Addressing Population Challenge Is Not Impossible

Societies can avoid a world population of 10.8 billion and related disasters – with education, contraception and emphasis on sustainability.

by Joe Bish

A good life
A good life: The world is on track for more than 10 billion people by the century’s end even as fertility slows – Iran halved fertility within 10 years, left, while Africa will represent half of the world’s population growth by 2050 (Source: Reuters)

Human civilization faces a severe long-range mismatch between sustainable food yields and global population size. Some experts suggest a population sized at approximately two people per arable hectare would be ecologically sustainable. If so, with 1.6 billion arable hectares, the planet could support 3.2 billion people in perpetuity. This is less than half the current 7.8 billion.

Moreover, in a business as usual scenario, by the year 2050 United Nation demographers expect 9.7 billion people to call Earth home. Just in terms of food production, this is more than three times the human load considered sustainable. Feeding that many is possible, in the short term, through unsustainable practices, such as reliance on non-renewable energy and fertilizers, pesticides and over-pumping groundwater for irrigation. Warnings to this effect, such as those posed by engineer Bernard Gilland, convey a simple and uncomfortable lesson: that humanity, whose population has already doubled since 1960, finds itself quantifiably between a rock and an ecological hard place.

But human population size and growth are not intractable problems. The factors driving ongoing population increases are understood and amendable. They come from a combination of population momentum, notions of high-desired fertility around the globe, low status of women and girls and bias against contraception. The latter is based primarily on rumors, myths, misinformation and subjugation of women’s preferences.

World births per women
Slow decline: World fertility rates have declined since 1960 (Source: World Bank)

Fertility rates of more than five children in sub-Saharan Africa are especially indicative of these unjust and troubling dynamics. For example, a study conducted in three African countries found that 62 percent of female respondents in Kenya thought contraceptives could result in deformed babies. More than 55 percent of women surveyed in that country suggested contraceptives could cause cancer. A study in Pakistan found that women are often dissuaded from using contraception because of the belief that fertility is determined by God’s will or that family-planning decisions should be made solely by husbands.

Certainly, it would be hard to overstate men’s roles in idealizing and aspiring to large family sizes. For example, in every country in sub-Saharan Africa, the ideal number of children for men exceeds replacement level fertility. In Nigeria, the average man wants over 7 children. Men in Mali want 8.1 children. A 2017 study indicated that realized male fertility in sub-Saharan Africa was above 8.5 children per man in at least 20 countries. The highest male fertility levels were observed in Niger, at 13.6 children per man; South Sudan, 13.5 children; and Chad, 12.1 children. These figures greatly exceed realized fertility for women in those countries. This is because, on average, men began parenting children at much older ages than women did, when the cohort size of males is much smaller than that of their younger female counterparts. Relatively few potential fathers are available for younger women. Coupled with social norms that sanction polygamy, perpetuate patriarchal control of women’s lives and bodies, and create bias against modern contraception, it is little wonder that of the 2 billion increase in population expected worldwide by 2050, African nations will combine to contribute more than 50 percent.

Yet, it is worth remembering that we are all in this together. “Blaming victims” for our collective ecological predicament – especially disempowered and socially repressed women and girls in Africa – is not merely immoral, it also eludes our most progressive solutions. Make no mistake, working on the population issue in the 21st century largely means working against oppressive cultural practices and social maladies that contribute to high fertility. Wherever women’s social power is inhibited, their self-determination and true choice in how many children to have, and when, is also inhibited.

Our painful, difficult-to-face, sustainability emergency can be overwhelming to contemplate. The world is already deep into ecological overshoot, and the global population is not yet anywhere near to ending its growth, to say nothing of natural decreases. Still, governments, civil society and multilateral agencies should take proactive steps and focus on responsible action. Pleasingly, the drivers of population growth all have known solutions, many of which already deployed on a daily basis. Large and immediate investments towards achieving greater scale should be prioritized. It is true that progressively addressing the drivers of population growth today will not create a sustainably sized human presence on the planet tomorrow, but embracing intergenerational responsibility means opposing laissez faire demographic fatalism.

Thanks in large part to 20th century family planning programs, fertility rates have more than halved from a global average of over five children in the mid-1960s. Looking beyond just the sustainable food production issue, other advances also harken towards a healthier human relationship with Earth. For example, renewable energy production now represents 25 percent of global electricity generation. The rights of nature are finally being recognized in legal systems. The profound dislocations of the Covid-19 pandemic have provided an opportunity for the world to reflect on what constitutes a rewarding, satisfying existence in the company of 7.8 billion fellow humans.

