School girl at library shelves

The Problem With the Population Problem

I have a problem, a few problems actually, with this essay recently reposted at Resilience.org, a source of great thinking and insights:

The Population Problem: Not as Bad as You Might Think

It’s not that I want to be “alarmist,” but the problem is worse than most people think. But I agree with and admire the intention of the author, Karen Lynn Allen. She wants us to know we can solve the problem, so let’s roll up our sleeves and get busy. So, thank you for this, Ms. Allen.

“First the good news: great progress has already been made! It turns out women around the world are on board with zero population growth! It turns out zero population growth is not all that difficult or expensive to achieve! The bad news: the people with wealth and power in the world are largely uninterested in funding it.”

That’s a great starting paragraph. And Karen Lynn Allen provides a lot of helpful information here. But I am afraid some of the statements here give the wrong impression, so I must offer some clarifications and corrections.

1. While the cures for population growth are relatively easy and inexpensive, varying political will to implement them has been and continues to be a barrier. So, easy in one way, quite difficult in another.

2. Zero population growth shouldn’t be our end goal. Our current world population of 7.4 billion is completely unsustainable, and that’s with a few billion of us living much more simply than desired. Population contraction needs to be the topic, and that makes everything Allen is celebrating here just a little bit farther from the goal line. She seems to be aware of this, as evidenced by:

“The rapid expansion of human population past the finite limits of what our planet can support is a messy business if there ever was one….”

So I’m not sure why she hasn’t chosen her words more carefully. Zero population growth just isn’t enough. And she does, near the end of this piece, get down to the business of calculating a sustainable world population level and advocating getting down to it. Her calculation of a sustainable population is one of those rough, casual, back of the cocktail napkin operations, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously. But I would have liked to see her get to a number a little more scientifically (by relying on what the serious scientists tell us). That said, her 2.7 billion is in the neighborhood.

I do want to give Allen kudos for telegraphing one very important message: the population problem is solvable. It’s not too big and it’s not hopeless. She wisely offers evidence to support this message:

“Of the 224 countries in the world, the population growth rate is negative in 34 of them….”

“Births per woman. Here’s the good news. This number has been dropping worldwide, falling from 5 in 1960 to 2.42 in 2016….”

3. I have to take issue with the following trail of logic, however, in which Allen dismisses most of the world from both concern and action:

“Across the entire world, 136 countries are below 2.1 replacement rate fertility. That leaves just 88 countries to worry about.”

“80% of the world’s population resides in the 34 most populous countries. Of these 34, eighteen countries already have fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.1…. No need to worry about these countries.”

“Of the sixteen that remain, six countries have made great strides and are very close to the replacement fertility rate (and may already be below their own replacement fertility rate)….”

“That leaves ten countries to worry about. Of these, six have cut their fertility rate by at least half over the past 50 years…. These countries could still use encouragement and financial support but they are not where the biggest part of the problem lies.”

“That leaves just four countries that need heavy-duty work on the fertility rate front: Tanzania (4.83 births per woman), Nigeria (5.13), Ethiopia (5.07), Congo DR (4.53). …worrying about four countries is much, much easier than worrying about 224.”

I guess if you’re trying to cheer people up and really amp up the support for family planning in these 4 nations, this gets you there. But Allen is letting far too many of us off the hook, including men (characterized as nice to have, but not playing a central role, even while World Vasectomy Day is around the corner), and dozens of nations that need to not settle for being near replacement fertility rates. Allen points out how quickly some populations have cut their fertility rate. I want to underscore this and emphasize that nations in the developed world with fertility rates between 1.5 and 2.1 should in no way be let off the hook. We should be in a hurry to get every nation below 1.5 until world and regional populations are all back down to sustainable levels. Focusing on 4 countries just doesn’t float my boat.

5. I’m not sure we should be encouraging pets as a replacement for kids. Perhaps when we are out of overshoot that might be a luxury to be revisited. Right now, pets strike me as negotiable. Fewer would be better right now.

There is a lot to like here. Allen provides good information and perspective on educating women, access to birth control, eliminating child and teen marriage, etc. There is much more to this essay, so please don’t consider my analysis an adequate “CliffsNotes” for the piece. Read the whole thing. But keep in mind my suggestion that we should not let ourselves off the hook. Overpopulation is not simply a problem “over there” in a handful of African nations. The U.S. is overpopulated, and a fertility rate of 2 in an overconsuming country is still way too high. So, bravo, Karen, for some excellent research, great points made, and a cheerful attitude about a solvable problem. Just don’t let men and a big chunk of the world off the hook so easily.

 

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