The United Nations celebrates World Population Day by shaming population ‘alarmists’

Not content with omitting overpopulation concerns from its own rhetoric, in its World Population Day statement the UNFPA has gone on the attack, labelling all concerns about the numbers of humans ‘alarmist’. Jane O’Sullivan takes them to task.

By Jane O’Sullivan

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was created in 1969 to act on the world community’s concerns about population growth. Since the mid-1990s, it has gradually reinvented itself, first into an organisation concerned with a menu of items that might indirectly affect global population while feigning unconcern with the numbers, but lately into the thought-police determined to suppress population concerns.

This makes UNFPA’s observance of World Population Day (WPD) on 11 July an interesting challenge, forcing the organisation into rhetorical knots to assert its own relevance while denying the relevance of population. This year it replaced its WPD webpage with a new statement that presents the coming landmark of 8 billion people as an opportunity to be grasped.

The previous statement (not easy to find, but archived here) noted that the Day of Five Billion, which was observed on 11 July 1987, subsequently became an annual event. It reads, “By resolution 45/216 of December 1990, the United Nations General Assembly decided to continue observing World Population Day to enhance awareness of population issues, including their relations to the environment and development.

This year’s statement makes no mention of environmental impacts, despite their growing urgency, and infers that population concerns only distract from efforts for development: “We do ourselves no favors when neglecting those left behind. Let no alarmist headline distract from the work at hand.”

As has become a familiar pattern, the UNFPA’s new stance of population-shaming is backed by false assertions and baseless accusations. In response to “alarmists” who call for “measures to curtail or induce population growth”, it says, “But engineering population numbers has not proven successful in the past. Rather, it only serves to undermine human rights, including reproductive rights when women are forced to have more or fewer children against their will.” Were there no successful family planning programs in the past, which set out to reduce fertility voluntarily and succeeded without recourse to human rights abuses? An extensive World Bank study of past family planning programs around the world disagrees: “The study’s overall conclusion is that, for the most part, the family planning program ‘experiment’ worked: policy and program interventions contributed substantially to the revolutionary rise of contraceptive use and to the decline in fertility that has occurred in the developing world in the past three decades.

As we noted in a recent blog, this denial of past family planning successes has become an axiom of the population-shaming mythology. An honest appraisal of past attempts to “engineer population numbers” would show that voluntary programs were not only highly successful in reducing birth rates, but were also instrumental in launching a new phase of inclusive development in those countries. It is the countries with persistent high fertility which are left behind in the widening gulf of global inequality. This makes the UNFPA not only guilty of false accusation, but of actively exacerbating poverty and inequality by undermining political will for the most effective anti-poverty interventions known to date.

Admonishing the alarmists, we’re told, “But focus should be on people, not population. Reducing people to numbers strips them of their humanity.” Then, hilariously, the statement applauds the UNFPA’s role in facilitating the censuses and surveys that reduce people to numbers. “Making sure everyone is counted can allow governments to better assess the needs of a changing population and chart a surer path to addressing those needs for demographic resilience.”  We heartily agree, but where is the dehumanisation in this? And why is it ‘alarmist’ to reference the dwindling natural resources available for “addressing those needs”?

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (left) receives a “population clock” from Nafis Sadik, Executive Director, UNFPA in 1987. Photo: UN Photos/M. Grant

The statement avoids being seen to target overpopulation concerns specifically by referring equally to the “population collapse” alarmists. But it draws attention to ageing with reference to a UN report on threatening ‘megatrends’ in which ageing, but not overpopulation, rates as an issue of concern. That report says, “Efforts to reverse or redirect these trends must be reinforced to ensure that we achieve the full measure of the 2030 Agenda.” Reverse or redirect these trends? By their own definition, does that not make the UN a population alarmist seeking to engineer population numbers?