Fertility rate by region
Inequality: Lower fertility rates are associated with education and wealth (Source: UN Population Division)

Importantly, when debates on sustainability necessarily include human population dynamics, they should never lend credibility to the idea of coercion. Presenting the population predicament as a binary, where what is deemed necessary – the end of population growth and its natural decrease – can only be achieved by crimes, or coercion, is defeatist and misleading. Most countries that have achieved fertility decreases have done so voluntarily, using human rights approaches.

Iran’s comprehensive national family planning program resulted in a 64 percent decline in the total fertility rate between 1986 and 2000. Thailand’s average number of births per woman dropped precipitously from seven in the 1970s to well below the “replacement-level” of 2.1 in the 1980s. These efforts represent irrefutable evidence that prominent, unembarrassed public discourse and campaigning to affect population trends — in combination with education, women’s emancipation, and family planning information and services, can yield swift, meaningful results.

Interestingly, when the topic of coercion surfaces, most think of abhorrent, anti-natalist, state-sanctioned “population control” policies. It is easy and appropriate to oppose these idiocies, such as the rank tyranny, imposed on 300,000 Peruvians, mostly women, between 1990 and 2000. Former President Alberto Fujimori, imprisoned since 2009 for multiple human rights violations implemented a sterilization program – most of them forced in one way or another – under the guise of a national family planning program.

Yet, government meddling also comes in the pronatalist vein. Goading families to have more children by shaming, misinformation and cash payments is common practice. In 2015, the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development in Malaysia told parliament that falling fertility was why “the ministry encourages couples not to be so focused on quality of life, but to also have children for the long-term benefit of the country.” Then there was the outlandish public relations campaign launched by Denmark in 2014 – “Do it for Denmark!” So-called baby bonus efforts have recently taken place in Singapore, Russia and Australia to name just a few. A more militaristic slant comes from Turkey. Seen from a global ecological perspective, these “pro-growth” schemes are utter madness.

There are long-term solutions to today’s global population growth.

First, population momentum can be mitigated by “sub-replacement fertility,” which 110 countries around the world have already achieved. Japan, Italy, Portugal and Poland – all with fertility rates below 1.5 children per woman – are beyond the effects of population momentum and currently experiencing natural population decreases. None have stopped functioning nor experienced existential disaster. Indeed, they are the vanguard for what eventually will become a global phenomenon.

Years for fertility to fall from 6 to 3 births
Slowed growth: Fertility rates can fall rapidly, and nations are listed with current rate (Source: Our World in Data and World Bank)

The most critical conditions for sub-replacement fertility to manifest are unrestricted access to, and agency to use, modern contraception. History shows us that most women do not choose to have more than two children once they attain true freedom of choice. Pregnancies can pose health risks for women, especially those over age 35, and the responsibility of caring for young children over many years can interfere with other personal pursuits. Families with fewer children report greater wealth accumulation.

Other major drivers of population growth can be described as either normative or informational. Social norms are the daily habits, unwritten rules and normalized behaviors that everyone in the community accepts, and to a large degree, expects. This applies to higher desired fertility and issues related to the low status of women and girls. Project Drawdown identifies the combination of a girl’s education and family planning as one of the most powerful climate solutions available.

Governments and civil society can easily avail themselves of proven solutions to curtail such normative and informational contributors to population growth. Decades of work in the social and behavior change sciences have shown that engaging people with theory-driven entertainment-education can spark emotive, psychological desires to reject oppressive social norms, while also providing the tools and confidence necessary to pioneer new social norms. For example, researchers and NGOs have credited telenovelas for the reduction in Brazil’s fertility rate from more than six children in 1960 to 1.7 in 2017. Of course, continual assurance of affordable, accessible reproductive health commodities and services must accompany such initiatives.

In 2019, the UN Population Division projected that, in a business as usual scenario, global population would top 10.8 billion by the year 2100. Even though the growth rate of population continues its welcome decline due to education, urbanization and utilization of contraception, nominal annual increases remain elevated at around 82 million per year. This is because the lower growth rate acts on an enormous “base” population of almost 8 billion.

Hence, no one should expect the planet to carry a 3.2 billion human population load in our lifetimes — but we should also do all within our power to avoid the 10.8 billion scenario. We can take steps to ensure future generations are no longer growing and, indeed, are moving towards a better equilibrium with the planet. Educating citizens about the ecological predicament of a global population that has more than doubled since the 1960s is an essential exercise. But the outcome cannot be to create hopelessness around efforts towards bona fide sustainability. Concerned citizens must embrace the power of positive thinking and agitate for a sea change in global efforts towards sustainable agriculture, sustainable population, the stemming of climate change and other environmental threats.


