Draft Position Statement on Overpopulation, An Invitation to Endorse
By Kim Crumbo
Rewilding Leadership Council
A complementary population position statement to accompany The Rewilding Institute Position on Population
Human overpopulation presents an existential threat to the diversity of life. Wildlands conservation groups exist to protect habitats so that life in all its diversity can thrive.” So, what should we conservationists do to contribute to a permanent resolution of this problem? Below I offer some suggestions that I hope will lead to a brief position statement for wildlands conservation groups to consider adapting and endorsing for their own groups.
Wildlands proponents support scientifically credible, mutually agreed upon human population levels that provide a fulfilling quality of life for all the Earth’s inhabitants. We advocate for noncoerced measures leading to low fertility, long life expectancy, and a higher quality of life, including:
- Provision of universal access to family planning
- Educating and empowering women and girls
- Removing barriers to contraception
- Reducing poverty
- Changing financial incentives, particularly taxes, to encourage small families
- Putting a high price on carbon
By any standards that include concern for biological diversity as well as human wellbeing, human population—7.7 billion as of 2019 and growing by approximately 83 million a year—is imperiling our planet. To give a visual reference, if you put us all on a large set of scales, our combined mass would be about 300 million tons. If you then took all our domesticated farmyard animals—cows, pigs, sheep and chickens—and placed on an even larger set of scales, their mass would amount to about 700 million tons. In contrast, the combined mass of all surviving large wild animals—from porcupines and penguins to elephants and whales—is less than 100 million tons.
How Many Humans?
While nobody really knows what the planet’s human carrying capacity is, many scientists, including Cornell University ecology and agriculture professor David Pimentel, contend that the Earth has already passed that point. Citing high malnutrition rates in the world, Pimentel estimates that the Earth’s carrying capacity—providing a quality life for all inhabitants—would appear to be about two billion. Professor William Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economies at the University of British Columbia, proposed an “effective Green New Deal” that advocated for a “global population strategy to enable a smooth descent to the two to three billion that could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.” Just what a “smooth decent” looks like, the professor didn’t specify. Dave Foreman and Laura Carroll cite J. Kenneth Small, an anthropology professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, who demonstrated the imperative to sharply lower the human population over the next one hundred to two hundred years. Foreman and Carroll also give target population as “no more than two billion.”
While it appears premature to set with wishful certainty a specific human population level, I suggest it sufficient for the moment to champion scientifically credible, mutually agreed upon human population levels that provide a fulfilling quality of life for all the Earth’s inhabitants—wild and domestic. That happy scenario will require a significant decline in total human population levels. Let’s not now, however, commit the folly of insisting we know with certainty the optimum population or just how to get there. There are current encouraging trends that offer various options, and the science is still evolving.
Nature’s on-going deterioration results from economic, technological, and demographic dynamics, yet unfortunately the scientific community, like much of the conservation community, generally remains reticent to discuss global population size and increase. This reticence may stem from common convictions that human numbers cannot be influenced other than through coercive “population control,” a controversial strategy enforced during China’s one child policy with its modest success in limiting population size at the price of significant impacts on that country’s society. In any event, such national approaches are possible only in ruthless, totalitarian countries.
A more effective as well as significantly more humane approach, stabilizing and lowering our numbers globally— noncoercively, through the exercise of reproductive rights—offers a strategy for scaling down consumption on all fronts consistent with democratic values. Research and experience reveal that improvements in women’s rights, education and self-determination generally lead to lower birth rates.
For example, several 20th-century cases demonstrate the efficacy of population policies in reducing fertility, even in the absence of strong economic development. Such policies simultaneously promote human rights and support important development goals. Lessons from successful population strategies in countries as diverse as Thailand, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, South Korea, and Iran, among others, reveal that the most effective transcultural approach to lowering fertility rates is to embark on comprehensive, well-designed, and well-funded campaigns that support that purpose while simultaneously promoting women’s and overall well-being.
Of course, this task is neither safe nor easy. In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he points out the amassed evidence “that when women are given access to contraception and the freedom to marry on their own terms, they have fewer offspring than when the men of their societies force them to be baby factories…[and] that giving women more control over their reproductive capacity…may be the most effective way of reducing violence in the dangerous parts of the world today. But this empowerment often must proceed in the teeth of opposition from traditional men who want to preserve their control over female reproduction, and from religious institutions that oppose contraception and abortion.”
