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Overpopulation: The Global Population Speaks Out


1) How does your campaign differ from other population initiatives?

First and foremost our campaign, the “Global Population Speak Out” approaches the global population issue with the power of positive thinking. We do not approach the issue as an intractable, scary, or utterly oppressive problem. Rather we act with the conviction that near-term global population stabilization—such as the United Nation’s low-variant population projection, which shows the end of population growth just 40 years from now—can be achieved through the vigorous pursuit and realization of a progressive human rights agenda and will be a powerful contributor to solving today’s most pressing ecological and social challenges.

Our program is designed as a force-multiplier to help in that pursuit: helping equip young learners, professional activists and other concerned citizens with tools to help spread environmental and social-change messages. Voluntary participants from all over the world work in their local spheres of influence to emphasize the sensible, progressive and compassionate means human communities have to stabilize our numbers and seek an improved balance with our home planet. Since 2008, we’ve had participants from virtually every country on Earth.

Over Development 

2) What is the role of photography toward your organization’s goals?

For the 2015/2016 Speak Out campaign, we were delighted to partner with The Foundation for Deep Ecology to publish the dramatic and powerful coffee-table book, Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (OVER). The emotionally intense series of photo-essays that constitute the heart of this book have captured the attention of citizens and major mainstream media outlets from all corners of the Earth. We’ve distributed about 6,000 complimentary copies of OVER to students, educators, NGO organizations and environmental activists. In many instances, recipients have written back to tell us that after going through the book, they broke down in tears of uncontrollable emotion. The success of our campaign has proven to us that bearing visual witness to human domination of the Earth and our collective and egregious disregard for the rights of other species to exist would be much more powerful than yet another dry, statistical report or study. Seeing is believing, as they say, and OVER has opened the eyes of millions.


3) I know there’s no “magic number,” but is there an appropriate population level to maximize biodiversity; and, is biodiversity an appropriate goal for this conversation?

The Speak Out is very much a conversation about biodiversity. For example, in June 2013, a study titled “Human Population Density and Growth Validated as Extinction Threats to Mammal and Bird Species” confirmed what everybody knew already: As human populations grow, human demands for water, land, trees, and fossil fuels also grow. Unfortunately, the price of all this “growth” is paid for by other endangered plant and animal species. Jeffrey McKee, professor of anthropology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study says, “The data speak loud and clear that not only human population density, but the growth of the human population, is still having an effect on extinction threats to other species.”

We won’t assert that there is a magic number to which we should hue. However, given that we are now well over 7.4 billion and climbing rapidly (adding a net of 1.5 million people per week) and given that no honest person will dispute that biodiversity is already suffering horribly and in danger of systemic collapse, attaining a size of 2 billion seems like a reasonable, against-the-tide present day goal.

Of course, while population size sets the scale of human impact, it is not the sole determinant of the human relationship with Earth. Unlike other animals whose impact is generally limited by their appetites, humans have discretionary environmental impacts far and above our basic biological needs. This behavior is often lumped under the umbrella-phrase of “consumption”, but really includes an enormous number of resource extraction, production and consumptive decisions that occur around the clock, at a world-wide scale of 7.4 billion people. To simplify, let’s say that even 2 billion people living at Americans’ average consumption level and treating the Earth as a discount dollar-store of “natural resources” would not be able to maximize biodiversity.

However, when human beings come to agree on the desirability of a long-term project to steer our population size in the direction of, say, 2 billion, we will also have gotten to the place where we have rejected the conspicuously consumptive characteristics of the advanced economies of the world. Our worldview will have shifted toward building a thriving human civilization capable of, and eager to, preserve substantial tracts of wilderness supporting robust, generally unperturbed biodiversity.


4) EO Wilson suggests setting aside half of the planet for nonhuman life; is that something that your initiative supports?

Conservation biologists generally agree that conserving between 25 to 75 percent of representative habitats is required to preserve the full suite of species and processes on Earth. Fifty percent is thus a median (with the additional virtue of being a memorable number) and has come to be known as “Nature Needs Half” or, in EO Wilson’s terms, “Half Earth.” We fully support this initiative for several reasons: First, it the best conservation science instructs us on how to save other-than-human life. Secondly, the goal of not domineering half the planet strikes at the heart of anthropocentrism, as it will require conscious human restraint. Finally, the “Half Earth” goal also requires a long-term commitment and effort by humanity.

