Why Overpopulation Should Be a Women’s Issue

The costs of overpopulation and lack of family planning access fall disproportionately on women. Securing women’s rights and ecological sustainability depend on a clear-eyed understanding of this. This raises the question of why there are not more women who are actively involved in the issue of human overpopulation.

By Karen Shragg and Madeline Weld

An observation to ponder

We are two long-time population activists driven by an understanding that growing human numbers are detrimental not only to humanity itself but to all life on Earth. One of us is an author (Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation, 2015) and the former director of a nature centre near Minneapolis. The other is the president of Population Institute Canada. We first met close to 15 years ago in Washington D.C. at a meeting on population organized by Bill Ryerson, president of the Population Media Center, and most recently in 2018 at Indiana University in Bloomington where we had the pleasure of being on a panel with population expert Alon Tal. In between we have communicated electronically and participated in various online groups.

Aldric Rivat, Unsplash

Karen observed recently that despite our passion for our cause, most of the people in the population activist line of work are men. She noted that most of the people who follow her website or have reached out to praise her efforts are men. She wondered why an issue about which we cared so deeply had relatively few female activists. To see whether Karen’s seemingly accurate observation fit the data as far as PIC supporters was concerned, Madeline checked the sex ratio of PIC members (i.e., people who have paid membership fees) and PIC followers (people who have opted on our website to get our mailings for free – of course we hope this entices them to become members eventually).

It turns out that among PIC membership, the ratio of men to women was 2.5 to 1. Among the followers, it was 1.6 to 1. So, it seems that when it comes to having some interest in the subject, men outnumber women by 60%. And when it comes to backing up that interest with financial support, they outnumber women by 150%. We recognize that this little survey is not necessarily representative of overpopulation activists in general. However, it does align with our observations regarding fellow activists in other population organizations and also with the relative numbers of male and female PIC directors over the decades (founded 1992 by retired engineer Whitman Wright). So, notwithstanding the authors of this article and many other committed female activists we could name (including PIC member Val Allen, who last year published 8 Billion Reasons Population Matters and US population activist Linda Huhn who works on immigration issues), organizations whose primary focus is population don’t seem to be a big draw for women.

And it does seem to be specifically the issue of population itself that women don’t favour, not for example reproductive health and rights. For a few years in the early 2000s, Madeline sat on the board of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, and the board was mostly, sometimes entirely, female. Female preponderance on the boards of reproductive health organizations still seems to be the case when one checks online. So why does the critical issue of overpopulation not attract more women?

Population control and reproductive rights

The efforts and concerns of population activists substantially align with those of reproductive rights activists. PIC’s website promotes improving the status of women and girls where inequality exists, the education of girls and employment opportunities for women, and universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. It’s possible that women are more likely to support organizations that do the hands-on work of providing services and products rather than the more abstract educational and advocacy work about human numbers that PIC does. But it could also be that more women than men have accepted the negative narratives around population control and reject the very concept of deliberately striving to reduce the size of the human population.

Toxic ideas that hurt our cause

There has been a substantial amount of negative messaging about being concerned about overpopulation. It has been equated with supporting China’s brutal one-child policy (while ignoring successful, non-coercive programs that were implemented in many countries). Concerns about overpopulation have been associated with colonialism and racism and described as blaming poor brown and black women for the overconsumption of the rich. Then there is the concept that if you say the world is overpopulated, you want to eliminate some of the people on it. The term “neo-Malthusian” is applied in a derogatory way – as if Malthus hadn’t been right that every time the food supply increases, the human population does too, and “eats up” the gains of an expanded food supply with the consequence that poverty and hunger persist.

Family planning poster in Costa Rica from late 1960s comparing “planned” and “unplanned” families. Source: Paul Almasy, WHO, cited in https://overpopulation-project.com/family-planning-for-forests-and-people-the-success-story-of-costa-rica/

Many feminist and social justice non-governmental organizations attended the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development and had a powerful influence on it. Hence, while the Programme of Action arising from the conference recognized the enormous environmental and social problems that rapidly growing populations would bring, it advocated only that women and men should “freely and responsibly” determine the number and spacing of their children but was silent about developing ethical population control programs. There was no emphasis on reducing the number of births. Consequently, a reduction of the total fertility rates in the poorest countries was stalled. The average total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa is still five children per woman.

