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Population: the concern that dare not speak its name

Why population easing is not just dismissed by many, but lambasted as somehow anti-humanist; and what advocacy and actions can do about that

The consequences of continuous population swelling is considered, at best, a topic about which ‘honest people can disagree,’ and at worst, radioactive.  That puzzles those who understand the math, think to scale, and assimilate the various environmental, ecological, economic, and political stresses that are mounting with population – of which climate breakdown is the most acute.  The ideal human population size, vis-à-vis the Earth’s carrying capacity, and considering other factors like biodiversity and adequate and fair consumption levels, is a matter of genuine debate; but the fact that population growth on a finite world has to stop somewhere should be beyond debate.  Moreover, since much of the growth in carbon emissions owes to simple population growth (in addition to rising per-capita energy use), the climate hostility that is accelerating before our eyes imposes urgency.  What then can be done to make this less of a fraught subject, and more a rational discussion on how to best create conditions in which our humane values and aspirations for a better life for all can thrive?

Global population growth may be slowing in the sense of declining fertility rate (the average number of children born per woman over her lifetime) but that still allows the annual population-growth increment to increase in absolute terms, because of the exponential growth function plus demographic momentum – the large cohort just entering reproductive age.  In recent years, growth in absolute terms has been about 80 million people per year.  That’s a whole new country the size of Germany, whose people will need food, water, shelter, energy, education, health care, jobs, and a social setting, and all the materials that will have to go into all that.  Next year, another one.  This is why it is a source of bafflement to many that the population issue is not headline news, a political priority, and a free-speech zone.  If indefinite population growth is a problem, then population growth has to stop somewhere; indeed humanity’s current number of 8 billion may well already be untenable.

Here is a non-expert, non-exhaustive set of observed reasons why population growth is nearly a taboo subject, even among those best placed to see its consequences.

  • A history of racism: well-meaning people believe that concerns about overpopulation have their historical origins in racist fears of being overrun by other races.  In this view, such fears are not about global population, but about changing relative population sizes.  Fears in putative target countries of such racist population-control ideas may stiffen pronatalism and anti-contraception there.
  • Aversion to blaming poor countries: some see this asa less malign variant of the above, in which wealthy countries (which for complex reasons have mostly reduced fertility to replacement level or below) implicitly impugn poorer countries for their fertility.
  • A perceived history of coercive birth control:  even though modern history has only two clear examples of coercive birth-control or family-planning regimes – India briefly in the 1970s, and China for a longer period[1] – there seems to be a belief that emphasizing the urgency of slowing and possibly reversing global population swelling equates to advocating, or might encourage, mass coercive measures.  (Such beliefs might be strengthened by awareness that, apart from the cases of China and India, there have been even more unsavory examples in many countries, including self-styled democracies, of forced sterilization or similar measures imposed on minorities or the vulnerable.)
  • Aversion to patriarchy: there may be a perceived alignment between consideration of population measures and ideology of patriarchy or male domination – males making decisions for females.
  • Religion:  some major religions are not just pro-natalist but anti-contraception.  Well-meaning people may fear to be seen to criticize established religions.
  • Discomfort with government or social imposition on personal choices – a sense that having as many (or as few) children as one wants is an individual right, not to be infringed by government or society.
  • Belief in economic fallacies, such as the circular argument that caring and providing for the retired and elderly requires an ever-swelling cohort of working-age people. 
  • Complacency in view of fertility trends: fertility has been falling in most countries for some decades, and is below replacement level in many, which leads some people to believe that the problem is solving itself, despite the fact that a drop from extremely high to moderately high fertility in large countries still entails massive, bursting growth.  The elasticity in agricultural production that the Green Revolution afforded (at the cost of making it more chemical- and fossil-fuel-intensive) added to resource complacency.
  • Deflection: since population swelling is clearly not the sole cause of climate change, other ecological damage, or resource stresses (even though it is arguably a principal cause), people feel entitled or even obliged to deflect the issue.  Indeed, since overconsumption seems more impeachable than fertility – hearkening as it does to gluttony – the inclination may be to point to it instead.
  • Confusion about how social justice applies to population questions: many presume that social justice requires, among many other things, the more powerful to abstain from trying to influence the fertility of the less powerful, even where population explosion is clearly exacerbating the latter’s poverty and obstructing quality of life, rights and freedom of choice.  But freedom of choice requires the means for choice and also the information to make informed choices.