 Global Over Population

5) How do gender inequalities contribute to global overpopulation?

Arguably, gender inequality lies at the heart of humanity’s already oversized total population -- and its ongoing rapid growth. Population activists know that to achieve population stabilization, the human rights of all people will need to be fully realized. Especially important are women’s rights and, specifically, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. This means that good population advocacy should always Speak Out against oppressive cultural practices such as gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.

How well a society treats its women is one of the strongest indicators of the success and health of that society. Even now, gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development. While girls and women have made some advances over the last 20 years, they still suffer from prejudice and discrimination in health, education, political representation, labor markets, etc. With these rights impinged upon—or totally absent—family size decisions are often controlled by husbands or in-laws and end up being larger than if women could truly decide for themselves how many children to have and when. Such injustices add to global population growth and increases human pressure on the Earth’s natural systems.

Human Overpopulation

6) Should this conversation differ by continent, or by the type of environment in which a population resides?

In some senses, all sustainability is local: we wouldn’t expect similar conversations to be happening in all the world’s diverse countries and communities. As we’ve noted, this campaign is really about empowering local activists to “Speak Out” about human population size as a substantial and fundamental aspect of local, regional and global sustainability. So, ideally, there is not one conversation, but multitudes – and those conversations are informed by local sensibilities, local issues and local community interests. Hence, we would hope the conversations will be as diverse and different as human culture itself.

Habitat Loss 

7) What is the relationship between human population and fossil fuels?

Humans existed for a very long time prior to making consistent use of fossil fuels. Our numbers never even approached 1 billion for tens of thousands of years, pre fossil fuels. Then as we began seriously exploiting coal and then moved on to oil, our population grew at unprecedented rates. The correlation is not random. The dizzying population growth of the past two centuries was predicated on the windfall of energy that fossil fuels presented to humanity.

It is important to understand that fossil fuels, especially oil, are not simply used to manufacture and propel passenger automobiles or trucks. They facilitate the mass assembly of tractors, plows, irrigation pipes and pumps and then turn around and power them also. They constitute the base of many crucial fertilizers and pesticides. They are also the building blocks of agricultural plastics. They refrigerate perishables. In short, the industrial agriculture system could not function without copious amounts of fossil fuel.

The other side of the coin is that when humans co-opt the extraordinary power found in fossil fuels, we become “over-powered” and that is how we are over-powering the Earth’s biosphere. We cannot destroy rainforests at the rate of several football fields per minute, or trawl the deep oceans, or attempt mass-scale aqua-culture, or fragment habitat with asphalt roads, or construct miles and miles of urban sprawl without the power of fossil fuels. In summary, fossil fuels underwritten both our population size and growth and our discretionary overconsumption.

Fossil Fuels 

8) How do you develop an inclusive approach to family planning?

Family planning, one of the greatest public health achievements in human history, allows individuals and couples to anticipate and attain their desired number of children and the spacing and timing of their births. Right now, there’s a huge opportunity for progress because there’s an estimated 225 million women who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a contraceptive method. Speak Out participants agree that bringing family planning information and services to all people, everywhere is a non-negotiable priority for a sustainable future.

Making family planning information and services available to anybody who might be interested is a stand-alone moral imperative, needing no further justification. Reproductive self-determination needs no further justification either. But, when the coincident effects of meeting these human rights also helps to slow down population growth, then that is a win-win for people, planet, and the other species with which we share Earth. It is worthwhile and ethically correct to celebrate family planning’s many benefits—not all of which relate directly to humans. After all, at its root, family planning isn’t a technology or ideology, but an act of human will and personal agency. When that act is deemed to be a personal benefit by the individual adopter of family planning, and yet also has broader social or environmental effects, the outside observer has a right to celebrate.


9) What tangible goals should people support in order to address global population issues?

