I’m an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation. Here’s why.

26 September 2017
By David Roberts for Vox News

Elizabeth Kolbert and David Roberts: Covering Catastrophe

When facts don't mean anything and people don't trust science, what is it like to spend your time covering climate change? Is it covered enough in the media? Is it covered well? Join us when we go live to talk to Elizabeth Kolbert from the The New Yorker and David Roberts from Vox about the issues of covering climate change.

Posted by Climate One on Friday, September 22, 2017

I did an event with environmental journalist (and personal hero) Elizabeth Kolbert late last week, in which we discussed various matters related to journalism and climate change. Subsequently, one of the attendees wrote and asked why I hadn’t talked about population. Isn’t overpopulation the real root of our environmental ills?

Anyone who’s ever given a talk on an environmental subject knows that the population question is a near-inevitability (second only to the nuclear question). I used to get asked about it constantly when I wrote for Grist — less now, but still fairly regularly.

I thought I would explain, once and for all, why I hardly ever talk about population, and why I’m unlikely to in the future.


Math confirms that population is indeed a factor in environmental impact

Human impact on the natural environment is summed up in a simple formula:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

All are rising. (Bill Gates has a slightly more complicated formula related to carbon dioxide, but P is a variable in his too.)

The current global population has crossed 7.5 billion and is heading upward. The latest UN projections have it hitting 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Average fertility rate will decrease, but that effect will be overwhelmed by the absolute numbers. (There are many arguments out there that UN is overestimating population growth, but let’s stick with their numbers for this post.)

The UN expects over half the growth out to 2100 to be concentrated in just nine countries, listed here in order of their expected contribution:

India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda, and Indonesia.

Most of those people will be fairly poor (by Western standards, though hopefully less so than their forbearers), which means their per-capita consumption of resources will be fairly low. Nonetheless, cumulatively, adding 2.3 billion people by 2050 amounts to enormous additional resource use and pollution (including greenhouse gases).

Mitigating some substantial percentage of that population growth would be one way to better environmental conditions in 2050. It would also have more impact than virtually any other climate policy. (More on that later.)

However. That human numbers are, axiomatically, part of the story of human impact does not mean that human numbers have to take center stage. Talking about population growth is morally and politically fraught, but the best ways of tackling it (like, say, educating girls) don’t necessitate talking about it at all.

Tackling population growth can be done without the enormous, unnecessary risks involved in talking about population growth.

Population’s unsavory associations

When political movements or leaders adopt population control as a central concern … let’s just say it never goes well. In practice, where you find concern over “population,” you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost always, ahem, particular populations that need reducing.

Eugenical Sterilization Map of the US, 1935 (PBS)

History is replete with examples, but perhaps the most germane recent episode was less than 20 years ago, at the Sierra Club, which was riven by divisions over immigration. A group of grassroots members, with some help from powerful funders, attempted to take over the national organization.

These members advocated sharply restricting immigration, saying the US should be reducing rather than increasing its population. Their contention is that the country’s open immigration policies are hurting the environment by bringing in poor immigrants and making them richer, thus increasing their environmental impact. Of course, they swore up and down that xenophobia had nothing to do with it.

The Sierra Club won that fight, and the “green anti-immigrant” movement has mostly been driven to the fringes, but conservative media is still getting ratings out of it. If you can stomach it, watch this entire segment with Tucker Carlson of Fox News — it hits all the usual notes, culminating in an interview with some professor who wrote a book about reducing immigration for environmental reasons.


I don’t doubt that it’s possible to be concerned about the environmental stresses population brings without any racism or xenophobia — I’ve met many people who fit that description, and there were well-meaning (if quite mistaken) population-focused groups in the ’70s and ’80s — but in terms of public discussion and advocacy, anyone explicitly expressing that concern starts out behind the eight ball. The mere mention of “population” raises all sorts of ugly historical associations.

Public health groups have largely cottoned to this. Even the ones that have “population” in the name focus on family planning rather than population as such. They’ve figured out something important — something not all greens have figured out — which is that the best ways to address population don’t necessarily involve talking about it at all.

So what are those ways?

There are two ways of looking at the problem of growing population on a finite planet. Depending on which you think is most important, there are different ways to address it, none of which require discussing population.

Female empowerment is the most effective carbon mitigation strategy

The first way to look at population is as a pure numbers game. More people means more consumers and more emitters, so the thing to do is slow the rise of population. Specifically, since most of the new people are going to come from poor or developing countries, the question is specifically how to slow population growth there.

Luckily, we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose, and education of girls, giving them access to income opportunities outside the home. We know that women, given the resources and the choice, will opt for smaller families.

