Population, the touchy topic in the overshoot discussion

By Sahra Kress and Jack Santa Barbara


For 25 years, hardly anyone has spoken openly about the two major 'multiplier threats' to our planet. It has seemed taboo to talk about both - always too uncomfortable, and easier to avoid the population growth issue, and therefore just focus on hyper-consumption. Only recently is there a shift to acknowledge the need for an ethical, scientific, honest approach to facing a reality we cannot avoid.


It is important to understand that ecological overshoot is not only about food availability or greenhouse gas emissions, but about the total impact of human consumption on natural systems’ capacity to regenerate and absorb our wastes – it is our total ecological footprint, which is currently at least 75% in excess of nature’s capacities. What the desired balance between per capita consumption (or level of affluence) and population size should be requires a global dialogue we are not having.


One of the reasons we are not having this dialogue is the large number of sensitivities aroused by such a discussion. Sensitivities of a wide variety: patriarchy, pronatalism, gender equality, human rights, and religious beliefs, to mention just a few. Another reason is that it is difficult for most people to even question the value of economic growth – a concept that is challenged by the issue of ecological overshoot, and hence also the population issue (in conjunction with per capita consumption). We believe the evidence is clear that both population and per capita consumption (predominantly among the wealthy everywhere) must decline to live within the planet’s carrying capacity.


Economic growth is a major driver behind governments encouraging population growth, through either increased fertility or immigration. It is the easiest way to increase economic growth - more people need more stuff. These pronatalist agendas are so embedded in our media, movies, and advertising that we take them for granted. There is good research to show that non-coercive approaches involving education and empowerment of women, along with readily available contraception are highly effective in allowing couples to have the number of children they want.


Reproductive Justice is the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent children in safe and sustainable communities. DANZ is deeply committed to the principles of Reproductive Justice, which provide a position - based on equity - for working to enable collective wellbeing within ecological limits.


It is understandable why there is so much sensitivity around the issue of population growth. But to ignore it because of these sensitivities, or worse, to attach such labels as “eco-fascism” to any discussions of population issues, is neither well-informed nor constructive. These are not issues that will resolve themselves. It is important to understand that at the heart of population growth is patriarchal coercive pronatalism that is an equally egregious violation of reproductive rights as was eugenics that sought to control population dynamics. Both must be disavowed absolutely. But closing the door on the conversation is not the answer. It marginalises the most vulnerable that we all strive to protect.


DANZ joins Stable Planet Alliance and its members who are pushing forward to help governments and civil society talk and act urgently to bend the curve on population and consumption. And to help us all face and embrace the mindset shifts that we must make to stabilise and reduce our impact on our planet and climate - through public policy and public conversations.


Ethical, empowering, beneficial, women-focused, men-supported, equitable responses are already available – we must all be part of these most urgent actions. The responses will need to be inter-disciplinary, multi-pronged, and grounded in ethics, addressing both hyper-consumption and population growth. Most people get nervous when talking about population for obvious reasons, but once we acknowledge that population growth is founded on the principles of coercive patriarchal pronatalism, that benefits from the subjugation of women and girls for other growth agendas, it becomes imperative to address it.


In addition to advocating for Degrowth, confronting coercive pronatalism is another feature of the way forward. It need not be a brutal path. Elevating rights go hand in hand with a sustainable population, seeing that at the heart of population growth is coercive patriarchal


We are aligned with global organisations that use an anti-oppression lens to draw connections between pronatalism, human supremacy, and ecological overshoot, and their combined devastating impacts on social, reproductive, ecological, and intergenerational justice. We believe it is essential to shift from a position of human supremacy to an eco-centric worldview, one in which we move from a place of dominance to one of reverence and stewardship.


Our position at DANZ is that we need a respectful and sensitive discussion to explore how we collectively find the right balance between population size and per capita consumption (or standard of living), especially in NZ. We seek to provide a safe space to explore these difficult issues with one another so that collectively we can further our goals of a just and sustainable society within planetary boundaries.


For more information, please see:

- Challenging Pronatalism is Key to AdvancingReproductive Liberation and Planetary Health

-   The Future of Human Population with Jane O’Sullivan, see also this


11 minute video explanation