Human Population: The Elephant in the Room

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in:

  • Santa Monica Daily Press, as Overpopulation the elephant in the room, 21 Sept 2010
  • E-Magazine’s Our Planet Weekly, as Pretending It’s Not People, 17 Sept 2010
  • Surf City Voice, 12 Sept 2010

Human population is the unspoken elephant in the room driving environmental crises

It is hard to come up with a looming environmental problem not ultimately rooted in human population expansion, be it a local issue like traffic congestion, litter and air & drinking water pollution or more global concerns like ocean fish depletion, deforestation, species extinction and global climate change.

We humans currently number 6.9 billion and continue to swell the planet by nearly 80 million more each year.  Almost half of us are under the age of 25, and, if present trends continue, we will double in number before 2060.

The United States does not earn a pass when it comes to population pressures on the environment, in part because our per capita resource consumption and waste production dwarf that of much of the rest of the world.  Furthermore, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks birth rates, and although the current U. S. birth rate (13.8 births per 1000 people per year) is roughly one-third that of several African countries, 69 other countries have lower birth rates.

The U.S. population has continued to rise by roughly three million each year over the last two decades with the latest total estimate topping 307 million.  By the end of this century, there could well be 570 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Given these harrowing projections and the monumental environmental dilemmas we face already, you would think that candidly stated strategies to stabilize the population, at home and abroad, would be a priority at every level of government.  Not so.

For starters, consider that neither the Democratic nor Republican Party Platforms of 2008 even mention population growth.  The closest the Democratic Platform comes is through explicit support for access to comprehensive family planning services (including sex education, contraception, and safe abortion) as strategies to help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.  The Republican Platform heavily stresses the need for immigration reform but without any reference to population control.

While it may be fashionable for politicians to acknowledge that our environment is in serious trouble, and indeed many do work diligently to pass legislation to improve environmental protections, it is nearly impossible to imagine any one of them saying to the public that there are – or will soon be – too many of us.

What ever happened to Zero Population Growth?
Baby Boomers may recall when, during the 60s and 70s, the nonprofit organization Zero Population Growth (aka ZPG) enjoyed a formidable presence on college campuses and in the popular media.  Though since renamed Population Connection, it remains the largest grassroots population organization in the United States.  To understand why population per se is not a front page issue anymore despite mounting pressures on the environment, I approached the five-year President of Population Connection, John Seager.

Seager points out the challenge in keeping the public interested in population numbers because the headline would read the same every day, i.e. that global population had jumped by about 220,000 the day before.  However, in the late 60s and early 70s, a confluence of events pushed population into the American public’s consciousness for the first time.  Among them were Paul R. Ehrlich’s best-selling book “The Population Bomb” which predicted mass human starvation, the advent of birth control pills, the Supreme Court’s 1965 establishment of a constitutional right to use contraceptives, and the unprecedented wave of female Baby Boomers going on to college and choosing to have smaller families.

Yet Seager asserts that population stories are still very much in today’s headlines, but in the guise of seemingly unrelated issues like California’s chronic water shortage, political squabbling over drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge, the Aids epidemic in Africa, and this year’s unprecedented flooding in Pakistan which has killed tens of thousands.

Tackling the problem of population head-on is also particularly sensitive at this time in American society because the nation is so divided on abortion rights and immigration, the two flash points that invariably surface whenever population issues come to the fore.  According to Seager, unplanned births and immigration contribute about equally to U.S. population growth.

Given the political climate, Seager sees as less important whether politicians speak openly about population growth than whether they support the three measures scientifically proven to curb it: family planning (synonymous with access to modern, artificial means of birth control), comprehensive sex education as opposed to abstinence-only programs, and access to safe and legal abortion.

