Human Rights and Population Policy

Like all government policies, population policies should respect human rights. But what does that mean in practice? Putting reproductive rights in the larger context of creating just and sustainable societies provides the best framework for answering that question correctly.

by Philip Cafaro

Issues concerning human rights loom large in population debates. On the one hand, opponents of family planning efforts often point to past human rights abuses, such as forced abortions under China’s “one child policy” and coerced sterilizations in India during its “national emergency” in the mid-1970s, to justify their opposition. Some others who tolerate or even approve of family planning believe that government programs that speak too enthusiastically about the environmental or social benefits of reducing population growth, or that set specific targets to reduce fertility, are prone to such abuses. From this angle, the main human rights concern around family planning is that it should not force people to have fewer children than they want to have, or punish them if they have more than the state wants.

On the other hand, proponents of family planning often note that most social pressure and government coercion, now as in the past, involves coercing women to have more children than they want to have, or than they would have if they were free to choose. From this perspective, providing family planning services, especially accessible and affordable contraception, is necessary to operationalize a basic human right to reproductive choice, which is key to achieving freedom and equality for women. From this perspective, lack of contraception availability is the key human rights concern, with hundreds of millions of women around the world desiring to avoid pregnancy but unable to access modern contraception due to poverty, war, social stigma, government strictures, or opposition from religious leaders or other men.

A lesson held on women’s sexual and reproductive health. Photo by the United Nations.

Environmentalists bring our own set of rights concerns to the table. Environmental degradation directly threatens many human rights taken for granted, such as sufficient food, water and shelter, and the right to basic physical security. It indirectly threatens all human rights, since they depend on a functioning social order (as per article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) which in turn rests on essential ecosystem services which humanity is currently degrading (see the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Beyond human rights concerns, other species arguably have a right to continued existence free from untimely anthropogenic extinction. All these rights may be threatened by human overpopulation.

The right against coercion discussed in the first two paragraphs above can be secured by increasing reproductive freedom, while those rights discussed in the third paragraph may not be. Many countries have in fact achieved near-universal access to contraception while avoiding government coercion in how it is utilized. There is no inherent conflict between increasing people’s freedom to have more children and their freedom to have fewer. But securing the environmentally-dependent rights discussed in the third paragraph depends on limiting human numbers, not on how those numbers are chosen, and there is no guarantee that maximizing reproductive freedom will end human population growth.

Large family sizes remain the desired norm in many countries and among some religious and ethnic groups, helping to drive continued global population growth. Current preferences for small families in other places and among other groups may change. Furthermore, it isn’t clear that merely ending population growth will limit human numbers sufficiently to secure ecological sustainability; the evidence, from global heating to dwindling wildlife populations to the toxification of Earth’s lands and waters, implies otherwise. Two recent studies suggest that 3 billion people might be sustainable globally, if societies made heroic improvements in their current modes of consumption and production (Lianos and Pseiridis 2015, Tucker 2019). The current global population is 7.8 billion and it is growing by 80 to 85 million annually.

Since all human rights are environmentally-dependent rights and securing them could be rendered impossible by overpopulation, any serious ethical analysis needs to consider the possibility that limiting reproductive rights might be necessary to secure a decent future for humanity (and other species). Such a conclusion should not be surprising: no rights are absolute and all rights find their proper scope and limits within a larger framework of human interests. Parents exercising their reproductive rights should avoid damaging the interests of future generations, or even their current children. Yet we should not assume that coercion is the best recourse for changing people’s behaviours. On many issues of personal and public health and welfare, from quitting smoking to road safety, public information campaigns have successfully reduced harmful behaviours. Family planning is no different: evidence from many parts of the world over the past half century shows that promoting the benefits of small families while making modern contraception widely accessible can lead to rapid, voluntary fertility declines. Thus we should remain open to the happy possibility that more freedom, combined with better understanding of the impacts of reproductive decisions, will solve our population problems.

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International human rights conventions and commitments provide a useful framework for thinking about these matters. The UN’s International Conference on Human Rights in Teheran in 1968 declared that “couples have a basic human right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children” and that while sovereign nations were free to design their own population policies, those policies should pay “due regard to the principle that the size of the family should be the free choice of each individual family.” Meeting at the height of the global population explosion, however, delegates also “observed that the present rapid rate of population growth in some areas of the world hampers the struggle against hunger and poverty” and impedes efforts to provide people with adequate medical care, educational opportunities and other social services, “thereby impairing the full realization of human rights” and “the improvement of living conditions for each person.” They thus urged member states and concerned agencies “to give close attention to the implications for the exercise of human rights of the present rapid rate of increase in world population.” A clear inference was that going forward, excessive human numbers, or an excessive rate of increase in those numbers, could threaten human rights.

Roy Wilkins (United Stated), the Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), speaking at The International Conference on Human Rights in Teheran. Photo by the United Nations.

The Teheran Declaration thus affirmed an important human right to decide one’s family size, while recognizing that the unbridled use of this right could be disastrous—economically, socially, and environmentally. This leaves scope for nations to enact policies to limit population growth to further their development, so long as they respect their citizens’ right to determine the size of their families. It also opens up the possibility of limiting that right, if necessary, to further the common good. Teheran thus provided a reasonable framework for thinking about rights and balancing them against one another and against other important human interests.

