The Taboo Topic of Overpopulation

The Mother: Caring for 7 Billion

Christophe Forchere (2011)

As the title suggests, The Mother is about the taboo topic of global overpopulation and its role in serious environmental degradation and growing food and water shortages. The film maintains that our refusal to discuss the population issue leads to confusion and oversimplification. Based on our success in halving population growth over the last fifty years, policy makers make out the problem is solved and there’s no need to discuss it any longer. This complacency can be very dangerous, especially as various countries, worried about supporting a large aged population, start bribing women to have more babies.

According to the filmmakers, population pressures play out differently in developed and developing countries. In developed countries overconsumption compounds the impact of population growth on fragile ecosystems and increasingly scarce resources. This overconsumption is largely driven by artificially created consumer demand orchestrated by a political/economic system obsessed with continuous economic growth. In the US, especially, population pressures (eg media pressure on women to have babies) are an important driver of consumer demand and economic growth

When you include immigration, the US is the third fastest growing country in the world. Rapid population growth is a major culprit in continuing joblessness in the US. The economy would need to add 150,000 jobs per month just to keep up with their growing population, yet clearly falls short of this number.

In the developing world, overpopulation plays an important role in malnutrition, starvation deaths and epidemic disease levels. Here, the film asserts, the number one cause of excess population growth is male dominance over women. In many developing countries, poverty leads families to marry off their daughters as young as nine or ten, while patriarchal fundamentalist religions forbid them from using birth control.

For me the high point of the film was a section on the Population Media Center, which works to empower Ethiopian women and improve their access to education and contraception. Their most effective strategy has been to create radio soap operas with charismatic female characters who serve as role models for young women.

One study revels these programs increased the use of contraception by 150% in a single year. They also gave teenage girls confidence to stay in school rather than following family dictates to marry older men. Research consistently shows that educating girls postpones them marrying and having children, keeps them HIV negative and causes them to have fewer children.

The film also stresses the importance of microfinance in empowering women – and communities – as women are more likely than men to invest their profits in their communities. Globally only 1% of women are able to obtain loans from traditional banks.

*Microfinance is the provision of savings accounts, loans, insurance, money transfers and other banking services (usually by non-profit organizations) to customers that lack access to traditional banks. Traditional microlending models gear these services towards women in developing countries.

Upcycyling: Saving the Planet by Design

the upcycle

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance

 By William McDonough and Michael Braungart

2013 Northpoint Press

 Book Review

In The Upcycle, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Dr Michael Braungart offer a new improved version of the cradle to cradle (C2C) vision they first introduced with their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

C2C design is an approach to architecture and manufacturing that seeks to lessen environmental damage and the impact of resource scarcity by revolutionizing the way we design products, factories, buildings and cities – as opposed to trying to undo or minimize the negative effects of conventional production. There are no villains in C2C design. McDonough and Braungart are highly critical of the current tendency to demonize carbon, given its role as an essential building block of life. There’s simply too much of it accumulating in the atmosphere when it should be returning to the soil for food production. They also object to labeling incandescent light bulbs, air travel, long showers and disposable diapers as “bad for the environment.” Instead of shaming and penalizing people who use these products for “wasting energy,” we should be trying to find more efficient ways to produce them.

Imitating Nature’s Design Principles

A fundamental precept of C2C design is its emphasis on biomimicry, i.e. copying the genius of nature’s design principles. One of the major drawbacks of conventional industry is a built-in inefficiency in which valuable resources are lost to the landfill, incineration or runoff. In C2C design, as in nature, there is no waste. Instead products, industries and processes are designed in such a way that waste from one provides the raw materials for others. McDonough and Braungart argue that the initial design of any product, building or factory should include detailed planning for the new products that will be made from its basic elements when it wears out or is torn down. For example, a C2C computer would be designed to be returned to the manufacturer and easily disassembled into safe, environmentally friendly components that can easily be put to other uses.

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

With their new book, the authors elaborate on their earlier work by introducing the concept of “upcycling.” This they define as optimizing the materials, ingredients and process pathways in such a way that waste is converted to raw materials for nature or some other industry. By ensuring that scarce natural resources, such as aluminum, copper, water and wood, are continuously reused, there is less pressure to destroy more and more of the environment to replace them.

