Congratulations to Mother Jones for dedicating the cover of their May/June 2010 issue to the population crisis. I have worked in the population field for four decades, and since joining the movement in the late 1960s, when the issue was at the forefront of public concern, I have witnessed an alarming decrease in responsible reporting on population issues and the importance of addressing the dramatic growth we are faced with each and every day. So, thank you, Mother Jones, for being one of the few to bring the population issue back to the forefront of public discourse. We will never be able to successfully tackle the most pressing problems plaguing our planet – climate change, poverty, food and water shortages, and the energy crisis – without also addressing the population factor.

That said, I would like to make a few points with regard to the lead population article by Julia Whitty. First, the author states, incorrectly, that “Two hundred million women have no access whatsoever to contraception…” This is false and represents a common misunderstanding of the primary driver of the population problem. Many people think that the term “unmet need,” which is used to describe the estimated 215 million women who don’t want to be pregnant and are not using contraception is actually the phenomenon of unmet demand for contraception. It is not.

In fact, most of these women don’t want or intend to use family planning because: 1. they have heard it is dangerous, 2. their male partners are opposed, 3. their religion is opposed, or 4. they don’t think it will work because they think God determines how many children they will have. Many people in the population/family planning field do not know this information, let alone journalists.

In most countries, lack of access is a very minor reason for non-use. For example, in Nigeria, lack of access is cited by 0.2 percent of non-users who don’t want to be pregnant. This is important, since bringing about a major increase in contraceptive use can only be accomplished using communications to overcome these informational barriers. In addition, there are about 1.6 billion adults in the world who do not practice family planning because of societal demands for large families. Providing people with informed choice based on knowledge of the health and economic benefits of delayed and spaced childbearing is critical to addressing this major driver of population growth.

Having said this, I should make it clear that, as a former employee of two Planned Parenthood affiliates, I have a strong belief in the importance of an ample supply of contraceptive choices, delivered in a consumer-friendly way in the context of broad reproductive health care. As a number of distributions to my mailing list have indicated, I recognize there is a shortage of contraceptives in some countries (and a need for new contraceptive technologies), and I know that if those of us on the demand-creation side are successful, the unmet demand for family planning methods will increase.

I support increased funding for the provision of family planning medical services. My point in the above commentary is that the need goes beyond correcting a lack of access to contraception. Many policy makers and journalists think the only problem is a shortage of contraception, and that is far from true. Stating that those categorized as having an “unmet need” have “no access whatsoever to contraception…” is just not accurate, so it is reasonable to call the author on the statement. Better wording of that sentence would be “Two hundred million women who do not wish to be pregnant are not using contraception because of lack of family planning information or services…” I am not trying to denigrate service provision, but instead to raise the need for communication as central to making progress where the barriers to use of family planning are cultural or informational.

In the online version, Mother Jones linked the term “no access” to a page that equated unmet demand with unmet need. As any demographer can tell you, these are very different concepts, but many journalists and their readers do not know the difference.

My other concern about the article is that Whitty’s only description of those concerned about national population issues is that they are nativist/racist. There are, of course, some racists involved in population and immigration debates. However, their racist arguments are not condoned or supported by the mainstream population stabilization movement. Nor should they be.

However, we must not shy away from the issue of population stabilization in the United States simply because a few on the margin insist on making the debate about color or national origin. Diversity has made and will continue to make the US strong and vibrant. Yet, we must also pay close attention to our domestic carrying capacity and limit population numbers, as recommended by two Presidential commissions, if we are to have a healthy and prosperous future with some semblance of biodiversity remaining.

As exemplified by the population debate that is currently dominating the headlines in Australia, where population is mainly driven by immigration, there are legitimate concerns about limitations of water and other resources making national sustainability impossible if population growth continues at 2.1 percent a year ad infinitum (a population doubling time of just 33 years). Meanwhile, in the United States, our population is growing at about 1 percent per year. This may not sound significant, but will result in a doubling in only 72 years. We are currently at 309 million and already the third most populous nation on the planet.

The late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a liberal Democrat and the first African American woman elected to Congress from Texas, led a Congressional Commission calling for reducing legal and illegal immigration – the major drivers of our population growth – in order to protect the job security and wages of low-skilled, vulnerable workers. In this effort, she came up against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests that favor high immigration in order to keep wages low and maximize profits. African American leaders like Clarence B. Jones, Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University, Frank Morris, former President of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and attorney Leah Durant, Executive Director of the Institute for a Sustainable America, have been wrongly labeled as nativists by a few bloggers for following in Barbara Jordan’s footsteps. Approaching the US population issue not only from this economic point of view, but a domestic sustainability point of view as well, they advocate for family planning assistance to developing countries, as well as reducing legal immigration to a sustainable number.

