Page last updated at 15:31 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

Population: The elephant in the room

John Feeney
John Feeney

Uncontrolled population growth threatens to undermine efforts to save the planet, warns John Feeney. In this week's Green Room, he calls on the environmental movement to stop running scared of this controversial topic.

Train station in India (Image: AP)
Our inability to live as we do, at our current numbers, without causing pervasive environmental degradation is the very definition of carrying capacity overshoot
It's the great taboo of environmentalism: the size and growth of the human population.

It has a profound impact on all life on Earth, yet for decades it has been conspicuously absent from public debate.

Most natural scientists agree our growing numbers and our unchecked impact on the natural environment move us inexorably toward global calamities of unthinkable severity.

They agree the need to address population has become desperate.

Yet many environmentalists avoid the subject, a few objecting strongly to any focus on our numbers.

Some activists insist acting to influence population growth infringes on human rights; they maintain that it is best to leave the problem alone.

Let's dispense with this confused notion right now.

Yes, there have been past abuses in the name of "population control".

There have been abuses of health care and education too, but the idea of reacting by abandoning any of these causes is absurd.

We can learn from past abuses, reducing the likelihood of fresh problems arising in the future.

In fact, those working on population issues have done so. Today, they recognise that the methods with the best track records of reducing population growth are, by their nature, respectful and promoting of human rights.

They include educating girls and women in developing countries to help empower them.

This is achieved by providing more options, using media strategies to make them aware of alternatives regarding family sizes and family planning.

Those who oppose talking about the world's population are obstructing the further provision of such services and resources.

Last chance saloon

Fundamentally, we need to ask what is the greater threat to human welfare: the possibility that humane efforts to address population growth might be abused, or our ongoing failure to act to prevent hundreds of millions, even billions, dying as a result of global ecological collapse?

People queuing for food aid (Image: AP)
Many now recognise the urgency with which we need to halt the human-caused degradation of Earth's natural environment

It's no far fetched possibility. Increasingly, environmental scientists insist we have overshot the Earth's carrying capacity.

I believe they are right; the proof is everywhere. Our inability to live as we do, at our current numbers, without causing pervasive environmental degradation is the very definition of carrying capacity overshoot.

Overshoot, we know, is followed by population decline. As we have learned form other species, this manifests itself initially with a crash.

For humanity, this portends a potential cataclysm exceeding anything in our history.

Our chance to avert such an outcome depends on our ability to address our numbers before nature reduces them for us.

There's no other way out. Merely reducing per capita consumption, for instance, won't do it.

After all, per capita consumption levels multiply with population size to determine our total resource consumption.

Just look at the data from the Global Footprint Network group. They estimate that we'll remain in overshoot unless we also address population.

Solutions do not spring from silence. We must bring population back to the centre of public discussion.

We need to break through the taboo to encourage not just a few voices but all those with relevant expertise to speak out on the subject loudly and often.

Recently I wondered what would happen if all the scientists - and everyone else considered a scholar of the population issue - spoke out all at once.

Would it help to weaken the taboo now shackling the subject, pushing it closer to centre stage?

Would it bring the matter enough attention to begin generating new or more widespread solutions?

Might it prompt a deeper examination of our ecological plight?

The Global Population Speak Out campaign has brought together over 100 voices from 19 countries, all pledging to speak out publicly on the population issue throughout the month of February, 2009.

Many now recognise the urgency with which we need to halt the human-caused degradation of Earth's natural environment.

Can we break down a taboo that has for years blocked the path toward that goal?

Dr John Feeney is an environmental writer based in Boulder, Colorado, US

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with John Feeney? Is population growth a taboo topic among environmentalists? Without addressing the issue, will it be impossible to achieve sustainability? Or is resource consumption, rather than the number of people, the real underlying problem?

We have had more than 1,500 comments on this article; unfortunately this is many more than we can publish. We have done our best to provide a representative sample of opinions. Thanks to everyone who wrote in.

Spot on John and very brave of you and the BBC to publish. It's quite scary to see the comments from the people in denial. Years ago they would have been insisting that the Earth was flat or that man had dominion over all other creatures and the stewardship of the Earth. Well, as you said in your article, all it takes is education.
John LIlley, Watford, UK

Basic arithmetic. 7 billion (current population of small planet) into Resources (of small planet) just about 'goes' at a strain. 20 billion (not too distant population on current trends) into same Resources does NOT go ! Especially if each individual of future population increases its individual demand on Resources. Result = Inhuman Death on massive scale, either naturally or via War. Easy problem with obvious solution.
BILL, Oxfordshire

They've been talking about population reduction of 85% of us for quite some time, folks. Watch out they're coming for us, don't let Obama take your guns. This isn't a joke, you can laugh now but just remember that you've been warned several times and you'll deserve what you get. I promise you if we don't act soon the new world will be one that does not include you (or your children).
John, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

When I was a geography student in Cambridge in the 1970s, the catchphrase ran "whatever your cause, it's a lost cause without population control". Tragically that sentiment faded and was forgotten. It was not however a racist concept. The most populous developed countries, such as the USA and UK, are even more severely overpopulated than India, taking account of their available resources and consumption levels. The reason the UK has a population imbalance and needs more workers is that population grew too fast after WWII. Had a stable demographic been achieved, then a population of a little over 50m might have achieved an optimal society: but 60m is unsustainable and attempts to increase the economically active population by immigration or any other means is disastrous to the environment and everyone's quality of life. There are only two ways to resolve this problem: either open debate and education, or a global catastrophe most probably in the form of one or more pandemics.
Alan Brunstrom, Albury, NSW, Australia

I disagree with most of the people on here leaving their comments. I think that all the doom and gloom predictions by the environmentalists will not come true. Could we all afford to cut back on our resource usage? Absolutely. Does the Western world use disproportionate amounts of resources? Yes. Is it going to cause an end to the world as we know it? I doubt it. I am an eternal optimist, and I think that humans will be able to invent technology to combat changes due to "overpopulation". Necessity is the mother of invention, and when the drastic problems predicted start to happen, we as the human race will solve them. And no one is ever going to tell me how many children I can or can't have. At least here in America, I don't see it happening anytime soon.
Pete Moyryla, Ruby, AK, USA

Perhaps we should consider a cap-and-trade program for population. Allow each couple a credit to have one child and they could either use it or sell it to someone else or buy additional credits from couples who choose to remain childless. If the market is good enough for controling carbon emissions, it should be good enough for population control.
Kris, Los Angeles, CA

I am damned sick and tired at the elite licking their chops at the thought of depopulating the earth by 6 billion souls, so the rest can be easily managed by them. They keep pushing the agenda and pushing it, just like ever ready batteries. They want us to live in austerity while they party hardy. I say delete the elite.
Kim, Dallas

Didn't Malthus say this about 200 years ago? What happened then? Humans found new sources of energy, and more efficient means of food production. You can't assume that humans are like bacteria in a petri dish. Bacteria do not suddenly discover oil or split the atom or build wind turbines. In order to adapt, other species have to wait for their genes to mutate. Humans can just invent solutions to solve problems. This theory is not radical. It is old-hat.
Brendan Fernandes, Brighton, UK

This is not a new ideology.. this is Malthusian Darwinian eugenics in shiny new 'green' becoming the religion for the new age... Maybe those of you advocating population reduction can do your part to 'save the earth' by volunteering first
Ivan, Los Angeles

OK John, you have been granted permission by the powers that be to begin decreasing the population. You will be going on live television, in front of a worldwide audience, to make the first choice for the gas chamber. Who do you pick? Someones son? Daughter? Mother? Yourself? Do you really think that extermination...i mean population a solution? Doesn't it feel more like a concession? Don't you think we can do better than that if we put our heads together? I once heard someone say that each person born is another person who can help out.
Corey, Minnesota, USA

The problem of overpopulation is compounded by the fact that ignorant and low mentality individuals typically reproduce at a much higher rate than educated individuals which results in huge populations of people who simply cannot understand why or how to practice birth control and who have no hope of being able to provide for themselves or their offsprings. Continually providing food and resources to these bursting populations without requiring contraception only increases the suffering. Rational and intelligent people should voluntarily reduce the size of their families and those who do not have the mental capacity to understand this need should be compelled by law.
Rhonda Richardson, Lynchburg, Va., USA

Industrialization, consumerism, and overpopulation are a reality that will be with us for a very long time, long enough, I think, that as a species intent on thriving, we will eventually have to consider the need for a new, second home. I don't think we will ever reduce the human population through social or individual control. It will only ever increase, so long as medical advances increase the individual life span, and so long as the technologically enhanced lifestyle is embraced so fully by industrialized nations, used as a measure by which 'less developed' nations are judged, and held up as the ideal to which every nation is expected to aspire. Sooner or later, science will have to merge with what at the moment is considered science fiction. In other words, we will need to leave the Earth, and terraform Mars, Europa, Ganymede and other planetary bodies. And, perhaps there, learn from the mistakes made on Earth. The irony, of course, is that it would probably be the richer, industrialized nations on Earth, who would be the first to leave.
Charles Benjamin, Edinburgh

