How to talk about population and the environment... Or should we talk about population at all? Lessons from the last 50 years
In the 1960s, concerns with global overpopulation shot to the top of environmentalists’ (and for a brief moment, policymakers’) concerns. Ever since, due to a backlash from anti-environmentalists, market-oriented economists, and “pro-life” voices — together an amorphous pro–population growth movement that paints people who call for smaller populations as ignorant doomsdayers at best or racist neo-eugenicists at worst — the idea of lowering birthrates is rarely foregrounded by climate change or international development organizations. This is the case even as the population continues to climb, and we are still several billion people away from the expected peak of the Earth’s population. Our paper has two goals. First, it shows how the current population debate has been essentially frozen in time since around 1970, when the new “culture wars” politicized and swamped widespread support for lowering birthrates previously unmoored to any political camp. Many ecologists continue to talk about population growth today, but their voices are rarely found in the mainstream press (or within well-established environmental groups) — and they continue to engender opposition not only from anti-environmentalists but also from the vast majority of economists, editorialists, and pundits. Second, our presentation poses a question that many at this conference may find dispiriting: should we talk about population growth at all? A) Given demographic momentum, significantly altering demographic trajectories would take a nearly unprecedented about-face in public opinion and behaviors. B) While one sees plenty of thoughtful discussion of population and the environment (we hope this panel will offer one example!), unsophisticated approaches abound: for example, some who emphasize population assume that human populations follow biological laws. or they focus solely on numbers but ignore consumption, whereas others make the strange case that because population is only one problem (at most) among many facing global environments, it is really no problem at all. And C), many polices that proponents of a smaller population call for are beneficial without any bearing on demographic patterns — e.g., increased women’s rights and education, and better access to contraception. So why not just call for women’s rights and better access to contraception and avoid the backlash?
As historians, we do not take a normative positon on whether a minority of ecologists should continue to emphasize dangers of uninterrupted population growth. We will focus on explaining how today’s population debate took shape and hope to lend clarity and insight to a polarized and stagnating debate.