As evidence that political alliances for or against these measures have shifted substantially over time, Seager points to the fact that Republican President Richard Nixon ardently lobbied for and signed into law Title X (ten), the federal program dedicated to providing family planning services nationwide (his legacy also includes the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency).  Consider also that George Bush, Sr., as a young congressman, was such an outspoken supporter of Planned Parenthood that among House colleagues he earned the nickname “Rubbers.”  Only later while positioning himself for the White House did he reverse positions on abortion to the extent that he embraced a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

While President Obama’s stance on controversies affecting population is evident from his campaigning as a pro-choice candidate and subsequent policy implementations (e.g. increased federal funding for domestic and international family planning services; shift away from abstinence-only sex education programs for teens; and rescinding the last-minute Bush Administration policy which allowed pharmacists nationwide to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives), Obama has also refrained from openly pointing to population as the root environmental problem.

The sheer number of we humans is undeniably the behemoth elephant in the room when it comes to the daunting environmental issues of our time.  One has to question how far we can get in creating an environmentally sustainable future for our children when we all silently agree to acknowledge, not  the elephant, but only its manifestations like smog, water shortages and climate change.

This situation is akin to the elephant hunter who targets just the tail, tusk or trunk and wonders why it does not keel over.  And the problem with this particular beast is that, come mid century, it will be double in size and likely many times more difficult to fell.

12 Responses to Human Population: The Elephant in the Room

  1. Doug Korthof says:

    Good points, Steve, but it’s a complicated and divisive issue.

    The reason no one in the US gets stirred up about ZPG any more is that our pop is generally NOT growing via birth; it’s growing via immigration from countries that are negligent and impoverished due to their own self-destructive actions and bad dictators.

    While India is over-populated and its growth is way out of control, China is overpopulated but its growth has now been controlled. Generally, the more impoverished countries — and those without human rights for women — breed the most and are the least capable of investing the $300,000 to $500,000 it takes to raise a child from 0 to 18 (including, in the US, $120,000 in school expense, $90,000 in health care, $50,000 in housing, the same in food, and then clothing, entertainment, trips, toys, child care, and so on).

    In Muslim countries, for example, the birthrate is often out of control, as is the AIDS rate, because women have no power at all (in Saudi, they can’t even drive!) and can’t ask for birth control, disease protection or have any rights with respect to their marriage or procreation at all.

    So, in that sense, the population issue is a sort of meaningless bug-a-boo; countries that are well-off, which accord women rights and don’t have desperate poverty, don’t have out-of-control population.

    Japan and Russia, for example, actually have a population problem in reverse — NOT ENOUGH new babies to support the older generation!

    The issue is than more complicated than merely pointing to India or Guatemala’s unrestrained population growth. To paraphrase the sage, “…the poor man’s retirement is to breed as many children as possible, so that one of them might do well enough to support him…”. And in that saying lies the whole problem: viewing women as breeders for man’s benefit, and children as chips to trade for money.

    Yes, if India had 100 million people, instead of uncounted hordes more than 1 billion, it would be as rich as it was in historic times (the Indian subcontinent was traditionally one of the most fecund and populous of farmland); similarly, if China had 300 million instead of 1.2 Billion, it would be much easier to bring up the standard of living there.

    Population as a problem cannot IMO be divorced from social and political issues that are much more powerful — such as the Catholic Church’s campaign against population control!

    In fact, in the US, we might be underpopulated in the sense that if we lived rationally and sustainably we’d have much more resources than we need. For example, water! And imagine if we used electric for trains, instead of diesel — and eliminated non-productive stuff like casinos and Walmart, we’d be swimming in backyard gardens, excess solar power, and more oil than we needed without new drilling.

    As for India, it’s a mess, and everyone knows it but no one is pointing to their self-impoverishment (selling children on the street, for example) not to mention the criminal treatment and forced breeding of captive women in crappy places like Afghan or the rest of the Muslim world.

  2. Doug – as usual you are spot on with respect to the complexities and inter-relationships of environmental and social issues, although it is my understanding that unplanned births and immigration contribute about equally to U.S. population growth.

  3. Doug Korthof says:

    Hi Steve, we’re both agreed on the necessity for readily available birth control and legal access to RU86 as well as first trimester abortion, parental training, pre-natal and post-natal care as well as special attention during pregnancy.