Wow some people are extremely over-sensitive about this subject. Stop flying off the handle people. The author is clearly a proponent of respectful ways to address population growth such as education. No one is talking about regulating how many babies you can have. It seems to me that promoting education around the world on topics such as contraception would do a world of good separate and apart from their potential value as ways to combat over-population. I certainly think it's each family's right to decide if they want kids and how many kids to have - but why shouldn't we want it to be an educated decision?
Lincoln, Hoboken, NJ, USA

While overpopulation is obviously a problem, it is naturally a problem that solves itself. As many commenters have pointed out, the more educated an modern a society, the lower its birth rate. Amusingly, some people think that the negative population growth of France and Japan is a crisis, when in fact this is obviously a positive thing since these populations are contributing to the climate crisis our species will soon face MORE than the populations with positive growth. The important thing for people to realize in this discussion is that it is important for a society to ensure that its birth rate lowers as it prospers (as in the case of China), instead of letting the population naturally correct itself a generation or two after rapid economic growth when the more resource-hungry offspring will deplete the country's resources exponentially faster, as with the Baby Boom generation in the US which is responsible not only for an embarrassingly-large portion of the US's post-Industrial CO2 emissions, but also for an creating an impossibly-large demand for resources which has led to an increasingly imperialistic US foreign policy.
Chuck, Baltimore, USA

If people took notice to facts rather than the latest environmentalist propoganda, they'd notice that a majority of developed countries are sitting well below the replacement rate of fertility. That is to say, these countries are not replenishing their population. Name a country, it is probably on that list. Ask Russia or Spain or Italy what they think about a population explosion. They'll laugh at you. A population explosion is not on the horizon, rather we'll see population top out by 2050 and after that will begin a very steady decrease. The real doom and gloom prospect we're facing is a rapid increase in the average age (caused by increasing length of life and lesser young people) which will treble any sort of medicaire/social security/centralized healthcare problems we're facing now. But if we're prepared for it, we can face it. Don't buy into the doom merchants with their fear tactics, the facts are clear.
Kevin, Chicago, IL, USA

In the west it best to prepare the mind before introducing fascist 1 or 2 child policies like in China. Soon we'll be paying for extra children like in China and only the rich will be able to breed. Thanks for your inspiration Mao, Hitler, Marie Stopes International Optimum Population Trust....
Alan, Ireland

People don't want to discuss population control since the negative eugenics of Nazi Germany, and the sterilizations of thousands in America in the 1920s. We need to discuss positive eugenics options - for example in the UK perhaps you could get full child benefits for your first child, 70% of that for your second, etc etc. This balances between those people that have 8 kids while on benefits, and China's one child policy that has resulted in infanticide because "the child was a girl and we need a boy" With obvious exceptions to people that have twins, and that choose to adopt rather than bring a new kid into the world when there are already dozens out there that need a safe home.Having children IS a right. However, it is a right that comes with a very heavy responsibility. Therefore it is not something that can be enforce, but something that should be encouraged.
Sara, Hampshire, UK

Isn't the success of Homo sapiens built of a huge pyramid scheme. We need a growing population to support and meet the needs of the current generation - more food, houses, cars, longevity, medicine etc - which becomes an unsustainable consumer (in the broadest sense) scheme. Yes - the 'west' is the main culprit - and yes - its a global problem - but there is no polical/economic body who can address the problem - like global warming. So we need to take individual responsibility for our actions - its far far too easy to blame politicians - look at the current economic situation to illustrate how effective they really are.
Geoff C, Wiltshire, UK

This is not a problem caused by the poor nor by economics, although in the current world both seem to contribute to the issue. Economics dictate that with a restricted supply, if there is more demand, then there will be a rise in cost. If population increases, and supplies peak, which is inevitable, the increase in demand will increase the cost of survival. As poorer countries will have less ability to acquire food in a directly competitive market, those will be hit hardest.The problem may not be solely caused by poor, but they will indefinitely suffer for it. Universal responsibility is needed to prevent a world where the rich can afford food and the poor can not. If you are personally one of the developed world and think you will be fine since you can provide for your own, think about whether or not starving people will sit idly by while others have and they do not. It is a considerable possibility that the bloodiest wars that will ever be on the earth will not be over wealth or oil, but over food and water. Consider that tragedy when you plan for your future
Chance Holzwart, Salinas, California, United States of America

Yes this is the only topic worthy of our attention because all others spring from it. I applaud John's speak out. 7 billion can be wrong, very wrong
Don , South Island, New Zealand

your article highlights one area where greater liberty would lead to reduced population growth, namely gender equality, the other two areas of freedom are:- acceptance of contraception for all and acceptance of homosexual relationships without moral restriction imposed by any organisations i.e. freedom for individuals to make their own moral decisions - excessive population growth will lead to increased resource depletion, food shortages, inadequate sanitation and health care plus confrontation over a lack of resources fuelled by protectionism......and there you have it - war, famine and pestilence.....with some organisations insisting that contraception is morally corrupt, descriminating against women and objecting fiercely to homosexual relationships, surely that is just fuelling a self-fulfilling prophecy....oh well "the line broke, the monkey got choked and we all went to heaven in a little row boat, clap, clap"
deke, cardiff, wales

Consumption is only part of the problem, humans breed at an alarming rate, and as medicine improves so does survival of our species. Third world contries continue to be over populated and live in squalid conditions, unable to sustain themselves in any way, dependent on weathier nations to support them. The western world consumes because its rich and it can, but it seems to me that whenever anyone from a "poor" country gets the chance to do the same, they do it. Its not because of any moral stance that people in the developing world consume less, they just don't have the funds. Those funds are in the hands of a very few, who certainly have no problems living it up. Is there a problem with a declining population in western countries, I don't think so, that is what immigration is for. As to consumption, it is up to the individual to cut down, its up to our governments to regulate their industries. People in the west aren't lazy, in fact it seems that many work too much so that they can afford all their over packaged, cheaply made, non-recyclable, luxuries. All the while we watch as our society falls into disarray as we let our luxury items raise our children, a job that seems that they are doing rather badly.
A. surette, Montreal, Canada

Certainly, population is one factor in the equation. The equation being: Total resources used = Population x resources used per capita. Industrialized nations such as US and UK use 10 times as much energy per capita, and 50 times as much paper per capita when compared to developing countries, such as India. Since, it is very difficult for people in industrialized nations to give up their lifestyle, I encourage them to decrease their population.
Amit, Delhi, India

The silence on population growth has been going on too long and with terrible consequences. We now have about 4 billion more people then in 1950 and we are project to have 9.2 billion by 2050. The next question however, is not simply is rapid population growth a problem for environmental sustainability, the next question is what reduces average family size? The answer is clear; there is a huge unmet need for family planning around the world and approximately 40% of births worldwide are unintended. The sooner we create a world where every woman can choose when and if to have a child, the sooner we will reach sustainable population
Kate Bedford, San Francisco, CA USA

My gosh, yet another crises which demands that I give up more liberty? The hits just keep on coming.
Scott Fox,

Anyone supporting this idea should consider joining Optimum Population Trust, and supporting charities like IPPF and Marie Stopes International
Roger Plenty, Stroud

I am utterly shocked by some peoples comments proposing a drastic human population reduction as the solution for problems that mostly exist in parts of the world they have never seen or cared for. What about resource mismanagement? What about the fact that we have today the technology to feed and raise the quality of life of 2nd and 3rd world countries thus diminishing the birth rate drastically to levels similar to those of developped countries? And this "Something needs to be done urgently before millions starve." AH! I almost ripped my eyes out. How about the millions that die already of starvation YEARLY in most second and third world countries? Do you people even know what you're talking about? Go read books ffs. Human overpopulation is a symptom and most of you don't want to adress the causes.
Mathieu Funkle, Canada

I've been wondering about this particular "elephant in the room" for a while. Population increasing logarithmically and infinite growth is not possible so there is going to be a serious problem at some point, probably now. My wife and I have agreed it would be increadibly irrisponsible to add to the worlds already outrageous population level although it has always been our disire to have children, not that it will matter. However necessary it may be, population will never be controlled by human will, only by war, disease, and famine. If you doubt me ask yourself this question, "Am I willing to have no children in order to actually address this problem, or am I a hypocrite?" If you don't think population is at the center of all our problems here on earth, your wrong. Think about it.
Seth Brodie, California, USA

Perhaps we should move our reference to another species. Bees. In a summer hive, if there is enough food, there are 50,000 bees. After a cold, bitter winter, my hive has 10,000. Dead bees litter the entrance. If I put too many hives in a area with insufficient food then the bees become weak. In a cold winter mites and fungal disease further weaken the hive. More bees die. In spring I have an empty hive. So we have a choice. Intelligent design or natural selection. In this discussion, the religious crowd appear to be heading for natural selection.
Bernard Newland, Portland, Oregon, USA

It is very unfortunate that the basically racist notion that population increase is responsible for most problems on earth is making a come back. The economy is expanding many many times faster than the population - economic growth poses a far greater threat than population growth. As long as the rich consume wastefully, they have no moral right to preach to the poor to reduce population! In any case, as long as we dont reduce consumption, reducing population wont help. To understand why, imagine a garden with 99 cacti and 1 lotus plant in a pond - most of the water requirements of this garden arises from the consumption of the lotus - no matter how many cactus you eliminate, the total consumption is not going to change till the lotus is trained to live on less water - the same holds for the world. No matter how many less poor Indian or poor Chinese or poor African we have, it is not going to change the total CO2 emmision or energy consumption till people of USA and to a slightly lesser extent Europe (and the rich in the poor counties too) revise their life-styles and consumption patterns.
Moony Shen, Marseille, France

