Articles and Papers

Overpopulation Opinions: Reflections on my book tour in England

By Dr. Karen I. Shragg

I know of no greater personal sense of satisfaction than to have one’s book be liked by readers. My most recent book, “Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation”  is not full of popular ideas, so when I was asked by fans of it to come and speak at several venues in England I jumped at the chance.

I am forever grateful to the kind and committed people who belong to Population Matters for bringing me across the pond.  After reflecting about my experience I decided to write this essay and share it to others deeply concerned about overpopulation. My intention is to jar us loose from our current patterns and to begin ones that have a better chance to catch fire.

I have several recommendations. They are as follows,

NUMBER ONE:  START WITH WHY and BE COMPASSIONATE: we cannot assume people know why we are so concerned about human numbers.  If someone is packing food for a poor country the assumption is that they have a big heart and are a well-meaning do-gooder. When we stand up and say that the world needs to balance its population with its ever diminishing resources, we hear from the doubters. Those doubts are frequently founded on the assumption that those who think there are too many people in the world are a part of a conspiracy to eliminate already living people, presumably people of color.

Population groups focused on immigration are notorious for putting out the WHAT before the WHY and they end up sounding very racist.  “ Hit Yes if you think immigrants should not automatically receive free health care” REALLY??? They think that is going to win us anyone except fascists? No thank you.  I do not want to live a balanced world only to discover that my neighbors are all white supremacists. It should go without saying, but ALL of our messages must drip with compassion or we lose from the start.

When we start out talking about resources and growth rates, consumption levels and pollution we are on shaky ground with many because all they hear is a call for draconian measures, aka China’s one child policy. They will bristle and fight the facts you have researched so well because they do not trust that you are a do-gooder too. You are the best kind of do-gooder, but that unfortunately is a well kept secret.

The answer to this is to start with the WHY and not with the WHAT. When one says, Population Matters, one is starting with the WHAT. The WHY needs to come first because it is not a given that you are on the right side of history.  What if we started adding the slogan, “FOR THE COMMON GOOD, POPULATION MATTERS.” Now we are starting with the WHY.  Few realize that long term none of our do-gooding downstream projects will work without addressing this dicey issue.  So recommendation one is that we emphasize WHY we care. Why not have all active population groups adopt the same slogan, for instance: FOR THE COMMON GOOD, support Population Media Center, FOR THE COMMON GOOD HELP US AT World Population Balance etc.  That way we show some unity. We need to join forces and dispel all notions that we are someone connected to an evil agenda. We share the same goals to make the world a better place and we need to articulate this at every opportunity.

RECOMMENDATION TWO ASK FOCUS GROUPS: We need a bigger more diverse choir. Instead of scratching our heads and wondering how to get young people and people of diverse background interested, let’s invest in doing some focus groups. We could pay people to read up on the issue and then ask them how to get to the group they represent. We just sit back, listen deeply and take notes. I know professionals who run focus groups and I did them for my doctorate so I can help implement if any group is interested in this project.

RECOMMENDATION THREE: REMOVE ALL SHAME. There are those who are ready to jump in and become activists but they feel they can’t speak up because they have already had their 3 or 4 children. This is nonsense. Some of the best anti-smoking advocates are former smokers.  The addiction counseling world would  be empty if they did not accept and train former addicts.

Comedian/activist Dick Gregory is a hero of many, myself included, who sacrificed much to fight racism. He also had ten children. What if we could reach him with our narrative in a way he could not only hear it but become one of us too?  What if we could have him say that he was so busy fighting the injustice he was breathing that he didn’t have a moment to look up and recognize that the greatest injustice to all, especially the already marginalized, was overpopulation?  Who gets hurt first when supplies run low? Who has to live in places that are more easily hit by tornadoes caused by ever increasing atmospheric water vapor?  We have not done a good job demonstrating how overpopulation is an issue to embrace because the poor and marginalized of the world hurt the most and hurt first.

RECOMMENDATION FOUR: STAY FOCUSED ON OUR MESSAGE. We spend an awful lot of our capital on deflecting THEIR message. We need to become avid followers of some of our best social scientists and study behavioral change through their eyes.

