Book List

Books you will find useful in learning about population. This list is by no means complete, and we would be glad if Quakers drew others to our attention

Roger Plenty

Post Carbon Reader, eds. Heinberg and Leach, Watershed Media with Post Carbon Institute, ISBN 978-0-9709500-6-2

In my view, every Meeting that is concerned about climate change and the pressures on the environment should have this important book. It is in sixteen parts dealing with sustainability, resilience, climate, water, biodiversity and eleven other issues, and ends with a call to action.

The section that concerns us particularly is that by William Ryerson on ‘population, the multiplier of everything else’. Bill Ryerson is the President of the American organisation Population Media Center ( ). I have communicated with him and find that he has Quaker links, though he is not one now. He notes that advocates of reduction of population growth are attacked by the Left for supposedly ignoring human rights issues and glossing over consumption, and attacked by the Right for supposedly causing widespread abortion, promoting promiscuity and harming economic growth (he speaks as an American, of course); but, the planet and its resources are finite, and the issue of population is too important to avoid just because it is controversial.

Full Planet, Empty Plates, Lester R. Brown, pub. W.W.Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-34415-8

‘One of the consequences of this explosive growth in human numbers is that human demands have outrun the carrying capacity of the economy’s natural support systems- its forests, fisheries, grasslands, aquifers and soils. Once demand exceeds the sustainable yields of these natural systems, additional demand can only be satisfied by consuming the resource base itself. We call this overcutting, overfishing, overgrazing, overpumping and overplowing. It is these overages that are undermining our global civilization….If world population growth does not slow dramatically, the number of people trapped on hydrological poverty and hunger will almost certainly grow, threatening food security, economic progress and political stability. The only humane option is to move quickly to replacement fertility of two children per couple and to stabilize world population as soon as possible’ (I might add that some demographers think it not sufficient to aim at replacement fertility, but that a reduction to about two billion is called for)

Population 10 Billion, Danny Dorling, Constable, ISBN 978-1-78033-491-2

Ten Billion, Stephen Emmott, Penguin, ISBN 978-0-141-97632-7

I’ve bracketed these two books together because they start from the same premise (that population will be 10 billion in 2100), but reach widely different conclusions. For that reason I wouldn’t advise anyone to read either without also reading the other.

They express the extremes of thinking about population growth. Dorling is optimistic to the point of naivety; Emmott is pessimistic to the point of paralysing despair. If we were to act on Dorling’s view, the outcome is likely to be that envisioned by Emmott: to act on Emmott’s view might give us a chance of achieving Dorling’s outcome. I personally tend to Emmott’s view, though I recognise him as extreme.

It’s worth noting that both books are already out of date in their basic assumption, since shortly after their publication, UN raised its median prediction for 2100 from the 10 billion of the titles to 10.9 billion, and subsequently (2015) to 11.2 billion.

Countdown, Alan Weisman, pub. Little, Brown, ISBN 978-1-4087-0267-3

This book is subtitled ‘Our last, best hope for a future of life on Earth?’, and tackles the issues of population growth squarely.

From the blurb: ‘..with a million more of us every 4 ½ days, on a planet that’s not getting any bigger, and with our exhaust overheating the atmosphere and altering the chemistry of the oceans, prospects for a sustainable human future seem ever more in doubt’. Weisman asked what experts agreed were probably the most important questions on earth: How many humans can the planet hold without capsizing? How robust must the Earth’s ecosystem be to ensure our continued existence? Can we know which other species are essential to our survival? How might we actually arrive at, and design an economy for, a stable optimum population to have genuine prosperity without endless growth?

This book is a big read, and ranges over a huge subject: it is too extensive for me to give an adequate summary. This is essential reading to anyone interested in the subject.

Maybe one, Bill McKibben, pub. Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-684-85281-0

A sensitively reasoned plea in support of one child families, in which he demonstrates that only children are no more likely to be damaged by childhood experiences than anyone else.

‘The problem, of course, is that now we live in an era-maybe only a brief one, maybe for only a few generations-when parenting a bunch of kids clashes with the good of the planet…we need to find ways to be adults, grown-ups, people who focus on others, without being parents of large families.’

