Opinion: Overpopulation debate comes to one conclusion

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Overpopulation is the world’s biggest problem, write biologists Mary Ellen Harte and Anne Ehrlich in Thursday’s Op-Ed pages. They contend that the world’s growing population is creating an unsustainable strain on Earth’s resources and forcing the future of humanity to hang in the balance.

Our editorial board recently took a similar position in ‘Diffusing the population bomb.’ ‘Nations cannot indefinitely produce larger and larger generations to support older ones,’ they wrote. ‘Humans may have the reproductive ability to keep raising their numbers, but the planet on which they do it is finite.’


RealClearScience’s Alex B. Berezow, however, debates whether overpopulation is actually a crisis. He writes that we don’t need to worry about overpopulation because, in fact, in some places the population is actually decreasing. He offers birthrates in Russia as one example:

The problem is so bad in Russia, which may shrink by 25 million people in the next 40 years, that demographers are referring to a population crisis. This will put an enormous strain on Russia’s economy as the government struggles to care for its aging population.

The real issue, Berezow says, is the distribution of the world’s population. ‘After all, only so many people can fit on the coasts of China, India, and the United States,’ he writes. “There are many wide-open spaces for the population to expand. The trick will be to figure out a way to incentivize responsible growth, not to discourage it entirely.’

That last bit about responsibility is a perspective all three parties agree on in one way or another. What we need, they say, is access to better education.

Here’s Harte and Ehrlich:

Promote and support family planning education at the family and community levels as a cheap way to reduce poverty and severe climate change. Support organizations that are trying to get contraceptives to the 200 million women in the world who lack and want them, and help them obtain equal rights, education and job opportunities. Access to contraceptives and reproductive freedom are rights, not luxuries, that ultimately benefit all of humanity. Vote for leaders who vigorously promote those humane solutions. And demand that media start educating the public every day on the role played by the unsustainable human numbers behind environmental degradation and human calamities — and start covering the solutions. The public needs a constant message: ‘It’s time to stop growing and become sustainable.’

Here’s our editorial board:

Women who have no schooling give birth to an average of 4.5 children; with just a year or more of schooling, the number drops to 3. As education increases, the number of births drops. Girls in Africa who receive some education will have fewer children and have them later in life. Their children will be healthier, and more educated as well.

Here’s Berezow:

The reason is that birth rates are naturally falling around the world. The current growth in world population exceeds the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman, but there are good reasons to believe that growth will slow down in the future. As countries become more technologically and economically advanced, people naturally choose to have fewer children. Also, there is a link between increasing female education and a declining birth rate.


When they put it like that, it’s astonishing we ever consider budget cuts to education. But I’ll let the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof talk your ear off about that.


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-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Children in Somalia sit outside a ruined building. Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh / Associated Press