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How to Stop Population Growth—Humanely

an overcrowded beach

Overpopulation is a controversial subject and usually brings up tough conversations about the ethics of government control of family size. But what if we could limit population growth and create sustainable prosperity without laws that limit freedom?

Here are some ideas how…

Population and Carrying Capacity

What the heck is carrying capacity, you ask?

Carrying capacity is the number of people, animals and crops that a region can support without environmental degradation. (Webster’s Dictionary)

For example, imagine dropping a colony of rabbits onto a small island. As long as there is enough food and water on the island, the rabbits will live well and reproduce, and the colony will get larger. The rabbit population will continue to grow as long as there is enough food and water. However, if in the future there are more rabbits that there is food to feed them, then the rabbit population will start to decline.

This limit is called the carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is not a fixed number; it depends upon factors like how much each rabbit eats, how fast the food grows, and how well the natural systems of the island can handle the waste produced by the rabbits. Obviously, in a drought year, less food would grow and the island would support fewer rabbits. In good years, the island would support more rabbits.

The Earth is our island.

We are smarter than rabbits, and we have developed technology to grow, process, and store food so that we can make it through bad years. We have also developed technologies for handling many of the wastes that we create. However, there is still a carrying capacity that the earth can support. That carrying capacity is a function of the number of people, the amount of resources each person consumes and the ability of the earth to process all the wastes we produce.

Sustainability is about finding the balance point among population, consumption, and waste assimilation. (Which is why composting everything you can is so important!)

Balancing the Equation

Take a moment to think about how rapid population growth affects us and the environment. Think of the forests and grasslands (the planet’s lungs) cut down and plowed under worldwide for agriculture and development, releasing megatons of carbon. Think of the farmlands displaced by Suburbia; the rivers, lakes and oceans choked with our toxic waste.

There are visible signs of gross mismanagement of our resources and reaching or exceeding the carrying capacity of our land all around us. And these problems are only increasing as we increase in numbers.

Rapid changes in the world’s human population, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption present profound challenges to human health and well-being, and the environment.

Most experts assume that the world’s population will rise from today’s 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. It’s hard to fathom that many people competing for dwindling resources. It’s even harder to wrap your head around what we must do to stop it.

The good news?

It is possible that we can prevent humanity from ever reaching 9 billion people—without “child quotas” or violating human or civil rights.

According to Worldwatch Institute President Robert Engelman in his book, Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, there are at least nine steps we can take to slow or stop population growth, without drastic population control measures.

Most of the reproduction policies he recommends below are relatively inexpensive to implement, yet in many places they are opposed solely on the basis of cultural taboo and political infeasibility. What a travesty! Surely we can demand better of ourselves and our governments.

Engleman recommends that we:

1. Provide universal access to safe and effective contraceptive options for both sexes. With two in five pregnancies reported as mistimed or never wanted, lack of access to good family planning services is among the biggest gaps in assuring that each baby will be wanted and welcomed in advance by its parents.

2. Guarantee education through secondary school for all, especially girls. In every culture surveyed to date, women who have completed at least some secondary school have fewer children on average, and have children later in life, than do women who have less education.

3. Eradicate gender bias from law, economic opportunity, health, and culture. Women who can own, inherit, and manage property; divorce; obtain credit; and participate in civic and political affairs on equal terms with men are more likely to postpone childbearing and to have fewer children compared to women who are deprived of these rights.

4. Offer age-appropriate sexuality education for all students. Data from the United States indicate that exposure to comprehensive programs that detail puberty, intercourse, options of abstinence and birth control, and respecting the sexual rights and decisions of individuals can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and hence reduce birth rates.

5. End all policies that reward parents financially based on the number of children they have. Governments can preserve and even increase tax and other financial benefits aimed at helping parents by linking these not to the number of children they have, but to parenthood status itself.

6. Integrate lessons on population, environment, and development into school curricula at multiple levels. Refraining from advocacy or propaganda, schools should educate students to make well-informed choices about the impacts of their behavior, including childbearing, on the environment.

7. Put prices on environmental costs and impacts. In quantifying the cost of an additional family member by calculating taxes and increased food costs, couples may decide that the cost of having an additional child is too high. Such decisions, freely made by women and couples, can decrease birth rates without any involvement by non-parents in reproduction.

8. Adjust to an aging population instead of boosting childbearing through government incentives and programs. Population aging must be met with the needed societal adjustments, such as increased labor participation or immigration, rather than by offering incentives to women to have more children.

9. Convince leaders to commit to stabilizing population through the exercise of human rights and human development. By educating themselves on rights-based population policies, policymakers can ethically and effectively address population-related challenges by empowering women to make their own reproductive choices.”

Engelman argues that if most or all of these strategies were put into effect soon, global population likely would peak and subsequently begin a gradual decline before 2050, thereby ensuring sustainable development of natural resources and global stability into the future.

The Benefit of Education and Equal Rights

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy, a startling 43% of university-educated women born between 1965 and 1978 (Generation X) do not have children. The study pointed out, though, that most of the women in this childless group were in long-term relationships and lived with their partners. This means that, as a generation, Generation X barely replaced itself.

Generation X was the first generation of American women strongly encouraged to become educated, ambitious, self-determining people, unconfined by gender-based cultural norms the way our mothers and grandmothers were. We are also a generation that has had a lot more difficulty finding good jobs and economic security the way our parents did—and you can see both factors reflected in our low parenting rates.

The trend that began with Generation X shows no sign of abating either, even if the economy improves. Demographics show that the American population is stabilizing and in time will begin shrinking. In fact, fertility rates are way down all over the developed world as women gain more control over the course of their own lives and better access to education and birth control. Indeed, Japan’s population is shrinking very rapidly because, today, families there typically have only one child—by choice.

What is clear is that as a culture becomes wealthier and healthier, and men and women alike are increasingly and equally able to meet all their basic needs, they become free to pursue dreams, desires and passions—to the great betterment of society. And in doing so, they often freely choose to delay childbearing, have fewer children, or not have children at all.

No coercion, no quotas. No forced sterilization or abortion nightmares like are thought to happen in China. Just plenty of positive, life-affirming and practical incentives to have few children, or none.

The more people are educated and helped to prosper—especially women (who have the babies after all)—the happier and more fulfilled we can all become and the less we strain the carrying capacity of our precious planet. This is the force of progress.

What do you think?

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About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

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