Overpopulation has been a taboo subject, but needs to be addressed. The carrying capacity of the Earth has been exceeded and the human population will lessen with time. We have no choice concerning this. The only choice we have is to either let things go as they are now and face horrible famines the world has never seen before, with accompanying wars, mass migrations, etc. Alternatively, we can control our population worldwide and reduce our numbers via family planning. The record of our species doesn't look encouraging. Humans, like most species, will simply use all resources available to increase in numbers until the resources are gone and starvation and disease lower the population density. I hope this will not be the mechanism by which our numbers are reduced.
Rodney, Baltimore USA

A huge thank you for finally bringing this to a mass audiance! When ever I mention over population in conversation I get shouted down by women screaming "It's my RIGHT to have a child!" It's no one's right to have a child. It's a natural process. I have chosen not to have them because I will not be a hypocrit but we are doomed it we do not do something to limit the future population. I don't mean in a Nazi superior race way but in a senseable we must do this or we will drive ourselves to extintion way.
Susan, London UK

I don't think human population is going "off-hand". Nature is a feedback machine. Whatever we input, we get the proportionate output. It is in the very "nature" of nature to survive itself. If something in its machinery is detrimental (like the human population burst), it will find an alternate by itself. We, on the other hand feel irrational enough not to be guilty on our tampering, should just accept our rewards (diseases, natural disasters, etc.) It is the self realization that plays a crucial role. But no human have any control on his fellows. Let us just be the way we believe to be right, and accept silently, the rewards.. God bless you all.. Amen..
Ahamed, Chennai, India

Surely it's quite natural for the population of man to fluctuate according to environmental conditions. This is what happens to all species. If I were to try to set goals for mankind I don't suppose that "having the maximum number of people" would be one of them. As long as mankind survives, is there a problem? I'm not sure this is an issue at all.
Jim, Herefordshire

This is most definately an issue that needs to be discussed. Women (and some men) need to realise that actually no, they do not have some almighty "right" to have children. Just last week a woman in the USA gave birth to octuplets, even though she already had six other children. This did not happen naturally, but through that wonder of modern medicine, IVF. My fiancé and I would of course love to have children through the usual means, but we have already decided that if nature denies us that option then we will adopt, period. There is much we can offer a child, and many children out there to whom we could offer it. Raising a family is about more than mere genetics, it is about passing on standards and ideals, and the above might be a good one to start with.
Steven, Manchester, UK

Deep space is deep enough for all of us, why not go there?
Pieter Vermeersch, Dendermonde, Belgium

Absolutely right. We MUST control our population. It's a no brainer. If we value human life, if we want quality of life, we cannot breed in plague proportions. And why is it that those who exercise restraint are always the ones asked to bail out peoples who don't?
Russell Hicks, Caterham, UK

With all due respect, John Feeney's view is hypocritical. Population is in decline in many parts of the western world like France, Germany and Japan. How can a western thinker lecture the world on population and environment when a) The population in many western societies is in dangerous decline, b) Western populations are buoyed by immigration from other societies, and c) Western societies are the biggest consumers of resources and manufactured products in this world. (Products that are sourced globally I might add). Sadly, the developed world has never known wealth of the masses like the West has. Global poverty has never been eradicated. The placing of population and environment on the global agenda is clearly a western agenda prompted in part by the preeminent rise of emerging economies like China and India whose resultant potential for consumption the West fears. Isn't it time for the West to admit that it is underestimating the need for procreation within its own borders and over estimating the consumption of peoples in the developing world? Isn't it time the West was careful who it lectured to?
Yehuda Newman, Modiin, Israel

Taking per capita CO2 emmissions, per capita water or energy comsumption or any similar index, a person in such countries like USA, UK or Autralia has a negative impact on the environment 10 to 20 times that of a Haitian, an Ethiopian or an Indonesian. Furthermore, much of the deforestation in third world countries is carried out to meet the the demand of rich countries for such commodities like meat, soya and palm oil.
Carlos Veloso, Brasília, Brazil

For anyone who does not understand the validity of John Feeney's concern, try conducting this simple experiment at home or in the lab... Ingredients: 1.) Petri dish 2.) Warm water/nutrient mix 3.) Bacteria Process: 1.) Pour the water/nutrient mix into petri dish. 2.) Introduce a small sample of bacteria on the dish. 3.) Wait 4.) Behold the brilliant explosion of life 5.) Behold the fast apocalypse The bacteria have 3 main problems: First they are greedy. They do not save any resources for the future and they consume as much as possible to benefit in the short run. Second, they have no sustainable resources. As they consume they deplete, until there is nothing left. Third, there are no restraints on reproduction. In a finite space, when each bacteria reproduces to its fullest capacity and there are no natural predators, the population will naturally implode on itself. In a sense the bacteria become their own worst enemy. We are only different from the bacteria in the petri dish in that we have an ability to make predictions based on observed patterns in the natural world. If we are to survive, we must learn how to balance our space, resources, population and waste in the small petri- dish-of-a-planet we call Earth.
Matt, Stockholm, Sweden

This article forgets to mention that overpopulation is only a problem in developing countries. Increasing wealth, better education, family planning and women's rights are all indispensable measures that will "naturally" lower natality. All these measures are, in a large proportion, the role of the government. Unfortunately, as we all know, that is the weak point of all developing countries. So let us concentrate on our own problems, namely a natality rate that is too low and needs to be stimulated by correct welfare measures to help parents be able to lead an active life as well as a responsable parenthood.
Dimitri M., Switzerland

There is no overpopulation 'problem', except in the eyes of eugenicists and the dominant elite who control the media. Stop insulting our intelligence with this malthusian rubbish. Climate change is a fraud based on junk science to push more taxes on the people.

Overpopulation is a problem, the solution however is not to tell people how many children they are allowed, this sounds far too dictatoral. But should governments offer incentives to those with none or fewer children...
Kenny Mack, Aberdeen, UK

Sure, increasing population is a burdon on natural resources -but it could also be seen as providing a larger intellectual base to solve such problems as well. However, the evidence seems to suggest that the richer people get the less children they wish to have. So perhaps it would be better to look at population more productively than just as passive consumers or a burden on recources. What seems to get forgotten isthe effect of Malthus -who used the population argument to support rapacious capitalism. Something which is very relevant today.
trevor batten,

OF COURSE we need population control! and right now. For centuries we have culled excess population through war, famine and disease. Does anyone those methods serve human rights?
Judith Stainsby, Port Moody, BC, Canada

Population is *the* major environmental issue and something does need to be done to create awareness of a woman's right to not have children regardless of what their society thinks. There needs to be a male contraception injection to compliment the oral contraception pill- it's got to be reliable, it's got to be cheap and it's got to be used. We need to overcome this insane need to reproduce when there are plenty of us and we need to overcome the squirmishness about abortion. Unfortunately, I've just listed the reasons that such an approach will never be taken.
Tracy, Napier, New Zealand

Admirable as it is to promote woman's procreative rights, family planning choices etc around the world, it will have little effect as long as religious and communal authorities continue to press women into childbearing roles. Reproducing is almost an obsession in some parts of the world, and the mere suggestion that you don't want children is treated with horror/ suspicion. Cultural barriers need to be broken, which requires patience and understanding; both in short supply globally. Scientists need to cross the bridge to religious leaders and start a dialogue.
Matthew Adams, Cairo

I agree. We had lots of discussion about over-population till the early 1970's then all went silent. We know it is worse now not better. The idea was to deal with it through education. Obviously that alone was not enough. China, to its credit bit the bullet and acted, but so far, other countries who cannot support their populations have not responded with adequate solutions. No child should feel unwanted or have to starve because of ignorance or lack of legislation. While China imposed a hard thing on the families by its one child law, every child there is wanted and cherished and well provided for. It is not a perfect solution but nothing is. Definately no person should have more children than they can afford to support, however, the trouble with this is, situations change. People loose jobs. People get divorced. Education and talking about it is an important step but other measures are required. I don't know what could be done but there needs to be dialog.
Pam W, Brisbane, Australia.

