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ENDING THE MIRAGE: POPULATION AND GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY

Joseph J. Bish, MS Jun 30, 2022

Bill Ryerson, President of Population Media Center, can often be heard saying “if humans were ethereal beings, which could operate irrespective of the Earth’s living systems, then there would be no problem with any number of people.” In other words, it is not a misanthropic urge that drives PMC’s interests in helping long-term population trends slow down, stop, and eventually reverse. Rather it is a recognition that the size of human population creates a baseline scale of minimum human needs — and the unavoidable environmental impacts on Earth.

Meanwhile — and this is hard for people to accept — even with perfectly fair (i.e. equal portions to all) consumptive redistribution at the global scale, where every single person on the planet had a perfectly equal “portion of the pie,” the planet could not sustainably lift everyone out of poverty.

Still, even as global population continues to expand by 1.5 million people (net growth) each week, population remains one of the most hot-button issues in all of public discourse. There are numerous reasons for that, and none of them are very good.

You have pro-growth population boosters who think infinite growth on a finite planet is perfectly logical. You have people who rightly condemn the history of “population control” ideology and believe there is no way population can be approached progressively. You have plenty of people who think their deity wants never ending population growth. You have deeply passionate environmentalists, who think population is a distraction from the “real” problems of climate change, capitalistic overconsumption, and lack of universal social justice.

Ever since Population Media Center was founded, we have been working to reframe population. In our hearts, we know there are progressive, human rights enhancing, fun and creative ways to create the conditions for population growth to slow down and stop. We realize that some people will never give up their positions — no matter how painstakingly we demonstrate that positive change on the drivers of population growth are possible (and accretive to the ideal of a sustainable planet with equal rights for all), they will continue to oppose every effort related to population. 

That is okay. Because what we say is this:

Population — setting a new world record each and every day — is one significant and fundamental component factoring into the overall overexploitation of the planet by humanity. Because our goal is the future attainment of global sustainability, our work is to strive towards a human population size that will allow our children and our other descendants to be able to live their lives with comfortable, equal standards of living, while nested benignly within the complex systems of nature. It is not clear what fluctuating level of population that might ultimately be, and won’t be for generations. But, we feel certain that until global population at least slows down and stops, global sustainability can only be an ever-receding mirage on the horizon. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.