Population Growth: The Ironic Vexer

by Brian Czech

In a world of vexing issues—and our topic this week is certainly that—population growth might just be the most ironic. That’s because it should be among the simplest of issues; almost trifling in its mathematics. Yet opinions about it are beset with political, economic, and even some technical controversy.

For steady staters it seems perfectly clear: Population must be stabilized for the sake of societal well-being and even mere sustainability. On this, steady staters are aligned with ecologists, anthropologists, and most folks grounded in the natural sciences. Steady staters are more than just academic observers, though. Population stabilization is a central policy goal in advancing the steady state economy. It must be pursued through public education, fiscal policy, sustainable immigration, and international diplomacy.

Unfortunately, for many other groups, population growth is like the elephant in the room at an 800-pound gorilla convention. Most environmental organizations, despite dealing with one controversy after another, won’t touch population with a 10-foot pole. Conventional economists and politicians think little about limits to growth and almost invariably promote population growth. Even the Degrowth movement in Europe tends to dismiss population as an issue for colonialist hypocrites to wring their hands over.

Let’s consider a few of these controversies and complications that cloud the issue of population growth. Then we’ll identify some starting points for population policy congruent with a steady state economy. But first we’ll take another crack, as so many others have, at demonstrating the raw untenability of population growth using a few eye-popping calculations.

Lilies, Rice, and Warm Bodies Stacked Up at the Fed

So much has been written about the power of exponential growth, yet it never seems to sink into the brain of the body politic. We’ve all heard about lilies on the pond and rice on the checkerboard. Maybe we need to put it in simple terms of humans on the planet.


No limit to population growth? (CC0, Hans)

If our global population of 7.8 billion grew at 1 percent per year—a tenth of a percentage point slower than the current rate—we’d have 21 billion people on the planet a century from now. Yes, that’s 21 billion at 2121. (Any numerologists out there?)

Some folks don’t think very far ahead, but a century is hardly eons. We have quite a few folks on this side of the grass who remember Black Tuesday, the Bolshevik revolution, and Babe Ruth. Ask any of these old-timers and they’ll tell you: 2121 will be here before you know it.

Now can you imagine the traffic, horn-blowing, and garbage with almost three times the current crowding? And of course, these are mere inconveniences compared to the existential threats of global heating, resource wars, and pandemics. Yet if you think 21 billion sounds bad, consider that a thousand years from now, in the year 3021, we’d have 163 trillion. We better hope they’re all wearing deodorant, because that’s about 1.1 warm bodies per square meter of dry land! 

You don’t need a population dynamics course to come up with these calculations. Anybody can find the simple formula and tinker with projections using an online population calculator.

So much for blunt math. Now let’s try a thought experiment. If, as the no-limits folks assure us, we can accommodate a perpetually growing population with space-saving technology such as agroponics, genetic engineering, and nanobubbles, surely we could use that exact same technology to accommodate our current numbers in smaller areas. For example, we (7.8 billion humans) could all reside in North America.

But why stop there? Why not have everyone confined to Washington, DC? In fact, we could all move into some headquarters of this or that where the current occupants think there’s no limit. Maybe at the Federal Reserve or the Cato Institute. Not that we’d want to be there, stacked up like shrimps at Bubba Gump’s. But then, why would we want 163 trillion humans on Earth, either? Or 21 billion? Or even 8 billion? (The latter is slated for 2023.)

Yes, to think there is no limit to population growth is patently and provably absurd. All it takes is a modicum of math and a glimpse of geometry. Yet here we are, squeezing into the proverbial Bubba Gump’s with that 1.1 percent growth rate. So, what’s going on in the minds of those economists, politicians, environmental organizations, and degrowthers who refuse to call for stable population?

Population Growth in Conventional Economic Growth Theory

It is crucial for steady staters, population activists, and environmentalists to understand how conventional economists think about population growth. The “second team” of sustainability—anthropologists, engineers, and perhaps public health professionals—should understand likewise. Most would already know that economists are very pro-growth, at least GDP growth. But most of these same rational thinkers probably also assume that economists aren’t necessarily pro-population growth. Most would probably surmise that economists are for GDP growth with a stable population. That way, everyone would have more—a higher per capita consumption—while the hand-wringing over population growth would cease. Surely our GDP-promoting economists would be for that, right?

Wrong! As I described at length on the Steady Stater, the most shocking idea to come out of conventional economics is this: Not only does it take a growing population to increase GDP, but it takes a growing population to increase…(brace yourself)…GDP per capita!

Paul Romer

Paul Romer: Everyone makes mistakes. (CC0, Doerrb)

Yes, you read that right. Mainstream economists believe it takes a growing human population not only to grow the economy but to grow the economy per person. In other words, not only can a growing per capita consumption be reconciled with population growth—it requires population growth. So, if you want your grandkids to have a bigger piece of the pie, you better hope the world provides more mouths to feed!

Julian Simon explained this counterintuitive notion—his self-christened “Grand Theory”—in The Ultimate Resource (1981). He said in a nutshell that, yes, environmental problems crop up as the population grows, but so does the number of brains to solve those problems. These brains would ultimately trump resource shortages every time. In fact, there’d be enough brainpower left over to solve any kind of environmental problem. It was a simplistic, shoddy, and sloppily derived hypothesis (as I documented at length in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train), but pro-growth interests loved it and spread it far and wide.

The bigger problem came along when Paul Romer, in so many other ways a brilliant scholar, adopted the same basic logic in his “endogenous growth theory” thirteen years later. That’s what set him on a path to fame among economists, economic journalists, and of course the pro-growth think tanks. His Nobel Prize (which wasn’t a Nobel prize per se, but that’s another story) served to legitimatize whatever he had postulated.

Compared with the unfounded optimism (or salesmanship) of Simon’s “theory,” Romer’s growth calculus was much more complex, and I doubt he actually thought GDP or GDP/capita could grow forever. But based on his writings, neither did he think limits to growth were relevant at this point in history. That’s approximately the next-biggest mistake for big-picture thinking in the 21st century.

