Population Growth, the Personal and the Political


One of the difficulties writing for Cool Green Science is that our name necessarily constrains our subject matter. While we are all conservationists and hence prone to write on environmental topics most of the time, the occasional truly bizarre tangents into other issues that you’d get on a personal blog as the author meandered intellectually are mostly absent from our blog.

Moreover, there’s a certain Nature Conservancy tone that permeates the posts, mostly because we all believe in ideas that underlie the tone: a passion for the environment, a faith in science, and an optimism that conservation battles can be won.

Most of the time I am fine with this neat boundary between what I can write about and what I cannot, between the environmental and the personal. But there are times where the division between the two is not at all clear.

Last month was one of those times, as I celebrated my son’s first birthday this past September 11. By the stroke of luck of having been born on an infamous day, his birth will for the foreseeable future be commemorated in the newspapers with sad remembrances of the tragedy of 2001. It’s a strange thing, to have my intense joy from that day mixed with a collective national sadness.

Reflecting back on my first year as a father, I’m struck by how wonderful and natural a thing it has been. And it makes me think of an environmental topic The Nature Conservancy has (perhaps wisely) mostly avoided, population and population growth. During talks on my scientific research into the effects of urban growth or agricultural expansion on the environment, there have been occasional questions about why I didn’t focus in more on population growth.

I think my two answers then still hold true: 1) in many cases environmental damage from increased per-capita consumption outweighs the environmental impacts of increased population per se; and 2) the surest way to reduce the rate of population growth is for economic development and medical care to reach the poorest of the poor, a moral necessity.

The discussion of population is also fraught with political peril — for if not carefully framed in the economic realities of the developing world, it can appear racist or xenophobic (consider the Sierra Club experience in talking about immigration as a case study in what can go wrong). Reflecting on my kid’s first year, I can add that the discourse on “population,” so abstract and dry, seems so different from the wonder and excitement of being a parent.

All I can say is that I am at a loss when I try to imagine an environmental NGO talking about population in a sophisticated way that captures the dry scientific facts of human impacts on the environment while avoiding xenophobia or racism and, most importantly, remaining positive about the beautiful possibility each human life represents.

(Image credit: Aldo Risolvo/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I recommend Bill McKibbin’s book MAYBE ONE, about the environmental impact of having children. I love my daughter. I love the world. Nine months after she was born I got a vasectomy. It was my Christmas present to the world.

  2. I think overpopulation is/will be a big problem, but i think the pressing issue is over-consumption. The way we are living in the western world is unsustainable and we are over consuming at massive rates of something like 80%. Solving this will not only ease the threat of over population, but potentially prevent further climate change too. It’s time we faced up to the future and our responsibility to ensure the safe lives for our children and their children.

  3. I like the Nature Conservancy because it has avoided the issue of Population Control as a solution. Istead it has focused on the promise that real science and working cooperatively with local groups has to offer in solving specific environmental problems.

    In a new book Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin the antihumanist view that humans are a “cancer upon the Earth” is challenged. Thomas Malthus first predicted that food supplies would outrun reproduction. Later the work of Darwin was applied to the social setting and the “survival of the Fit.” Moving on, Eugenics picked up the theme with terrible consequences as we should all know.

    The result is a worldview that we need to reduce population to keep from starving. The problem is that this view does not consider the ability of humans to come up with solutions based on science and cooperation. We have not all starved or become poor as was predicted. The standard of living has generally improved not declined. Areas where there are problems of poverty can usually be traced to a variety of social issues (war, corruption etc) much more than just population growth.

    Zubrins book is a good read and it challenges some environmental core beliefs on population. The Nature Conservancy and its focus on using science and seeking “win win” solutions by humans working together is an important conservation perspective. The Conservancy gives promise to the future.

    I certainly hope that the Nature Conservancy does not fall into the trap focusing on population control as the only answer to our world’s proplems.

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