Survey shows the general public is ready for discussions about population

By Pernilla Hansson | 9 February 2021
The Overpopulation Project


A new survey from the Global Challenges Foundation shows wide concern about population growth and overpopulation in many parts of the world.

In an attempt to assess the general public’s understanding of global catastrophic risks, the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) recently carried out a large survey among people in 10 countries: Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the USA, and the UK. In Global Catastrophic Risks and International Collaboration: Opinion Poll 2020, GCF asked around 1000 people per country about their attitudes towards a growing population and the overpopulation problem as well as other risks.

The survey yielded plenty of interesting results. A majority of the respondents agreed that human population growth should be considered a global catastrophic risk. However, the amount varied greatly between countries. India had the highest percentage, with 86% of the respondents answering that population growth is a global catastrophic risk, while only 52% of Russian respondents agreed, the lowest of all surveyed countries. These results are not surprising. India’s population is dense and rapidly growing, while Russia’s is stable and relatively sparse. This suggests that local and regional conditions play an important role in people’s estimate of global challenges.

Survey responses regarding whether population growth is a global catastrophic risk. “Top box” to the right shows the percentage who answered “Agree completely” or “Agree to some extent,” while “Bottom box” shows the percentage who answered “Disagree to some extent” or “Completely disagree”. Source: Global Challenges Foundation, Global Catastrophic Risks and International Collaboration: Opinion Poll 2020.

A related question asked if respondents perceived the consequences of projected population growth to 10.9 billion by 2100 to be negative or positive. While many answered neutrally, the results slightly contrasted with the answers of the previous population question. To this question, Indians spoke most positively towards the projected increase, even if the majority still believed the consequences would be negative (34% positive versus 48% negative). Russia now landed in the middle of the pack, with 11% thinking the consequences would be positive and 47% negative. The country whose citizens believed the consequences of future population increase would be least positive was Sweden, where only 1% responded positively, while 82% of respondents viewed the projected increase as a negative outcome. For a sparsely populated northern country (25 individuals per square kilometer), this is a surprising result.

One may speculate about the case of Sweden. Sweden has seen a relatively large increase in population, from around 8.9 million at the start of the millennium to around 10.3 million today, mainly due to immigration; it has had the largest immigration from southern Europe, Western Asia, and Africa per capita of all European nations. For such a sparsely populated country, such a relative increase in population may contribute to the experience that an increase in population leads to large societal changes, which could be reflected in the negative attitude towards a generally projected population growth. This in contrast to a densely populated country such as India (410 individuals per square kilometer) where dense populations have been part of life for a long while.

Education and age seemed to correlate with an understanding of global population growth as a problem. In most countries, a higher education indicated a greater likelihood of belief that the forecasted population increase to 2100 would be negative, although in some countries there was no effect of education level. Sweden was the only country where people with an education equivalent to upper secondary school were slightly more likely to believe the effect to be negative than those of higher education.

When it comes to age, people younger than 50 were generally less likely to believe that the consequences of population growth would be negative than people older than 50. Maybe this is a result of being too young to have heard the open discussions on the effect of population growth during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, or from having internalised more recent messages that nothing can be done about population numbers.

Respondents were also asked to rank global catastrophic risks based on the need for urgent action, and the survey displayed the top three risks seen for each country. Climate change was always ranked among the top three most urgent in every country, while population growth never was. This despite the overarching environmental effects of population, and that a majority of people agreed that human actions are the main cause of global warming. While there seems to be an understanding that population growth is an underlying factor in climate change and environmental degradation, the urgency to curb it is clearly lacking. Again, this may be because people do not understand what can be done to address the problem.

Another relevant survey, carried out by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), looked at attitudes towards family planning, population, and the environment. “Contraception and Consumption in the Age of Extinction: U.S. Survey Results,” conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, surveyed 900 citizens from across the United States. Some of the questions were repeats from a similar survey in 2013, allowing for the identification of changing attitudes.

This survey, too, gave enlightening results. 73% of Americans believed that the world population is growing too fast. Compared to the 2013 survey, this was an increase by 23%. The same percentage felt that human population growth is driving other species to extinction, and 67% agreed that stabilising the human population would help protect the environment. A majority of respondents (71%) also agreed that population growth is worsening climate change.

Results from the 2013 and 2019 surveys by the Center for Biological Diversity showing US citizens’ attitude towards global population growth. Source: “Contraception and Consumption in the Age of Extinction: U.S. Survey Results” Center for Biological Diversity, 2020.

There are some differences in the numbers between the surveys conducted by GCF and CBD; most importantly, the CBD found more support for tackling the overpopulation issue in the US than the GCF did. Still, both surveys support the idea that the general public is ready to discuss the population crisis. So why are we not seeing such open discussions? One third of the respondents of the CBD survey said they voted for policymakers who acknowledged that pressures from the human population impact the environment, and most countries in the GCF study ranked existing global organisations, such as the UN, EU or NATO, as the most appropriate to deal with population growth. Yet population is seldom brought up by politicians and unfortunately downplayed by organisations such as the UN. Perhaps a focus on global population growth to the exclusion of the problems caused by local, regional, and national population growth has undermined more robust discussion.

Both surveys show that significant concern about population issues exists among the general public. Uncontrolled population growth is a global threat. The public can see it. When will policymakers?

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

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