During the following 25 years, support and funding for international family planning aid peaked. Modern contraceptives became standard in much of the developed world, while many developing nations launched voluntary, successful family planning programs that brought average fertility down to or close to replacement rate. Support for family planning was widely shared by those focused on women’s rights, economic development and environmental protection, since they all believed that reducing population growth would advance their causes. Also during this time, however, serious abuses occurred in some national population programs, e.g. in India and China (TOP will discuss these in more detail in a forthcoming blog). This led to a backlash against family planning, in some quarters, and actions to safeguard against coercion were taken. The “Programme of Action” adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 signaled shifts in the international approach to family planning which have continued into the present.

On the positive side, this new “Cairo consensus” reaffirmed and expanded earlier statements that family planning programs should avoid coercion and that “All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so” (Cairo principle 8). It also affirmed with new clarity and greater detail that women were entitled to equal rights with men (principle 3), linking access to contraception more strongly with protecting women’s rights. Coming out of Cairo, the international community committed to a voluntary “rights-based family planning” paradigm that was less likely to contravene individuals’ right to have large families.

Gro Harlem Brundtland (the prime minister of Norway at the time) speaking at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Photo by the United Nations.

But during a decade when climate science made the connection between excessive human numbers and environmental degradation more obvious, Cairo helped obscure that connection. The Programme of Action talked bluntly about the need to “eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption” (principle 6) but only indirectly about unsustainable patterns of reproduction. Principle 2 proudly proclaimed: “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” But the need to limit our numbers in order to achieve such harmony was nowhere plainly affirmed.

Since 1994, international family planning discourse has thrown cold water on the notion that protecting the environment is an acceptable reason to support family planning efforts. If environmental benefits happened indirectly, fine, but family planning should only be justified because it would improve women’s lives and increase their agency; any other reason, such as environmental protection or even poverty alleviation, was seen as disrespectful of women and opening the door to coercion. This is actually a misreading of Cairo’s Programme of Action, which advocated responsible parenthood, in which parents “take into account the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities towards the community” (paragraph 7.3). Similarly, setting specific goals for reducing fertility or increasing contraception use has been discouraged in recent decades, despite the Programme of Action’s affirmation that “demographic goals” were “legitimately the subject of government development strategies” (paragraph 7.12).

A positive view of these post-Cairo changes is that they “recognised the moral high ground occupied by those arguing in favour of the individual good and individual rights, as opposed to the social good” that concerned “Neo-Malthusian” environmentalists (DeJong 2000). A more accurate view is that the second part of “freely and responsibly” choosing family size was fading from view. Western feminists, like Westerners in general, had become better at asserting rights than affirming the responsible use of those rights, or balancing individual rights against the well-being of their communities. And Westerners, along with global Southerners, had lost sight of environmental limits to growth.

Summarizing these trends, former USAID Director for Population Steven Sinding (2008)  wrote:

Cairo effectively signaled the end of the family planning movement and replaced it with what we know today as the reproductive health and rights movement, … What effectively ended at Cairo was the strong linkage between family planning services and efforts to reduce high birth rates.

I believe that without intending to do so, the architects of the Cairo consensus, as it is often called, transformed family planning from what had been seen as a global imperative to one among many desirable but nonessential public services. The crisis mentality that had sustained such high levels of support and so high a priority for family planning in the years before Cairo was no longer present at Cairo, and it has almost entirely disappeared in the years since Cairo.

Indeed, per capita financial support for international family planning efforts has declined substantially over the past three decades. This has played an important part in the slow fertility decline in poorer parts of the world, particularly in Africa, where many governments lack the will or the ability to fully fund such programs. But as Cairo’s Programme of Action and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals both emphasize, failure to provide access to contraception or secure the freedom to use it are themselves arguably human rights violations. Meanwhile the crisis of global environmental degradation continues apace, with all that implies for the ability of future societies to secure human rights.

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Where does all this leave us? In a world where we want to maximize human freedom, but where people’s free choices regarding reproduction, food and energy consumption, and travel are heating up that world and destabilizing its climate. In this crowded and ecologically declining world, rights and responsibilities must come back together. In this world, no right can be unlimited, including the right to have children.

Perhaps the best practical way forward is for governments to protect and enhance the right of individuals and couples to choose their family size, while strongly encouraging them to choose small families. Coercion no, incentives yes. Forced sterilizations, no, frank reminders that we are overpopulated, yes. If most couples choose to have only one or two children, and few couples choose to have more, societies could end population growth relatively quickly and begin the necessary task of reducing their populations (assuming a willingness to limit immigration as well, a topic for another blog).

Even if the only right we were concerned about was the right to start a family, a case could be made for this balanced approach, since continuing the status quo threatens to create a world so environmentally degraded that our descendants cannot safely raise families. But of course, we want much more than this for our children and grandchildren. We want a world where they live securely in possession of the full gamut of human rights, as expressed in the SDGs. We want them to be able to flourish, not just exist, and to treat one another and the natural world more justly than we have managed to do. Such a future is possible—but only if we limit our numbers.

