Category Archives: Human Rights

Book Review by Frosty Wooldridge

Book Review of Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom of the Elders edited by Marilyn Hempel 

In this book, extremely intelligent men and women who have spent their lives working for the betterment of civilization create a profound discussion on humanity’s fate. Their advice is at once profound and concrete. We best listen.

In 21st century America, citizens and leaders rush headlong and with great alacrity toward a doubling of our current 319 million population to 625 million by the end of the century. Growth is God, we are told.

The run-up to that exponential growth goal won’t be pretty—accelerating water shortages, unstable weather, resource depletion, and skyrocketing prices for food, water and energy.  Our cities grow more compacted, polluted and gridlocked. Our quality of life rushes desperately off a demographic cliff.  We force an unfortunate future upon our children.  We obliterate the Natural World in our contaminated and toxic wake.  We change our biosphere into a raging, chaotic tempest with no understanding of the outcome.

While Americans and their leaders cannot “see” that far, their children face enormous predicaments discussed by the “Elders” of this book.  For the most part, American don’t talk about the population explosion, rather, we assume it will vanish on its own. Reality check: it won’t. It will grow and become unmanageable. It already shows itself catastrophically to the Natural World.

The natural world offers balance and peace of mind.  Photo by Adam Jones

The natural world offers balance and peace of mind.  Photo by Adam Jones

The book starts with historical perspective. John Stuart Mill in the 1800s said, “There is room in the world, no doubt, for a great increase in population, supposing the arts of life go on improving, and capital to increase.  But even if innocuous, I confess I see very little reason for desiring it.  The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain all advantages both of cooperation and of social intercourse has been attained.

“A population may be too crowded, though all be amply provided with food and raiment.  It is not good for man to be kept at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal.  Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character.  Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature….” Mill speaks of the Natural World and our need for it.

To many Americans, the wilderness is little more than a retreat from the tensions of civilization. To others, it is a testing place—a vanishing frontier where man can rediscover basic values.  And to a few, the wilderness is nothing less than an almost holy source of self-renewal. But for every man, woman and child, the ultimate lesson that nature teaches is simply this: man’s fate is inextricably linked to that of the world at large, and to all of the other creatures that live upon it.

Mill said, “If the Earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.  It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for importing the “Art of Living” and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the “Art of Getting On.”

Mill spoke those words back in the 1800s.  Today, humans jam cities in excess of 36 million people—many of them impoverished souls all crammed together in cement wastelands.

We turned the natural world into 36 million-packed human mega-cities that create enormous pollution and loss of connection with the Natural World. Photo by

We turned the natural world into 36 million-packed human mega-cities that create enormous pollution and loss of connection with the Natural World. Photo by

Our addiction to growth makes no sense today. We must learn from our elders to make way for a viable and sustainable future—before Mother Nature takes us by the hand, rather brutally and teaches us lessons in sustainable living.


Book:  Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders by Marilyn Hempel

Publisher: Blue Planet United, Redlands, CA

ISBN # 9780692212271

Cost: $14.95 paperback

Available at


Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents – from the Arctic to the South Pole – as well as eight times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece. In 2012, he bicycled coast to coast across America. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis facing America: what to do about it.” His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World, copies at 1-888-280-7715. For a motivational program: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World by Frosty Wooldridge, click:


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Filed under Books, Family Planning, Human Rights, Population, Women's Rights

Blue Planet United Publishes New Book on Population

Elders_cover_WEBBlue Planet United has just published a new book titled Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders edited by Marilyn Hempel.

This book is for all who have ever pondered the fate of humanity and the biosphere and asked, “What can I do?” Fifteen elders—giants in the field of human population and development—share their vision of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. Drawing from many decades of practical experience and deep knowledge, they trace the contours of rapid population growth, its socioeconomic and environmental challenges, and the lessons they have learned in dealing with these challenges. They go on to lay out concrete actions that can move our civilization forward to a future of wanted children, empowered women, and an economy that works within restored ecosystems.

Features chapters by Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Malcolm Potts, Donald A. Collins, David Poindexter, William N. Ryerson, Linn Duvall Harwell, Sarah G. Epstein, Robert Gillespie, Martha Campbell, Lester R. Brown, Lindsey Grant, David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich.

Click here to order the book online.

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Climate Change: The Least We Can Do by Robert Walker, Population Institute

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

As the IPCC’s (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report makes clear, we are long past the point of avoiding climate change. The best we can do now is to avoid the worst effects. The situation is more dire than previously projected and the consequences of inaction more starkly drawn than ever before:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased…. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)…. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a perfect world, the IPCC’s report would summon forth our best efforts at mitigating climate change and its effects. We would be doing whatever is necessary and prudent to avoid a human and environmental catastrophe. By now, however, it is evident that governments—and the people they represent—are shrinking from the challenge. Hope for concerted global action on any kind of meaningful scale has largely evaporated.

Instead of asking what is the most that can be done to mitigate climate change and alleviate its consequences, perhaps we should be asking, “What is the least that can be done?”

The “least” we can do is to mitigate the scale of human suffering and displacement, and the single most cost-effective means of doing so is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the world are unwanted or unintended, and preventing them would make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Giving every woman the power to avoid unwanted pregnancies would dramatically lower projected population growth rates. According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child, world population would rise to only 8.3 billion and gradually decline during the second half of the 21st century.

It’s particularly important to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the United States, where our carbon footprints are, on average, nearly twice as high as they are in many European countries and twenty or more times higher than many developing countries. A study released five years ago found that the average “carbon legacy” of a child born in the U.S. would produce about 20 times more greenhouse gases than the mother or father would save by adopting a lower carbon lifestyle (i.e. driving a highly fuel efficient vehicle, using energy efficient appliances, etc.).

But even where carbon footprints are relatively small, no one should discount the contribution that birth control could make to lowering projected greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study of energy use and demographics by Brian C. O’Neill concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” That is not insignificant.

Even if preventing unplanned pregnancies in developing countries contributed absolutely nothing to reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, there is a compelling moral case to be made for expanding international family planning services and information. That’s because women and children in countries like Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Subsistence farmers, in particular, are vulnerable to the crop damage that will be inflicted by heat, drought, flooding, and rising seas. Some of the most vulnerable and food insecure countries in the world—countries that are already in a struggle for survival—could likely see their populations double or even triple in the next half century. Denying women in these countries the ability to space and limit their pregnancies will compound the suffering that is likely to be caused by climate change. Large families in environmentally-stressed communities will be less resilient and inevitably suffer more from disease, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

Access to reproductive health services is recognized by the United Nations as a universal right, but in many parts of the developing world it is far from being a reality. Making that right a reality for women everywhere may not save the world from climate change, but it would go a substantial way toward alleviating the human suffering that will accompany it. The costs of empowering women and providing family planning services are trivial compared to the benefits that would result from giving women reproductive choice. It really is the least we can do—for climate change—and for the women and their families who will endure some of its worst effects.


Robert Walker is the President of the Population Institute in Washington, DC. 

Prior to joining the Population Institute, Mr. Walker was President of the Population Resource Center. He formerly was the Executive Director of the Common Cause Education Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to promote open, honest and accountable government.