All these have combined to make Malthusianism a synonym for misanthropy and racism – to make overpopulation the worry that dare not speak its name.

We can’t explore all of this in one essay, so I want to focus on a few.  How do we divorce overpopulation concerns from these taints, and unite like-minded people into a full-throated demand that governments and civic institutions encourage family planning and make it available worldwide, immediately and especially where it is most needed? [2]

Risk of coercion

Undiluted pronatalism is as deleterious a form of coercion as advocacy for family planning: unwanted pregnancies are life-changing events.[3]  Inadequacy of family-planning provision and information, even if stemming from misprioritization or neglect not outright pronatalism, has the same effect.  To let one very widespread (albeit often passive) form of coercion persist for fear of engendering another kind is misguided.

Furthermore, coercion is unlikely because it’s now clear that it’s unnecessary: “Nations as culturally and politically diverse as Bangladesh and Brazil, Columbia and Cuba, Thailand and Tunisia, and regions such as Kerala in India, have halved their fertility rates in about the same time as China, yet without a coercive one-child policy.”[4]  “…[H]igh fertility is not actually due to women’s desire for more children[:] if women are given freedom to control fertility via family planning, then fertility can decline.”[5]

History of racism

One typical assertion: “…where you find concern over ‘population,’ you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings.”[6]  But where is the evidence that sober, evidence-based critiques of population laxity trace back to racism?  Certainly one can find examples, especially in the past, of racists encouraging population control of other ‘races’; and this is so unconscionable that the possibility that it influences current population debate cannot be lightly dismissed.  On the other hand, racists have espoused many things at various points in time.  If you looked hard enough, you could probably find a racist critique of gas-guzzling cars.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t come to an independent conclusion about such cars. 

Those who perceive ulterior racist motives in advocacy for population stability and easing in poor (typically non-Western) countries should consider that encouraging unbridled population growth therein would be a more effectively malign way to weaken and derail those countries and societies.


Here there are two points to make: whether it is culturally acceptable to criticize an established religion’s social doctrines, and whether such doctrines are in fact a major factor. 

Tackling the second point first, a 2016 study in Northern Ireland[7] found that there is a difference in fertility rate between its Catholic and Protestant communities, though less than one might have expected.  But they found a sharper difference between current and lapsed adherents – of each denomination!  In other words, former Protestants were likely to have fewer children than current Protestants, even more sharply than former vs. current Catholics.  Fertility among former adherents of both denominations, Protestants and Catholics, was similar, and converging over the eleven years of data (1997-2007).  So the fertility change seems to track personal religiosity, more than the denomination’s doctrine or (possibly consequent) societal pressures. 

Other evidence also shows that the Catholic Church’s notorious stance against contraception has for some time had less effect than one might have assumed.  “[T]here has been a substantial decline in Catholic fertility despite extremely limited doctrinal change; Italy has been classed as having ‘lowest-low fertility’…in the USA Catholic and non-Catholic fertility was virtually identical by the 1970s…Doctrinal differences are substantial but appear to have limited effects on fertility in many cases.”[8]   Also: in Latin America and the Caribbean – alongside eastern and southeast Asia, Europe and North America, Australia and New Zealand – fertility rate as of 2020 is now below replacement level.[9]  Since Latin America is heavily Catholic, this suggests that religious doctrine per se does not have a decisive effect on societal fertility.  Moreover, Iran has since 1988 practiced widespread and effective family planning, following its religious authorities’ finding that family planning does not conflict with religious doctrine.[10]  Authorities of the same religion in some other countries reach an opposite conclusion.  (Exchange visits between religious authorities of such countries and those of Iran suggest themselves as a good idea.)  So religious doctrine may not be an exogenous and decisive factor, but more the result of interplay with socio-cultural factors, which also affect how people conform to such doctrine.  It therefore follows that trying to influence both – doctrines, and people’s conformance thereto – is fair game.

