HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Population and Avoiding Controversy in the Environmental Movement

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is one of the few environmental organizations to launch an outreach campaign focusing on the environmental harm caused by the need to sustain increasing numbers of people on Earth. Traditionally, environmental groups have shied away from identifying population as a problem, instead focusing on human behavior. The underlying message has been that as long as activities are done safely and resources are used sustainably, there is no need to control populations. Environmental groups seem terrified to take on the value-laden, religiously charged issue of birth control, which is the obvious solution and only way to address overpopulation.

This was not true in the early years of the movement. Barry Commoner's 1972 book, The Closing Circle, Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb in 1968 and other writings exposed problems caused by overpopulation, and described the Earth's limited ability to provide raw materials for growing numbers of humans. But as environmental organizations sprang up, few took on the question of how to address that issue.

Last week, the world human population reportedly reached 7 billion. Articles about the milestone said the numbers exacerbated climate change and other environmental problems, as in pieces appearing in the Huffington Post and USA Today. An LA Times article included an excellent list of questions facing human society: "whether a growing population or growing consumption remains the biggest environmental challenge, how best to help lift a billion people out of poverty and misery, [and] whether governments should provide contraception for those who cannot afford it." Although some writers claim the "population bomb" has been diffused due to the "green revolution" and changing demographics (as in the article found here) the population continues to increase, and the issues remain. The question for environmental groups is whether they will take on the birth control issue, a direction the CBD may be leading them, or continue to let family planning groups and organizations addressing poverty fight those battles without them.


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