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44 thoughts on “Human Rights and Population Policy

  1. Thank you for this very important report. I became involved with the overpopulation/environmental movement from hearing about the Cairo Conference on broadcasts from my local NPR station. I also joined the local (Seattle) board of ZPG and was active with it for the next 8 years. Later, with a new national director the discussion regarding immigration levels changed and it was not seen as a part of a nations impact. The board changed hands and the name was changed and the importance of the group was lowered. According to a report by PBS $100 million was offered to ZPG and the Sierra Club to nullify the impact of excessive immigration and the suspicion was that it was due to industry’s need for cheap and controllable labor. More and more I have found people are totally unaware or even in denial on the effects of excessive human population.

    1. Yes, Zero Population Growth actually changed their name, one of the most recognizable in the world, to the forgettable Population Connection, in order to be more politically correct,. In recent decades the Sierra Club has morphed from the premier defender of wild lands in the US into a social justice organization for people who also like to hike. Too many environmental groups around the world have stopped leading on population issues. But perhaps the tide is turning. With the evidence continuing to accumulate that Earth is overpopulated, I think it is becoming a bit harder for environmental leaders to keep their heads in the sand.

      1. In fact, Zero Population Growth changed its name to Population Connection to be more effective. We reach some 3,000,000 K-12 students in US annually as the only nationwide provider of Population Education. Making noise is easy. Making a difference entails meeting people where they are, not where you might want them to be.
        John Seager, President, Population Connection

  2. This is the best, well-balanced summary I’ve seen of the ethical imperatives to cut population in order to protect human rights and the environment. Contrary to the anti-abortion folklore, there is no right to life. Life exists because evolution has built and maintains conditions for life–food, soil, oxygen, temperature conditions, habitat. Destroying those conditions via overpopulation/ overconsumption/ overexploitation will end life. Humanity would do well to think about the fate of soil bacteria, rainforests and the carbon stocks and flows that maintain conditions for human life to thrive.

    1. We seemed to formed two misnomers: pro-life and diversity. Both refer to humans – pro (human) life (it should be writ large LIFE) and human diversity. Human diversity refers to cultural diversity and is often conveniently confused with bio-diversity. Problem is more humans in a land equals less bio-diversity. I once read that one of the fastest growing career fields in in the area of anthropology. Corporations actually hire anthropologists to help them understand and control humans.

    2. Interesting, my late partner (an immigrant from Iran who got it) once asked her 2nd graders, “What is more important, people or dirt?”

  3. Hey Phil, You got at this in the last paragraph, but I wonder if philosophers and so called human rights advocates could not dig deeper into the rights denied children when parents decide to, (or out of neglect) have children before they can afford to. Or have more children than they can afford to raise, to as Onora O’Neil said to an “adequate standard”. She said that parents had a responsibility to ‘have a plan’ to provide adequate resources in addition to their right to found a family. And it has also occurred to me that for example so many teens having babies, often so they can get the ‘respect’ and status of adults, and or be cool and independent etc is really a conspiracy to commit child abuse for personal gain. Again I think often children’s rights to have good lives is sacrificed to the egos of both male and female parents, as well as to the greed and lust for power of the leaders of many nations who simply want to have more bodies and or a bigger economy to threaten and intimidate neighboring nations with.

    1. Well said. When talking about human rights, the right to have children is always emphasized; the right of children to have a happy life with an adequate standard is not even mentioned. But all the children must have the right to a happy life, without any kind of abuse. Health care, nutrition and education must be guaranteed for all, and parents are the first responsible for this. Instead, many people choose to have children even if they are unable to ensure them an adequate standard. This is unethical and unacceptable. Among all human rights, children rights must have priority.

    2. All well and good but what about the millions born in countries where abject poverty and hunger are the norm. When one gives to a charity that helps to feed people one unquestioned issue is the one of food distribution. Most food is distributed at centers which eventually become basically human feed lots. People start to settle in these food centers and make it their home. Of course children are born with no hope of a decent future. We never ask how many generations of starving people we help to create because of our simply desire to feed others. This not only has not and will not work but only increases the numbers of starving people. I only donate to programs that focus on family planning services like EngenderHealth. We need to understand our actions, whether they may seem right at the time, often have consequences. I constantly remind myself of the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      1. One of the most painful things to watch is children in refugee camps / boats coming to Europe. Their suffering is always used as a way to make wealthier countries feel guilty for not accepting more refugees, but what about the people who keep having children in those situations? (With of course the exception of women who are raped)
        I support providing contraception in refugee camps, but in such extreme circumstances I think even abstinence or natural methods should be used to avoid creating both more suffering and more burden on the countries, often poor or overpopulated, hosting the refugees. Sometimes it seems, as cynical as that might be, that those children are pawns to force Western countries into accepting refugees, because it’s not the children’s fault they are living in hell.

    3. You’re right Win, and Lucia: there is a lot more to be said about adult responsibilities to only have children when we can provide for them. We have become too glib about advocating rights without even mentioning corresponding responsibilities. The greed and power lust of political leaders who encourage excessive fertility or excessive migration also needs to be called out for what it is. Unfortunately, such greed is validated by our current economic system, which tends to overwhelm all ethical considerations.

      Humanity is at an interesting point in our career. It is becoming more and more obvious that “the philosophy of more” is leading us over a cliff. I don’t think most people on the right or the left are facing this squarely; they are mostly looking for loopholes, whether in the population sphere or others. But “times up,” as we have started saying in another context. Time to start thinking about taking less from the Earth, rather than more. Given the unpopularity of this idea, I actually think pursuing smaller populations might be the easiest path forward. If its a matter of choosing, I think it will prove more popular than “consume a lot less, so that we can keep shoehorning more people into an already overcrowded world.”