The Democrats in the USA found out that just being NOT THEM was not enough of a message to win.  We cannot just be NOT THEIR GROWTH MESSAGE.  We need to be focused on our message of a truly just and peaceful world that is not possible without addressing overpopulation.  Paint the picture with no frills and they will conclude that we must get on a path of humane population reduction. What is the ONLY way to do that? Well do the math. If Stop at TWO will keep us growing what is the next option?  STOP at ONE or have NONE. If your audience finds that an awful alternative, we haven’t painted the looming and grim picture very well.  I frequently ask, “Awful compared to what?” Compared to running out of water and food, I’d say living with one child in a tight community of supportive families is a pretty nice life. We also must collectively say that systems can be altered but water is quickly becoming our most precious resource and its future is tied to ours.

NUMBER FIVE: HANG OUT WITH EACH OTHER. Population Matters does an excellent job of this. Their chapters have monthly meetings and they have an annual meeting as well. I am jealous.  We need to get to know each other and befriend each other so that the burden of organizing the next event or protest is not on the backs of leaders. Friends who get this issue could be a powerful force for organizing. I know my world is divided into those who are my friends and know this is my passion, and those who share my passion but are not necessarily my friends. I know I am much more likely to attend a conference or a protest if I know I will be able to spend time with a friend I rarely get to see.  I spent a day touring the lovely natural areas in England with Population Matters members. It was the first time I ever socialized with those who shared my views and it felt great. It felt empowering. We need to befriend each other hopefully in agreement with my five recommendations for how to be more effective because as we all know too well, we are running out of options and time.

Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Ehrlich and Ehrlich, Proceedings of the Royal Society B,

‘Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size…but, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization…is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems.’

The paper calls this the ‘human predicament’, and states that it is driven by ‘overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption’.

Considering population and war: a critical and neglected aspect of conflict studies. Bradley A. Thayer, Proceedings of the Royal Society B,

This is a discussion of the reasons why population is not taken into account in the study of conflict. The author’s abstract makes clear his conviction that population stress has an impact on conflict.

In his introduction he expresses the view that ‘Political scientists are open to many theoretical and methodological approaches to the analysis of war. Yet, the relationship between population and war is not one of them. The reason why says much about the health of the study of international politics. Population, and insights from the life sciences more broadly, fall outside the standard social model forcefully advanced since Durkheim—social facts may only be explained by other social facts. For traditionally trained social scientists, the biological is taboo, and population is thus neglected. The cost of this neglect is significant. Shunning the life sciences costs political scientists a better understanding of political behaviour’

He concludes, ‘Those of us who analyse conflict for a living would be wise to recognize the myriad of contributions made by population studies. Both the life and social sciences are needed here. If successful, the result will be a consilient solution to a problem that requires one’

Confronting the inevitable: Population reduction, voluntary or otherwise. J. Kenneth Smail,

This article appeared in the online environmental journal Culture Change. It is preceded with a short note by the editor.

Ken Smail (Ph.D Yale, 1976) is Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus) at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio.

In this article he makes a case for not only slowing population growth, but for reversing it, over a period of about two centuries, to a level of two billion. Note, however, that his statement as to projected levels of population in 2050 and 2100 are outdated (the article was published in 2008). Rather than peaking at 9-10 billion, UN’s median projection is 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, with no decline expected.

To quote:-‘As a consequence of this modern-day “Malthusian dilemma,” it seems reasonable to suggest that it is now time — indeed, past time — to think boldly about the midrange future, and to consider alternatives that go beyond merely slowing the growth, or even the stabilization, of global human numbers. In this brief essay, I shall argue that it has now become necessary for the human species to develop and implement, as quickly as possible, a well conceived, clearly articulated, flexibly designed, broadly equitable, and internationally coordinated program focused on bringing about a very significant reduction in global human numbers over the next two or more centuries. In simple quantitative terms, this effort will likely require a global population “shrinkage” of at least two-thirds to three-fourths, from a probable mid-to-late 21st century “peak” in the 9 to 10 billion range to a future (23rd century and beyond) “population optimum” of not more than 2 to 3 billion, or perhaps even fewer.

