Overpopulation Is Still a Huge Problem

By Richard Heinberg | 25 March 2024
Resilience

Aerial view of Los Angeles. (Photo: Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

In February, I interviewed biochemist Chris Bystroff, whose peer-reviewed analysis suggests that world population is now peaking. I wanted a contrasting view on the matter, so I reached out to my friend Jane O’Sullivan, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and author of the paper, “Demographic Delusions: World Population Growth Is Exceeding Most Projections and Jeopardising Scenarios for Sustainable Futures.” Dr. O’Sullivan has been active in debates about overpopulation in Australia and the world for many years, as both an analyst and an activist.

Richard: Fertility rates are declining sharply in OECD countries, and China’s population is now dropping rapidly. Is world population growth in the rear-view mirror, a problem we no longer have to worry about?

Jane: “Declining sharply” and “dropping rapidly” are emotive terms that exaggerate the trends and distract from the far more rapid growth elsewhere. Globally we increase by somewhere between 70 million and 90 million annually, and that pace has been unrelenting for more than 40 years. We don’t have hard evidence that the curve has started to bend, let alone that it is on track to peak any time soon. So, the problem hasn’t gone away, and the impacts of the human population get more serious and intractable every year.

It’s important because there are things we could do, that we know work because many countries did them in the past, and that we’re not doing now. Not doing them is leaving hundreds of millions of women who want to avoid pregnancy without the services and means to do it. It is condemning their children to a world of increasing competition and diminishing opportunities, if not outright collapse of civil order.

What we’re not doing is sufficient provision and promotion of voluntary family planning. We’re not doing it because we have been taught, since the mid-1990s, that expressing concern about population growth will harm the people in high-fertility countries, as if all birth control programs involve forced sterilisations (very few did) and as if they’d be worse off with fewer children or siblings (they’re much better off). The hopeful myth was that women would get better services, and fertility would fall faster, if we only championed their rights and shut up about population. But the opposite happened: without the motivation to reduce population growth for the sake of economic development, the funding and policy support for family planning plummeted, and women were left worse off.

As a consequence, fertility declines slowed or stalled in many countries, but the projections haven’t adequately factored this in. In your recent interview with Chris Bystroff, he suggested world population could have peaked already, with birth rates much lower than the UN believes. In fact, the evidence all points in the opposite direction: that the UN has been over-anticipating fertility decline and underestimating population growth.

Every two or three years, the UN publishes an update of their population estimates and projections. Almost every update this century has revised the world population upward. Their mid-2022 release estimated the mid-2022 population to be 7.975 billion. This was 21 million higher than their 2019 projection anticipated it would be, despite more than 15 million unanticipated deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was 177 million more than the 2010 projection expected, and 253 million people more than was projected in 2000. Despite their consistent underestimation of growth, their model continues to assume all high-fertility countries are experiencing rapid fertility decline, even though their historical data show they haven’t.

Other research groups that attempt global population projections include Wittgenstein Centre in Austria, whose projections are used in climate change mitigation models. They anticipate faster and deeper fertility declines than the UN. History is proving them to be more wrong than the UN. This is worrying when all modeled scenarios that keep climate change below 2oC depend on world population growth quickly tapering off, without including any measures to help it do that.

However, the lower projections get a lot of support in the media because it is what people want to believe. They want to be reassured that doing nothing about population growth is safe and sufficient. So, they cling to myths and misrepresentations that fertility is “plummeting” everywhere and China’s population is “collapsing.”

China’s population fell by about 0.14% last year. It is absurd to regarded this as a “rapid” decline when 2.9% growth in Canada is presented as unproblematic. Growth is much more costly than shrinkage, economically, socially, and environmentally.

Richard: What are the implications for the non-OECD countries that still suffer high rates of population growth? And how could their problems spill over into the rest of the world?

Jane: The main implication is that they are stuck in a poverty trap that can only get worse. Back in the 1960s, when developing country population growth started to gather pace due to better health care, it was obvious to everyone that this would impede development. Everything you do is just running to keep pace, rather than getting ahead. You can improve farm yields, but the farmers’ kids get less land each or become landless. When they flock to the towns and cities, there are not enough jobs for them, and it’s impossible to house them decently. You struggle to improve education if you have to double school capacity every couple of decades. The situation breeds crime and violence, which makes good governance impossible and political instability virtually inevitable.

In contrast, all the countries that made efforts to reduce birth rates in the 1960s to 1990s are powering ahead economically. These days we’re encouraged to believe birth control efforts did nothing but breach human rights, but this is a gross misrepresentation. Almost all national family planning programs were voluntary and based on improving people’s lives by delivering better health and contraception services. They also worked to break down many of the patriarchal traditions that relegated women to childbearing, such as child marriages and son preference, and to ensure girls’ access to education. By slowing population growth, they were able to improve job prospects and access to services such as electricity and sewage. Gradually, it became a virtuous cycle.

