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The Overpopulation Taboo: The John Feeney Interview, Part 1 E-mail
 |  Written by Carol Rich | Interview

John Feeney photo courtesy of John FeeneyThe following is an edited email interview with John Feeney, environmental writer and head of Global Population Speaks Out (GPSO). GPSO, an organization which advocates for population control, invited a group of scientists, environmental writers and activists to speak out on overpopulation during the month of February 2009 to bring attention to the topic as an environmental issue.

EcoHearth: Why is overpopulation an issue worthy of concern and how does it interrelate with other environmental issues?

John Feeney: First, consider basic resource consumption. Our total resource consumption is simply the product of population size times the average per capita consumption. So population is always there at the foundation.

Now, some object that the formula obscures the fact that we in the industrialized world consume far more than our fair share of the world's natural resources. We sure do! So we have to go the next step and investigate the question, "If the industrialized world were to drop to a very low level of per capita consumption, would population still be a problem?" And the answer is "yes." To see why you have to dig a little. Then the evidence is clear; our sheer numbers are so high that no remotely realistic reduction in per capita consumption on the part of the industrialized world would be enough, in the absence of substantial attention to population, to bring us back to within the earth's capacity to sustain us. This is evident even through the very limited and conservative lens of ecological-footprint data. I examined this in some detail in an article a while back.

Evidence of the importance of our numbers goes far beyond the constraints of the data I used for that article. It's overwhelming really. Unfortunately, our culture and way of living often obscure the obvious. For instance, what if the human population were only a few million? No matter how much each individual tried to consume, we would see none of the global, human-caused environmental problems we see now. Well, for almost all of human history our population was no more than a few million, less than 1/1000th of what it is today. Those are the numbers at which humans evolved to live. Then, in the last eye blink of our time on Earth, large-scale organized agriculture and then fossil-fueled industrialization caused us to explode into the billions. How could this not be a massive ecological problem?

Nearly every environmental problem today is closely linked to overpopulation. To the extent that climate change is human-caused, our contribution is described by the same little formula. Total fossil-fuel use (and consequent GHG emissions) is the product of population size and the average per capita fossil-fuel use. It's the same, of course, with resource problems such as oil and aquifer depletion. And all these problems are converging, approaching critical points in the coming decades.

Human overpopulation is quite directly linked to what may be the worst environmental problem we face: the Sixth Mass Extinction of species. This problem is horribly underreported. The Fifth Extinction eliminated the dinosaurs. The Sixth is the first one to be caused by one species. And we're it. We're losing species at rates between 100 and 1,000 times the normal background rate. Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson has estimated that under business-as-usual conditions we could lose as many as 50% of all species by the end of this century.

This is a breakdown of the web of life on which all species, including our own, depend for survival. And both statistical evidence and common sense link it to the growth of the human population. For a look at some of the research, I'd recommend the book Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth's Biodiversity by Ohio State University anthropologist Jeffrey K. McKee. In it, McKee elaborates on a study in which he and his colleagues found that population was the human factor most strongly correlated with the numbers of endangered species from one country to another.

Central among the proximate causes of the extinctions we're seeing is habitat destruction. As the human population grows and takes over new areas, whether for habitation, agriculture, roads, mining or anything else, habitat is destroyed. When deforestation happens, whether at the hands of individuals or corporations, it's population-driven. Again, just ask yourself whether we'd be losing as many species due to human activity if our numbers were a tiny fraction of what they are now, where they were through most of our history. (Though the evidence is ambiguous, even prior to agriculture, humans, probably combined with changes in climate, may have played a role in the extinctions of certain large mammals. This too was population driven as we moved out from Africa to other continents. But the number of extinctions was a fraction of what we're seeing now and the impact was unwitting. Today we know what we're doing, but we keep doing it.)

Readers may be interested in a short video on this topic from the Species Alliance.

Another population-linked problem, almost never mentioned, is the loss of tribal peoples. There are very few people left on Earth still living as humans did for almost three million years. The reason is obvious: the population of those living in "civilization" has grown and our culture has taken over the world—crowding out, exterminating or absorbing almost every group of pre-agricultural people. Why do we ignore this tragedy? I think that's a question we should consider seriously. At any rate, there is little coverage of the problem and almost never a mention of the link to overpopulation.

EH: What priority should population control be given among those other issues and why?

JF: We need to be taking a number of decisive actions at the same time. It's difficult to prioritize because all are absolutely essential. But seriously addressing our numbers should certainly be right there at the top of the list along with such things as shifting to alternative energy sources, reducing per capita consumption, and confronting the goal of endless economic growth on a finite Earth.

To understand why it's so essential to make overpopulation a top priority, we have to recognize that we are, without question, overshooting the earth's carrying capacity for humans. There seems to be continuing confusion about this, even among people who know something about the issues. Yet it's easy to demonstrate through simple logic. The gist is that when an animal's numbers reach a level at which its habitat can no longer support it without suffering degradation, it's in overshoot. Clearly, we're there. And no reduction in per capita consumption is going to be enough, by itself, to get us out.

