The Population Taboo

By Sean Crawley

By the time you finish reading this article there will be an extra 1,200 human beings on the planet. If that doesn’t seem too bad, let’s extrapolate. This time tomorrow there will an extra 200,000 people on earth, and this time next year there will be an extra 73 million of us – yes, that’s correct, 73 million extra humans, out there, all over the bloody place: eating, shitting and competing against each other to get ahead in the madness of the human race.

The general consensus is there is no need to worry, because if we just stick to the current plan until we all have university degrees, are all millionaires, and all live to 120 years of age, then the population will magically stabilise and we will all live happily ever after. If you find that a bit hard to swallow and want to talk about population, be prepared to be labelled racist, elitist, ignorant, communist, anti-freedom, inhumane, non-human, emotionless, anti-god, stupid, backward or anti-progress. In short, be prepared to be categorised as a “crackpot”. The topic is taboo. Both religious and secular forces guard with ferocity the sanctity of human procreation. (As a point of observation and not criticism, note that human population is not one of the nine planetary boundaries.)

There are two absolutely inalienable human rights in operation at this moment in human history: one is the right to accumulate as much material wealth as you are able to, and the other is the right to reproduce and create as many new human beings as your mind desires and gonads can deliver. These two unwritten rights, as opposed to the other universally declared rights, are exempt from the condition about not impinging upon the rights of others. So being filthy rich and reproducing as much as humanly, even biotechnologically, possible have been accepted as either having no impact upon the wellbeing of anyone else, or, if they do, then that’s just too bad.

The objections faced by those who do wake up and smell the humans can be categorised as follows:

  • Overpopulation is a myth
  • Carrying Capacity is within our control
  • Growth will solve the problem of growth

and, last but not least:

  • Don’t tell me what to do

Challenging any of the above positions will require thick skin and a tenacious commitment to reality. If you do manage to penetrate the taboo here are some thoughts on those areas of objection.


“An Essay on the Principle of Population” was first published in 1798 by Thomas Robert Malthus and “The Population Bomb” was published in 1968 by Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich. Because the predictions made in these works failed to materialise in the precise time frames suggested, they have been boldly held up as ‘proof’ that overpopulation is a myth. For deniers of this ilk we will have to be actually drowning in our own excrement before they will concede that there is a limit to the number of humans that can survive on planet earth. These well-known scholarly works that have applied basic ecology to human beings did stir up a bit of controversy – probably because their basic premise is sound and irrefutable. However, predicting the future, especially putting a time frame on it, has always been a risky business. But just because we can’t see the timer set on a ticking bomb, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bomb.

If you can manage to debunk the nonsense that just because something hasn’t happened yet it will never happen, don’t get too cocky. The die-hard growth nuts are out there in force, albeit mainly in cyberspace, and they’re not afraid to make accusations of conspiracy theories to defend their position that 9 billion, 10 billion, 11 billion more is nothing to get claustrophobic about. For example, did you know that you could fit the whole of the human population into the state of Texas. That sounds like a whole load of cosy fun. Who knows? George W Bush might be your neighbour! Some people actually believe this stuff though, which you can check out for yourself on sites such as – and if you’re after some light entertainment, you can trust that Youtube will deliver.

Whatever tactics are used by the deniers, the outcome essentially boils down to adopting the “no need to worry” attitude. Ironically, raising the issue of human population has been deemed a nuisance and a distraction when so many other important issues like food security, refugees and human waste management need to be addressed. The mind boggles.

Carrying Capacity is within our control – Just TWEAK THE DIALS A BIT TO FIT IN THE NEXT BILLION

Putting aside the Texas solution, some serious efforts have been made to try and answer the question of just how many people planet earth can reasonably support. It is a simple question without a simple answer. Earth systems are complex, and human beings, believe it or not, are just one variable in the big picture of interdependency. What does seem to be gaining some traction in the debate about carrying capacity is the number of planet earths required to sustain the current population: about one and a half (not sure where the other half is supposed to come from); and that if everyone wants to live like a typical middle class North American or Australian (and by and large that seems to be the case), we will need about 4 or 5 planet earths so we can all be obese and own the latest smart phone. Even though deep down we despise ourselves, we pretend that we have mastery over the universe and that carrying capacity can be endlessly increased. An equation developed back in the 1970s can be used to illustrate this delusion of control.


To reduce IMPACT (more fashionably called ecological footprint these days) – and to avoid the need to round up a few extra planet earths and put them in the pantry – we console ourselves that everything will all right because we can simply tweak the affluence and technology dials. *Remember: the POPULATION dial has a big red DO NOT TOUCH sticker on it. The global sustainability movement is looking at both of these, and in a simple sense LEAN and GREEN have become the goals to address affluence and technology.

Disregarding those who preach the dawning of a higher level of human consciousness that will usher in an era of universal infinite abundance and lightTM, many of us adopt the slightly more realistic belief that lean and green practices will save humanity from being flushed away by a rising ocean.  Hard cold maths applied with an understanding of the Law of Entropy shows that even if we all recycle, reuse, conserve, car pool, walk, convert to solar, plant trees, become vegan and share everything with impeccable equality, if we do not stop the growth of our species we will all be shoulder to shoulder (please bring deodorant) watching the planet degrade into a wasteland. Whether it be with a whimper or a bang, it will be game over.

Some technophiles still refute this scenario. The irrational optimism in future technology as the saviour of humankind stands on par with a faith in a supernatural being already having decided and planned our destiny. So in the meantime, until God or machine intervenes, eat, drink, be merry and have as many offspring as your liberal humanist free will demands.