The less the humans on Earth, the better, Definitely. This is not only pro environment and pro natural habitats, but also the only long term sustenance model. And wars too are mainly over resources right? We all need to learn to use less...
Vinay Hinduja, India

The article barely scrapes the subject. To begin a discussion it should attempt at least a short analysis of the problem. Where are the problem areas, why, who is doing something and what. Just stating "there is a problem" isn't worth much if you don't suggest any solutions.
Yen M. , Kuching, Malaysia

Human beings are a wonderful resource. The demographic transition model shows improving opportunities and reducing income inequality naturally reduces birth rates. Human beings are not the problem, they are the solution. Perhaps Dr Feeney would be better to actually look at the statistics rather than having a wild guess. Do they hand out doctorates for linear thinking in the USA?
Richard Gilby, Tequisquiapan, Mexico

Being from and living in a developing country, I have had close contact with this world's issue. I have spoken with women with low income whom become pregnant and most of them respond it happens not because they don't acknowledge the diverse birth control methods, but because their partner with a "macho" attitude makes them have the baby, making them feel guilty if they don't want to end up pregnant, as though they were saying with such action they do not love the man. These ladies, feel guilty and do not want to loose their man, ending up in many cases pregnant. Sadly, most of the men "magically" forget what they have said and disappear, taking zero responsibility of the new creature they have helped create. Most of these children repeat their parents' footsteps, getting caught in the vicious cycle. Seeing so many children brought into the world and so many parents with already too many children to care for, it makes me wonder if I should even have a child of my own, or simply adopt to give a better life to a child already born. What is the point if bringing in more lives on this planet if they will not be able to enjoy the beauty of it? I feel very strongly that something does need to change, change which must be drastic to have a real impact. Though, what can be done? What shall we do? What will happen with all these children and future leaders of the world?
Annie, Bogotá, Colombia

It is not rocket science to calculate that a person today consumes 1000% more energy than his/her counterpart of 100 years ago. The world CANNOT sustain present levels of population growth, the result is simple, end of the world as we know it. Where is all the food and water coming from to feed exponential population growth? Wind turbines and riding a bike to work are not the answers. Religous arguments against contraception should be dismissed immediately as they have no place in an educated civilised society
T.Nicholson, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Here in India, soon to be the world's most populous country, perceptions of population have changed significantly in the last few decades. In the 60's and 70's overpopulation was acknowledged as one of the country's most significant problems and there were several efforts to curb growth. One of these efforts, forced/coerced sterilization, during Indira Gandhi's Emergency years, clearly went too far, and thus undermined future population control initiatives. Then, in the 90's as the economy took off and liberalization took hold, a number of influential people began to speak of India's burgeoning masses as an advantage rather than a hindrance. One billion people, they said, would transform this country into a strong and developed nation. Even today many academics and journalists talk about India's "demographic advantage". At at the age of 27, I am already within the older half of the population. What most people who got caught up in the "one billion strong" hysteria of the last 15 years did not realize is that today's boom usually turns out to be tomorrow's bust. We're seeing one today with the global economy, and the economic cycle is usually short - measurable in years. With populations, it takes generations for effects to be felt. When India's half-a-billion under-25's become old, the whole country may just unravel. Along with one billion people, we also have hundreds of gods here in India. We will need every single one of them when the population bomb explodes.
Sid Lahiri, Bombay, India

Everyone seems to be in agreement that population reduction is necessary but with religious objections to sensible birth control measures we'll probably head towards the Apocalypse Predicted in certain holy books.
Ken Balfour, Bangkok

Yes, finally someone has HIT this BIG nail, smack right on its head. Political leaders and economists never speak of over-population because of their short sighted vision & approach. Environmentalists are too concerned by over consumption in West to address this vital issue. Thanks to John for bringing the issue for hopefully addressing it.
Sid, Delhi, India

Instead of culling and forced sterilisation, would it not be better to limit the per capita amount of world's resources available to the developed and highly industrialised nations? I think this line of thought is part of an effort to lay the blame on poor countries, which, although overpopulated, still consume far less than the West and somehow manage to live on what they have. This is not true of North America and Europe. Also, it seems to me that all those who moan about the Earth being overcrowded believe THEY are somehow special; it is always someone else who should be subjected to these insane measures. And another thing; if bureaucrats are allowed to interfere with what is given to us by nature, it will not be long before the idea of killing surplus population pops up. And then what? So, will all those worried about overpopulation please commit suicide and help save the environment by setting an example, instead of hypocritically denying others of what they take for granted?
Milos Milosev, Belgrade, Serbia

Overpopulated? BAN Alcohol and the problem will solve itself
Alan Berger, Sandhurst

At last! We see the Elephant! It is blindingly obvious that we must control population growth. The humman race is the first biological system with the ability to control its own reproductive rate. All biolgoical empires rise and fall again as they outstrip their food/water/energy supplies. We, humans, have survived by increasing use of technology to overcome natural shortages, but at the price of massive destruction of the environment of the planet. Inevitably as population grows we will come to a point where we have outstripped our resources and the population will then die back as starvation and drought becomes the norm. Sounds apocalyptic but it is the inevitability of exponential population growth. (think about an (empty) African termite mound per example) Sustainability should mean a stable population, each member with an adequate standard of living, on a planet that has not been stripped bare. (Whales, Tuna, Cod. Water in the Jordan River, Amazonian rain forests, habitat for the other species with whom we share this planet: all of these are rapidly disappearing!.) I'm sorry Tracy from Toronto, but fundamentally I completely disagree with you. Yes the west does use a disproportionate amount of resources, but population excess is a planetary problem.
Russell M, Blackpool

i've often pondered this topic myself, and usually come to the conclusion that human rights and our natural compulsion to help our fellow man might someday be our undoing. for example no matter how unsustainably food is grown in africa we keep sending food aid, even suggesting not doing so would result in a huge uproar, condemning those people to death, so we send food to maintain that population. the australian nobel laureate howard florey, whose work enabled penicillin to be produced in large quatities expressed his concern about the rise in population resulting from improved healthcare. i have to agree with him, and add that food aid also seems to maintain excessive populations.
Ben Jarvis, Okayama, Japan

I quite agree with Mr.Feeney and its been my pet peeve for some time. If you look at it in economic terms too, for a small island like Jamaica, the more slices the pie has to be sliced, the smaller the slices. So, we need to manage population growth as part of any integrated economic or ecological plan. The greatest enemy of conservation is poverty, and where there is uncontrolled population growth, all manner of problems, social as well as environmental, break out. We are ignoring this basic underlying threat to our fragile planet to our peril. This matter needs to be raised at the highest policymaking level on a worldwide basis, and it wont be easy, but then nobody said saving the planet (from ourselves in this case) was going to be.
karl Aiken, Kingston, Jamaica

While I do believe that the global population should be responsibly and respectfully reduced I am quite upset at the one sided approach to all this. While it may be true that it is the developing nations that have the most rapid population growth, it is undoubtedly the people in the developed nations that have the most impact in terms of environmental damage, consumption of finite resources and pollution. What is the point in telling a couple in a poor Asian or African country or anywhere for that matter, to have less children when ten of their children will not come close to using the amount of resources as two children born in North America or Europe. Reducing population growth is meaningless if nothing is done to change the lifestyle of excess.
Tony, Cayo, Belize

Any attempt to discuss this topic tends to be squelched by zealously politically correct retorts. But environmental protection depends on our addressing these issues. Further, I find it remarkable, in view of the numbers on human population growth, that many governments still give subsidies for childbirth, tax breaks for parents, and comparatively punitive taxation for the single and non-parents. We need to shift to an economic and social model of sustainability and population growth is not in this vein. Also, it is surprising that educated people continue to have sometimes 3 or more children. In order to keep the wild, natural places of our world safe, we need to reduce our numbers or at the very least stop increasing them. In view of our current troubles with nature, I'm tired of hearing parents with the attitude that their child comes first, regardless of anyone else's need - and they seem to abound in the past 15 years.
Lisa, American in Hong Kong

While I don't disagree that many environmentalists avoid discussing population, I do think John Feeney oversimplifies the interactions between consumption and population. The Ecological Footprint data Feeney refers to suggests that a sustainable population depends on how much we consume. If we all live as consumers, we're already more than three times the carrying capacity. At a moderate level of consumption, the Earth could sustain about 6 billion (compared to the 6.8 billion present today) and at an impoverished level about 13.6 billion--though because we keep depleting natural capital, this number will decline each year. So we need to rapidly discuss both these taboo topics: consumption and population. A primary goal of the environmental community should be to encourage people to consider carefully both their reproductive choices and their consumption choices. And no, not all environmentalists are silent on population. I have been writing a series of essays on population, consumption and other environmental topics for World Watch magazine which you can read here:
Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC

I fully agree. The ones who can be the leaders to solve this worldwide problem are the Pope,the Ayatollah and several other churchleaders.Just to tell their followers to have no mre than 1 or 2 children just like in China. And also permitting girls and women to have abortions. It would probably be sufficient.
Hettie, Hengelo, Netherlands

Food has been made for man. Now, on the earth, there is four or five time more food than human beings. Problem is not about the amount of men. Problem is in the nature of our stewardships of all ressources.
Matthieu Klopfenstein, Bienne, Switzerland

I believe that population explosion is at the heart of all environmental and economic issues. We are stripping the earth of its resources, polluting it and changing its climate because of the constant need to grow economies to keep pace with increasing demand for more food, energy, housing and jobs.
kiwidavid, New Zealand

I do agree. The argument makes a lot of sense to me. Not knowing this history, I wondered what the "abuses" were. Browsing 1970s magazines you see references to the Zero Population Growth movement. It makes so much sense. I think we even need to shrink our human population. Not having any children myself, feel unashamed to make this argument. I wonder what went wrong for this movement.
Ed Hemlock, London, England

It's hardly a taboo - talk of over-population goes back at least to Malthus, and in more modern times has been widely discussed for at least thirty years. My understanding is that population levels drop as economic situations shift from subsistence farming (in which large families are an advantage) to industrial (in which large families are a disadvantage). Resource distribution and consumption is far more of a problem than the absolute numbers of people which in any case can best be controlled by working toward a stable industrial society in which large numbers of children don't die in infancy, it becomes very expensive to have and raise children who, in addition, are not needed to provide labour to support the family. It helps a lot if the society is wealthy enough so that the elderly can be cared for even if they don't have adult children to provide all their support. Providing birth control information isn't going to be particularly helpful in reducing population levels in societies in which there are excellent reasons to have large families. Improving life in every way from food distribution to economic development will provide all the motivation needed to decrease population size - look at the parts of Western countries who aren't even maintaining their populations through their birthrates!
Cheryl, Canada