    I don’t doubt that there are poor women in this country who are intimidated and discouraged from parental planning, and think it’s criminal.

  4. Dave Gardner says:

    Bravo, Sarah. I’ve shared links to your commentary via Twitter, Digg and Facebook, because you’ve written what too few will write. Writing and talking about it more and more will take power away from the taboo.

    What is wrong with wanting everyone to know that making responsible decisions to limit our family size is the most significant thing we can do to provide a good future for the next generation? Nothing. Except that so many people today just can’t handle it. And there is nothing complicated about the concept, either.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the non-profit documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  5. Jane DeChambeau says:

    In 1979, I was a co-director of a Youth Conversation Corps (YCC) for Idaho Parks and Recreation during the summer. One of the programs listed in the final report was a presentation to Corp members (15-18 years old) by Planned Parenthood. It was in the report as an achievement. Cannot imagine a state-sponsored, federally-funded program doing that today.

  6. Sue Shaw says:

    Doug Korthof wrote,”Japan and Russia, for example, actually have a population problem in reverse — NOT ENOUGH new babies to support the older generation!”
    Now think about this a bit! That makes about as much sense as having 7 kids you can’t afford to feed so they will be able to support you in your old age! Logical? NOT! I am glad that Japan and Russia are lessening their population, and hence, their human imprint. They still have too many people, though. The USA has way too many people for their own land’s ability to provide. My country Canada is a harsh land, much of it unarable. We have way too many people, too, even though we have less than 8 people per hectare. Other species have a right to exist, too. We can’t keep taking their space for ourselves, for we’re all inter-dependent. For some reason, capitalists can’t see that littl detail.

  7. Dave Gardner says:

    Thank you, Sue, for pointing out the lunacy of Ponzi demography!

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the non-profit documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  8. Sue Shaw says:

    Thanks, Dave, for giving a name to this lunacy: Ponzification.

    Ponzification explains the “thoughts” behind the actions of today’s union brass knuckleheads. They are doing stuff causing union martyrs to roll around in their graves. They invested our pensions in capitalist enterprises, none under worker control or blessed with a shred of social and environmental conscience! Worse, these companies support governments totally opposed to workers’ rights and environmentally sustainable activities. Today’s leaders have swallowed the whole pile of Economic 100 BS, including the “law” of supply and demand, which–if you REALLY look at it, is nothing more than learned responses to perceived shortages. First Nations in my country took 300 years to respond somewhat to that “demand” philosophy. Before, they only worked (hunted, trapped, gathered) to get as much as they needed and didn’t work again until they were hungry again. No hoarding possible in a canoe, eh?;) Now, they’re becoming as stupid as the rest of us, working too hard for too long to buy too much stuff they don’t need. Some on the West Coast bought HUGE fishing vessels and now take way too much fish, creating shortages to charge more to consumers who are totally duped into thinking they better pay these higher prices or, God forbid, go without and eat something else, instead. They believe in the Marketplace Dogma of profit at all costs to others, other species and the environment. Marketplace Dogma also demands a belief in Growth Forever on a finite planet, and we wonder why we have wars! But wars are a growth industry for the Halliburtons, the Rothchildren, the Rockefellas, the Kochs and other filthy rich thugs. Jails were made for such as they, but governments won’t hire bright cops. I have it on good authority that cops in my country must have less IQ than 110 and a willingness to follow orders. And if the same thing holds true in the USA,UK, etc., you can understand why crimes take so long to solve–esp. corporate crimes. Perhaps we need to have concurrent governments with our own police force to counter the impending New Feudalism (see article by Jerry West online somewhere), as well as lessen environmental degradation.