Obviously, a demographic change of this magnitude, whether brought about by conscious human design or ultimately by forces beyond human control, will require a major reorientation of human thought, values, expectations, and lifestyle(s). Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that such a program will be successful. Moreover, if humanity fails in this effort, it seems likely that nature’s even harsher realities will almost certainly be imposed. Speaking as a professional physical anthropologist/human evolutionary biologist, it is entirely possible that this rapidly metastasizing — yet still partly hidden — demographic and environmental crisis could emerge as the greatest evolutionary/ecological “bottleneck” that our species has yet encountered.’

Smart Planning for the Global Family, Lester Brown, Grist Magazine, April 2011

This article is a good general exposition of the case for family planning, and is especially informative on the continual reversals of policy in Iran. See

The De-population Dividend, Population Matters.

This article, by Population Matters, lists the benefits of a declining population, to set against the usual economist’s advocacy of growth. See

This article discusses benefits of an ageing population:

De-population in Japan 

The standard economist’s attitude to population growth was expressed to me over 60 years ago by a tutor who said that ‘a growing population is good for the economy’. It is no surprise therefore that the situation in Japan is bewailed by economists. If numbers decline, they argue, economic growth is hobbled and the increasing number of elderly becomes a burden.

Japan’s population is the world’s oldest: the median age is 46 years, and a quarter of the population is over 65. The current fertility rate is 1.4 children per woman: one in four women don’t have children.

There are benefits, however. The proportion of the population that is dependent on the workforce is not dissimilar to that of other countries, but within that group there are twice as many over 65 as children: so less is spent on education. Although Japan’s economy is slow growing, per capita wealth has been rising strongly, as a result of the benefits of economic growth being divided between a smaller number

This article, from the Japanese paper Japan Today praises the benefits of a declining population;

This one, from CNN, is a good discussion, entitled ‘Is Japan’s aging population a good thing?’ is on

 A Response to Critics of Family Planning Programs:  John Bongaarts and Steven W. Sinding

This is a considered essay that dissects a number of standard objections to population action. It should be noted that this article, which appeared in March 2009, is now out of date as to some of the figures quoted: for example, in the first critique it states that 137 million women don’t want to get pregnant but are not practicing contraception: this figure is now thought to be 225 million.

The objections covered question the need for policies, or suggest that such policies are ineffective, that the death toll from AIDS etc. are making it unnecessary: that programmes are not cost effective and are coercive. The article is on

Article in British Medical Journal: Voluntary Family Planning to Minimize and Mitigate Climate change, by Dr. John Guillebaud, Emeritus Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health, University College of London.

Guillebaud puts out for discussion the “persistent myth is that quantitative concern for human numbers is intrinsically coercive, and in much of civil society this idea still inhibits rational discussion about population stabilization.” All in all, the article is highly useful as a advocacy tool to influence policy-makers and thought-leaders. Strategies to remove cultural barriers to contraceptive uptake and educate people on the benefits of small family size decisions have never been more important.

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2015 General Election – Resources on Population issues

Questions or points to raise with candidates or in letters. We suggest you pick and choose your favourite one, or the most appropriate for the occasion. They could also be used as focus points at a discussion group. If there is a hustings near you they could be useful to help raise general public awareness too. These are in the style of the 2015 General Election Briefing to Friends on the Environment.

  1. I know that you respect the climate scientists who tell us that the earth can only sustain 2 billion humans in the western style, and has a population of over 7 billion now [1]. The UN is holding Climate Change talks in Paris this December [2]. What will your party do to ensure that any strong and binding agreement will include measures to stabilise global population?
  2. The UK has one of the highest birth-rates in Europe. Will your party ensure that sex education in schools is compulsory, properly taught and inspected?

(Alternative)   In view of the February 2015 report of the Commons Select Committee on Education that lessons on relationships should be mandatory in schools, and remarking that such education at present is inadequate across much of the country, does your party recognize the need to substantially improve education at all levels on relationships and sex?

