Re: The People Who Hate People
Written by Olivia Nater | Published: June 8, 2022
We were dismayed at Jerusalem Demsas’ op-ed “The People Who Hate People,” published in The Atlantic last month. Not only does it contain misinformation and reinforce harmful myths about people who are concerned about population growth, it also makes unjustified accusations against Zero Population Growth, Population Connection’s founding name. We sent a letter to the editor on May 27th, but have not received a response, so we are featuring it below.
We encourage all our members and supporters who come across misleading media stories like this one to make their voices heard! See our media guide for advice on how to do that.
You can also see other common population myths busted on our Myths and Misconceptions page.
Jerusalem Demsas’ article The People Who Hate People (May 24, 2022) is a deeply misleading, unjustified attack on those concerned about rapid human population growth. I and my colleagues at Population Connection (founded as Zero Population Growth, or ZPG, which Ms. Demsas identified by name) are driven by compassion and the desire to create a better world for all living beings — quite the opposite of “hate.”
Demsas is right to condemn coercive or draconian efforts to limit population growth, including those motivated by racism and xenophobia, and I share her dislike of NIMBYism. But if she had actually talked to any modern, progressive population professionals, she would know that we are concerned about the quality of life of people everywhere, and that the solutions we promote, especially the empowerment of women and girls, are not only morally essential but also yield unmatched benefits for people and the planet. Sadly, these solutions are also chronically overlooked and underfunded.
Ms. Demsas suggests the real issue is “declining population growth,” buying into the toxic pro-growth agenda that is at the root of all our environmental issues. Population- and GDP-growth-obsessed individuals such as tech billionaire Elon Musk enjoy fearmongering about a supposed “shortage” of people but refuse to accept the facts: Our global population is still growing by roughly 80 million people every year, and according to the latest UN projections, there is only a 27% chance of population stabilization by the end of the century.
With the climate crisis, sixth mass extinction, and resource depletion still accelerating, the planet desperately needs population stabilization, alongside measures to end overconsumption. Demsas advocates for a techno-optimist approach, believing that ever more people leads to more ingenuity, allowing us to overcome any limits to growth. If this were true, with our population about to reach a staggering 8 billion, surely we should have solved all environmental problems by now? She provides the example of the Green Revolution, which prevented mass starvation, but fails to mention that modern agriculture has wrecked the planet — it is the primary cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss, the biggest user of fresh water, as well as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Several recent scientific analyses on the impact of food production have pointed out the need to end human population growth — a landmark 2019 report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, for example, stated that with transformative change, “Healthy diets from sustainable food systems are possible for up to 10 billion people but become increasingly unlikely past this population threshold.” The ‘father’ of the Green Revolution himself, Norman Borlaug, warned that “the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”
Demsas argues that we should embrace increasing population density because it leads to smaller per capita carbon footprints — but that’s the result of people living in smaller dwellings, without personal vehicles and long commutes, not the result of more people. Movement from rural to urban areas can help the environment, but even cities can’t absorb people indefinitely — many cities are already struggling to provide the infrastructure, clean water and air, sanitation, health care, jobs, and education that their populations require.
I’d like to reassure readers that Population Connection has no intention of “slash[ing] the population down by several billion.” At least Demsas acknowledges that perhaps we’re not all aspiring mass murderers: “Some believe that the third approach [stop new people from being born] could be adequate, and achieved simply by providing people with contraceptives.”
We are in favor of reducing birth rates by ensuring everyone has the right and means to take control of their own bodies and lives. Crucially, in addition to expanding voluntary family planning education and services, we must challenge the myriad harmful patriarchal norms still present around the world. Wherever women have choices, fertility rates plummet. Even the most generous policies aimed at supporting parents and boosting childbearing (such as in Scandinavian countries) have proven to be ineffective at significantly increasing average family size. Demsas notes that “survey data show that women are actually having fewer children than they would like,” but this statement is a widespread misrepresentation of a Gallup poll.
There is no doubt that we must urgently end overconsumption in high-income countries like the U.S. But that’s not enough. The sooner we stabilize our global population, the better our chances of securing a good quality of life for everyone, everywhere, well into the future. While the direct benefits of empowering women and girls are immediate, population solutions are long-term, meaning the majority of the environmental benefits of our work won’t come into effect for several decades, which should demonstrate to Ms. Demsas and other skeptics that modern population activists aren’t self-obsessed NIMBYs.