Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
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Maybe It’s Time to Offend a Few Folks

by Alexandra Paul

Paul_AlexandraSpeaking out about human overpopulation is not an easy thing, as I have been told that people get offended. I have not personally experienced offending anyone, but perhaps those folks have been too polite to tell me. I have not read any studies that prove people are offended, but perhaps I have missed them. If I offend you in this video, please let me know.

I once asked the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network why RAN didn’t discuss the huge number of people on the planet as a factor in rainforest devastation and encourage smaller human families, as everyone in that nonprofit organization probably understands that the demand for resources from 7 billion people on the planet is causing extensive damage to the earth. They know that if the UN projection of 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 is right, it will be disastrous for forests everywhere. She admitted, abashedly, that she did not want to alienate donors.

RAN is an organization whose members break into corporate offices and hang banners out the windows excoriating Big Oil, yet they are afraid to talk about human overpopulation in their pamphlets or on their website. If RAN won’t admit the link between diminishing natural resources and a population that grows by 220,000 people every day, then what large environmental organization will?

It turns out, none.

Is it really impolite to promote smaller families?

Is it really impolite to promote smaller families?

Even within the population community, there is disagreement on how to approach the topic of lowering fertility. Some activists believe that the word “overpopulation” is too strong, even though by all accounts the world IS overpopulated: An article in the journal Nature reports that the global groundwater footprint is about 3.5 times the actual amount we have in our aquifers. Scientists have estimated that humans consume 50% more of the earth’s resources than she is able to restore each year. If people continue to consume the planet’s resources at this rate, by 2030 humanity will need two planets worth of resources to support the world’s population.

My message is clear: I recommend one child per couple to lower the population, avert future famines, and avoid wars over water. If that sounds radical, then maybe it is time for radicalism. In a culture that bemoans a falling fertility rate because it will damage the economy — instead of praising smaller families because it means less crowding, more nature and better quality of life for all — there is great need for more voices of sanity. Voices like Edward Abbey who said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

For those of us in the United States, this message is especially important. Although our families average 2 kids per couple, our consumption outweighs that of larger families in Africa and Asia. The average American consumes 20 times more resources than someone from Mozambique and generates 169 times more carbon dioxide than a Bangladeshi. We have even outdone ourselves: a family of four today lives in a house twice as large as one the family would have occupied in 1950.

I believe that we must stabilize and then lower the world population if humans are to survive on this planet. If advocating a culture that encourages smaller families is offensive, then I must offend. Too much is at stake to be polite.

Alexandra Paul is an internationally recognized actress and an environmental and social activist.  To hear Alexandra speak about overpopulation, please see her TEDx video.

16 Responses to “Maybe It’s Time to Offend a Few Folks”

  1. Alexandra, I do agree, by and large.

    The good news is that populations are actually stabilizing – we have reached “peak-child” next generation of kids is likely to be smaller than the current, globally. But the current children will get their kids so the total population will still grow. But the rate is already falling. We doubled global population between 1960-1990 – but this will most likely never happen again.

    In all major rich countries – with the USA as a remarkable exception – population is stabilized or would even fall were it not for immigration. In many other countries birth rates have plummeted. Remains a number of poor countries with still very rapid rates – just come home from East Africa which is one of the regions with still increasing population.

    The era of colonization of the globe of human kind is rapidly coming to a close, with nature resources sucked up and population now filling space after space. With this closing, our economic system is also bound to change. Capitalism as we know it can’t manage a steady-state economy and it has also big problems to work with a stable population as things look like – after all growth is the lifeblood of capitalism and in that sense it probably doesn’t matter much if the growth is from increased consumption per capita or by increased population.

  2. Bravo Alexandra! You are spot on and feel free to offend. This conversation has been conspicuously absent for decades. Even many ecologists avoid this conversation, with the notable exception of Paul Ehrlich who has been a real visionary for decades. It is disconcerting that Alexandra can so eloquently discuss this and many population ecologists can not. Every problem confronting humanity, including infinite growth economics, can be traced directly to overpopulation. Perhaps Dr. Daly should discuss the inconsistency of environmental groups avoiding this issue, rather than a perceived inconsistency in evolutionary thought.