Fake News, Conspiracy Theories, and the Southern Poverty Law Center

Population activists range all along the spectrums of innocence, ethics, and intent. Many are ecologists concerned with protecting biodiversity. Others are humanists concerned with posterity’s prospects. Still others are card-carrying white supremacists who hate non-white immigrants. We should be grateful, then, that organizations have formed to root out intolerance and rub out the stains of slavery and racism. Unfortunately, guilt by association is an ever-present threat.

Enter the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They and like-minded groups have smeared the names of population stability advocates, often with the broad brush of guilt by association. Such smearing is a travesty for numerous individuals and organizations, and more importantly a huge barrier to population stabilization. It spreads like wildfire, too.

A good example starts with the late John Tanton, who simultaneously drew the praise of population activists and the perdition of the SPLC. Tanton was a philanthropic saint for population organizations and a race-baiting sinner to the SPLC network. I’m not here to play God one way or the other, but I do declare that the very first Google result I checked pursuant to this matter contained an obvious error. I immediately found the SPLC page that states (as of 1/20/21), “President Dan stein [sic] (left) and fair (sic; should be “FAIR”) founder John Tanton have both suggested that america [sic] is better off under ‘Anglo-Saxon dominance.’” Yet I believe the photo on the left—indeed the only photo on the page—is of Tanton, not Stein. Either that or Stein is a helluva doppelganger.

In other words, the SPLC’s sloppily written page contained a reckless misidentification of a person the page was chiefly concerned with—a dead person no less.

I have no reason to doubt that the SPLC was borne out of the excellent intentions of “fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice.” That doesn’t mean they’re good at it, though. If they’re recklessly fomenting a movement that ends up hamstringing other crucial missions—such as the sustainability of the human race—then they’re not so good after all. It’s ironic, too, because while they’re busy fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice, they sure seem hateful and intolerant of population activists, unjustly painting them with the guilt-by-association brush.

And so it was that on Sunday, August 23, 2020, I received an email from an entity calling itself “End Environmental Racism.” This otherwise anonymous entity stated, “It has come to our attention that you have accepted funding from an organization that also funds systemic racist organizations. We, together with the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations, see an “urgent need to dismantle systemic racism within our own organization and the environmental movement” (Sierra Club). Many environmental groups have refused funding from organizations linked to racism.” It goes on to identify the “racist organizations” as “a cluster of organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Institute [sic] regards as hate groups, and that have been founded by activist John Tanton.”

Robert E. Lee

Anyone “linked” to Robert E. Lee via Pizzagate? (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Credit: Martin Falbisoner)

I’m not going to identify the “cluster of organizations” or the funder, because gossip is a plague worse than COVID (according to Pope Francis). It destroys people left and right. What I will say is that the funder is one of the few organizations with the fortitude and clarity to go straight at the root cause of biodiversity loss, global heating, and the ecological footprint at large. Just as the funder is rare in that regard, so are the organizations to be funded. Indeed, the Sierra Club is not one of them, nor are any of the big environmental NGOs. With their corporate boards, they won’t say a thing about limits to growth; it’s left to organizations like CASSE to do the heavy lifting.

Meanwhile, neither the funder nor CASSE can help it if other organizations (focused on immigration for example) end up having some racist followers. Yet the August 23 email ended with, “We would like to know your concerns about receiving funding from an organization being linked to racism.”

“Linked to racism?” Libel much? And what does that mean, “being linked?” Who’s assessing what constitutes a link—the SPLC?

Who’s next to be “linked” to racism, CASSE itself? That seems to be the implication of the vaguely threatening email. Yet linking CASSE to racism would be like linking Aunt Gertie to obstruction of justice if she accepted grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency, because the EPA happened to originate under Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, John Tanton is deceased and his actions on Earth go way back in time. Meanwhile, population organizations, boards, and staff have come and gone.

So, what’s next, linking us with Robert E. Lee? Via funding sources, the ghost of John Tanton, and the Satanists at the Comet Ping Pong?

No, what CASSE is firmly linked to is its mission and its position on economic growth, which calls for population stabilization. The SPLC and the anonymous emailer ought to have better things to do than harassing fighters for the common good like CASSE.

But since they brought it up, who’s funding the SPLC, anyway? The Koch Brothers? Cato Institute? Heritage Foundation? Any number of pro-growth operators would love to see the demise of limits-to-growth organizations. They must be “linked” in some way.

Other Detractors from Population Stabilization

Aside from neoclassical economics and the Southern Poverty Law Center, several other groups put a damper on population stabilization politics. One such group could be called Anti-Abortion Christianity. That includes the Catholic Church but also a far-right complex of God and Guns.

Pardon the awful metaphor, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It’s easy to empathize with the Catholic teaching on abortion (especially outside of extreme contexts such as rape and incest). We face accelerating threats to the integrity of human life and the reproduction thereof: genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, cloning, CRISPR, cryonics, etc. Protecting life in the womb is looking quaint and quixotic in the face of such assaults on naturalness.

The problem is, of course, that the anti-abortion stance tends to morph into politics against family planning in general. Yet, with a pope advising that we don’t have to breed “like rabbits” and calling for “responsible parenthood,” I don’t think Anti-Abortion Christianity is the biggest challenge today. Thank goodness, “God and Guns” won’t get far either. My vote would be for neoclassical economics, Wall Street, or Dark Money.

Another group, and more surprisingly at first glance, is the Degrowth movement in Europe. This group is far from united on goals and policies, but many degrowthers seem to be against the immigration reforms that would be necessary to stabilize populations in European countries. In such countries (as well as the USA), the “native” birthrate is at or below the replacement rate, and population growth results primarily from high rates of immigration; 90 percent in the case of the USA.

The degrowthers’ case against immigration reform stems from a concern for social justice. Degrowthers realize that European nations have a history of colonization, of taking slaves and resources over vast regions of the world. In some ways, colonization continues, if we include corporations among the colonizing powers. For degrowthers, it only exacerbates the injustice when emigrants from colonized regions are locked out of the colonizing countries where they might find greener pastures.