Without wanting to make any absolute claims or cause mass panic, it does appear that our best efforts at calculating a sustainable carrying capacity for earth come in between 600 million and 2 billion. The cognitive and emotional realisation that we may be at least 5 billion human beings over the limit is so uncomfortable that, perhaps understandably, we continue to deny the issue and pin our hopes on some technological wizardry that will save us from ourselves.


To drown out the likes of David Attenborough, Michael E. Arth, Jonathon Porritt, Sara Parkin, Crispin Tickell, Dick Smith and Bindi Irwin, the voices of government and business chant that economic growth is the one and only pathway to a glorious future. The growth of the economy, as it is currently structured, fundamentally depends on the growth of human population. The argument goes something like this: economic growth will allow us to develop the technology that will put ever increasing amounts of food on the table, clean up the mess as we go, and raise our standards of living and education to the point where we will simply stop making too many babies. If you are now laughing you are excused – insanity can be funny. What is not funny, though, is that a continual fear of scarcity is used to keep growth on everyone’s agenda. In the real world though, an environment degrading rapidly due to over population – by any species – will only be restored to balance by natural systems – through reduction, not growth.

The paranoia, illustrated by when Bindi Irwin was branded a neo-Malthusian by the Hilary Clinton machine, and the outrage stirred up by the “psychopath” David Attenborough referring to humans as a plague, are evidence that  insanity prevails. And anyone who dares to challenge the religion of growth is persecuted with a fervour once reserved for heresy.

When I was born the human population of the planet was around 3 billion, it is now over 7 billion, and will be around 9 billion by the time I expire. No wonder that as we age and observe our fellow humans we contemplate just how crowded it is going to get. The ubiquitous mantra of growth, however, drowns out the ponderings of us old-timers. The good old uncrowded days are dismissed as sentimental nostalgia. The politically indisputable position is that the horrors of the past such as slavery, racism, tyranny, sexism, disease and so on were only overcome by the growth of the economy that facilitated improved technology, health and education.

Advocates for steady state economies, or steady state anything, are looked at as having a screw loose, and advocates for powering down or degrowth are dismissed as total lunatics. Our deep self-loathing is a primary force that drives us onwards and upwards even when we do comprehend that the end point is a crowded, filthy and desolate planet. The enculturated fear that if we stop progress we will fall back into some abysmal form of our true innate human nature comprehensively negates all challenges to growth. Populate or perish burns strong within our loins even when cool heads see the reality is populate and perish.


So, if the public arena isn’t yet ready to tolerate discussion on human population, what about bringing it up in our private worlds? Convincing someone to use solar energy instead of burning coal is a bit less daunting than raising the question of how many children we should have. Have you encountered any of these arguments?

  • Children should grow up with lots of brothers and sisters; it is good for them, only-children are spoilt and selfish.
  • You can’t tell people how many children they can have – they tried that in communist China; you can’t really want that sort of government control over the people, we here in the West have fought long and hard for our freedom. (*note: The Chinese communist regime originally encouraged population growth; it was their successors in the late ‘70’s who instigated the one-child policy – which only applies to just over a third of the population – to address the consequences. )
  • I came from a family of four and that’s how many children I want to have.
  • Contraception is against the will of God; besides, a condom reduces my sense of pleasure.
  • I’ve got six daughters but I haven’t had a son yet to carry on the family name.

When population is on the table for discussion, as rare as that unfortunately may be, the issue, like many other issues, can get bogged down by complexity and erupt with emotion. Immigration, education, religion, contraception, carrying capacity, renewable energy, consumption and welfare are all relevant spaces within which the debate rages. These topics ought to be reflected upon, and discussed in public and in private. However, even if we do develop more benign means of existence, the issue of population will not disappear until we accept that there is a limit to the number of humans that the planet can support in any sustainable and desirable way. Simply put, political objections do not render scientific realities moot. Sufficient global solidarity on this point will only be achieved when moral responsibility for the problem is taken on by individuals. While the topic of human population does remain taboo, then simply encouraging and engaging in dialogue, as complex and as uncomfortable as that may be, at home and in public, is perhaps at present the most effective action that anyone can take.


  • Thanks for writing and publishing this article. As my botany professor observed nearly 40 years ago, “Next to overpopulation, every other issue facing humankind is trivial. It’s ultimately the root cause of most of the issue we face and will continue to face.” JD


  • Guess I’m a techno-fixer. I know the state of everything decent in the world is going to get pretty bad. It doesn’t make any difference at this point. It only makes a difference what can be done to ameliorate matters. Really we have got 4 choices

    Totalitarianism – force people to have fewer kids. This isn’t going to happen unless and until things get really bad.

    Socialism – force the haves to share what they have got, so that with reduced infant mortality, state pensions, feminism and education, LDC population growth falls off. But this isn’t going to happen either.

    Capitalism – hope that the same things can be obtained through economic growth in LDCs. Two problems – (i) these things were only obtained through political struggle in the industrialised world, (ii) on the way to stabilising the population, the world will already be 100% fubar.

    Techno-fix – the frontier of clean technologies advances so that there is a pathway to clean growth that raises living standards without the whole world being 100% fubar. That is disruptive enough to shatter the grip of vested interests in politics and give people the fortitude to root for a decent future where they do have a better standard of living.

    That’s all well and good, and I work towards one such effort. Still the assumption that with a stable popn, the carrying capacity and the popn can converge still then depends on the average person deciding they can live with necessities and enjoy the real things in life, instead of in the future aspiring to all own helicopters.
    The worst thing right now is that American-style factory farming is becoming emulated by China.


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