    The following video is well worth a view: http://www.motherthefilm.com/#!home-page-streaming/cqf5

  3. J Harding says:

    While I agree there are too many people on the planet, we should recognize that effective actions are already under way world-wide to reduce population.
    The most effective mechanisms found to date are educating young women, making contraceptives more easily available, providing clean water, and very basic health care.There is a massive global move to urban areas which alos leads to reduced family size. It used to be thought that reduced family size was dependant upon becoming ‘wealthy’ but it turns out that family size can be reduced before the family becomes wealthy. Population is still a major problem but we do know how to resolve it, without intrusive or radical action – just inexpensive

    Almost every country has a demographic curve with increased aged population and reduced populations under 15. Of course those children born in the last 25 years will still grow up and have (many fewer) children of their own. Maximum population is estimated at 9 Billion by 2050 flat to 2100 then dropping. Every population projection by UN for decades has been for successively smaller maximum population. e.g. Brazil – ten years ago maximum was projected to be 280 million, then 254, then 238 million from current 194 million. Recent projections of the population of China are to a maximum of 1.45b in 2050 dropping drastically to under a billion by 2100.

  4. Thank you so much for your direct approach to population, Alexandra. In the 1970′s we didn’t have the problem. The stabilization is indeed good news and a rich opportunity for Europe, at least, to begin the transition to the steady state as CASSE and Dietz and O’Neill have so clearly defined in Enough Is Enough. I agree it’s time to encourage environmental advocates to get realistic about our global limits. I’m afraid the marketing experts have held sway for too long with them. My campaign to limit the amount of snail mail they send out is falling on deaf ears. Meanwhile, I’m having some success with The Power of Story. My fictional model of the steady state, The Webs of Varok, has won two awards. More reviews are always welcome for both nonfiction and fiction to wean people off the economic growth obsession and onto the opportunity current stable populations provide for initiating sustainable practices.

  5. Brittany says:

    Fossil fuels fuel growth, and are needed to fuel the machines and processes that create and transport goods. Expensive fossil fuels and dwindling supplies in the face of an increased global demand is a recipe for disaster

  6. Thomas says:

    Hello Alexandra,
    I think you are right about being candid about the root causes of environental challlenges. I must disagree on the food security issue. I think the world food security issue is overblown. Starvation appears to be caused by low yields. In Africa, the agricultural practices are soil mining. Yields are far below western levels. The work of Dr. Rudy Rabbinge, might be worth looking at. Agricultural intensification with some fertilization would deal with the food issue. Aggregate material consumption(or total ecological footprint) is a much more daunting challenge. We are aiming at 10 billion people which makes sustainability harder, but not impossible. Half of the ecological footprint is based on the use of fossil fuels and much has been written about reducing the material intensity of economic activity. Steady state economics after nations reach a given standard of living is also important.

  7. George Plumb says:

    Right on Alexandra! The Center for Biological Diversity should be commended for being the one national environmental organization that speaks out strongly on the population issue but even they won’t touch the immigration aspect which is the driving force behind U.S. population growth.

    Vermonters for Sustainable Population has recently launched a study to determine what is an optimal/sustainable population for Vermont and will be the first state in the U.S. to have such a projection. We will use twelve indicators ranging from biodiversity to quality of life. Hopefully, if we can fine someone to write it, one of the indicators will be about what population size can a steady state economy support. If you would like to see an very early draft contact me at plumb.george at gmail.com

  8. Ric Svanberg says:

    Shout this from the rooftops. Over population is THE problem. Everything else we discuss around the topic of sustainability is subordinate to this issue.

    I am old enough to have seen the erosion in food quality and fish stocks in my country.

    I am old enough to see erosion of environmental quality, species loss and general decline in community well-being and quality of life, despite our country having one of the highest GDP/capita incomes in the world.

    These old economic / market based measures that rely on growth and in particular population growth and consumption do not work. History can tell us what populations have been sustainable and how industrialisation/mechanisation has distorted intergenerational flows and encouraged overuse of resources to temporarily support population growth over 4 or 5 generations.

  9. Jazzy says:

    Anyone who says there is too many people on the earth is a hypocrite for not committing suicide.

  10. Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Congratulations to Alexandra for a very upbeat TED talk. I would not have been nearly so sanguine, or so nice. Growing up a decade earlier than she did, I too saw that scary J-curve of our human numbers going nearly vertical by the turn of the century, and I thought that the adults around me would figure out a way to bring the population back down to something reasonable long before it came to this pass. Turns out I was wrong; humanity still has yet to generate more than a handful of adults who are willing to deal with this topic. Not only that; we won’t even talk honestly about the problem, for fear of “offending” the people who are completely in denial about it. We have let all those years go by, casting many, many nonhuman species into extinction as our own species ravages the planet, because we have cared more about the reflections we see of ourselves in other people’s eyes than about what’s really happening to Life on Earth.