Population Stabilization and Steady Statesmanship

Steady staters can empathize with the degrowthers, and in fact just about all the groups noted above (not including white supremacists or Dark Money.) However, we start with the principles of steady-state economics, which means we deal with three major issues: sustainability, justice, and efficiency. We seek an efficient allocation of resources toward a socially just distribution of wealth, in an aggregate amount that fits on the planet.

The order is important, too. No other goals are feasible for long—by definition—without sustainability. So, while others may prioritize social justice (such as the SPLC and many degrowthers) and others prioritize efficient allocation (such as most economists), we prioritize “sustainable scale.” That means a stabilized population and economy at a sustainable size; ideally at an optimal size.

To stabilize population, we need buy-in from the public and policymakers. That starts with public education. How can we expect any policies toward population stability without it? Articles like this and blogs such as the Steady State Herald can help, but of course, we need sweeping coverage in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. Nuggets about lilies and rice grains work for starters, but public education must build up to sustainability concepts such as the ecological footprint and carrying capacity.

At post-graduate levels, where education blends into policy formulation, how exactly should our message be presented? A good strategy for steady staters is to “lead” with the need to stabilize the economy as measured with GDP. That way we don’t run immediately into the undiscriminating teeth of Anti-Abortion Christianity. When population does come up—as of course it must—we can quickly point out that it’s not angels on the head of a pin we’re talking about. Rather, we’re interested in population growth only because real, warm-blooded humans consume and have an ecological footprint that affects every other human (present and future) with a right to life. But we lead with GDP—and constantly go back to a focus on GDP—because GDP growth is a very secular issue and not at all taboo. It’s constantly on the airwaves, televisions, and internet.

Yet when limits to GDP and the devastating effects of GDP are firmly established in political dialog, population comes back into the spotlight, right next to per capita consumption. Agreement builds that population cannot be left to chance, passion, or an attitude of “outgrowing” other groups.

Once we achieve that level of understanding, we can get down to the brass tacks of population policy. The brass tacks are fiscal policy reforms. The two that immediately come to mind in the USA are the earned income tax credit (EITC) and the child tax credit (CTC). Reforming the EITC to provide more eligibility for childless workers and less credit for multi-child couples (especially wealthy couples) is a clear and viable starting point. So is reducing or even eliminating the CTC, especially for those with higher incomes (and therefore heavier ecological footprints). These are low-hanging fruits; they’re already-existing tools in the tax code. They simply need to be re-tooled toward population stabilization rather than population growth.

Policy reforms beyond these low-hanging fruits are a matter of policy entrepreneurship. Fiscal policy—the budgets and tax codes of federal, state, and local governments—is the working environment of the population policy entrepreneur. Fiscal policy is especially relevant to “native” population growth, stemming from the reproduction of current citizens.

white supremacist

Not a steady statesman. (CC BY-SA 2.0, Robert Thivierge)

Immigration, on the other hand, requires more than just fiscal policy. It requires statesmanship; steady statesmanship in this case.

If population growth is the elephant in the room at an 800-pound gorilla convention, then immigration is the black sheep in a room full of elephants at the gorilla convention. In order to get the discussion going with a dispassionate and apolitical tone, pure math is the place to start. A steady state economy requires a population growth rate of zero—do the math—and if the immigration rate tips the balance into a positive growth rate, reform is required.

That said, once again the ordering of goals is crucial. The ordering of policy goals is what separates steady staters from “non-growth at all costs” population activists as well as diversity-hating white supremacists. Steady staters are convinced that, until the USA (for example) establishes a steady state economy, at least as a policy goal, closing the borders will backfire. Closing the borders while pursuing GDP growth—with American interests extracting rents from Tuvalu to Timbuktu—would make the USA look like a greedy hog. Not only would it be unethical; it would be disastrous for national security.

Imagine instead that the USA announces it is undertaking a transition, pursuant to the Full and Sustainable Employment Act, away from unsustainable growth to a steady state economy. Imagine the president announcing that, as part of this transition, the borders will be gradually tightened until the population is stabilized. Meanwhile, the USA will assist poverty-stricken nations in their own backyards. The Secretary of State clarifies that such assistance will be predicated on goals of population stabilization in those nations as well. The USA will be practicing steady statesmanship, in other words.

Now that would be good for national security, and good for the soul of America.

[Note: This article will be followed up with a Steady Stater episode (1/25/21) featuring Leon Kolankiewicz on population facts, figures, policy and politics. Subscribe to the Steady Stater here.]

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the executive director of the CASSE.

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51 replies
  1. kkman
    kkman says:

    Unlimited human population growth is the biggest ponzi scheme of all time. It exceeds the ignorance and hubris of the Biblical Tower of Babel. And when it collapses it will be catastrophic.

  2. Jim Mason
    Jim Mason says:

    I absolutely agree with steady-state economics and population, but economic and political policy will have no effect because they are not the cause. A growing organism cannot stop growing if it continues to consume a greater and greater amount of food (energy). The only way to stop growth is to restrict energy consumption.

    • kkman
      kkman says:

      I agree. The lack of resources needed to sustain biological life will be the final limit on population. A simple example is the deer herd that exceeds food and water resources — there is a die off due to starvation, predation and disease until a sustainable population is reached. One would expect that humans would be a little more insightful than deer, would self regulate and avoid the suffering of catastrophic die offs.

      Maybe a first step in human self-regulation would be to discontinue tax incentives for having children? After all, having children is just a lifestyle choice.

      • Jim Mason
        Jim Mason says:

        What I am getting at is we have to cut the flow of energy; fossil, nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal. The source does not matter, it is the consumption of energy itself which is the fundamental cause of growth. Growth is impossible without that energy input and unavoidable with continued consumption. No matter what economic, social or political systems we employ if we continue to consume energy at an increasing rate growth will result.

  3. Thomas Wayburn, PhD
    Thomas Wayburn, PhD says:

    Hello Brian,

    The difficulties in the de-population argument are three in number:

    1. We cannot be in favor of migration nor the energy expended upon it. This is guaranteed to be misinterpreted.

    2. Whose posterity is it? We cannot be in favor of any group of people taking a disproportionate share of posterity to increase the membership of its race, religion, philosophy, politics, etc.

