More population neglect from the United Nations

The UN’s latest State of the World Population 2023 report deepens its denouncement of population concerns. While it commendably emphasizes women’s reproductive rights, it neglects the role an excessive and growing population plays in driving global ecological degradation and overlooks the many ways overpopulation can undermine poor people’s rights to safety and security.

by Jan van Weeren

Last month, the United Nations Population Fund launched its State of the World Population 2023 report. It has the optimistic title 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities. As in 2018, with The Power of Choice and in 2021, with My Body is My Own, the new report takes the gospel as it was proclaimed in Cairo almost thirty years ago as its leading principle. This 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was a shift away from population control ideologies towards sexual and reproductive health and rights. Despite the consensus statement at Cairo acknowledging the harms done by population growth, the UN has interpreted its mandate as insisting that demographic targets should no longer be goals in themselves. The aim of any population policy should be to ensure the reproductive rights of people, rather than to achieve demographic targets.

How successful was this leading principle after all those years? Data from 68 countries show that an estimated 44 per cent of partnered women are still unable to make decisions over health care, sex or contraception [p. 4]. Prevalence of patriarchal norms seems to play a critical role [p. 54]. Most women report joint decision-making, but when their preferences differ from those of their husbands, men will normally have the final say [p. 106]. Although these data are not very encouraging, they could have been worse without any efforts to improve the position of women. The report calls for further action, not just from policymakers and parliamentarians, but also from young people, older persons, activists, the private sector and civil society groups. “Together, we must create a world where everyone can exercise their rights, choices and responsibilities. This is essential for building a more sustainable, equal and just world for all 8 billion of us. A future of infinite possibilities. The time for action is now.” [p. 9]

So far, so good. But then it is reported that surveys carried out in a variety of countries (Brazil, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Nigeria, USA) show that between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of the respondents believe that the world population is too high, against vanishing numbers much below 10 per cent who believe that the world population is too low [p. 44]. Demographic targets enter the report through the back door, in the form of opinions held by people in a broad variety of countries. They stand for the demographic targets which were banned since the Cairo ICPD in 1994.

In response to this data the report makes a remarkable move. People believing that there are too many of us are framed as victims of misleading alarmist [p. 7] or simplistic narratives [p. 47]. These people are allegedly made vulnerable to the claims of “too many” or are influenced by alarmist rhetoric about “overpopulation” [p. 47]. There is no such thing as over- nor underpopulation, according to the report.

Inequality, violations of human rights and lack of sustainable development are seen as the key drivers of the ill health, environmental degradation, poverty, hunger and tragedy blamed on “overpopulation” [p. 37]. The causal chain from overpopulation (too many consuming too much) to environmental degradation, poverty and hunger and tragedy is totally overlooked.

The only thing that counts is a lack of reproductive rights for women. A reaction of Eliza Anyangwe, editor of CNN As Equals, responding to remarks of the UK’s Prince William, is quoted approvingly in the report: “identifying population growth as the problem, logically presents population control as the solution. This automatically transforms wombs into legitimate sites for climate policy” [p. 38].

This rhetoric puts the problem of the relationship between population growth and increasing CO2-emissions simply off limits. There is nothing ‘automatic’ linking demographic concerns to any form of coercive measures. Even if there were, this is not a logical reason to deny that population growth is a problem. It would be a reason to change the culture and practices of family planning programs to eliminate involuntary measures and improve the focus on health and rights – but this was largely achieved in the decade before Cairo.

According to the World Population Policies 2021 report, 69 countries have population policies to lower fertility, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The report acknowledges the development gains that can be achieved after fertility decline. However, efforts to further this decline should not be based on fertility targets, according to UNFPA. The only intention should be to secure the sexual and reproductive rights of individuals [p.50]. We will have to ask what individuals want for themselves. Even “soft” targeting through persuasion and incentives is not allowed. We should not try to convince people of the benefits of smaller families nor tell them that a shrinking population contributes to a better life for generations to come.

