Bill Ryerson, founder and president of Population Media Center recently gave an interview to KPBS radio, San Diego State University. The transcript is below.


KPBS Interview with William Ryerson

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, is there a limit to the number of human beings the earth can sustain? And if there is, are we getting close to that number? One of the world’s leading experts on population growth is speaking at San Diego state university today. It’s a sensitive topic for many people and nations. But the growth of human population may also be the most important topic facing the future of global civilization. I’d like to introduce my guest, William Ryerson, chair and CEO of the Population Institute in Washington DC. He’s a contributing author of the new book, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

RYERSON: Great to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: The facts and figures presented by the Population Institute about the growth in population really are staggering. It took about 200,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion. How quickly is it taking us now to add another billion people?

RYERSON: About a dozen years.

CAVANAUGH: Is the population expected to continue to increase that quickly?

RYERSON: Essentially, while the rates are gradually coming down in terms of birth rates, the growth of the base means that the actual increment is continuing to be about a billion every 12-13 years. And the projection that the UN population division makes looks at various scenarios, from low to high. The low scenario, which no demographers take too seriously, is reaching a little over 8 billion by 2050. The high scenario, which may be too optimistic about is about 10.1 billion by 2050. That’s another three billion from where we are today.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in your literature, you talk about how the world was different way back in 1999, when there were 6 billion people on the planet as opposed to now when there are seven billion and counting on the planet. How was the world and the attitudes toward the future of civilization, if you will, back in 1999, as opposed to today?

RYERSON: 1999 was a much more optimistic time, even if you weren’t invested in the NASDAQ stock market. But actually what happened to the chart of the NASDAQ could be the scenario we’re facing with human numbers. In 1999, we had had a long-term decline in food prices, a long-term decline in energy prices. Oil was at $10 a barrel. The International Energy Association confidently predicted that it might get up to no more than $12 a barrel by 2015. Well, here we are at almost $100 a barrel. And now they’re far more pessimistic as oil has been essentially flat in production. So we’re facing very serious problems with regard to energy. What many people don’t realize is we’re facing an even more serious problem with regard to water. The top three grain producing countries of the planet, India, China, are and the United States, all have unsustainable pumping for irrigation. And water tables are sinking in these countries dramatically. In India, the water table is sinking by about 10 feet a year.


And more and more farms are turning to desert as farmers can no longer reach the water. There are about 150 million people in India now being kept alive through unsustainable pumping of underground aquifers. When that water returns out, those people will face immediate starvation.

CAVANAUGH: We usually talk about these subjects, and we’ve actually talked about them on this show, the fact that water supplies are decreasing, the fact that we’re facing a potential energy shortage, food shortages, but we don’t usually talk about them in terms of overpopulation. We talk about them as if they are sort of individual problems that have a fix, that don’t involve the number of people on the planet. You must hear that kind of conversation as well.


RYERSON: A lot. There’s a lot of what I call greening the Titanic. People are trying to make us more efficient, which is great: the higher efficiency and use of gasoline, and the automobiles of today compared to 20, 30 years ago; greater efficiency of light bulbs and various other efficiencies with regard to energy consumption. But the output of greenhouse gases has not declined. It’s increased. So as we increase efficiency, consumption of resources has gone up. And in reality, the problem we have is not climate change, it’s not water shortage, it’s not loss of biodiversity, it’s not degradation of soils. It is overuse of the earth’s resources by the human endeavor. And by the human endeavor, I mean the number of people multiplied times their average consumption and emission rates. And you can’t separate those two and say consumption is more or less important than the numbers because in fact if you decrease the per capita consumption by 50% and you double the numbers, as far as the earth is concerned you’re still having the same impact.


CAVANAUGH: And yet environmentalists have shied away from this conversation about population and its subsequent controlling population. It’s a very complex and sensitive issue, and it got more complex and sensitive in the end of the last century I would say because of repressive governments. What other reasons might there have been?


RYERSON: Well, certainly China’s approach to the population situation, which started with the 1-child policy in the late 1970s, has in a sense earned a black eye for much of the concern about population. People suddenly started associating the concern with coercion. In fact, in China, much of what they accomplished has been done through persuasion. They mobilized 1 million people to go door to door talking with neighbors about the situation China was facing, having had 30 million people starve to death in the 1970s. So people in China are very convinced, and mostly going along with the policy. And the coercion was sort of an afterthought which in my opinion was not only unnecessary but counterproductive. But in most of the world, when you look at the huge progress that’s been made in use of family planning, from 10% of the world’s couples in 1960 to 54% today using family planning methods, almost all of that has been voluntary. And a lot of that has been meeting an unmet need that people have felt to be able to space and limit child bearing and to be able to delay child bearing until somebody was ready to bear a child.


CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with William Ryerson. When we in the West hear about population problems, it is usually in terms of our own birth rates declining. And we’re told that aging population is a big problem, so we should start having more babies in the West. And isn’t that actually a huge disconnect with what is actually happening in the world?


RYERSON: It is. The Global Footprint Network has calculated that we have gone 50% beyond the long-term caring capacity of the planet. And by long-term carrying capacity, I mean after nonrenewable resources run out. Oil, coal, and gas will mostly be gone in this century. And they are the underlying resources supporting our whole industrial civilization. So when you look at what is sustainable, the Global Footprint Network says we’ve already gone beyond what is sustainable, and we need to look at decreasing populations. Countries that have reached population stability or have gone into decline, like Russia and Japan, should be seen as the forerunners of what we must do in order to achieve sustainability. I spoke at the Global Economic Symposium in Germany where people were ringing their hands. And I said, look, the aging issue that people are so concerned about, first of all, I’m 68 and working harder than I ever have. And it is not an issue that people have to retire at age 55 or 60. In fact, the retirement age in Germany was set during the time of Bismarck and hasn’t been changed. The pension problem in Germany could be solved with delaying retirement by two years. Instead of the government is paying $13,000 per German baby born. And then I went on and said if we have a climate crisis, an energy crisis, a water and food and biodiversity crisis, what in the world is Germany doing using public funds to bribe people into having babies. Those who would have them anyway are probably going to be decent parent, but those who only have a baby in response to the bribe are the worst motivated parents you could hope for. And since babies are 100% dependent on the working adults, it’s worsening the dependency ratio in Germany. Whereas the aged have savings, they can work longer; they are independent longer in their lives. So dependency of the aged is materially different from dependency of young people. And Germany and other countries that have had declining fertility rates are saving huge amounts of money on what is normally spent on raising young people: schools, teachers, police forces, and other expenses of the public that relate to a youthful population.


CAVANAUGH: I want to pursue this a little bit longer. Recently we saw that California’s child population is shrinking. And there were along with that information speculations that there will not be enough to fill jobs, there will not be enough people to pay taxes, basically saying that the standard of living in California will decrease if there aren’t more children to backfill the population. And what you’re saying here is that’s not true?


RYERSON: I don’t buy this. There are a lot of people in California right now who are unemployed. And they’re unable to find jobs. Why are we saying we need more babies to fill jobs that have yet to be created? It doesn’t make sense. If we are facing a crisis with too many jobs and not enough people to fill them, that’s another matter. But that’s not the situation California or the U.S. is in.


CAVANAUGH: How do you and your organization propose to stabilize the world’s population? I mean, how — obviously there have been some advances in family planning as you just told us. But are there any other things that you would like to see the world start doing?


RYERSON: Yes. In addition to chairing Population Institute, I run an organization called Population Media Center. And one of the reasons I founded that organization is because the major reasons given by women and men for nonuse of family planning when they don’t want another pregnancy has to do with cultural and informational factors, not lack of access to contraceptive services. So while contraceptive services are very important and need to be improved and need to be increased in availability, overwhelmingly the reasons given by nonusers are they’ve heard it’s dangerous, because of misinformation campaigns, the husband is opposed, they think their religion is opposed, or they think it doesn’t work, that God determines how many children you’re going to have and they have no say in the matter. So to take Nigeria as an example, this is a country, Africa’s most populous country, with only 10% of married women using any modern method of contraception. Of the 90% nonusers 55% say they never intend to use a method. The top reason is opposition; second reason is they want as many children as possible. In fact, the desired family size is above the 5.7 child fertility rate which is the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime. So just building clinics is not going to solve that. What Population Media Center does is use the psychological work of Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, who has spent a lifetime studying how role models influence behavior. And we create long running serialized melodramas in which key characters very gradually evolve into positive role models for the audience for things like daughter education, allowing women to choose their own spouse, use of family planning, spacing and limiting of family size for better health and economic welfare, and a whole array of other objectives in each country where we’re working, and they’re hugely effective at changing behavior.


CAVANAUGH: I only have time to ask you one more question, but it’s one that’s really — when I got into this, I was really wondering if any projection had been done about how many people the earth can sustain. Is there any scholarly projection on — here we are at over 7 billion.


RYERSON: I’ll answer that in just a second. For people who want to know more details, they can come at 7:00 tonight to the Commons Room 220 at SDSU to hear the talk I’m going to give. A very well-known ecologist, David Pimentel, has done a calculation, post-fossil fuels, the earth can sustain about 2 billion. And we’re now at 7 billion. The Global Footprint Network says with the current resources we have, we are depleting the resource bank that could sustain future populations – actually decreasing the long-term caring capacity of the planet by destroying biodiversity, by using up fresh water and a whole variety of other things that we’re doing to the planet. So in fact it’s impossible to give a precise answer, but it’s very clear to many scientists, we have overshot the long-term caring capacity of the planet at our current lifestyle.

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