Responses to Common Objections
Below are some common objections and arguments that come up when the idea of investing in population stabilization (as a pre-requisite of multi-generational sustainable living with the planet Earth) is put forth. As advocates, its important we determine what category a person who argues against us is representing. Are they vested interests who make more and easier profits when population increases? Are they uniformed? Are they ideologues who have other agendas that don't square with population stabilization and/or sustainable living? Or, are they principled dissenters who really feel there is danger in bringing a population analysis component to our quest for a better human community and a healthy planet?
GPSO participants should keep in mind that criticism and skepticism regarding the fundamental relationship between human population and sustainable living scenarios with the planet Earth offer us opportunities -- opportunities to educate; to strengthen our communication skills; and, to define the discourse of environmentalism and sustainability for generations to come. If you have a particularly effective way of answering these (or other objections), please feel free to send them in.
Click on the highlighted text to jump down to the "answer" section.
#1: Population growth isn’t a problem because the UN says it will probably level off later this century. There are other priorities!
#2: The problem is not that we are adding a net gain of over 9,000 people per-hour to our already stressed out planet (2+ people per second) -- the only real problem is our consumption patterns!
#3: We need population growth for a healthy economy. A shrinking population would mean fewer young people and more older people. It would therefore present serious economic problems!
#4: If you forced every person on the planet to live in Texas, they could each have a modular home and a half-acre lawn. In fact, if everyone on the whole planet stood shoulder to shoulder they could fit into the state of Rhode Island!
#5: You can't stabilize population growth without trampling on human autonomy, violating human rights, or making people's bodies territories of the state!
#6: Advocating for population stabilization is only done by capitalist reactionaries or misguided reformers. Capitalism is the real problem. Focusing on population is a red-herring!
#7: People who advocate for population stabilization are just worried about people who do not look like them having too many babies. Its all either low-brow intolerance or thinly veiled racism!
#8: There is no ecological problem in the first place; climate change, biodiversity loss and other supposed environmental degradation are myths designed to empower global elitists to control the world!
Objection: Population growth isn’t a problem because the UN says it will probably level off later this century.
"...Over the past decade, the United Nations has raised its medium population projection for 2050 from 8.9 to 9.2 billion (the current population is 6.89 billion); 300 million additional people will eat a lot of food, use more energy, and do major damage to ecosystems and species. More disturbing is that those UN projections are based on the unfounded and unlikely core assumption that the “total fertility rates” of all countries will mathematically converge at 1.85 children per woman shortly after 2050 and then hold steady.
"In a world where national fertility rates range from 1 to 7 children, a spread similar to the norm in the 20th century, it boggles the mind to envision reproductive conformity within a few decades, let alone a long-term global below-replacement fertility level of 1.85 (~2.1 children is replacement fertility in a healthy modern society). For decades, UN demographers used 2.1 as the “magic number” to which all societies would inevitably hew, but they lowered that by a quarter child last decade, after observing that many European and Asian countries had not actually towed the modelers’ line and halted their fertility slide at 2.1, instead falling to 1.5 or below. The demographers’ overreaction was to cut the global fertility projection to 1.85.
"...The projected decline in growth later this century depends entirely on two unrealized dreams: universal access to and use of effective contraception and a global desire to average less than two children per family. We are far from achieving the former – roughly half of pregnancies, even in the US, are unintended. As to the latter, desired family size in many key developing countries is still 3 to 7 children and barely budging. Yet global interest and funding for slowing population growth are declining. Population policy was virtually absent from the agenda of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference."
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, December 2009; 7(10): 511, reproduced with permission from the author and the Editor of Frontiers. (The author is Fred Meyerson, Ph.D., J.D., professor of Demography, Ecology and Environmental Policy, University of Rhode Island. You can read the full article in our activist library).
NOTE: Population Reference Bureau now projects that world population will be 9.485 billion by mid-2050, just shy of 9.5 billion. That number is slightly higher than last year’s projection (9.421 billion), and notably higher than the U.N.’s current medium variant projection (9.149 billion)
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Objection: The problem is not that we are adding a net gain of over 9,000 people per-hour to our already stressed out planet (2+ people per second) -- the only real problem is our consumption patterns! (NOTE: This objection is one of the most common, especially among self-identified environmentalists).