    Perhaps a new conversation is starting, after the decades of silence. Those who visit this website might want to check out _Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation_, edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist. Some of the essays take to task the environmental community that has been so careful not to “offend” on this issue. I have an essay in it that may be offensive to some. Maybe it’s time for those of us who have ourselves been “offended” by this steady degradation of natural systems and all the lifeforms they once contained to speak up and address those who so steadfastly refuse to take responsibility for reining in our species’ procreation.

  11. Linda Nicholes says:

    Alexandra,

    I’ve watched people and orgs tippy toe around overpopulation for years. The time for shhhhhhhh, we might offend is past –if it ever even existed. I hear over and over again how not having a “decent” number of children will harm the economy. BALDERDASH! I’ve not been able to articulate a concise, reasoned argument to counter that “reasoning” prior to reading your blog.

    Thank you.

  12. Dear Alexandra,
    There is nothing offensive in your talk. With education and opportunity, almost everyone can figure out that it is a choice of quality of life vs numbers of lives. If they can’t figure it out, it’s probably because they have been brainwashed. There are many propagandists promulgating false arguments out there. Like:

    (1) Population growth is required to grow the economy. Yes, increasing population is the most easy way to increase GDP. But, in our presently overpopulated world it actually reduces the per capita GDP. Thus, we see bankers (and Canadian politicians) constantly propagandizing for population growth… but if we believe them, we will be the ones who suffer while they luxuriate.

    (2) Population growth is stabilizing, so don’t worry. No it isn’t. It’s still growing — and quality of life is declining for most people. To do nothing is the same as saying, let it stabilize when our children are totally destitute.

    (3) Here in Canada, there is not a single politician who will address the issue of overpopulation — except to boost it! Not one worth voting for!

    (4) Many religious groups are very much pro growing population. The reason for their attitude is clear, it’s the easiest way to boost their following — number of followers equaling wealth and influence for the religious leader. It’s a power trip. But, if I recall Genesis correctly, the instruction was to “fill the earth”. Obviously, the earth is way past full of human primates. So some religious leaders — like the Pope — have put their interests ahead of the “god” that they purport to serve…

    (5) The political leaders of many nations shamelessly seek to grow population using baby bonuses and the like. The most evil example was Peter Costello, the chief population pusher of Australia. Much to their discredit, subsequent politicians have simply followed his lead like former PM Kevin Rudd, a man who “actually believes in a BIG AUSTRALIA”.

    So, while you may not have offended anyone, I certainly hope that I have — because there are many population-pushers out there, and they are really POVERTY-PUSHERS. And I certainly think that they deserve to be named, shamed, and offended.

  13. I’m going to sound a discordant note amongst the cheerleading and say that I don’t think Alexandra’s post is particularly helpful and reflects poorly on CASSE. I agree with her main point – that we need to address the population issue, but otherwise, this post is incomplete, ill-informed and dishonest in evading the key issue of whether or not her ideal one-child policy is to be recommended, encouraged or enforced.

    Firstly, there’s no recognition at all here that ecological impact is not just a function of population, but also of technology and affluence/consumption.

    So this appears to be a classic example of someone telling the world that they should have fewer children while making no personal commitment to lower consumption.

    Just what is your ecological footprint, Alexandra? Is it a single planet footprint? The average American uses *five times* their fair share of planetary resources… It’s peculiar that it’s so often the rich telling the poor they should have fewer babies – never mentioning their own need to cut consumption. As a citizen of a developing country, I can tell you this feels like just another mode of neo-colonialism. It’s also just silly, if you actually want people to listen to you, as opposed to being self-righteously but ineffectually offensive.

    Neo-colonialism is one reason why talk of overpopulation is a sensitive issue, but there are others, such as the association between population control and totalitarianism.

    But there is also the association with nasty ideologies like eugenics, and there is the brutal history of forced sterilisation of poor women in a wide range of countries. Nor is this ancient history – Peru had a programme of forced sterilisation of indigenous women as recently as the 1990s. Israel has just been revealed to have been forcing contraceptive injections on African women immigrants within the last couple of years.

    I’m prepared to bet that Alexandra has never in her life had to deal with such a comprehensive violation of her human rights.

    As it happens, all the evidence shows that there’s no need for totalitarian measures, or recommendations of one-child families – quite the opposite, in fact, as we can see from the declining populations of highly developed societies like Germany. The more women have access to education and full economic rights, the fewer children they have. Empower women, give them their full human rights, and it’s most likely no further measures will be required to stabilise populations.