    3. We must decide what to do about violators. Economic penalties?
    Forced sterilization? Exile?

    The possibility of having to deal with eugenics is too horrible for me to contemplate.

    Best regards.

  4. Willem Vanden Broek, JD, PhD
    Willem Vanden Broek, JD, PhD says:

    Does anybody else remember the old days when it was argued that the US needs a population policy? Wouldn’t that be great! Experts could then pick a population level that is sustainable over some reasonable period of time (let’s be modest and say another 800,000 years, half the average duration of a mammalian species on this planet) and regulate accordingly. Of course, the metrics would be tough. Two metrics available right now that aren’t so tough are per capita and total energy consumption by country. Most ratings put the US in the top ten for the former, with about half of the others being states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and second overall. Using those as indicators, I conclude that the US is one of the least sustainable countries on the planet. Most people who think in terms of our capacity to take stuff from the environment and turn it into “goods” are surprised to hear this. I conclude we shouldn’t be increasing our population either by natural increase or through immigration. When my auditor accuses me of being racist to say so, I answer that I would be perfectly happy if one hundred percent of the DNA in the US were Latinex, or African, or any other “racial” group (the population geneticists would assure us that humankind is generally sufficiently outbred that any loss of genetic diversity would not be deleterious). As a thought experiment. The discussion is, of course, futile.

  5. Jonathan Miller
    Jonathan Miller says:

    Thanks, Brian for tackling this issue. I wrote a long-form article on population for an Australian Greens Party think tank newsletter, They wouldn’t publish it. The issue is taboo in Australian environment groups. (Some will at least acknowledge limits to growth, but just won’t talk about, let alone tackle it.

    Best regards to all in Washington with the new year. While Biden may not be a steady-stater, it at least is encouraging to see decency in the US highest office.

  6. Mark Cramer
    Mark Cramer says:

    I learned much from this article but remain with 2 questions.
    Please understand that I adhere to the great need to reduce world population. As a journalist I witnessed how population was controlled apparently successfully in Cuba, through education and culture.
    (1) I live part time in Bolivia, which has a 2.96 ecological footprint but a 13.77 biocapacity reserve. How could the USA (I’m talking about foreign policy)
    with 8.22 ecological footprint and a minus -4.46 biocapacity deficit be giving population lessons to Bolivia? The beautiful glaciers I love to hike in at 17,000 feet above sea level are receding because of high energy consumption in northern countries.
    (2) Five of the wealthiest people in the world have individual ecological footprints that exceed the environmental impact of entire nations. So I get confused about which sectors of a population need to be controlled.
    With oil producing countries having terrible ecological footprints, perhaps we should study what Iran has done to buck the trend and keep its population at a steady state.

    • Brian Czech
      Brian Czech says:

      Basically, I agree. The USA has to get off the growth wagon and develop some serious steady statesmanship before it can “be giving population lessons” to Bolivia or most other countries. Along the way, the USA would do well to listen to Bolivia about its UN initiative on Harmony With Nature.

    • Jane O'Sullivan
      Jane O'Sullivan says:

      Mark, the inherent, false assumption in your Bolivia dilemma is that ending population growth in Bolivia would benefit us, but would not benefit Bolivians. Population growth is hugely detrimental to socio-economic betterment, even in a country with (theoretically) surplus biocapacity. The rate of growth itself prevents poor countries from getting ahead. When the economy’s infrastructure can’t keep up, job opportunities are scarce and inequality rises. Anyone who says first-worlders shouldn’t recommend they lower population growth because of our per capita impacts is actually advocating withholding their most essential prerequisite for betterment. The family planning movement of the 1970s was about closing wealth gaps globally, and heading off resource crises. It was later construed, absurdly, as seeking to ‘control’ outsiders. Instead of embedding that absurdity in your assumptions, ask who did the construing. You’ll find links back to Catholic / Christian organisations who don’t want women to have reproductive freedom.

      • Mark Cramer
        Mark Cramer says:

        Thanks Jane for clarifying things in my mind. The Catholic church is indeed an obstacle in Bolivia, as are demagogues from both left and right who pay lip service to women’s rights. Bolivian indigenous women are amongst the best organized in the world to fight for justice, and above all, education. My question is whether foreign aid is an answer. Both Cuba and Iran have found ways to successfully approach family planning and have drastically curtailed population growth without aid, and in fact, in spite of sanctions. I’d love to see models of where help from the global “North” has been successful in family planning in poorer countries. If so, why not?

    • ishi
      ishi says:

      Mark–i’ve never been to bolivia (would like to go but probably can’t) but i might suggest take a few Bolivians to a place –maybe Mexico, or Nicaragua, or even parts of the USA —
      and see what happens when your beautiful socio-ecological system sort of exceeds its ‘human carrying capacity’ .
      This is a ‘subjective’ term or measure.
      But the idea is do you want to have every family have 11 kids with lots of toys living on a garbage dump , or do you want to ‘change values’ and practices and live near a nice jungle/lmountains and have fewer toys and play in the jungle/mountains instead of a garbage dump?
      USA is gradually turning itself into families playing on garbage dumps-except its more like shopping malls-small families with lots of toys. USA is big enough that it takes a long time to notice. .
      Mexico, Brazil, India (I’ve been to mexico and india) already have people living on garbage dumps (i think described in the book ‘cities of slums’)

      Native americans knew how to keep their socio-economic-ecological system in a semi-steady state.
      they were aware of many interests and values in their areas–their own, the forests, animals, fish…
      In USA values are often created through media and advertizing.
      These values are spreading through the underdevloped world. Youth are often first adopters–open to novelty.

      there is a counterevolution—eg XR. Mnay US youth–not all–are turned off by advertizing and most media.

      • Mark Cramer
        Mark Cramer says:

        Nothing I disagree with, ishi.
        My point was, show me one population program initiated in the North and successful in
        enfranchising women and thus reducing the child burden on poor families. My point was that the two countries I know of that were successful in curtailing population growth are precisely countries that have no aid from the North: Cuba and Iran.
        And my other point is that local activists and environmentalists within countries like Mexico (where I have also lived), need to lead their own struggles.
        If the North would just stop harming the economies of poor countries through NAFTA and corporate takeovers, the economies of those countries would improve, and with the improvement, you will see birth rates diminishing. The USA, France, UK etc cannot with one hand EXTRACT from these countries, and with the other, help them control population.