There is a tendency in some media to assume that anyone concerned about limiting immigration is racist without looking at their motivations. This creates even greater stigma against the population field – in this case, by a magazine that at least had the good sense to bring the global issue of population out of the closet. There are also those who say that anyone concerned with global population issues must be driven by racist concerns. But as a driving factor in determining whether human civilization is sustainable, the population issue is too important to be ignored, and the name calling against those working toward true sustainability on the planet needs to stop.

Read Population the Last Taboo on Mother Jones

Post Carbon Fellow William N. Ryerson is President, Population Media Center and Population Institute

Photo credit: squiggle/flickr

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Reader Comments


Birth Tax

From: Dan Robinson, May 31, 10 08:50 PM

Dennis Falgout, one could maybe argue that "the best management of resources is accomplished by the persons who own the resources." But if a culture feels it's hurt by individuals' use of individual resources, is there any reason for such individuals to expect to share the benefits of that culture? My ideal is to replace emphasis on commandments and prohibitions with rewards and punishments. Here that would mean a birth tax instead of deductions, probably according the square of the number of children per mother.

From: John R Bell, May 31, 10 08:16 PM

The author doth protest too much. It is clear to me that a preoccupation with immigration is necessarily racist in its effects and in its unconscious intent and does nothing to address the global population issue per se. If I were an affluent American--and I do not mean merely the members of the corporate oligarchy and the old fashioned capitalists in America who still produce a small quantity of the goods affluent Americans overconsume--I would put all my efforts into downsizing the population of affluent, voracious consumers in NA-- and elsewhere-- especially since the affluent no longer have skills which will permit them to survive in the post-peak energy era. The overpopulation issue is not the last taboo. The wealthy and privileged trot out these arguments about once every generation. Global populations will level off one way or the other before the end of this century. If we want that leveling not to involve a large die off we should down size our economy immediately and curb the population of those who consume most. You can do this without lecturing people in developing nations but you wont because you are incapable of making the sacrifices you demand of others.

We're going through the bottleneck like it or not....

From: Tim Wessels, May 31, 10 08:05 PM

Humans are going to go through the over population bottleneck during this century. Our evolutionary drive is to expand our numbers until we crash into the wall of ecological scarcity. And when the going gets tough, we will kill other humans and take whatever resources we can from whoever has them. This is what human civilizations have done in the past and I see no reason to believe we will behave any differently this time. The reason no one talks about over population publicly is because we have a built-in bias against self-knowledge. In other words, no one wants to consciously acknowledge the consequences of their actions when it comes to having children. The human population is destined to crash as it goes through the population bottleneck. How could it be otherwise? Peak Oil = Peak Food = Peak People. When the natural resource base collapses so will the human population.

Is the Population Crisis Real?

From: Meg, May 31, 10 06:01 PM

We are always being told that the biggest threat to the planet is overpopulation. However I recently saw a video where population expert Dr Jacqueline Kasun, offered a different perspective on the so-called "population bomb". The video is called
"What Happened to the Population Bomb? [Jacqueline R. Kasun]." Not sure if able to give you a link, but will try. It is:

carbon offsets as social policy

From: Leslie Levy, May 21, 10 11:15 PM

Wouldn't it be enlightened if societies valued the unused womb at least as much, if not more, than the productive womb of women.

In China, childless working women are able to receive extra social security in retirement. It is both a social incentive, to not produce extra children to ensure social engagement and security in old age, as well as an offset for having not burdened the health, education and welfare sectors of their society ... It will also compensate them for the absence of family to care for them in their dotage.

In Argentina and Brazil, men who ranch cattle or grow soybeans are given World Bank subsidies to not clear more acreage of the rain forest.

Why then should childless women not receive an extra social stipend as a social carbon offset for their unused wombs?

In today's society the childless women are often the social outcasts and the crazy aunts in the attics of their families. They have nowhere to come from and nothing to leverage and enjoy neither social status nor veneration for their sacrifices and wisdom as elders.

This must change in an interconnected planet that values sustainability.

No child should be born as a right of passage into adulthood or as a link to the social security of its mother. All children should be a treasured gift.


From: Dennis Falgout, May 20, 10 12:49 PM

Your words about management of human behavior make me uneasy. To consider such a path assumes that there is a wise man living on top of the mountain who knows what is best for all of humanity and that he is willing to impart his knowledge to us.

I think that no such wise guy exists and that central planning and behavior management is unwise. Think 1984.

I also think that the best management of resources is accomplished by the persons who own the resources and whose long-term well-being is tied to the continued success of his resource management.

