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.