Population and Policy: The Elephant in the Room

  • Published on March 12th, 2009

The Catholic Church recently excommunicated a doctor who performed an abortion on a 9 year old girl who had been raped by her stepfather.  Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the Archbishop, has been criticized for the excommunication of the doctor, the doctor’s medical team, and the mother of the child.  He did not excommunicate the rapist, saying that, “A graver act than rape is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life.”  (He also did not excommunicate the girl, which would otherwise be Church rule, because, “The Church is benevolent to minors,” he said.)

Feel your blood pressure rising?  You’re not alone.  There may be no political issue that generates more controversy than abortion.  Some recent polls indicate that almost half of voters say it is a top issue influencing their vote one way or another.

Lost in the shuffle of whether life begins at conception or at birth is the broader implications of family planning on the one issue that most affects sustainable development:  population.

It may surprise some that Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush, was Treasurer of Planned Parenthood in 1947.  Grandfather Bush supported Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive rights, as did Father Bush, until given an ultimatum in 1980 by then candidate Reagan. Why exactly the switch came is the subject of much debate.

Some have said that it is tied to racism, and that as Planned Parenthood expanded its operations out of city centers with predominantly minority populations and into white suburbs, conservative support for it began to erode.  Others have suggested that the religious extremists grew in power until they had control over the Republican party and withdrew support for centrist candidates on the topic of reproductive rights.

But family planning goes far beyond the topic of abortion, which receives the most public attention and scrutiny.  Women’s education and access to good careers, and their ability to put off having children in order to pursue satisfying work, can be hindered by political whims:  John Ashcroft, Attorney General under George W. Bush, was extreme enough in his views to consider contraceptives, such as Intra-Uterine Devices (IUDs), as ‘immoral’.

Meanwhile, America’s, and the world’s, population continues to grow.  Higher economic standing of a country tends to come with a larger per capita ecological footprint, with America leading the way.  David Suzuki’s Green Guide lists the ecological footprint of individual countries by the number of hectares needed to support each person:  America leads with a whopping 9.6.  Europe, which has largely the same standard of living as America, comes in at 4.8. Edward C. Hartman, author of The Population Fix:  Breaking America’s Addiction to Population Growth, points out that in 1960, the density of America’s population equated to roughly one person per 31.5 hectares.  By 2000, it was one person per 20 hectares.  With population growth, that number will be one person per each 13.75 hectares in 40 years.  Remember, currently, it requires 9.6 hectares to support each American.

So it’s possible for us to reduce our footprints, sure, but how realistic is it, given Americans’ penchant for bigger, faster, stronger?  Everyone became a conservationist when gas was $4 per gallon, but we’ve proven before (oil embargo of the 1970’s) how short our attention span is, and how little we remember times that weren’t so flush.  Right wing politicians don’t help anyone but the oil and gas lobby when they distract Americans with their focus on short term fixes (e.g., off-shore oil drilling, oil shale development, etc.), and allow us to forget about the underlying problem.  As soon as gas prices stay low for a short time period, Americans will resume their love affair with the Hummer and suburban sprawl.  Hartman profiles a survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) conducted with recent homebuyers, asking what factors influenced their purchasing decision:

  • 62% said ‘houses spread out’,
  • 47% said ‘bigger house’,
  • 45% said ‘bigger lot’,
  • 40% said ‘less developed area’, and
  • 39% said ‘away from the city’.

Conversely, only:

  • 10% said ‘smaller houses’,
  • 9% said ‘smaller lots’, and
  • 13% said ‘closer to public transit’.

(Take these figures with a grain of salt, however, as the NAHB and NAR have vested interests in propagating the idea that Americans want bigger houses spread out over larger areas with larger lots.  Note how the wording of ‘smaller houses’, and ‘smaller lots’ seems unappealing, and if they had worded it, ‘lower maintenance’, ‘energy efficient’, ‘walkable community’, or ‘social with neighbors’, they might have received quite a different response.)

Getting a hold of (and hopefully reversing) population growth is the the most effective (and some would argue, only) way to prevent runaway destruction of Earth’s remaining resources.  And that means the political will to support family planning services for all Americans, and to provide counseling for those least likely to be receiving sex education, as most citizens of developing countries are.  Many are affected by the global gag rule, which President Obama rescinded in January, allowing for Federal funds for family planning and counseling services around the globe.

In addition, there must be an end to the rampant pro-population growth subsidies in the U.S.  Nadya Suleman has received a blunt repudiation for having octuplets (which brings her total to 14 children, all as an unwed and unemployed single mom).  The criticism is largely centered around how irresponsible it is to not only continue to have children, but to manipulate the outcome by taking fertility drugs.  But it is not just the fact that this population growth is unsustainable and destructive:  our tax dollars pay for Suleman’s irresponsibility.

Should we really be extending child tax credits, as George W. Bush did, so we can further subsidize population growth?  Welfare reform also needs to be addressed.  Could we counsel welfare recipients with family planning aid and make it mandatory for them to take sex education classes?  Could we let them know that they get one chance, and tell them that we will deny welfare claims for repeat claimants after they’ve received this family planning and sex education?  Yes.  We can.

Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business:  Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and hopes that someday the green economy will simply be referred to as…the economy.

Twitter: scottcooney

Population Resources:
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Population Connection
Californians for Population Stabilization
Carrying Capacity Network
Negative Population Growth
Population-Environment Balance

Photo credit booksavvy on Flickr Creative Commons

About the Author

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on

8 comments

  • vince-

    that's some very good statistical cherry-picking you just performed. Maybe if you cleaned the "eco-fascistas" and 'global warming hoax' language from the comment people might believe some of the right-wing bulletpoints you've printed off and regurgitated. The ironic part is that by reading your comment, people might assume you're against recycling… but how wrong they would be, eh? Give it up.

