When environmental writers are part of the problem

Note: The article below has appeared in several online publications. Though its roots were in an earlier GIM piece, it’s a rather different essay. I hope GIM readers who haven’t previously navigated to it through the link in the Off-site Articles section will find it worth a read.

In recent months there have been signs that some concerned about global sustainability are beginning to recognize once again that population size and growth must have a central place in any discussion of our ecological dilemma. Avoidance of the topic continues, though, among environmentalists who might otherwise raise awareness of the nature of the environmental challenges ahead. With that in mind, here’s a look at how environmental writers are sometimes part of the problem. — JF


Avoiding the truth

By John Feeney:

Something’s missing in today’s environmental discussion. When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers are telling us more than half the story. Al Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and long time sustainability activist calls it “the silent lie.” It’s the near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.

John Holdren, last year’s president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told us the whole story over a decade ago in an article titled, “Population and the Energy Problem.” In it, he observed that the total energy consumption for a country or the world, is the product of population size multiplied by the average per capita energy use. Today, the developers of the “ecological footprint” measure, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagle, echo Holdren when they explain:

[The ecological footprint] for the world as a whole is the product of population times per capita consumption, and reflects both the level of consumption and the efficiency with which resources are turned into consumption products.

That the size and growth of the global population is a root cause of ecological degradation, including climate change, is in fact well known to scientists. Yet statements to that effect get little traction in the mainstream media. We hear all about the need to save energy by switching to florescent light bulbs. We read about the ethanol debate and carbon trading schemes. We urge our representatives to establish tougher fuel economy standards. But in all the talk of ways of reducing per person consumption, how often does anyone mention the need to address the other factor in the the equation? In today’s environmental writing, population growth is the elephant in the room.

What are environmental writers thinking?

Why the silence? Population growth received a good deal of attention in the 1960s and 1970s. But then came China’s draconian one child policy, right wing groups pushing free market capitalism by cheerleading growth and dismissing the need to limit our numbers, and political wrangling among environmental and social justice groups, all seeking the spotlight for their own issues. The result was the demotion of population from its status as social and environmental issue number one.

Indeed, some writers today actively avoid the subject of population despite recognizing its importance. Not long ago, for instance, David Roberts, environmental writer at Grist, made it clear he recognizes that to reduce humanity’s ecological footprint to a sustainable level we’ll need to deal with the population problem. Yet he acknowledged he never writes on the subject. His reason? “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 seems typical of many environmental writers and organizations. And my purpose is not to single him out. He’s merely one of the few writers who’s been willing to speak openly on this subject. For that he deserves credit. But is his view wise?

What’s better, truth or avoidance?

I have no doubt Roberts and most environmentalists who share his view are well meaning. But I don’t believe the subject of population is, in fact, the “political poison” he thinks it is. Though they do so too infrequently and too quietly, organizations such as the UN and the AAAS, a variety of groups such as Population Action International, the Population Media Center, and the Izaak Walton League, environmentalists such as Lester Brown, and writers in periodicals such as Science, Scientific American, the Guardian, and the Christian Science Monitor do grapple with it. And there’s no evidence their work has set back the environmental cause. They identify population growth as a problem 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 (and ultimately population size) 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. That means improving education for girls and economic opportunities for women in developing countries. It means increasing access to family planning and reproductive health care services, and encouraging positive attitudes toward smaller families. And it means reducing infant mortality rates. Any notion that it need involve involuntary measures of any kind is a distraction we mustn’t allow to dominate policy.

Is silly, agenda-driven slander a reason to avoid the truth?

Roberts is right that some have tried to use the population topic 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. Their attacks are best dealt with head on, exposing their agenda-driven illogic. It’s unfortunate some of their arguments have been embraced by a small subset of the political left who see population as a distraction from their personal causes. In the US, however, after seven years of the Bush administration’s decimation of environmental laws, and a decade or more of elective mutism with regard to population, to blame any part of the environmental movement’s struggles on the handling of the population issue is more than a stretch.

Consider as well that few who don’t scour the Web for such niche groups’ writings have ever heard of any negative connotations associated with addressing population growth. 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 some environmentalists. On the contrary, I’ve encountered almost universal recognition that population is, in itself, a problem needing more attention. Environmentalists who avoid the the subject of population out of fear of its “connotations” are fretting over esoteric arguments found only among other writers.

Time to correct a damaging strategy

What has been the result of this inattention? A few months ago, a major report from the UK, which solicited the input of scores of scientists, asserted that the last decade of neglect of the population issue had seriously hindered environmental and social causes. It has only hastened ecological degradation, the effects of which are becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, how could this inattention not have set back the environmental movement? It has meant a loss of attention to a key driving force behind our ecological decline.

We need to correct this. Environmental writers who have avoided the subject of population should rethink their stance. Let’s embrace truth, not avoidance.
Image source: kxp130’s photostream, flickr.com, posted under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license.

