The State of the Population Debate

Published on July 11th, 2014

Today is World Population Day, observed internationally since 1989 to bring awareness
to the urgency and importance of population issues and to find solutions.

If humans had all been truly Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) – with a modicum of mathematical understanding – rather than intellectual captives of hidebound dogmas and prejudices, the population issue would have been settled decades ago…or would never have even become an “issue” at all.

Then we could have moved on to other compelling challenges – the chief of which is how billions of people might live good lives on this precious planet for some time to come without devouring it and collapsing civilization in the process.

Instead, the pointless population “debate” persists like the stench of a dead horse long since beaten to death. We might as well be debating whether 2+2=4 or whether the Earth is flat or round. Yet the propensity of deniers to reject the obvious and the incontestable is undiminished. These deniers hail from the left, the right and from the ever-growing ranks of religious fundamentalists, whose wombs, if not their minds, are fertile.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich penned The Population Bomb in 1968. The first Earth Day emphasized stopping population growth in 1970. The Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth and the American Future recommended U.S. population stabilization in 1972, the same year computer simulation modeling in The Limits to Growth predicted the collapse of industrial civilization if unsustainable population, pollution and resource depletion trends continued. In 1974, the United Nations convened the U.N. World Population Conference in Bucharest.

If their combined recommendations had been adopted, world population would now be below 6 billion and close to stabilizing, instead of 7.2 billion and continuing to mount by 80 million or more a year.

Meanwhile, U.S. population would never even have topped 300 million; instead we’re closing in on 320 million – on our way to 400 million, 500 million and the dark and treacherous territory beyond.

A good, recent population overview is in ecoRI News by Frank Carini: “7 Billion and Counting: That’s a Lot of People.” The subtitle asks: “Can the planet sustain mankind’s growing numbers? Depends on whom you ask.”

This is true; it does indeed depend on whom you ask, because there are a lot of ignoramuses out there who believe that a finite planet can somehow absorb infinite growth. In their flawed view, the universe is vast, if not infinite, and the only limits to growth are imposed not by nature but self-imposed by fearful and unimaginative humans.

Carini’s article enumerates the ways in which unsustainable population size and growth are affecting climate, water supplies, flows of toxic heavy metals and loss of forest. As he says, “most of this lost forestland was cleared by humans for agriculture and timber.”

For developing countries, where immigration is not the main driver of population growth, the path to progress is relatively straightforward and should be uncontroversial: empowering women by improving their access to education and reproductive health care, including birth control.

Yet any emphasis at all on population incenses some on the left. Railed one unhinged commenter:

This is a terrible and one sided article, with no analysis of the justice and human rights dimensions of this issue….The perspectives presented are closely aligned with eugenics and anti-immigrant fervor, and builds the connections between the mainstream white conservationists and right-wing movements….The problems we face are not about population, it's about corporate capitalism, consumerism, and the overconsumption of the 1%. It's about waste and inequity in the distribution of resources, not about blaming poor people for having babies.

Amidst looming shortages of so many key resources, alas, there is no shortage of ignorant ideologues and demagogues ever eager to play the race and class cards.

Until and unless environmentalists and policymakers summon the courage to do the right thing rather than succumbing to silence and paralysis, an overpopulated America and world will continue to pile onto a planet that is already dangerously overloaded.

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