Speaking of sexist demagogues, the Trump administration is bent on exacerbating the population conundrum. They have not only cut aid for family planning, but backed out of the global agreements that seek to avert the most devastating impacts of climate change, even as rising sea levels and drought-related famines threaten to create tens of millions of new refugees and other migrants.
In an earlier essay, I urged us to treat environmental deterioration, implicitly overpopulation, as a problem to be solved. “Rather than hope and wait for the Second Coming, rescue by Martians, Republican enlightenment, or other such fantasies, the better angels of our society must insist upon our using the best available science and adhering to our democratic [and moral] values in order to protect and restore Wild Nature.” Those “better angels” include us. As Dave Foreman points out, problems of overpopulation are solvable. Again, referencing Pinker, “we cannot be complacently optimistic about [environmental destruction], but we can be conditionally optimistic. We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far.” Those “benevolent forces of modernity” consist of “five historical forces that favor our peaceable motives and that have driven the multiple declines in violence, [including] feminization—the process in which cultures have respected women’s interests and values.”
Eileen Crist, associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, emphasized that “many of the global approaches called for in this pivotal moment may lack the glamor of technological and engineering breakthroughs, but they promise far-reaching strides in resolving the ecological crisis and preventing human and nonhuman suffering. Paramount examples include state of-the-art family planning services for all (including modern contraceptive technologies), universal education from the age of 4 to 17 or 18” as well as “massive protection of wild nature.”
The environmental-reproductive rights crisis has emerged as a priority for conservationist and social justice advocates. For example, Sierra magazine, the voice of the Sierra Club, recently released a special, 52-page special issue on the subject. Some smaller, wild Nature protection organizations with significantly less resources, acknowledge the significance of the problem. For instance, following Professor Crist’s lead, The Rewilding Institute promotes specific measures for slowing, stopping, and reversing population growth. Those measures have been shown to often lead to the demographic transition, to low fertility, long life expectancy, and a higher quality of life and include:
- Provision of universal access to family planning
- Limiting family size
- Educating and empowering women and girls
- Removing barriers to contraception
- Reducing poverty
- Using taxes and other financial incentives to favor small family sizes
While the imperative worldwide is, in an uncoerced manner, to reduce birthrates, this does not demand nor imply that people should stop having babies, only that decisions about parenting should be based on the desire for a child couched in a rational assessment of parent and child welfare opportunities as well as economic costs. Fertility rates are falling as many developing countries pass through the demographic transition, thanks to factors that include lower infant mortality rates; expanding rights, education, and labor market opportunities for women; and increased access to family planning services. In fact, the global trend is toward fewer children, and increasingly one child only, especially in more affluent counties. In any event, decisions regarding family size are of a highly personal nature and should be respected as such.28
Crist, Eileen. 2018. Reimagining the Human. Science 362(6420): 1242-1244. DOI: 10.1126/science.aau6026.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. London: Penguin Books. 802 pages.
Pinker, Steven. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York: Viking Press. 556 pages.
Sierra Club. 2019. The Planet in Crisis: She Has Solutions. Sierra [Special Issue]104:6. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-6-november-december
1 Wildlands Network Mission and Values, https://wildlandsnetwork.org/mission-values/.
3 Wilson, Edward O. 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life. Liverwright Publishing Corporation, New York www.wwnorton.com. 259 pages; Dave Foreman and Laura Carroll, 2014, Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, (2nd edition), LiveTrue Books, 194 pages, http://lauracarroll.com; see also Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 319 pages.
4 Vaclav Smil, The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics and Change (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002); Catherine Walpole et al., “The Weight of Nations: An Estimation of Adult Human Biomass,” BMC Public Health 12:439 (2012), http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/12/439. See also, Harari, Yuval Noah, 2015, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, New York: HarperCollins, page 350.
5 Cited in Richard Dahl, 2005, Population Equation: Balancing What We Need With What We Have, Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(9): 2005 September, doi: 10.1289/ehp.113-a598
6 Memo from a Climate Crisis Realist: The Choice before Us. William E. Rees. November 12, 2019. The Tyee. https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/11/12/Climate-Crisis-Realist-Memo/.
7 Dave Foreman and Laura Carroll, 2014, Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, (2nd edition), LiveTrue Books, 194 pages, http://lauracarroll.com, Page 158.