I strongly disagree. Articles like this underline the fascist nature of eco/green movements. Nature is in a constant state of change, and some call this proces evolution. The climate changes, population changes, and the world of tomorrow cannot be the same as the world of yesterday. Humans are a part of nature, and not aliens on this plant. Environmentalists remind me of evangelist preachers: "repent, because the end is near". In fact, there is no end, only change. This point of view is the real taboo for the media.
J.Popovic, Toronto, Canada

Serious population CONTROL should have been exerted compulsorily decades ago. The Chinese had the right idea with the one child policy, it should be instituted in the western world with heavy fines for transgressors, and in the third world with trade sanctions against nations that do not enforce it. As the planet's resources are dwindling and the world's population increasing, it is blindingly obvious that we are heading for a train wreck of cataclysmic proportions, with suffering which will make violations of personal freedom of choice look like a minor inconvenience. Charles Hipser
Charles Hipser, NYC USA

Of course the total population matters. It's just a difficult sell in societies that face a collapse of the pension system without any children to care for their ever longer-living parents (sometimes kept alive at incredible costs to the environment). Unfortunately, the best way to reduce the number of children people have is to put them in Western, urban conditions (which also need reforming). Witness China and India with their terrifying male surpluses. Simply informing women on how to control their fertility is not enough -- they must want less children, which means creating societies where children are no longer the sole old-age pension. Again, that means the wasteful Western model, where people invest in money and goods rather than offspring. And even more female hormones in the rivers means further environmental degradation for possibly but little benefit population-wise. There are more taboos to overcome than merely the reduction of the population.
Stefaan Eeckels, Harlange, Luxembourg

When I was growing up, there was a huge push to contain the population, with Zero Population Growth at the forefront. Since then there has been virtual silence on this matter, while the earths population continues to grow unchecked, and I kept wondering why. This is an issue as important as global warming, and needs urgent attention and action
James Barnett, Madoc, Ontario Canada

John is exactly right. This discussion was urgent in the 1960's, as pointed out in the article that coined, "Tragedy of the Commons". It's even more urgent today. With limited resources in the world, reproduction is a social issue whether you admit it or not. Without a social agreement on how to keep our numbers sustainable (and how to punish those who violate that social agreement), we will suffer the horror of a population crash, devastating our environment on the way. There is simply no excuse to delay this discussion any longer.
Devin McLennan, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

Considering the fact that the world population has doubled in the last 30 years it is only a matter of time before before this issue blows up in our face. So many of our activities at an international, national and personal level are proving to be unsustainable and it will take strong leadership to tackle this issue head on. Im hoping President Obama will assume this role. I am optimistic that we can overcome this challenge but am fearful that it will take a katastrophic event/events for us to see the light.
Dave , Dundee

There are a number of mechanics to limit human growth but strangely even the Chinese limit on the number of children has failed to have the desired effect. High mortality leads to higher birth rates which is normally controlled by disease, famine or other means. Porritt's pontifications shows he knows no answers either. Mans interference with the natural controls in IVF, medicinal or medical means, the cultural differences in various countries means that ultimately the only controller is the earth. The Volcanic eruptions 75000 years ago reputedly left only a small population, the black death in the 15th century which killed 30% of the population. Humans need to understand that when the world no longer can support us we will die. That is all there is to it.
Tony, Welling Kent

Never has a "taboo" been so exposed for the past 200 years. And never has such a question been answered by anything else than eugenism. And it always start with some good sense, but also somewhere over there, for "those poor people who cannot get fed properly". If you want to educate women, educate women. If you want to empower women, empower them. By the way, it is as much a question for men. But leave every one of us alone with our conscience for the number of human being. It is not a question of belief or religion. I, for one, has none, am not baptatised in any and think that the aim of a human being is to know rather than believe. Human beings are not a parameter. And there are always too much human beings for those who dispise them. Berst regards,
Bruno Clémentin, Saint-Etienne, France

I'm so glad to see there are those trying to bring this subject into light. Something I've been concerned about for so many years. Programs need to be put in place giving women strength and education, starting with the avoidance of unwanted / unplanned pregnancies, which are in many cases a burden on economy and are unfair to all parties involved. Good Luck.
Ryan, Salt Lake City, USA

Feeney's argument is generally rubbish. Look around the world: who consumes the vast majority of foodstuffs and energy despite being severely in the minority population-wise? The US, Canada and Europe. Income and wealth redistribution, or at least truly fair access to int'l trade markets for commodities - especially those produced in the 3rd World - would go a long way towards curbing notions that human population is experiencing 'runaway growth'. With Feeney's attitude and those of the others that belong to this elitist cabal, what we really should do is what Indira Ghandi did in India in the late 70s: round up all the poor people, castrate the males, sterilise the females and be done with it; treat the world's poor as if they're not just a problem but a menace/plague akin to locusts and worms; eradicate them all. Feeney might do well to put his money where his mouth is and have his tubes tied if he wants to set such an important example. Arrogant bastard.
Paul M, Kyiv, Ukraine

I keep reading about places being family friendly, but few people ever consider that this also pulls away resources from the individual. I could never understand just why people go on about the family being the foundation of civilization, while it is large families that are eating in to all of our resources. It was because of this kind of concent that I became vegetarian in 1970. Isn't it about time that people started thinking about how we can only save this planet by taking on some individual resposiblites, such as being vegetarian, & not having any children of their own. The family is dead ! Long live the family !
Martyn Lowe, Islington

about time too. population is the elephant in the eco-room. but i would add that it is not only scientsts, scholars, people with 'expertise', etc who have a relevant opinion in this issue. what about ordinary voters?
nick welch, london

At this point, no. Calamity is simply a matter of time. We're a species that was created by the same rules as any other on the planet, but we do not practice Darwinism as a rule for ourselves because that would be wrong. Our weakest in many cases are the ones that procreate the most in the "civilized" world, others simply foot the bill, our most educated have the least. You would have to not only discuss birth control methods, but the realities of nature that are only cool in the third person on the discovery channel. The only things left to discuss is how bad off will the planet be, when, and in what form the inevitable balancing act nature will play out on us be.
Wayne, New Castle, DE - US

As the late Bill Hicks said: - I'm sick and tired of this "Isn't humanity great?" bull*&%#. We're just a virus with shoes... As a species we are already responsible for wiping out numerous other lifeforms on this planet. I hope we are not dumb enough to lay the foundations for our own demise. Even the dinosaurs did better than that.
Richard Keen, Den Haag, Netherlands

I'd ask author to name a country (any single one) with sustaining GROWING TEMPO of population growth. And only then we'd have a talk about sweet and sensational taboo breaking. JaneZ, from the part of the world with below-replacement fertility
JaneZ, Surgut, Russia

Mr. Feeney is mistaken. There is right now an enormous underutilization and misappropriation of our world's resources. This is the real cause of social injustice and poverty. The earth can sustain many, many more people if we simply take care of it and use it well, and preaching population control as the answer to everything is, frankly, naive and foolhardy.
Matthew, Baltimore, U.S.A.

The world is, in effect, a ship in which we all sail. Overload any floating vessel and it will eventually cease to float. Of course there are already to many human beings on this earth. As a consequence of which we are increasingly fighting amongst ourselves for ever diminishing resources. And more tragically still, in the course of that unthinking scramble for land/minerals/water we are responsible for the extinction of so many other living creatures and plantlife, thereby reducing the very bio-diversity upon which are future almost certainly depends.
Mark , Bristol

Overpopulation in poor areas is driven by subsistence needs and can have very different environmental consequences from those of the overconsumption of the affluent, though they overlap. Thus Freeny is correct that both are serious problems, and we cannot neglect the population problem if any progress is to be made. The Chinese government is the only one that has really dealt with the problem, and the unpopularity of that policy in the West is probably related to the failure of mainstream environmental movements to address the problem.
Brian Lander, New York, USA

With a single sentence, the Pope could make such an impact.
Brad, Zurich, Switzerland

It sounds like good rhetoric, but what is the plan? I don't think that contraceptives alone is going to cause that great of an impact. Even in my town in the US, where everyone received sex education in school and condoms and birth control are available for anyone who goes to a clinic, girls are getting pregnant in high school. Others have their third or fourth kid in their early twenties and are already milking the welfare system. The problem goes much deeper than simply education and providing resources.
Ryan, Maine, USA

It's about time! Thanks for pointing out the obvious, but I wonder if religion is going to stand in the way of basic human dignity and common sense, when so many major religions fail to embrace any real family planning or birth control?
Shannon Edwards, Tucson, Arizona

