Public believes population growth negative, risky, and requiring international attention, while politicians look the other way

By Jenna Dodson | 1 February 2019
The Overpopulation Project

(Credit: Marco Verch / Flickr)

Population growth is a potential political and social issue. And just like any issue, it requires recognition from both the public and politicians to be added to the agenda. Although population growth may not be a topic that compels you to call your representative, surveys from the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) show that perhaps it should be.

The GCF conducted a quantitative survey of public views on global issues such as climate change, poverty, and population growth. This survey was conducted in ten countries around the world, with 1000 residents in each country[1]. Results overwhelming show that the majority of the global public interviewed is concerned about population growth and views it as a future threat.

In the most recent survey, 70% of respondents agreed that population growth represents a global catastrophic risk, and 56% concurred that the consequences of population growth will be negative for mankind.


In Germany, Sweden and South Africa population growth was ranked 5th among the most important global catastrophic risks[2]. In India, population growth ranked the 4th in importance, higher than weapons of mass destruction.


It is clear that the general public is concerned, on both the national and international levels. When 70% of all respondents believe that population growth is a global catastrophic risk and 23% believe it needs an urgent response, this begs the question, what would an ‘urgent response’ look like?

According to GCF’s 2014 survey, the globally accepted response is “enforceable international decisions,” such as treaties, to address population growth. Respondents were asked the question: Do you think there should be enforceable international decisions to stop population growth?


Overall, more people thought there should be enforceable international decisions to stop population growth (53%) than did not (40%). Regionally, the majority of respondents in Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa approved of this measure, while a majority from the three European countries and the USA did not. It is important to note that the majority of people in the three European countries and the USA do, however, agree that the consequences of population growth will be negative and view population growth as a future threat to mankind. As such, this issue demands attention, and it is important to maintain a dialogue to reconcile the best strategies for a solution. But is such a dialogue open in the political sphere?

Using Sweden as a case study, we compared GCF surveys of the Swedish public and of the 368 members of the Swedish parliament, just prior to elections in 2014. In the surveys, Swedish citizens and Swedish politicians were asked the same question: “According to the most recent predictions from the UN, the worldwide population will be close to 11 billion in 2100, an increase by almost 50% compared to today’s 6.8 billion. What do you believe that the consequences of this population growth for mankind will be…?


Overwhelming, Swedish citizens believe the consequences of population growth to be negative[3] (71%), whereas the most common answer among the politicians was neither positive nor negative (41%). Almost a quarter (23.6%) chose not to answer, and one member of parliament wrote in a comment that it was, “An overly complicated issue that is better not addressed here.” A member of the Center Party (“Centerpartiet”), whose leader has been arguing for an increase of the Swedish population from 10 to 40 million people, wrote, “It is as it is and it shall not be politically regulated in any way.” These comments are in line with the 84% of Swedish citizens who agree that politicians ignore or minimize serious problems because they are afraid to suggest unpopular solutions (see GCF 2014). However, just because population growth is complicated and politicians are afraid to suggest solutions does not justify neglect of the issue. Instead, national governments and international organizations might learn an important lesson from their citizens, and treat population growth as an urgent issue that requires an urgent response.


[1] The 2018 survey. The 2017 survey was conducted in 8 countries, and the 2014 survey conducted in 9.

[2] There were 7 total issues that were included as potential global catastrophic risks. They include: political motivated violence and conflict escalating into war, usage of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, other large-scale environmental damage, natural epidemics and pandemics, the rise of artificial intelligence, and population growth.

[3] Net negative, comprising both “very negative” and “negative.”

References

  1. GCF (Global Challenges Foundation). Attitudes to global risk and governance survey. (2018). Available at: https://api.globalchallenges.org/static/files/ComRes2018cover.png.
  2. GCF (Global Challenges Foundation). The Pulse of International Sentiment. (2014). Available at: https://api.globalchallenges.org/static/wp-content/uploads/pdf/The-Pulse-of-International-Sentiment.pdf.
  3. GCF (Global Challenges Foundation). Stora valenkäten Standardrapport. Stockholm, Sweden. Unpublished report, in Swedish (may be obtained by writing to Frank Götmark, frank.gotmark@gu.se). (2014).

Reprinted with permission by Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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