Regarding Population Messaging, Exactly What’s the Problem?

June 3, 2013 • United States, Daily Email Recap

Regarding Population Messaging, Exactly What’s the Problem: Growth or Overpopulation?


by David Paxson and co-authors, Alan Ware, Karen Shragg and Carolyn VandenDolder


Do you believe the Earth’s resources can support 7-10 billion people — sustainably, long term?


If you answered “yes” to this question, please go find something else to read. We need to have the below conversation with people who already understand that the world is overpopulated relative to many of the planet’s declining vital resources, and this overpopulation is also a major driver of the killing of species, increasing dire poverty and other global crises.


If you answered “no” to the question and believe the overpopulation issue is real, then please read on. And do join us in an upstream conversation — about stopping overpopulation — rather than downstream talk about stopping the growth. This upstream conversation is absolutely vital to the future viability and health of humanity and all other living things on the planet.


Much of the messaging coming from population organizations lacks clarity — both about the problem and what it will take to humanely solve the problem. Before people will take effective action on any issue, they need crystal clear messaging and direction about both of these aspects.


Sustainable Global Population


Increasing numbers of resource experts put truly sustainable global population in a range between 300 million and four billion, depending on assumptions they make about living standards.

As far back as 1994 David Pimentel set sustainable population in the range of two billion people, living at a level of consumption equivalent to Western Europe. (Pimentel, David. and R. Harman. Natural Resources and an Optimum Human Population. Population and Environment. 15. (1994): 347-369) He also estimated the sustainable U.S. population to be 200 million.

Global Footprint Network data shows that the Earth’s sustainable population is in the range of 2.5 billion, assuming an average European level of consumption.

Asset manager and economic bubble expert, Jeremy Grantham, founder of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (which manages over $100 billion in assets) and The Grantham Foundation for the Environment, has determined that sustainable population ranges between four billion (Charlie Rose Show; March 11, 2013) and possibly as low as 300 million (Accounting for Sustainability Forum, St. James’s Palace, London: December 11, 2011).

While the above range is wide, it is significantly below the current 7.1 billion.

Amazing Learning Experience

In all of our talks and media interviews, we have been clearly stating that many of the declining vital resources of the planet can sustainably support only about two billion people — at an average European level of consumption. We have been pleased by the positive acceptance of this realistic 2 billion figure from all but a few people.

At a talk last summer I had an amazing learning experience with a college student.  After speaking to Olee’s class, she explained that she was born in an Asian refugee camp thirty years ago. She came to the U.S. when she was a year old. Married for a couple of years, she had a darling nine month old daughter. After several questions she asked: “Why are you saying it is important that we have only one child? Why not two?” It was obvious that she loved having a baby and was eagerly looking forward to having another. I went to the board to explain why we need average birth rates down close to one child per couple.

Before I could figure out how to answer, she said, “I get it! . . . We have waited too long!” She was absolutely right. We have waited too long. We have kicked the can — of population reduction — down the road for decades.

Deeper Realizations

A few days later I was recalling our conversation and pondering the “Stop at Two” slogan that was popular in the ’70s. It quickly dawned on me that — assuming sustainable, long-term global population is only in the 2 billion range — the “Stop at Two” slogan of those days was not close to being a winning slogan, or goal, even at that time. Since world population was already some 3.5 billion, even if we had reduced births to a two-child average, that would not have helped us decline to two billion.

Then I began to think about this question: Assuming our ancestors had understood that two billion people was the truly sustainable global level, when would they have needed to promote a two child average in order to have a “soft landing” at two billion people on the planet? The answer to that is probably between 1870-1890 when population was approaching 1.5 billion. Only in that way would humanity have avoided overshooting above the two billion range.

Our Task

It is critical that we population leaders do the right thing in our messaging about this global over-population crisis. Many of the current messages that obfuscate the truth are only adding to people’s paralysis, confusion, argument and inaction. We must create a new, informed, cultural norm.

We must speak this truth: “The world and nation are overpopulated. Therefore, it is crucial that couples are encouraged to voluntarily choose to have only one child.” Without “over-population/one-child” messaging, humanely reaching a 1-4 billion global — and 150-200 million U.S. — population is impossible. With one-child messaging, we will begin heading in the right direction. Will we humanely get to the top of that mountain? Maybe not. But if we don’t head in that direction, we know we won’t, for certain!

As Gandhi put it, our task is to do the right thing:

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

Current World Population


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