He also served for three years as President of Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

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Filed under Climate, Family Planning, Human Rights, Sustainability

U.S. Immigration Policies: Uncomfortable Facts by Paul Krugman

(This article was written in 2006, and it’s still relevant today)

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I’m proud of America’s immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I’m instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1%.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration—especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8% more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.

That’s why it’s intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should—and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they’re here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country’s experience with immigration, ”We wanted a labor force, but human beings came.” Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don’t pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn’t exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a “modest role” in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants. But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests—legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care—is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s plan for a ”guest worker” program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who’d love to have a low-wage work force that couldn’t vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I’d still be careful. Whatever the bill’s intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice—that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I’d rather see Congress fail to agree on anything than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.


Dr. Paul Krugman, American economist, bestselling author and respected professor, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. Krugman’s expertise is in international economics, including finance, trade theory and economic geography. Source: This essay was published by Paul Krugman in the New York Times on March 27, 2006. It is reprinted here verbatim and unedited. In follow-up remarks Krugman noted that although many readers will probably be unhappy with the essay, he stands by its main points, referencing economic studies which support those points. Interestingly, the NY Times quickly deleted the original article from its website.

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Filed under Economy, Ethics, Growth, Human Rights, Immigration, Leadership, Sustainability

Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons by Herman Daly

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point in discussing it is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Some allow many legal immigrants. Other countries (China and Japan, for example) allow very few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database, “The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.” 

Herman Daly

Herman Daly

Questions of how many immigrants are consistent with the welfare of the receiving community, and which prospective immigrants should get priority, are legitimate, and are answered differently in different countries. There are political arguments in every country for more or for less immigration, and for different selection criteria. There are also arguments about freedom to emigrate—what are the obligations of emigrants to the community that educated and invested in them (e.g. the brain drain)?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion. It seems that neither expectation is adequately fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works with today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require a metabolic flow of resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The U.S. is indeed a country of immigrants; but it is also a country of law. Within the rule of law there is a wide range of legitimate opinion about what limits and priorities best balance the interests of the sending and receiving communities, and of the individual migrants. In the US most population growth is due to net immigration, so population stabilization absolutely requires immigration limits. To advocate population stability while refusing to accept limits to immigration is self-contradictory. Some open-borders advocates argue that because population at a global level is the result only of birth and death rates (migration is irrelevant since the Earth does not receive people from other planets)—that therefore nations should not be concerned with immigration as a cause of their own population growth, but only with their own natural rate of increase. This is a non sequitur. With open borders, why would any country any longer try to limit its birth rate, if it is (a) possible to export its excess population, and, (b) impossible to limit its population, given unlimited immigration? Evading an issue by “globalizing” it is a cop-out.

In addition we have in the U.S. a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the U.S. is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. This class division is more important than racial issues, which nevertheless receive more attention because racial discrimination is rightly illegal, whereas class exploitation is often legal, protected by laws that need to be democratically changed—just have a look at the U.S. tax code, or the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. has a large population of citizens whose recent ancestors were forcefully brought over as slaves (involuntary immigrants). Many Americans, including me, think that Black American heirs of slavery deserve priority in the U.S. job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races still living in poverty. Other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor—another way of saying lots of poor people! Nevertheless, I would favor temporary legal immigration at about half of the current level of one million per year, but diminishing gradually every year to a level consistent with population stability. Population stability means that births plus immigrants equal deaths plus emigrants.

What immigration policy would critics of U.S. immigration limits advocate for other countries? Say for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

Outside the rule of law there is of course illegal immigration that renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. Again, there are legitimate questions about how best to enforce immigration laws, making the punishment fit the crime, etc. But it is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago.

Some people propose quite a drastic change in immigration law. They advocate a policy of open borders, which at a stroke would do away with illegal immigration and enforcement problems. This is at least a more honest position than just refusing to enforce democratically enacted laws. It is attractive to anarchists, if there are any left, and to libertarians, their modern descendants. Libertarians are mainly found today among neoclassical economists, whose view is that of atomistic individualism. Only the individual is real. The community is just an aggregate of individuals, nothing more. Their focus is on individuals maximizing their own welfare. Since the community is not considered real they commonly neglect effects of mass immigration, both positive and negative, on both the sending and receiving community. They see the world as one big free market, which of course entails free mobility of labor, as well as goods and capital—a globally integrated economy all guided by a global invisible hand—deregulation taken to the limit! In developed countries they are especially interested in opening their borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap- retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected to continue indefinitely.

Even some environmentally-minded economists seem to favor open borders. They  have swallowed the basic atomistic individualism of neoclassical economics while opposing other aspects of the paradigm. Nevertheless, people are in fact not atomistic individuals but persons-in-community—both social and biophysical community. Our very identity as persons is constituted by internal relations in community—with family, friends, and place, including one’s ties to country, biome, customs, religion, language, and history. Community is real and important to the welfare of real persons—it is not just an aggregate of externally related, atomistic, interchangeable individuals—of “economic men” running all over the world in mass numbers seeking their own utility maximization.

Within limits individual freedom to migrate is certainly a value to be protected—including against its own self-defeating extreme of open borders. To make political progress toward consensus on immigration policy we should first clear the air with a “referendum” on the policy of open borders. If that policy is rejected then we can talk seriously about the total number of immigrants and the selection criteria that best balance the needs of all people. If the open-borders policy is adopted then one must forget about controlling the movement of people across national boundaries.

Indeed, open borders eliminates or at least diminishes control of the border crossings of goods and capital as well—something consistently advocated by neoclassical economists under the banner of “free trade” and “globalization”. National boundaries are in effect erased, and without national boundaries there need be no border patrol, indeed no military to defend those former borders—just one big happy “world without borders” in the words of the song. After two world wars the abolition of the nation state admittedly has its appeal—but a “world without borders” is an expression of sentimentality, not reason. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move to one that doesn’t. That is the “world without borders” —and without community either!

Global community must be a “community of communities”, a federation of nations cooperating for a limited number of important global purposes. Erasure of national boundaries would mean that there are no communities left to federate. The invisible hand of the free global market (along with unrestrained global corporations) will unleash growth in global GDP (unhindered by national policies of cost internalization). The population of atomistic cosmopolitan individuals, free from national laws and constraints, will grow with renewed pace. External costs, if recognized at all, will presumably fall on the “non-existent” community, and to the extent that some fall on real individuals, they can be escaped by freely migrating somewhere else.

Realistically however, a policy of open borders obviously invites the tragedy of the open access commons. It is its own reductio ad absurdum, as indicated in the previous paragraph. Probably that is why, in the full world of today, no country practices it, and few people advocate it. Nevertheless, it should be fairly discussed, because some people certainly do advocate it. In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction right-wing economists. The politically correct reflexively label any limits on immigration as thinly disguised “racism”, apparently the only evil they can recognize. The libertarian neoclassicals label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion”, their single cardinal sin. Both consider themselves advanced cosmopolitans, morally superior to the national populists whose “provincial” concern is first for the poor in their own community. This surprising agreement between opposite political extremes in support of open borders is evidence that ideologues of both types have difficulty thinking clearly. Unfortunately, lack of clear thinking—aided by moralistic pretension, ethnic politics, and class interest—is often a political advantage.