Ignoring population growth is not showing compassion

The consequences of delayed action on population growth have been most detrimental to the people that the “social justice warriors” were allegedly protecting from racist population programs. The vision statement of the UN Water Conference that was held a week ago said that 2 billion people, one-quarter of humanity, had unsafe drinking water. The UN’s World Food Program had warned us about the many famines in the news lately. There are still as many as 828 million hungry people in the world. As humanity destroys its environment through population growth, it immiserates primarily the poor. It is they who live in the most polluted and depleted parts of the world. While there is no doubt that global resource-extracting corporations are responsible for much environmental destruction, so too is the simple expansion of humanity. Global deforestation is driven primarily by agricultural expansion, which is driven primarily by population growth. Population growth is also a big driver of water scarcity. An article by Madeline published in 2012 “deconstructed” the “Dangerous Dogma of Denial” that impedes action on population growth.

© Djembe | Dreamstime.com

As a burgeoning humanity of 8 billion (and still growing by almost 70 million annually) consumes the resources on a planet that is not getting any bigger, it is also wreaking havoc on the rest of life on Earth. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2022 says that there has been an average 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018. And by the designated baseline year 1970, biodiversity had already taken a substantial hit from human activities.

As we take over more and more of Earth’s real estate, there is less and less for wildlife. Humans now account for 34% of the mammalian biomass on Earth, their livestock and domestic animals for 62%, while wild animals make up only 4%. The oceans aren’t safe from us either. As they get fished out to feed humanity, we are also depriving seabirds of food.

Using reason does not mean excluding compassion

In contrast to the population movement, the “Woke” movement is largely led by women and their mantra is one of social justice which sees concerns about overpopulation as infringing on the rights of the oppressed poor. This movement does not pay much attention to what is happening to our biosphere and denies that overpopulation inevitably leads to overconsumption of resources. At its core it is a very anthropocentric movement averse to even hearing messages that a reduction in the number of births leading to fewer people on an overcrowded planet would lead to greater abundance for current and future generations.

It’s unlikely that population activists will ever win a popularity contest. While those who work to relieve hunger through food programs are praised by many, those who say that we have to cut back on the number of people are as likely to be condemned as heartless and racist. Thomas Robert Malthus, famous or infamous for pointing out that increasing the food supply without also applying “preventive checks” to fertility simply leads to population growth, is more often condemned for his lack of sentiment than praised for his insights. Yet the analysis of agronomist Russell Hopfenberg shows that human population growth has predictably followed any increase in the food supply.

Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution, whose work enabled the near-tripling of the world population during the lifetime of these authors, was a compassionate man who saw how hunger affected people. But he also understood overpopulation. He hoped (in vain) that the high-yielding crops he developed would give humanity the “breathing space” it needed to prevent starvation while reducing its population growth. During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he made the case for population control as a compassionate endeavour:

“There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.”

Borlaug noted that “We can’t build world peace on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Anjan Ghosh, Pexels

Ecologist Garrett Hardin said that “There is nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person.” The state of our planet shows that when it comes to the issue of overpopulation, shallow thinking does not serve humanity well. The cessation and eventually reversal of human population growth through education and the voluntary use of family planning is possibly the most compassionate thing that humanity could do for itself.

We hope that more women will come to understand that compassion that ignores biophysical realities will not get humanity out of its predicament and join us in fighting for this critical cause.


Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: mail@populationinstitutecanada.ca


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14 thoughts on “Why Overpopulation Should Be a Women’s Issue

  1. Although I like this essay very much and agree with it, the title is a little misleading. Men get criticized for not taking enough responsibility for reproductive issues, including contraception. It seems that the title is criticizing women–but, indeed, it is not. What is suggesting is that women should be more involved with the concerned with overpopulation. And I agree! I have often wondered why most of the people I know who are population activists are male. This might be a fertile field of research for sociologists!
    Would the title be improved by adding “too” at the end? “Why Overpopulation Should Be a Women’s Issue, too”

  2. Right, right, right, and right! The essay is “right” and the comment is right. What is wrong are the strategies and tactics of the FEW organizations in favor of population stabilization. Remember the opposition to population stabilization: Media and politicians. Totally new strategies and tactics will be required to overwhelm media first . . . then the politicians will follow.

  3. Getting more women involved might not make that much difference. History shows us, that women will punish other women, for male causes. See also under Barrett, Amy Coney.

  4. “While there is no doubt that global resource-extracting corporations are responsible for much environmental destruction” – this point keeps being made, but it makes no sense to me. These corporations sell stuff to us, the people. They also employ us, the people. I don’t understand why some see them as a separate entity extracting stuff and… doing what with it?

    As for the rest, it’s very interesting and a good point, but I don’t know what can be done about it except for making good arguments and doing good outreach and research and putting facts and ideas out there. You can reach out to different groups but you can’t force women as such to participate more if they are not interested in this approach.
    For what it’s worth, I have a very small personal blog that mostly deals with environmental, political and economic issues. Based on the comments and private emails, I’d say that my readers are mostly men. I’ve wondered why that is. Maybe men are just more prone to be interested in certain issues or approaches?

