Issues That Block Dialogue about Population Growth

By Haydn Washington and Helen Kopnina | 2 December 2022


The following has been extracted from a paper titled “Discussing the Silence and Denial around Population Growth and Its Environmental Impact. How Do We Find Ways Forward?”. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (

Many issues block dialogue on population. We summarize what we consider the most important here, based on more than three decades of dealing with this topic.

Growthism and anthropocentrism as key paradigms

Modern industrial society is addicted to ‘growthism’, which is the underlying assumption of the growth economy, as well as advocacy for a growing population. Growthism argues that an economy must grow, indeed grow forever. It is irrationally seen as the solution to our many problems, while in fact it is the cause of many environmental problems. Rees (p. 5) notes that the: ‘flawed assumption that human well-being derives from perpetual growth has distorted the lives of more people than any other cultural narrative in history’. Meadows et al. note that there is very little time left for the fantasy of an infinite globe. There are two key problems with growthism, first we have run out of room for this ecologically as a strategy (as shown by all environmental indicators). Secondly, it is not improving people’s wellbeing, especially in the wealthy societies that commonly espouse growthism. However, despite all scientific evidence that growthism is a cause of environmental crisis, many still deny this.

Another key problem that blocks dialogue about population growth is anthropocentrism or ‘human supremacy’. Human supremacy is anthropocentrism of the strongest sort, and puts forward the view that other species and the rest of nature are just resources for human beings to use as we choose, with no independent intrinsic value.

Population growth does not just impact on people, it accelerates the extinction crisis, wiping out our relatives on the evolutionary tree. If modern society adopted ecocentrism (, accessed on 1 October 2022) and ecological ethics (which maintains nonhuman nature has moral standing and a right to exist for itself), we could no longer ethically continue strategies that cause massive ecological degradation. As Collins (p. 32) concludes: ‘… we have become the most acute moral issue that we face’.

The key problem of denial

Denial is about not accepting reality. Denial is not about whether the denier ‘believes’ in what they say (often they do), but whether their statements match up with reality. The denial of the costs of human population growth can validly be called a ‘tragedy’, both for nature and humanity. Humans tends to deny a reality that is unfavourable. We deny some things as they force us to ‘confront change’, others because they make us afraid, or are painful. Sometimes we cannot see a solution. Thus many of us tend to deny the root cause of the problem. Psycho-analysis sees denial as an: ‘unconscious defence mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety or other disturbing emotions aroused by reality’ (p. 5). Sociologist Zerubavel explains that the most public form of denial is ‘silence’, where some topics are considered taboo. Campbell concluded the spiral of silence about unsustainable population growth can be broken by pointing out it stops the poor from escaping poverty and ecological degradation. Campbell points out that high fertility is not actually due to women’s desire for more children, if women are given freedom to control fertility via family planning, then fertility can decline.

Washington argues denial can turn off not only logical reasoning, but also creativity and ethics. Denial (at the society level) makes worse conflict, starvation and disease, and can move us towards the collapse of civilization. Denial of problems, and subsequent collapse, have occurred in past civilisations. Yet, many still deny both the environmental crisis, and the relevance of population growth to environmental damage.

Religious and cultural taboos against contraception

Family planning and modern methods of contraception are closely related to fertility levels. Yet, various religious doctrines oppose contraception, which can block dialogue. Religious influence may have waned in some parts of the world, but remains important in other areas. Family planning and contraception are closely related to social norms associated with gender, sexuality, family, religion and culture. These highly sensitive issues need to be acknowledged. Developing a policy that reflects these sensitivities and respects cultural differences (and incorporates a dual vision of human and ecosystem well-being) is an ongoing challenge.

The fear that discussing population may be interpreted as being ‘racist’

Many scholars self-censor due to fear that if they speak out on population then they will be attacked and called ‘racist’ or other perjorative terms. This is made clear by what happened to Prof Paul Ehlich when he spoke out in 1968. This is a very real fear that all scholars must face when raising the population issue, yet surprisingly is little discussed. It may even affect jobs or job prospects. Just to speak out on population growth and its environmental impact may mean one places one’s academic career on the line. We are very aware of this and discuss it here purely because we believe society and academia should have greater dialogue on the issue.

