Rethinking the links between population and the environment

Ask almost anyone and they will tell you that overpopulation is one of the major causes, if not the major cause, of hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, migration, and even political instability in the Global South. Most people hold these beliefs because that’s all they’ve read or heard about the subject — and all they’ve been taught in school.

There are many reasons why this conventional ‘overpopulation’ wisdom is unwise. First, it ignores demographic trends, such as the fact that today population growth rates are declining in most areas of the world more rapidly than anticipated. Ironically, many demographers are increasingly worried about negative population growth or the so-called population ‘implosion.’ Second, it ignores history, notably the impact of the colonial encounter on subject populations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the enduring inequalities between the Global North and Global South. Third, it reduces complex webs of causality to a simple linear cause-and-effect relationship, as if there were a single explanation for poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. Fourth, it reinforces gender discrimination, positioning poor women mainly as breeders of too many babies. Fifth, it reinforces racism, for the face of overpopulation is typically that of a person of color, like the starving African boy in the biology text. It also foments fears of immigrants overpopulating the country. And last but not least, it often leads to a problematic ethical relativism — human rights abuses are excusable if they are in the interest of saving the planet through limiting births.

Fortunately, at the international policy level, the conventional ‘overpopulation’ wisdom no longer holds as much sway. For example, the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo embraced a more comprehensive view of population dynamics and put forward women’s empowerment and access to reproductive health and high-quality, voluntary family planning services as a far better approach than coercive population control. Yet these new understandings have yet to reach a larger audience and many people still fear that the population bomb is ticking away. This fear will persist as long as that’s what students are learning in schools.

Population in Perspective, 2nd edition, is a teaching tool that challenges you to rethink the links between people, food, the environment and climate change. Access this free resource here. También disponible en Español.