Herman E. Daly is one of the world’s foremost ecological economists. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank. His interest in economic development, population, resources, and environment has resulted in over a hundred articles in professional journals and anthologies, as well as numerous books, including Toward a Steady-State Economy. He is co-author with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. of For the Common Good which received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order. Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Printed with permission.

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Book review: Life On The Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

If you look around the United States, even in the overcrowded, overpacked and gridlocked cities of America—you won’t hear conversations about overpopulation. Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and more cities feature enormous brown clouds blanketing their cities with an airborne toxic soup that every citizen breathes with every breath. Brian Williams reports on the horrific traffic jams on the East Coast, but he won’t mention the overpopulation factor causing them. Same with Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley, Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelley, Robert Siegel and all the top anchors on all the media reports!

They convey that none of us should question unending growth. It’s like a 450 pound fat man on “Biggest Losers” TV show who can barely walk, knows he’s going to die of a heart attack—but he decides to follow the American mantra of “Sustainable Growth” and keeps shoving Big Macs with double cheese, French fries and a Big Gulp down his gullet until he reaches 550 pounds and beyond.

Both his path and the United States’ path can only end up in the same condition: human misery, suffering and ultimately collapse. But in the case of human overpopulation around the planet, we humans destroy millions of other creatures along the way to our own destruction.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Chapter 4, Martha Campbell asks, “Why the silence on overpopulation?”

“By 2050, human population is projected to reach as high as 10.5 billion,” said Campbell. “Uganda is projected to grow from 33.8 million to 91.3 million. Niger from 16 million to 58 million, and Afghanistan from 29 million to 73 million.”

That’s not all the growth! India adds 11 million net gain annually to its 1.2 billion (in 2012), while China adds another 8 million net gain annually. Both countries expect to explode to about 1.6 billion. If you have watched NBC lately, Brian Williams reported on the air pollution cover Shanghai and Beijing. He hasn’t covered the water pollution, but the Ganges and the Yangzi Rivers feature open sewer pipes that turn into 20,000 square mile dead zones at their mouths. How do I know? I sailed on both rivers and the water-plastic-debris-trash-human waste made me sick to my stomach.

"OverLoaded Train" in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy 'quality of life'.  In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures?  Photo from

“OverLoaded Train” in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy ‘quality of life’. In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures? Photo from

At 82 million, Egypt, a country that cannot feed itself in 2013 and relies on grain imports, expects to hit 150 million by mid century. Do we need to guess their fate?

“In 1900, Ethiopia had 5 million, in 1950 it had 18.4 million, in 2010 it had 85 million and is projected to reach 173 million by 2050,” said Campbell. “Their rapid population growth figures in the decimation of nearly all of Ethiopia’s forests and consequently climate change.”

On a personal note, I researched to find that Africa houses nearly 1 billion people in 2013, but expects to reach 3.1 billion within 90 years. Can you imagine every human scavenging every last creature on this beautiful continent for food? Nothing will be left of all those wonderful creatures. In 1900, Africa sported 12 million elephants. Today, 475,000 remain and their numbers are dwindling fast due to poachers.

Campbell calls the subject of population “delicate” because it involves sex, cultures, religions and serves inequities around the world. Such religions as Islam, the Catholic Church, and many others don’t take kindly to birth control.

Campbell discusses the six reasons for the population “Perfect Storm” facing all life on this planet, especially humans causing it.

  1. While birth rates fall, the sheer number of humans causes growth, due to ‘population momentum’.  Right now that momentum adds about 1 billion people every 12-13 years.
  2. Overconsumption of water, resources, animal life, arable land and resource exhaustion accelerate with the population momentum.
  3. Anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks have intentionally reduced attention to population growth.
  4. Many folks think that disease like AIDS have stopped population growth. Not so!
  5. Even after the Cairo population conference and the Rio debates, there is still not enough financing of family planning programs on a global level. Cultural and religious practices still dominate women in too many places.
  6. The dominant “endless growth” paradigms of countries like Canada, America, Australia and even Europe—maintain a death grip on any discussion of overpopulation.
"Garbage Family"  Despite China's rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country's wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items.  In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) -- is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife?  Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

“Garbage Family” Despite China’s rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country’s wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items. In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) — is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife? Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

Campbell said, “Use of family planning prevents death from unintended pregnancies and from induced abortions. Children from smaller families are more likely to enter and stay in school.”

This chapter brings home the enormity of the power of cultures and churches and corporations to squash the population discussion. It shows that cultures and beliefs trump and override reason, empirical evidence, common sense and logical action.

Thus, 10 million children and 8 million adults die of starvation and starvation related conditions every year around the globe. Another 18 million stand in the doorway of death in 2013. All life on the brink?  If we do nothing about overpopulation, iit’s only a matter of time.

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents—from the Arctic to the South Pole—as well as eight times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis facing America: what to do about it” at <>.  His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World, copies at 1-888-280-7715.

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UK Parliamentarians Call for Action to Protect 10 Million Girls from the Abuse of Child Marriage

Portrait of Mohammed Fazal, 45, with his two wives (L-R) Majabin, 13, and Zalayha, 29 in the village on the outskirts of Mazar Al Sharif. Fazal was offered Majabin as a debt settlement when a fellow farmer could not pay after a night of playing cards. They have been married for six months.

Portrait of Mohammed Fazal, 45, with his two wives (L-R) Majabin, 13, and Zalayha, 29 in the village on the outskirts of Mazar Al Sharif. Fazal was offered Majabin as a debt settlement when a fellow farmer could not pay after a night of playing cards. They have been married for six months.

Every year, 10 million girls around the world are married while they are still children. With a rising global population, numbers of child brides are predicted by United Nations experts to increase to 14 million per year in the next decade. Following a hearing into child marriage, a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians are calling for governments here and abroad to take urgent action to protect girls from the consequences of being married and becoming mothers while they are still children themselves.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) is calling on the government to tackle child marriage on two fronts. In the UK, this includes a recommendation to implement statutory guidance on forced marriage, training for professionals, inclusion of consent in marriage and sexual relations in the personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum, compulsory registration of all religious marriages and an increase in the minimum legal age for marriage to 18. They are also encouraging the Department for International Development (DFID) to conduct research into the prevalence and practice of child marriage, to evaluate existing interventions to ensure that UK aid is spent effectively and to scale up programmes to prevent child marriage and support survivors. In particular, they would like to see British aid being spent to meet the needs for family planning, sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare of girls and women of all ages and whatever their marital status.

Baroness Jenny Tonge, Chair of the Group and the hearing, said,

‘Every three seconds, a girl is coerced or forced into marriage, losing her childhood, her dreams and the opportunity to make her own choices about her life and relationships. This is not just bad news for the girls themselves, it also means that too many children are born into a world that is already overpopulated and half of the productive population of a developing country cannot participate fully in their societies because they are uneducated and unable to contribute to the workforce. Countries where girls are educated, marry later and have fewer children show higher economic growth and a better standard of living for all.’

