importance of population control -- although many cultures and religions frown on birth control. Even if the USA, many religious groups are hoping to outlaw both abortions and birth control! This is seriously scary. Reproductive freedom is a cherished right that helps women choose how many babies to have. No birth control means the population will skyrocket and so will the misery level. In these extraordinary times, we need extradinary leaders with a vision for the future. A brighter, cleaner, healthier future where every child is a planned child.

DonnaC
9/29/2008 11:23:06 AM
Overpopulation is an erroneous myth that preys upon the ignorant. Do a little research and see for yourself, don’t be taken advantage of by the misinformed or the culprits.

Bob_4
9/29/2008 9:38:00 AM
I'm sorry if I offend anyone. I take that back, If you are offended, please take the opportunity to think about WHY you are offended, and whether it is on a personal level, or planetary scale. STOP having so many babies!!! Look, the facts are that we are using too much of the planets resources, especially here in the US. Higher populations not only mean fewer resources per capita, but less land to grow food on. If your house is there, we certainly can't grow grain there to feed the chickens to make your childs McFood, can we? More people also means that the dwindling food producing areas, both land and sea, are more polluted and thus less able to produce and sustain. There is no reason to have a dozen kids. Not anymore. There is no reason to have ANY kids if you are struggling to support yourself. Insensitive? Perhaps. True? Well, yeah, of course. Large families were once a way to survive and distribute work loads. Now, many of them are means to a welfare paycheck. Others are because "I just always wanted a big family.". Tough, get over it. Just like the real estate market, the loan industry, and the stock market, personal greed trumps community and global responsibility. "I want as much as I can get, while the gettin's good, and I don't care about everyone else. I'm just one person/family anyway, I'm not gonna hurt anything." That hasn't gotten us all very far, has it? Plant some seeds, just not your own.

deb_3
9/29/2008 9:30:36 AM
I have been trying to make people understand that population control is vitally important to the human and animal populations since the early 70's. People seem to believe that it is their "right" to have as many children as they choose to despite the drastic draw on all the resources. It's disgusting!

George Works
9/28/2008 4:23:17 PM
An excellent book on the subject of population growth is "Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update" ISBN 1-931498-58-X (paperback). The authors have been analyzing this problem since their first book "limits to Growth" was published in 1972. In their view we have already passed the carying capacity of the earth and are sustaining the world's population only by consuming unreplacable fossil fuel, fossil water and other resources. As these run out there will be an inevitable die-off and a decline in the life expectancy and quality of life for everyone. This is a frightening book but it is based on extrodinarly well-researched facts and precise computer models, which are available to anyone who cares to dig into the subject. It is written for laymen who wish to understand the fundamentals of the technical issues involved without being dragged through complex mathematics. I wish more of us would read this book. Perhaps we could find some practical solutions to our dilemma.








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