We then have to understand that a population in overshoot must always drop in number. That often takes the form of a crash. The only way we've managed to stay in overshoot for so long has been through our use of fossil-fuel reliant agriculture. It's what William Catton calls "phantom carrying capacity." It's not carrying capacity at all, and is by definition temporary. Now, as we sit somewhere near peak oil, that support for our numbers will soon be increasingly strained. We're approaching other limits anyway, such as those brought on by the damage we're doing to the web of life and those involved in our long-term depletion of soil nutrients. But the peaking of oil extraction will bring it on that much faster.

The question is, do we want to do what we can to bring our numbers down humanely and voluntarily, or do we want to just let the limits play out? A big concern here is that we are taking so many other species down with us.

EH: The link between world population growth and environmental degradation may well be underreported. Why do you think this is?

JF: That's the population taboo at work. It comes from three sources: the right, the left and the church. On the right, you get economists insisting population growth is a great thing. It's code for "We need population growth to maintain economic growth." They've made up the silly notion that the population declines we're beginning to see in a few countries are a bad thing. They argue we need more young people to support the elderly. But the economic problems posed by population decline are miniscule in comparison to the human toll that would result from continued growth and large-scale ecological collapse. Economists should embrace ideas such as the "steady state economy" promoted by ecological economists and stop suggesting a "birth dearth" is a bad thing. Derrick Jensen puts it simply: "The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system."

The church's opposition to discussion of population is well known. The Catholic church, for example, opposes contraception. While this may increase the flock, it also destroys the biosphere. So I think the religious groups that have now shifted the focus to "saving the creation" are on the right track. There are religious groups that do understand the ecological challenge we face.

On the left, we get a few people who insist any effort to address overpopulation must be inhumane or a violation of human rights. This overlooks the fact that the kinds of solutions I suggest (education and empowerment of women, provision of family-planning options, and media strategies) are precisely the opposite of inhumane. It overlooks as well that in democracies any legally based solutions would have to be voted on by the people. Most fundamentally, it overlooks that nowhere are human rights more a concern than in the effort to avert the human catastrophe that would result from the collapse of our global life-support systems.

Crowded Subway photo by Tuan Minh PhamIt's worth mentioning that the left's opposition to addressing overpopulation culminated in policy changes at the UN's 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. There, well-organized activists managed to influence policy such that the UN would from then on downplay numbers and fertility rates in favor only of a concept such as "reproductive health." A major Parliamentary report from the UK that solicited the input of scores of experts, concluded that this shift in focus has led to a loss of funding for family planning and has been a major environmental and humanitarian setback. It's readable and well worth a look.

EH: Can you give us some background on the history of the population-control movement? Were there any notable efforts to control population in earlier times or cultures? What were their reasons for doing so, what were their methods and how successful were they?

JF: It's instructive to look at pre-agricultural times. By "pre-agricultural" I am not suggesting people had no understanding of agriculture. But they did not practice it on the scale or in the manner that began about 10,000 years ago. Some anthropologists have speculated that tribal peoples often did exert control on population size through methods ranging from herbs known to prevent conception to late weaning and abortion. There was certainly a more immediate awareness of the need to keep numbers in check. When you're getting your food from your immediate surroundings, within a relatively small radius, before moving on, you become quite sensitive to how many people that area can support over a period of time.

Importantly, though, we need to remember that pre-agricultural peoples lived essentially as any other species, attuned and adapted to nature rather than fighting it as we do. Living as hunter-gatherers, they were subject to the normal constraints on population imposed by fluctuations in food supply. This was not particularly harsh, and it worked very well for something like three million years. It continues to work today for other species and for the few tribal peoples left on Earth. It may be, therefore, that they did not have to rely heavily on active measures to limit their numbers.

EH: Is it true that women being educated, having equal rights and jobs helps cut birthrate? Are there any other seemingly unrelated factors that contribute to population control?

JF: It's quite possible that reducing childhood mortality rates reduces birth rates. It allows parents to know they don't need to have lots of children in the hope that a couple will survive.

EH: How do you and your group suggest we go about controlling population?

JF: There is no official GPSO position on population solutions. Personally though, I support a major shift of resources toward three things known to be strongly correlated with reductions in fertility rates: (1) ensuring widespread and easy access to family-planning resources (2) education and empowerment of girls and women so that they have more options in life, and (3) media strategies designed to encourage the first two items and smaller family sizes. Countries as different as Thailand, Iran and Mexico have implemented these strategies in varying combinations with resulting dramatic reductions in fertility rates.

EH: How should contraceptives and abortion fit into controlling population?

JF: Contraception is clearly fundamental. Abortion is of course controversial. Perhaps we could please the most people by preventing abortions through widespread promotion and provision of contraceptive options.