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12 responses to “When environmental writers are part of the problem

  1. Dear Friends,

    Sometimes it looks to me as if some of our brothers and sisters are so singlemindedly focused on the accumulation of wealth and power, in feathering their own gigantic nests, frequenting exclusive clubs, flying private jets, sailing yachts and visiting exotic hideaways, that they have forgotten how human life depends upon Earth’s limited resources and frangible ecosystem services for its very existence.

    The “powers that be” have evidently failed to understand what it means when we say that the Earth is round, finite and has biophysical limits to which the human species is absolutely subjugated. One consequence of this denial of the requirements of practical reality by the masters of the universe among us is that the scale and rate of per capita consumption is dissipating natural resources at an accelerating rate, one that is growing much faster than the Earth can restore them for human benefit. So obviously unsustainable is per human overconsumption by a minority of people in our time that we can observe some of overconsumption’s devastating effects: biodiversity is being extirpated, the environment degraded and humanity itself endangered.

    Is the fulfillment of the insatiable wishes of unrestrained consumers a result of unbridled big business interests relentlessly pursuing a course of endless economic expansion, based upon the feckless consumption of the very limited resources needed for the survival of life as we know it?

    Is the human species literally eating itself out of house and home?

    How do things look to you, environmental writers?

    Thanks for your consideration and comments here. Letters to news editors, social movements and cultural change are also encouraged.



  2. Dear Environmental Writers,

    I believe this is one way to begin. We have to speak of topics that are taboo, just as we do in this community.

    My greatest concern is that the undoing of the human species, and life as we know it, could inadvertently occur as a result of the adamant and relentless maintenance of SILENCE.

    Silence is something to be feared. Silence is especially terrifying and potentially ruinous when it is actively employed as a tool for denying good science.

    Are ubiquitous daily decisions to remain silent, and not speak the truth as we see it, not tantamount to becoming co-conspirators with the hiers of Ozymandias, the children of men, the masters of the universe who are pursuing a primrose path toward an unacceptable risk of NO-FUTURE for our children?

    Perhaps the time for us is “now here” lest our children end up no-where.

    With thanks to the Earth-keepers,


  3. “Are ubiquitous daily decisions to remain silent, and not speak the truth as we see it, not tantamount to becoming co-conspirators with the hiers of Ozymandias….”

    This is the way I see it as well.

    I would guess such silence reflects a kind of denial, as well, whereby those who refrain from speaking up may understand intellectually the risks involved in our ecological challenge but, in an effort not to face them, still don’t really grasp them in their gut. If they did really grasp them, after all, it seems hard to believe they would remain silent.

  4. Excellent essay, John. I particularly like the way you tackle the issue head-on: “That the size and growth of the global population is a root cause of ecological degradation, including climate change, is in fact well known to scientists.”

    Sure, there is a cost to raising any hotbutton issue, but failure to do so when we know there’s a problem — especiallly such a fundamental one with such far reaching effects — is moral failure.

  5. Hi to all,

    It is time for a bit of bittersweet humor from one of America’s greatest funny people(at least in my opinion) . What follows is the opening of letter.

    Message from George Carlin:

    The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider
    freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

    We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too
    recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get
    too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read
    too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.

    We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

    We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life.

    We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve
    been all the way to the moon and back, but have
    trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor.

    We conquered outer space but not inner space.

    We’ve done larger things, but not better things.

    We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul.

    We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

    These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep
    profits and shallow relationships. These are the
    days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier
    houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can
    choose either to share this insight, or to just hit

    Remember, spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever.

    Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side.

    Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn’t cost a cent.

    Remember, to say, “I love you” to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you. Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak, and give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.

    Life is not measured by the number of breaths we
    take, but by the moments that take our breath away…………………………………….

    > > -George Carlin

  6. A growing and now pervasive UNWILLINGNESS exists worldwide to do what is necessary to save life as we know it and the integrity of Earth’s body.

    Everywhere we look people in the very best positions to do meaningful things to save the planet we inhabit are lost to this cause, it appears.

    This week, Forbes Magazine indicates in its current list of the 400 Richest People that, for the first time, all the billionaires will not fit on the list of 400. Apparently 82 billionaires had to be left off the list. At least to me, it looks as if too many of our “brothers-with billions” are so singlemindedly focused on the accumulation of wealth and power, in feathering their own gigantic nests, frequenting exclusive clubs, flying private jets, sailing yachts and visiting exotic hideaways, that they have forgotten how human life depends upon Earth’s limited resources and frangible ecosystem services for its very existence.

    These “powers that be” have evidently also forgotten what words mean when we say that the Earth is not flat and endless but round, finite and relatively small. One consequence of their widely shared and consensually validated denial of the requirements of practical reality is that the scale and rate of conspicuous per capita consumption is dissipating natural resources much faster than the Earth can restore them for human benefit. So over-the-top is per human resource consumption by a small minority of people in our time that biodiversity is being massively extirpated, the environment irreversibly degraded and humanity potentially endangered.

    Is the fulfillment of the insatiable wishes of unrestrained consumers unexpectedly and perversely tangled up with unbridled big business interests relentlessly pursuing a course of endless economic expansion? Are we fecklessly consuming the very resources needed for our survival? Is humankind being taken for a ride along a primrose path the ends up with our species inadvertently eating itself out of house and home?