        • Jane O'Sullivan
          Jane O'Sullivan says:

          Mark, I think you are mistaken to think that ANY “population program” was initiated in the North and foisted on a developing country. Developing country governments undertook them because of their own concern about their country’s population growth, and agencies funded from “the North” helped them. Sri Lanka was one of the first, supported by Swedish aid. Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Colombia and others have all been quite successful, with help from Northern advisers and funders. Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Botswana made successful efforts in the 1980s, and Rwanda and Ethiopia have made inroads in recent years, all with help from the North, and from UNFPA which is funded by the North. The whole thesis that “population control” is some sort of Northern impost on poor countries is just nonsense, and serves to undermine poor countries. As for getting out of the way so their economies can take off, economic growth has had surprisingly little to do with fertility declines, whereas fertility decline has proven to be a prerequisite for economic growth. Whether a country was badly treated by colonialism or by recent corporate predation is not a great predictor of its economic malaise. Whether its fertility is still above 3 children per woman is.

  7. Jim Mason
    Jim Mason says:

    What I am getting at is we have to cut the flow of energy; fossil, nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal. The source does not matter, it is the consumption of energy itself which is the fundamental cause of growth. Growth is impossible without that energy input and unavoidable with continued consumption. No matter what economic, social or political systems we employ if we continue to consume energy at an increasing rate growth will result.

  8. Emma Koch
    Emma Koch says:

    it’s a social narrative
    and a political narrative
    regulatory tools are a great way of projecting a new political narrative
    and on the micro-level, social connectedness through psychosocial support service providers
    would provide an implementation mechanism for family planning.
    in New Zealand we have a gang-affiliated disadvantaged community
    with disproportionate Maori representation.
    making this a cultural narrative is important;
    instead of 2.5 kids we might reown this as 4-5 kids instead of 13, or 6-7.
    this means building out gaps in structure at a mid level;
    having indigenous service pathways and providers
    that address causes of high natality like transiency and teen pregnancy.

  9. ishi
    ishi says:

    this article is as poorly thought out as anything romer wrote.

    fair was a single issue organization –not ecological.

    the reforms suggested compared to what is currently thought are as dated as a typewriter is to a computer.

    all these radicals have up to date thought but thnbk like jihadis and produ boys.

    casse, degrowth etc promote education but dont practice it. ‘trophioc theory of money’ is about as ‘holistic’ as GNP. —imperfect metric.

    ‘do as i say not as i do’ is the motto of all these people.

    same for ‘pro-growth economists etc’—‘we need more people in factories making trucks which can deliver books i write in my office!!!

  10. Erik van Lennep
    Erik van Lennep says:

    Thanks for ‘going there’. I’ve been dismayed by population growth since I was a (precocious) teen.
    As for the issue of immigration, all the US and EU need to do to stem it, is take their boots off the throat of the countries people are fleeing from. Most people would prefer by far not to be wrenched away from everything and everyone they know and love, cast on uncertain shores having to start over again. They are desperate. Because the impacts of EU / US economic manipulation creates an unending assault n their economies and environments.

  11. barry schiller
    barry schiller says:

    I think it sad that the foolish environmental groups that ignore population because they think that is social justice are in reality hurting the millions of women in the world who would like to limit the number of children they bear, but are unable to due to poverty, ignorance, religion, patriarchy, or lack of access to birth control. So the enviro policy is not just bad for the environment, it s truly misogynistic

    • kkman
      kkman says:

      The vast majority of environmental group’s primary motivation is sustaining their own organization’s existence. They avoid controversial issues like human population and especially issues that might reduce membership numbers. Ironically, most environmental groups have accepted trickle down theory — they believe that if their group thrives it will trickle down to the environment doing well.

      The largest enviro organization in the US is the Sierra Club and it is almost comical watching the contortions and misdirections they go through to avoid the subject of human population. A rare bright spot is the Center for Biological Diversity which distributes condoms in packaging with phrases like “Wrap with care…Save the Polar Bear”.

  12. Brigitte
    Brigitte says:

    I see here in France young people from Africa and Asia coming via horrendous journeys in the hope of a brighter future. They have no family to speak of back home, or have been sent by the family to make money to send home. There is no work nor future for them here either. It is said that 30% of pregnancies are unwanted. If those pregnancies were avoided there’d be 30% fewer of us. So women should be given a choice, it seems, as a first and essential step. Societies where women are unable to have their say on the subject of their fertility should be the first target of zero population growth policies.

  13. Mark Cramer
    Mark Cramer says:

    Follow-up to my previous comment:
    Two points I would add.
    You are correct about the Euro degrowth movement, except that, at least here in France, there has been nuanced and stimulating debate on the population issue. I think it’s more a question of how to reduce population in a humane way rather than should we do it. There’s a general feeling among some that once we reduce wealth inequality and inequity for women, as well as drastically reducing consumption, population will be reduced without government measures. (I liberally paraphrase Serge Latouche.)
    As for Bolivia, Pablo Solón, a long-time friend of our family, was the climate ambassador who introduced the UN Initiative on Harmony with Nature. But not long after that, he resigned from his position when president Evo Morales began implementing anti-environmental policies in the interest of GDP (he expanded forest burning for beef export business, pushed for mega-dams (opposed by indigenous residents) that were intended for export of electricity, highways through protected forest, GMO soy for export, extractivism, and more.
    Very sad turnaround. Evo’s ego inflated after he was praised by the World Bank crowd. Some American environmentalists, constrained by the “first indigenous president” slogan and identity politics, have been slow to catch what Bolivian environmentalists have long realized: that Evo abandoned his ideals, and that slogans for La Pachamama (Mother Earth) had become demagoguery.

    • Brian Czech
      Brian Czech says:

      Glad to hear about the nuanced debate in France. I sure didn’t mean to imply that everyone in the Degrowth movement was against population stabilization. Now and then, though, on social media and even in regular media (for example via George Monbiot) we hear that population ‘isn’t the problem.’