After consulting with hundreds of businesses and cities on adopting C2C design principles, in 2010 they started McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The latter issues C2C certification for companies and products based on five quality categories:

  1. Use of materials that are safe and healthy for humans and the environment
  2. Incorporation of design principles that allow all products to be reused by nature or industry.
  3. Use of renewable, non-polluting energy in the manufacture and assembly process.
  4. Use of production processes that protect and enrich the water supply.
  5. Treatment of all people involved in a socially responsible way.

The Upcycle presents numerous real life cases demonstrating the enormous economic advantages C2C technology can have for business. Lower energy and water processing costs can save tens of millions of dollars in both upfront capital costs and long term operational costs.

The Argument Against Biofuels, Nuclear Energy and Dam-Based Hydropower

A large section of The Upcycle analyzes the cost and desirability of current renewable energy options. Biofuels, nuclear energy and dam-based hydropower are rejected as being incompatible with C2C technology. Not only is the current biofuel industry responsible for massive rainforest destruction in Indonesia, but it offers no significant reduction in CO2 emissions (because they contain the same complex carbon chains, biofuels produce as much CO2 as fossil fuels).

Nuclear technology, in turn, creates a massive amount of permanent waste that can’t be diverted to other safe uses.

Meanwhile large dams, which cause the same kind of environmental damage and habitat destruction as strip mining and nuclear energy, has virtually decimated the wild salmon population in the Pacific Northwest. The authors give much higher marks to small scale high head hydro generation in which water flowing downstream turns a ferris wheel-type generator.

They also feel solar, wind (especially offshore wind generation, which is less aesthetically controversial), geothermal and biogas from manure and landfill waste have great promise. They note that as of June 2 2012 wind-generated electricity is two cents per kilowatt hour cheaper than coal.

Michael Braungart is featured in the following video Pyramids of Waste aka The Lightbulb Conspiracy:

Population and Sustainability: the Elephant in the Room


Population control is a taboo topic among in most sustainability circles. It shouldn’t be. According to a University of Oregon study, childbearing is the number one carbon intensive activity. Having just one has twenty times the impact of a lifetime of carbon frugality.

How Many People Can the Earth Support?

The human species lives on a finite planet with finite resources. Growing evidence suggests we have already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity. WHO and World Hunger data reveal our current system of industrial agriculture only feeds 84% of the global population. At present nearly a billion people (out of 7 billion) die of starvation or malnutrition-related disease.

I used to believe that third world hunger stemmed purely from inequality and maldistribution of food resources. Now I’m not so sure. In the past five years, desertification, drought, extreme weather events, increasing fossil fuel prices*, water scarcity and topsoil depletion have caused global food production to level out and start to decline.

The Good News

The good news is that fertility rates are already dropping. According to the CIA (the official source of international fertility data), the current global fertility rate is 2.45 births per woman. This is down from 2.50 in 2011 and 2.90 in 2006.

Demographers attribute the drop in third world fertility rates to massive urbanization and the entry of women into the workforce. In the developed world, declining fertility rates seem more closely linked to worsening economic conditions. In Japan, which has in continuous recession for two decades, the fertility rate is 1.39 In Greece it’s 1.40, in Italy 1.41.

At a global fertility rate of 2.45, the world will reach  replacement rate (2.1 births per woman), between 2020 and 2030 and peak at 8.5 billion in 2030.

At present the planet only feeds 5.88 billion people. Could we feed 8.5 billion? Possibly. If they all give up meat and we dig up a few thousand parking lots and return them to food production.

Dropping Fertility Rates: A Capitalist’s Worst Nightmare

The bad news is the enormous pressure Wall Street exerts to keep birth rates high. Declining population growth threatens the robust economic growth our current economic system relies on.

Like a pyramid scheme, monopoly capitalism is based on the continual creation of new debt. Perpetual economic growth is essential to repay this ever increasing debt. Without it, the pyramid collapses.

The Pressure to Have Babies

At present the US and New Zealand are tied for the second highest fertility rate (at 2.06) in the industrialized word (France is highest at 2.08). The first two countries share two specific population drivers: a high rate of teen pregnancy and the bombardment of young women with constant pro-baby media messaging.

