Conference Call With Population Connection Members to Discuss Population Growth and Pandemics

Written by John Seager, President and CEO | Published: May 4, 2020

Note: The audio in John’s presentation scrambles for a bit a couple minutes in (working from home has its tech challenges)—please skip ahead and continue listening!

During the Q+A, there were many great questions that John wasn’t able to answer because of time constraints. He didn’t want to leave anyone hanging, so has answered them all below!

Overpopulation stresses planet earth in many pervasive and pernicious ways. The conditions you mention in the announcements for this discussion are manifestations of a few of the stresses of overpopulation. Is there a reason you do not include the specific word overpopulation?

Overpopulation is the very first word in our mission statement: Overpopulation threatens the quality of life for people everywhere. Population Connection is the national grassroots population organization that educates young people and advocates progressive action to stabilize world population at a level that can be sustained by Earth’s resources.

By any reasonable standard, we humans are rapidly depleting natural capital that took millions of years to accumulate. We’ve found that different audiences respond to different aspects of our population message.

Do you have any words about E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth idea to maintain the earth’s ecosystems?

I was privileged several years ago to share a program with Dr. Wilson at Duke University. We featured him and his work as the cover story in a recent issue of our magazine. It is the kind of ambitious effort needed to save our living planet.

Is there a clear connection between habitat loss due to overpopulation and susceptibility to viruses such as [COVID-19] and other diseases?

In fact, that is the topic of our very next magazine issue, which will be published the first week of June. It will also be available on our website.

I would urge you to invite David Quammen, author of Spillover, to participate.

That is an excellent idea. He is quoted in one of the articles that feature in the next issue of our magazine, all about population growth and pandemics. We will reach out to him.

If this is part of nature pushing for balance (which I believe), how can we have that conversation about balance, death with dignity, etc. while still pushing for better health care for all?

Joel Cohen, author of How Many People Can the Earth Support?, said it best: “The real crux of the population question is the quality of people’s lives; the ability of people to participate in what it means to be really human; to work, play and die with dignity; to have some sense that one’s life has meaning and is connected with other people’s lives.”

What means and approaches are there to address the ecological and economic impacts of the pet population? The market is large, we still have puppy mills, and use large amounts of resources to feed [pets]. There has to be a detrimental effect on the storm water runoff in addition to all the wasted lawn chemicals. There is also the landfill issue.

There are so many dogs, cats, and other pets in need of homes. While our own focus is on human population, we see the importance of banning puppy mills and of spay and neuter programs for pets. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell in Political Ideals, we need to shift away from the consumption of stuff and toward the consumption of ideas. There is a lot to be said for the value of good, old-fashioned books that can be read, reread, and shared.

In ecology, a higher level of disease/parasites is considered one of the factors that influence population numbers as they approach or exceed their carrying capacity. Is the higher frequency of disease outbreaks and novel viruses seen recently (Ebola, Zika, SARS, West Nile, Hepatitis C, Lyme disease, HIV/AIDS—and now COVID-19) a reflection of this potentiality with humans?

Absolutely. It will almost certainly continue to worsen over time, until we stop population growth, stop destroying animal habitats, and shift our global consumption habits.

How many countries are now at or below a birth rate which replaces their population? What are some of the policies citizens of the over-developed world could implement to change the trajectory of over-population or at least mitigate some of its effects?

In 1970, there were about four nations at or below replacement rate fertility (which is slightly above two children per woman in low-mortality settings). Today, there are nearly 100 such nations, which is still fewer than half the nations on earth. The single best thing we can do now is to meet the unmet need for modern contraception in the less-developed countries. There are 214 million women in those places who do not want to get pregnant, but who have an unmet need for modern contraception.

Many that I’ve seen in population activism are at least partially favorable to a restriction on migration movement, contrary to more liberal views on free trade and unrestricted movement. In your opinion, if the world population were ever to reach a sustainable level, would there ever come a time when migration would become a non-issue for environmental degradation?