  9. Linda Nicholes says:

    Incredible writing, Steve, and SPOT ON!! It’s about time somebody told it like it is — and what it is is that we are breeding ourselves off the very face of the planet. I agree with you that behind most tribulations and tragedies suffered by humanity and the environment gallops the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, and he’s carrying a a large biblical sign that reads, “Be fruitful, multiply and ‘replenish’ the earth.”
    I’ve always found this fact to be compelling: It took humans from the beginning of human time until the year 1800 to reach one billion. In slightly over 200 years we are grasping for the seven billionth human being. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that that kind of geometric growth is unsustainable and will be the end of us if the conductor on the runaway train doesn’t somehow manage to find the brakes.

  10. I picked up a copy of the Santa Monica Daily Press tonight and was so pleased to see “Overpopulation the elephant in the room” on the op-ed page. Very cogent piece covering the relevant points on this issue. Thanks for writing it. Always good to find people of like mind who will address this topic. If you’re not familiar with Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS | capsweb.org), please check out the site. When I first started reading your article, my first thought was that one of my fellow writers at the organization had written it — like minds, like I said!

  11. Would you mind commenting on the following perspective?

    If the natural world is to be given its due and the human world is not to go utterly mad, then we have a great deal of work ahead of us. What troubles me is the way ‘the brightest and best’; the smartest guys in the room; the ones who report they have not flown commercial since the 70s; the Wall Street casino operatives and hedge fund managers who have added nothing to the human economy and marked themselves as thieves of the highest order; the greediest among us who have hoarded most of the world’s wealth but not honestly and uprightly obtained it; those who live large and unsustainably without regard to human limits and Earth’s limitations, engage so righteously in conscious deception as well as in willful denial of any effort to communicate about matters of concern that do not buttress their selfish interests. These self-proclaimed masters of the universe have much larger, more fashionable and ever important agendas than educating the human family, telling the truth and doing the right thing, I suppose.

    Perhaps the time has come to sort out what is sacred from what is profane about the predominant culture. We need to do this one thing soon, I suppose, because what is profane about the culture is threatening to overwhelm whatsoever else is sacred in the planetary home we inhabit. At least to me there is something perverse harbored within a culture that makes it ok for the most arrogant, clever and greedy among us to “obey the laws” and still destroy everything which is known to be sacred in the planetary home God blesses us to inhabit…and not desecrate as is plainly occurring in our time. Sad to say, the children will be justified to look back in anger and utter disbelief at the way their avaricious leading elders dishonestly and duplicitously destructed the natural world, even as they claimed so seductively, arrogantly and self-righteously not only to be protecting and preserving God’s Creation but also to be doing “God’s work”.

    What a shame it is that a tiny minority of morally bankrupt, super-rich greedmongers are allowed to perpetrate a sham in the name of the human community and God which will likely turn our planetary home into a shambles….much sooner than our
    ‘experts’ are reporting!

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  12. Kathleene Parker says:

    I think as we discuss U.S. growth–considering the corporate media’s determination to keep us in the dark–we need to retain a grasp on key points. The main one is that Bangladesh’s overpopulation is a huge problem for Bangladesh, but U.S. overpopulation is a huge problem for the world!

    Please don’t underestimate our numbers or our growth rate. We are the world’s third most populated nation, behind only India and China, and its 4th fastest growing. And, yes, 60 percent of that growth is from immigration at 2 times the previous high, a hundred years ago when we were still a vast, unsettled frontier! But it is also due to a factor called momentum. Yes, women are having fewer babies per woman, but more women than ever are having babies, a point conveniently ignored by the media touting a “low birth rate”. As a result, 2007 actually topped the 1957 peak of the baby boom, and most frightening, like most other things confronting our nation, our leaders are not talking candidly about our population explosion. And for one final perspective as to the global ramifications of our current unfettered growth–the unacknowledged elephant in the room–please remember that HALF OF ALL GROWTH ON THE PLANET TO 2050 WILL HAPPEN IN JUST EIGHT NATIONS. They are India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, THE UNITED STATES, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is not a problem of just the developing world. Considering our carbon footprint the UNITED STATES IS THE WORLD’S MOST OVERPOPULATED NATION!

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