(The following excerpts are from an article written by Dr. John Feeney, and published in The Guardian):
A typical response: "If everyone on Earth just consumed less, as they do in Mexico, say, we wouldn't have exceeded carrying capacity."
It's a simple notion: reduce per person consumption and end our environmental problems...
Looking... for a way around the problem of growing human numbers, most environmentalists now suggest a reduction in individual consumption is all we need to solve our ecological problems.
Are they right? The work of the Global Footprint Network (GFN), home of the "ecological footprint," points to the answer. Measuring consumption as the use of biologically productive land and sea, their data shows a global maximum sustainable footprint, at today's population, of just under 1.8 global hectares (gha) per person. Currently, by drawing down nonrenewable resources, we're a bit over 2.2gha, overshooting Earth's limits by about 25%.
What if everyone... converged on Mexico's level of per capita consumption? Resource use would plummet in developed countries while rising in many of the poorest... But it wouldn't get us to 1.8gha. At 2.6gha, Mexico's footprint is 32% too high. A drop to the level of Botswana or Uzbekistan would put us in the right range.
But that's not low enough. We'd next have to compensate for UN projections of 40% more humans by the middle of the century. That would mean shrinking the global footprint to under 1.3gha, roughly the level of Guatemala or Nigeria.
There's more. The GFN authors point out their data is conservative, underestimating problems such as aquifer depletion and our impacts on other species. In response, the Redefining Progress group publishes an alternative footprint measure which has humanity not at 25%, but at 39% overshoot. But that too, the authors concede, is an underestimate.
Reducing global resource consumption while simultaneously improving the material well-being of billions of our fellow humans will certainly require profound — though as yet unseen — adjustments to the production decisions and consumptive habits of currently developed nations. However, conservative ecological footprint data indicate that no realistic reduction in per capita consumption on the part of industrialized countries will be enough, in the absence of stabilized and gradually reduced population, to bring us back to within Earth’s capacity to sustain us for millennia on end. Saying consumption is more important than population is reminiscent of the mathematician who postulates that the width is more important than the length when figuring the area of a rectangle.
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Objection: We need population growth for a healthy economy. A shrinking population would mean fewer young people and more older people. It would therefore present serious economic problems!
If you stop and think for a moment about what is implied with this objection, you begin to understand the limited utility neo-classic economic theory, with its addiction to growth, has to play in our sustainable future. The person using this argument is suggesting that population will need to grow forever or else economic health will be imperiled. Leaving aside, for a moment, the obvious ecological degradation already taking place in real-time -- what the person is saying is that there is no end, ever, to human population growth. And, that this is not a problem.
In actuality, this person is probably just repeating what they have heard from countless neo-liberal & classic economists and vested interests. This sort of short-term, growth-at-all-costs economic philosophy, which amounts to "Ponzi Scheme economics will probably work until I die, so please be quiet" is impossible to condone from a world-view of multi-generational sustainibility.
In truth, any economic model, or network of models, that humanity collectively engages in will face systemic challenges from time to time. Any structural challenges that may be posed by a stabilized and gradually reduced global population pale in comparison to the human and non-human tolls being exacted by both the planetary-scale ecological degradation currently taking place and the profound inequity spawned, in no small part, by the tenets of neo-classic economic theory and institutions.
Moreover, a stabilizing population will undoubtedly create significant opportunities for free-market economic products and innovations. Risking an ecological collapse by continued adherence to economic measurments that have so clearly failed the environment on which they depend breaches the threshold of irrational. Without a viable ecosystem, after all, there is no economy.
The burgeoning field of ecological economics demonstrates that continued economic growth, especially as measured by the neo-classical economists, is unsustainable. It cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. One logical alternative is a transition to a steady state economy. Advocating for perpetual population growth as a required fuel for a failed neo-classic economic model underestimates human adaptational ingenuity and the dynamism of the market itself.
Here are some organizations and web-resources that are useful:
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Objection: If you forced every person on the planet to live in Texas, they could each have a modular home and a half-acre lawn. In fact, if everyone on the whole planet stood shoulder to shoulder they could fit into the state of Rhode Island!
This objection is also known as the "Open Space Delusion", and indicates the person making this argument has little (aka: zero) familiarity with the ideas and science of ecological carrying capacity. Any ecologist can tell you that it is not the number of a certain species a geographically discreet area can contain, it is the number that it can sustain.