I completely agree that population control is a must-tackle issue, but John omitted the main reason for the silence about it -- politics. Developed nations, most if not all of which are facing low birth rates, want nothing to do with it because implementing such a policy means being inevitably overrun by waves of migration from poorer regions of the world, and the collapse of their institutions and even cultures. Powers that be of the developing world are too busy plundering their countries to really give a damn if thousands or millions die from disease and starvation, Zimbabwe is case in point. The only way to tackle this issue, as uncomfortable this notion is for most Westerners, is to spread the wealth, elevate the standard of living in the developing world, dramatically boost the level of education and technology there. The world's most powerful countries must either face this fact and develop a long-term strategy for bringing this about. Either do this or terra-form Mars and Venus, which would solve the problem, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near the latter option becoming reality.
Jay T., San Antonio, TX

Resource consumption is bound to increase with population increase. Everywhere, but, especially, in third-world countries, women (and men, too) need to be educated about the immorality of unlimited procreation.
H. MacEwen, Kuala Lumpur

I agree whole heartedly. Blind imperialism and capitalism throughout the ages has worked tirelessly to use religion as a growth tool. This problem has its roots many thousands of years back in human history and must be confronted. Any rancher/herder knows that you can only raise x number of livestock with x number of land and water. A global plan to combat population growth is probably more important than any other environmental plan or topic.
Jeff Woolsey, Loveland Colorado

Ask anyone who works with "real things" in this world like water treatment, farming, waste disposal, forestry, etc. We are already in a perilous situation. As long as "sheep people" the world over, keep listening to those controlling voices, like the pope, who claim to be translating for god, we will remain in many of the messes we find ourselves in. These are the people who burn books, and would kill someone who claimed that the earth was round and not flat, just a few hundred years ago. We have no chance to stop our march to extinction unless we address the education system in all countries of the world. The George Bushes of the world allowed "faith based creationism" taught in our schools so we can maintain a healthy number of people who will never understand cause and affect. Science can predict and explain much, but if the morons are not required to listen and learn, they will all keep breeding, for they see it as a contest, for they are producing "children of god". It is very politically incorrect to state, but the numbers show us that thinking people are not making babies at even a fraction the rate as "faith based" sheeple. God help us all.
Nick Wimett, La Madera New Mexico USA

I agree completely with Mr. Feeney. Having lived in places such as India and Pakistan, I have come to understand the severity of the need to reduce the overall population to make the world a better, cleaner place in which to live. There has been definite progress in population reduction in some areas of the world, however, not addressing the issue of population control in places where it is desperately needed is condeming the world to an ever greater loss of resources, landspace and sanitation. I believe that if more people realise that population control is an effective way to curb exponential population growth, then we will be on our way to achieving the Millennium Development Goals which have been set out by the United Nations to ensure that every person on earth has the same basic needs administered to.
Ria, Bangkok, Thailand

I completely agree. The increasing population directly has an impact on the global environment and this is something that needs to be addressed. In addition to this, it is fairly evident that the wealthier countries in the world have better control of population growth. While this could also be an effect of wealth, I believe it is a huge cause of wealth as well. By addressing the problem of population growth, we not only help solve our environmental problems but we also help end poverty.
Tanner Boyd, San Antonio, Texas (USA)

Is there really "opposition" to talking about population growth? The assumption in this article seems to be that "talking about" population growth automatically implies reduction. That may well be the ultimate conclusion, but responses like Dr. Feeney's "Let's dispense with this confused notion right now" obstruct the possibility of a discourse that is able to come to grips with the complex question of what constitutes human rights -- particularly in light of the intertwined histories of rights and Western individualism. Yes, if there is a taboo on talk it should be addressed; however, the unquestioned assumption that our Western, modern conception of which priorities humanity should set for itself (as reflected, for example, in our own low or negative population growth rate) is somehow "natural" or "universal" strikes me as fundamentally problematic.
Jeff, Canada

I agree. Only advocating the use of new technology to boost food production won't do - the Universe might be expanding, but the planet isn't. And it's about time somebody had the guts to confront the one they call the pope on this.
Rob, Walsall, UK

It is the mainstream media, economists, and religious leaders -not environmentalists who need to get this message out. If environmentalists and scientists were in charge or had any power of influence the world would be a lot different than it is right now. When no one listens to you for years and years and years -you get tired of talking.
Beverly, Los Angeles, CA

Oh good grief, is it that time in the Great Debate Cycle already? 'Empowering' women (weird expression, that) is the right thing to do, whatever the result on population growth, and it is not the fear of the Great Population Control Taboo that impedes this policy, nor should the wish to control population growth reverse that. It is largely the intrusion of religion into politics... and I can't quite see why fighting religious dogma with environmental dogma would improve the situation at all. As for the rest, 1798 A.D. is on the phone for you. The ghost of Thomas Malthus would like a word. Something about picking the most controversial possible means of promoting otherwise unexceptional policies?
unnecessary repetition,

I do agree. The trouble is you are talking about censoring something that humans' consider both an essential right and a necessity: that is to procreate. The only answer is to change the way society views having children. We are going to have to beginning to teach our children that having kids is not a necessity or a right, but that it is actually socially irresponsible. And to teach girls and boys to go against their biological programming is a lesson that will be very hard to teach.
Roark, New York (UK born)

I am very pleased to see an article that seeks to address a problem that has been overlooked for far too long. Overpopulation is clearly a massive problem for humanity, although I do not want government controls on population I think that it is very important, particuarly in the developing world where resources are scarce, to educate people on the benefits of family planning and not having more children then a family can support. Well done, although we must still focus on pollution and other environmental concerns it is imperative that we seek to halt overpopulation as well.
WIll McLeod, Washginton D.C.

Hi. I agree, the population growth is a taboo and it must be changed NOW! If I'm wright, human population has doubled in a hundred years. So it's like +300000000 people!!! In such a rate (which in my mind WILL rise) in the next 100 years there WOULD be over 12 billion people! Now if there is some one who can tell me HOW can we, humans, make room and provide food for such a number of people extra, when we can't even do it for current numbers? How many 100 of millions of people are living in slums all over the world as a result from this inability? And the numbers are sky-rocketing, every year millions are joining them! Me myself have made up my mind to tackle this problem by talking to my friends then they address the family aspects, its future or just thinking about having a "big" family for them selfs. The problem in my mind is, like I mentioned before, numbers, but were are they and what is causing them? I think its in the poor regions of the world where family's are "forced" being big, for it's the only way they can survive, all working to make some money and to get some food for living. In such situations family's of 6-8, counting parents and there children, are quite common in Africa, Asia, Philippines, South America and Central America including southern USA. To reduce this problem is necessary, like in this article, to improve living situations so that two or even ONE working parent could support a family of two or three (1-2 children).
Vytautas Rindzevicius, Uppsala, Sweden

This is an excellent clear exposition of the problem, with which I thoroughly agree. People concerned about population growth are very familiar with the fact of the press and some green organisations, Greenpeace for example, refusing to recognise the problem, and it is absolutely essential to get through to people at large.
Roger Plenty, Stroud, UK

Yes, he is right. It is ridiculous the way environmentalists refuse to talk about this topic, the most important of all. What's more we should stop seeing population stabilisation/reduction as a necessary evil. To achieve it would be wonderful and only then will we be truly able to tackle the shameful levels of poverty in the world.
Christopher Padley, Market Rasen, UK

Over population mitigation is a must and I fully support education, birth control, women's rights, health care, poverty reduction, and yes even abortion of unwanted pregnancies. For those freaking out by my last option, statistics show that increasing the first mitigates the last option. Eather we reduce population in a controled fashion or nature will do it in her own way. "Nature bats last."
Leif Knutsen, Port Townsend, Washington

One major impediment to bringing out this issue is the general perception, fostered by the mainstream media, that the Catholic Church is implacably opposed to any efforts to address unchecked population growth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Read paragraphs 2368-2371 in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," and you'll get the true picture. A key quote: "A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood."
Mark Hartman, San Diego, California, USA

Without the slightest doubt overpopulation is the one problem that has to be resolved. Birth control must be spread to all peoples and if that upsets some who would use overpopulation to gain adherents, then so be it
John R Harwood, Brantford Ontario Canada

You talk about previous population control abuses and then show a picture of appearantly hungry brown people. Are you concerned about hunger and poverty, or the environment? You talk of learning from past abuses but why not show pictures of wealthy westerners tossing last years cell phone in a landfill or driving around, by themselves, in their brand new Hummer. Everyone knows that the west produces the bulk of the toxins and waste that is destroying the environment. Kiss my ass white folks. Do you think the non-white world will exterminate itself in order to save the planet for you? Not bloody likely. You go down with the rest of us.
false1, USA

Mr. Feeney has hit the nail on the head. Reducing consumption is at best a temporary solution, if we don't address the issue of population growth no amount of conservation will save humanity. If we don't control our numbers nature will; without politics and without pity. The only other way out is to find new planets to inhabit and we will use this one up long before we have the technology to colonize other worlds.
Scott W, Port Orchard, USA

Of course John Feeney is right. For too long we have allowed religious leaders to dictate the rules on population growth. Only countries relatively free of organised religion (such as China) have implemented any serious policies to limit population. I also agree with Feeney that education is a big part of the key to actually achieving population control in a humane way. And it must be secular education! Religious education should not be allowed to substitute for secular education, (although it might perhaps be permitted on evenings and weekends!)
Martin Ellis, London, England