The US is number one in the developed world for teen pregnancy. New Zealand is number two. Although Kiwi teenagers have excellent access to reproductive services (including abortion) through our national health service, there’s no effort to provide effective sex education in our public schools.

Meanwhile, thanks to the capture of New Zealand popular culture by American mass media, Kiwi girls are bombarded with the same well-oiled messaging about the new feminine mystique: that without thin, perfect bodies, faces, hair, husbands and babies, they are utterly worthless as women.

In the US, teenage girls have abysmal access to both sex education and contraception. It’s tempting to blame this on the rise of the religious right. I think the issue deserves more scrutiny. A close look at the millionaires and billionaires who have facilitated the boom in right wing fundamentalism suggests they have cynical economic reasons for furthering policies that ensure robust US population growth.

We Need a Movement

Clearly activists who are genuine about curbing carbon emissions must give population control the same priority they give changing light bulbs, installing solar panels and reducing car trips. We’re not talking mandatory sterilization, abortion or eugenics – but voluntary steps people can take to curb their fertility.

So what does a population control movement look like? First it’s got lots of men in it. Access to affordable abortion and contraception is no longer a woman’s issue – it deeply affects all of us. Growthbusters guru Dave Gardner clearly does his part by handing out endangered species condoms in the street. 

Secondly it works to actively counteract Wall Street messaging that pressurizes women to have more babies. The sustainability movement is successfully counteracting messages to consume more and incur more debt. There’s no reason we can’t do the same with pro-baby messaging. There are numerous advantages to remaining childless. We need to promote them.  

Finally it actively campaigns to reduce teen pregnancy.There is absolutely no reason why the Christian right should have a monopoly on pregnancy counseling. Progressives and liberals need to start our own rape crisis and sex education clinics, comparable to the “birth right” counseling movement. If the schools won’t do it, we need to educate teenage girls about debt rape and where they can obtain free and low cost contraception and morning after pills.

During the sixties, activists concerned about oppression in the schools, medical system, and other pro-corporate entities started their own alternative schools, clinics, abortion centers and child care programs. It’s time we followed their example.

*Fossil fuels are essential for industrial agriculture. In addition to fueling farm machinery, the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used in factory farming also derive from fossil fuels.

 Originally published in Dissident Voice

 photo credit: David Blackwell

Teen Pregnancy: Do Your Part

pregnant teen

Skyrocketing population growth is one of the most serious threats to the fragile biosphere that supports human existence. Fertility rates in most of the industrialized world have slowed dramatically over the last decade. Except for the US. Thanks to high rates of teen pregnancy (the highest in the developed world), US fertility rates remain higher than many other countries.*

 In July, under a US District Court order, the FDA authorized pharmacies to sell Plan B One Step tablets over-the-counter (without prescription) without age restriction.** Plan B One-Step, also known as the “morning after pill,” is designed for women who, for a variety of reasons, engage in unprotected intercourse. Thanks to the new rules, all women of reproductive age should be be able to find the tablets on the shelf of their local drug store, like any other product. Unfortunately many pharmacies still aren’t compliant with FDA regulations and either keep Plan B tablets behind the counter or in locked cabinets. As evidenced in the following video:

As part of a national pressure campaign, The Reproductive Justice Reporting Project of the Media Consortium is asking members of the public to help by completing the “Where’s Your Plan B?” survey.

The next time you visit your local pharmacy, please complete the form provided at Where’s Your Plan B?

If you have a smartphone, you can fill the form out while you are still at the drug store. If not, print the form out, fill it out at the store, and transfer the details to the online form when you get home.***

*Fertility rates by country (World Bank)

  • US – 1.89 children per woman
  • China – 1.58 children per woman
  • Italy – 1.41 children per woman
  • Japan – 1.39 children per woman
  • Germany – 1.36 children per woman
  • Spain – 1.36 children per woman

**Studies show that difficulty accessing birth control (such as Plan B One Step) is the primary reason why American teenagers experience the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies in the industrialized world.

***You don’t have to be a woman of reproductive age to complete the form. Overpopulation isn’t a woman’s issue – it affects all of us.

photo credit: cobalt123 via photopin cc