"To clarify this point further, imagine a national park in Africa and its carrying capacity for lions. Although the enormous measured areas of a large reserve might allow us to physically squeeze hundreds of thousands or even millions of lions into such a park, to sustain even small numbers of lions, there must be vast game herds with populations large enough to allow a harvestable surplus of zebra and wildebeest. These vast game herds, in turn, require enormously greater expanses of grasslands to sustain their grazing and seasonal migrations, along with adequate supplies of water. As a result, approximately 250 square kilometers of "open-space" are required to support a small population of about fifteen adult lions and their young. Thus, to suggest that millions of lions might occupy a reserve simply because its mathematical dimensions can physically accommodate their bodies would constitute a gross misrepresentation of biospheric reality." (Randolph Femmer, What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet, 2010)
Human beings are no different -- we have "footprints" that extend far beyond our feet.
Putting aside considerations of what quality of life 6.8 billion people clumped together in Texas would experience, the true impact of one person living in a detached suburban-style home is much greater than using the space and resources existent on that one small parcel of land. For example, all 6.8 billion Texans would still need to expropriate land for food production; find energy; utilize resources to construct their homes, clothes, cars and consumer goods. They would still need to dispose of the feces, food scraps, carbon emissions, mercury pollution and other wastes of 6.8 billion humans.
It may be intellectually pleasing to imagine 6.8 billion people voluntarily living in Texas -- while the rest of the world went wild and free -- but the idea only works if the people are equivalent to cardboard cut-outs. It fails utterly when they are living, breathing human beings.
To examine the Open Space Delusion further, let us move to another example -- reindeer on St. Paul Island.
"In a classic study of a “boom-and-bust” population explosion Scheffer (1951) followed a population of reindeer on St. Paul Island, Alaska from 1910 to 1950. The island had no wolves, predators, or major competitors so that the reindeer population exhibited approximately 28 years of relatively unrestricted and unfettered growth.
The herd’s initial phase of exponential growth, however, was followed by a catastrophic die-off or collapse in which 99% of the herd died out by the close of the study. It is important to recognize that the herd occupied less than one-tenth of one percent of the area that remained theoretically available as their collapse began, so that the die-off took place even as “vast amounts of open space” remained seemingly available." (Randolph Femmer, What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet, 2010)
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Objection: You can't stabilize population growth without trampling on human autonomy, violating human rights, or making people's bodies territories of the state!
Today’s best established means of reducing fertility rates are, by their very nature, humane and empowering. They include educating women and men, using media strategies to expose families to new options concerning family size and the status of women, providing unconstrained access to family planning and reproductive health services resources, and reducing infant mortality rates. These are the stock-in-trade of many well-respected groups working today to address population. And, even the more radical hypothesis (such as one-child policies) advocated by various sectors of today’s serious population activists explicitly repudiate force in favor of the democratic process.
Concerns and condemnation of human rights abuses linked to misguided , coercive “population-control” measures are valid and necessary. But acknowledging that "the population issue has at times been linked to abuses" does not lead logically to the conclusion that we should abandon the issue. After all, other good causes such as health care and education have been abused as well -- often abhorrently. But we never abandoned them: they’re too important. Instead, we learned from past mistakes and worked to improve our approach in the future. The same must apply to population.
Knowing that programs and policies must be designed to protect and enhance human rights as they are implemented, we should remember one of the most important purposes in addressing population today is to help avert a planet-scale, systemic ecological collapse. A long, long list of widespread, severe environmental degradations hint that such collapse may already be under way; to risk its full maturation is to unconscionably risk massive human suffering. Nowhere, then, are human rights more a concern than in the effort to prevent the impact on humanity of global ecological collapse.
For more on this topic, see the following chapter by Francis Kissling from "A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge" edited by Laurie Mazur.
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Objection: Advocating for population stabilization is only done by capitalist reactionaries or misguided reformers. Capitalism is the real problem. Focusing on population is a red-herring!
NOTE: This is a derivative of the "it's not the number of people, it's what they do" objection. But rather than focus only on reducing consumption within the status quo context of international corporate capitalism, some suggest we toss out capitalism altogether and institute a planetary system of socialism. They argue this will make the world economy, operating at a scale of 9+ billion in only 40 years, more attentive to the environmental health of the planet and more equitable and just from an anthropocentric perspective.