    So go ahead and offend, Alexandra – but please, show some deeper, better informed insights into why you’re offensive.

    I believe CASSE has an important case to make. Posts like this don’t help it.

  14. Dear Alexandra,
    After reading the comment by David Le Page, I wondered if we had both listened to the same video. So I listened to your talk a second time. Sure enough, you said:

    “I don’t want to take away rights, I want to give people rights.”
    “Forcing people to have fewer children doesn’t work.”

    So, from this I infer that you and David would be just as outraged by “forced sterilisation of indigenous women” (or men, indigenous or not) as I would be.

    I agree with David (and you) that education and empowerment of women is important. Same for men. This goal cannot be realized so long as we live in a world where the power players propagandize for big families — as is presently the case.

    Frankly, I don’t try to second guess the problems of the future. Rather I look at the present and the past which I know. And I see lots of poverty that exists because of lying, population pushers — and usury.

    How can we “empower women” when there are such powerful population pushers working against that very goal? I refer you to an open access publication by Robert May (full reference below). Quoting from this publication:

    “… in preparation for the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Fifty-eight academies attended this `Population Summit of the World’s Science Academies’ in New Delhi in 1993. This meeting placed strong emphasis on the education and empowerment of women. The meeting had one fruitful outcome, in that it paved the way for the establishment of the Inter-Academy Council in 2001. But in its initial and primary purpose it was less successful. It provoked a counter-movement by a fundamentalist `coalition of the unwilling’, led by the religious right in the USA, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, which essentially took women’s rights off the Cairo agenda …”

    Robert M. May, Ecological science and tomorrow’s world Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 2010 365 1537 41-47doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0164 (published 24 November 2009) 1471-2970

  15. Overpopulation: Maybe It’s Time To Offend A Few Folks | Ramy Abdeljabbar's Palestine and World News says:

    [...] 30 April, 2013 The Daly News [...]

  16. Joseph Lado says:

    The issue that people are afraid of is when people talk about population reduction, who are they planning to reduce out of the population? Many intellectuals fear that smart people will choose not to have children while the ignorant rabble will continue breading and this will cause a deterioration of the species. My fear is that some random person or group will decide that I am the one who should not breed and suddenly I find myself as so many people in California did under the policies of their Eugenics programs, fighting for the right to have children. This is where if becomes morally dicey. I was born with problems with my eyelids. A birth defect that a few operations later have allowed me to see and function. There are other genetic problems that I have faced. I am not beautiful, I have battled with my weight always, because of my eye problems I have acquired mannerisms that bother people, even though I am not stupid my eyes have left me dyslexic. All of these things put together inevitably engenders in people to be cruel to me. However, I know that I have worth far beyond my physical attributes. I have saved several people’s lives over my lifetime. Because of the cruelty that I have lived through I have a strong ability to relate to people at their worst moments and talk them back from the bring of their own destruction. I was part of the movement to bring electric cars to the general public, displaying my yellow electric conversion all over the Washington area to the point of exhaustion. I count myself as being instrumental in helping to cause the sea change in the auto industry to producing electric vehicles. I was active in the Occupy Movement producing its first tenets defining their positions. My tenets were derived from gathering the wishes of many of the groups across the country. Today Occupy has 8 published tenets of which 6 came from my list. I take heart from my accomplishments even though most of the time, because of my physical, visual and brain issues, I am only allowed to be the voice of reason shouting in from the wilderness.
    The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” helps me understand myself in the world and it should be a guiding light for those looking for their place in it. Take a moment and wonder about what the familiar world around you would be like if you weren’t in it. Would my sister and my brother be alive today if I hadn’t been there to reach over and pull the steering wheel to aim the car to a small space in the woods that lead onto a newly plowed field. Would those so angry at hybrids and plug-in hybrids for the demise of the EV1 be interested in championing plug-ins if I hadn’t pointed out that hybrids and plug-in cars had all the components of electric vehicles and their success would most likely lead back to all electric vehicles again? What would have become of my wife if I hadn’t been in that art class where we first met? When my sister-in-law died suddenly of a stroke with four young children and a husband left behind, I could see the giant hole that her life left behind. We all do. So when we talk about population problems, I think it is best that we don’t try to judge what population should be reduced. Western industrialized countries would all have big population losses. The more westernized, industrialized, given access to contraception and education, and entertained we end up acquiring that special magic that reduces population quite naturally. However, I agree. The earth seems to be over populated. We can reduce significantly the impact with good earth practices while we wait for one generation to be replaced by a much smaller one.