Bill Ryerson - Dealing With The Elephant In The Room: Overpopulation

Authored by Adam Taggart via,

Worldwide, three new humans are born every second. Every day, 225,000 more mouths are added to the global dinner table.

That adds up to 80 million new people per year -- the population equivalent of the five largest cities in the world. That's like a new Shanghai, a new Beijing, a new New Delhi, a new Lagos, and a new Tianjin being added every year.

This growth trajectory is simply not sustainable from a planetary resources standpoint. As the global population continues to grow at an exponential rate, its demand is causing key resources like fresh water aquifers, rainforest canopies, fishing stocks, fertile topsoils, etc to similarly deplete exponentially. These oppositional exponentials, mathematically, can only result in an evitable planetary 'overshoot' -- which many argue we are already well into.

What can be done? Bill Ryerson, president of the Population Institute, joins us to discuss the work of the Population Media Center in addressing the interconnected issues of the full rights of women and girls, population, and the environment. It's mission is to empower people to live healthier and more prosperous lives and to stabilize global population at a level at which people can live sustainably with the world’s renewable resources.

Our earlier podcast with Bill focused on the existential dangers of overpopulation (you can listen to it here). This week's podcast focuses on the strategies that show the most promise for slowing, or perhaps even reversing, world population growth, should we be willing to pursue them:

All of those new people on the planet have needs for food, shelter, housing, and clothing. When you look at their environmental impact, the number of new people is a major driver of lost biodiversity, and it's a significant factor in climate change.

Now, I've heard a lot of environmentalists say 'Well, population doesn't matter' because the real culprits in climate change are the high consumers of the West who each have a huge carbon footprint. But in fact, if you take the median projection of population growth by the UN Population Division from now to 2050 -- an additional 2.5 billion people -- and multiply that times the admittedly low per capita carbon emissions of a citizen in the developing world, it's the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.

Put another way, projections show that whether we have a major effort to promote family planning and small family norms and delayed marriage and stopping child marriage, or a minor effort, that will result in a difference, from a climate standpoint, of 2 United States by 2050.

I would venture that the leaders of virtually every environmental group, if spoken to privately, would clearly recognize that population growth is a major threat to the environmental goals of their organization. And yet, publicly, they’ve made a decision not to touch that issue for fear that they'll get themselves in trouble. And part of the reason for that I think has to do with their approach to environmental issues.

Many environmentalists think in terms of regulation as the solution to everything: if we have a climate problem, let's have a carbon tax; if we have a pollution problem, let's have pollution laws and regulations. But if we have a population problem -- oops, what does that mean? Does that mean we have to tell people how many children to have? Therefore they conclude they better stay away from population because telling people how many children to have would obviously get them into trouble.

But what's very clear is that coercion, in addition to being a human rights violation, is not effective. Persuasion and modeling of behavior that helps people understand the benefits to them, of educating their daughters rather than selling them into marriage, of allowing women to have say in how many children to have and allowing women equal rights in the workplace outside the home and various other goals including information and access to family planning services – that all this, within a human rights context, has been the reason that countries like Thailand have moved from rapid population growth to below replacement-level fertility. Environmentalists just haven't come to grips with the fact, or realized that, indeed, the population problem can be much better resolved through human rights-based approaches.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Bill Ryerson (41m:14s).