The confused issue of ‘rights’

‘Rights’ are a confused and polarized issue. Collins believes that at the core of the population problem is a conflict of rights: the right of the individual to reproduce, and the right of other species to continue to exist. Keyfitz notes it is often said women can have as many children as they wish, but that every child also has a right to adequate nutrition. What if the two rights cannot co-exist? There has been a long-term assumption that couples have the ‘right’ to as many children as they want. This is now seen as a key ‘human right’. This was not the case however in many Indigenous societies, where it has been argued they controlled population at an ecologically sustainable level through a range of rules constraining individual freedoms. Collins argues we need to recover the sense that the right to have children belongs within the general context of the common good. Cafaro concludes that today reproductive ‘rights’ should be limited to one child.

The problem is ‘rights’ are often described as absolute and inalienable, yet in practice no right is absolute. Every right must be weighed against other rights and important interests. UNFPA defined ‘reproductive rights’ as the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly on the number, spacing and timing of their children. We note however that the definition is strongly anthropocentric, as it only refers to humans, and excludes the non-human world, now suffering a major extinction event. We argue the need for a careful balancing exercise between potentially conflicting rights.

Most people would likely agree that individuals have the right to choose the number of their offspring. How these rights should be influenced and interpreted in the context of an environmental crisis is a difficult, yet important question to ask. An environmental crisis carries the risk that the quality of life of these offspring becomes unacceptable, or life itself becomes impossible. Further, do future generations not have a ‘right’ to a sustainable world that has not suffered massive ecosystem collapse? Does not non-human nature herself also have a ‘right to exist’?. The principle of Intergenerational Equity promoted by Our Common Future, the seminal document defining sustainable development, assumed future human generations do have a right to inherit a world that is not massively degraded. Arguably, humanity today is now sacrificing the interests of future generations (human and nonhuman) for short-term benefits.

It should be noted that the high estimates of possible human population noted by Cohen include no discussion of whether nature has ‘rights’. The ‘Rights of Nature’ movement however asserts such rights, as do many philosophers and environmental scholars. The rights of nature are also implicit in the UN Harmony with Nature program. Statements about ‘rights’ regarding population thus need to be fully unpacked and discussed through open dialogue. We recognize that women should decide the number, timing and spacing of their children. However, this not only implies being given the means to make these choices (in terms of access to family planning and contraceptives) but also means to be given the opportunity to make decisions in an informed way. At a minimum, this would entail understanding the level of environmental degradation and its broader implications for current and future offspring, as well as knowing that slowing population growth would improve the chances of solving the environmental crisis. At a higher level it should also involve publicizing the benefits of smaller families. In this way, women would be empowered to make responsible reproductive choices.

Political and social justice aspects

Population growth is now a polarised issue in sustainability discourse, with debates ranging from ambiguity to open hostility towards what is called ‘blaming’ overpopulation. Often action on population growth is portrayed as conflicting with social justice. We question whether social justice advocates (and most political factions) have a good understanding of the environmental crisis and environmental indicators. We would suggest also that (in our experience) they are predominantly anthropocentric in worldview, unconcerned about rights or justice for non-human nature. The political Left (and much of the environment movement) have ignored or denied the importance of population growth. For some, the message that fertility levels can be influenced by promoting family planning initiatives automatically evokes thoughts of coercive practices and human rights abuses such as the forced sterilisation program briefly applied in India. However, this example actually contradicted the very essence of family planning, which has always been about empowering people to choose mindfully when not to have children.

In the social justice critique, those who link population to sustainability are branded neo-Malthusian, racist, or misanthropic. The ethical question posed is that the global ‘North’ or ‘West’, experiencing low fertility levels, should not tell people in the ‘South’, experiencing higher fertility levels, what to do. However, the claim that environmental impacts are entirely due to overconsumption in the developed world ignores the fact that the developing world is rapidly increasing its consumption with the growth of the global middle class. It further ignores that family planning programs were not imposed by ‘the West’ and that these programs contributed to the emancipation of women and to general economic development.

