Rethinking Overpopulation

Amidst the media hysteria about the U.S. population reaching 300 million this month, it seems an opportune moment to reflect on the deeply subjective nature of the concept of "overpopulation." One example: how is it that Europe's low birth rate is a population "crisis," whereas Africa's high birth rate is also a population "crisis"? Three guesses.

For this and other food for thought, I highly recommend 10 Reasons to Rethink 'Overpopulation', a thoughtful new resource from Hampshire College's Population and Development Program that explores the links between population, reproductive health, human rights, racism, and the environment. Here are some particularly compelling reasons to rethink:

  1. Population control targets women's fertility and restricts reproductive rights.
  2. Population alarmism encourages apocalyptic thinking that legitimizes human rights abuses.
  3. Conventional views of overpopulation stand in the way of greater global understanding and solidarity.

If I had my way, it would be required reading for all 300 million Americans…

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  • kelly-rand

    I was surprised to see this post. I would consider these old arguments to be harmful rhetoric and should be placed as such under that portion of your website. The paper referenced above only harms the family planning/reproductive health movement now that we’ve moved on.

    While I agree that more Americans need to educate themselves on the issues of population, the environment and sustainability; I take exception as to what you are passing as conventional. The arguments on why we need to “rethink overpopulation” in the Hampshire College piece were settled at least 12 years ago if not before. Development and foreign aid has since moved on to a right’s based approached that is agreed upon by 179 nations. Ensuring universal access to family planning and reproductive health is essential to the health and well being of people around the world and for the health of our planet.

    Is population to blame for hunger, poverty, environmental degradation and political instability? No, but does population have an effect on hunger, poverty, environmental degradation and political instability? Yes and it can not be divorced from the solutions to these problems.

    Are population control programs, based on quotas and targets, harmful to women and restrict their rights? Yes, and no one is advocating for such. Programs on the ground now are designed to empower and lift women and families out of poverty, increase access to voluntary family planning, decrease food instability and environmental degradation and are voluntary, are asked for and are sorely needed.

    Please stop using outmoded arguments concerning population growth and take a page from some of your partnering organizations:


  • andrea-lynch

    Dear Kelly,

    Thanks for your comment, and for pointing out valuable further resources on the population issue. I'm aware of the global paradigm shift from a top-down, population-control approach to a rights-based, reproductive-health one, agreed by 179 governments at the International Conference on Population and Development (in fact, I used to work for the International Women's Health Coalition, which played a key role in the conference). And you're right, I should have mentioned the ICPD and the work of the organizations you highlight in my post.

    What I meant to draw attention to was that despite the 1994 consensus reached at ICPD and subsequently reaffirmed several times, the rhetoric of overpopulation and population control is still with us. The media reproduces it (I noticed several hysterical articles during the lead-up to the U.S. population reaching 300 million), racist population control organizations still exist and have federal tax exemption (see, formerly known as C.R.A.C.K., which pays women with drug addictions to get sterilized), the old population control folks are still around (and many of them were given a platform to speak at the ten-year review of ICPD in 2004), and despite the shift in global population policies, I would argue that many individuals (including many politicians and development professionals) still consider the fertility of particular women (Latina immigrants to the U.S. accused of having “anchor” babies, women on welfare, women of color, women in the developing world) to be a social or global problem.

    I would also argue that despite progress made at the global level, people are still more familiar with the concept of “overpopulation” than they are with the ICPD. In fact, I’ve never met anyone outside the sexual and reproductive rights, environment, or population world who has even heard of ICPD (I was the only one in my masters program of development professionals who was aware of it).

    But even though the ICPD has occasioned major changes in policy and rhetoric, the memory of population control policies is still often only a generation or two away in women’s minds, both within the U.S. and globally, and as a result, it’s been difficult to mobilize certain communities of women around expanding access to contraception and abortion, since the association with population control remains so strong. As a white, upper-middle-class American woman whose fertility has never been considered anything but a blessing, it took me a while to appreciate the enduring force of that association, and to recognize how much easier policy is to change than attitudes. Which is why I feel that despite progress made in the 1990s, the PopDev factsheet is still relevant.

    Thanks again for your comment,