Thinning the Herd

by Phil Anderson

“Either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us...”  David Attenborough, British naturalist producer of nature documentaries.  

“Reproductive rights are an environmental issue.”Center for Biological Diversity 

   There is a cartoon that shows deer in the woods with a sprawling, traffic jammed, polluted city in the background. One of the deer is saying, “Let me get this straight, it is our herdthat needs thinning?” The current world population is 7.7 billion and is increasing by 82 million each year. Estimates say it will reach 10.9 billion by the end of the century. Who's herd needs thinning? Unfortunately, like so many other human created problems, we have our heads in the sand.   

   Population pressure is a major factor in every social, economic, political, and environmental problem all across the world. Human created climate change is happening now. The world is becoming hotter and drier in many places. Water shortages are happening in many places and available agricultural land is shrinking. Hunger is a constant problem in many places. Many refugees and immigrants are being forced to find better places to live. Tribalism (also known as nationalism or ethnic heritage), racism, religious animosity and competition for resources is spawning conflicts and wars. When you consider 23 percent of the world’s population lives on less than one U.S. dollar per day, the last thing the world needs is more people.  

   Overpopulation is inextricably tied to environmental destruction. Climate change, destruction of rain forests, desertification of marginal areas, over fishing of oceans, habitat loss, and species extinction all are related to expanding human populations. Increasing population means increasing consumption of fossil fuels, minerals, water, and other natural resources. It means increasing levels of air and water pollution.  

   But human population growth is a taboo subject, especially in the United States. It is rarely reported on in the news and never addressed by public leaders. Even many environmental groups are reluctant to publicly talk about population for fear of backlash over reproductive rights. But as the Center for Biological Diversity says on its website, “Reproductive rights are an environmental issue.”  All social and political issues are related. Economic inequality, poverty, immigration, peace, racism, civil rights, employment opportunity and environmental protection all intersect. We can not ignore population growth. We may make some progress on climate change and clean up some pollution, but if we don't address unsustainable population growth, we are in an uphill, environmental battle we can't win. As David Attenborough said, “We can’t go on increasing at the rate human beings are increasing forever, because Earth is finite and you can’t put infinity into something that is finite.” 

   Why can't we talk about population? Growth capitalism is based on ever increasing consumption and benefits from population growth. Politicians focused on short term re-election rarely tackle any serious long term problems. The political influence of the religious right, reacting to the perceived promiscuity of the 1960s, further politicized the issue. Social conservatives and their opposition to equal opportunity for women and minorities fueled the right's backlash. The culture wars over women's rights, contraception, and abortion became useful wedge issues to manipulate and divide people. China’s coercive one-child policy alarmed both liberal and conservatives and increased fears of big government interference with individual freedoms. All the major religions seek to control women and believe in being  fruitful and multiplying. So rational discussion of population issues is difficult.  

   The problems with population are more complicated that just the numbers of people. It also involves people's consumption and lifestyles. First world populations have more environmental impact because they consume more stuff. There are complications of life expectancy, increasing numbers of older people, and the aspirations of people. Billions of poor people would like to improve their economic status. But the earth can not produce enough stuff to provide 9-10 billion people with an American life style. Some experts say the earth can only support about 2 billion people with a first world lifestyle. 

   Another wrinkle is that, like climate change, we are probably past the tipping point on population. Reducing family size and birth rates may mitigate future problems. But the dramatic reductions in population needed to have a significant impact would be draconian. Some experts say that nothing short of a catastrophic population crash would make much difference to climate change, water scarcity or land shortages.  

   Are there solutions?  Is it hopeless? Research tells us that coercive government policies, forced serialization, changing tax laws, and even liberalized access to contraceptives will not work, or be enough. GIVING WOMEN CONTROL OF THEIR BODIES, AND THEIR LIVES, IS WHAT WORKS. Given reproductive choices, women voluntarily choose to have fewer children. What women want – and have always wanted – is not more children, but rather to have healthier children that make it to adulthood. In every nation women, rich and poor, given access to contraceptives and safe abortion when contraception fails, will choose to have two or fewer children. Furthermore, educating girls reduces birthrates. When women enter the workforce, start businesses, inherit assets and otherwise interact with men on an equal footing, they desire fewer children. David Attenborough says it well,  

“The only straw of comfort or of hope, and even that is pretty fragile, is that wherever women are given political control of their bodies, where they have the vote, education, appropriate medical facilities and they can read and have rights and so on, the birth rate falls, there’s no exceptions to that” 

In 1994, the United Nations’ International Conference on Population was signed by 179 countries. For the first time women's rights and needs were recognized as central to population control and the development of nations. This included empowering women through education and access to reproductive health services. The goal was to help every woman bear a healthy child when she wanted one. Sadly the results of this plan has been unequal and fragmented because of opposition from conservative and religious groups.  

   All this points to a theme in my writing. Everyone is better off when everyone is better off  When women are empowered and allowed the freedomto control their own lives, everyone wins including the rest of the biosphere. We are all in this together, there is only one planet earth, and we all sink or swim together.