Simultaneously, we should be doing much more to promote adoption. Should people be having kids biologically when there are children around the world who need parents? Once again, the humanitarian step is the one that humanely addresses our numbers.

EH: Is there tension or agreement between population control activists and feminist reproductive health advocates?

JF: I think there's some of both. There are some in the latter group, such as Betsy Hartmann, who so opposes attending to overpopulation that she often denies the basic population-environmental link and relies on deceptive and distracting language to push her view that we shouldn't talk about the issue. No population activist (and almost no ecologist or environmental scientist) is going to accept that, though they may agree with her on the need for family-planning options and access to reproductive healthcare. I've seen other well-known feminists, however, who take a much more rational position. Katha Pollitt had a good articl on the subject in The Nation.

EH: What countries have the highest birthrate? The biggest overpopulation problem? The best population-control mechanisms?

JF: The highest fertility rates today are mostly in African countries: Mali, Niger, Uganda, others. Some Middle Eastern countries are up there as well: Yemen, Oman...

For growth in sheer numbers, the UN recently listed nine nations that are expected to account for half the global population increase in the next forty years: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the US, Congo, Tanzania, China and Bangladesh.

These areas are already experiencing serious problems and the growth of their numbers will only compound those. But we must keep firmly in mind that nearly all countries have long been in overshoot. Nearly all need smaller populations than they have today.

I don't know which country would most accurately be said to have the worst overpopulation problem. That might be estimated according to which is most deeply into overshoot of carrying capacity. Certainly India and China are likely contenders. And, not surprisingly, these are countries experiencing pervasive, severe environmental stresses. When you hear such assertions as, "If we all just lived like citizens of China or India the world would not be overpopulated," just think of the widespread environmental degradation there.

Alternatively, some argue that the US has the worst population problem because every person added here consumes so much more of some resources than the typical person in a developing country. It depends on how you look at it.

When we talk about "consumption," we often focus only on our disproportionate use in the industrialized world of things like GHG-producing fuels. Though we're right to point that finger at ourselves, it is intellectually dishonest to avoid talking about the environmental impacts seen in the Third World. In many of the poorest countries, key biodiversity "hotspots" are under siege. Owing in large part to sheer numbers, the people often have no other option than to move into remaining wild areas, to over-hunt wildlife, to deforest areas for heating fuel or agriculture. (Haiti, which has been largely deforested, and whose population has doubled in recent decades, is a telling example.) These are factors not typically included in discussions of consumption. We in the wealthier countries can help in a number of ways. Key among them is providing support for family planning and related programs.

EH: What demographic changes do you foresee worldwide with increasing populations? How will this affect global politics? How does population density affect our standard of living?

JF: I think most people have some awareness of this, so I'll just mention a couple of items that don't come up much in discussions like this. First, for obvious reasons, older people often have little trouble appreciating the impacts of growth. They've seen them play out in their lifetimes. Younger people have to work at this a little harder. But it's worth it. Listen to the stories of older people who have seen what growth can do.

Here's a fascinating short video concerning the growth of Phoenix, Arizona. Having grown up there, I saw vast tracts of desert ecosystems destroyed for urban development. If you've spent your life in an area that hasn't grown as much, it can be difficult to grasp the astonishing and sad transformation brought on by such population growth. (Notice, though, that when the video touches on solutions it avoids mention of doing anything to reverse population growth.)

Second, most people agree that our quality of life is affected by aesthetic factors such as the ability to find solitude in the outdoors. Here's a troubling fact. East of the Mississippi, there is no spot remote enough to get you more than 10 miles from the nearest road. West of the Mississippi, it's little more than 20 miles. As the US population grows, perhaps passing 400 million in a few decades, how will that change? What will become of our wild lands as population pressures build even further? What will this mean for the web of life?

EH: Will population control improve our worsening global economic situation or hurt it?

JF: Ultimately it has to help. Without reducing our numbers we'll move toward global ecological collapse, which will lead to a population crash, societal collapse and the end of any economy as we know it.

EH: What changes do you envision under the Obama administration for Title X-funded family planning? Do you foresee any changes in family-planning funding or policy under the new administration in the US or worldwide?

JF: The Obama administration has already taken steps indicating that it will be considerably more supportive of family planning than the previous administration. I expect that to continue. We need much more but it's an encouraging start!

Go to Part 2 of this interview

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Comments (2)add
Written by mp , May 15, 2009
Another odd religious practice (given the current stress on the planet) that promotes procreation and is cross-denominational is the Quiverfull Movement:
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Written by JN , May 15, 2009
"For growth in sheer numbers, the UN recently listed nine nations that are expected to account for half the global population increase in the next forty years: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the US, Congo, Tanzania, China and Bangladesh."
Interesting fact.
I wonder. Does it correlate that 'happier nations' tend to have much smaller populations/population growth? In most polls, smaller, population-stable countries seem to fare much better in the 'happiness index.' JN
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