A proposal for a United Nations Framework Convention on Population Growth

by Rob Harding

Recently, an international assembly of scientists from 184 countries endorsed an article published in the journal Bioscience entitled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”. As the warning states, “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats. By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere.”

Further, this 2016 article published in the Chinese Journal of Population Resources and Environment presents an instructive discussion of why population growth remains largely unacknowledged as a primary driver behind such threats. And this 2010 article published in The Globalist introduces then dissects ‘Ponzi Demography’, asserting that “the sooner nations reject Ponzi demography and make the needed gradual transition from ever-increasing population growth to population stabilization, the better the prospects for all of humanity and other life on this planet.”

As Population Media Center’s President Bill Ryerson asserts, population is the multiplier of everything else. Such knowledge demands action to protect life on Earth in a compassionate and intentional manner. People are receptive to this inclusive message. It compels us to act together.

Therefore, it is proposed that the United Nations establish a Framework Convention on Population Growth – one akin to the Paris Agreement for climate change with Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in pursuit of a sustainable population in every country. Research on country-specific biocapacity and ecological footprint, such as that of the Global Footprint Network, could be used as a prudent baseline.

In effect, such a treaty would formalize what was presented in the preamble of the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development: “The recommendations for action are made in a spirit of consensus and international cooperation, recognizing that the formulation and implementation of population policies is the responsibility of each country and should take into account the economic, social, and environmental diversity of conditions in each country, with full respect for the various religious and ethical values, cultural backgrounds and philosophical convictions of its people, as well as the shared but differentiated responsibilities of all the world’s people for a common future.”

Thomas Paine wisely asserted that “time makes more converts than reason”, yet we are running out of time to act without, as the original World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity stated in 1992, “the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair”. Those of us supporting this initiative believe the time to act boldly on population is now, and think the United Nations is the appropriate avenue.

The proposal 

Goal: Catalyze an international campaign that leads to the United Nation’s establishment of a Framework Convention on Population Growth. So far, more than 30 organizations as well as hundreds of individuals – scientists, academics, activists, and other concerned citizens – representing 15 countries across 5 continents have voiced their support of this initiative. Please help spread the word.

Context: Several environment-related international treaties exist today, yet none of them address the root cause of our oversized demands on the planet: human overpopulation. Every country deserves a voice at the table and this would provide them that opportunity.

We as a global community can’t view the United Nation’s population growth projections as destiny — 9.8 billion people in the year 2050 should be viewed as wholly unacceptable if we’re keeping future generations and other species as well as our own livelihoods in mind. Planet Earth simply can’t support this. We are choosing short-term aggregate economic growth over long-term environmental, economic, political, social, and cultural stability, putting the future habitability of the entire planet in jeopardy.

If we can get human overpopulation plus continued growth to be formally recognized by the United Nations as a global issue that must be addressed via national population policies (like the NDCs for the Paris Agreement), then people around the world should become more amenable to openly discussing local population matters, such as unintended pregnancy rates, sexuality education programs, access to family planning information and services, and migration, as well as foreign aid and economic justice.

Vision: Formal recognition of existing human overpopulation plus continued growth – within the context of the IPAT formula – as a significant environmental issue and existential threat to the survival of humanity (one of several, to be sure). Such a treaty would promote a three-pronged solution at national and international levels to achieve a sustainable population in every country.

Three-pronged solution:

(1) Emphasize education generally, highlighting the issue of existing human overpopulation plus continued growth, including why it poses an existential threat and why embracing small families to achieve a global total fertility rate below 2.0 for the foreseeable future is an essential component of the solution.

(2) Prioritize the “ease of access” model of fertility decline, which appears to fit every country’s situation and addresses the goals of rapid fertility decline followed by sustained sub-replacement fertility rates by way of freedom to make informed family size choices, not coercion.

(3) Promote smaller “normal” family sizes – we need to establish a new normal for the Anthropocene.

Underlying this three-pronged solution are the five principles presented in this paper written by Population Matters Director Robin Maynard. The five principles are (1) Universality, (2) Proportionality, (3) Equity, (4) Equality, and (5) Choice.

For all three elements of the solution, Population Media Center President Bill Ryerson’s essay from the 2010 Post Carbon Reader Series as well as former Worldwatch Institute President Bob Engelman’s 9 strategies to stop short of 9 billion provide excellent context.

Top reasons for pursuing a treaty through the United Nations

(1) To tell the “whole truth” about human overpopulation

This is an opportunity to tell the human overpopulation story, to share the story with a global audience including world leaders and members of the general public, and to publicly and formally assert that human overpopulation is solvable by embracing small families for the foreseeable future.  A “one child, on average” goal takes into account the (at least narrowly) accepted notion that not having children is fine, one child is good, and two children is enough.

(2) To bring the term ‘overpopulation’ and the existing reality of human overpopulation into the mainstream

The United Nations is recognized globally as a lawful, mainstream international governing body. Formal recognition of existing human overpopulation and the solution of embracing small families could help legitimize the issue and the solution in the eyes of world leaders as well as members of the general public.

(3) To make national population policies necessary and politically expedient

The Paris Agreement has helped apply pressure on governments and the private sector to “act on climate change”. Efforts to date have been somewhat misguided since they are focused on “downstream” issues, and that’s precisely why our cause could benefit from having a similar international accord – hopefully one that is universally ratified – that prioritizes action specifically on human overpopulation and highlights the clear, compassionate solution: embracing small families. As Karen Shragg, overpopulation activist, naturalist, and author of the book Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation often says, if we don’t act on overpopulation then all of our other efforts will never be enough.

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