It is indisputable that population size and growth are among the fundamental drivers of today’s ecological crisis. There’s no getting around the math that population size multiplies with per capita consumption to determine total resource consumption. Additional links between our numbers and ecological degradation are impossible to dismiss. Once one accounts for population, consumption rates, and corporate economic growth, one is hard pressed to identify any equally powerful contributors to environmental destruction. 
What are environmental writers thinking?
You may wonder, therefore, why the topic of population does not appear in nearly all media coverage of environmental problems. The population topic is, in fact, actively avoided by many environmental writers. The history of how it’s become a taboo subject is worth a few future posts, but Grist staff writer, David Roberts, recently summed up the thinking of some current writers.
Roberts recognizes the importance of stabilizing population and ultimately reducing global population size. He recognizes that this is best achieved through attention to women’s issues and economic factors. Yet he acknowledges that he never talks about population growth. Why? Because he believes:
talking about population as such alienates a large swathe of the general public. It carries vague connotations of totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics. It has been used quite effectively to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. It is political poison.
From what I’ve seen, Roberts’s view is not at all unusual among environmental writers and organizations. Reading it, I had to comment on his blog, though others had already offered worthwhile observations. (They include “Schach” and the tactful “biodiversivist” ) My comment is here.
What’s better, truth or avoidance?
I have no doubt Roberts is well meaning. But to elaborate on the comment I left on Grist, I don’t believe the subject of population is, in fact, the “political poison” he thinks it is. Though it’s covered too infrequently, organizations such as the UN and the AAAS, a variety of groups such as Population Action International, the Population Reference Bureau, and the Izaak Walton League, environmentalists such as Lester Brown, and periodicals such as Science, Scientific American, the Boston Globe, the Guardian/Observer, and the Christian Science Monitor do grapple with it. There is no evidence their work has set back the environmental cause. They talk about population because it’s the truth, and they know bringing people the truth is productive while avoiding it is ultimately damaging.
That some people jump to erroneous conclusions about “totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics” when they hear about reducing population growth (in part, perhaps, as a result of problems stemming from China’s one-child policy) is no reason to avoid the topic; it’s reason to clarify and inform. Addressing population growth means taking humane measures to assist with the social and economic issues which drive it. (As indicated in the Jeffrey Sachs column already cited. Or see the Trinifar article on Iran’s success with this challenge.) Those issues are, of course, important in their own rights, and all the more important due to their links to population growth.
Is silly, agenda-driven slander a reason to avoid the truth?
Roberts is right that some have used the population topic to try to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. He’s wrong in saying they’ve been effective. These groups presenting irrational arguments from such vantage points as the Christian right and the libertarian right have had, at best, a marginal impact, and their attacks are best dealt with head on, exposing their agenda-driven illogic. That elements of these groups’ arguments have been embraced by a small subset of the political left is unfortunate. (See, for instance some of the comments under this article on Alternet.) In the US, however, after seven years of the Bush Administration’s decimation of environmental laws, to blame any part of the environmental movement’s struggles on the handling of the population issue is more than a stretch. The UN and Science and the Boston Globe are not wrong to continue dealing in truth.
Consider as well that few who do not scour the Web for such niche groups’ writings have ever heard of any negative connotations associated with the population cause. I frequently raise the population issue with people in “real life,” and cannot recall an instance in which anyone has mentioned the connotations which concern Roberts. On the contrary, I’ve encountered almost universal recognition that population is, in itself, a problem needing more attention. I have to wonder if many environmental writers have turned away from population simply because they’ve heard that’s what good environmentalists are supposed to do. Roberts’s negative connotations are scarce among the general populace.
Incidentally, if we took Roberts’s argument seriously, given the importance of the population issue, the bizarre conclusion would be that environmental writers should talk constantly about women’s issues and economics topics with no mention of their connections to population and the environment. But they don’t do that either. Perhaps it’s because they would then no longer be environmental writers; they’d have to reinvent themselves as social or political writers, but not environmentalists. Could this dilemma be one more reason why population has received too little attention in recent decades?
Time to correct a damaging strategy
What has been the result of this inattention? The only conclusion can be that the silence on population in recent decades has been a serious setback to the environmental movement. It has only hastened the looming global ecological collapse we now face. In my comment on Grist, I quoted from the Science article I linked to above: “The loss of attention to population has created formidable problems for the future. Some countries are undergoing explosive and possibly unsustainable population growth…” Indeed, how could this inattention not have created problems? It has meant a loss of attention to one of the key driving forces behind our ecological decline.
We need to correct this. I hope David Roberts and other environmental writers who have avoided the subject of population will rethink their stance. We need to embrace truth, not avoidance.
 At that point one can quibble about whether population itself is a root cause of environmental problems or whether the root cause is better seen as the social issues which influence population growth. I would contend this question is of limited significance as understanding and effective action have to involve open acknowledgment of the relationship between these factors.
Image source: jumurawski, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license