    Thanks for your consideration and comments.

  7. The issue with focusing on population control is that it’s contributing less to the problem than American consumption. The average American consumes greater than 10x the resources of the 3rd world people having several children that the population growth advocates are trying to limit, and is thus the problem we should focus on first. Doing otherwise is racist.

    What scares me the most is the people in 3rd world countries beginning to adopt the American lifestyle.

  8. burritoboy,

    Your last line contradicts your first. That economies in developing countries are growing extremely fast means their per capita consumption is growing extremely fast.

    China’s total consumption is now greater than the US’s by many measures due to sheer numbers. And per capita consumption is now skyrocketing. India’s economy is growing rapidly and its population will surpass that of China before long.

    Therefore the equation, (average per capita consumption rate) * (population size), puts such parts of the world on a collision course with disaster, just as we in the developed countries are on that course. That alone justifies a focus on both population and per capita consumption in both places.

    Population in both the first and third worlds are far too high. We are far into overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Even if we all consumed energy at rates similar to the average citizen of India, that would remain the case. Populations almost everywhere, including the US and Europe have to come way, way down. (Mere stabilization is insufficient by a long shot.) A colossal number of lives are at stake and may be lost regardless. But a huge number may be spared if we tackle population with our eyes open.

    Sorry, but the racist action is to dismiss the lives of billions of humans in the third world because we are unwilling to acknowledge the earth’s limits and the fact that we’ve far overshot them in nearly every country, and that the global population will inevitably come down drastically whether at the hand of nature or through our own voluntary, planned actions. We have a choice.

    Note too that simply reducing energy consumption, even if we were able to succeed beyond our wildest dreams, either through lifestyle and societal changes or techo-fixes, is not enough to solve our ecological problems. Even if we “solved” energy and used only abundant, renewable, clean energy, our far-too-large global population would still be consuming too much water, land, and other non-energy resources to be sustainable or to allow life for the rest of the inhabitants of the planet.

    There is no time, by the way, to focus on one problem “first.” We’re talking here about a few decades at best. If we’re to have any hope of softening the landing we must deal with the whole package right now.

    Here are some relevant links:







    I think those might shed some light. Any one should dispossess you of one or another aspect of the argument you’ve adopted (The Catton book should take care of the whole package.) which is popular among progressives with whom I otherwise sympathize, but who have failed, as badly as those on the right, to think through sufficiently the ecological challenges confronting us today.

  9. Hi all,

    First of all, excellent article. Now comes my point.

    As a matter of fact, I am wondering why the IPCC working group III, whose goal is to address climate change mitigation, does not state anything about how to take care of population growth as a way to limit our impact on the environment. I will use the equation I=PAT as a basis for my argumentation. I is our environmental Impact, being here CO2 emissions.

    As I have been (quickly) through this report, I have seen how we could change our consumption patterns (addressing A), or improve our technology by shifting towards renewable energy sources (factor T).

    But nothing is said about how to slow down population growth; although the group accepts it as a factor responsible for increasing CO2 emissions (quoting from the summary for policymakers: “the effect on global emissions of the decrease in global energy intensity (-33%) during 1970 to 2004 has been smaller than the combined effect of global per capita income growth (77%) and global population growth (69%); both drivers of increasing energy-related CO2 emissions”).

    The problem is that this report focuses merely on the existing and foreseen technological solutions that could help us, and how to politically and financially support their introduction into the market. But nothing is said about the third cause of increase of CO2 emissions.

    When such a scientific panel, considered to be the most qualified one on the issue of climate change, does not address population growth, I am not surprised that environmental writers do not speak out and write about it.
    I am interested in knowing what you think about this fact.

  10. Hi Julien,

    You raise an important issue. I can only speculate about the IPCC’s silence on population, or for that matter the silence of other scientific groups and individuals.

    The fact is that a fair number of respected groups and scientists have pointed to population as a key driver of ecological decline, including increasing CO2 emissions (just as I=PAT makes clear). But they tend only to do so too infrequently and not very loudly. Sometimes, as in the IPCC report, they don’t do so at all.

    A Bartlett has been quite critical of this:


    There seem to be a few possible reasons for it. One is the perceived magnitude of the problem – what Ken Smail calls “scale paralysis.”

    Then there’s the fear of criticism from those opposed to addressing population. This seems to be the cause of some environmentalists’ shying away from the issue. Bringing up population can trigger erroneous accusations of racism (as you can see in a comment just above), fallacious arguments that the problems is purely per capita consumption, and silly insistence that population growth is good because it means more minds to innovate solutions to the problems it’s created. :-/

    I’m thankful there are scientists out there today such as Chris Rapley who are speaking out about population. The notion that we can ignore it and expect to achieve sustainability will go down as one of the more destructive fallacies of our time.

    I’d like to hear from scientists such as those behind the IPCC report on their reasons for staying mum on it. For now, I can only guess.

    By the way, here are some statements and reports a number of credible scientific and similar groups have published:


    Hey, nice blog, by the way. I’ll be looking it over as I’m able!

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