The examples above highlight the predicament of population policies according to the gospel of Cairo. In the last thirty years this policy has proven to be ineffective. Merely stressing the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women in a context where men rule makes no sense. Governments supported family planning and strengthened reproductive health services when they believed this was necessary for economic development; empowering women was a co-benefit. Removing the economic motive has meant less progress for women’s health and rights, not more. The UN’s rhetoric insists that demographic targets inevitably lead to coercive measures that abuse human rights and individual freedoms, but many successful voluntary programs show this to be untrue (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed, it is a very damaging lie that has impeded women’s emancipation and deepened poverty and environmental crises.

Since Cairo the world population has grown from 5.7 billion to 8 billion people. The number of Earths needed for human consumption and the absorption of pollution went up from 1.3 to 1.8. It is obvious that we cannot wait another thirty years for women having to conduct a lonely fight for their emancipation in an adverse environment, facing domestic violence and male domination. In the present situation of the Earth I would propose to rename the report. Not 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities, but: 8 Billion Lives and Counting, Infinite Consumption and Pollution .


Jan van Weeren is secretary of the Dutch Foundation against overpopulation.

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16 thoughts on “More population neglect from the United Nations

  1. All true. Then you have an Australian Government bringing in 800,000 people over the next few years to provide “workers”.

    Those 800,000 will multiply thrmselves with spouses and children and aged.parents by at least a factor of 4, adding 3,200,000 in the next few years, into an already environmentally degraded land.

    How do we cope with a so-called educated polity and public inflicting this.population problem on a ‘progressive’ nation, let alone other nations that are serioudly hamstrung politically, economically and ecologically?

      1. No, they’re not, Gaia. Our key political parties, donors, stakeholders, are all committed to mass migration. Surveys prove, unwashed voters want much lower migration. The elite ensures, they’ll never get a democratic choice.

        As for the UN, I don’t know why we even bother. Instead of getting serious about the population deluge, they dropped it, and promulgated the “net zero” canard instead. Once you accept that the UN is part of the endless-growth problem, not part of the solution, then the analysis simplifies.

        Australia now uses the “net zero” mantra as a fig-leaf cover, for massive population growth, gleeful habitat destruction and species crashes, wall-to-wall logging and land clearing, plus fossil fuels forever. Thanks for nothin’, UN.

  2. A small point perhaps, but I don’t think describing the environmental damage as needing “1.3 earths” (or whatever the figure) is impactful. I suggests some kind of fantasy – loading us up to go to Mars perhaps?
    I prefer to focus on the damage of increasing numbers to people’s environment, eg soil degradation, greater poverty and malnutrition, poor health and life expectancy, acute lack of jobs and livelihoods, competition for resources, shortages of services such as education and health etc.
    I also think the exclusive focus on “reproductive rights” (when there is no legal way of enforcing these rights) suggests women banging their heads against a wall of resistance. I suggest the concept of needs, and especially good health, would be more universally understood.

    Barbara Rogers

  3. It is all a blatant example of Moral Hazard rampant within the discipline of demographics. The concepts of Moral Hazard derives from the business world but is no less applicable in a number of other fields. The Cairo gospel ministers reap short term benefits whereas long term costs are left to be picked up by society.

  4. Dear Jan, thank you for your insight into the “population blindness” of so many politicians, including those highly paid bureaucrats at the United Nations, as well as business leaders and academics intent on their own agendas. Appeals to these individuals, to acknowledge the adverse impacts of overpopulation on the natural environment and on the life chances of the majority of the human race, simply falls on deaf ears. So perhaps these elites can be shocked out of their complacency by reliable forecasting of future social breakdown and anarchy caused by too many people competing for the finite resources on their part of the planet. Whilst population growth in Sudan is not the sole cause of the civil war, currently waging in that country, it is undeniably a major factor. The population in Sudan has grown from 6.5m in 1955, to 14.5m in 1980, to 27.3m in 2000, to 38.9m in 2015 and to 46.7m in 2023. This is a land with notoriously poor soils and subjected to frequent droughts, so it should come as no surprise, to the United Nations and other world leaders, that such conditions lead, as they have done throughout history, to land hunger followed by migration, leading to war, rapine and plunder. Perhaps a future contributor to The Overpopulation Project could address this topic. Sincerely, Hugh.