Joe Bish is the director of Issue Advocacy with the Population Media Center. This blog is reprinted with permission of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center at Yale University.


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10 thoughts on “Addressing Population Challenge Is Not Impossible

  1. Simplest thing to do and probably the cheapest way of decreasing global warming would be to make contraception free everywhere

    1. Absolutely true. Numerous studies have found that reducing fertility is among the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whether we look at individual action or national policies.

      < people = < emissions.

    2. I completely agree, although it is not feasible with current funding to provide contraception free of charge. The trick is to devise programmes which are affordable, and reach the greatest numbers of people. Family planning programmes have become highly sophisticated and evidence-based, and they get results. The problem is funding. All governments need to take this seriously.

  2. The essay above, written by Joe Bish, is a disaster in so many ways that it would require a 25 page document to describe them all. Therefore, I am going to limit my comments to a few essential ones.
    1. There was a typo— it should be 1.6 billion and not 1.6 million hectares
    2. The essay does not discuss time. Any proposal relating to population control must consider time. If the proposal does not make it absolutely clear that the population will be reduced to whatever level necessary to prevent the collapse of civilization prior to the commencement of the collapse of civilization the proposal is stupidity and garbage.
    3. There are only three ways that population growth can be controlled—a) war, disease, starvation and other horrors– since no one desires that method it can be excluded from discussion: b) coercive population control; and c) voluntary population control. Mr. Bush without any consideration whatsoever has excluded coercive population control from consideration. In plain and simple terms, Mr. Bush is gambling collapse of civilization, the deaths of billions and even the extinction of the human species on voluntary population control.
    4. As indicated above, the essay did not show that voluntary population control will reduce the human population to whatever is level is necessary in time to prevent the commencement of the collapse of civilization and that fact alone makes the essay absolutely useless.
    5. I do not like the idea of coercive population control. However, that method of population control is the only one that has any chance of preventing collapse of civilization and even the extinction of humanity.
    6. The mask situation in the USA must be considered in relation to voluntary population control. A substantial portion of Americans refuse to use the mask, even though cost is minimal and the inconvenience is minimal. That fact alone makes gambling the collapse of civilization on voluntary population role highly problematic and in fact very stupid. If people will not voluntarily use a mask, the idea that it will voluntarily control your population forever, and I don’t mean forever, into the future, cannot be defended on any level.
    7. In simple terms, humanity has one choice– coercive population control or the collapse of civilization with the deaths of billions and even the probability of the extinction of the human species.
    8. Mr Bish has not discussed or considered religion in relation to voluntary population control. If voluntary population control is to be successful on a worldwide basis, every cleric of every religion opposed to most modern means of birth control, or opposed to abortion, or who refuses to advise the members of his religion that having more than one child is an act of mass murder must be executed for crimes against humanity. The previous sentence is not intended to apply solely to anyone religion, but to all religions and all clerics.
    9. Mr. Bish does not deny the fact that according to the latest numbers issued by the UN the human population will increase by over 3.0 billion between now and the year 2100.
    10. To get down to 3.2 billion people that according to Bish can be supported in perpetuity would require a reduction in population of about 7.6 billion–10.8 minus 3.2= 7.6.
    11. I challenge anyone on the face of the earth to show that the reduction of 7.6 billion can be achieved in time to prevent the collapse of civilization by voluntary population control. If it cannot be shown with at least 80% certainty that the reduction of 7.6 billion can be achieved in time to prevent the collapse of civilization, the entire essay is garbage.
    12. The essay states that 3.2 billion can live on the planet in perpetuity. However, that statement is based solely on food production and does not consider any other fact or problem. The vast portion of resources provided by the earth to humanity are non-renewable resources. In addition, most theoretically renewable resources the earth provides humanity are being used by humanity much faster than they can be renewed by natural processes and, therefore, they also must be considered as nonrenewable.
    13. Just one example—in order to gamble on voluntary population control to reduce the human population level prior to the commencement of the collapse of civilization, it must be shown, with at least 80% certainty, that all the major underground aquifers providing irrigation water will not go dry causing massive worldwide starvation. In simple terms, I defy anyone to show that the major aquifers under the Midwest of the United States and under the North China plain will continue to provide irrigation water in the amount necessary to prevent starvation until the human population is reduced to whatever level is necessary.
    14. I can state with absolute certainty, not merely 99.9% certainty, that some time in the future one or more of the essential nonrenewable resources needed by humanity to continue civilization will become unavailable to humanity.
    Upon that occurrence the level of sustainable population will drop substantially below below 3.2 billion.
    15. Dinosaurs ruled the earth or about 160 million years. They were stupid animals with tiny brains. Humans have large brains and are quite intelligent.
    16. I can state with absolute certainty that 1 million years from today, a very very short time compared to the dinosaurs 160 million years, all metals will no longer be available to humanity as nothing done by humanity can increase the number of metal atoms on the earth. Humanity must, and will, return to the Stone Age. And the Stone Age can not support 3.2 billion.
    17. In reality, one or more essential resources necessary for civilization to continue will no longer be available to humanity in a very very short period of time in the collapse of civilization will start.
    18. Every single problem faced by humanity today will not be solved or even ameliorated unless the human population is substantially and immediately reduced. Every action taken by humanity to solve any major problem presently faced by humanity today will fail unless the human population is substantially and immediately reduced.
    19. New technologies will not solve humanity’s resource problems. Any attempt gamble the collapse of civilization and new technologies is not only irrational, is extremely stupid.

    Jason G Brent

    1. The reality is, humanity is way, way into ecological overshoot. All indications are that any population over 2 or 3 billion people is not sustainable on Earth. Given our current population, it might then seem that coercive population control is justified.

      Nevertheless, I would not be too quick to jump to that conclusion. I would want to hear, first, what you include under coercive population control, and second, how you believe such measures will get us to a just and sustainable world.

      Justice and sustainability are the twin desiderata for the long term flourishing of human society on Earth, and the long term flourishing of the many other species that also have a right to continued existence here. We need a vision that encompasses both justice and sustainability.

      Current human societies have foolishly pursued economic policies that are unsustainable and unjust to other species. But the path forward isn’t completely clear. What does seem clear is that the status quo, or even a mild reform of the status quo, isn’t sufficient.

      1. Dear Professor: Thank you very much for your intelligent response and for the questions you posed to my essay above. The purpose of my essay was to cause the intellectuals and leaders of humanity to understand that they must compare and consider both voluntary and coercive population control. 99.9% of them refuse to even consider that coercive population control may be the only solution to our current predicament. Hopefully, you will assist me in attempting to get the leaders of humanity and the intellectuals to truly discuss, compare, and consider both methods of population control. Your response to my essay below and Barbara’s essay below makes it clear that you understand the current predicament of humanity and you understand that major changes are required to every aspect of civilization to permit civilization to exist. Time is the essence. We cannot delay even one second in comparing and analyzing both methods of population control. Humanity is going deeper into overshoot every second of every day due to the exploding human population and due to the increasing per capita usage of resources. Anyone who refuses to consider both methods must be marked as a mass murder. It is that simple. I urge you and everyone reading my response to read the book “Blip”by Chris Clugston that can be obtained from Amazon that nominal cost. Clugston makes a very strong case that the lack of nonrenewable resources will cause the commencement of the collapse of civilization by the year 2050. His book and analysis cannot be ignored by the leaders and intellectuals of humanity. I cannot prove the following statement—-any attempt to maintain population growth between now and the year 2100 resulting in a population growth of over 3 billion will cause the commencement of the collapse of civilization before the year 2100. Jason G Brent

  3. We won’t solve the problems by dwelling on the numbers, however important these are in assessing the scale of the challenge. That challenge however is met by individuals – especially women – making crucial decisions about having a baby, too often facing the barriers to family planning that prevail, especially in poor areas.
    My solution to this is: Listen, listen, listen, listen Do not assume that “we” know better than “them”. Offering safe and effective contraception and terminations of pregnancy where people want that is the only way forward. As your organisation has documented, there have been some outstanding advances in countries where you might least expect it, where family planning programmes have been well planned, well funded and consistent over a long time period, together with media outreach and moves to improve women’s autonomy. So it can be done. Panic over the numbers will not do it.

    1. That’s true: there are many national success stories. They give us hope, and they give plausibility to a purely voluntary approach focused on maximizing women and couples freely choosing the number of children they want.

      Nevertheless, we might be so far into overshoot that such an approach will not work in the future. Can the world feed the 10 to 12 billion people we are likely to have in 2100 under a purely voluntary approach? Can we avoid cooking the planet, ourselves and all the other life we share it with, without a rapid decrease in human numbers?

      Autonomy is a wonderful thing. We want it for ourselves and other human beings. But autonomy demands responsibility, in human reproduction as in any other sphere of human life. It means reckoning honestly with limits. That’s apparently very hard for people to do.

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