The most critical factors in determining the future size of the human population are the family size decisions being made today. This leads many people to imagine various forces pushing down on fertility, such as China’s “One Child Policy.” Instead, Speak Out asserts that the way forward is to imagine eradicating the forces that keep fertility needlessly elevated. Indeed, when it comes to family planning and unrestricted access to modern contraception (and the unhindered agency to use a preferred method of contraception), things like misinformation about side-effects, lack of knowledge about the benefits of small family-size, and religious or male opposition to contraception form a sort of scaffolding that keep fertility rates higher than they would otherwise be. Remove this scaffolding and fertility and average family size decisions will fall of their own accord.

The Speak Out supports tangible goals that will help remove this scaffolding. These goals include robust political support for vastly increased international family planning financing and aid; universal primary and secondary school education; improving the status of women and girls around the world; financial support for Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) programs; financial support for entertainment-education and behavior change communications initiatives to promote the use of family planning, improve reproductive health, and increase spousal communications on sensitive topics (see Population Media Center); and, of course, continuous public discourse, campaigning and activism on population and related issues.


10) How does anthropogenic climate change affect this conversation?

The international community is already falling short in its response to humanitarian emergencies. Anthropogenic climate change and all the attendant ecological upheavals, such as catastrophic droughts, super-storms, and heat waves increase the frequency of humanitarian disasters and, in general, negatively impact food production.

Rapid population growth also exacerbates vulnerability to the negative consequences of climate change, exposing growing numbers of people to climate risk. The impacts of extreme weather events and projected sea level rise are particularly significant due to high population density on and near coastlines and low-elevation zones. Each person added to the world’s population increases the propensity of greenhouse gasses to flow into the atmosphere, especially through increasing the demand for food. The global food production system itself contributes roughly 30 percent of greenhouse gasses emissions, yet, ironically, the biggest threat to food production is escalating climate disruption. In short, anthropogenic climate change embrittles the resiliency of an already stressed global environment, thereby increasing the risk of catastrophe for humans and other species.

On the solution side, activists and organizations that promote low-carbon development strategies and climate change adaptation will be strengthened by embracing population factors in determining investment priorities. For example, a 2010 study published in the proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States (PNAS) titled “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions” demonstrated that slowing population growth could provide 16 to 29 percent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.

Unsustainable Consumption

11) What is the relationship between technology and overpopulation?

At best, the relationship is tortured. First, we have to remember that technological advances that allowed for exploiting fossil energy largely constitute the driving forces that enabled the gargantuan population growth of the last 200 years. Today, technology enables resource extraction and production activities that then set the stage for unsustainable discretionary consumption. The past three hundred years of scientific and technological advances have obviously accelerated, not slowed, the degradation of the natural world.

On the other hand, given the already enormous size of the global population, technology will be important to achieving universal primary and secondary education, providing family planning information and services, increasing the status of women, and educating about the benefits of small family size decisions. For example, the use of radio, television and the internet to deliver curriculum, information and entertainment-education programs are proven to be a good use of communications technology.

Population Solutions 

12) How do we make this conversation less about the problems and more about the solutions? Or, more generally, how do we make this conversation positive?

Speak Out does not shy away from emphasizing the problems caused by the enormous size of the global population, nor its ongoing rapid growth – indeed, these tremendously important issues are the reason Speak Out exists in the first place. However, Speak Out does not repeat the behavior of so many population advocates throughout the years – relentlessly presenting the population issue as a scary, intractable problem. That strategy has proven to be nothing but a sure-fire recipe for producing public disengagement and apathy. Neither is population presented as a “silver bullet” for all the planet’s woes: a presumptuous and off-putting meme that sows division rather than unity across the activist community.

Instead, we present a vision for understanding the population issue as a powerful contributing solution to today’s most pressing ecological and social challenges. To repeat: population is not just a global challenge, it is a solution.

The new generation that is working on population issues is working against oppressive cultural practices such as the low status of women around the world, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage. After all, these are important factors that significantly contribute to high fertility and population growth: because they rob women of social power, self-determination and true choice in how many children to have, and when. By weakening and eliminating these scourges—along with expanding access to family planning information and services—global population will stabilize and start a gradual decline sooner rather than later. No doubt the natural world will applaud this, as will the individuals around the world benefiting from strengthened human health and rights.



Photos courtesy Global Population Speak Out