Life on the Brink, Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, pub. The University of Georgia Press, ISBN 978-0-8203-4385-3.

Cafaro is a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University: Eileen Crist is an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech.

This important book contains some twenty four essays by a variety of authorities, including Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Albert Bartlett, Dave Foreman, Lester Brown, Bill Ryerson, Robert Engelman. Titles include ‘Human Population Growth as if the Rest of Life Mattered’, ‘Why the Silence on Population?’, ’Overpopulation versus Biodiversity: how a Plethora of people produces a Paucity of Wildlife’, ‘Perceiving Population: Can’t We see what We are Doing?’, ‘Trusting Women to End Population Growth’, ‘Confronting Finitude’.

From the introduction- ‘The mass media also haven’t explained that the two billion additional people expected in the next thirty-five years will do much more environmental damage than the previous two billion. Human beings are smart; they pick the low hanging fruit first, and we have. Every additional person now, on average, must be fed from more marginal land, supplied with water from sources more distant and difficult to purify, use minerals won from ever-poorer ores, and do without the company and services of many populations of fascinating and useful plants, animals and micro-organisms. This non-linearity, that results are no longer proportional to effort, has been recognised by scientists since the early 1970s but is unknown to the vast majority of our leaders.’

More: Population, Nature and What Women WantRobert Engelman, Island Press, ISBN-13: 978-1-59726-019-0

If there is one thing that this book makes clear, it is that putting into women’s hands the power to make choices about their own bodies results in reduced fertility. It destroys at a stroke the falsehood used by some objectors that population action is ‘sexist’, or that it consists of ‘rich white men telling poor black women what to do’.

‘There exists more potential than ever for women’s reproductive intentions to support the sustainability of societies….In every country in which contraception and safe abortion …are widely available, fertility has quickly fallen to replacement levels or close. Having high per capita income no doubt helps, but it seems that this is much less important than nine or ten years of schooling for girls and a certain degree of women’s’ decision-making autonomy.’

Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation, Karen Shragg, Freethought House, ISBN: 9780988493834

Ms Shragg does not mess around. She makes the point immediately that in all our green activities – saving species, addressing hunger, concern for the environment, tackling climate change – we are doomed to failure unless we address population growth at the same time. She names and castigates all those well-intentioned NGOs and experts who are so concerned for our well-being, and who do a lot of good things, who fail to address population. These efforts she calls ‘downstream’, akin to treating symptoms, and she avers that we need to direct our attention ‘upstream’, to the basic condition, which is the fact that there are too many of us.

‘Overpopulation is our biggest, most ignored problem on Planet Earth and it is solvable. The solutions are compassionate because we will be volunteering to have fewer children in order to avoid a catastrophic ending to life as we know it…It is time to eliminate the taboo on talking about…human numbers…I will spend much of this book addressing the many parties who must wake up…’

A Farewell to Ice – a report from the Arctic, Peter Wadhams, Allen Lane, ISBN: 978-0-241-00941-3

This book is not about population per se, but is about the polar ice cover, and explains why the fate of the Arctic ice is crucial for the world’s climate, clarifying the controversies and complexities that confront scientists and policy makers. This is an authoritative and passionate book with a frightening assessment of the direction in which the Earth is heading.

It does, however, address population, in the chapter ‘The State of the Planet’, and after presenting a table that shows that the most rapid growth is in Africa, he comments “Since Africa cannot feed itself now, how will it cope with four times as many mouths, especially with global warming disrupting food supplies and causing desertification? The answer is that it won’t. The rest of the world will have to feed Africa. Given that the rest of the world is likely to be obsessed with its own problems, one can see a shortage of compassion and a shortage of aid: the result will inevitably be famine on a massive scale. How will the world react to this evidence of its own selfishness? I quail at the thought of how nasty humanity may become, and of what excuses it may offer for inaction.” 

This is an excellent and unsettling book by a leading expert, and I thoroughly recommend it.


Roger Plenty, Nailsworth