Accepting the people problem 

Your Turn

This week, too few of the world's environmental and human rights organizations are observing World Population Day. In 1987, as Earth's population passed the 5 billion mark, the United Nations declared July 11 as World Population Day.

In the 24 years since, we've added another 2 billion people. The U.N.'s latest mid-range scenario has us passing through 10 billion by the end of this century.

We've been adding a billion to the planet about every 12 years, but the U.N. expects fertility rates to decline such that it will take nearly 80 years to add the next 3 billion. This scenario also has us hitting peak population just after 2100. Some feel this means population growth is no longer a concern.

I'm as worried about population growth today as I was when I decided 20 years ago to stop at two children. Why? According to data from the Global Footprint Network, published in the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report, the current 7 billion of us are living like there's no tomorrow. We're pushing other species off the planet at a record rate, draining the world's major rivers and pumping aquifers dry, liquidating fertile soils, toxifying our land and waters, and heating up our climate.

We're doing this while half the world's population lives a lifestyle we'd consider impoverished. We'd like all the people on the planet to have an opportunity to live like we do.

Unfortunately, that's just not possible. The scientists crunching the data tell us it would take five Earths to support all 7 billion of us living like North Americans. Even if we could pull this off for a day or a week, it's not sustainable and we'd very quickly destroy the life-support systems upon which we depend.

So it's a sticky wicket at 7 billion, and the problem is amplified if we go to 10. The good news is we don't have to follow that U.N. scenario. It's not inevitable. It is physically possible for population to peak at 8 billion or even fewer. Families the world over can begin today making wise decisions about family size.

What is keeping us from doing this?

First, there's the assumption that continued population growth is inevitable; that it would take decades to change that steep upward trajectory. We can get over this hurdle. It just takes a little information. Growth can stop nine months from now if it's enough of a priority.

Second is our fear of addressing the issue. The "population taboo" has many forms. We think it's an inalienable right to reproduce as many offspring as we wish. It's none of our business to suggest someone else limit family size. It's become politically incorrect to use the word "overpopulation." "Population dynamics" has replaced "population growth." "Reproductive health" is mentioned instead of "contraception." We see it at the U.N. and in statements from environmental and human-rights groups. This PC approach to the topic pervades most of our media.

This is a tough beast to tame, but I'm going to suggest the George Carlin approach. Let's get over our goody-two-shoes fear of the truth. Stop beating around the bush.

Use the words. Our planet is overpopulated. Population growth is not good for our children. It would be in their best interest for us to conceive fewer of them. You can say it. It's the compassionate, loving, humanitarian thing to say.

Third is our culture's addiction to growth. Our cities, states and nations compete to have the fastest growth. We pursue population growth because we connect it with economic growth, which is of course the Holy Grail (and a subject for another day). It's difficult to have a sustainable world in which all of the geopolitical units are pursuing growth. Of course we need to expose this mythology for what it is, and progress to more enlightened, sustainable prosperity strategies.

Lastly, we have the ultra-conservative attack on funding of family planning. I'll say it: access to contraception. As more and more people come to understand that limiting family size is critical, compassionate and responsible, I think we can prevail. It starts with having frank dialogue about it.

Dave Gardner directed the film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and has created a website, worldpopulationday.org, to encourage honest conversations about overpopulation.

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