  4. While I agree that coercion in reproduction is not good and a rights- and information-based approach is much better, sometimes I wonder what would have happened – to China AND the world – if China had not had a one-child policy. Maybe, in hindsight, this was the lesser evil.
    As for governments penalizing people who have too many children… well, not many people are complaining of the unfairness of giving tax breaks, discounts and more legal rights to married people that the unmarried and especially single don’t have, are they? Or of being forced to pay more in taxes to give money and tax breaks to parents, even when they don’t actually need them…

    1. One question I would ask is, do we create policies using evidence based science and reason or emotions? The bottom line is that by helping other desperate people coming into a country often creates a situation that harms future generations of all. Too often, moving to another country, when things rough, becomes (to the refugees mind) the easy way out. How many of us have said that if tRump gets re-elected we will leave? How many have already left for Canada (a lot). We are responsible for our own country and when our country becomes unlivable it is not only the citizens that suffer but the immigrants as well. We need to be able to sustain our population level. We need to focus on that and not helping other countries that cannot manage their numbers that try to use us for a pressure relief valve.

      1. We can help other countries, if they want it, by providing family planning assistance – it’s a win-win.

        Other than that, I fully agree – yet no one has the guts to point out that countries people flee from won’t improve by themselves, someone has to fight and give up something for that to happen. Italy is a good place now, but still, I decided not to leave it in order to pursue a career abroad (as many Italians do, constantly bitching about how Italy is not good enough for them) because I feel a responsibility to stay here and give back to my own country.
        I know it’s just easy to tell other people to go an be heroes from our relative safety, but still.. if everyone had fled Europe in the 40s, who would have defeated the Nazis?
        Interestingly, during two horrendous World Wars, most people here stayed and fought, or tried to survive within their society. Europeans did not leave en masse during the worst time of their history. When they did leave in great numbers, it was mostly either out of either greed or economic desperation, and certainly overpopulation – and ask the Indians how that went…

    2. Both your comments hit at the crux of the problem. When we give money for food we, indirectly allow for more children to be born into poverty. There is an organization that tries to administer family planning services (surgical contraception) and education. It’s called EngenderHealth. Unfortunately, there are lots of groups that donate for food but very few that donate for family planning. Religion is often to blame. I personally will not give money for food but will for family planning. One area few westerners touch on is the subject of rape. In many developing countries and even some areas here marital rape is not a crime and is often the norm. My late partner, from Iran, was in this situation and had 2 secret abortions from her first husband to keep from having an unwanted child. The third time she wised up and had the child but then had her tubes tied.

      In Iran, at one time, the first child received a tax break, the second did not and the third meant additional taxes. Governments should NOT be in the business of growing their populations but, unfortunately, governments are still in the mode that growth means a stronger economy. There is also a group titled: Childfree By Choice: http://www.childfreebychoice.com/. This group gives out lots of information dealing with the issue of singles having to support marriage and children. I came from a family with 7 kids. Imagine how many people’s property taxes were needed just to fund our public education?

    3. I fully agree with these comments by gaiabaracetti and pbaharloo regarding the need for action on population at the national level, as part of a larger, fundamental commitment to national citizenship. Again, we are at a very interesting point in history. Much of the global intelligentsia has been moving toward support for open borders, and a dismissal of national patriotism as hopelessly misguided. This has always seemed like a mistake to me. I see these folks as living privileged lives that are parasitic on the national achievements of past generations. It is just another example of spending down the capital built up by previous generations (of humans and non-humans, both).

      But Americans at least, even the dullest of us, are now coming around to the idea that we must work much harder to build up the institutions and social commitments that sustain our collective well-being. Trump has been delivering one lesson after another on what happens when we neglect that. And of course, it was largely his opposition to mass immigration that got him elected in 2016.

      I would note that there are some folks who have “had the guts” to point out the need for robust national commitments and citizenship. One fine example is a book by the Israeli academic Yael Tamir, Why Nationalism? https://www.amazon.com/Why-Nationalism-Yael-Tamir/dp/0691190100/ref=sr_1_21?dchild=1&keywords=nationalism&qid=1608055061&sr=8-21

      Gaiabaracetti, it is interesting to read your account of staying in Italy, being the grandson of a man who left about 100 years ago and never looked back. Back then, in southern Italy, there were few economic options for poor men’s sons, and several tens of millions of Italians left in the decades around the turn of the last century. But of course, there was also little sense then among common people in the south that they were citizens whose views, or lives, mattered to the people who were running Italy. My grandfather became a proud citizen of the U.S. and was always grateful to the country for giving him an opportunity to live a good life.

      In the US, we celebrate these kinds of stories, but typically without asking the kinds of questions you ask: what would happen if everyone picked up and left, or not enough people stayed to try to improve these countries, or defend them from their enemies? Nor do most Americans have any sense that stories that made sense in one period of our history might no longer make sense in a different one.

      When my grandfather came to the US, our population was around 105 million people and the world population was around 1.5 billion. Today those numbers are 330 million and 7.8 billion. In such a crowded world, the answer for most of the many, many people looking desperately for better lives cannot be “move somewhere else.”