  5. Ouch. You have used the term “population control” as something you advocate. Please no! Control should always be in the hands of the people concerned, especially the women. This is one of the toxic terms you have highlighted elsewhere. And why do we have to drag Malthus into this again?? Let’s start from out own observations of the issues and leave arguments about the 19th century to others.
    I completely sympathise with your points but not the way you are presenting this. “SRHR” is almost as contentious as the word “population” itself. Yes, that is a phobia among many of the opposition.
    In may book “Children by Choice” I advocate an emphasis on needs, not rights. “Rights” is a legal concept and tactically a dead end since there is no way of enforcing them in most of the countries where work is needed. Family planning should be linked with campaigns for basic Universal Health Care. This will result in falling birth rates but that is the end point, not the slogan we should start off with. How about “meeting women’s basic needs?”

    1. I checked the definition of control: “the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events.” It doesn’t sound so bad. Forced sterilisations and abortions are bad, yes, but I don’t think anyone is advocating for those here. But things like tax incentives, contraception availability, sex education, and the like, shouldn’t be so controversial.

  6. Thank you for this critical topic. Unfortunately many women are as clueless as men and, in some parts of the world, their sole reason for living is to create the next generation. Many of the countries with the highest population growth are also the poorest and least educated. Years ago, Dr. Virginia Abernathy wrote a book “Population Politics” and discussed a study that said that a lot of population is driven by people in poor countries that felt, increasing their progeny could also increase their odds of having one or more being able to emigrate to a wealthier country and sending funds back to their families.

    Of course education is critical but, along with that verbiage is also critical. Many terms, as population ‘control. are often seen as negative and counterproductive. The essay mentioned how perceptions can be manipulated. Unfortunately, we now have corporations and some politicians that seek to undermine this critical issue.

  7. It’s hard to find straightforward estimates of the current total fertility of men as opposed to women, but, by tracing y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA it has been found that, we had 17 female ancestors for every one male. So, whatever the reasons, females are much better at passing on their genes than males. This study says more recently, that there tended to be 5 successful women to every successful man. Current figures get me confused by the splitting into age groups and social groups that is typical of census statistics that are concerned with economics rather than an individual’s personal case, but it looks to be about 2.5 times as many childless men as women. So, I guess there are more of us who have time to notice the problems, while those with children have enough to worry about already (especially as there is no way their children are going to make it through the century in one piece, by the looks of things).


    (This ratio, and the general loathing directed at ‘losers’ and ‘incels’ must go some way to explaning the psychology behind the epidemic of mass shootings in the USA, I think, but I was surprised to find how little research there has been into childlessness among men and the reasons behind it, compared with the enormous amount of research into infertility and the women’s side of things. The census research seems to be mainly concerned with trying to ensure that children grow up with a father figure in the home, whether it is actually their biological father or not. The men who get left out of it all, altogether, do not seem to be of any nmore interest to researchers than they do to the women that pass them by. :/ )

    1. I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe the problem is the assumption of monogamy?
      Are there any social animals that aren’t birds that are naturally monogamous? In all domesticated and wild mammals that I can think of (which obviously aren’t all, I’m no expert), and among some birds, the default system seems to be a group of females with males competing for the right to impregnate them. There are many human societies, past and present, that still work like this. Male mortality is also naturally higher, including in our species (more males are born than females in any given year).
      Even in breeding for domestic animals, the standards for stallions (rams, bulls, etc) are higher than those for mares, ewes, cows… and you keep fewer of them.
      I’m not making a moral case for anything here; polygamy and even polyandry in human societies don’t work out great for women, and polyamory seems to be awfully bureaucratic to manage, so I’m just saying for the sake of argument.

      1. There is quite a lot of discussion, including along those lines, if you follow the article I linked to. There are so many variables that we could imagine, but, from our known history of continuous warfare–it seems that nothing much else is recorded as history!–it seems to me that it is only the development of farming and industrialism that has made it possible for more men to overcome the sheer brutish competition and get in with a chance by accumulating wealth by other means than fighting. Seems to halve always been a pretty grim existence until recently: which is why we started growing exponentially with nothing to hold us back, till we crossed the line of consuming resources faster than they can be replaced. It won’t be for much longer though. Sadly: can’t beat physics.

  8. Steve Hawkings, if you look at the overall picture, farming and industrialism didn’t stop wars; they might have made them rarer, but definitely more deadly. It seems that no matter what else they do, humans just cannot help killing each other.

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