Letter to the Editor: In response to Miranda Willson’s ‘Politics, pollution and “over-population”‘

I would first like to address Miranda Willson’s closing statement “…we need to change the way we talk about population control as an ‘environmental’ effort, when it has nothing to do with the environment…”

In response to this statement, I would encourage interested readers to look into the InterAcademy Panel, a global network of 107 national science academies, including the US National Academy of Sciences (signed into being by Abraham Lincoln in 1863). This international collaboration of the world’s scientific academics issued a joint statement in 1994, calling “upon governments and international decision-makers … to take incisive action now and adopt an integrated policy on population and sustainable development on a global scale.” The statement further notes that “there is no doubt that the threat to the ecosystem is linked to population and resource use.”

Simply put, pollutants threatening the global ecosystem brought on by mankind are derived from a simple equation: (number of humans on planet) x (average pollution per person). I do not believe any policymaker seriously considers solutions to global ecological crises that do not mention conservation and reduction of wasteful practices. However, completely ignoring the other side of the equation is un-environmental and short-sighted. While Garrett Hardin held antiquated ideas on society, ignoring his forewarnings on an exponentially expanding population in his widely cited paper “the Tragedy of the Commons” would be a mistake for any young environmental studies student looking for answers to very real environmental problems.

I agree wholeheartedly with Willson that “one method proven to improve living conditions is educating and empowering women. In places where women are given broader education opportunities, work opportunities and reproductive rights, employment rates increase, the infant mortality rate decreases and population growths often slows.” Surely then, Willson would agree that population growth slowing in this context could be beneficial, both for the local community and the ecosystem as a whole. Admittedly, policy on population can come in many forms (see China’s “one child” policy) but a policy of women’s empowerment and education seems to me a beneficial idea for sustainable development and growth, albeit partially through a reduction in human population.

Lastly, I would like to question the author’s statement that “estimates of population growth have been much too high.” Scientific estimates are usually stated in a range over a projected time interval, and I would be keen to see data that show projections over the last decade or so to have been on the low side considering our current population is rapidly approaching 7.3 billion. With a projected population of around 9.5 billion by 2050, I would urge young thinkers to question the assumption that natural mechanisms will prevent humans from over-utilizing the Earth’s resources.