I absolutely agree with this article. In fact I was wondering why this topic is not discussed in the international platform. Many countries cannot dare to talk about this because of their domestic politics. But if UN comes with some guidelines most of the countries would agree with it, and would be able to convince their citizens that it is binding and cannot be ignored. UN can say like every country has to have at least X units of habitat land and Y units of forest land per citizen. If not, then a road map to achieve this in some years.
Karan Singh Raghuwanshi, Delhi, India

Far from being absent from the debate, I've been hearing about population as a problem at least since I developed a sense of the existence of environmentalism 35 years or so ago. The problem is not that no-one will discuss it but that it is too often raised by anthropogenic warming deniers as an accusation of selective focus. The form of it always goes, "Why is the environmental movement conspiring to limit our freedoms and ignoring the bigger issue of population." Well, we're not, and the change of subject isn't working. The two are interconnected - but we know that the demographic transition will eventually turn the population juggernaut around. We don't know that the number of people living at European standards of consumption is not going to double and double again. If we end up with only 2 billion people, all consuming as much as the average American or European today, having controlled the population will be rather moot. 2 or 3 billion more all living at subsistence le!

vels off local resources won't have anything like the same impact as just 2 or 3 billion flying and driving.
Elliott Bignell, Sargans, Switzerland

Traffic. Lines. Anyone ever been to the DMV? Of course he is right. People will die if this problem is not addressed. It has the ability to wipe out our entire race. Every one knows what is going on, it is just a matter of when someone does something about it.
Andrew W., Philadelphia, USA

I agree wholeheartedly with John Feeney, and I am surprised that this topic hasn't come up with all the recent discussions revolving around environmental issues. Hopefully with Obama's recent repeal of Bush's global gag rule, women across the world can become more educated about their options regarding family planning. If some sort of plan isn't implemented in the near future, I believe that we are headed straight for a major crisis. There won't be enough land available to grow food to sustain the ballooning human population - and it doesn't help that we haven't sustainably farmed the land we DO have (ahem: corn). Fresh water will become a commodity even more than it already is. This is exactly what I thought of when reading the recent story of a woman in the US giving birth to octuplets - when she already has six children.
Noelle, Minneapolis, MN USA

Hoorah at last. I have been talking about this for years. The human species is too successful for its own good. We cannot go on expanding as we are. The world needs balance and the human species has thrown the world out of balance. The Chinese understand the concept, but implementation was screwed up. The native American Indians understood the balance with nature as do most of the remaining native tribes in places like South America. Its a knotty subject , but one that needs discussion and resolution .
John OB, Basinstoke UK

Why does the UK 'Green' movement not acknowledge the environmentally destructive impact of (mainly immigration-fuelled) population growth on THIS country, where the Government is demanding the building of 3 million new homes - at least a third on greenfield sites - to accommodate a projected population of over 70 million by 2030? The only Green group to have had the courage to campaign on this issue has been the Optimum Population Trust, which has pointed out that due to recent high immigration England is already the most densely populated country in Europe (having last year overtaken the Netherlands), despite having the environmental capacity for a population of only 27 million.
P. Carter, Worthing, England

I absolutely agree. The churches, for self interest reasons, have promoted overpopulation, and politically stifled anyone that disagrees with them. In my country the christian Hispanic community has the highest birthrate of all socioethnic groups. This goes back to the Spanish conquerers, who spread christianity throughout South and Central America.
Al, Madison, WI USA

We can't talk about population control in America because our pseudo-Christian religious imams are still trying to increase the number of people under their control, by making birth control illegal, or at least difficult to get. Life is sacred, they say, a gift from their anthropomorphized god idol-of-choice, so we can't stop having children. To paraphrase our last President, "Heck, mebbe we'uns kin git thet thar Armageddon and End of Days thing going again, so us good Christian guys kin git beamed up & leave all the pagan riff-raff behind..."
Chuck Bucks, Maryland, USA

Thank you! These thoughts have been in my head constantly since I was a kid and it's IS AMAZING that there is so little discussion of it. We talk of population growth among game animals, and prey animals - but somehow when it comes to humans, we get a pass? I don't think so. The laws of nature apply to all, and that which we don't have the discipline to do, Nature will eventually do for us... as said in the article, most likely in a cataclysmic way.
mark, Los Angeles

Climate control, waste management, water management... all is a result of what humans have been doing to the Earth. We are the cause of it - and too many of us means there's too many problems. I completely agree with Dr. Feeney. We're willing to control animal and pet populations, but not our own race. Consider how many cities, environments and food supplies are being constrained... we NEED to keep this conversation going.
James B, Dublin

Save the planet! Cull humans!
mike smith, Manchester

Absolutely. There are plenty of humans. We don't need to all be here at once, God has all time to get everyone here.
maggie, olympia, usa

I completely agree with John Feeney and I would add its not just a taboo among environmentalists, it a general widespread taboo. People do not like to talk about this. Of course with environmentalists its particularly strange when you think how hard they work to save the planet and at the same time ignore one of the primary causes. Al Gore had to number of graphs in his film: two that struck me as interesting were the famous "hockey stick" and the rate of population growth. They had a very similar appearance and yet he said nothing about population growth in that it might be a problem......
Jan van der Hoeven, Heemstede, NL

I'm not sure I would call it taboo, but it does seem markedly absent from the conversation, and this essay is the first one I've seen that wholly considers both the problem of population, and the lack of it as a factor when dealing with environmental issues. Perhaps some expect it to be a given, or others trully avoid it for reasons stated by Mr Feeney. Regarding sustainability: addressing the issue of population versus the management of resource consumption seems to me to be two sides of the same coin. Neither can be achieved without an informed population that has adopted a 'conventional wisdom' of self restraint and conservation. uch 'conventional wisdom' will not manifest from the ether. At best it will be studied, developed, and disseminated to humanity, or it will be forced on an ill-prepared population by natural events.
michael logan, Rochester, NY, U.S.

I agree with this. The population of earth has increased and increased and increased, there is simply no way that we won't run out of space! Humans are living longer than ever and no amount of well-planned architecture is going to fix that. It may go against many beliefs but perhaps a cap on the number of children allowed is the right way foreward.
Charlotte Robertson, Newcastle Upon Tyne

I believe overpopulation is a problem. I also believe childbirth increases in less developed cities, nations, and populations. We must begin to teach people that by having only enough children as you can support is what is best for the child AND the family. Having an abundance of children without the space or money to raise them with basic essentials should be illegal. It is inhumane to cause a child, without choice, to look for food or get a job rather than go to pursue an education and better themselves and follow a dream. How is it that population control is taboo but civil war and mass genocide is somehow acceptable? Are we to assume that by educating and informing women of their choices we are somehow disrupting societal roles? No. It is beyond time to accept that women can successfully raise children and be good citizens by being less persuaded that "children" equate to an innate human right. Having any more children than you are capable of supporting is, in my opinion, inhumane and inexhaustibly selfish. What needs to be taught is that by having so many children, you are merely shortening their lives ... responsible for their inevitable death because feeding a beast is not going to tame it.
Dawn , Rancho Santa Margarita, CA USA

Resource consumption is through the roof and we all know it. Scaling that down is a great step, but what good is that if the overall population continues to expand at a rapid rate? The answer is that it is not going to do any good at all. We can observe in the natural environment what happens to a population that exceeds its carrying capacity. The population crashes and a high death toll results. Mother nature goes about population control ruthlessly, because she has to. Pests, diseases, and other ailments used to keeps the human population in check. Now, with our advanced medical technology, we live longer. Maybe on paper, as statistics, we will be able to go on and continue breeding like there is no tommorow, but the reality is that if we do not begin drastic population control now, too many are going to die as a result. The topic of our population size, sadly, is a taboo. Maybe all we need is that dedicated group of researchers, scientist, and environmentalists to continue knocking on our door until we open it. All that remains to be asked is: "Do we save 1000 people now and see 1 million die as a result, or do we wake up and do something before that can happen?"
John, Regina, Canada

The ability to freely debate any subject should be welcomed, and this includes population growth and control. I do not however believe the view taken by Dr John Feeney and others that we have already exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity is true. Since before the 20th century people have been claiming that we are reaching 'breaking point', estimates were made among others that the world could not support 5 billion people; it now supports over 6 billion. To ignore resource consumption as a possible answer seems like a fundamental flaw in any argument. To take a simple example, energy efficient light bulbs decrease power use for lighting by an order of magnitude, these kinds of changes allow us to do much more with the same resources. It is in fact often the same people who argue we are over populated who argue against many measures to increase our ability to support more people such as GM crops and nuclear energy, making their case if successful a self fulfilling prophecy. Finally contrary to what is often heard, the world is capable of producing enough food to feed its population. The sad truth of the matter is that we choose not to for financial reasons. You only have to look at the EU and its CAP to see that we are willing to waste food to maintain higher prices (prices that the starving can't afford).
John Graham, Northampton, Northamptonshire

