Celebrities speak out on population: our favorite moments
Written by Olivia Nater | Published: August 19, 2022
Comedian Bill Maher recently dedicated a whole eight and a half minutes of his Real Time show on HBO to reminding people that further population growth “is not good news.” He’s not the first celebrity to help raise awareness of the issue—we’ve compiled some of the best quotes below.
Bill Maher’s recent population segment was prompted by the release of the UN’s latest population projections on July 11, which revealed we will reach the 8 billion milestone this November. Maher pointed out how our large and growing numbers contribute to all our environmental crises, from biodiversity collapse to climate change to resource depletion. He also took a jab at the “growing number of people more worried about population decline,” including Elon Musk, who has repeatedly made the absurd claim that decreasing birth rates are the “biggest threat” facing humanity.
Maher acknowledged that reduced population growth leads to population ageing and can hamper GDP growth, but rightly questioned:
Isn’t running out of water an even greater problem? Finiteness, as a concept, has not been repealed. We’ve forced upon ourselves an economic model where businesses need ever more customers, but more customers means more carbon, more waste, more plastic in the ocean, more mouths to feed.
Watch the full segment here:
Popular natural history broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has long been outspoken about how ever more humans means ever less wildlife. In 2009, he dedicated a whole BBC documentary to the population issue, called “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?”
Wherever you empower women, wherever they have the vote, wherever they have the education, wherever they have the free will and are in charge of their lives and not dictated to by men, the birth rate falls.
Attenborough’s recent Netflix documentaries “Our Planet” (2019) and “A Life On Our Planet” (2020) both highlight how exponential human population growth has contributed to climate change, resource depletion, and biodiversity loss. In both films, he points out the need to stabilize our population by investing in education, women’s rights, and poverty alleviation.
Famous primatologist and conservationist Dame Jane Goodall is also a longstanding supporter of empowering population solutions, having witnessed over decades how rapid population growth is destroying the natural habitat of her beloved chimpanzees. Her organization, the Jane Goodall Institute, supports family planning and women’s empowerment initiatives in conservation target areas.
At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Goodall spoke about the need to tackle human population growth as one of four essential actions alongside reducing poverty, eating less meat, and ending political corruption: “We cannot hide away from human population growth because it underlies so many of the other problems.”
Girls’ education champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai has also acknowledged the environmental benefits of slowing population growth. In a 2021 panel discussion on the role of girls’ education in climate action, she stated:
When girls are educated and when they stay in schools, they get married later in their lives, then they have less children and that helps us to reduce the impacts of climate change that the population increase brings.
Actress, model, and author Lily Cole addressed the environmental problems created by human population pressure and the importance of women’s empowerment in an interview with Hello! magazine earlier this year:
There is a really compelling argument that we need to manage population growth in order to have less of an impact on the earth, less of a need for food, a need for material resources. I don’t think this is the kind of conversation we should shy away from having because it will make a big difference whether we have 10 billion people or 12 billion people on the planet in a century’s time. But actually, interestingly it’s all about women’s empowerment. When women are empowered and communities are given access to education, access to sex education, access to contraception, birth rates usually stabilize and in many wealthier countries, the birth rate is stable or is going down. So it’s very much coupled to gender equality and women’s empowerment which I think is really interesting.
Late astronomer and popular science communicator Carl Sagan confronted the population issue in his 1997 book Billions and Billions. He wrote:
Our job is to bring about a worldwide demographic transition and flatten out that exponential curve—by eliminating grinding poverty, making safe and effective birth control methods widely available, and extending real political power (executive, legislative, judicial, military, and in institutions influencing public opinion) to women. If we fail, some other process, less under out control, will do it for us.
In an interview with the Daily Beast in 2017, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman expressed his concern about the destructiveness of modern agriculture and how it’s linked with population growth:
We’re turning everything on the planet into food for humans so we’re cutting down the rainforests, displacing all of the animals, and we’re doing all this to feed humans. That all started with the advent of agriculture. When we were hunters and gatherers, the population could only go as far as the food could go.
He went on to say:
We have 7 billion people on this planet. It’s not that there’s not enough room on this planet for 7 billion people, it’s that the energy needs for 7 billion people are 7 billion people’s worth of energy needs, as opposed to, say, 2 billion. Imagine how much pollution would be in the air and the oceans if there were only 2 billion people putting it in? So yeah, we’re already overpopulated.
Also in 1997, Population Connection, then known as Zero Population Growth (ZPG), honored actress and model Jane Fonda and her then-husband, CNN founder Ted Turner—both of whom were active within the ZPG movement—with a gala in New York City. Fonda has been very candid about the population issue over the years. In a 2011 blog post on her website titled “Too Many People,” she expressed her fear for the future in light of population projections:
There’s lots to worry about these days but you know what worries me most: the news I read day before yesterday that by something like 2045 there will be 10 billion people on the planet—or more! This is profoundly bad news. There are already millions and millions of people that are starving in the world and even more without drinkable water. There simply won’t be enough of the things that human beings need to survive—much less thrive—not enough food, water, jobs, space. Then there’s the issue of our souls—what will the world be like when there’s no more wilderness, or wild animals or marine life because one species of animal—homo sapiens—has taken up all the space and resources?
In a more personal context, several celebrities have spoken out on their decision to remain childfree due to the state of the world. Actress Ashley Judd is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as well as an ambassador for Population Services International (PSI). Alongside repeatedly calling for the advancement of women’s and reproductive rights, Judd wrote in her 2011 memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet:
I figured it was selfish for us to pour our resources into making our ‘own’ babies when those very resources and energy could not only help children already here, but through advocacy and service transform the world into a place where no child ever needs to be born into poverty and abuse again. My belief has not changed. It is a big part of who I am.
Singer and actress Miley Cyrus expressed a similar sentiment while speaking to Elle in 2019, and also criticized the social, cultural, and political pressures on women to have children:
We’re expected to keep the planet populated. And when that isn’t a part of our plan or our purpose, there is so much judgment and anger that they try to make and change laws to force it upon you—even if you become pregnant in a violent situation.
She voiced her concern about the state of the environment and, drawing on ecofeminism, likened the damaging way humanity interacts with the planet with how women are often treated:
We’ve been doing the same thing to the earth that we do to women. We just take and take and expect it to keep producing. And it’s exhausted. It can’t produce. We’re getting handed a piece-of-sh*t planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child. Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.
Do you have any favorite celebrity population quotes that we haven’t mentioned? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!