Child marriages are driven by poverty, gender inequality and harmful traditional practices. In the developing world, a lack of access to education is both a symptom and a cause of child marriage. Child brides are generally expected to bear children from an early age, leading to a prolonged period of reproduction and larger numbers of children, yet adolescent girls are twice as likely as women in their twenties to die in childbirth. Some don’t even make it that far. Gauri van Gulik of Human Rights Watch told the hearing about Elham Mahdi al Assi, a thirteen-year-old girl in Yemen who died just days after her marriage to a man in his twenties in a ‘swap marriage’ exchange in which her brother also married her groom’s sister. She died from internal bleeding as a consequence of her husband raping her. Delaying marriage saves lives as well as giving girls and women equal opportunities to boys and men.

In most cases, laws and international conventions are in place to protect children from being forced into marriage. Yet, time and again governments fail to implement these protections. Evidence shows that British girls are being taken out of the country to be married against their will and here in the UK, families are getting children married off in ‘community’ or religious ceremonies or by taking advantage of the fact that the law in Britain allows the marriage of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds with parental consent.

The British government recently announced plans to criminalise forced marriage. Nearly 30% of the calls received by the UK Forced Marriage Unit helpline this year related to minors, so implementing this change in the law should also help British girls. Jasvinder Sanghera, author of the memoir Shame and chief executive of the Karma Nirvana support network for those affected by forced marriage and child marriage in the UK, said,

‘I welcome the fact that our Prime Minister has committed to making forced marriage a criminal offence – my plea is that we work to also enforce what already exists. Statutory guidelines continue not to be implemented or monitored effectively and the lack of school engagement remains concerning. There remains the need to universally agree a minimum age of marriage, it cannot be right that children as young as 8 years old here in Britain are entering a marriage arrangement. This is abuse and not part of anyone’s culture or tradition and we as a society have a duty to recognise it as such.’ 

Baroness Tonge’s message for parliamentarians, DFID and those working in child protection in the UK is simple: ‘Resolve to do something about our sisters worldwide whose cries are not heard.’

 Source: UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health press release 26th November, 2012.

 A Childhood Lost, the report of the parliamentary hearing on child marriage held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, will be published on 27th November 2012, and available to download from the Group’s website:

 The UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) aims to encourage initiatives to increase access to, and improve reproductive and sexual health programmes worldwide. It has 70 members, from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, representing the UK’s main political parties. The Group provide members with a forum for discussing population, development and reproductive health. For more information please go to


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Do Economists Have Frequent Sex? by Martha Campbell and Malcolm Potts

Melinda French Gates and participants at a Sure Start Project initiative to promote maternal and newborn health in Kathghara Village, Fatehpur District, U.P., India on March 23, 2010. The women are playing a stacking game to promote family wellness.

A flawed paradigm confusing coincidence with causation

Last year a World Bank economist gave a lecture on development in Africa on the UC Berkeley campus. His audience asked him about rapid population growth in that continent. He immediately dismissed the question, saying that population growth did not need any special attention. It would look after itself. He was voicing an uncritical interpretation of the demographic transition, a “theory” which has as much evidence to support it as the fictitious Da Vinci Code, although like the Da Vinci Code it remains perennially popular.

In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as Frank Notestein and Kingsley Davis described how western societies had begun with high birth and death rates, that death rates fell before birthrates leading to a growth in population until a new equilibrium was reached where low death rates were matched by low birth rates.  This classic description of the demographic transition is in textbooks and on UTube. As a set of general empirical observations it has some usefulness.  However, when empirical observations are elevated to become a “model,” or a  “theory” seemingly capable of providing an “explanation” of demographic change, then we have a serious problem. The explanation can become grievously misleading.  When the demographic transition theory is used to predict future population growth, then it becomes downright dangerous.

The theory has proved unusually persistent and remarkably impervious to criticism. Economists have mistakenly bought into the concept that when societies become richer and better educated—often referred to as socio-economic conditions—then fertility (the average number of children per woman) will decline.  Careful studies of the theory in Europe have found only a weak relationship between socio-economic conditions and fertility decline. Reviewing the success of organized family planning programs in Asia and Latin America, researchers Bongaarts and Watkins concluded, “there is no tight link between development indicators and fertility,” yet they still felt compelled to assert “the role of socio-economic development in accounting for fertility declines remains inherently plausible.”

It is almost as if the demographic transition model has some divine power that must never be questioned. A panel of the US National Academy of Science in 2000 concluded “fertility in countries that have not completed transition should eventually reach levels similar to those now observed in low fertility countries.” Editing a volume called The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century, Wolfgang Lutzwrites, “the well-founded, general notion of demographic transition is the basis of our expectation that world population growth will come to an end during the second half of the 21st century.” Tim Dyson, in a 2010 book Population and Development: The Demographic Transition, sees demographic transition playing a “central role in the creation of the modern world,” asserting that demographic transition is “self-contained and inexorable over the long run.”

But is this expectation well founded, and are the empirical processes actually “self-contained and inexorable”?  Recognizing a serious problem in this thinking, Simon Szreter has commented, “the [demographic] model’s conceptual structure was allowed to become so general and the theoretical relation so flexible that, as a causal explanation of change, it became an empirically irrefutable theory.”

There is no empirical evidence that all countries and regions will drift in some magic way to a two-child family and then live happily ever after. Indeed, anyone who has glimpsed the patriarchal cultures found in Afghanistan or Northern Nigeria would suggest the empirical evidence is the exact opposite. Such regions are likely to go on having large families unless a massive effort is put into helping women achieve the autonomy they deserve. A common assumption that “once fertility declines are underway they tend to continue” did not prove true in Kenya, where fertility decline was well under way in the 1980s but stalled after 1994 when foreign aid budgets for family planning collapsed. It was also assumed that when societies reached replacement level fertility then the birth rate would stop falling, but that has not happened in Russia or most of Europe.

Another almost religious belief of disciples of the demographic transition is that the engine driving the transition is a fall in death rates. Some parts of this observation hold water, but as there is no place in the world where deaths have not fallen significantly (except, sadly, for maternal deaths in a number of countries) the assertion cannot be proved. In England and Wales the birth rate fell a generation before infant mortality fell. Infant mortality in Madagascar (42/1000 births) is slightly lower than that in Bangladesh (45/1000), but the total fertility rate (TFR) in Bangladesh is 2.4, in Madagascar it is 4.6.  This reversal is most likely because Bangladesh has ready access to contraception and safe abortion, while Madagascar does not.

Access to modern contraception and safe abortion is often a more consistent correlate with fertility decline than socio-economic progress. By access we do not mean just that the contraceptives are in the community, but also that there are many barriers between women and contraception, including unjustified rules and tests, misinformation, providers not allowing unmarried women to have contraception, and many more.

Family size can fall even in poor and illiterate communities once the many tangible and intangible barriers that bar women from access to the technologies and information they need to separate sex from pregnancy are removed. Such barriers are often visible to women, but not seen so distinctly by some demographers, nor by ministries of health. Curiously these barriers seem to be largely invisible to a large portion of economists, including most economists in the World Bank.

