Blue Ocean Institute


How to Make Population Growth Reverse Itself

By Carl Safina

Most people seem to think that to reverse population you’d need violence, epidemics, or forced sterilization.  Actually, you need literacy; read on.  Many other people think technology will save us.

Probably the greatest technological advance ever implemented to ease the likelihood of population-induced starvation was the Green Revolution.  Engineered to end hunger, the Green Revolution failed because most of the world allowed the increased food to grow more hungry people than ever.  China, partly because of its one-child policy, has eased more hunger, faster, than anyplace ever has.  Meanwhile, India’s population growth largely erased its food-production increases.  Now, a record 1 billion people suffer malnutrition; 10 million more each year.  A recent U.N. report titled “The State of Food Insecurity” came with a press release stating, “For millions of people, eating the minimum amount of food to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream.”

Land, water, population growth — violence.  When Rwanda’s population tripled between 1950 and the early 1990s, it became Africa’s most densely populated country.  Farmland and food — and tempers — grew short. And in the ethnic rampage that killed 800,000 in 10 days, whole families were hacked to death lest there be survivors to claim the family farm-plot.  Sudan’s Darfur genocide was also ignited by disputes over farmland, exacerbated by drought.  Sudan’s population, about 10 million in 1950, is projected to hit 70 million by 2050.  If it does, Sudan will likely fight a newly doubled 120 million Egyptians for Nile water — unless Ethiopia, having more than doubled to 80-plus million, tries diverting the 85 percent of the Nile headwaters it controls.

Poor people don’t want to stay poor.  But there’s a misconception that it’s somehow “unfair” to poor people to let them in on the main secret of wealthy, educated, and successful people: smaller families mean larger lives.

The thing that brings fertility down fastest happens to be the same thing that brings down poverty: educating girls.  Turns out, illiterate women bear three times as many children as literate women, and their children tend to stay poor.  Meanwhile, each year of schooling raises earning power 10 to 20 percent.  And when people are a little better off, they desire fewer children.

Good news: Things are getting worse at a slower rate; the rate of population increase is easing.  More than 40 countries now have populations that are stable or slowly declining, including Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan. At present trends, the world population will likely peak around mid-century (at between 8 and 11 billion).  By then, something like 50 countries will likely already have fewer people than today.  People can live crowded and in fear.  But real human beings will always need soil, water, food, wood, air, beauty, freedom from oppression, freedom of expression, room for compassion, the company of creatures, and a future.

When the ship Titanic set out to cross the ocean, its proprietors believed it indestructible. So they did not equip it with enough lifeboats for all the people on board. History is sometimes destiny. Believing ourselves too clever to sink our enterprise, we’re on another voyage where lifeboat room is limited. And we’re discovering there are more passengers than the mothership was built to handle. No known island exists, no opposite shore, no passing ships to call to for rescue. Just us. Just us, and the wish — perhaps too late — that we had steered a more careful course while the band gaily played.

As we bravely enter the new time of the Anthropocene and the uncertainties of a world with us at the helm, it’s worth reconsidering Thoreau’s declaration, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wild places produced the living world and its inhabitants in abundance and resilience.

On the other hand, let’s not forget that for most of human history, natural things stood poised to recycle us at any moment. Weather, beasts, famine, enemies. We can live safer and better by enjoying those elements that have come under control — agriculture, medicine. I wouldn’t recommend a “return to nature.” I like books and science. I like music. I am willing to abandon the concept of Nature. I’m willing to abandon it — for any approach that works better.

Nature is moot, anyway, because we’ve so thoroughly changed the world. As oceans get depleted, water tables drop, sea levels rise, and forests fall, you begin to realize that the draw-down of “nature” is just one side of a coin on which hundreds of millions of people face a world wherein likelihood of dignity — always so elusive throughout history — now drains away with the fresh water; hope flies away like the birds that no longer return.

If, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold’s dictum, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty” of the living community, then we’ve passed “right” traveling in the opposite lane.  If our values change, we might use science and technology to save us.  If our failed values persist, science and technology will only press our accelerator.


Adapted from: The View From Lazy Point by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt (Hard cover) and Picador (paperback, 2012); Winner of the Orion Book Award.

References and Further Reading:

Africa populations, relation to Nile water, and population projections and tensions, also Rwanda: Brown, L, 2008, Plan B 3.0, Norton, New York and London, p 117-119. See also: L. Brainard, et al., eds. 2007. Too Poor For Peace? Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Education and reduction in fertility: Brown, L, 2008, Plan B 3.0, Norton, New York and London, pp 109, 134.

Getting worse at a slower rate: Longman, P., 2006, “The Depopulation Bomb,” Conservation in Practice 7:40-41.

Fifty countries will likely have fewer people: Lierowitz, A. et al., 2005, “Sustainability, Attitudes, Values, And Behaviors: A Review Of Multinational And Global Trends,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 31:413.

“How we think of problems,” see: Lovins, A., 1991, “Technology Is The Answer (But What Was The Question?), in: G. Tyler Miller, Environmental Science, 3rd Edition. Wadsworth. Belmont, CA. pp 56-57.