Large Population of Scientists Thinks There Are Too Many of the Rest of Us

By | November 7, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. November 8 (C-Fam) Elite scientists said this week that overpopulation is a top reason for climate change and our numbers should be reduced. In a statement by  11,000 scientists, population control was one of six priority areas.

The world’s population “must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity,” the statement said.

The inclusion of this issue is a step into “politically fraught territory,” according to Bloomberg.  This is not to say that its other recommendations involving food, energy, and economic policies are politically neutral. When France increased its fuel taxes last year, mass demonstrations resulted.  But even within a constellation of potentially divisive policies, population control remains in a class of its own.

The scientists’ statement on population references “proven and effective policies that strengthen human rights while lowering fertility rates and lessening the impacts of population growth.” Specifically, they call on the global community to “make family-planning services available to all people, remove barriers to their access, and achieve full gender equity,” emphasizing education for girls.

In light of the rhetoric—and policies—of the population control movement in decades past, this recent statement is comparatively tame.  Nevertheless, the scars left by the population control era have not been forgotten, particularly in countries like China, where the devastation wrought by its one-child policy is still coming to light.

For those who have advocated fertility reduction for many years, the surge of attention to climate change comes as a welcome opportunity.  Demographer and family planning advocate John Bongaarts of the Population Council recently co-authored an article claiming that “improving access to effective contraception” could mitigate climate change, despite being thus far “largely ignored by the international climate community.”

Bongaarts acknowledged that lack of access is not the only reason women and couples are not using contraception, and correctly points out that concern about heath risks and side effects of contraceptives are often the dominant reason for non-use.  As for other “obstacles,” such as traditional social norms, he suggests they might be “modified by appropriate media campaigns via print, radio or television.”

While advocating for population policies as a solution to climate change is still regarded as politically risky, a growing population of people are taking up the cause, albeit carefully.  Increasing use of contraceptives is framed as expanding access to it, ignoring the fact that lack of access accounts for a negligible percentage of current non-use.  Similarly, provision of family planning services is always framed as non-coercive and voluntary.

Yet important questions remain as yet unasked.  The question of whether additional funding for non-coercive family planning access would, as argued, increase its uptake in a significant way, has largely been ignored. Experts have argued that more funding will not increase use, and say that the market already saturated.  Also important is the relationship between fertility and consumption of resources; per capita environmental impact based on carbon is far lower in regions with high fertility, such as sub-Saharan Africa, than in regions with low or declining fertility, such as western Europe.

Finally, as the demonstrations in France reveal, when policies envisioned by the elite and enacted by the powerful are most burdensome to ordinary people and families, a backlash can follow.  The continuing sentiment that population control is a political third-rail, despite recent attempts at rehabilitation, suggests that policies targeting fertility will be wildly unpopular among a far larger group of people than 11,000 scientists.