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The Atlantic Magazine: A Look at Population Growth Through 2100

Joseph J. Bish, MS Feb 10, 2022

Jane O’Sullivan is a leading population scholar, with numerous journal articles to her credit. For example, in 2018, she was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) with an exposition titled “Is failure to develop due to fundamentally different economic pathways or simply too much population growth?

In 2020, she was published in Ecological Economics with a paper called “The social and environmental influences of population growth rate and demographic pressure deserve greater attention in ecological economics.” She is also a regular contributor to The Overpopulation Project.

Most recently, she was cited in The Atlantic. Typically, this publication tends towards a “population seems like a problem, but maybe it is really not” attitude. However, in this case, by citing Jane in a respectful and studious manner, the author produced a more well-rounded engagement with the population. The article is titled “The Next Century’s Big Demographic Mystery.”

The subject of the article tries to address the discrepancies in population projections moving towards the end of this century. The author writes that “The massive population growth that began during the industrial era will continue, but it will end within the century. The world will inevitably get older in the process.” This is not actually true (the United Nations Population Division’s 2019 medium variant projections show global population growth continuing past the year 2100 – and certainly the UN’s projections are considered to be one of the most “major” demographic forecasts available.) Setting that aside, the article is still worth a good read.

Jane adds value to the article by pointing out the obvious (which population scholars and advocates must do continually):

The planet is already straining under human activity, Jane O’Sullivan, a sustainability researcher at the University of Queensland who’s also been critical of the IHME’s methodology, told me. One of her major concerns is climate change, which is driven by greenhouse-gas emissions that tend to rise with population growth. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that further warming could lead to more heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires. And extreme weather is already threatening to destabilize the food supply, all while demand for food increases. Overpopulation, in short, might lead to more conflict over ever-scarcer resources. Life on this planet could involve not just more unemployment but also its messy knockdown effects—violence from a restless populace, unbalanced migration from rural areas to cities, a lack of housing leading to unsanitary informal settlements, O’Sullivan told me.

Later in the article, Jane is said to suggest efforts to normalize small families. “Achieving that could involve policies such as enhancing sex education in schools, door-to-door birth-control delivery, and encouraging girls in low-income countries to finish school.”

Certainly, those interventions would all be good ideas. There is no doubt that the reasons many women around the world are not using modern contraception — which translates into high fertility, large families, and finally population growth — are because they face a litany of social, educational, and economic oppressions, and are subject to relentless inaccurate, misleading, and incorrect information about its safety and efficacy. In other words, in addition to sometimes shoddy supply chains and a less than a full range of safe, modern contraceptive commodities – the bigger challenge is that there is an unfair information ecosystem working against full reproductive autonomy and choice.

These are the reasons Population Media Center exists: there is ample and incontrovertible historical evidence showing that most women, on average, choose to have two children or less upon attaining true, well-informed reproductive freedom and autonomy. Therefore, in PMC’s work to create the conditions for population growth to stop, our path forward is clear – with patient determination, and a long-term perspective, we work to provide immediate and transformative opportunities for the people of today, especially women and girls.