Migration is a biological phenomenon common to many species, including ours. If not, our species would be clustered on the African plains. While one cannot overlook local impacts which are exacerbated by higher levels of consumption, it’s called “global” warming for a reason. And, as this pandemic shows, we are impacted by circumstances and events that transpire in faraway places. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

While rapid action is warranted and can be very effective, the human lifespan that can last a century or more means we’re going to have to work on this challenge for the rest of this century and beyond. If population pressures diminish, it seems reasonable that migration pressures will diminish as well.

What is the best way to bring our concerns to the Trump administration?

The short answer is to vote. Politicians pay attention, one way or another, to those who show up at polling places and those who “join, act, and give.” There are no small steps here. They all matter.

How can we get birth control to all who want it?

Barriers differ from place to place and include culture, economics, and certain religious dogmas. Education and advocacy work everywhere. There are Muslim nations, for example, with small families, such as Iran, and others with large families, such as Niger. Even in good times, U.S. foreign aid comprises about 1% of the federal budget, and family planning is less than 1% of that 1%. We can do more. An increased U.S. investment of about a nickel per American per week would double our impact.

Earth’s ecological imbalance is ultimately distorting. Are you able to communicate the direct relationship of this virus to some factor of that discordance?

There is neuroscientific research indicating that crises, be they personal or societal, change our brains. Case in point: Everyone my age (69) or older can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news of JFK’s assassination. We are in a global teachable moment and are doing everything we can to make key connections.

India is not taking care of the vast populations of working poor. How can they survive? Overpopulation seems to be a working tool of the corporate powers.

FYI, we neither seek nor receive any corporate support. There is an old saying from San Francisco in the ’60s: “If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.”

India is a vast and complex nation. Some states, such as Kerala, are doing a very good job in terms of access to contraception and the advancement of women’s rights. Other parts are becoming even more captive of religious extremism that makes everything worse. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in India is massive. We can try to help, but, ultimately, Indians need to determine their futures or face more misery.

Has the world’s population already surpassed a number that can be safely sustained without further affecting the climate and provoking new pandemics? Wouldn’t it make sense to let these catastrophes and pandemics take their course, thus forcing us humans to stay in balance with the rest of nature?

I have two grandchildren who are two and six. I am not blameless, but they are. If the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that there is no upper limit to human misery and our capacity for destruction of ourselves and the natural world.  We know how to meet these challenges.

Whenever possible, how can we transition from a global coordination to defeat COVID-19 and focus on defeating climate change?

It’s never easy to get people to respond to a constant, slow-moving catastrophe. My sense is that the energy for this will come, if it does, from the rising generation of young people. They need to demand solutions, and we need to avoid becoming defensive, but use our intellect instead. We focus a great deal on Population Education and reach some 3 million K-12 students each year.

In the U.S., Latinx people and African Americans are disproportionately afflicted by the serious/critical forms of COVID-19. What are the implications of this for population control?

For a long time, population discussions were dominated in ways that were at best unhelpful and at worst crushingly bad, with “top-down” notions of population control. When people are empowered, especially those who have been historically marginalized, they can and do transform their own lives and mostly choose smaller families.

How can we convince other organizations and politicians to address population growth in a serious manner? They keep ignoring the problems caused by endless population growth and overconsumption of natural resources in favor of creating more jobs  and  promoting economic growth.

Elections matter greatly. Just look at the 2016 presidential election. One way or another, every year is an election year somewhere in the U.S. Politicians and other powerful people and interests pay attention to outcomes.

How do we get improved access to contraception and population control into the public discourse? How can we remove the stigma from the word “control” in population control and birth control?

As I see it, the stigma attached to the word “control” doesn’t apply to birth control as it does to population control, and the objections to the latter are grounded in historical circumstances such as the forced sterilization of some 70,000 Americans (mostly poor women of color) during the first seven decades of the 20th century. There are lots of other, better ways to frame the issue, so retiring “population control” from the vocabulary seems an easy enough step.

For more info, feel free to email John at