In Nigeria the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is 5.6 (average children per woman). 44% of the people are under age 15. Average life expectancy is age 51.
Photo from Juju Films/Flickr/cc

The reality of human behavior

The demographic transition theory postulating a predictable, self-regulating world, where virtually all countries will have a two child family by 2100, is a mirage created by writers who see a world of people who are able to make easy decisions about whether and when to have a child. They seem not to recognize that human beings across societies worldwide, unlike most other mammals, have sex hundreds or even thousands of times more frequently than is necessary to conceive the number of pregnancies they want.  Unless women have the knowledge and the means to separate sex from childbearing, their default condition is a large family.

In many countries women still live in the depths of poverty and have little access to contraception. Such a woman does not have enough power to tell her husband “no sex tonight”—lest he treat her roughly or take on another wife or girlfriend—leaving her and her children with less food.  Oddly, economists seem to miss the realities of this sad situation, where women have few options about their childbearing.  Several years ago we came to realize that most economists might not be aware that couples everywhere have sex frequently.  In jest we then began to propose to our students that the only explanation we can think of for why economists seem not to be aware of this common pattern is that maybe economists don’t have frequent sex.

The UN population projections have assumed since the spring of 2010 that all but a small number of the fastest growing countries will reach replacement level by 2100. This is the Da Vinci Code at its worst. In parts of West Africa, current observable rates of increase in the use of contraception means that it will take over 90 years for countries to reach replacement level fertility (just over 2 children on average).  Even when replacement level fertility is achieved, the population will go on growing for several generations, because of the enormous number of children already born.

Today 1.2 billion people live in high fertility countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which include countries such as Niger, Yemen and Afghanistan. These countries with the highest average family size, from four to seven or more children per women, account for 18% of the total global population.  If that percentage continues to expand, which is likely as long as those averages of numbers of children continue, these countries will remain poor.  No country has been able to develop with an average of five or more children per woman. Even if the overly optimistic UN projections are achieved, these highest fertility countries alone will grow to between 2.8 billion and a staggering 6.1 billion by 2100, or to the UN’s medium variant projection of 4.2 billion.

Whatever the exact number—unless there is a sense of urgency and significant investment by the rich world—by the second half of the 21st century the overwhelming majority of people in the high fertility countries will still be living in abject poverty, largely uneducated, and almost certainly unemployed. Not only will it be necessary to make family planning readily accessible in the remaining high fertility countries, but also it will be imperative to invest heavily in girl’s education. Without a large external investment in girls’ education, many such countries are likely to continue to treat women in atrocious ways.

Chart courtesy of Martha Campbell/Venture Strategies.

Currently, between 12 and 18 million people in the high fertility countries of the Sahel, the countries bordering the southern edge of the Sahara, are hungry. As the population of this ecologically vulnerable region doubles by 2050, and as the crops wither and the camels die as a result of global warming, tens of millions of people will migrate to big cities and across borders in what may become the biggest forced migration in history. Suffering and death are already accompanying that migration. Other countries will become failed states, like Somalia (TFR 6.4). Terrorist groups like Boko Haram (literally “education is sacrilege”) in Northern Nigeria will become more common and al-Qaeda will continue to metastasize, as it has in Mali.

The power of family planning

The current population of Niger is 16 million, and even if that country could reach replacement level fertility (just over two children average) by 2040 the population would not stabilize until 80 million by about 2100. In a country where one in five women has 10 or more children and only one in 1,000 girls completes secondary school, all hope of socio-economic progress is being swept away by a tsunami of human numbers.  If Niger delays reaching replacement until 2080 the country will not stop growing until it reaches over 220 million people. Obviously that will not be sustainable because deaths from malnutrition, starvation and conflict will rise to unprecedented levels bringing with them an unimaginable intensity of human suffering.

Lack of focus on family planning since the Cairo conference has allowed a great deal of demographic momentum to build up in many high fertility countries, as Niger makes so unambiguously obvious. Statements such as Lutz’s, “we demonstrate in this book that world population growth will likely come to an end in 21st century through the benign process of declining fertility rather than the disastrous process of increasing death rates by overshooting global carrying capacity” are highly misleading. It implies that global problems of tectonic significance will somehow take care of themselves. They will not.

Unless two and two no longer make four, there is a compelling and urgent need to make family planning universally accessible and desirable, and to invest heavily in girls’ education, whether or not there are actual schools. Family planning is catalyst. It was the horse that pulled the development cart in Asia, and it is a prerequisite today for progress in Africa, and in countries like Afghanistan.  Investing in girls and young women is always important, and it is particularly urgent in societies where the ongoing abuse of compulsory teenage marriage and early childbearing continues unabated.  Strong family planning and education are synergistic, not competitive alternatives.

The ‘Program of Action’ from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development was an eloquent call for making family planning universally available, even where socio-economic development has not yet caught up.  It stated: “The success of population education and family planning programs in a variety of settings demonstrates that informed individuals everywhere can and will act responsibly in the light of their own needs and those of their families and communities.”

In low resource settings family planning should be the first element of primary health to be made widely available. Even health extension workers take many months to train because they must be able to diagnose diseases before they can recommend a therapy. Family planning is an individual woman’s voluntary choice and can been made widely available by training community volunteers in one or two days.

A new paradigm

As a collection of empirical observations, the demographic transition describes changes in birth and death rates leading to changes in the size of the total population—no more and no less.  The demographic transition cannot be turned into what Dudley Kirk called in 1996, “one of the best generalizations in the social sciences.”  As a paradigm, the demographic transition is like Karl Marx’s Das Capital or Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams—an idea that seems to have the power to gather generations of faithful followers, who cheer for one another while systemically ignoring external criticisms.

As more and more exceptions to the demographic transition theory have been documented, some demographers and economists have been left looking like pre-Copernican astronomers inventing increasingly improbable explanations of a flawed geocentric system rather than accepting the fact that the earth goes round the sun.

After 20 years of international antagonism and apathy, the London Summit on Family Planning (July 11, 2012) saw the tide turn in favor of renewed support for family planning wherever it is needed. The words ‘demographic transition’ passed no one’s lips on that day. Instead this landmark event was based on two much more profound observations than a library full of demographic theses confusing coincidence with causation. They have been perfectly summed up by Melinda Gates: “The most transformative thing we can do is give people access to birth control.” And, “Sweeping changes begin at the individual family level.”

 Martha Campbell, PhD, is president and founder of Venture Strategies for Health and Development, based in Berkeley, CA. Malcolm Potts, MB, PhD, holds the Bixby endowed chair in Population and Family Planning in the School of Public Health, University of California-Berkeley, CA. He has published ten books and over 200 scientific papers. His most recent book is Sex and War: How Biology Explains War and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World

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The Crucial Distinction between “Unmet Need” and “Unmet Demand” by William N. Ryerson

Proud mother with 6-month-old daughter in Nairobi. She did not want to hear about family planning until a nurse talked to her about child health and education opportunity. Photo from Gates Foundation/Flickr/cc

Motivation to use family planning and to limit family size has been the key missing element in the strategy for population stabilization.