      1. Philip, the debate about Italian migration is alive here, too, because many are reminding the nation – correctly – that “we” used to be migrants not long ago, and this, of course, brings all sorts of things up – were “we” treated well when we left? Did “we” behave well in the places we moved to? Who brought the mafia to the US, Southern Italians or disonest Italians or just individuals…? And so on, and on… just to give you an idea how behind we are in adjusting, it is basically easier (oversimplifying a little) to get citizenship as a descendent of Italian emigrants who has never seen Italy than it is as a child of immigrants to Italy who grew up here. It’s unfair – yet, I have seen in both Italians abroad for generations and in immigrants here that loyalties to one’s family’s homeland take a very long time to fade, and sometimes never do (see what happened to the Jews and Romas… some cultures, or maybe all, have no mercy for those who insist on being different).
        Personally, for what it’s worth, I approach this without prejudice of any kind. I love my region, country and continent, but I’ve also lived abroad and have been treated well wherever I’ve been and liked every culture I’ve met, and I can certainly understand that we don’t all have the same loyalties – sometimes worrying about feeding your family seems like the rightest thing you can do. When I think about Italians leaving Italy, many contradictory thoughts come to mind… because I’m also trying to educate myself about the American Indians and what us having an “empty” continent to unload European excess population onto meant to them…
        Modern Italians themselves, now, celebrate the incredibly rich culture our country has developed through many invasions and migrations – and yet, we must acknowledge that having the Romans expanding or the barbarians raiding or the European powers playing Risk with us was shocking and painful for those who lived during those times, even though we now, removed from the trauma, like the heritage.
        So perhaps, like you say, it is best to focus on what we need to do now in terms of population and migration, learning from history without judging the past.

      2. Just one more thing… I think that in Italy, as in I would guess most places, emigrants are mostly respected; every society likes the idea of expanding more than shrinking, and those that go abroad are almost emissaries of a kind, even if their intention was not that.
        In Italian we still have the saying “trovare l’America” (finding America), which is a bit like “hitting the jackpot”. Now that I’m trying to find agricultural land to buy over here, I really see why… we are so crowded! There’s nowhere to go!
        Of course, I’d much prefer that, instead of always looking for places where land is cheap and abundant (now richer Europeans go to Spain and Eastern Europe or the Apennines, the “rewilded” places you talk about) we worked on better policies to NOT be crowded in the first place, but the growth mentality is still so strong, many people are seriously suggesting making North Africans, Afghans and Pakistanis (“natural shepherds”, they say) that are migrating here come graze their goats in the “depopulated” Alps, which is wrong on so many levels, and the reason we need to work on culture and worldview even before policy…

  5. As far as Population Connection is concerned I saw it for what it was/is, a middle man for family planning. Why spend valuable resources for a middleman? Why not go directly to the need? Without any control of our immigration levels we are doomed to a continued population growth rate along with an increasing impact on this, the country with the largest carbon footprint in the world. ZPG was run with fact and evidence based reason. Now corporate interests and feel good emotions have taken over.

    1. As President of Population Connection, I wish I knew where to find these “corporate interests.” They don’t give us any money. Zero. Zip. None.
      The “middleman” comment is fair enough. But there is a $6 billion annual shortfall in global contraceptive funding. Governments must fill most of that void, which means there is a need for a middleman to generate needed support. That’s what we do.
      It’s true that most immigrants to the US come from places with lower carbon footprints. But are we basing our strategy on hoping that people in other places will never break out of poverty? It seems like a bad plan.
      Immigration reform will require “meeting in the middle.” That will require lowering the temperature on the issue and will entail compromises on all sides. That’s not where we are as a Nation these days. I hope we can get there. Anger is an emotion, not a strategy.

      1. When I was a chapter board member the change of removing immigration as a part of the impact formula was sudden and not well explained. Most of the board members had been at it a long time and were on the edge of burn out so they left. A couple of fools (as I) stayed to see what was going on. We were met with nasty remarks and being accused of being racist. It was touted the inclusion of immigration in the overpopulation formula was somehow blaming immigrants for the environmental problems. The framing of the debate really put the whole history of the group in question and basically said it was a racist organization and now it was time to fix it. The then director of ZPG constantly claimed we needed money to get the word out and sought generous donors as Ted Turner. Basically money was needed to diluted the message. Later I received a video from PBS (To the Contrary) which said $100 million was given by some (unnamed donor(s) to ZPG and the Sierra Club to remove the immigration part of the formula. Later such groups as NumbersUSA and NPG questioned the large funding given to support immigration supporters in their protests against the anti-immigration crowd.

        I am confused about the part: “It’s true that most immigrants to the US come from places with lower carbon footprints. But are we basing our strategy on hoping that people in other places will never break out of poverty? It seems like a bad plan.” Why should we be involved in helping other country’s/people alleviate poverty? Are we just a relief valve for the pressures created by overpopulation in developing countries? Yes, people usually come here for the sole purpose of increasing their carbon footprint. What does that do to the global carbon footprint when and increasing number of people continue to increase their personal carbon footprint?

