Population and Sustainability: Addressing the Taboo

Population control is a taboo topic in most sustainability circles. It shouldn’t be. According to a University of Oregon study, childbearing is the number one carbon intensive activity. Having just one has twenty times the impact of a lifetime of carbon frugality.

How Many People Can the Earth Support?

The human species lives on a finite planet with finite resources. Growing evidence suggests we have already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity. WHO and World Hunger data reveal our current system of industrial agriculture only feeds 84% of the global population. At present nearly a billion people (out of 7 billion) die of starvation or malnutrition-related disease.

I used to believe that third world hunger stemmed purely from inequality and maldistribution of food resources. Now I’m not so sure. In the past five years, desertification, extreme weather events, increasing fossil fuel prices*, water scarcity and topsoil depletion have caused global food production to level out and start to decline.

The Good News

The good news is that fertility rates are already dropping. According to the CIA (the official source of international fertility data), the current global fertility rate is 2.45 births per woman. This is down from 2.50 in 2011 and 2.90 in 2006.

Demographers attribute the drop in third world fertility rates to massive urbanization and the entry of women into the workforce. In the developed world, declining fertility rates seem more closely linked to worsening economic conditions. In Japan, which has been in continuous recession for two decades, the fertility rate is 1.39. In Greece it’s 1.40, in Italy 1.41.

At a global fertility rate of 2.45, the world will reach replacement rate (2.1 births per woman), between 2020 and 2030 and peak at 8.5 billion in 2030.

At present the planet only feeds 5.88 billion people. Could we feed 8.5 billion? Possibly. If they all gave up meat and we dug up a few thousand parking lots and returned them to food production.

Dropping Fertility Rates: A Capitalist’s Worst Nightmare

The bad news is the enormous pressure Wall Street exerts to keep birth rates high. Declining population growth threatens the robust economic growth our current economic system relies on.

Like a pyramid scheme, monopoly capitalism is based on the continual creation of new debt. Perpetual economic growth is essential to repay this ever increasing debt. Without it, the pyramid collapses.

The Pressure to Have Babies

At present the US and New Zealand are tied for the second highest fertility rate (at 2.06) in the industrialized word (France is highest at 2.08). The first two countries share two specific population drivers: a high rate of teen pregnancy and the bombardment of young women with constant pro-baby media messaging.

The US is number one in the developed world for teen pregnancy. New Zealand is number two. Although Kiwi teenagers have excellent access to reproductive services (including abortion) through our national health service, there’s no effort to provide effective sex education in our public schools.

Meanwhile, thanks to the capture of New Zealand popular culture by American mass media, Kiwi girls are bombarded with the same well-oiled messaging about the new feminine mystique: that without thin, perfect bodies, faces, hair, husbands and babies, they are utterly worthless as women.

In the US, teenage girls have abysmal access to both sex education and contraception. It’s tempting to blame this on the rise of the religious right. I think the issue deserves more scrutiny. A close look at the millionaires and billionaires who have facilitated the boom in right wing fundamentalism suggests they have cynical economic reasons for furthering policies that ensure robust US population growth.

We Need a Movement

Clearly activists who are genuine about curbing carbon emissions must give population control the same priority they give changing light bulbs, installing solar panels and reducing car trips. We’re not talking mandatory sterilization, abortion or eugenics – but voluntary steps people can take to curb their fertility.

So what does a population control movement look like? First, it’s got lots of men in it. Access to affordable abortion and contraception is no longer a woman’s issue – it deeply affects all of us. Growthbusters guru Dave Gardner clearly does his part by handing out endangered species condoms in the street.

Secondly, it works to actively counteract Wall Street messaging that pressurizes women to have more babies. The sustainability movement is successfully counteracting messages to consume more and incur more debt. There’s no reason we can’t do the same with pro-baby messaging. There are numerous advantages to remaining childless. We need to promote them. 

Finally, it actively campaigns to reduce teen pregnancy. There’s absolutely no reason why the Christian right should have a monopoly on pregnancy counseling. Progressives and liberals need to start our own rape crisis and sex education clinics, comparable to the “birth right” counseling movement. If the schools won’t do it, we need to educate teenage girls about debt rape and where they can obtain free and low cost contraception and morning after pills.

During the sixties, activists concerned about oppression in the schools, medical system, and other pro-corporate entities started their own alternative schools, clinics, abortion centers and child care programs. It’s time we followed their example.

*Fossil fuels are essential for industrial agriculture. In addition to fueling farm machinery, the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used in factory farming also derive from fossil fuels.

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.