Evidence for the changing discourse on population growth in an environmental magazine

By Patrícia Dérer

Many of us still remember how researchers, environmentalists and the media were concerned about population growth between the 1950s and the 1980s. Many of us could also notice, that this concern and attention declined during more recent decades, despite continued population growth. Nowadays there is almost a complete silence about overpopulation, both in the media and academia.

The decline in international attention probably started after the World Population Conference in Mexico City in 1984, accelerating after the Population Conference in Cairo 1994.  The purposes of the World Conferences (the first came in Bucharest 1974) included discussing ways of limiting population growth through implementing population and social welfare policies with direct effects on fertility. In 1974 especially, and in 1984, family planning was in focus. However, in Cairo, delegates mainly from the developing world claimed that international population assistance was racist, genocidal, or imperialistic, or accused Western nations of advocating population control as a substitute for foreign aid. Instead, they pressed for the necessity to bring about a new and more equitable international economic order1.

The goal of the Cairo conference 1994 was to formulate a consensus position on population and development for the next 20 years. The result was, in line with the UN’s practice, a non-binding program containing a consensus meant to encourage voluntary policies in order to stabilize population growth to somewhere well below the 12.5 billion people then projected for 20501,2. Also, as a turning point, instead of “family planning” the term “women’s reproductive health and rights” was introduced3. Although it was planned for a period of twenty years ahead, after the Cairo-conference there were no more large international UN conferences on population and development.

Nowadays, linking population and sustainability have become controversial, almost taboo. Policy documents issued about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do not address population issues. Those who still link population to sustainability are often branded neo-Malthusian, racist, or misanthropic, amid arguments that stabilized or shrinking developed countries should not tell the still rapidly growing developing countries that they should have fewer children3. However, while resource use and consumption is far too high in developed countries, reducing birth rates in poor countries would create better conditions for many women, and favor economic development, according to several studies.

Is it possible to trace the change of attention to population growth over these decades in a major Swedish environmental magazine? Ann-Marie Ljungberg posed this question, and quantified trends in the treatment of population growth and overpopulation in a respected and large environmental magazine of Sweden: Sveriges Natur (“Swedish Nature”). Ljungberg wanted to find out if the attention to overpopulation in the magazine was correlated with global population growth, including how the overpopulation issue was discussed, and also, what environmental issues were most often linked to it.

Trends were shown by both counting the number of articles mentioning population growth and in looking at how the articles handled the subject over time. By examining the issues published between 1950-1995 and 2014-2017 Ljungberg found that the number of articles mentioning population growth did not follow the trend of the increasing problem of the population growth, and there was a  decline in the number of articles which contained or mentioned population growth in the 1990’s and onward (Fig. 1).

Fig1._Sveriges Natur
Figure 1. The amount of attention for population growth in Sveriges Natur compared to the global population growth. Articles include those mentioning population (at least two sentences)

Interestingly, the articles clearly changed views on the environmental problems that population growth causes. Erosion, toxins and lack of food were linked to overpopulation more frequently during 1950s – 1970s than later on, while connecting population growth to biodiversity loss became more frequent over time.

Although articles which do not see overpopulation as a problem didn’t exist in the 50’s and 60’s, about half those mentioning population growth at all in 2010, did not see it as an issue. The same phenomenon is visible with the articles dismissing population issues (Fig. 2.). Importantly, articles suggesting some sort of solution gradually decreased to zero by the 2010’s, and in 2014-2015 articles describing population growth as positive or beneficial were even published.

Fig2._Sveriges Natur
Figure 2. Proportion of articles in Sveriges Natur environmental magazine, in which overpopulation may have been presented as a problem but was still dismissed (in percent of articles mentioning population growth in each category)

Ljungberg identifies some of the five discourses of silencing on the overpopulation issue proposed by Diana Coole4. “Population-shaming”, which denies that there is an objective demographic growth problem and charges neo-Malthusians for wanting to limit certain categories of people who are deemed redundant or undesirable, can be observed in a few of the articles of Sveriges Natur. “Population-skepticism”, which denies a population problem since fertility is declining almost everywhere [4], also appears in one of the articles. In summary, the global trend of decreasing attention to overpopulation, and changes in its treatment, are detectable in the most famous environmental magazine of Sweden.

Based on the master thesis of Ann-Marie Ljungberg.


  1. Johnson, S. The politics of population : Cairo 1994.
  2. Thimoty McCune. Quantity in Light of Quality: Rethinking the “Population Problem. (UMI, Dissertation Publishing, 2012).
  3. Kopnina, H. & Washington, H. Discussing why population growth is still ignored or denied. Chinese J. Popul. Resour. Environ. 14, 133–143 (2016).
  4. Coole, D. Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question. Env. Polit. 22, 195–215 (2013).
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6 thoughts on “Evidence for the changing discourse on population growth in an environmental magazine

  1. I linked to this article on twitter,
    My feeling from comments is that “people making comments” are increasingly concerned about the population number and its raise since say five years, while most Swedish politicians see local/domestic population growth as in principle positive.

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