There is a widespread view among many population activists that the top priority in the population field should be focused on providing family planning medical services because of the belief that lack of access to these services is the major barrier to fertility reduction.  It is true that over the last 40 years increasing access to contraceptive services has helped reduce fertility rates.  The view of those who subscribe to the “medical model” of solving the population problem is that additional family planning services will complete the job.

This is perhaps the most important issue within the population field. Of the money spent by developing and developed countries for population-related work in the developing world, the largest share has gone to providing family planning medical services to individuals and couples. Inherent in this approach is the belief that a large portion of births are unwanted and that contraceptive availability will solve this problem. Indeed, a significant percentage of births may be unwanted or mistimed, but large family norms/desires and the cultural and informational barriers to the use of contraception are now the major impediments to achieving replacement level fertility.

In Kenya, which was the fastest growing country in the world in the 1980s, contraceptives were within reach of nearly 90% of the population by the late 1980s.  Yet currently, only 39% of married women use them. That is only one example.

It is clear that providing contraceptive services alone will not solve the population problem. Since the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, studies were conducted in numerous countries measuring women’s knowledge of, attitudes toward, and practice of birth control as well as their family size desires. These knowledge, attitude and practice studies resulted in the term “unmet need” to describe those women who wanted to delay their next pregnancy by at least two years but were not using a modern method of contraception. In the minds of many policy makers and funders, “unmet need” was equated with “lack of access” to contraceptive services. However, demographers Charles Westoff and Luis Hernando Ochoa, in a review of numerous Demographic and Health Surveys, determined that about half the women categorized as having an “unmet need” have no intention of using contraceptives even if they were made freely available.

The confusion between the term “unmet need” and “unmet demand” has misled many people in leadership positions to assume that such “unmet demand” could be overcome by improving family planning services and contraceptive distribution. The reasoning has been that, if there was a gap between what people want and what they are doing, improving access to contraceptives would close that gap. The problem is that the discrepancy between attitudes and behavior has had less and less to do with availability in recent decades.

The situation in Kenya is illustrative of findings in numerous countries recently. In Kenya, according to the 2008-09 Demographic and Health Survey, 96% of currently married women and 98% of husbands know about modern contraceptives. Of the married women who are non-users, 40% do not intend to ever use contraception. Among all non-using married women, 8% give as their reason the desire for more children. Among the reasons given for not using contraception by women who are not pregnant and do not want to become pregnant, only 0.8% cited lack of availability of contraceptives, and 0.4% cited cost. The top four reasons among those who are still fecund:

  • concern with the medical side effects of contraceptives (31%);
  • religious prohibition (9%);
  • personal opposition (8%);
  • opposition from the husbands (6%).

These are all issues that are best addressed by information and motivational communications. Certainly, counterfeit contraceptives exist, and they may have harmful effects, so improving the availability of reliable methods is important. So is informing women of potential side effects of methods they choose. But much of the fear of health effects is based on intentional misinformation campaigns by those oppoed to contraceptive use.

At a health center in rural Nigeria. Note the percentage of people under age 15.
Photo from DirectReliefInternational/Flickr/cc

Country by country, the Demographic and Health Surveys show a similar pattern to that in Kenya: Lack of access is cited infrequently by those who are categorized as having an unmet need for family planning.

A 1992 paper by Etienne van de Walle showed that another factor is at play for many women and men—fatalism. Many people have simply not reached the realization that reproductive decisions are a matter of conscious choice. Many who did not particularly want another pregnancy in the near future still reasoned that God had determined since the beginning of the universe how many children they would have and that it did not matter what they thought or whether they might use a contraceptive, because they could not oppose God’s will.

For example, Pakistan’s 2006-2007 Demographic and Health Survey found that the most common reason for non-use of contraceptives is the belief that God determines family size. This answer was given by 28% of the respondents. Since the fertility rate in Pakistan is 3.6 and the mean desired number of children among currently married women is 4.1, it is clear that family size norms are also a major factor in driving high fertility.

The tradition of large families is a deciding factor in fertility rates in most of sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the 2008 Demographic and Health Survey in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 170 million inhabitants, found that the average ideal number of children for married women was 6.7.  For married men, it was 8.5.  The fertility rate in Nigeria is 5.6 children per woman, which is below what people say they actually want.

Of all births in Nigeria, 87% were wanted at the time and another 7% were wanted, but not until later. Only 4% were unwanted. Nationwide, 67% of married women and 89% of married men know of at least one modern method of contraception. Yet only 10% of married women report they currently use modern family planning methods.

Changing this situation takes more than provision of family planning services. It requires helping people understand the personal benefits of limiting and spacing births—in health and wealth for them and their children. It also involves overcoming fear that contraceptives are dangerous or that planning one’s family is unacceptable. It requires getting husbands and wives to talk to each other about use of family planning—a key step in the process of using contraceptives.

In Afghanaistan, Ghulam, age 11, is married to Faiz, age 40. She had hoped to be a teacher, but was forced to quit classes. About 58% of Afghan girls get married before age sixteen. Photo from Splintergroup/Flickr/cc

Delaying marriage and childbearing until adulthood, and educating girls are critical components. According to a 2003 report by the Nigerian Population Commission, in northern Nigeria the mean age at first conception is 15 years.  Teen births increased 50% between 1980 and 2003 in Nigeria, mostly attributable to adolescents in the northern regions.

The above should not be interpreted as suggesting that the level of effort in providing contraceptive services be reduced. High quality, low cost reproductive health care services are an essential element of fertility planning. Both quality and quantity of contraceptive choices and services are in dire need of improvement throughout much of the developing world. And “stockouts” of certain methods are a problem in many countries. But access to family planning methods is not sufficient if men can prevent their partners from using them, if women don’t understand the relative safety of contraception compared with early and repeated childbearing, or if women feel they cannot take control of their own lives.

Many population planners measure progress on the basis of contraceptive prevalence rates. Use of effective family planning methods is critical, but will not result in population stabilization if desired family size is five, six or seven children.

Motivation to use family planning and to limit family size has been the key missing element in the strategy for population stabilization.  While the percentage of non-users of contraceptives has declined, various studies indicate that the actual number of adults not using contraceptives is greater than it was in 1960, a fact stemming from the enormous increase in world population over the past 50 years. Approximately 44% of the roughly 2.3 billion people of reproductive age who are married or in long-term unions currently use no modern method of contraception. This means there are about 1 billion adult non-users of contraceptive methods. It’s time to focus significant effort on motivating this group to use contraception for the purpose of achieving small family size.

In reality, there are about 600 million adults in marriages or long-term unions who are non-users of contraception specifically because they want additional children or as many children as possible. This group is more numerous than the 430 million men and women classified as having an unmet need for family planning, and they deserve a lot of attention via programs that role model the benefits of smaller family norms.

Nearly as important are the desired family sizes of the 1.3 billion users of contraception. In many countries, those who do use contraceptives still want more than enough children to replace themselves. Their goals, if achieved, will lead to continued high rates of growth.

