Science & Health

Our population problem

Like Sir David Attenborough and many others, I recognise overpopulation as one of the most significant underlying causes of global problems today – along with our use of fossil fuels, overconsumption and our addiction to a perpetual growth economic model. However, when I mention this I am often countered with, “No, no. It’s not overpopulation; it’s overconsumption.”

In my experience, the person dropping this bomb usually walks away immediately, allowing no further discussion. Often there is an underlying assumption that population reduction must necessarily involve eugenics or other repugnant methods, but this is not so. And, for some, reducing population lands like an impossible task.

Certainly, reducing overpopulation is neither easy nor quick. But it is way easier than trying to reduce overconsumption. Advocates of overconsumption never address this point. And, in any case, far and away the most effective way of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint is to have fewer children.

It seems to me that overpopulation naysayers have a particularly anthropocentric view. In my experience, people who engage with nature generally recognise we are overpopulated. But overpopulation is still clear from a purely anthropocentric stance.

Eradicating deprivation

Many people support the goal of eradicating poverty, but very few give the matter further thought. Often, they do not even know how poverty is defined.

The World Bank defines three levels of poverty, reporting that in 2017: 689 million people lived in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day; 1.8 billion lived on less than $3.20 a day; and 43 per cent of global population lived on less than $5.50 a day. That is about 3.3 billion people. $5.50 a day translates to about US$2000 per annum. Can you imagine living on that?

Consider that eradicating deprivation is a much more worthy aim. Deprivation is not defined, of course, but you be the judge. Australia’s average consumption per person is US$24,147 per annum. That is not deprivation. Globally, average consumption is almost a third of that. Would you be happy with that?

According to Earth Overshoot data we are currently consuming 70 per cent more than the earth can sustain. In other words, for today’s population to live sustainably we would need to consume an average of just US$4824 per annum. Would you be happy with that?

To look at it another way: if everyone on Earth imposed an ecological footprint like Australians, we would consume five times the planet’s sustainable limits. Or, in order to sustain Australia’s standard of living globally, we would need to reduce global population by a factor of five – to about 1.6 billion people. Whatever way you look at it, you cannot eradicate deprivation and live sustainably unless you substantially reduce global population.

People debate what population the earth could sustain. But putting a figure on it is a pointless exercise at this time. We need to recognise the need for a substantial reduction and get on with it. If and when we are well under way, a suitable target will become much clearer. But how can we reduce population without using abhorrent methods?

A focus on family planning

‘Family planning’ refers to any combination of culturally appropriate measures which help women and couples to responsibly determine the timing, spacing and number of their children. In particular, it allows them to avoid pregnancy when pregnancy is not intended. Its effectiveness is greatly enhanced by the education and empowerment of women and girls. UNICEF says: “Family planning could bring more benefit to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available to the human race.”

As argued by Sustainable Population Australia (of which I am a member): “Family planning does not include coercive ‘population control’ measures. Programs like China’s one-child policy and the forced sterilisations that occurred in India in the mid-1970s have proven both unnecessary and ineffective, as well as being morally abhorrent.”

France recently announced it will provide free access to birth control for women aged up to 25 years. I believe all countries should do likewise – and even extend such initiatives further to encourage men to have vasectomies. It should also form a major part of foreign aid to developing countries. There are many great organisations working in this space, including Marie Stopes International, You Before Two and The Oasis Initiative.

Responsible reproduction

The United Nation’s Earth Charter exhorts us all to: “Adopt patterns of production, consumption and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being, including to: Ensure universal access to health care that fosters reproductive health and responsible reproduction.”

What is ‘responsible reproduction’? The UN estimates that a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 is the break-even point at which population would neither increase nor decline. So having two children would be responsible if we were not overpopulated.

Global population has doubled in the past 48 years. The UN has made population projections to 2100 based on TFRs of 2.0, 2.5 and 3.0. The global TFR is currently about 2.5. If it were reduced to 2.0, the projected population would be about 3.6 billion less than the estimated population based on a TFR of 2.5.

Given these figures, I believe that ‘responsible reproduction’ means having no more than one child until a sustainable population is reached. To achieve this, as a society we need to create the context where this idea can be more widely accepted.

Martin Luther King Jr, a powerful advocate of family planning services, said in 1966: “What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.” Here we are 55 years later.


Photo by Nick Page on Unsplash


About John Steley

John Steley has an economics degree and a diploma of education, having worked in finance, education and public service. He now enjoys life as a pensioner, social activist, life partner and dog carer, spending much of his time researching issues around sustainability. He is a member of Sustainable Population Australia.

2 thoughts on “Our population problem

  1. Avatar photo says:

    Lee Kuan Yew showed the way. He was able to persuade the people of Singapore to voluntarily reduce the number of children being born by giving greater government support (better education and housing) to those couples who had fewer children.

    1. Avatar photo John Steley says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. There have been several successful programs. I believe the most cost effective is providing family planning services where needed, especially when supported by the education and empowerment of women and girls. That said, backing all that up with economic incentives is good too.

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