      Timothée Parrique recently joined our Board of Advisors, as our Degrowth advisor, so we’re learning more about the various themes and factions in the movement. I hope we can all unite in calling for tighter borders IF AND WHEN the nation in question adopts the steady-state goal (or degrowth toward a steady state economy).

  14. Len Beyea
    Len Beyea says:

    Population stabilization is really important. In the past, some organizations have tried forced and/or secret (without consent) hysterectomies, coerced or secret birth control, blanket sterilization, or simply bombing of civilian populations. While all of these work to temporarily constrain the populations of mostly the poor, oppressed, and already violated, it is clear that in the long run they increase insecurity, which tends to increase the birth rate, while the inequity and outright cruelty of these approaches should be rejected outright based on simple justice and morality.
    Ironically, after all these decades of paternalistic and colonialistic approaches to reducing populations, it turns out that the best way to stabilize population growth is by empowering people, especially women and girls. This means giving girls and women free and complete access to education, to birth control, and to encourage men and boys to participate in this empowerment as well. It has long been known that the best way to deter immigration is to improve the conditions in the immigrants’ countries of origin. The same is true for low birth rates – if people’s daily lives are better with fewer children and they have the means to make that choice, then they will have fewer children.
    Certainly tax incentives and disincentives can encourage fewer children, as can other policies within countries, but increasing the security of people is far and away the best means to bring lower birth rates. Propaganda, like soap operas dealing with male and female roles and family size have proven, can be effective tools to help it all along, but the ultimate best approach is the empowerment of girls and women. It’s their wombs we’re talking about, after all.

    • Mark Cramer
      Mark Cramer says:

      I agree completely that the best way is through education, especially giving girls and women free and complete access to education and birth control.
      Please understand: I do not advocate for the Iranian political system when I suggest that we can still learn from Iran’s population model. Total fertility rate in Iran declined from 6.5 in 1976 to 1.6 births per woman in 2012. They promoted free contraceptives as well as free or inexpensive vasectomies. The other part of the formula, education, shows that women outnumber men by 110 to 100 as students in higher education.
      Cuba has similar results, with education as a common denominator. My point here is that two of the most successful countries in limiting population growth are countries that not only DO NOT RECEIVE AMERICAN AID BUT ARE PUNISHED BY US SANCTIONS. Draw your own conclusions.

    • Brian Czech
      Brian Czech says:

      Yes and as I understand it, one of the most successful population stabilization organizations has been the Population Media Center, whose approach is all about such education.

      • Jane O'Sullivan
        Jane O'Sullivan says:

        Let’s not perpetuate damaging myths. “It turns out that the best way to stabilize population growth is by empowering people” is a version of the myth that we don’t need direct approaches intended to reduce fertility. The sort of ‘education’ that Population Media Center provides is not general education, to empower people to assert their own choices, it is targeted information to make people see that it is acceptable and desirable to have few children (among other excellent messages, like making child marriage, FGM and family violence unacceptable).
        “It turns out” or “scientists have shown” or “the literature demonstrates” are repeatedly trotted out in front of statements not based on any data at all. They usually precede a claim that population growth is best ended by ignoring it, and getting on with addressing peoples other needs and rights. Although innocently repeated, these myths are designed to discredit family planning programs, which have in truth been the main driver of rapid fertility declines. (Forced and coercive measures have not demonstrably contributed, even in China, believe it or not – they turn people off birth control more than they prevent births.)
        People do things all the time that are against the interests of themselves and their children in the long term. They need specific awareness-raising to stop doing these things, not just greater freedom. People in developed countries are just as likely to deny that their choice of a large family causes environmental harm, and who can blame them when environmental organisations refuse to engage with the subject.

        • Brian Czech
          Brian Czech says:

          Who were you quoting here? Perhaps you meant to reply to them? I think most of our readers realize, though, that “educating people” and “awareness-raising” and “empowering people” overlap substantially. We “empower” sound decision-making via education.

          But none of that is likely to be enough. We need policy reforms, too. I reported on two “low-hanging fruits”—tax credits that should be re-tooled or eliminated. An incentivizing quota system is always there in the background, and will come up again I’m sure. Steady statesmanship in international diplomacy, too.

          Which policy reforms do you recommend? In particular, any legislation we might write into the Full and Sustainable Employment Act?

        • ishi
          ishi says:

          I just looked at PMC’s website–they focus on ‘edutainment’—thats one approach –probably works in some cases. (It reminds me of anti-smoking and drug campaigns –these work to some extent but not ‘completely’–witness ‘US opiate epidemic’ and the issue of e-cigarettes).

          To say
          PMC uses ‘targeted information to make people see that it is acceptable and desirable to have few children’
          rather than provide
          ‘general education, to empower people to make their own choices’

          to me is like is like telling a smoker
          ‘its acceptable and desirable to smoke fewer cigarettes’
          rather than provide
          ‘general education, to empower people to know they have choices to do things besides smoke.’

          Many people who smoke and do other unhealthy things often have or see no viable options for anything else to do.
          Statistics i’ve seen say many pregnancies -maybe half– are ‘unplanned’.

          The same is probably true for smoking , drug use etc. So the choice given is either smoke, do drugs , commit crime, get pregnant or do nothing at all.

          ‘its acceptable and desirable to do nothing at all’.

          Humans like other organisms dont want to do nothing at all.

          They are nonequilibrium thermodynamic systems.
          Tell a baby its acceptable and desirable to not make a mess.
          ‘Leave the toys alone ad dont break them’ . ‘Keep your crib in a steady state’.

          This is the problem with all these ‘just say no’ movements.

          You aren’t allowed to say ‘yes’ to anything except maybe ‘yes, i’ll donate’
          or ‘yes i’ll become a population stabilization activist’.

          You might get other options– stare into space.’ ‘ or ‘take a nap’.
          get a 2nd job at McDonald’s . win 731 million $ in the powerball lottery -latest winner. or jump a star , take it to Harvard , and get a PhD .

          the ‘pill’ was developed because people wanted freedom to have sex without having large families.
          horse comes before cart

  15. Pierre Noir
    Pierre Noir says:

    I think Jim Mason (above) is on the right lines.