Japan has achieved below-replacement-level fertility (1.5 children per woman) in a country where the oral contraceptive pill was illegal until recently. The United States achieved below-replacement-level fertility in the Great Depression, before the invention of most modern contraceptives. Similarly, fertility dropped to near-replacement level in the 19th century in Western Europe and the United States.

World Bank economist Lant Pritchett, in a 1994 article in Population and Development Review, concluded that family size desire is the overwhelming determinant of actual fertility rates. “The conclusion that follows from the evidence and analysis we presented,” he wrote, “is that because fertility is principally determined by the desire for children, contraceptive access (or cost) or family planning effort more generally is not a dominant, or typically even a major, factor in determining fertility differences.” According to Pritchett, desired levels of fertility account for roughly 90% of differences among countries in total fertility rates.

Reducing the demand for children—for instance, by giving girls more education—is vastly more important to reducing fertility than providing more contraceptives or family planning services.

 Bill Ryerson is founder and president of the Population Media Center (PMC). He has worked for more than 38 years in the fields of reproductive health and behavior change. To read about PMC and its exciting programs, go to <>

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Planet and Population by Sir David Attenborough

“Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion. Over twice as many—and every one of them needing space.”

“It is all getting too serious for fastidious niceties.”

Fifty years ago, a group of far-sighted people in this country [Great Britain] got together to warn the world of an impending disaster. Among them were a distinguished scientist, Sir Julian Huxley; a bird-loving painter, Peter Scott; an advertising executive, Guy Mountford; and a powerful and astonishingly effective civil servant, Max Nicholson. They were all, in addition to their individual professions, dedicated naturalists, fascinated by the natural world not just in this country but internationally.  And they noticed what few others had done—that all over the world, charismatic animals that were once numerous were beginning to disappear. The Arabian Oryx , which once had been widespread all over the peninsula had now been reduced to a few hundred. In Spain, there were less than a hundred imperial eagles. The Californian condor was down to about sixty. In Hawaii, a goose that had lived in flocks on the lava fields around the great volcanoes were reduced to fifty. The strange little rhinoceros that lived in the dwindling forests of Java—to about forty. Wherever you looked there were examples of animals whose populations were falling rapidly. This planet was in danger of losing a significant number of its inhabitants—both animals and plants.

Something had to be done. And that group determined to do it. They would need scientific advice to discover the causes of these impending disasters and to devise ways of slowing them and hopefully, stopping them.  They would have to raise the awareness of the threat to get the support of people everywhere;  and—like all such enterprises—they would need money to take practical action. They set about raising all three. Since the problem was an international one, they based themselves, not here, but in the heart of Europe in Switzerland. And they called the organisation they created the World Wildlife Fund.

The methods WWF used to save these endangered species were several.  Some, like the Hawaiian goose and the oryx, were taken into captivity in zoos, bred up into a significant population and then taken back to their original home and released.  Elsewhere, in Africa for example, great areas of unspoilt country were set aside as National Parks where the animals could be protected from poachers and encroaching human settlement.  In the Galapagos Islands and in the home of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, ways were found of ensuring that local people who also had claims on the land where such animals lived, were able to benefit financially from the creatures they were protecting by attracting visitors.  Eco-tourism was born.

The world awoke to conservation.  Millions—billions of dollars were raised.  And now fifty years on, conservationists who have worked so hard and with such foresight can justifiably congratulate themselves on having responded magnificently to the challenge.

Yet now, in spite of a great number of individual successes, the problem remains.  True, thanks to the vigour and wisdom of conservationists, no major charismatic species has yet disappeared.  Many are still trembling on the brink, but are still hanging on.  But overall, today there are more problems not less, more species at risk of disappearance than ever before. Why?

Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion. Over twice as many—and every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools and roads and airfields. A little of that space might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants have to themselves.

The impact of these extra millions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically occupy. Their industries have changed the chemical constituency of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

There have been prophets who have warned us of this impending disaster, of course.  One of the first was Thomas Malthus.  His surname – Malthus – leads some to think that he was some continental European savant, a German perhaps.  But he was not.  He was an Englishman, born in Guildford in Surrey in the middle of the eighteenth century.  His most important book, An Essay on the Principle of Population was published over two hundred years ago in 1798.  In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed ‘misery and vice’.  Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored—or at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ which greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced in any given area of arable land. But that great advance only delayed things. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still cannot foresee. But the fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth. There cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.

Many people would like to deny this.  They would like to believe in that oxymoron  ‘sustainable growth.’  Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy’s environmental advisor forty-five years ago said something about this.  ‘Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet,’ he said,’ is either mad – or an economist.’

The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. One and a half million a week.  A quarter of a million a day.  Ten thousand an hour.

In this country [England] population is projected to grow by ten million in the next twenty-two years.  That is equivalent to ten more Birminghams.  Not only that, but every one of us in this country consumes far more of the earth’s resources than an average African.

All these people, in this country and worldwide, rich or poor, need and deserve food, water, energy and space. Will they be able to get it?  I don’t know.  I hope so. But the Government’s Chief Scientist and the last President of the Royal Society have both referred to the approaching ‘perfect storm’ of population growth, climate change and peak oil production, leading inexorably to more and more insecurity in the supply of food, water and energy.

Consider food. Very few of us here, I suspect have ever experienced real hunger.  For animals, of course, it is a regular feature of their lives. The stoical desperation of the cheetah cubs whose mother failed in her last few attempts to kill prey for them and who consequently face starvation is very touching.  But that happens to human beings too.  All of us who have travelled in poor countries have met people for whom hunger is a daily background ache in their lives. There are about a billion such people today—that is four times as many as the entire human population of this planet a mere two thousand years ago at the time of Christ.

You may have seen the Government’s “Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming”.  It shows how hard it is to feed the seven billion of us who are alive today.  It lists the many obstacles that are already making this harder to achieve—soil erosion, salinization, the depletion of aquifers, over grazing, the spread of plant diseases as a result of globalisation, the absurd growing of food crops to turn into biofuels to feed motor cars instead of people—and so on. So it underlines how desperately difficult it is going to be to feed a population that is projected to stabilise in the range of eight to ten billion people by the year 2050. It recommends the widest possible range of measures across all disciplines to tackle this. And it makes a number of eminently sensible recommendations, including a second ‘green revolution’.

But surprisingly there are some things that the report does not say. It doesn’t state the obvious fact that it would be much easier to feed eight billion people than ten.  Nor does it suggest that the measures to achieve such a number—such as family planning and the education and empowerment of women—should be a central part of any program of active food security.  It doesn’t refer to the prescient statement forty years ago by Norman Borlaug, the Nobel  Laureate and father of the first Green Revolution, who produced a strain of high-yielding, short-stemmed, disease resistant wheat, that all he had done was to give us a ‘breathing space’ in which to stabilize our numbers. It anticipates that food prices may rise with oil prices and so on and makes it clear that this will affect poorest people worst and discusses various way to help them. But it doesn’t mention what every mother subsisting on the equivalent of a dollar a day already knows—that her children would be better fed if there were four of them around the table instead of ten. These are strange omissions.

