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The Population Debate Is Screwed Up

Debaters on population usually take two sides: either they see it as a huge problem facing humanity, or that it's a non-issue. They're both wrong.
 
 
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Chris Hedges ("Are We Breeding Ourselves to Extinction?") and Betsy Hartmann ("Stop the Tired Overpopulation Hysteria") reprise an argument that has raged for decades. Hedges identifies "overpopulation" as the root cause of climate change and other environmental problems and calls for "vigorous population control." Hartmann dismisses population growth as a cause of environmental harm and reminds us of the shameful history of top-down population-control programs.

This polarized debate has generated lots of heat and little light over the last half-century. According to the combatants, population growth is either the biggest problem facing humanity, or it is a complete non-issue.

The debate usually begins with a dire, Malthusian warning -- often by an environmentalist: "The sky is falling! Rapid population growth is the cause!"

In 1968, for example, Paul Ehrlich famously declared that - -- because of population growth - -- "The battle to feed all humanity is over." He warned that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s and recommended "triage" in foreign aid programs. (India, considered a lost cause, didn't make the cut.) Hedges fits squarely within this tradition.

The dire warnings cue the chorus of "population deniers," who assert that growing human numbers pose no problem at all. Over the years, that chorus has included a surprisingly diverse array of groups, including feminists, neoclassical economists, Marxists and the religious right.

For some -- like Hartmann -- population denial springs from legitimate fears that the Malthusians will trample human rights in their pursuit of lower birthrates, or that a focus on population growth will distract us from bigger issues, like inequality and unsustainable consumption.

Nonetheless, viewing population growth in such all-or-nothing terms does little to advance understanding -- or action -- on this important issue. The fact is, we now have a much more sophisticated understanding of population dynamics and their environmental impact than we did in 1968.

First, while the rate of population growth has slowed in most parts of the world, rapid growth is hardly a thing of the past. Our numbers still increase by 75 million to 80 million every year, the equivalent of adding another U.S. to the world every four years or so. We know that a certain amount of future growth is virtually inevitable -- an echo of the great boom of the late 20th century. But choices made and services available today will determine whether human numbers -- now at 6.8 billion -- climb to anywhere between 8 billion and 11 billion by midcentury.

We have also learned that population growth has a significant impact on the natural environment, but that impact is neither linear nor uniform, and it is shaped by a wide range of mediating factors, including technology, consumption patterns, economic policies and political choices.

Of course, some people have much greater environmental impact than others; we in the industrialized countries use about 32 times the resources -- and emit 32 times as much waste -- as our counterparts in the developing world.

Still, while there are great disparities in environmental impact among the world's citizens, everyone has some impact. We all share an inalienable right to food, water, shelter and the makings of a good life.

If we take seriously the twin imperatives of sustainability and equity, it becomes clear that it would be easier to provide a good life -- at less environmental cost -- for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.

Slowing population growth, then, is one of the things we must do to address the current environmental crisis. Take climate change, for example. An analysis of climate studies by Brian O'Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that slower population growth could make a significant contribution to solving the climate problem.

Imagine a pie divided into slices -- each representing an action begun today that would eliminate 1 billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050 -- for example, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Seven slices are needed to avert disastrous climate change. O'Neill estimates that stabilizing world population at 8 billion, rather than 9 billion or more, would provide one -- or even two -- slices of emissions reductions.

Of course, slowing population growth is not all we must do. Continued reliance on fossil fuels could easily overwhelm the carbon reductions from slower growth. Rapacious consumption in the affluent countries drives environmental destruction worldwide; changing our own systems of production and consumption must be the top priority if we are to preserve a habitable planet.

Slowing population growth won't eradicate poverty or feed the hungry, either; that will require a wholesale rethinking of development, trade and other economic policies.

But slower population growth could help give us a fighting chance to meet these challenges. It could reduce pressure on natural systems that are reeling from stress. And it could help give families and nations a chance to make essential investments in education, health care and sustainable economic development.

In the last half-century, we've learned a lot about why we should slow population growth, and we've also learned how. We now know that the best way to slow population growth is not with top-down "population control," but by ensuring that all people are able to make real choices about sexuality and reproduction.

That means access to voluntary family planning and other reproductive-health information and services. It means education and employment opportunities, especially for women. And it means tackling the deep inequities -- gender and economic -- that prevent people from making meaningful choices about childbearing. Each of these interventions is vitally important in its own right as a matter of human rights and social justice. Together, they will help shape a sustainable, equitable future.

Moreover, slowing population growth by the ethical means outlined above is surprisingly cost-effective. For example, the developed countries' share of the cost to provide reproductive health services for every woman on earth is $20 billion -- about what the bankers on Wall Street gave themselves in bonuses last year.

Today, we have an extraordinary opportunity to make progress on these issues. Climate change and other environmental crises have put population growth back on the table. And, after eight long years, we finally have a president -- and a secretary of state -- who are willing to make decisions about women's health and rights based on evidence, not moralistic ideology.

But that opportunity will pass us by if progressives remain stuck in the tired debates of the past. It's time to have a new conversation about population and the environment -- one that is grounded in a shared commitment to environmental sustainability, human rights and social justice.

Laurie Mazur is the editor of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge (Island Press: forthcoming).