The Population Conversation: Lessons From 200+ Organizations
Suburban housing near Santa Clarita, California. halbergman / E+ / Getty Images
By Adoma Addo and Kelley Dennings
In the 50 years since the modern environmental movement was born, human population has more than doubled and our demands on the planet have skyrocketed. The pressure of our growing population, along with the consumption driven by the destructive industries that monopolize food and energy production, are widely recognized as key drivers of the climate and extinction crises. Yet, according to recent research, most conservation and environmental organizations don’t address population growth head-on.
The Center for Biological Diversity, where we work, conducted an online analysis of 228 organizations’ websites — from climate change groups to health institutions — to study how different groups discuss population and their specific areas of focus when talking about population. The goal was to identify areas of overlap for collaboration and the common vocabulary used between these oftentimes siloed fields.
The scan revealed some interesting takeaways useful to all organizations working in the environmental, climate change and conservation fields. Chief among them: We found that incorporating the rights and justice goals of health organizations can help environmental organizations speak directly about how population dynamics affect the environment, which will improve ecological resilience and support the rights and health of people.
We also found that while many climate change organizations’ websites discuss the population pressure solutions noted in Project Drawdown (namely, advancement in agricultural, carbon capture and transportation technologies), they often leave out the health and education solutions that affect population growth rates.
Conservation organizations similarly give a nod to population growth as a driver in the extinction crisis but do not discuss solutions-oriented, people-centered approaches to reducing the impacts of human-caused environmental pressure. Many of these groups seem to see population growth as inevitable, offering adaptation-focused solutions aimed at increasing sustainable use of natural resources.
Health organization websites adopt human-centric approaches to reproductive health, highlighting the social, economic and health benefits of improved access to voluntary family planning services. But they do not talk about population pressure.
Population-focused organizations do address the issue head-on because it’s core to their mission, but their efforts to educate the public about the effects of population growth often fail to mention the importance of consumption behaviors and systemic inequalities.
When rapid population growth was represented on websites, the most commonly proposed solutions were advocating for voluntary family planning, gender equity and empowerment (usually explicitly for women), youth empowerment, and advocating for and improving access to comprehensive sex education.
Although the topic is often perceived as being controversial, the impacts of population growth are widely recognized across different sectors. Population pressure is not excluded from the present discourse about environmental changes and human/nature interactions, but it also is rarely addressed in a direct or comprehensive way.
While many organizations may support adaptation policies and technologies and/or recognize population growth as an inevitable burden, they fail to acknowledge the structural barriers and inequalities that create unmet needs for family planning and suppress women’s voices and autonomy.
Environmental groups that ignore population pressure miss an opportunity to discuss upstream climate mitigation and adaptation solutions — like universal access to family planning — that highlight the intersections of health, justice, equity and choice.
Simply mentioning population growth as a threat to the environment can be reductionist — focusing on numbers alone without considering the oppression of people and the responsibility of wealthy polluters can open the door to eco-fascism. But rather than ignore this important issue, organizations can appropriately campaign around population growth in ways that align with their values:
- Conservation organizations should incorporate solutions-oriented, people-centered approaches to reducing the impacts of human-caused environmental pressure to their work. Such approaches focus on reproductive health, rights and justice and women’s empowerment.
- Building cross-sectoral collaborations would support the work of all groups involved and could enhance environmental, social, economic and health benefits.
- All organizations should acknowledge how both patriarchy and capitalism affect people and the planet. These larger systems are impacting the work of all organizations reviewed.
- Given the appeal of technological adaptation to many organizations, environmental groups could extend the use of the term “technology” to contraception (i.e., modern contraception is a climate change mitigation technology) ensuring that the most vulnerable populations are included and empowered in climate action.
- Recognizing how universal access to family planning and comprehensive sex education relate to climate change resiliency may resonate well with other groups across different disciplines.
Because population pressure is a potentially polarizing topic that many groups are averse to discussing, focusing on these rights-based solutions can be helpful when connecting with these different fields.
Reproductive rights and the full ability to decide if and when to start a family vary greatly across the United States. There are differing levels of access to quality health and family planning services, as well as different sexual education standards across states. With the unmet need for family planning ranging from 9% to 13% across various demographic groups and intensifying restrictions on abortion and healthcare coverage, there is a wealth of opportunity for environmental groups to support reproductive justice and human wellbeing while advancing environmental resiliency.
For example, the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule, which cuts off funding to health care providers that perform, counsel or refer patients on abortion care, interfering in client/health care provider relationships. Or the Health Equity and Access Under the Law (HEAL) Act, which will help immigrants get the health care they need by removing the restrictions that prevent them from being insured; these restrictions disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander and other immigrants of color.
By advocating for reproductive freedom through universal family planning access through the support of the aforementioned acts and increasing comprehensive sex education while supporting gender equity within the United States, we can work for a future in which people and the planet can not only survive but thrive.
Adoma Addo is an intern with the Center for Biological Diversity. She is a senior at Yale College majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in human health and a Global Health scholar.
Kelley Dennings is a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. She holds a bachelor’s degree in natural resources and a master’s degree in public health. She is also a family planning counselor.
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