I think the only realistic way to do this would be to focus on decreasing the amount of poverty in the world and increasing the wealth of the countries. Any central government measures like in China one child per couple can only be done in dictatorships. Many environmentalist will not support this course because they normally the same people who support human rights and loads of other issues like globalization, gm foods, intensive agriculture even through anyone who actually research the causes of degrading of the environment knows that these are the only tools apart reverting back to a stone civilization that we have to stop to it. United Kingdom is one country where proof can be found that increasing population does not come at the cost of degrading the environment in fact it provides proof that increasing population can be married with improvements in the environment. For instant the improvement in the in Thames , the successful reintroduction of several species, with numbers of many animals on the up, air pollution has in many cases as remain the same or decrease over the years. Management and monitoring of the environment, and developing technologies to prevent acid rain and all pollutions is far more important than focusing on pie the in sky schemes of controlling population numbers in a democracy, maybe we should all return to a dictatorship it the only way you will truly be able to control population numbers, I am sure the same people protesting about the environment will not hold rallies across the country for a democracy to reinstated. I will even volunteer to be the leader of dictatorship,the skills I have, is that I will not even blink at the harsh punishments that will be needed to be handed out to enforce the birth control laws that will need to be enforce and measures that will need to be implemented to control any uprising.
David Knowles, Loughton

I agree. If we reduce global warming effects and pollution by 30% per capita, yet increase population by 40%, what is the change to pollution and global warming?
Steve, San Diego, CA US

All the major problems of the world today, food shortages, oil demand, pollution, global warming, habitat destruction. They all ultimately lead back to the fact that there are too many of us. We need to heed these words and consider our own family plans.
Ben Cowburn, Oxford

Even a modest 1% population growth results in a DOUBLING of population every 70 years. Exponential population growth + finite resources = Malthusian catastrophe. I do wonder whether our political "leaders" are capable of grasping this simple concept, let alone equipped to deal with it.
Leyton Williams-Davies, Wales, UK

John Feeney has it exactly right. The elephant in the room. Halve the population over time, and we would halve our CO2 buildup and resource use. Computers have removed the need for large populations and governments, but as yet we have not made full use of them. With less population we would leave more space for nature. I am fifty chose not to have children.
Christopher Sykes, Princes Risborough

I agree - humans have exceeded the earth's carrying capacity, and will reap the results of it sooner than later if no action is taken. Here's the hard question: what can we do about it? Can and will more countries institute China's one-child policy (or will more people decide not to reproduce)? Or, rather than slowing the rate of population growth, which only delays the problem, who would you choose to kill so that the rest of the species can benefit? I don't have any good answers to this.
Sylvia, Durango, USA

I agree our population needs to be greatly decreased if we plan on keeping our way of life and staying on this planet. Considering the failures we've had with this idea in the past, it's not surprising population control has become a taboo issue. Additionally, all the anti-family planning notions in the US worry me about the availability of birth control for those who want it and need it. I would love to hear good ideas from people who study populations on how to curb ours to more reasonable numbers. What is a reasonable size for us to be at?
Marianna Kleyman, West Lebanon, NH USA

Absolutely this is at the very heart of global stewardship. Some point to the Bible's "go forth and multiply" as a basis for continuing unchecked population growth. It seems abundantly clear that we've pretty much completed this task. Now it would be a good idea figure out what the next Divinely directed task is. I think even Pope Benedict has come forward to support an increased focus on stewardship; sadly this did not include a mention of restricting population growth.
William Brady, Arlington VA USA

The problem isn't with the few couples in which both want to have a large number of children, it's with the way many women and girls are forced to have more children than they want to have. That is both a human rights violation and the bulk of unsustainable population growth! Access to birth control must be improved. That includes access to abstinence - too many people today can't abstain from sex when they want to because they are raped, and/or because being housewives is the only way they know how to make a living (face it, even if a virgin can get married, the idea of her staying a virgin and staying a wife at the same time is almost always a joke). We need crackdowns on forced marriage and other rapes, so that people who want to abstain from sex don't still get forced to have sex. We need improved education so everyone can learn trades and professions that don't require having sex, and therefore afford to abstain from sex whenever they want to. We need crackdowns on workplace sexual harassment so a worker can keep her (or his) job without risking the boss getting her pregnant (or risking getting the boss pregnant).
John, NYC, USA

Maybe it is because the emphasis is always on "girls and women in developing countries" The so call "developed" countries with "only the affluent have a right to large families" attifude, also contribute and should set examples.
Jack Carroll, Tucson, AZ, USA

This is utter nonsense. Countries are offering money for couples to have babies to boost their populations, countries don't have enough people to meet job demands. Sterilisation programmes of family planning incentives do not work, and only help to ruin societies. If opoulations must be controlled, perhaps we could ask for volunteers, rather than impose scientific thought on all of us.
Ian, Scotland

You are wrong, Dr Feeney. There are two taboos. 1) Human population 2) Religion Good luck with that pal.
James , Shillingford, UK

I do agree and applaud his efforts to take this taboo topic to the forefront of the green movement. Women in poor areas simply have no choice when it comes to reproduction and this needs to change. Education and contraceptives could help them shape their families and better provide for the children they decide to have.
Jennifer, St. Louis, MO

It has been a source of continued annoyance to me that the issue of human over population has been so continuously ignored for many years. The issue was much more debated in the 1960s than it is these days and back then the problem was nothing like as severe. There are hardly any environmental problems that could not be helped by a significant reduction in human numbers. Education needs to be done now in order to head off the possibility of more draconian measures being required in the future.
James, Leicester, UK

I have to agree, we need to bring our global population under control. We need to not only work on population control by way of birth control in countries with runaway population growth, such as India and China, but we also need to work towards a safety valve - Lunar and Lagrange point colonies to give us a place to move those willing and able to relocate off-world.
Jason, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

I agree completely. I strongly believe that overpopulation is the underlying source of most (if not all) the environmental and social problems we are facing. I think that reducing population growth, and even more: reducing population, is the only way for the human civilisation to survive. I am grateful to John Feeney for his contribution in making this debate public. We need to redefine our ways of thinking. Our planet is finite, it simply can't support an infinite growth of population.
Serge Pfister, Carrouge Switzerland

Let Catholic God bless gay people and have less of us!!!
Peter, Auckland; NZ

This article is flawed in it's presentation. It seeks to link population growth and environmental degredation, even though population growth is being seen in developing countries, and environmental degredation is primarily caused by developed countries.
Kiran, Galway, Ireland

The public discussion of this topic is long overdue. It is a vital component on fostering a healthy future for generations to come. Let the debates & education of one another begin!
K. Kumu, Camas, WA

Among the many taboos, certainly the biggest 'Elephant' in the room. Take away the massive levels of overpopulation and all the other problems - climate change, resources, food shortages, space to 'breath' etc. they all just melt away. Perhaps it is the only real problem, the rest are symptoms.
Simon Mallett, Lenham, Kent, UK

Thank GOD someone with some opinion-making ability is finally saying something about this. Personally, I blame the modern western conception of an economic model of perpetual growth for the perpetuation of this problem. On a planet with finite space and finite mineral resources, infinite growth, of populations, economies, anything, is impossible. There is no such thing as a natural disaster, after all, unless you have people where nature happens. For example, if New Orleans was not a major metropolitan area, Katrina would have been a hurricane and a flood, not a social cataclysm. Furthermore, if Dow Chemical hadn't had horrifically under-regulated plants up the Mississipi, the storm surge would not have dragged a bazillion gallons of carcinogens back down through the city and into the bay. Just a thought.
Aaron Mercier, Columbus, USA

This article is absurd. The mere presence of human beings does not necessitate the consumption of the current age. A disporportionate amount of the harm being done to the world per capita takes place in the west, a place free of crowding and overpopulation. I'd be very hard-pressed to blame places like India for the calamity facing the environment today, and the last thing we should do if we have any hope for the future is discourage people from having children.
Tracy, Toronto, Canada

It takes a couple of generations for natural reductions can change population levels. After all, it's only just now that the baby boom is beginning to show its end. So unless we're going to kill people to remove them, a change in population is more a long-term solution. Also, when most first-worlders talk about population reduction, they think of the developing world. Well, 10-20 Africans produce the same as one USian, so the best "bang for the buck" is to reduce USian populations. In the UK, the south east cannot support the people there and the UK as a whole is having to deplete resources faster than they can be renewed. So the SE UK needs a culling too. E.g. anyone living within 100 miles of London cannot have more than two children. If they already have two children, they cannot buy a house (not even buy-to-let). And the UK uses about the same as 5-10 Africans, making the removal of surplus population in the UK still much more effective. Strange how it's always someone else who needs to change, though, isn't it...
Mark, Exeter, UK

Well said John. I have been bemoaning the lack of attention on population growth and it's impact on standards of living and the environment for the past 2 decades. It infuriates me that politicians are too PC to raise the issue. Something needs to be done urgently before millions starve.
Peter S, Sandy GB

Population growth is taboo among all of us, not just the environmental groups. The growth here in the UK over the past 50 years has been frightening: from a mere 30 million in 1950s to around 65 million now. It is obvious that more people require more resources, produce more waste, create more pollution, and yet the real problem that we face - the human population - is steadfastly ignored by most. Improvements in efficiency will prove to yield major benefits to the way we currently live, but the only long term solution to our collective impact on the environment and for our continued survival is to limit population growth, and to allow a natural decline in the population.
David, Cheshire

Oh yes... It's difficult to know exactly when the carrying capacity is/has been exceeded, but there can surely be no doubt that reducing population would be good news. More good farming/building land to go round, more marginal land going back to bio-diverse wilderness, a reduction in CO2, simply more space for every human and every other species.
Rowan Green, London, UK

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