Holistic local sustainability; food, water, energy, money, people

8 Billion Day – a response to The Conversation

You are now one of 8 billion humans alive today. Let’s talk overpopulation – and why low income countries aren’t the issue.”

Every country is the issue. We’re all in this together. We all need to help each other and avoid blame. Sadly, this report by Matthew Selinske et a. (see below) in The Conversation fails in this regard. Here, I dissect the article, paragraph by paragraph, showing how the authors’ accusatory narrative distracts from the important value of family planning.

15th November, 2022.

“Do we have enough food? What does this mean for nature? Are more humans a catastrophe for climate change? The answers are counterintuitive.”

Actually, the answers are pretty straightforward. If we distributed food fairly and efficiently and didn’t waste any, we might feed 8 billion, but no more than that and yet the population will continue to grow. Nature is already being devastated. Climate change is already an unfolding catastrophe.

“Because rich countries use vastly more resources and energy, greening and reducing consumption in these [high income] countries is more effective and equitable than calling for population control in low income nations.”

We need to do both. It’s not an either-or choice. The authors offer no evidence that the above is more effective. Efforts to reduce consumption and waste appear to have largely failed. Also, as these countries are increasing their populations mainly through immigration, overall consumption is rising. Also, no reputable organization concerned about overpopulation is calling for population ‘control’. It doesn’t help get family planning onto the foreign aid budgets of ‘high-income countries’ if the topic is taboo. It’s irresponsible not to consider low-income, high population growth countries’ needs. People can be given much better control over their fertility than they have now wherever they are. 40% of births are unintended even in ostensibly rich countries. (I say ostensibly, because not every one in high-income countries are on high incomes.) It’s easier to provide family planning that gives people more control over their lives than it is to get people to give up stuff.

“We can choose to adequately and equitably feed a population of 10 billion by 2050 – even as we reduce or eliminate global greenhouse gas emissions and staunch biodiversity loss.”

This claim seems wildly optimistic given the political will to adequately address climate change alone is nowhere in evidence. It is notable that the authors link to a World Resources Report explaining how the above can be achieved. It outlines a 5 Course Menu, the first of which, Reducing Growth in Demand for Food includes a call to Achieve Replacement-Level Fertility Rates, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa by:

  • Increased educational opportunities for girls.
  • Increased access to reproductive health services, including family planning, to ensure couples can have the family sizes they desire and reduce maternal mortality.
  • Reduce infant and child mortality, so parents do not need to have many children to ensure survival of the desired number.

Population control? No. Reproductive freedom.

“Why is it still growing? Momentum. The number of women entering child-bearing age is growing, even as the average number of children each woman is having falls. Plus, we are generally living longer.”

This is the best paragraph in the article – it lays bare why the numbers keep increasing despite a falling ‘rate’, which is often confused and placates people, thinking the numbers are falling.

“There’s little we can do to change population trends.”

?? The authors seem not to have read their own references (see above).

“Low- or middle-income countries are most often called on to tackle overpopulation. And the people calling for action tend to be from high-income, high-consumption countries.”

Including the authors’ themselves – via their references. Most environment groups and mainstream media and politicians refuse to mention population. Recently, Egypt’s government has sounded the alarm on overpopulation.

“Recent calls by Western conservation researchers to tackle environmental degradation by slowing population growth repeat the same issue, focusing on the parts of the world where populations are still growing strongly – sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and some Asian countries.”

The linked reference is a rare example of environmentalists addressing overpopulation and the abstract doesn’t mention Africa. Perhaps it’s in the body of the report. Perhaps because that’s where most of the growth is?  The abstract repeats the author’s earlier reference to “advocate for smaller populations, through improved access to modern contraception and explicit promotion of small families.” So it seems the main ‘flaw’ in the cited study is the authors’ colour or Western origins.

“People from lower income countries reject these calls. Pakistani academic Adil Najam has observed these countries are “weary of international population policy in the name of the environment.”

Clearly this is a generalization, given the Egyptian government’s position. Recently on Indian news, commentators pointed to their country’s demography as “an economic and competitive advantage”. Pakistan has one of the highest birth rates in the world.

“Prince William, for instance, has linked African population growth to wildlife loss – even though he has three children and comes from a family with a carbon footprint almost 1,600 times higher than the average Nigerian family.”

Singling out a British icon fuels divisive culture wars. Not everyone in ‘high-income countries’ are on high incomes and not everyone in ‘low-income countries’ are on low incomes. “Regina Daniels ranks among the richest celebrity kids being the highest-paid child below 20 years in Nollywood. Born in Nigeria, Regina’s net worth is estimated to be over $1 million dollars in terms of investments and assets.” Regina has 5 siblings.

“For Western environmentalists and policymakers, however, it would be better to shift away from a blame mentality and tackle drivers of inequality between and within nations. These include support for family planning, removing barriers to girls’ education, better regulation of global financial markets, reduced transaction costs for global remittances, and safe migration for people seeking work or refuge in higher income countries.”

While these examples are laudable and family planning is prioritized as it should be (although buried towards the end of the article), the linked report focuses on “cross-scale interactions and feedback loops between inequality and the biosphere”… in other words, scarcity? Some explanation of how scarcity drives inequality would be helpful. In my experience it has more to do with cultural and flawed socio-economic assumptions… e.g. privatization. Omitting the abolition of illegitimate debt is remiss.

“As we pass the eight billion mark, let’s reconsider our reaction. Blaming low-consumption, high-population growth countries for environmental issues ignores our role. Worse, it takes our attention away from the real work ahead of transforming society and reducing our collective impact on the planet.”

Perhaps if the authors weren’t playing a blame game themselves, they might not be feeding into the division that prevents the cohesive action required to ‘transform society’, which to my mind means ‘dethroning the oligarchs’ for want of a better expression.

Dr Jane O’Sullivan’s comment on this article is most susinct [sic]:

The tragic cruelty of this sort of article is that it portrays efforts to extend family planning uptake as an attack on poor countries, ‘people of colour’ rather than the vital humanitarian intervention it is. It is marginally true that “slowing population growth has come from falling rates of poverty, as well as better health and education systems” but the inferred counterpoint is that it didn’t come from interventions intended to reduce birth rates, and that is patently untrue. The level of family planning effort accounts for nearly all the variation in rate of fertility decline. Improvements in wealth and education followed AFTER fertility reduction, enabled by it. The beneficiaries of “humane” voluntary family planning programs number in billions, the victims of “inhumane population control policies” in thousands. To claim that all “population control” was inhumane is an act of inhumanity itself, robbing poor countries of an indispensable prerequisite for their prosperity.

The Conversation


  1. Matthew Selinske Senior research fellow, RMIT University
  2. Leejiah Dorward Postdoctoral research associate, Bangor University
  3. Paul Barnes Visiting researcher, UCL
  4. Stephanie Brittain Conservation scientist, University of Oxford

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This entry was posted on November 18, 2022 by .
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