Population Neglect and Fatalism

Examples of Neglect

Hall et al. (2017) – The impact of population growth and climate change on food security in Africa: looking ahead to 2050

Hall et al. consider the potential impact of future population growth and climate change on food security in 44 countries of Africa. Their results indicate that projected rapid population growth will be the leading cause of food insecurity and widespread undernourishment across Africa. As adaptation options, they discuss closing the yield gap via sustainable intensification and increasing imports through trade and aid agreements. The authors neglect to discuss solutions to slow or stop population growth, the opportunity of responsible population policies, and family planning programs. Read more about the importance of population policies in solving African food insecurity in this blog post.

Tilman et al. (2017) – Future threats to biodiversity and pathways to their prevention

This is a competent analysis of the tragic state of mammals and birds globally, and their likely fate if current trends continue, published in the leading scientific journal Nature. The study mentions human activities and human population growth in the Abstract. However there is no recommendation for action to end population growth. Instead, at the end the authors argue for increased food production with technological fixes. They write: “Earth is capable of providing healthy diets for 10 billion people in 2060 and preserving viable habitats for the vast majority of its remaining species.” But there is good reason to think this isn’t true—starting with the fact that we are rapidly extinguishing the world’s species while providing healthy diets for perhaps only half that number today. The authors mention “policies that reduce underlying anthropogenic threats”, but slowing population growth, or reducing population size, are not specified.

WWF’s Living Planet Index (2016)

This report is valuable in calling attention to declining global biodiversity; it also identifies factors associated with the declines – see especially pages 58-59. However, although human population growth is shown in a graph, there is no recommendation for action to end or slow population growth. The reader therefore is left with the idea that continued population growth is inevitable, when it is not. Ending population growth might be the most important step humanity could take to avert continued massive biodiversity loss—but readers of this study (and most discussions of it in the media) would never know it. Note also that in discussing national “ecological footprints” only per capita measures are given, while total national population footprints (for total population sizes) also should have been shown.


Explaining the Neglect

Kopnina and Washington (2016) – Discussing why population growth is still ignored or denied

Are overpopulation concerns really “anti-poor”, “anti-developing country,” or even “antihuman” as many critics argue? By delinking demographic factors from sustainability concerns, people ignore ecological limits of the Earth, the welfare and long-term livelihood of the most vulnerable groups, future prospects of humanity, as well as the ecosystems that support society.

Mora (2014) – Revisiting the environmental and socioeconomic effects of population growth: a fundamental but fading issue in modern scientific, public, and political circles

This study examines how the issue of population growth has been downplayed and trivialized among scientific fields. The result is reduced public interest in this issue, and limited will for policy action. The ongoing neglect will increase not only the extent of anthropogenic stressors, but also the struggle associated with strategies to reverse biodiversity loss and improve human welfare.

Coole (2013) – Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question

Why have we become so reluctant to ask whether we are too many or to countenance policies that might discourage further growth? Coole identifies five discourses – population-shaming, population-scepticism, population-declinism, population-decomposing and population-fatalism – that foreclose public debate and subject them to critical analysis.

Foreman (2007) – “Retreat on Population Stabilization” (The Rewilding Institute)

Why are conservationists and environmentalists neglecting population matters? Foreman gives us a good understandingof how and why environmentalists became silent about population issues following the 70’s, when it was widely agreed that population growth should be limited. He focuses mainly on U.S., and includes migration issues, human nature and abortion policies.


Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling died in February, 2017, but his message of complacency regarding population matters lives on in the media and on the Internet. That message needs to be critiqued, as in the following articles:

Opinion article in one of Sweden’s largest morning newspaper (Svenska Dagbladet 2015, translated) here>>

Paul and Anne Ehrlich criticize Rosling’s presentations of statistics here>>

Leon Kolankiewics, Californians For Population Stabilization, commentary here>>

Christian Berggren”s critical review of the book Factfulness. Christian shows us how the book employs a biased selection of variables, avoids analysis of negative trends, and does not discuss any of the serious challenges related to continual population growth. See also the abridged version of the article here>>

See also our blog posts on the book Factfulness: Factfulness: A more accurate title for this new book would have been “Selecting Facts to Make You Happy
and Can the book “Factfulness” be improved?

Rosling’s view on population is clearly presented, among other places, in the 1-hour film ”Don’t panic”. In the first few seconds, we see some environmental problems on the Earth, after which he states, “7 billion now live on our planet … isn’t it beautiful?” What follows is an extended explanation for why population growth will end by itself (it won’t), why we can feed billions more people without harming nature (we can’t), and how the only environmental problems we need to think about are those regarding human well-being. Rosling’s relentlessly anthropocentric (human-centered) focus is perhaps the most fundamental problem with his approach. Earth’s ecosystems are only mentioned as assisting in the production of food and other resources for humans; the rapid decrease of wildlife across the globe is never mentioned. But we should not buy optimism at the expense of human selfishness. Humanity can do better!

Rosling’s views are also conveyed in a new, posthumous book: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. See this review from Population Matters: “Population ‘Factfulness’ – where Hans Rosling is wrong” for a full debunking.