However, this discussion is not quite what I was talking about earlier. We were discussing resource depletion, e.g. petroleum, iron ore, and other resources that we may deplete. These are the ones that we can and will replace.

Resources such as fish, and wood can be managed to ensure that a long-term supply exists. Those resources we can and do manage.

Competition for limited resources is not necessarily a bad thing. So long as it does not devolve into murder and warfare, it is an effective means of dividing that which we all seek. Or, it leads to innovation and development of replacements for lacking resources.

Malthus and population size optimism

From: OldStone50, May 20, 10 05:22 AM

Re: Malthus et al., From Dennis Falgout, May 19, 10 10:39 AM

Our ability to extract resources from the planet over the next few centuries is indeed an unknown. With various local exceptions excluded, humans have always managed to strip more resources from the environment and that supports your argument that every day in every way things get better and better.

But do consider that as the low-hanging fruit is systematically picked away, and as more and more extreme measures are needed to get the less easily picked stuff, the more and more we must manage human behavior. No one with a good education today can honestly shrug their shoulders about dumping waste engine oil on the ground behind the shop. No one can honestly be carefree about pumping SO2 out of coal burners. No one can honestly argue that access to fishery resources needs no restrictions. In other words, as our demand on resources increase, so does the demand for management of human behavior.

But wait, there's more. As each of us gains more and more access to the resources that are accessible (through wealth), then, more and more, there are conflicts about who has precedence in accessing those resources. Strangely, it seems people all seem to want the choicest resources, and, coincidentally, that seems to lead to the greatest conflicts around the choicest stuff. Think oil fields, think water, think that gap in the traffic up ahead, think admission into Harvard. The answer is more management of human behavior. Some say the answer is let's you and him behave themselves, i.e., keep the "foreigners" out. But ultimately, the more and more people, the more and more restrictions are necessary. In any case, if you have a good education, you realize there is something fundamentally unstable about a system based on let's you and him behave themselves.

I'm not here to vote for a population size, only to point out that the population size of today, and of tomorrow, is not, and will not be, their fault. And that population size has consequences.

Malthus et al.

From: Dennis Falgout, May 19, 10 10:39 AM

Brad Bardwell,

The United Nations, Population Division has published their population projections for the world at They have developed projections for individual countries, regions and for the World as a whole. Their data indicate that the birth rate (children per woman) has been declining steadily since 1970 or so. They project that the birth rate should fall below 2.3 children per woman by 2025. After that point the population growth will slow and eventually begin falling. By 2050 the World population growth rate should be about 0.34 percent per year, down from 2.02 percent per year in 1971 – 1975. At some time during the next 20 years we will have forgotten the erroneous projections of Paul Ehrlich and his acolytes and gotten on with our lives. (Rest easy, I am sure that there will be a plethora of replacement dire warnings to keep the press happy.)

Humans of the Ehrlich ilk have been warning us of impending disaster that shortages of critical resources will bring for several hundred years. We always have had prophets of doom warning us that our profligate ways will lead us to rack and ruin. It has never happened. Humans are resourceful; as one resource becomes scarce and expensive, some innovator springs into action and finds another, usually better, way to fill the need.

I know it sounds like “keep the faith”. On the other hand there is nothing but faith that the Malthusians will someday be correct to sustain the dread.

Well said.

From: Brad Bardwell, May 18, 10 11:17 PM

It seems bizarre that population receives so little attention when it is such an obvious driver of disturbing ecological degradation, social strife, and resource depletion. Yes, these are complex issues not driven simply by population growth. But NGOs and governments stubbornly ignore the unsustainable population growth. Thank you to Mr. Ryerson for being a rational and well informed voice.

Population growth is indeed a global problem. But it is a local and regional problem too, so should be addressed from many angles. Neither family planning nor immigration can be ignored. If we shy from discussing immigration policy for fear of being viewed as discriminatory, a piece of the population problem is neglected.

Dennis Falgout is correct that increasing wealth is positively correlated with declining birth rates, and likely causal. Yet it is very unlikely the planet can support raising 7-9 billion people to anywhere near current U.S. and European material wealth, so we better work on other ways to influence behaviors and expectations.


From: Maria Stadtmueller, May 15, 10 02:37 PM

Thank you, Bill, for clarifying these issues. There is so much work to be done along the cultural persuasion lines of your excellent organization.