In terms of environmental science, taking action on population growth is actually supportive of the poor in the developing world. If population continues to rise, leading to accelerating ecosystem collapse, the social justice issues of the poor will worsen (as will ecojustice for nonhuman nature). In fact, the evidence shows that population reduction also reduces poverty. Action to reduce overpopulation in a non-coercive way is thus a win/win situation for both social and ecological justice. It should be noted that non-coercive solutions are not ‘talking down’ to people, but rather seek to assist via education for girls and women, readily available contraceptives, family planning, and promoting the benefits of small families. They also assume that people in the developing world have agency, and the responsibility to help create sustainable and just societies.

Sophistry and how ‘racist’ claims block dialogue

The definition of sophistry is: ‘the use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving’. Sophistry often attempts to take the perceived ‘moral high ground’, dismissing opponents as immoral. Sophistry, as a communication strategy, is often used to deny environmental problems. Both sides of the population debate can make use of sophistry or accuse the other side of using it. If presented with argumentative skill, it can be difficult to refute, since the audience is often not equipped to judge who is accurately reporting the evidence and who is not. Faced with conflicting information, people tend to believe comforting arguments that diminish perceived risks or dismiss the need to change current practices.

Common examples of sophistry in the population debate are that past family planning programs were ineffective, that educating girls is the most effective means of reducing birth rates and that any mention of population abets draconian ‘population control’ measures. The word ‘coercion’ has been linked in the public imagination with the worst excesses of China’s one-child policy, in which pregnant women were arrested and suffered involuntary abortions. However, merely advertising the benefits of smaller families is also labelled coercive and, by false association with China’s actions, a gross abuse of human rights. Another impactful false claim is that population growth does not harm economic development, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Hence, sincerely humanitarian efforts to reduce birth rates, in order to break the poverty cycle, are instead presented as acting against the interests of people in poor, high-fertility countries and conjour racist or neo-colonial motives.

This feeds into a major extension of sophistry, the ad hominem attack, undermining the credibility or moral standing of one’s opponent rather than engaging with their arguments. Typically, proponents of greater action to slow population growth are labelled as ‘racists’. The notion is that, since high birth rates are almost entirely confined to black and brown skinned people, problematizing population growth is no more than an attempt to suppress those races or to deflect blame away from the environmental impacts of rich Western countries. The population debate has thus been tainted by what has been called ‘population shaming’, where advocates for action on population are called hypocritical, racist, coercive and even anti-human.

There are many examples of ‘racist’ claims made about population action advocates. Roberts states: ‘…where you find concern over “population,” you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings’. No evidence is provided. It is not credible that the Second Scientists Warning to Humanity (signed by 21,000 scientists, the IPCC, IPBES and other groups of scientists are racist or xenophobic. However, the accusation of racism is one reason why some scholars avoid discussing population. We point out that most racist claims fail to be substantiated, and contradict the scientific consensus on the problems of a growing population.

In regard to the ‘antihuman’ claim, Washington notes that environmental scientists and scholars point out the danger of overpopulation for two key reasons. First, it is causing the extinction of a massive amount of non-human life. Second, the overcrowding, depletion and degradation of natural resources is likely to lead to famine and war, and major loss of human life. The loss of non-human life is a tragedy already underway. The loss of human life due to pushing ecosystems into collapse (including agro-ecosystems) would equally be a tragedy. Given the role of population pressure in the Rwandan genocide, the Arab Spring uprisings, wars in Syria and Yemen, increasing instability in the Sahel, and the resurgence of hunger in several African countries, this tragedy is arguably also unfolding. Hence, talking about population growth is not anti-human but arguably very pro-human.

The Scientist’s Warning

Sir David Attenborough on overpopulation

Overpopulation & Climate Change: A Seat at the Table

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here