Family planning: fewer, better cared for. (Drawdown)

Those are the two most powerful levers to bend the population curve. They are also, in and of themselves, an enormously powerful climate policy. When Paul Hawken and his team investigated and ranked carbon-reduction solutions for their Drawdown project, they found that the combination of the two (call it the female-empowerment package) carried the most potential to reduce greenhouse gases later this century, out of any solution. (Together they could prevent 120 gigatons of GHGs by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind combined.)

So if you are concerned about the growth in population, make yourself a champion of female empowerment in the developing world. You will be contributing to the most effective solution to the problem without any of the moral baggage.

And next time you’re at an environmental event, maybe instead of asking the population question, ask the female empowerment question. Why aren’t climate hawks talking about it more? They should be!

Some population units consume and emit more than others

If your concern is the creation of new consumers and emitters, your gaze should be drawn to those who will consume and emit the most, i.e., the wealthy.


One way to prevent the creation of new high-consumers would be to persuade the wealthy to have fewer babies and to close off the borders of wealthy countries, preventing low-consumers from immigrating and becoming high-consumers. You could try, in short, to engineer population decline in wealthy countries.

That seems … fraught.

For one thing, fertility tends to decline with wealth anyway. For another, any targeted attempt to engineer population decline is going to run into an unholy thicket of moral and political resistance.

Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth. You could do that by, for instance, taxing the shit out of wealthy people.

If you approached the problem that way, under the banner of reducing global income inequality, you would find many allies. Income inequality is a top-line concern of people and organizations all over the world, even some conservatives these days.

Reducing high-end consumption could have an enormous short-term impact on carbon emissions, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson is always saying. Shifting wealth within populations — reducing the number of very wealthy and the number in poverty — can have as much carbon impact as reducing overall population.

So maybe, at the next environmental event, you could ask the income inequality question rather than the population question.

There’s much downside and not much upside to talking about population

So that, for the record, is why I hardly ever talk or write about population. (I will now send all future askers of the population question to this post.) It is high risk — very, very easy to step on moral landmines in that territory — with little reward.

And where talk of population control is rarely popular (for good reason), female empowerment and greater equality are a) goals shared by powerful preexisting coalitions, b) replete with ancillary benefits beyond the environmental, and c) unquestionably righteous.

So why focus on the former when the latter gets you all the same advantages with none of the blowback? That’s how I figure it anyway.

Read the Original article HERE.


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  3. Has the journalist given sufficient thought to the fact that the poor are always seeking to improve their quality of life and wealth given half a chance, which is why they migrate, also as refugees to rich countries.
    Now if you look at what happens with most migrants and even refugees they tend to be very driven in their new found land of opportunity, which leads to considerably greater consumption on their part.
    Given the above what happens in poor countries when women have less children because they are better informed about family planning etc. One can only assume that they find they and their children are more able to consume.
    No one would question the advancement and protection of women, but I fail to see any real associated environmental advances.

  4. I have never understood how the Green Party in Australia can have such conflicting views. On the one hand, they supposedly care about the environment and want to protect it from destruction. On the other hand, they want to let large numbers of people into Australia. It doesn’t make sense. How can this result in anything but environmental destruction. Perhaps they should be retitled “The Population Growth Party”. I would be happy if someone could explain the logic in this as I just don’t get it.

  5. Most people seem to accept now that society is nothing more than a scale and that the world is nothing more than a scale swaying in relation to the gold (now information) on the scale creating a self-propelling movement. Why do we say: more people means more consumers? Can they not be producers! That doesn’t have to mean slavery, if we didn’t have a society which considered its primary modus operandi the creation of (useless) information we could actually begin to produces things which had some real worth: Cultural products. If we actually allowed people to reach their full potential rather than educating them to be merely trained Gorillas as Gramsci argued, we wouldn’t have gorillas trained by gorillas only capable of habitually repeating the same motion for rewards which is what we have at universities today.

    We can have a discussion about immigration which can appeal to higher values while simultaneously challenging the legitimacy of the richest few by discussing the legitimacy of the economic organisation as a whole. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that we are growing exponentially; we should recognise that infinite growth is built into economic theory! It is absolutely foundational to the workings of the ‘dead scale’. More people always need to be created to go into it, to create wealth through material exploitation which needs more consumers. The problem is that it also has built into it that human are merely self-serving, that greed is good etc, which less people to consume and that the real value, exchange value, is more important than use value. Thus, the most meaningful gift becomes something that is useless so as to maintain the potential for exchange. The more you consume in a global market, the more power centralizes and along with that wealth. So people are less capable to consume as wealth centralises unless the price of things drop. That means more exploitation in the peripheries of the global economic system, a periphery that is every expanding and likely to include Australia in the near future, becomes more sever as money centralizes on a global scale. Thus, Australians could soon be on the wrong side of refugee discourse in the future.

    To talk about these problems as being interlinked means that we must talk about scaled economies: economies build into communities. Spatially defined economies do not need to be considered on identity lines, they are based on the welfare of the whole community. The great vision of course is to think about the Earth not as a scale but as a community.

