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“Even if there were no environmental pressures caused by population growth, we should still support the measures required to tackle it: universal sex education, universal access to contraceptives, better schooling and opportunities for poor women. Stabilising or even reducing the human population would ameliorate almost all environmental impacts.”

George Monbiot, author and journalist 

“The UN has been over-anticipating fertility decline and underestimating population growth.”

Jane N. O’Sullivan, population and climate change researcher 

World Population Day is July 11 and its purpose since 1990 has been to highlight major social justice and environmental concerns relating to human population.

Although the UN has dedicated resources to do more to protect women’s right to be in control of their fertility, 40% of women have still not achieved this. Cutting back on family planning initiatives, even in the United States, has forced many more women and children into poverty. Furthermore, population growth in general makes those very voluntary family planning goals more difficult to achieve. Although fertility rates are lower in many parts of the world, this will have very limited impact on population growth in this century. If the ecological foundations for human wellbeing are to be stabilized and enhanced, society must look to other ways than solely fertility rates to bring this about. As we will see, a smaller population brings many benefits. Economic growth does not necessarily translate into a healthier society. On the contrary, degrowth policies can have more positive outcomes. 

In a 2023 article, Jane Nancy O’Sullivan put forward the strong argument that the models showing a levelling off of population growth are inaccurate and that in the long run it will be only by family planning that world populations will decrease. “The common assumptions that fertility decline is driven by economic betterment, urbanization or education levels are not well supported in historical evidence. In contrast, voluntary family planning provision and promotion achieved rapid fertility decline, even in poor, rural and illiterate communities. Projections based on education and income as drivers of fertility decline ignore the reverse causation, that lowering fertility through family planning interventions enabled economic advancement and improved women’s education access…”

And in a recent interview, O’Sullivan pointed out: “Family planning in Africa is no substitute for reducing the footprint of the rich countries, but even if we do the latter perfectly, we’ll still fail if world population is too high. And it would be people in high-fertility countries who’d suffer most.”

The opportunity to have an education increases literacy rates, and this in turn enables women to have a stronger voice in a country’s affairs. Today only six countries have 50% or more women in their parliaments, thereby enabling women to influence the national legislation to bring justice for more women: family planning ultimately gives greater prosperity to girls and women when they are heard. 

Large families can mean far fewer opportunities for children, and unbridled population growth in a country can plague that country’s ability to provide better health care, education, infrastructure and biodiversity protection as well as to ensure that social justice issues are addressed. 

Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren’s famous paradigm I = PAT (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology), developed in 1970, has been successfully used to show what drives ecological destruction. “Population” is the number of humans, and “Affluence” refers to lifestyles. “Technology” includes all the ways in which aspirations are achieved, so the typical billionaire’s four homes and use of private planes would strongly contribute to that person’s impact on the planet. Population will also strongly influence the equation. The impact of the world’s 2.5 billion humans on the planet in the 1950s was far less than that of today’s 8 billion-plus population. 

Global Footprint Network assesses population’s impact on the biosphere in relation to the total biocapacity of the Earth. It looks at how most global north individuals, businesses and governments use, through consumerism as one example, more resources in a given year than the Earth can regenerate, and the entire world then suffers for their excesses.

In 2024, August 1 is Earth Overshoot Day, the day it is calculated that humans will have bankrupted the Earth’s ability to hold its own for the year. David Lin, Science Director of Global Footprint Network, emphasizes its value: “The persistence of overshoot, for over half a century, has led to declines in biodiversity, excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and heightened competition for food and energy. Symptoms are becoming more prominent with unusual heat waves, forest fires, droughts, and floods.”

Global Footprint Network states: “If every other family had one less child and parenthood was postponed by two years, by 2050 we would move Overshoot Day 49 days.”

The deprioritization of population stabilization started in 1994 at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Since that time less and less money has been given to family planning programmes. The paradigm of endless growth has tragically permeated almost all political leaders’ actions.

An article last week in The Guardian/Observer’s business section, “The Baby Bust: How Britain’s Falling Birthrate Is Creating Alarm in the Economy,” spits out all the old and disproven alarmist status quo corporate/government negative bluster regarding lower fertility rates. Only a sentence or two is begrudgingly given over to women who for very valid reasons don’t want children. This reactionary article in a supposedly liberal newspaper vividly tells us how hard women have to fight to secure their rights for a better future.

It’s vital to link the state of Nature and population issues. Edward O. Wilson’s 2016 book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life makes the case for protecting half the surface of the Earth and thereby triumphantly saving perhaps 80 percent or more of its biodiversity. Mass extinction, ecological collapse and climate breakdown could be avoided. Wilson’s seminal work on island ecology in the 1960s led him to believe that the entire world’s ecological stability is found on those series of islands surrounded by human habitation, and it is in exactly that fragile habitat found on islands that an equilibrium is found and needs protection. Wilson stressed the need for Indigenous peoples to stay in those biodiverse regions, and that other people could still visit or live there, but that Nature needs to be the priority, as without it humanity would be destroyed. Wilson knew that to effectively conserve biodiversity, stewardship begins with having Indigenous communities represented in all decision-making.

The respect for incorporating traditional knowledge and for the inalienable right of Indigenous peoples to speak for and protect biodiversity has been acknowledged by the UN and in ecological studies.

In December 2022 the target to protect 30 percent of Nature by 2030 won approval at the UN biological diversity conference in Montreal. For Wilson, that 30 percent was not nearly good enough. Before he died in 2021, he said that Half-Earth was his last wish. “I dream that I could have had a major influence in moving global conservation ahead.”

So if, in the near term, population growth will continue and not contribute significantly to social justice and ecologically positive outcomes for humanity and the rest of biodiversity, determined citizens must steadfastly take up the mantle for a thriving and vibrant green world order and push for just legislation and community involvement that reflect a commitment to protect Earth’s inhabitants. There are a thousand ways for this to happen. 

“Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.” 

Kate Marvel, climate scientist 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry