More and more people living on the planet is cause for concern

By Sarkadi Zsolt, translated and shortened by The Overpopulation Project

TOP assisting researcher, Patrícia Dérer, was recently interviewed for the Hungarian newspaper, 444. The article, shortened and translated to English, includes highlights from her interview where she discusses the conditional nature of population projections, the link between population and biodiversity, the declining population of eastern Europe, successful family planning programs, and much more.

“If you suggest that there are too many people on Earth, people immediately think you want half the population to die, like in the Avengers, that you are racist, or that you are accusing the poor developing countries of causing your problem, since Africa will be the continent that will quadruple its population by the end of the century. What they hear from your arguments is that you are passing the responsibility to the poor; when actually, here in the rich countries we are the greatest polluters and emitters. We argue that both developed and developing countries should stop population growth and keep the fertility rate below 2 children per woman. It is not sustainable to keep growing. Not only in Africa, but nowhere” – said Patrícia Dérer, biologist, for Dérer is a member of The Overpopulation Project at the University of Gothenburg, working with her peers to present scientific arguments to the academic community and general public that show the disadvantages of uncontrollable population growth and the benefits of responsible family planning.

We recently interviewed her in a café in Budapest, after her 26-hour bus and train ride to Hungary. She chose the bus and train ride over flying due to the lower emissions. In 2016, Patrícia Dérer graduated from ELTE, where her interest for global issues first arose during the lectures of András Takács-Sánta, course leader from the Faculty of Human Ecology. “He is a researcher who does not sweep anything under the rug, he acknowledges that a significant part of our current ecological crisis is population growth,” she said about the teacher.

She moved to Sweden after graduation, initially focusing on forest protection, but later changing her focus to population growth. She felt as if everyone was ignoring the negative impacts of overpopulation.

The research group is housed in the University of Gothenburg, funded by the Global Challenges Foundation (established by Laszlo Szombatfalvy).  “We are not saying that everyone should stop having children. We think the decision to procreate should be a well-informed decision. People should be informed about the opportunities, and the consequences, of their decision. We are told that the timing and number of children we have is a personal decision. This is partly true. However, it is not solely an individual decision; it is not just your responsibility because it is not just your life. You are creating a new life and it is affecting the environment. It is quite shocking that, globally speaking, 40% of pregnancies are not planned, but accidental. Of course not all of these potential children are born because pregnancies are terminated, but this 40 percent is huge, especially since most contraceptive technologies have been available since the ‘ 50s and ’60s. The problem is, nobody is motivating people to use these technologies. In many cases, population is taboo in the academic sphere.”

In addition to outreach, members of The Overpopulation Project carry out research. We previously published an article on their study of the economic benefits of ageing societies. In the article, they provide evidence that the prevention of ageing societies and population loss alone is not an appropriate reason to increase birth rate or promote immigration; and often times, the disadvantages of ageing societies are overstated and benefits ignored. In addition, The Overpopulation Project conducts research on the role of population growth in climate change and biodiversity loss, and has prepared population forecasts for European countries under different fertility rates and immigration policies. With the latter they want to demonstrate that population trends are not set in stone, but processes that can be transformed. For example, if pro-natalist policies and norms were abandoned in developed countries then the planet could have 7.5 billion inhabitants by the end of the century, instead of 11 billion.

“The United Nations release these forecasts, and politicians accept that there will be that many people in each country. But these are only UN predictions, one of several possible scenarios. Our fate is not determined by these projections; we can alter them by making responsible decisions today.” According to Dérer, the link between population growth and the decline in biodiversity is taboo in academia, but the topic interests researchers in the group. “Scientific articles may calculate the impact of population growth in the vicinity of national parks, but they almost never take further and make suggestions to address population growth. Most times, they don’t even clarify the correlation. ”

“The wild species populations have declined 60% since the ‘70s. Meanwhile, the human population has grown. But of course, it is still necessary to investigate the direct causes of species decline in an area, for example, a nation, national park or habitat. For example, X species’ habitat declined 50-60% because the city next to it expanded. But why did the city expand? Because they built new houses. And why do they need the houses? Because the population of the city is growing.” Wild animals are not killed directly by population growth, there is no automatic death of a calf after the birth of a human child. However, the primary direct reason for the decline in wild animals and biodiversity is habitat loss. An indirect reason is the expansion of cities, as humans need more land to house and feed the growing population.”

But according to the research group, there is a solution: if the population in a rural area decreases and land cultivation is abandoned, a forest will eventually grow back. But this requires a lot of time, and biodiversity may decline in the process as the human-related species that thrived on the cultivated land disappear. “But it is possible to help. People can implement restoration projects to create indigenous habitats in such places. Species can also be transported to other areas with similar habitat. There are very good projects in Europe that are developing eco-tourism initiatives to prevent complete rural depopulation. Rewilding Europe, a Dutch NGO, has improved biodiversity and re-introduced wild animals in Portugal and the Danube Delta. There is much potential for these types of projects, especially since there will likely be fewer and fewer people in Europe. This means more opportunities to return areas to nature. ”

The Overpopulation Project’s population forecasts for European countries are available on the group’s website. “Overall, these data show that immigration has a much stronger and faster impact on population development than family policies. Within the family policy measures, we found that financial subsidies do not have much effect on fertility rates. On the other hand, gender equality, general financial security, facilitation of part-time work, and stable healthcare, childcare and education systems can increase fertility.”