It didn’t happen because they were richer or better educated, but because they gave family planning a high priority. For example, Thailand was much poorer and less developed than the Philippines in 1970, but is far better off now, and a major rice exporter, thanks to its family planning program. Bangladesh was the poorest of the poor, but promoted family planning while Pakistan didn’t. Now it has overtaken Pakistan, where worsening conditions are leading to political instability.

The media rarely comment on it, but population pressure has played a large part in the recent conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. The Arab Spring uprisings were triggered by a world food price spike hitting hard in poor countries dependent on imported food. Others are coming close to famine conditions again. In Madagascar last year, hunger was blamed on climate change, but few if any media commentators mentioned that there are now seven Madagascans for each one the country had to feed in 1950.

Whether in war or peace, population pressure generates high demand for emigration. Gallup polls now show a billion people want to emigrate to a richer country, including more than half the adults in sub-Saharan Africa. Western countries are already seeing increased inflows, and people who complain are labelled racist and xenophobic. But if these countries really had open borders, welcoming all comers, their welfare systems would instantly be overwhelmed. They will inevitably tighten border controls, but they will almost as inevitably have higher inflows anyway because the demand is growing so rapidly. This will be an ongoing source of social tension.

Beyond that are the environmental impacts. This is a difficult area to model, because every country that reduced fertility also got richer, so bigger footprints outweighed fewer feet, at least in the short run. But if we were able to reduce the energy demands of middle-class lifestyles, and to generate that energy without greenhouse gases, we’d still be left with the sheer scale of the food system. All the modeling suggests that we can’t draw down carbon dioxide without expanding forests, and we won’t reverse deforestation if global population keeps growing.

It’s not about blaming poor people of color, it’s about creating the conditions needed to end poverty. It’s about acknowledging all the ways humanity is unsustainable, and that we have to address every one of them. Family planning in Africa is no substitute for reducing the footprint of the rich countries, but even if we do the latter perfectly, we’ll still fail if world population is too high. And it would be people in high-fertility countries who’d suffer most.

Richard: In your opinion, why have world leaders failed for so long to take this issue seriously?

Jane: In the post-War decades, leaders took the issue very seriously. Developing countries begged for family planning assistance, and several donor countries gave it high priority. But from the mid-1970s, in response to clear statements from the US Presidency in favor of population stabilization at home and abroad, a concerted campaign started to build to undermine these commitments. It was mainly driven by leaders of the Catholic church, who wanted to defend their ban on contraception: if contraception is the only way out of poverty, then they are morally compromised. So, they worked hard to promote alternative economic theories that population growth is neutral for development—“every extra mouth comes with a pair of hands.” They exerted political leverage on American politicians, particularly Republican presidents, to defund family planning activities. They got Catholic countries to veto attempts to get family planning onto the World Health Organization’s agenda. They recruited evangelical churches to escalate the campaign against abortion. Then they cunningly linked family planning to abortion via the Mexico City Policy, announced by the Reagan administration in 1984 at the UN’s population conference in Mexico City. It put a ban on US funding going to any entity that even gave advice to women about abortion. Despite modern contraception being the most effective way to reduce abortions, many family planning agencies refused to comply with this rule because they would not refuse women life-saving advice, so they were defunded.

The next line of attack was to escalate moral outrage about cases of coercive birth control, so that it seemed as if all family planning programs were coercive by default. In fact, coercion had been rare outside China, and never condoned by family planning agencies. The International Women’s Health and Rights Movement was recruited to oppose birth control programs as an attack on women’s bodily autonomy. The opposite happened—discouragement of birth control actually harmed women’s rights.

This moral crusade against family planning has not been the only barrier to action. Big business wants to ensure cheap labor and fears a declining population, where employers have to compete to attract workers. They have concocted a barrage of myths about population aging causing recession and bankrupting the welfare system. It makes for strange bedfellows when the moralizing Left insists population growth is not a problem because that would be blaming the poor, and big business says population decline is a crisis because it wants to pay lower wages and charge higher rents.

Richard: How can nations use population decline to their advantage?

Jane: They don’t have to do anything to reap the benefits of population decline, other than stop resisting it. It means not having to build so much infrastructure every year just to keep pace with growth. It means more affordable housing and less household debt. It means we can retreat from the most ecologically valuable or fragile places, and see them restored and rewilded.

Most people believe the scare-mongering about aging populations and think we’ll keep getting older and older until there are no young people left. That’s not how it works: at the moment, we’re in a transitional phase where we have very high proportions of so-called “working-age” adults, by historical standards. After the transition, that proportion will stabilize at historically normal levels, around 54% if we have a stable population, and maybe just under 50% if the population is shrinking “rapidly” at a little over 1% per year. This isn’t a problem, because workforce participation will be higher. We have to adjust to having more retirees and fewer children in the community, but that won’t break the budget. The extra we shell out for pensions and health care is offset by less spending on infrastructure, childcare, and education and, in all likelihood, unemployment benefits, rent support, crime, and correctional services. We just need different measures of success than aggregate GDP and stock market earnings.

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