    First you people were trying to downplay science, now you're trying to downplay demographics and statistics. What's next? You better keep it moving because no matter how quickly you think you can defend your irrational, science-less ideology with new critiques, there will always be more rational, thoughtful and science-touting realists than fear-mongering, nay-saying, pseudo-patriotic intelligentisia-wannabes.

  • Along with "Global Warming", the fear of a so-called population "explosion" are the two biggest hoaxes of the last 50 years! No matter what the eco-fascist fear mongers say and do, this is what's going to happen over the next 50 years: the earth's current population – about 6.2 Billion people – is going to grow from its present level to 9.5 Billion people by the year 2060, then the earth's population is going to go into a long slow decline, indeed, the U.N – hardly a bastion of Right-Wing Capitalism – reports the population of the earth by the end of the next century will be as low as 2 Billion people! Think about that and its ramifications. This is going to happen no matter how much hand wringing and weeping the eco-fascistas engage in! Here are some additional facts the eco-fascistas don't want you to hear: Japan's population is declining NOW; Europe's population is declining NOW: Russia's population is declining NOW; China's population is already at replacement level, in other words IT"S NO LONGER GROWING; the fertility rate among 3rd world women during the 1960s was 6.6 (that's the avg. number of children these women were giving birth to during their child-bearing years), today, 3rd world women's fertility rate is BELOW 4! That is a monumental decline. I could go on and on but, suffice to say – no matter what the eco-fascists wish you to believe – THERE'S NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT! SO STOP WORRYING AND GO OUT AND HAVE FUN!

  • Population growth is at the root of all of our environmental (and social) problems. One of our worst foes in this is the Pope, who insists that even people who can't afford the children they have must not prevent further conception. But it's very difficult to get people to question the doctrine of their religion. In the U.S., population growth is actually declining among the educated, and while we face the same foe here, we also need more education. Finally, there should be no tax cuts for having more children. It's obvious that more people mean more demand on our resources, so anyone who does more than reproduce him/herself should have to pay a surcharge. Suleman should get a bill, not subsidies, from the government for those extra 13 kids.

  • Thanks for the candid feedback, Vince. Your assertions and self-assuredness only add validity to my claims.

    1. "The ultimate goal of the eco-fascists is to make the USA poorer." This statement by Vince is characteristic of the right-wing, Dumb-as-we-want-to-be mentality that has had conservatives heads buried in the sand on stem cells, climate change, and evolution, and is what keeps America falling behind the rest of the world in science and math. Why do you hate America so much, Vince, why? Is it the Freedom? What is it about freedom that you hate, Vince?

    2. You miss an obvious conservative leaning point that I make about welfare reform. Would seem that you would have eaten that up, given your staunch conservatism. But I can't help but think you didn't read that far and stopped when your attention span gave up. I know, just like Sean Hannity, for you, facts and reading are hard.

    3. The only reason the UN has stats that world population is going to crest out and start to decline is because of efforts like the one I just wrote about. Providing universal access to birth control has helped in every area where we've done it. Poo-pooing and name-calling don't actually get anything done. We get stuff done while you sit on the sidelines and complain about taxes and death.

    4. Europe's standard of living is 'largely' similar to that of the U.S., and in many cases, actually higher. Most importantly, there has never been a study that I know of that show happiness in the U.S. higher than that of the E.U. Give me life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and you can keep GDP, # of TV's per person, or whatever measure of standard of living you'd like to keep pretending is important.

  • Cooney is a typical "sky-is-falling" eco-fascist. First of all, the statement: "Europe's standard of living is 'largely' that of the USA's" is typical of Liberal/Left "doublespeak." Europe's standard of living is ONLY 2/3 of the USA's standard of living, this is why Cooney uses such a vague term as "largely" because he does not want to tell the truth about how much better off the avg American is when compared to the avg european. Indeed, the avg poor person in the USA lives as well as the avg middle class person in Europe. The ultimate goal of the eco-fascists is to make the USA poorer. Their stated goal of stemming the world's increase in population is futile. While the eco-fascists may succeed in lowering the USA's standard of living, they will not stop the world's population growth. No matter what the eco-fascists achieve through gov't force, the world's population is going to peak at about 9.5 Billion people in or about 2060 – this is according to the UN's own demographic data! And one can hardly call the UN a "right-wing" organization! According to the data collected by the UN, population growth will continue – but at ever slowing rates. Indeed, by the middle of the 22nd century, according to the UN, the world's population will be LESS than it is today!

    So all you little ecofascistas can stop worrying your little heads off about population growth and start worrying about how we can start accellerating the certification process for new, clean, and safe nuclear powerplants!

  • All points are very valid. It all goes back to short attention spans, desire for bigger and better plus instant gratification — all fed by the media. Add to that the decline of educational standards. People must be held accountable by strings on govt. handouts and disincentives for reproducing. Public policy makers are afraid to address the environmental impact of population growth because the right to have children is seen as inviolate, which has to change. If most people are not going to be responsible, there have to be personal, impactful, immediate consequences– for the good of our planet.

  • Thanks for saying what needs to be said. Our situation with human population and world resources isn't sustainable, even if we stabilized population today at current numbers.

    Birth control needs to be readily, easily available to anyone who seeks it – at no cost and no questions asked.

Comments are closed.