Rich and poor countries; the right to develop; social and individual justice

Advocating voluntary population easing, including in poor societies, doesn’t derogate and in fact reinforces their option and right to ‘develop’ economically.  The fact that rich countries have already spent most of the world’s carbon budget on themselves does not mean that population swelling in poor countries is carbon-neutral:

“Wealth is often used as a surrogate for environmental impact. While there is certainly a correlation between incomes and greenhouse gas emissions, many other types of environmental impact, including habitat loss, soil degradation and pollution, are exacerbated by poverty. The ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ are commonly referred to in a binary sense, as perpetrators and victims of environmental damage. Our aim here is to point out that they have different types of environmental impact. Population growth not only multiplies the impacts of individual behaviours, it often forces more impactful behaviours. Rapid population increase in the developing world (for example in Madagascar) has triggered massive deforestation and species extinction (52) as well as degradation of the soils and waterways on which their livelihoods depend (80). Population growth today in the developing world does not assist the poor to live a ‘better’, healthy, more sustainable life.”[11]

So “the spiral of silence about unsustainable population growth can be broken by pointing out it stops the poor from escaping poverty and ecological degradation.”[12]  The ‘right to develop’ would be best aided by poorer countries pursuing population easing, even in the absence of climate breakdown.  At the same time, rich countries should feel obliged to aim for particularly steep population easing, because of their weighty per-capita carbon footprints.

Economic fallacies

The idea that you need an indefinitely expanding population to support a consequently expanding elderly population is circular, indeed perhaps an outright pyramid scheme.  Population Balance puts it well: “1) newborns, like seniors, require social support…2) a large labor force today is a large senior population in a few decades.”[13]  Besides, per-capita growth comparisons show that elders’ difficulty in having enough money to retire traces directly to political decisions, or at least passivity, about income distribution, not demographic pressure.[14]

More broadly, ecological economists have long pointed out that ‘growthism’ in general – the presumption that economies must perpetually grow (as customarily measured) if individual and societal aspirations are to be met – is a fallacy.[15]  Some go further and perceive wealth-seeking agendas, for the many economic sectors for which population swelling is an easy profit opportunity.

Not all those who should know better act like they do

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, greeted the news of the world’s population surpassing 8 billion a few months ago with an optimistic spin and apparent equanimity about population swelling: “’A world of 8 billion is a milestone for humanity – the result of longer lifespans, reductions in poverty, and declining maternal and childhood mortality. Yet, focusing on numbers alone distracts us from the real challenge we face: securing a world in which progress can be enjoyed equally and sustainably,’ said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem.”[16]  This missed an opportunity to underline that population swelling has to stop somewhere, and indeed that it probably makes such ‘progress’ impossible.  No one is suggesting focusing on ‘numbers alone’ – but letting numbers slide guarantees failure.

The UN’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change / IPCC also has found it prudent to elide the population issue, to the extent of effectively falsifying its public-facing report.  Its full, 2,707-page report for 2022 rightly mentions population growth alongside per-capita GDP as the two key drivers of emissions growth.  But its shorter Summary for Policymakers excises this forthright statement.  “We are thus left in the strange situation where the chief public-facing document from the IPCC’s new mitigation report, the one that most people will see, does not clearly identify the fundamental drivers of global climate change. This despite the fact that this important information is contained in the full report the summary is supposed to be summarizing.”[17]

(It does not help that some mainstream publications printed tendentious and arguably ignorant rejoicing at this IPCC self-censorship, for example: “The last IPCC summary on solutions in 2014 labelled population growth as one of ‘the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.’ Such dangerous misunderstandings are now gone. Seven years on, these old ‘blame the poor’ arguments increasingly seem like a relic of a previous age.”[18])

UNFPA and the IPCC are not the only ones who should know better.  Among demographers, who are the experts about population trends, a surprising part fail to see the key role of population in emissions, and indeed seem nonchalant about the problem of indefinite population increase.  An on-line survey among the members of the European Association for Population Studies in 2020 found that only 36% of the respondents agreed, and 34% disagreed, with the statement “Reducing the global population is a crucial step in reducing global emissions of CO2.”  Fully 45% of the responding demographers disagreed with the statement “The current size of the world population exceeds the carrying capacity of the earth,” and only 31% agree; “in other words, close to half of our group of demographers is not convinced that the global population size matters.”[19] 

Even ecological economists could do better: “Given the interest in population taken by early ecological economists (e.g., Daly[[20]]), one might think that ecological economics would consistently foreground population. However, many streams of ecological economics today avoid population entirely…”[21]  

Perhaps this owes tacitly to the fact that practitioners of both professions, demography and ecological economics, are concentrated in the ‘West’ or ‘Global North,’ and thus are reticent about interpretations that may seem to blame less privileged parts of the world.