And how can we ignore the chilling statistics on arable land? In 1960 there was half a hectare of good cropland per person in the worldenough to sustain a reasonable European diet.  Today, there is only 0.2 of a hectare each.  In China, it is only 0.1 of a hectare, because of their dramatic problems of soil degradation.

Another impressive Government report on biodiversity published this year, “Making Space for Nature in a Changing World”, is rather similar. It discusses all the rising pressure on wildlife in the United Kingdom, but it doesn’t mention our growing population as being one of them—which is particularly odd when you consider that England is already the most densely populated country in Europe.

Most bizarre of all was a recent report by a Royal Commission on the environmental impact of demographic change in this country which denied that population size was a problem at all—as though twenty million extra people more or less would have no real impact. Of course it is not our only or even our main environmental problem; but it is absurd to deny, as a multiplier of all the others, that it is a problem.

I suspect that you could read a score of reports by bodies concerned with global problems—and see that population is clearly one of the drivers that underlies all of them—and yet find no reference to this obvious fact in any of them.

Climate change tops the environmental agenda at present.  We all know that every additional person will need to use some carbon energy, if only firewood for cooking and will therefore create more carbon dioxide—though of course a rich person will produce vastly more than a poor one. Similarly, we can all see that every extra person is—or will be—an extra victim of climate change—though the poor will undoubtedly suffer more than the rich.  Yet not a word of it appeared in the voluminous documents emerging from the Copenhagen and Cancun Climate Summits.

Why this strange silence? I meet no one who privately disagrees that population growth is a problem. No oneexcept flat-eartherscan deny that the planet is finite. We can all see it in that beautiful picture of our earth taken from the Apollo mission. So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject. “It’s not quite nice, not PC, possibly even racist to mention it.” And this taboo doesn’t just inhibit politicians and civil servants who attend the big conferences. It even affects the people who claim to care most passionately about a sustainable and prosperous future for our children, the environmental and developmental  Non-Government Organisations. Their silence implies that their admirable goals can be achieved regardless of how many people there are in the world, even though they all know that they can’t. 

“The sooner we stabilise our numbers, the sooner we stop running up the ‘down’ escalator. Stop population increase—stop the escalator—and we have some chance of reaching the top—that is to say a decent life for all.”

I simply don’t understand it.  It is all getting too serious for such fastidious niceties. It remains an obvious and brutal fact that on a finite planet human population will quite definitely stop at some point. And that can only happen in one of two ways. It can happen sooner, by fewer human birthsin a word by contraception.  This is the humane way, the powerful option which allows all of us to deal with the problem, if we collectively choose to do so. The alternative is an increased death ratethe way which all other creatures must suffer, through famine or disease or predation. That translated into human terms means famine or disease or warover oil or water or food or minerals or grazing rights or just living space. There is, alas, no third alternative of indefinite growth.

The sooner we stabilise our numbers, the sooner we stop running up the  ‘down’ escalator.  Stop population increase—stop the escalator—and we have some chance of reaching the top—that is to say a decent life for all.

To do that requires several things. First and foremost it needs a much wider understanding of the problem and that will not happen while the absurd taboo on discussing it retains such a powerful grip on the minds of so many worthy and intelligent people. Then it needs a change in our culture so that while everyone retains the right to have as many children as they like, they understand that having large families means compounding the problems their children and everyone else’s children will face in the future.

It needs action by Governments.  In my view all countries should develop a population policy—some 70 countries already have them in one form or another—and give it priority.  The essential common factor is to make family planning and other reproductive health services freely available to every one and empower and encourage them to use it—though of course without any kind of coercion.

According to the Global Footprint Network there are already over a hundred countries whose combination of numbers and affluence have already pushed them past the sustainable level.  They include almost all developed countries. The UK is one of the worst.  There the aim should be to reduce over time both the consumption of natural resources per person and the number of people, while needless to say, using the best technology to help maintain living standards.  It is tragic that the only current population policies in developed countries are, perversely, attempting to increase their birth-rate in order to look after the growing number of old people. The notion of ever more old people needing ever more young people, who will in turn grow old and need ever more young people and so on ad infinitum, is an obvious ecological Ponzi scheme.

I am not an economist, nor a sociologist nor a politician, and it is their disciplines that should provide the solutions. I am a naturalist. But being one means that I do know something of the factors that keep populations of different species of animals within bounds. I am aware that every pair of blue tits nesting in my garden is able to lay over twenty eggs a year but as a result of predation or lack of food, only one or two will, at best, survive.  I have seen how lions ravage the hundreds of wildebeest fawns that are born each year on the plains of Africa. I have seen how increasing populations of elephants can devastate their environment until, one year when the rains fail on the already over-grazed land, they die in hundreds.

But we are human beings. We have ways of escaping such brutalities. We have medicines that prevent our children from dying of disease. We have developed ways of growing increasing amounts of food. That has been a huge and continuing advance that started several thousand years ago, a consequence of our intelligence, our increasing skills and our ability to look ahead.  But none of these great achievements will be of any avail if we do not control our numbers.

And we can do so. Wherever women have the vote, wherever they are literate, and have the medical facilities to control the number of children they bear, the birth rate falls.  All those civilised conditions exist in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The total fertility rate there in 2007 was 1.7 births per woman.  In India as a whole it is 2.8 per woman.  In Thailand in 2010, it was 1.8 per woman, similar to that in Kerala.  But compare that with the Catholic Philippines where it is 3.3.

Here and there, at last, there are signs of a recognition of the problem.  The Save the Children Fund mentioned it in their last report [printed in Population Press, vol. 16, #3].

But what can each of us do—you and I?  Well, there is just one thing that I would ask.  Break the taboo, in private and in public—as best you can, as you judge right. Until it is broken there is no hope of the action we need.  Wherever and whenever we speak of the environmentadd a few words to ensure that the population element is not ignored.  If you are a member of a relevant NGO, invite them to acknowledge it.  If you belong to a Church—and especially if you are a Catholic because its doctrine on contraception is a major factor in this problem—suggest they consider the ethical issues involved.  I see the Anglican bishops in Australia have dared to do so. If you have contacts in Government, ask why the growth of our population, which affects every Department, is yet no one’s responsibility.  Big empty Australia has appointed a Sustainable Population Minister so why can’t small crowded Britain [or large crowded USA]?

Make a list of all the environmental and social problems that today afflict us and our poor battered planetnot just the extinction of animals and plants that fifty years ago was the first signs of impending global disaster, but traffic congestion, oil prices, pressure on health services, the growth of mega-cities, migration patterns, immigration policies, unemployment, the loss of arable land, desertification, famine, increasingly violent weather, the acidification of the oceans, the collapse of fish stocks, rising sea temperatures, the loss of rain forests. The list goes on and on. But they all share an underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, environmental as well as social,  becomes more difficultand ultimately impossibleto solve with ever more people.

 This speech was given by broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough at the 2011 RSA President’s Lecture,  March 10, 2011. The event was chaired by His Royal Highness, Prince Phillip, The Duke of Edinburgh.  Attenborough is one of the world’s pre-eminent  naturalists.  His career as the respected face and voice of natural history programs has endured for more than 50 years.  To see the lecture, go to

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