Overpopulation: A Silent Majority Is Concerned

Published on June 19th, 2015

While Gov. Jerry Brown finally acknowledged that population growth might be a problem, generally, overpopulation is not an issue much discussed by our elected leaders or media these days. This is rather unbelievable, given the already staggering world population – now at 7.3 billion – may soar to 10.9 billion by the end of the century. This is the median projection of the United Nations. The low projection is a small decline to 6.8 billion by 2100, but the high projection is 16.6 billion.

With today’s numbers, we face depletion of key resources, including fresh water, top soil, ocean fisheries and energy. Given this situation, one would think that the prospect of adding billions of people during the coming decades would be a major topic of public discussion. But, again, it isn’t.

As we’ve often discussed at CAPS, back in the 1960s and 70s, overpopulation was a big issue. In 1968, American biologist Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, warned in their best-selling book, The Population Bomb, that the world soon would face major famines because of too many people. He made a convincing case, arguing that a crisis was inevitable if population continued to increase on a finite Earth, but his immediate predictions did not come to pass. As a consequence, many concluded that overpopulation was the bomb that fizzled, and that it was not something to worry so much about.

A big reason Erlich’s near-term forecasts didn’t pan out was the work of American agronomist Norman Borlaug, a man commonly described as the father of the Green Revolution. This revolution involved the application of science to agriculture which enabled farmers in poor countries to increase food production enormously. These yields prevented the predicted famines.

Due to this fortunate advance, some people concluded that science and technology would always be able to provide for human needs, regardless of population growth. Significantly, someone who didn’t hold this belief was Norman Borlaug himself. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1970, he warned, “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”

Overcrowded Filipino maternity ward
A crowded maternity ward in the Philippines, an overpopulated country challenged with high birthrates and lack of access to contraception.

Today, despite the seeming indifference to overpopulation, a large number of scientists share Borlaug’s concern. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of U.S.-based members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science agreed that overpopulation is a problem. Only 17 percent disagreed. The survey also found that most U.S. adults are concerned about overpopulation. Fifty-nine percent said it was a problem, compared with 38 percent who said it was not.

Given this majority of expert and lay opinion on overpopulation, why is it not in more public discourse? One explanation is that media elites don’t want to deal with it. They feel pressure on the right from business interests who view rising population as a source of more consumers and profits. With their vision narrowed by focus on their bottom line, they see no downside to unending growth. Pressure on the left comes from “progressives” who equate concern about population with a “racist” agenda to limit the number of people in poor countries. This is despite the fact that many of those people would like access to family planning to alleviate their poverty.

While overpopulation is now on the back burner of media attention, it is crucial to make it an issue again. Unfortunately, even some people who recognize the problem may tend to think it’s a lost cause, given that we have added more than 3 billion people to the planet since the Ehrlichs sounded the alarm. Still there are sufficient grounds for believing that we can avoid adding another 4 billion by the end of the century.

One cause for optimism is that family planning in recent years has taken root in most parts of the world, and population in those areas is coming down to more sustainable levels. Surging population now is essentially limited to sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. With the problem more confined than in the past, it should be more manageable. Further cause for hope here is the finding that most Americans still care about overpopulation.

The United States can make a significant contribution to this cause, and it is certainly in our interest to do so. Billions of people already are competing for scarce resources, and we’re seeing more mass migration, which has the potential to cause global instability. Without remedy, these situations are likely to worsen. But U.S. participation will not happen if the silent majority on this question remains silent. It will become an issue when people make it an issue the media pundits can’t ignore.

Take a stand in California. Tell Gov. Brown to protect California’s environment and limited resources from a growing population.

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