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Population Matters (And So Does How We Talk About It)

A Conversation on Social Justice and Sustainability

A student crosses a bridge to arrive to his school, on the background is seen the Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil SOURCE: AP/SILVIA IZQUIERDO The relationship between population and environmental sustainability is complex, and understanding the fraught history of debates on the issue is critical for scientists and advocates.
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A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge

cover of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge
Edited by Laurie Mazur (Island Press, October 2009)

A right-wing attack on presidential science adviser John Holdren earlier this year scratched the surface of a long-running conversation about population and the environment. After the Senate confirmed Holdren for his dual post as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, conservative bloggers, pundits, and the Washington Times railed on him over sections of a 1977 textbook, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment, for which Holdren was the third author, with Paul and Anne Ehrlich.

The critics focused on portions of one chapter in the 1051-page book describing various population control measures tried or proposed around the world—some of them extreme and coercive. Cherry picking language from the text, they claimed that Holdren’s aim was to corral population growth through forced abortions or mass sterilization. As Chris Mooney explained after retrieving a copy of the book from a university library, describing such measures does, of course, not amount to endorsing them. Moreover, the authors in fact concluded that the best way to slow population growth was to increase access to family planning resources like birth control. Just as he did during his confirmation hearing, Holdren explained in response to the attacks that he rejects the idea of government-enforced population controls. In fact, what he said during the hearing was this: “When you provide health care for women, opportunities for women, education, people tend to have smaller families on average,” and in reference to global climate change, “it ends up being easier to solve some of our other problems when that occurs.”

The attacks on Holdren eventually dissipated, but the whole kerfuffle did raise the question of how best to talk about the complex relation between population and environmental sustainability. According to Shira Saperstein, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Deputy Director and Program Director for Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health at the Moriah Fund, many debates over the issue since the 1960s have been simplistic. She summarizes the thrust of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, as “more people equals more damage—and the answer to that is fewer people,” a conclusion she rejects. There is a relationship between population and environment she says, “but it is far more complex than people have acknowledged in the past. I think partly because we looked at these simplistically in the past, we made a lot of mistakes.”

Saperstein spoke with Science Progress about a new framework for thinking about population and sustainability based on social justice in a recent podcast conversation. Joining her were Laurie Mazur, director of the Population Justice Project and editor of the new book, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge, and Brian O’Neill, a scientist with the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “So much of the resistance to talking about population issues comes from a fear of where it’s headed,” Mazur acknowledges, “So many people are legitimacy concerned that concern about the global environment will take us back to the bad old days of population control.” For a full recording of the conversation, please see the audio available at the top of the page.

Population programs of the past, Saperstein says, “were too often focused on demographic targets, on limited births, on controlling population, rather than empowering women to make their own autonomous choices.” The worst programs following this logic resulted in sterilization campaigns in India and policies for forced abortions in China. The proper approach, the three experts say, is to realize that there is a significant unmet demand for family planning and reproductive health services around the world. Providing women with the opportunity and resources to make meaningful decisions about when and how many children to have gives them more control over their economic future while protecting their human rights. Given those choices, women tend to have smaller families. And over the next century, a secondary result of slower global population growth could be a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the three experts explain.

“Population matters,” says O’Neill, “It is not the largest impact on emissions—it’s not zero either.” He admits that while that sounds like a wishy-washy middle-ground conclusion, it’s important because of long-running debates between those arguing that population is the most important consideration for evaluating human impact on the environment and those who say it has nothing to do with it at all. “You’re not going to solve he climate problem—or probably any other environmental problem—just by slowing population growth,” he says. But development pathways and the nature of economic growth around the world provide the context in which societies must address climate change. As Mazur and Saperstein explained in a recent column, “In developing countries, urbanization is associated with rising per-capita emissions; as populations age, their per-capita emissions decline.” So population is one part of that social context.

Explaining the scientific research on the relationship between population and environment is one thing, O’Neill says, but the context for these conversations is equally important. A growing body of technical research helps, but he emphasizes that experts must understand the history and the legitimate concerns that people have about raising the issue of population-related policy as a means to environmental or even other development ends. “I think that a lot of time scientists get in trouble on this issue—and these are scientists who don’t work on population and environment,” he says, “because for some reason they feel free to talk about it as if they know what they’re talking about when they actually don’t.”

O’Neill says this is incongruous because in the case of climate change, “Someone who studies sea level rise would be pretty careful talking about ecosystem change because they know they’re not an ecologist and maybe they don’t exactly know what they’re talking about. But all of a sudden it’s a population issue and they feel free to say anything that comes into their head.”

Scientists, he says, are learning that an informed conversation more attuned to the social justice goals of population advocates is important. “Population, demographic change, does have consequences for emissions—and it’s okay to raise that,” he says, “It does not mean necessarily that it follows that demographically related policies are the best way to respond to climate change.”

Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the managing editor at Science Progress.

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