The challenges of ageing are vastly overstated. Population growth undermines almost all the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, but ageing threatens none of them. It is not “population alarmists” who are distracting from the work at hand, it is the UNFPA’s population-shaming propaganda. UNFPA appears to have entirely abandoned its seminal mandate to address the linkages between population, environment and development.


“8 billion opportunities for healthier societies”

The UNFPA statement opens, “In 2011, the world reached a population of 7 billion. This year, the number will hit 8 billion.” No hint of misgiving, rather it is given a celebratory tone with the hollow platitude, “In an ideal world, 8 billion people means 8 billion opportunities for healthier societies empowered by rights and choices.”

It doesn’t mention that 11 years is the fastest billion we’ve ever added. The previous three were added at intervals of approximately 12 years – a remarkably long period to sustain such growth. But instead of slackening, the pace has quickened in the last decade.

Yet we are told, “the pace of global population growth will continue to decline in the coming decades.” Continue from where? We’ve been told for decades now that population growth is slowing, but here we are with the fastest billion ever. The last figures issued by the UN (the 2019 World Population Prospects) did not establish any slackening of the pace. Let’s recall that the ‘pace’ of growth refers to the increment added over an interval of time, not the percentage growth rate, which expresses the increment as an ever-smaller proportion of the ever-bigger total population.

The next edition of the UN’s population data (World Population Prospects 2022) is billed to be released on World Population Day 2022 – a year late. Perhaps UNFPA knows something we don’t yet, but it’s become a bit of a pattern for the UN to overestimate the fertility decline in high fertility countries, so that the apparent recent decline in global growth in one data release turns out not to have happened in the next. We will blog soon on the new data release.

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21 thoughts on “The United Nations celebrates World Population Day by shaming population ‘alarmists’

  1. Interesting and disturbing. Funny, but a recent NY Times article said just the opposite: “U.N report says major changes needed to curb biodiversity crisis.”
    *”The overexploitation of wild-species is not the only factor driving the decline; human –caused climate change is a major force, the report said. Growing human populations and consumption along with technological advances that make many extractive practices more efficient will put greater pressure on wild species.”*
    I also received a report from Negative Population Growth titled, “Japan’s ride into the demographic danger zone-and why it’s nothing to fear” showed how a shrinking population could be a good thing.
    I see numerous ‘environmentally concerned groups, as the Nature Conservancy and the National Geographic to name two, are starting to realize there is not enough money to do the need work. They align themselves with industry (National Geographic is now owned by Disney Corp). This is the ugly road we are taking in our political arena. This could be the same with the UN. Funding is paramount to everything and as Clinton once said we need a strong economy to preserve the environment. Too bad the voice and actions of Mother Nature are never taken into account. She will and always has the last word.

    1. In real life, I’m afraid that “we need a strong economy to preserve the environment” actually means: “we need a strong economy to be able to exploit someone else’s environment so that we can somewhat preserve our own”.
      Resource exploitation *somewhere* always underpins strong economies. Decoupling doesn’t really exist.

      1. We need a strong economy to prop up our massive population which continues to grow. This country has the largest, per capita, carbon footprint and the citizens are asked to cut back. However, we still import millions of others who come here simply to increase their footprint.

    2. Thanks for the link to the paper on Japan. A lot of interesting information on how well their economy and human welfare are going.

  2. This is a terrible mistake, They should take a broader view and take into account the harmful effects of rising population on people and the environment, The food shortages and pollution being the most serious
    Aroop Mangalik

    1. Exactly. Excessive human numbers are both driving massive displacement of other species and threatening millions of people with hunger. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing–people included.

      1. As an academic one should be presenting a literature review of current research?

        Secondly, one could also parse through the UN’s history and influencers on promoting population growth as an environmental issue; whiff of old fossil fuels?

  3. Agreed that the UN is seriously failing to address the reality of the critical issue of a sustainable population size. The UN World Population Day observance webpage links the “State of World Population Report 2022: Seeing the Unseen” and notes “the alarming figure that almost half of all pregnancies in the world are unintended.” The press conference and the report make no mention of sustainability issues though.