        Years ago I attended a town hall meeting in Seattle over the question of whether English should be the declared language of the nation. Two women spoke on the yes side. one was Chinese and represented the UN. She said many country’s gain strength and unity by having a national language. The other represented the Seattle School district. She started out saying in the district were some 130+ foreign languages spoken. Some of these languages were from small countries. In order to assimilate all these languages (translators, bootstrap programs, IA’s who could speak the language of the students, English languages classes for the students and the parents and on and on) so much money was needed that programs as special Ed were de-funded to pay for the assimilation of immigrants. I was married to an Iranian/American who was an elementary school teacher (with a masters in principalship) who went on to teach in a large international school. Her last year of teaching she had 60 students. The school had a pod system and one pod in my partners class taught Chinese (Mandarin – Cantonese is another Chinese language used by students/parents) and Spanish. The stories I heard about all the problems with dealing mainly with parents who did/would not learn the language of their country were unbelievable. BTW, my partner (Parvin – we started on this program before she died) was the most reason based person I or any of the others who knew her had ever seen. She understood fully the impact of overpopulation and immigration on the world (hence her question at the end of one of my comments. She even refused to sponsor two of her own brothers to come to the US. Corporations have other ways of supporting an idea besides money. Propaganda and self-serving messages can be a powerful tool. Just look at how the 4 years of lies and propaganda have converted millions of people to support the most corrupt administration in the country.

  6. “No guarantee that maximizing reproductive freedom will end human population growth” according to you. But this is precisely the point: given the means to have the kind of safe and effective contraception that we in richer countries more or less take for granted, this will result in a stable human population, as many developing as well as developed countries have achieved.
    You don’t seem to be aware of the new resolution at the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) which explicitly endorses removing barriers to family planning. Increasingly, conservation organisations (cheetahs, amphibians, marine life, cranes etc etc) are incorporating health services with family planning into their field work. The connections will also be coming up at COP 26.
    You do seem to be quite male-centered here. It is the women who hold this issue in their hands, and given the chance, and support from men, they will solve it.

    1. Many European countries, Germany and Italy are two, actually have a negative population growth. The US is just about at a truly sustainable level (births = deaths and emigration). The one thing that adds some 2 million (direct and indirect) to our population is our immigration policy. Too many the issue is not about a policy that all must live under, immigrants and natives alike but a racist idea to discriminate against certain people. This idea keeps us from creating a sustainable (not the buzzword sustainable growth idea) policy. We ate presently over 330 million and by all real measures have exceeded our carrying capacity. I hear the word ‘diversity’ a lot but the actual diversity is human diversity. Increasing human numbers in a fixed location actually diminishes the item of true importance, biodiversity. Because of our population numbers we are now in the sixth great extinction and scientist have dubbed this the Anthropocene Era.

  7. I don’t know what the Sierra Club did or didn’t get. I’ve been with our organization for almost 25 years, and we haven’t gotten donations of that sort. And I know we didn’t get anything of any magnitude prior to that time. Grassroots groups often have internal clashes of one sort or another. We find it much more productive to focus on educating young Americans about population challenges and to advocate for international family planning. Others can do what they choose to do. And we do consider it vital to think globally. It’s a very small, crowded world. And it’s getting smaller and more crowded all the time. We need to work together as best we can. I think I’ll step out of this discussion now, but anyone is welcome to email me at john@popconnect.org. Happy holidays!

    1. This reply is not so much for you but others that may read it. ZPG was a reason based organization whose mission was to stabilize population in the US from all sources. It was founded by two married scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich. It was one of the first and also most respected environmental organizations. At the time of its founding overpopulation was widely understood and accepted. Unfortunately, as usual, emotion reared it’s ugly head and reason went out the window. The new group adopted a new mantra and it seemed the mission of stabilizing population was replaced by helping alleviate poverty and pushing family planning. We try to get Americans to reduce their fertility and lower their carbon footprint but the issue of more population growth (and with it an increased carbon footprint) from immigration was ignored. Right now some 2/3’s of our population growth (3 million per annum) comes directly or indirectly (births within from the 1st generation) from immigration. How can we ask citizens to cut back but allowing others to come in and negate the efforts by the citizens?

      1. This is even more pronounced in countries that were not created through immigration like the US or Canada (well, every country is, but some in a very distant past, and often less heterogeneously). Some people like seeing the ethnic make up change, but others feel that they will be outnumber or replaced. I think that things that are good in small quantities are dangerous in big quantities – migration, whether we like it or not, is one such thing – even the much-celebrated US melting pot could only happen after the extermination or displacement of the original inhabitants. If you want people to reduce fertility or consumption, it can’t be so that other people will be irresponsible.

    2. John, I appreciate your weighing in on these matters. You claim Population Connection does useful education work. But as several commentators have noted, immigration is the main driver of continued population growth in the US. With a taboo on talking about immigration, PC cannot help but mis-educate American students when you ignore the issue. It is simply false to push decreasing birth rates as the answer for US population growth when most of this growth isn’t coming from US citizens having large families. And it isn’t giving students an honest view of the whole picture.

      So OK, you start by not talking about immigration. And then, because immigration is driving most US population growth, you shift from discussing US population growth to global population growth, exclusively. So US students get the message that population growth is something that is happening “out there,” not here. But that’s false. Or, if some of the problem is spilling over into the US, then the answer is again “out there”: we must essentially solve all the world’s political and economic and demographic problems, in order to end mass immigration into the US.