  6. Couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the ration ale of this journalist. I’ve yet to know of an environmental journalist who takes over population as seriously as climate change.

    Another flaw I can pick in the journo’s logic: even a small increase in first world populations (like in Australia) will have huge impacts, all the more why we need to discuss population.

  7. So why do people want to come to countries like Australia then? Ah, we have fewer people than most of the rest of the world, perhaps more room to move then. We do also have relatively more resources, like land, water, minerals compared to our smallish population.

    To ignore the problem is the greatest folly there is, as if things will just mend by themselves or something. If that were true, then we should stop talking about climate change and global poverty too!

    It isn’t all just about pollution and climate change either, how about just the water we will need to grow the food? Never mind all the arable land used by expanding cities.

    Chiefly, I’m only concerned with Australia, we want to keep it from becoming like the countries people seek to escape! We must control our population growth in order to do that. I’m always amazed at how blatantly some well meaning environmentalists overlook that. For one to sip your lattes in inner urban Australia, we can’t be like most of the poorer and over crowded parts of the world, like Bangladesh for instance.

    Some in Australia suggest that if we reduced our net migration things would get worse here! Really! Wow, when I was young we had less than half our current population, but things seemed better back then! So those who think bigger intakes are better, then why not double or triple our current intake? The only net beneficiaries are property developers, so we should all get the next generation into that (forget law or medicine).

    As for taxing the rich to pay for it all: who does one call rich? It’s all relative. The rich will simply (and already do) hide their wealth in overseas havens, which will always exist. With around 200 nations the world over, there will always be at least one that won’t comply for that to stay the case. It’s self intoxicating fantasy to hope for otherwise.

    Finally, we now have 50 persons per square km, which leaves little room for environmental disasters let alone more people to support, as well have save wildernesses and forests for wildlife. A better footprint would be under 30 persons per square km, it allows for “blowouts” as well as simply easing pressure on our planet. At the moment we have little room for such events without majorly impacting humanity negatively.

  8. Agree I have had these thoughts for many years and my own children by their own choice have decided not to have children which I support and applaud. We simply can’t keep increasing population. Older people who want to get off the planet when they get tired of life and old age should be allowed to voluntarily euthenase themselves but we can’t even do that in this retarded country because religion gets in the way and they make too much money from suffering people in their hospices and old age care homes. Religion has always dictated that only their god can give or take life and as well the church doesn’t like contraception. Religion is the greatest fraud ever inflicted on mankind and responsible for much misery. Hopefully habitatimg Mars will help but that also doesn’t mean we can just keep exploding the population on earth. I think everyone should actually be given a check out date personally with no exceptions and realise that a human life span can only be say 70 or whatever age is determined correct to control population explosion otherwise there will be a bloodbath. Also I think that people should have to apply for a licence to have children and only if you can demonstrate that you have the means to raise children well should you be allowed to do so. Children are too precious and vulnerable and some people simply should not be allowed to have them.

  9. “The rich get richer and the poor have children”.
    So said my mother when I was a boy.
    I am now in my seventies.

    Visit a supermarket in any country town and discretely observe the pram pushers.

  10. “So why focus on the former when the latter gets you all the same advantages with none of the blowback?”

    Because if you are dealing with an issue that requires empirical analysis, critical review and evidence based-analysis being politically correct and fearful of debate sends the issue further down the rabbit hole. It is also a troubling ethic for a journalist to work by.

    The fact that there are genuine bigots and racist agendas should make no difference to the need to objectively describe the issues at stake.

    I’m horrified by the rationale given in this article for not contributing to a wider discourse concerning population growth. My reading of this is that writer has decided to self-censor. However, there are a mass of ethical issues that badly need to be discussed, not abandoned out of fear that there may be blowback and messenger shooting. Many of these questions should be asked and people should be confronted with them. That’s how democracy works – or should work.

    Clearly the MSM have avoided a wider analysis of this issue and have taken fright lest they be labelled as people with a political and bigoted agenda.

    True, the 10% produce some 50% of the CO2 emissions. Affluence is correlated with consumption. But the moral question is what carrying capacity for humanity that the planet has – at what cost and what standard of living? Overall, what ecological footprint should our species have collectively? How moral is it for us to promote our own populations at the expense of others?

    How do we determine these things if you refuse to ask the questions?

    Your decision is to run from the reality that these issues are hard. it’s because they are difficult that good journalism is required.

    To unilaterally give preference to being selective and addressing only politically correct and popular notions the writer has in effect decided that the role of the environmental Journalist is to make ethical decisions on behalf of the reader. For what is the role of a journalist? Is it to provide their opinion or a factual basis for others to make decisions?

    Running from the difficult questions and matters you touch on for the sake of self interest is nothing to be proud of. Unfortunately you quite adequately describe the reason why journalism is failing to inform and stimulate debate in this area.

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