Some conclusions

Expert opinion is unequivocal: “The Second World Scientists Warning to Humanity [13], signed by 21,000 scientists, states: ‘We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.’”[22]

There’s no rational or cultural reason not to talk about overpopulation.  It is no more motivated by racism than any other societal or political critique.  If we downplay the disadvantages of continuous population swelling and dangers of overpopulation, we do a disservice to the vulnerable people whose welfare we presumably want to safeguard.  To thus downplay for fear of aligning with racism is well-meaning hypersensitivity.  Universal availability of family planning will allow people to realize their individual and societal rights much more than it risks infringing on the right to bear children.

On a rhetorical level, labels count.  ‘Growth’ has benign connotations: we want our children to grow, and our vegetables.  So let us start referring to population swelling, or explosion, or bloating; and its opposite as population easing or stabilizing.  And let’s frame it as good news: it seems a fair presumption that in childbearing, as in many things, most people want quality not quantity.

Those who treat Malthusianism as radioactive should realize that the best way to avoid deadly Malthusian competition and strife among peoples is to ease population to the point where, combined with technological advances, adoption of ‘less is more’ lifestyles, and ecosystem restoration, competition is unnecessary.  It’s increasingly clear that the alternative is a life for us and any in the future that will hearken to another philosopher, Hobbes – he who coined the term “nasty, brutish, and short.”

[1] Bongaarts J, O’Neill BC. “Global warming policy: Is population left out in the cold?” Science. 2018 Aug 17;361(6403):650-652. doi: 10.1126/science.aat8680. PMID: 30115798, p. 652.

[2] To further draw the boundaries of this essay, we suppose that counter-productive mindsets like anthropocentrism – “the view that other species and the rest of nature are just resources for human beings to use as we choose, with no independent intrinsic value” – are misguided and wrong to a much greater degree than the beliefs listed above, and so this essay does not address them.  Nor do we explore individual psychological phenomena like denial.  We note that pronatalism could well have its roots in evolutionary psychology.

[3] Among several articles making this point is: Bongaarts, J., & Sinding, S. W. (2009). “A Response to Critics of Family Planning Programs.” International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 35(1), 39–44.

[4] Guillebaud J. “Voluntary family planning to minimise and mitigate climate change.” BMJ 2016; 353 :i2102 doi:10.1136/bmj.i2102, p. 2.

[5] Washington, Haydn, and Helen Kopnina. 2022. “Discussing the Silence and Denial around Population Growth and Its Environmental Impact. How Do We Find Ways Forward?” World 3, no. 4: 1009-1027., p. 1015.

[6] Roberts, D. “I’m an Environmental Journalist, but I Never Write about Overpopulation. Here’s Why.” Vox, 29 November 2018.  Cited in Washington & Kopnina, p. 1017.

[7] McGregor P, McKee P. “Religion and Fertility in Contemporary Northern Ireland.” Eur J Popul. 2016;32(4):599-622. doi: 10.1007/s10680-016-9399-8. Epub 2016 Sep 28. PMID: 27795601; PMCID: PMC5056953.

[8] McGregor & McKee, p. 602.

[9] Sciubba, Jennifer D. (2022) 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World. W. W. Norton & Company.  Cited in Josie Glausiusz, “Global population is crashing, soaring and moving” (book review)

[10] Dodson, J.C., Dérer, P., Cafaro, P., & Götmark, F. (2020) “Population growth and climate change: Addressing the overlooked threat multiplier.” The Science of the total environment, 748, 141346, p. 4.

[11] Washington & Kopnina, p. 1014.

[12] Washington & Kopnina, p. 1015.


[14] Baker, Dean 10 January 2023 “Contrary to the NYT, the Problem in An Aging Society is Income Distribution.”

[15] Daly, H. Steady State Economics. Island Press: Washington, DC, USA, 1991.


[17] Philip Cafaro, “Population in the IPCC’s new mitigation report,” 12 April 2022,

[18] Simon Lewis, “Scientists have just told us how to solve the climate crisis – will the world listen?” 06 April 2022,

[19] van Dalen HP, Henkens K. Population and Climate Change: Consensus and Dissensus among Demographers. Eur J Popul. 2021 Mar 25;37(3):551-567. doi: 10.1007/s10680-021-09580-6. PMID: 33785976; PMCID: PMC7993440.

[20] Daly 1991, cited above.

[21] Washington & Kopnina, pp. 1012-1013.

[22] Washington & Kopnina, p. 1012.


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