  1. In view of the need to shrink the UK population, thereby reducing the pressure on housing, agriculture and national services, what is your position on providing Family Allowance for only the first two children in a family, (except in case of poverty)?
  2. The UK is committed to stringent EU targets on pollution by 2020. To what extent is an increasing birth-rate a hindrance to this?   Would it not be a good idea to have similar EU targets on stabilising the birth-rate, and will your party pursue this goal?
  3. The world aid funding for contraception is substantially less than the bonus payments for Goldmann Sachs staff. Will your party maintain the Family Planning element of the Overseas Aid Budget?
  4. This planet is overpopulated with humans. The environment for all species, including our own is under increasing pressure from our activities. What are the views of you and your party on abandoning the competitive drive for economic growth and instead aiming for a non-growth economy? Will these include plans for the stabilization of the population?
  5. Educating women together with proper health and family planning policies has proved amazingly effective at bringing down soaring birth-rates in many countries, Bangladesh, Iran, Brazil etc. Will your party ensure that there is no reduction of funds from the Overseas Aid Budget for the education of women? [4]

Written by Cherry Foster and Roger Plenty, with the Quaker Population Concern Group – February 2015

[1] World population at 3pm Feb 25th was about 7,337,862,328. See Home Page for current numbers and watch the numbers mount by the second.

[2] Climate change talks, Paris, Nov. 30th – Dec 11th 2015

[3] Average family size in Europe is 1.58 children (2012). UK family size has risen from1.56 to 1.84 children over the last decade

[4] In 2012 Goldman Sachs budget was about $4.5 billion. At the same timeworld aid funding for family planning was about $450 million


Tried and Tested, letters to the press, by Roger Plenty. The press in general has shown a reluctance to discuss population, even where it is relevant to the subject under discussion .

This one was published in the Independent after Christmas 2015.

As your article ‘Droughts caused by global warming to cause mass migration across the world’ suggests, (24.12.15), the global migrant crisis has scarcely begun. In addition to drought, the rise of sea levels will drive people in huge numbers off the great deltas and other coastal regions. What can come of this but conflict and famine?
Meanwhile, World population is increasing by eleven thousand every hour. Is it not blindingly obvious that we should do something about our numbers?

This one went to the Guardian on 13.11.15 but  was not published:

Your editorial today (Tell it like it is) speaks of the possibility of 50 million on the move in a few years driven by ‘climate change, desertification and population explosion’. At least this recognises population as one of the drivers, and yet you have not said the half of it. Two recent news items state that by 2100 the Sahel region’s population will grow from 125 million to 650 million, if current trends persist (UNPF). Over the same period, the region’s temperature will rise by 4.5-6.5 degrees, making it virtually uninhabitable (IPPC). The same period will see people driven from densely populated low lying land as sea levels rise. How does that chime with your recent attempts to denigrate those who advocate population restraint?  The migrant crisis has scarcely begun.

And this was published in The Guardian 17 Mar 15 :

Now the week of special articles on climate change is over, without any mention of the consequences of population growth (except for one brief letter), may I refer back to your editorial of 1 March: “Hunger is coming. The temperature rises.” This mentioned that according to revised UN figures, “by 2100, the world could be home to 12 billion and still rising.” Please, is it not blindingly obvious that a figure less than that would be beneficial? And please, since several countries have successfully reduced their fertility by means that are scarcely controversial (ie education, organisation of clinics and a properly supported distribution of contraceptives), why is it not done to discuss this at the very least?

Over 40% of all pregnancies are unintentional: 225 million women have no access to modern contraception. Sort those two problems out and we would be more than halfway to a stable world population: but if we keep fudging this subject, then we will indeed face famine on a worldwide scale, together with a wholesale destruction of nature.

Blue Ventures. Incorporating family planning services within community conservation initiatives can address the unmet reproductive health needs of hard-to-reach populations, enabling couples to access contraception and avoid unintended pregnancies.

This is the finding of a paper just published in Studies in Family Planning, which reports on changes in modern contraception use and general fertility rates between 2009 and 2013 in the Velondriake locally managed marine area of southwest Madagascar, where Blue Ventures began implementing an integrated Population-Health-Environment (PHE) programme in 2007.

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