Breaking a Taboo

Julie WornanNews And ViewsLeave a Comment

Jean-Loup Bertaux is an astronomer. His first book was about Halley’s comet. He has written over 400 scientific articles and has had an asteroid named for him (“5235 Jean-Loup”).

Démographie, climat, migrations : l’état d’urgence* (Demography, climate and migrations – a state of emergency) is his second book.

Like the renowned climatologist James Hansen whose study of the planet Venus made him aware of the catastrophic global warming on planet Earth, Bertaux began to be concerned about Earth’s climate problems from an extra-terrestrial viewpoint, and quickly realized that we are using up our planet at an unsustainable pace. And the principal reason for this is that there are too many of us.

World population exploded from 2 billion in 1927 to 7.6 billion today. Bertaux calculates that the Earth can sustainably accommodate no more that 2.1 billion people if each has the ecological footprint of the average Frenchman. The world’s total ecological footprint has overshot Earth’s carrying capacity since 1971.

The UN projects global population to reach 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Bertaux figures that sustainable development with 9 billion inhabitants is simply not possible.

How did we become so numerous?  Basically, we failed to adjust our fecundity downward to match the dramatic decrease in infantile mortality resulting from medical progress.

What will happen if nothing is done to reverse the trend? More greenhouse gas emissions for a start: a newborn child will generate 7 tons of CO2 per year during his/her lifetime, for a total of about 500 tons. Then, massive extinction of species; forested areas given over to agriculture, to the detriment of forests as carbon sinks; air-polluted cities; depletion of natural resources; loss of wild space for human recreation as well as other creatures’ habitat; overfishing and pollution of the seas; sweet water scarcity… Scarcity – already there are not enough resources for everybody’s needs – will foster wars and/or dictatorships.

The longer the period of overpopulation, the worse the damage inflicted, including irreversible damage like the extinction of species. And yet, it seems that any consideration of population decrease, even slight, bothers so many of us. Eminent politicians and climatologists almost never address the question of over-population, never bring it up in debates. It’s not politically correct to say there are too many people on the planet. This seems to be a deeply rooted taboo. Why?

Religion is often cited. However, even Pope Francis famously said that Catholics do not have to breed “like rabbits”.

Pro-growth ideologues often entertain the idea that demographic growth generates growth. But Japan, Germany, and South Korea show strong economic growth despite diminishing demography.

Some have an idea that populations are healthier if they have a greater proportion of young people to old. But this is catastrophic in the long term because the population would just keep on growing.

Some fear that negative population growth would lead to the eventual extinction of humanity. But it’s an insult to the intelligence of our descendants, to think they wouldn’t react in time to prevent our total disappearance!

Sometimes unrestrained population growth is the result of an “us against them” mentality. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and has a growth rate of 2.4% per year. Each woman gives birth to 5.25 children on average. Nigeria has two religious communities: Christians principally in the South, Muslims mainly in the North. Each community hopes to become more numerous than the other…

Some think that population reduction implies violence. Population can be reduced without killing anybody! We just need to produce fewer children. Making contraception freely available everywhere is the key to saving our planet.

It’s often remarked that better education of girls and more opportunities for women are a key to family planning. Although these measures are important, their effect is too slow to be relied on in a useful time frame.

Some people preach frugality in place of population restraint. But it would be politically impossible to drastically reduce the level of consumption (and pollution) of rich countries’ inhabitants. Or to keep the inhabitants of poor countries from trying to consume more, when 15% of world population suffers from malnutrition, and climate change is likely to aggravate food insecurity.

The two main causes of the increase of CO2 are our requirements for energy consumption (heating, cars, planes…) and, increasingly, the continual increase in world population. We must try to diminish the CO2 produced by each person (with nuclear energy, solar plants, wind turbines, better insulation, public transport, electric cars, liquid fuel made from CO2 from the atmosphere) but also reduce our demographic production. Rich countries, where population is stabilized or even regressing, need to help poor countries to reduce their demographics. It’s the best investment in the future that can be made – not only to mitigate global climate change, but also to decrease the number of potential migrants willing to risk everything to escape conditions inimical to survival.

In Africa, 66% of women living in couples don’t use contraception, and 22% of African women want to use contraception but can’t afford it or don’t have access to it. Under the Paris Agreement, rich countries are committed to spending $100 billion/year to help poor countries cope with climate change. A small fraction of this sum could be used for a program to make voluntary birth control widely and freely available. Another idea: help to subsidize a guaranteed pension for every woman who gives birth to fewer than three children.

Traffic jams, crowded trains, crowded beaches, regions once wild now paved over, mega-cities with unbreathable air – every day gives us pause to think how much more pleasant life could be, if we were fewer.

We must overcome the taboos that block discourse about overpopulation.

Would we rather be numerous, or happy?


* Fauves Editions 2017, 232 pages.

You can read an interview with Jean-Loup Bertaux in the (French) magazine Sciences N° 58.

– Julie Wornan

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