8 Crist, Eileen, Camilo Mora, and Robert Engelman, 2017, The Interaction of Human Population, Food Production, and Biodiversity Protection, Science 356:260-264. See Figure 1. http://science.sciencemag.org/
9 S. Halfon, The Cairo Consensus: Demographic Surveys, ?Women’s Empowerment, and Regime Change in Population ?Policy (Lexington Books, 2007).
10 Feng, Wang; Yong, Cai; Gu, Baochang. 2012. Population, Policy, and Politics: How History Will Judge China’s One-Child Policy Population and Development Review. 38: 115–29. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4457.2013.00555.x; Whyte, Martin K.; Wang, Feng; Cai, Yong. 2015. Challenging Myths about China’s One-Child Policy. The China Journal. http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/martinwhyte/files/challenging_myths_published_version.pdf.
11 Crist, Eileen, Camilo Mora, and Robert Engelman, 2017. The Interaction of Human Population, Food Production, and Biodiversity Protection, Science 356:260-264. See page 261. http://science.sciencemag.org/
12 “Data show that the higher the level of a woman’s educational attainment, the fewer children she is likely to bear. Given that fewer children per woman and delayed marriage and childbearing could mean more resources per child and better health and survival rates for mothers and children, this is an important link.” Female Education and Childbearing: A Closer Look at the Data. Elina Pradhan. World Bank Blogs. November 24, 2015. http://blogs.worldbank.org/health/female-education-and-childbearing-closer-look-data
13 Crist, Eileen, Camilo Mora, and Robert Engelman, 2017. The Interaction of Human Population, Food Production, and Biodiversity Protection, Science 356:260-264. http://science.sciencemag.org/. Emphasis added.
14 Pinker, Steven, 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, London: Penguin Books. 802 pages. See page 688.
15 Sierra Club. 2019. The Planet in Crisis: She Has Solutions. Sierra [Special Issue]104:6. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-6-november-december.
16 The Trump Administration Goes After Birth Control, Summer Brennan, October 30, 2019, Sierra, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-6-november-december/feature/trump-administration-goes-after-birth-control .
17 Remember the Population Bomb? It’s Still Ticking, Eugene Linden, New York Times June 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/opinion/sunday/remember-the-population-bomb-its-still-ticking.html
18 Whole Earth: How the Other Half Lives. Kim Crumbo, March 29, 2018. The Wildlands Network Blog. https://wildlandsnetwork.org/blog/whole-earth-how-the-other-half-lives/, referencing Steven Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York: Viking Press, page 134.
19 Whole Earth: How the Other Half Lives. Kim Crumbo, March 29, 2018. The Wildlands Network Blog. https://wildlandsnetwork.org/blog/whole-earth-how-the-other-half-lives/
20 Dave Foreman and Laura Carroll, 2014, Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, (2nd edition), LiveTrue Books, 194 pages, http://lauracarroll.com, page 10.
21 Steven Pinker, 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York: Viking Press, page 155.
22 Pinker, Steven Pinker, 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, London: Penguin, pages xxv, xxvi; and Chapter 10.
23 Pinker, Steven Pinker, 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, London: Penguin, page 684.
24 Crist, Eileen. 2018. Reimagining the Human. Science 362(6420): 1242-1244. DOI: 10.1126/science.aau6026. See page 1243.
25 Sierra Club. 2019. The Planet in Crisis: She Has Solutions. Sierra [Special Issue]104:6. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-6-november-december.
26 The Rewilding Institute Position on Population https://rewilding.org/our-programs/population-growth/. Accessed November 18, 2019.
27 The Habitable Planet: Human Population Dynamics//Section 4: World Population Growth Through History. https://www.learner.org/courses/envsci/unit/text.php?unit=5&secNum=4.
28 The End of Babies: Something Is Stopping Us From Creating the Families We Claim to Desire. But What? Anna Louie Sussman. November 16, 2019. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/opinion/sunday/capitalism-children.html.
Kim Crumbo had a 50-year career in Wild Nature conservation beginning with Colorado River protection in the early 1970s. Inspired by the 1992 Wild Earth special edition, he assisted an eclectic array of conservationist partners in development and implementation of the Western Wildway, including wilderness and national monument designations, and recovery of the Mexican wolf and other keystone species. His work included active participation an ad hoc collaborative effort of local, regional, and national conservation, scientific and sportsmen’s organizations, and concerned citizens to help save the endangered Mexican gray wolf. [Read Kim’s full bio here…]