I am the daughter of an immigrant (who came through Ellis Island in the 1920s)--which some people seem to think disqualifies me from desiring immigration limits now. Do I want to shut the door now that I'm in? Not at all--I'd rather make the trip unnecessary in the first place, so people can stay with their families and in their cultures. If we could divert the spending used for border walls (not to mention the DoD) to help vulnerable communities build workable local economies, we wouldn't have our current immigration pressures.
Just because Emma Lazarus wrote a poem back in the day doesn't mean everyone can live here. Immigration is a symptom of a larger predicament based on overpopulation and economic exploitation, and racism need not have anything to do with it.


From: Dennis Falgout, May 15, 10 07:08 AM

I think that both “Mother Jones” and William Ryerson have cause and effect confused. Increased prosperity and well-being limit birth rates; poverty and despair increase birth rates. We need not worry about successful societies expanding to exceed their resources; they will not. The evidence for this view, which the UN embraces, lies in the populations of Europe, North America, Japan, and to an increasing degree, India. The white populations in the US, Canada, and Europe have reduced their birth rates to the steady state level of 2.2 or 2.3, children per couple. In Europe, the white birth rate is lower than 2.0 children per couple and their populations are falling. Immigration and birth rates among immigrants accounts for all European and North American population increases. The population of Japan is falling. The highest birth rates are always among the poorest peoples.

The message is that the way to control population is to increase the success of the society and wealth of the population. It is not possible to increase economic success and wealth by limiting the population.

Births attributed to...?

From: Ed Straker, May 14, 10 04:23 PM

"one birth every 7 seconds"

I read a report recently that said the birthrate in the US is driven by recent immigrants (legal or otherwise). So this is in fact a byproduct of immigration. The fact of the matter is Latin America is a catholic region and we have anchor-baby laws that reward illegals having kids on US soil.

From: dave, May 14, 10 01:30 PM

I think it is incredibly important that we find some way to get people to think rationally about overpopulation and simply look at the facts. The problem is, nobody wants to be that guy, the one who tells people to look at the numbers, and convince people you're not entitled to have as many children as you want now. When your forefathers could, there where only 1,2,3 billion people here. Now theres almost 7.

Its also an important issue to link immigration and population growth. Native births may outstrip actual immigration numbers, but think about it, what age and why do people emigrate to a perceived better place ?
to start a family! Once people emigrate to the US (one every 37 seconds) then they join the pool of people having babies every 7 seconds.
The notion that one really doesn't add to the other is silly.

But on the same note, immigration can be discarded as simply a pathetic argument as this is a global problem. Only for local resources should this be discussed.

I myself am an immigrant to the US from the UK, I plan to have one child of my own (less than replacement) and adopt one child, thereby hopefully raising its standard of life and taking it from an environment where it may have contributed to the modality which bought it into being. (I'll convince my kids they only need one kid, and perhaps adopt like me)

The real problem when it comes to passionate issues like this is oh no. Religion. Does anyone want to talk to the mormons about this, or the catholic church ?
No thanks.

From: OldStone50, May 14, 10 10:18 AM

Steven Karrin wrote: "they tend to have far more children".

Precisely. The U.S. now has in place policy which encourages birth. Given such policy, is it any wonder that the birth rate in that region is so high?

Again, births in the U.S. area run at five times the level of net immigration. It is primarily local births that are growing that area's population. If your choice is to have a population size at or below the present level, then the most effective policy will address the primary source of the problem.

More intricate

From: Steven Karrin, May 14, 10 07:45 AM

I think Mr. RYerson (i'm no expert) would give you a more detailed view of what additive problems immigration creates. Immigrant populations put added stress on resources that ripple outward and effect reproductive rates in the native population. You can't separate the two. In the case of Mexico in the U.S., with the immigrant's being infected, nearly 100%, by rampant Catholocism and poverty, once they migrate they tend to have far more children, raising the host-country reproductive rate. This has been show to be a result of uncontrolled immigration many times in the past.

The U.S. doesn't have the resources to reach, let alone educate the new population, one that is given every opportunity to seal itself away from main society (unlike earlier generations of immigrants into the U.S. which were forced to learn the language and customs). This makes it very hard to eradicate the ignorant adherence to religion that causes so much of the problem.

Who's to blame for population size crisis

From: OldStone50, May 14, 10 05:43 AM

Mr. Ryerson, while clarifying one misinterpretation, perpetuates another that is also widely persistent: the idea that international migration is the driving force of population size growth. Unless he has evidence that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates are wrong, then the U.S., for instance, actually has approximately one net immigrant only every 37 seconds, but one birth every 7 seconds. In other words, births outstrip immigrants by a factor of five. The level of immigration reflects only existing people moving around, it is the problem of excess births that is growing the population size. It is, in fact a problem of inland births, not outland job seekers. The more urgent policy needing to be addressed is the policy that encourages births in the U.S., not the policy that builds barriers to freedom of movement.