  4. The lack of cogency in the UNFPA’s (and every population alarmist’s) math defying position is so stark they cannot even believe it themselves. There is a way the UNFPA’s behaviour makes sense to Dr Kanem. Would be great, but hard, to extract and examine what is really driving people to such plainly wrong positions.

  5. “Reducing people to numbers strips them of their humanity”. This is such a joke. So we should never count people, we shouldn’t know how many people died from Covid, or live in Beijing, or voted for a candidate, or were injured in an earthquake, or whatever…

    I really bothers me to think about how much public money is wasted paying people to write such stupid things.

    1. And the most disturbing fact is that they are in fact dehumanizing people, because the more people there are, the less their individual value. They are blaming others while they are the one to blame!

      Striving for a smaller population is the more humane thing we can do. It gives each one of us more value, more potential, more room, more individual freedom, etc.

      1. I agree! I live in a small town of a small region. Sometimes it feels like we all know each other, or are just about to. It makes a community really cohesive when being a member is not just an abstraction, but a name too.

  6. The UNFPA’s narrative is very ego-centric and a reflection of the declining values of today’s society where many people neglect to understand that we SHARE this planet with other species and need to therefore respect their space and home, and without always having an “under the condition that these other species benefit humans then we can have them around” motive. Just because somewhere is uninhabited by humans does not mean we need to fill it up. In addition, it is also a reflection of society’s need to always want more, even if they don’t need more, whether it be people, money, power or status, rather than be satisfied with what we already have and look after it.

    1. “Just because somewhere is uninhabited by humans does not mean we need to fill it up.” I think this point is crucial. I would even say: in an overpopulated world, if somewhere is uninhabited by humans, we need to keep it that way!

      1. I agree, and yet so many times when I mentioned overpopulation I’ve seen people gesture around them and say: “look at all this empty space!”
        Even when it was actually farmland… that’s how disconnected we are.

  7. We humans are multiplying uncontrolled on behalf of Mother Nature, that we depend on. This is a major part of cancer. Let us hope that our we with our humanity may controll this malignant growth!

  8. It is a shame that we are such a resilient species and seem to be able to survive and thrive despite poor nutrition, a climate crisis that is killing lesser animals and the rich get richer, even in wartime, through pestilence and political idiocy (excuse the tautology).

    Modern foods are killing us but unfortunately, it is too slow a death. We have narrowed our food choices to an insane shadow of what we ate prior to the move to farming and the rise of militia men who were too lazy to farm so they sold protection to farmers and landholders wanting to safeguard their crops, stock and families.

    Yet still we persist. Sure. We might be living a little less long and the quality of life after our 70s is not great for most of us but as a species (and along with our domestic animals) we make up 94% of land vertebrates.

    There’s that story where God is looking down on His creation with disappointment. He wants to wipe it all away and start again. He thinks a flood will do it but the Archangel Michael says’ “Nah. They have drains, water diversion channels, flood mitigation strategies. It won’t be more than an inconvenience for a small number of them.”

    God thinks for a minute. “OK. I’ll put a pestilence on them. It will get rid of them all and I’ll start again.”

    Again the Archangel disappoints God. “They will have vaccines, good and bad ones but a pestilence might only knock off those old folks and the sick or the weak who would have pretty much died soon anyway.”

    Maybe a raging fire? – “Nope. Even if you burn a billion animals and obliterate whole ecosystems, humans are killing the animals anyway. They don’t seem to care or understand.”

    God sits down. “Shit! Just play me some blues.”

    1. Well… it wouldn’t be nice to die from any of those things, so I am kind of glad we have remedies. Thankfully we also have contraception, so we can limit our numbers without putting all our hopes on various forms of horrible death.

      (P.S. I think nature is trying a new trick bringing down fertility due to stress and pollution… we’ll see how that one goes)

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