Examples of Denial of Population in Government and Academia

By Haydn Washington and Helen Kopnina | 2 December 2022

(Credit: Shutterstock.com)

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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

History has shown a worrying decline in discussion of population issues from the 1970s onwards. This was especially true in the UN and scientific, policy and public arenas. Campbell argues that in 1994 the UN ‘Cairo’ conference stopped talking about ‘family planning’ and instead spoke only of ‘women’s reproductive health’. However, O’Sullivan argues that the Cairo text did not belittle population concerns, and that this was done later by the United Nations Population Fund, who insisted that family planning programs had neglected people’s reproductive aspirations or health. As O’Sullivan documents, such claims were exaggerated, and she argues they amount to a rewriting of history about family planning.

Policy documents to support the UN ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) also do not seriously address population issues. More recently, the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’ did not list ‘population’ as one, even though population directly impacts negatively on all the ecological boundaries identified. However, Steffen, a leading scholar working on planetary boundaries agrees population is centrally important. A new ecological economic model ‘Doughnut Economics’, mentions population a few times, then avoids the issue. The recent Living Planet Index Report has marginalized population, focusing on consumption. Even some papers purporting to discuss ecological breakdown have excluded population growth from discussion. Some economic ‘degrowth’ advocates also argue that population is not a key issue. This undermines their efforts, since shrinking the economy while adding to the number of people who depend on it is a losing political proposition.

The recent 2022 IPCC Mitigation Report Summary for Policymakers demonstrates a denial that has become censorship. Chapter 2 of the full report, Emissions Trends and Drivers, notes that globally per capita GDP and population growth remained the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions, and that population growth was increasing emissions by 1.2% a year.

However, Cafaro notes:

… none of this discussion of population and economic growth made it into the 62-page Summary for Policymakers … Unlike the full report, this document is vetted by political appointees. They apparently decided to censor anything that might call into question the goodness of continued growth.

This is major censorship about the necessity for action on population and economic growth to slow (then stop and reverse) climate change. It is worsened by the fact that most people, especially journalists only read the Summary for Policymakers. The result of such a trend is summarized by Derer: ‘Nowadays there is almost a complete silence about overpopulation, both in the media and academia.’

Ways Forward

Establishing population dialogue

As a society, we urgently need to find ways to openly discuss population growth. Dialogue on population is difficult because it is highly polarized, where many have ‘prepared positions’ they will not discuss. Academic journals are often reluctant to publish controversial views, and both authors of this paper have experienced their reluctance to accept papers that discuss population. Academic journals could make a great contribution by championing the need for dialogue on population growth and its environmental impact (along with championing the need for controlling over-consumption and replacing the growth economy with an ecologically sustainable one).

Likewise, environmental and sexual and reproductive health organizations can also play a key role to promote a constructive dialogue around population. Two strategies are crucial for constructive dialogue: (1) True listening; and (2) Mutual respect. If participants to a forum agree to these ground rules, one has a much better chance of actually creating meaningful dialogue.

While the focus of this paper has largely been on academia, the media, as a means to share and shape information, also plays a critical role for population dialogue. However, most journalists tend to steer away from population, even despite acknowledging its importance. Roberts, for example, argues that addressing population is morally and politically fraught, and suggests the promotion of family planning and female education and empowerment without mentioning ‘population’. The problem with this ‘don’t mention it’ approach is that it sidelines the huge environmental impact of a growing population. It treats citizens like children, who cannot be told the truth or choose sensible policies to follow. There is also the problem that this experiment (yes to family planning “access”, no to population concerns) has been run for the past 30 years, and has arguably failed to slow population growth. The rapid fertility declines experienced by many countries in the 1970s and ’80s were achieved by voluntary family planning programs that actively promoted smaller families in order to slow population growth. Since adopting the ‘don’t mention population’ strategy, global fertility decline has almost stalled.

Another key area for dialogue is within the policy-making community in both government and non-government organisations. We noted previously that policy-makers who wrote the IPCC Mitigation Report ‘Summary for Policymakers’ cut out reference to population as a key driver of GHG emissions. Part of the reason behind this is likely that policy-makers lack a strong grasp of environmental science. Regular and continuing discussion within the policy-making community would be a significant step forward.

Nine non-coercive strategies to stabilize population

Engelman argues that overpopulation can be tackled by nine humane (non-coercive) strategies to stabilize population:

1. Assure universal access to safe and effective contraceptives and family planning for both sexes.
2. Guarantee education through secondary school for all, with a particular focus on girls.
3. Eradicate gender bias everywhere.
4. Offer age-appropriate sexuality education students.
5. End all policies that reward parents financially based on the number of their children.
6. Integrate teaching about population, environment, and development relationships into school curricula.
7. Put prices on environmental costs and impacts.
8. Adjust to population ageing rather than seeking to delay it through governmental incentives aimed at boosting childbearing.
9. Convince leaders to commit to ending population growth through the exercise of human rights and human development.

It has been argued that a key point missing is the promotion of small families as a social norm. Kopnina et al. in their discussion of Italy (with a slowly declining population) suggest that the first three strategies are most important for stabilising population. Using similar strategies, Iran was able to halve its population growth rate from 1987 to 1994. Iran, Japan, Sri Lanka and Thailand are only some of the countries that have achieved replacement fertility levels in a matter of a decade after strong government communication campaigns combined with affordable family planning options.

It has been argued by Staples & Cafaro that using non-coercive strategies, society could arguably reduce world population to 6 billion by the end of the century and to a sustainable 2–3 billion by the end of the following century. This would require the active promotion of small family norms, and governments embracing low fertility and population decline, despite an ageing population. To do this, we must make the advantages of such a strategy widely known, and break the denial dam that keeps dialogue on population a taboo.

The Scientist’s Warning

Sir David Attenborough on overpopulation

Overpopulation & Climate Change: A Seat at the Table

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