The last column (June 22) generated quite a bit of response. This column responds to some of the responses.

Three people let me know about or sent me a copy of an article by David Roberts at Vox titled “I’m an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation. Here’s why.” He indicates that in the Q&A following talks he gives on environmental topics someone inevitably asks about the “population question.” He’s tired of the question, and his article is intended to explain, “once and for all, why I hardly ever talk about population and why I’m unlikely to in the future.”

He begins by acknowledging that increasing global population is one important factor in gauging the effect of the climate crisis, the overall impact of which can be summed up as “Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.” Or, I=PxAxT. Increases in any of the three can multiply environmental impact.

He also acknowledges the present calculated total global population (about 7.5 billion and the generally accepted projected increases to 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100). We’ve been adding a rough average of a billion people every dozen or so years since the 1960s.

Quoting from the article, “Most of the people will be fairly poor … which means their per-capita consumption of resources will be fairly low. Nonetheless, cumulatively adding 2.3 billion people by 2050 amounts to enormous additional resource use and pollution (including greenhouse gases). Mitigating some substantial percentage of that population growth would be one way to better environmental conditions in 2050. It would also have more impact than virtually any other climate impact.”

OK, so it would seem that population as a driver of the climate crisis would be deserving of widespread and serious discussion — especially if we factor in the extent to which these nations are able to climb out of poverty. In the formula above, increased affluence would multiply the adverse impact on the environment even if population does not increase, as more people own and drive cars, eat meat, heat and cool their homes, purify their water, buy more stuff, and generally follow the path taken by “rich countries” in seeking a better life for themselves and their children.

But, the author goes on to discuss “population’s unsavory associations.” Quoting again, “When political movements or leaders adopt population control as a central concern … let’s just say it never goes well. In practice, where you find concern over ‘population,’ you very often find racism, xenophobia or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost, ahem, particular populations that need reducing.”

That history supports the above statement is indisputable. Some of the science on population has been twisted for patently racist purposes. According to the author, it is not possible to escape this ugly history. If one even talks about “population” all the ghosts of the past crash back into the public discussion.

So, he suggests that the word “population” be excised and replaced with “family planning” that will naturally result in smaller families and a reduced birth rate. Further, emphasis should be on “education of girls” so that women will join the workforce and, again, opt for smaller families. He cites futurist and thinker Paul Hawken whose “Drawdown Project” “found that the combination of the two (call it the female-empowerment package) carried the most potential to reduce greenhouse gases later this century, out of any solution.

“So, if you are concerned about the growth of population, make yourself a champion of female empowerment in the developing world. You will be contributing to the most effective solution to the problem without any of the moral baggage.”

If population is a central part of an existential problem, as it is with the climate crisis, it’s important to discuss it. Absent public acknowledgment of an overarching theme, or label, it’s harder to motivate people to focus on the solutions, including and especially those in the article referenced above.

The Paris Climate Agreement established a global consensus around the urgency of responding to the climate crisis, acknowledging that increasing population will compound the problem. Every nation in the world agreed that in addition to technical solutions such as transferring from a fossil-fuel based energy system there must also be a focus on income equality, female empowerment and education, and assisting countries with high poverty levels to develop without emulating the mistakes of the now-rich countries.

Like global population, global affluence will increase. We will need to embrace science and not be afraid of confronting its deniers if we are to solve the climate crisis and reach sustainable levels of population and resource consumption.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis (population just under 70,000). This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online July 4, 2018
Printed July 4, 2018 edition page A3