“Based on data from European countries, there are large disparities between western and northern Europe and eastern and southern Europe. The demographic trends of migrant-receiver countries have changed, especially after the 2015 refugee crisis. The fertility rate among first and second generation immigrants is usually higher, lowering to the host country levels by the third generation. ” According to the TOP calculations, many high migrant-receiver countries may face only small population decline or none at all, depending on their policies. For example, Germany could maintain its current population size until 2100 if it had no or little change in its immigration policy, and Sweden could have a threefold increase in population by 2100. The two oldest migrant-receiver countries, France and the UK, are likely to grow if current trends continue, while the overall population of Europe is forecasted to decline, largely due to the population decline in the southern and eastern regions.


Combined scenario population projections for Sweden, Germany and France (millions). Adapted from the original article, Zsolt, 2019.

“It is important to recognize that these numbers are not set in stone. We forecasted numerous  scenarios, and showed that if we reduce immigration and take certain family policy measures, we can stop and reverse the growth in regions the UN has projected to grow. Despite many people around the world advocating for family planning programs, currently most governments are pursuing family-friendly policies that encourage  people to have more children. In countries with low population growth, governments are afraid of a stagnating population for economic and militaristic reasons. But as long as they are unable to provide jobs for the ever-growing number of people, it ends up being a vicious cyclical trap.”

“It is simply an obvious fact that if the population of Africa really increases fourfold by the end of the century, then areas most affected by climate change will be unable to provide themselves with food and drinking water . It is supported by evidence that having less children will benefit an African family. We need to demonstrate these relationships and help countries provide responsible family planning services. The other opinion is that economic growth is the best method of contraception. According to this line of thought we should first help them grow, create a stable economy, and then the fertility will fall as it did in Europe and North America. But there is not enough time for this. If this were to happen, it will lead to a physical inability to survive the many effects of climate change.”

Furthermore, it is not scientifically proven that economic growth leads to fertility decline. Data from the 20th century show that economic growth occurs simultaneously with fertility decline. It has been proposed that it is more likely that economic growth is stimulated by greater GDP per capita, a result of fewer births.

“Historically, in most countries, the fertility rate fell first, then prosperity rose. And if we compare countries with similar demographic and resource conditions, the one with a successful family planning program performed better in all welfare indicators compared to the country with no such program. As fertility falls, prosperity grows, so it was in Thailand, Costa Rica, Tunisia and South Korea, where family planning programs were the state supported. Of course, that was decades ago.

In the 1970s, the most successful state program was in Iran, where the fertility rate fell from 6 to 2 in less than 15 years (from 1988). They used media campaigns and mobile health clinics to travel to even the smallest rural villages to inform people of contraceptives. Contraceptives were free and accessible everywhere. In one generation, the fertility rate in rural villages fell from 8 to 2. In Europe, such a change required 300 years. Unfortunately, Iran’s voluntary family planning program was terminated more than 10 years ago. Today, few states support family planning programs, and the work is maintained mainly by NGOs. But the important thing to remember when someone is talking about family planning is that the large majority of programs are positive and beneficial, not like China’s one-child-policy or violent sterilization.”

Philosophers have been pondering human population and resource limitations for centuries. Thomas Malthus wrote in the late 1700s that humanity would shortly be unable to supply itself using the planet’s resources (back then, less than 1 billion people were on the planet). It has been 220 years since then – we are slowly approaching 8 billion and have never lived as prosperous as we are now. We asked the Hungarian member of The Overpopulation Project about this, and she said:

“Thomas Malthus was not right 200 years ago because he did not know that we would be able to fix nitrogen and produce fertilizer in large quantities (the Haber-Bosch process). He calculated food production linearly, but this has since become exponential. And we see the effects of this all around us. It is true that technological advances will give us more time. One can believe in it, and imagine the Earth as a sphere of power waiting to be exploited by novel technology, a planet that exists only to maximize our the growth. It can be believed that we can feed 11 billion people in 2100, but do we want to sacrifice all other life on earth? Or do we want a fairer Earth, where all other species have food sources, living space and water? Or perhaps we think that in this humanity project, everything is for us, so we should use the last patches of land for ourselves and catch the last fish with no care for anything but ourselves? I believe this is unfair.

However, there are a lot of optimist people who believe technological innovations will keep the global average temperature increase under 1.5 degrees. Models that show this are explained, but they are based on technologies that do not yet exist or are not fully developed. For example, we could collect carbon dioxide from the factory chimneys and even from the air. Very expensive, but perhaps possible. But is it worth it?  Why don’t we see a simpler solution, such as avoiding accidental pregnancies, which remain at 40% globally. Not only in Africa, but also in rich countries, where contraception is available. Avoiding these pregnancies is not a great sacrifice, we have had this technology since the 50s. It only needs to be accessible and used by as many people as possible. In addition, all children need to be educated, and women’s status must be improved in all areas. These methods work, and do not require new technologies. Despite this, we still ignore the dangers of population growth.”


Original article:

Zsolt , S. Egyre többen élünk ezen a bolygón, és ebbe fogunk belepusztulni (More and more people are living on this planet, and this might cause our extinction). 444. May 20, 2019.

Translated by Lili Lantos.

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