    1. Syria too.
      When overpopulation isn’t the cause, it’s often the fuel, especially in senseless wars such as the current one in Sudan (which is unrelated to the Sudanese people’s brave struggle for democracy and human rights, as far as I understand it; the war is just two big armed gangs fighting for power).
      What often motivates young men to keep fighting is literally a lack of better things to do in life; there are no jobs, no chances, no resources: war is the only thing that pays. There are studies and theories about this, if anyone at TOP wants to look into them it’d make for a very interesting read 🙂

    2. We agree with Hugh and Gaia — the connections between rapid population growth and civil breakdown are well worth exploring. There was a flurry of discussion about this topic around the turn of the century in political science. I’m not sure what current thinking is on it, or whether new work is being done. Would love to hear more if anyone knows more !

      1. Nigeria too: it’s obvious to me that it’s a war over resources driven not just by climate change but by population growth (and land development? not sure), and that the fact that the shepherds and farmers are of different ethnicity and religion is just a coincidence. There just isn’t enough to go around and they keep killing each other over it, in a never ending feud. It’s apparently one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, just slow burn. Also a story worth exploring for TOP.
        I’m here telling people to write about these things, I’m not going to do it myself 🙂

  5. Stable Genius, I’m sorry to hear that. If it makes you feel better, in Italy people did vote to end unregulated mass migration, and it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference.
    Australia seems to me to have a policy that is both unnecessarily harsh to actual refugees, and actively attracting economic migrants. I don’t understand it. I know how dangerous it is to welcome unlimited refugees, but if you really are prepared to let some more people in (which you should be very careful with, given how fragile Australia is), why not the more desperate ones? If it was up to me, countries that are full should only welcome single individuals in provable and extreme danger, not masses, but it’s not up to me.

  6. Proponents of womans right get too much weight compared to the advantage of reducing population by reducing birth rates!

    1. It doesn’t have to be either or – in fact, most of the people who are advocating for an increase in birth rates are also against abortion, sometimes equal rights for women, sex education or contraception. So they are a “common enemy”

      1. The Swedish development authority does not accept the concept overpopulation as it has been used as an excuse for undesirable birth control policies, but regard non-forced abortion as a female right. Actually, the Swedish minister of foreign affairs reacted on a Trump decision not to support foreign clinics which practiced abortion with federal US money with a statement that when Sweden will support them instead in the Swedish program for reproductive health (generally better education rather than technical methods of contraception). So right to abortion is often part of the female rights drive. In spite of that it could be compared to murder.

  7. Dag, I don’t understand this contemporary fashion for disregarding a truth because you don’t like some of its possible implications. The planet is overpopulated period, doesn’t matter what overpopulation is or isn’t used as an excuse for.
    I also disagree that abortion is murder.

  8. Unfortunately, there is a basic fact of money. Operating costs for all organizations including the United Nations is paramount for their survival. Zero Population Growth and the Sierra Club sold out two decades ago because it needed more funding to get the message across. Some anonymous donors (corporations) donated $100million (PBS – To the Contrary with Bonnie Erbe) on the condition the impact of immigration be eliminated from the growth formula. Many members of the UN are behind in their pledges and without money this important organization is doomed. Many corporations will donate and seem like the good guy but also want to increase their bottom line. Another important item is the desire for more money in order to be able to withstand the coming disaster many know is coming. I’ve heard this from several middle-class friends and this need usually includes protecting their offspring. Clinton once said that without a strong economy we could not have a healthy environment. Unfortunately, just another fact of the direction we are headed. It’s not just about greed but also a warped form of survival for one’s self and one’s loved ones.

    1. Is money really going to be of much use during a disaster? I think this is very short-sighted thinking. And it makes me kind of sad any time I hear about someone only caring about their offspring at the expense of everything else. I understand it’s an instinct, but humanity evolved with solidarity beyond your very immediate kin. Sometimes it seems that it’s even worse among wealthier people and societies, those who could afford to worry about others too.
      As for organizations, at least the UN ones have so much money. The salaries are sky high. The waste is immense. I don’t believe this is what the issue is.

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