    About 20% of the world’s population is responsible for around 75% of global GDP output (Steffen et al, 2015).

    To put it another way; the problem is not with the African family of 10 living with intermittent access to water, electricity and meat. It’s likelier to be with the Global Northern couple living with myriad electronic devices, multiple gas-guzzling vehicles, accustomed to regular/consistent meat intake.

    Suggesting population control is only a valid thought process when you project Global Northern energy-intensive lifestyles onto Global Southern demographics. This is euphemistically described in business as “exploring emerging markets”.

    That, in conjunction with the transfer of rural populations to urban ones, spells a recipe for disaster for the planet.

    So Jim is right: cut off the exorbitant consumption of energy. Not by pithy efficiency schemes which do nothing to challenge behaviours (and which instead promote slightly-less-wasteful ways of doing the same thing), but rather fundamentally undermine our current modes of existence.

    Here’s a start – ban fossil fuel subsidies ;-).

  16. Jim Mason
    Jim Mason says:

    There is a subtlety that is being missed. Population is a problem, but it is not the problem. Through education and social justice, we may contain population growth but that in no way means that we have curtailed the growing human footprint. Also, no matter what economic system we devise, since the economic system is NOT what drives growth we will not contain growth. Growth of the human footprint is caused by increased energy consumption and degrowth is only possible with decreasing energy consumption

  17. William Ryerson
    William Ryerson says:

    The top reason for non-use of contraception is wanting more children, which is primarily the result of cultural norms. In many countries desired family size is well above replacement level. In Niger, with fertility of 7.6 children, women want 10 and men want 13. Among those who do not want a pregnancy and are not using contraception the top reasons given are fear of health effects, male opposition, religious opposition, and fatalism. Lack of access and cost of contraception are seldom cited. There is still need for expanded family planning services. In 1960, only 10% of the world’s couples used modern contraceptive methods, and today, 56% use such methods. However, the 44% non-users of today outnumber the 90% non-users from 1960, because of population growth. Globally, the key to achieving a steady-state population is lowering what is considered normal family in each culture and overcoming the misinformation about safety and effectiveness of contraception that keep people from using it – and doing so in a human rights context. This includes elevating the status of women, promoting daughter education, stopping child marriage, and changing men’s attitudes toward women and toward their roles in family life. Population Media Center does this type of work by creating long-running serialized dramas in local languages, based on the policies of the host country, through creating charismatic characters who evolve role models for adopting small family norms and using modern methods of family planning to achieve positive health and harmonious family life. Such programs have played in over 50 countries and have reached 500 million people so far. Such programs have achieved changes in social norms without ever telling the audience what to do. For example, in Ethiopia, with 46 percent of the population listening, married women who were listening tripled their use of contraception (from 14 percent to 40 percent), an increase two and a half times greater than among non-listeners.

  18. ThisOldMan
    ThisOldMan says:

    I think a lot of people tend to discount the importance of population growth not so much because they don’t understand exponential growth as because they just can’t get their heads around how big a number even the current population of 7.8 billion is. A little book that helped bring that home to me (when I was a great deal younger) was “One Million” by Hendrick Hertzberg. Its 200 pages each contain a 50×100 grid of dots for a total of a million, with interesting marginal annotations for various examples of a dot with a specific number on that dot. One quickly realizes that even just one million is almost incomprehensible to the mortal mind, let alone 7,800 such books! Especially when each one of those dots is replaced by a unique and complex human being each filled with all manner of hopes, fears and desires.

    No single person on this planet benefits in any direct way from having so many other people around, although it is not hard to find ways in which individuals’ quality of life and opportunities are diminished thereby. It is of course true that the quickest thing that could be done to progress towards a sustainable global society would be to curb excessive consumption and waste by the wealthiest among us, but it is also true that we currently have no idea how to give that many people a reasonably comfortable and meaningful life in a sustainable fashion right now (let alone after further population growth). Yet perhaps the only position one could possibly take that draws more outrage than ending population growth is to say that global society should make substantially shrinking the world’s population a long-term goal.

    Hate to say it, but I personally expect that will happen anyway in the not-so-distant future, in ways that nobody really wants to see.

  19. ishi
    ishi says:

    While i objected to and was confused by some things in OP—eg i didnt know what the discussion FAIR’s history was really about , or the SCLC–and as has been noted many dont think population is ‘the’ problem. –my obection was to the wording .

    Systems or ecological thinking basically never sees one problem—but many connected ones.

    It appears that most every commentator agrees with this view—though probably with different empahsis.

    This is like enviromental groups/people—some say start XR or EF!,or greenpeace and do direct actyion, others say get a law degree and lobby congress, or a PhD in science and start Yale’s e360 or similar programs at cal tech/stanford…. or go out and measure biodiversity loss oer groups like Adbsters…

    There is a similar dicussion n Jan 20 Sierra magazine (free online) on population with . a range of views.

    Also i disliked the idea that other groups do not discuss population–i no longer follow them though have been a member of many and my view is all of them in some way dealt with population—and culture, consumerism, economics, and democracy.

    (This is like some who say ‘all BLM is for is marxism, obolition of the nuclear family and police. ‘
    A few BLM people do say things like that, -not most.)

    I am sort of writing a more ‘scientific ‘ article on this topic , and have actually sought collaborators or even sort university internship. Its really just a sort of ‘review ‘ or ‘unified theory’ of all the theories dscussed by CASSE and others as well-.

    Coonceptually it might be like S Hubbell’s ‘unified neutral theory of biodiversity’ (but go into FESA/GND, politics…)

    The goal also is to end the overlap between competing theories and groups—Paul Ehrlich has a new paper which looks redundant and really offers no new solutons–my proposal does. . .

    —and i dont want to nor really can write something that looks like theoretical physics or systems dynamics.

  20. Esther
    Esther says:

    We do not need any aliens here, they have already taken over this country. There are no jobs for the people here. We DON’T need any more people we have to support on welfare. Get your donations from you own country not from this country. Send it to Biden and tell him you need donations not to me. Stay in your own dam country.