      But this is wrong is several important ways. First, it accepts the dangerous view that the US needs to solve all the world’s problems. Second, it ignores what this discussion has made clear: that a focus on national action to solve national problems is a key aspect of an informed and effective environmentalism.

      1. We don’t ignore immigration. Check out our Population Education program.

        The U.S. Census Bureau reports that annual U.S. net migration is currently 595,000. Compare that to the 1,624,000 unintended births in the US annually, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

        Then also consider the unmet need of 218,000,000 women in the Global South for modern contraception which results in more than 20,000,000 unintended births annually.
        .
        Reducing population pressures everywhere through voluntary methods makes for a better world.

        We’ll continue to focus our time and resources where we believe we can make a positive difference.

        As for national immigration reform, it would be great if the next Congress could engage in a thoughtful debate culminating in a set of compromises supported by a majority of both Houses of Congress on a bill that President Biden would be willing to sign into law. That’s how change happens.

        John Seager
        http://www.popconnect.org

  8. Thank you for the comment about how things that are good in small doses can and do become bad in larger doses. Everyone understand the importance of moderation but seldom adhere to it. One link I have not heard by the so called melting-pot analogy and have experienced the opposite (being a long-time ex-patriot in a foreign country I felt this even for myself) is that people want to adhere to their culture yet glean what they can in the new one). Very many are even slow to learn the language of their adopted country. All too often, cultural differences lead to cultural biases and polarization.

    1. Exactly. Immigration, like having children, is a good thing in moderation. A family or a society can have “too much of a good thing.” And we need to define “too much” in terms of current and likely future conditions.

  9. Can an outsider intrude on private US grief? Please discuss immigration, which is a government matter, separately from family size issues, which are a matter for individual decision-making. Actually it’s not just the US that is bundling the two issues, unhelpfully in my view. The UK and others have groups trying to tie the two together, as well.

    1. Keeping them separate is a big part of the problem. When it comes to the environment and a nations carbon footprint (and its wealth disparity) they must be together. Anything that increases a country’s footprint should be examined and heavily regulated. We need to stop our B & W, emotional views aimed at people (immigrants) and start a reasoned, evidence based examination on a policy (immigration) under which all, immigrants and citizens must live. Again, my immigrant wife’s question to her 2nd graders, which is more important, people or dirt (soil)? One can never ever be more important that that system that sustains them. Do not for one millisecond think mother nature will give a fig for any human sympathy. We need to fend for ourselves and we are failing miserably.

    2. As once a long time (15 years) emigrant I understand the migration question. One thing that experience taught me was the need for detailed documentation. When getting an extended visa for Germany I had to produce a doctors form about my health, a criminal report, a pledge of not taking a job from a German and open a sealed bank account geared on my country of origin. The purpose of that was in case I was to be deported that money would be used instead of the government having to shell funds. As an American this process was streamlined compared to citizens from other countries. My late partner came to the US, with her family, on a school visa.When the revolution hit Iran she realized she could no longer go back so she went through the process of getting citizenship for 4 (a 3rd child had been born in Ok.). It took years, stress and lots of money. Years later the US took pity on the huge number of immigrants that were basically hiding and filled out no forms and were given an amnesty. To millions of former immigrants this was a slap in the face. This nation of laws had become one of pity. At one time NPR actually had people who told of their frustration at this. The amnesty was supposed to be a one time thing but it continues.

      Sustainability is a buzzword these days and sustainable growth is an oxymoron. To get true population sustainability in the US additions must equal losses. To me the term ‘migration’ means arrivals and departures and muddies the waters. We have overshot this countries carrying capacity (as stated by thousands of scientists) and equality is not enough. Another ZPG organization exists (I am a member) called Negative Population Growth (NPG). Nature has no more resources to give and we need to start paying her back. We cannot do that if we keep adding to the debit side.

    3. That would be good except for the fact that immigrants also have children. Some studies have shown the people from poor country’s actually tend to have more children than those from wealthy country’s. It is estimated that the population growth in the US comes directly or indirectly from immigration. Directly from newly arrived people and indirectly from the births,within the first generation from those families. It would be wonderful if issues, especially this one were simple. Unfortunately they are very complex and that complexity makes for a lot of confusion which many, pro-growth, advocates take advantage of.

  10. Evidentially the reply to Population Connection has become complicated. I did look at the site under education and did not see immigration once. What does the number of ‘net migration’ include? Does it include many who skirt our immigration laws in hope for yet another amnesty? Is it a projection of migration since trump took over? Very short on details and my personal experiences have told me why. I was from a family of 7 kids and every one of us was ‘unintended.’ To the religious that is not a word they understand. I would also ask how many of those unintended births came from 1st generation immigrants? ZPG had a lot of great activities and I still use some of which are still available through “Population Connection.” But until we go back to honest, open, reason based evidence on this subject we will all perish. Also, we have enough problems maintaining a truly sustainable birth rate (growth is not sustainable) in our own country why are we trying to shape other countries policies?

