For those times when we feel worn down by the thanklessness of campaigning for population sustainability, it can be uplifting to hear the voices of veteran campaigners whose courage has never wavered. Michael Bayliss introduces us to a conversation to inspire.
by Michael Bayliss
In the most recent episode of Post-Growth Australia Podcast (PGAP) I had the honour of interviewing three giants within the population sustainability movement: Karen Shragg from the USA as well as Madeline Weld and Valorie Allen from Canada.
It was an important opportunity to host an episode that highlights female perspectives on the overpopulation issue in a movement that is sometimes perceived to be male dominated. It was also an opportunity to explore the similarities and distinctions of the population sustainability movement between three countries, USA, Canada and Australia, which are among the fastest growing developed countries.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, this podcast aimed to help ensure that overpopulation was both front and centre for this year’s World Population Day. World Population Day is a United Nations observance that takes place each July 11th in order to increase awareness of population growth and how population related issues intersect with issues related to the environment and development.
While the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) seems keen to shy away and even brush off the importance of any dialogue on overpopulation, “3 Women, 2 Counties, 1 Voice” argues that overpopulation remains a critical existential threat and that advocates of tackling the issue are here to stay. This is all the more necessary in light of the various agendas that are attempting to stymie nuanced discussion on population.
For example, to say that I was slightly taken aback when I first read the UNFPA’s statement on World Population Day 2022 would be an understatement. Their headline reads:
“A world of 8 billion: Towards a resilient future for all.”
From the get-go, things start to look precarious. They go on to say that:
“Then there will be alarmists claiming that the world is on the verge of either disastrous overpopulation or catastrophic population collapse.”
As an advocate of tackling overpopulation, I can’t say that I felt very welcome by first being called an alarmist and then being placed in the same boat as population boosters such as Elon Musk.
It gets better, with the closing lines claiming that:
“In an ideal world, 8 billion people means 8 billion opportunities…Let no alarmist headline distract from the work at hand…In a world of 8 billion, there must always be space for possibility.”
During a time in which there are critical food and resource shortages and when the impacts of climate change are affecting the lives of many across the world, these sentiments present as empty platitudes promising misplaced optimism divorced from reality. Especially when we consider the fact that there are hundreds of millions of unintended pregnancies every year.
In a world of 8 billion people, there is insufficient space to share Earth generously with other species. In a warming world of 8 or 10 billion people, there may not be sufficient space to feed everyone. Opportunities contract when people become too numerous, a reality that can’t be wished away.
It is becoming obvious that we are working within an increasingly hostile playing field when the UNFPA seems not only to be shying away from its own day of observation, but labels population sustainability activists as ‘alarmists’. During times such as these, it is becoming ever more critical that ‘alarmists’ such as ourselves join together to reclaim World Population Day.
And what better way to do this than by celebrating the contributions of three brilliant female activists. Listening to their stories and their passion to create a better and fairer world, it is impossible to accept the UNFPA’s accusation that those talking about human numbers “strip people of their humanity”. I was inspired by their compassion and conviction, and I hope other listeners are also.
Madeline Weld, president of the Population Institute Canada recently wrote a great article for The Overpopulation Project entitled “The ‘Silent Lie’ in Coverage of Madagascar’s Famine”. On this episode of PGAP Madeline goes on to highlight the many similarities between the population policies of Canada and my home country of Australia. For example, both countries are perceived as being ‘underpopulated’ by international standards despite the fact that they both have low carrying capacities. One obvious example is that much of Northern Canada is too cold for human habitation, whereas much of inland Australia is too dry and infertile.
Valorie Allen, author of a new book “8 Billion Reasons Population Matters” was invited to reflect on how the nature of activism has changed for her over the years. One of the reasons why she now advocates for population sustainability and, more broadly, economic Degrowth, is through her reflections on her legacy as an animal liberation and environmental conservation activist. Valorie points out that any gains for the animals or the environment made at the time were rendered obsolete by the demands of more people and more economic growth. Therefore, Valorie now advocates for addressing the ‘root causes’ of our current predicaments.
When invited to share her vision for a Post-Growth future, Karen Shragg put forward an ambitious but achievable vision in which Degrowth is the topic of choice for mainstream television. This is a future in which sustainable population activists, far from being considered extremists, were in high demand on interview panels such as Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman. Such a world would be in the right frame of mind to take sustainability seriously and to take on the required transformations of our lifestyles and social institutions. Karen reminded us that the current media avoidance of overpopulation was not always the case: back in the early 1970s, Paul Ehrlich was interviewed more than 20 times by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. What will it take to reverse the deepening denial of limits to growth?
I resonate with my three guests in hoping that, one day, hopefully sometime very soon, population and post-growth will become ‘talk of the town’ issues that will make it onto mainstream interview shows. Until such time, however, alternative media such as ‘The Overpopulation Project’ and ‘Post-Growth Australia Podcast’ shall carry the torch.
Michael Bayliss is the host of Post-Growth Australia Podcast. In each episode of PGAP, he talks to experts to unpack the notion of post-growth societies and what this means for us, for future generations and for the planet. PGAP is made possible by the support of Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).