  21. Mark Cramer
    Mark Cramer says:

    It must be that Esther is being sarcastic. Ok. But if she is serious, about no aliens, then we will all have to depart, unless
    we are native Americans, or maybe blacks who came here by force. Except for native Americans,
    we are all aliens. So if Esther is serious, everybody pack your suitcases. Time to get out.
    PS. Undocumented immigrants working in meat processing and farm labor were deemed ESSENTIAL LABOR, by Homeland Security, and deportations were officially halted, not by Biden, by Trump.
    (Excuse me Esther if I failed to catch your humor)

    • WG Berger
      WG Berger says:

      A very popular but ignorant claim. Everyone on the planet migrated out of Africa or wherever the evidence leads to for Homo sapien’s origin. So called ‘Native Americans’ were descendants of groups that moved here over millennia. If we had a time machine we would probably see them killing one another in the process. Killing was certainly the norm as documented in the U.S.

      As for exalting ‘essential labor’, the continual flood of illegal aliens is hampering the transition to the automated and safer workplace. Just google for what is developing.

  22. James Bowen
    James Bowen says:

    This is a great column. It should also be said that Dr. Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, agrees that population growth is untenable and that the economics that depend on it is a Ponzi scheme.

  23. Mike Hanauer
    Mike Hanauer says:

    Great article, Brian. Thank You.

    I have stopped supporting environmental organizations that will not at least say we (USA, UK, any overdeveloped nation) is overpopulated. Over there is not enough. I believe the only solution is “Think globally, act locally, set the example.”

    For more, including more on Brian’s points and further detail and thoughts, please see the brief Forum paper at https://npg.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/TheTrueEnvironmentalDisaster.pdf

    • ishi
      ishi says:

      The NPG articles aren’t that bad.

      however one of prominent members of NPG is also a major contributor to VDARE and many are part of the advertizing/pop music/ etc industries (not to mention Forbes and national review).

  24. Willem Vanden Broek
    Willem Vanden Broek says:

    The .pdf linked by Mr. Hanauer bears the banner of the group Negative Population Growth. I quit getting their mailings when they started ranting against use of foreign languages in the US and praising Arpaio. I told them there are enough xenophobic groups around and they’re losing a potential audience by becoming just another one of them. If you want my environmental support for limits on immigration, they must be humane and legal.

  25. Mike Hanauer
    Mike Hanauer says:

    I would strongly suggest that allegations of guilt by association or not liking a policy will make any organization unacceptable. Have a look at NPG.org and see their positions and highest quality research papers, including the one I mention (written by me). NPG is a wonderful organization for people who care about authentic sustainability. Really.

  26. Randolph Femmer
    Randolph Femmer says:

    Here is something that academia should do beginning this year: Initiate a new required course (or unit) for ALL first-year undergraduates of EVERY major: BIOSPHERIC LITERACY 101 – What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet (emphasizing population-environment data sets and understandings). Content can be delivered by 15 or 20 short OCW ppts together with related OCW short chapter-length PDFs. Such a content list and already-existing resources already exists (see, for example, https://www.scribd.com/user/15397192/The-Wecskaop-Project). Let’s start by beginning our list with this item: Since we are and have been adding ONE BILLION additional people to our planet over and over again every 12 years, every citizen needs to know exactly HOW LARGE is a BILLION? Can be done with three or four slide images in six or seven minutes (contact us or see website above for copies). Hint: The answer involves 38,461 years – and suddenly the listener is a lot smarter. Currently and in the past, if a student couldn’t read or write and spell grammatically, no college degree. The emergency we face now is Biospheric illiteracy. Needed course resources already exist as ppts and short pdfs (e.g. see link above). Some readers here could help by converting these same understandings to short downloadable video clips. OTHER quick topic insights? Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, soils, and seas as razor-thin surface films. Population explosions that result from ecological release? In WW2 Hiroshima was a J-curve (what does humankind’s population growth graph look like?) Limits, limiting factors, overshoot, and climb-and-collapse. Useful OCW ppts and pdfs already exist! Use them! Encourage other faculties to use them! Help ADD to the resources by making short videos of each core understanding. Apply same standards and understandings to grades 11 and 12 in pre-college curricula. Launch universalizing Biospheric Literacy 101 as a REQUIRED academic credential around the world.

    • kkman
      kkman says:

      Great idea. A required part of all education systems should include how to care for the only place we have to live — earth. The first class on this maybe should be tied to the age when a person can reproduce, in high school. Then, as a vital subject, it should be reinforced in a college class.

  27. Robin Schaufler
    Robin Schaufler says:

    My question is how to apply steady statesmanship in the microcosm. Specifically, both my little borough (~pop. 6600) and my county (~pop. 576,000) have growing populations, with quandaries around what to do. In both cases, it is easy to implement a pro-growth policy by improving the desirability of the political entity as a place to live, but mysterious as to how to implement a pro-stabilization or population shrinkage policy.

    The borough’s real estate valuation skyrocketed in the past few years, provoking formation of an affordability task force. Their goal isn’t affordability in the federal regulation sense, but rather to allow people who work here to live here. Teachers, cops, chefs, clergy, admins, etc. Assuming that moving here would not inflict a longer commute on spouses or other household members, living here would reduce their ecological footprint by localization, at the same time as addressing justice, DEI, and national housing concerns. On the surface, it conflicts with our historic preservation goals, which reduce our ecological footprint by reducing demolition and construction. One possible resolution is to rearrange living spaces to be smaller. For instance, an apartment building could provide a shared laundry room and maybe a shared kitchen to shrink household square footage, reducing heating, cooling, and hot water consumption per capita. Still, the result would undeniably involve local growth.

    The county’s population is growing. Since the percentage of adults age 50+ has increased and the percentage of children age 0-19 has decreased, it’s people moving here, not increasing family size. It needs to either expand housing, amenities, and jobs to accomodate the influx, or somehow discourage the influx. Unlike a country, it can’t just erect barriers to immigration. The county does have a sustainability commission, even if it expresses commitment to “green growth”. What can it do to discourage folks from moving here?


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