    1. Anyone can visit our Population Education website and type “Immigration” into the search area to see quite a few items. Keep in mind that we try not to proselytize in our education programs. We want the next generation to think, so we try not to tell them what to think.
      There is much confusion with respect to terminology around immigration. I think it’s more useful to use the term “migration” since there are constant arrivals and departures. All species migrate. Even continents migrate, if you will.
      And some of it is very complex. For example, it’s incredibly hard to pin down a figure for US citizens who do not return to the US. Somebody can stay away for a week or a lifetime. Check out the annual Social Security Trustee’s report for more on this topic or this detailed analysis: https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Reports/OCE_Technical_Report.pdf
      Taken all in all, net immigration is a relatively small piece of the US population puzzle. Based on US government figures, it’s about 15% as large as total US births and much smaller than unintended births. But immigration does get people riled up. Alas, heat doesn’t always translate into light.
      All nations have borders and restrictions. It’s important to debate and discuss the topic in a respectful manner where we try to understand each other. But it’ can be extremely hard to get people to take a deep breath and agree on terminology and on the best sources for data. Without a sound factual foundation, you can’t have a rational conversation.

      1. “it’s about 15% as large as total US births and much smaller than unintended births”
        Sorry, but this statement seems a bit absurd to me. Unless you really think you can prevent ALL Americans from reproducing at all ever, “total US births” are going to continue to exist to some extent. Net immigration, on the other hand, could be zero if you Americans wanted that. That’s a little like comparing the food that is making you fat to the food you have to eat to stay alive. “I AM dieting, because I only eat 15% more than what I should”…
        Also, I think that the statistics about “unintended births” are a bit misleading. Unintended does not mean unwanted. Lots of couples plan on having a child sooner or later, without planning the specific time. You surely cannot expect all unintended pregnancies to disappear!
        Your replies confirm to me that political correctness and avoidance of sensitive subjects mean that people spend more time awkwardly trying to obfuscate inconvenient facts than trying to promote solutions.

      2. So I did look it up and found “Population Connection believes that the United States government should view immigration in a global context, and focus its attention on the factors that compel people to leave their families and native homes in the first place.

        Foremost among the root causes of international migration are population growth, economic stagnation, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, poverty, and political repression. Unless the United States successfully addresses these international issues, no domestic policy will effectively prevent people from seeking entry to the United States. Population Connection, therefore, calls on the United States to focus its foreign aid on these core issues and work cooperatively with other nations to address international migration.”

        Again, this organization does not view the country of which it is based in the context of us having the worlds largest carbon footprint, hence the extreme need to lower that footprint not help other countries out of poverty. Again, it is not about people but the system, natural and social, under which everyone lives (human and non-human). To me that scream an emotional view and hence will and is failing.

        The former ZPG and now NPG as well as NumbersUSA all were/are out in the open on the need to control immigration to this country in order to stabilize the population growth of this country. Again, 2/3 of the country’s growth is directly/indirectly due to immigration. How can we ask our own citizens to lower their fertility and footprint while, at the same time bringing in others whose goal is to do just the opposite. We cannot.

  11. John Seager writes that for 2020, “The U.S. Census Bureau reports that annual U.S. net migration is currently 595,000.” But 2020 has been a very unusual year. Both legal and illegal immigration into the US is way down, as is human movement all around the world.

    Annual net migration in recent decades into the US has varied between 1.2 and 1.5 million, according to the US Census Bureau. That is the figure we need to be looking at and asking, “is it ecologically sustainable”? Because it is helping drive rapid US population growth, the answer is “no.”

    John also gives a misleading picture of the relative importance of immigration in driving US population growth. US birthrates are already significantly below replacement rate. As gaiabaracetti’s comment suggests, it isn’t reasonable to focus on building support to drive US birth rates even lower, as PC does, in order to continue to accommodate mass immigration while simultaneously ending population growth. Nor is it reasonable to imagine the US solving all the problems everywhere that cause people to emigrate from their home countries, before we take responsibility for limiting our own numbers.

    According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, immigration is the main driver of recent, current, and likely future US population growth: https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-u-s-driving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065/

    According to Pew, writing several years ago: “Looking ahead, new Pew Research Center U.S. population projections show that if current demographic trends continue, future immigrants and their descendants will be an even bigger source of population growth. Between 2015 and 2065, they are projected to account for 88% of the U.S. population increase, or 103 million people, as the nation grows to 441 million.”

    1. Thank you for this honest and evidence shown fact. At the time ZPG had undergone it’s name change it also radically changed it’s mission. This was just after the turn of this century. The name Population Connection did not even appear until around 2002 (do the math with a 25 year affiliation with Population Connection. It did not even exist 25 years ago). Again PBS (I have the video) did an expose’ on ZPG and the Sierra Club being recipients of money to make changes in their policy concerning immigration.

      ZPG was one of the first and most respected environmental groups and dealt in facts. Most understood the seriousness of overpopulation yet now, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary it has become a racist issue. How can we help others when we, in this country, more and more citizens are falling through the cracks? Excessive immigration levels are the main source of population growth in this and many European countries (some like Germany and Italy would actually have a negative population growth if not for immigration. I would ask who really gains from a large, pliable, often desperate, low skilled and low education level – corporations. Even here, and all countries that have a high immigration rate, people say they want to help others and besides they do the work our citizens won’t. So help and exploitation at the same time?

      My late partner was from Iran. She told me that Iranians bring in Afghani’s to do the dirty work Iranians won’t. Since Farsi is spoken in Afghanistan it makes using these people so much easier. We are too often not helping others, we are using them for our own gain and are paying the true price with an increased carbon footprint.

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