Getting to the root of the problem

human_population_growth.gifQuestion: What is more fundamental to sustainability than fixing climate change, even more certain to lead to catastrophe if unfixed, far more politically sensitive, but even more essential to passing on a habitable planet to our grandchildren and their children?

Answer: Controlling human population growth.

There. I’ve said it. And so have a host of others, who have pledged to speak out on this critical issue–which remains largely taboo in most polite conversations–in an organized event scheduled for February 2009.

The Global Population Speak-Out (GPSO) is being organized by John Feeney, who some of you know from his very thoughtful blog Growth is Madness. Why the focus on population growth — isn’t that old-fashioned? Don’t we know that the real culprit is the out-of-control resource use by those of us in the developed world? Well, yes, that is a major source of our unsustainable impacts on our life-support system. But those patterns of per-capita resource are rapidly being exported to the developing world. It must be stressed that the current and projected increases in resource use in the developing world carry some very important benefits to historically impoverished people. But it is also well documented that our modern lifestyles, and the resources they require, are not remotely sustainable over the long term.

Total human impact on the earth is the product of population size and per-capita resource use. All else being equal, then, a decline in population allows a corresponding rise in average individual resource use. And it should go without saying that a planet of finite size cannot sustain growth of the population, or of per-capita resource use, indefinitely. At some point it has to stop. And it is increasingly, glaringly, clear that that point must be soon. Ecological footprint data indicate that no realistic reduction in per capita consumption on the part of industrialized countries would be enough, in the absence of increased attention to population, to bring us back to within Earth’s capacity to sustain us.

John has succeeded in generating enough interest in the GPSO that the journal Science has taken notice. Here is their summary from the issue published today:

At a time when some developed nations are paying citizens to bolster flagging birth-rates (Science, 30 June 2006, p. 1894), a grass-roots group of scientists and environmentalists is calling for a new push to limit human numbers.

Overpopulation is threatening life as we know it on the planet, say members of a movement called Global Population Speak Out (, which aims to persuade at least 50 “respected voices” to “speak out in some way” about the problem for a month next year.

“The hope is to concentrate these informed researchers’ messages about population during the month of February so we can make a bit of a dent in this taboo” surrounding the subject, says the movement’s organizer John Feeney, an environmental writer in Boulder, Colorado. Global population, now at about 6.7 billion, is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, says Feeney, and that’s the United Nations’ “medium” projection.

So far, Feeney says 46 people have pledged to speak out or endorse the movement, including botanist Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis; Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel; and entomologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb. Although some of Ehrlich’s most dire predictions haven’t come to pass, others–namely, mass extinctions, as well as horrors he didn’t mention, such as destruction of rainforests and coral reefs from climate change–appear to be well under way.”

The letter inviting everyone to participate is here. Basically, the organizers ask you simply to speak out publicly during the month of February 2009 about how unfettered population growth threatens global society’s sustainable future. Like 2007’s Step it up campaign about climate change (which we participated in locally), the GPSO aims to draw attention to the issue of global population growth by raising a chorus of voices throughout the world simultaneously. The GPSO site has suggestions for letters to the editor, talking points, and other resources here.

As E.O. Wilson has said, “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people but to poor ideology or land-use management is sophistic.”

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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3 Responses to Getting to the root of the problem

  1. John Feeney says:

    Thanks for posting this Emmett! With any luck GPSO will have enough impact to increase the discussion of population issues and to weaken the taboo against public mention of the subject.

    I want to reiterate to anyone reading that you don’t need an invitation to pledge and participate in February. You can go here…

    … or just contact us here to pledge:

    Our list of pledgers has passed the needed 50, and we hope to keep growing it right up through February. It’s a great mix of highly trained scientists, environmentalists, representatives of conservation groups, environmental and science writers, and others who recognize the need to generate more attention for a fundamental ecological topic.

    Maybe after February the population taboo won’t be quite as strong!

  2. Sally says:

    Yes! Yes!!! ‘Bout time!

  3. There is a widely-held “misperception” that population growth and overpopulation cannot be a very serious problem as long as “vast amounts of open space” remain.

    A breathtaking example that devastates such misperceptionbs can be seen in one-liter water samples taken from outbreaks of red-tide dinoflagellates (such as Karenis brevis) which manage to invite fish kills and utter calamity upon themselves and the aqueous environment in which they live

    while occupying LESS THAN TWO 1,000ths OF ONE PERCENT of the one-liter sample in which they live.

    In addition, such dinoflagellate calamities arise from the toxic brevetoxins that individual cells of K. brevis release into their environments.

    (The dinoflagellates, however, produce calamity by releasing only their biological, cellular, and metabolic wastes into their enviroments. We, on the other hand, release tons upon tons of societal and industrial wastes as additions to our biological and metabolic wastes.)

    No other animals on earth do this – and no other animals on earth have EVER done this.

    If you are interested in illustrations and a more formal exploration of these thoughts, visit

    Humanity’s Population Train Wreck at

    Thank you for global population speak out and for raising these issues,