There is little doubt that status quo corporate capitalism is a major driving force in our ecological crisis, especially with its emphasis on very short term thinking and profit making. That doesn't render the size and growth of our human populations ecologically irrelevant. Look no further than the 2010 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of The United States, in which O'Neill, et. al., indicate that “slowing population growth could provide 16–29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.”
Of course, emission are not the only form of environmental degradation that needs addressing. Loss of open space, loss of uncorrupted habitat and the attendant biodiversity losses are also related to the size and growth of the human population -- the economic system de jour making little to no difference.
While those who argue capitalism is the prime culprit in the ecological crisis may have many meaningful contributions to make towards a sustainable future, the notion that population growth is not a bona-fide sustainability issue -- or that honestly thinking about ways to slow down and stabilize population growth are distractions in the work of creating a multi-generational sustainable living scenario with the planet -- relegates these activists to the "almost but not quite" pile.
In the end, most such advocates are not much of a threat, since they do understand the ecological limits to growth and unflinchingly support the suite of investments necessary for "as soon as humanely possible" population stabilizations: reproductive health, choice and more equitable economics. The best way to interact with them is to ask, "If your ideal economic system were implemented on the face of the Earth tomorrow, under what conditions, ceteris paribus, would it be less environmentally demanding and impactful: if populations were growing or if they were stable?"
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Objection: People who advocate for population stabilization are just worried about people who do not look like them having too many babies. Its all either low-brow intolerance or thinly veiled racism!
The irony of these arguments are almost always lost on their proponents: if we aspire to a post-racial world-view, where all homo sapiens recognize their innate equivalence with all other homo sapiens (with no prejudicial thought to ethnicity or country or origin) then any notion advanced with an expressly stated global perspective should not be analyzed in a way that perpetuates racialized distinctions. But that is exactly what those who proffer this argument do.
When trying to look at the world eco-centrically, or trying to analyze our global community from a "socially just" anthropocentric world view, the environmental impact of a person should be assessed not on the color of their eyes, skin or hair, but rather on their a) existence and b) the quality and quantity of their interactions with the biosphere while they are alive. Using these two factors, and these two factors alone, will (by definition) preclude serious sustainability discussions from accommodating any unsavory small mindedness around the superiority of any human phenotype. It may however, reveal gross inequity in use of, and access to, planetary resources -- the awareness of which is instructive to sustainability advocates.
Of course, looking at the planet-scale situation, the careful observer must then aggregate the effects of 6.89 billion (and increasing by 157 per minute) individual existences and impacts. Out of necessity this is done with averaging and multiplication. The big picture, it is agreed by almost all serious environmental scientists, is that the aggregate environmental impact of our massive and rapidly expanding population has overshot the ability of the Earth to provide for us without suffering fundamental degradation. Even if one insists on perpetuating a racialized worldview, its clear that a systemic collapse of the Earth's environment as we know it will effect all people regardless of ethnicity, origin of birth, language, color, or philosophy.
Finally, if one is more concerned with the "North vs. South" dichotomy, as verified by The UN Population Fund the following countries signed a statement in 1989 urging early stabilization of human population. Austria, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Botswana, Cape Verde, China, Columbia, Cyprus, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Fiji, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Jordon, Kenya, Rep. of Korea, Liberia, Malta, Mauritius, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Sudan, Thailand, Tunisia, Vanuatu, and Zimbabwe.
It is either disingenuous or misinformed to claim that the "rich nations" are trying to coerce the "poor nations" on population issues. The following countries are part of either the South Commission or Partners in Population and Development: Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, China, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia (former), and Western Samoa. The “Partners” share expertise with each other in reproductive health, appropriate technologies, and population policy.
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Objection: There is no ecological problem in the first place; climate change, biodiversity loss and other supposed environmental degradation are myths designed to empower global elitists to control the world!
On one hand, you may be motivated to have the person join this wonderful organization.
On the other hand, this objection does have a lot of currency in the conspiracy theory world. At least it does offer an opportunity to remind the public that the best investments in population stabilization are investments that should be made anyway: investments in improving child mortality, elevating the status of women around the world, improving maternal health, providing world-class reproductive health and fighting sexually transmitted diseases.