Feminism, Migration, And Population Policy: A Letter To My Friends

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Feminism, Migration, And Population Policy: A Letter To My Friends

An NPG Forum Paper
by Lindsey Grant

The human population on Earth has quadrupled in the past century. It is degrading the capability of Earth’s natural systems to support us. Mathematically, that astonishing growth must stop. How it will stop, and at what level and condition, is thoroughly obscure, but there are changes afoot.

Two fundamentally different and conflicting forces are driving world population change right now. The feminist revolution is driving fertility down in the more prosperous nations, as women discover new interests and opportunities beyond child bearing. It is now far below replacement level. Barring a sharp rise in fertility or massive immigration, it will lead to rapid population declines. On the other hand, fertility remains very high in the least developed countries, where people face a brutal choice between starvation or emigration. If they manage to emigrate, and propagate, they will replace the diminishing cohorts of the prosperous nations, a process with unpredictable consequences perhaps foreshadowed by the hostile German reaction to the recent influx of Syrian refugees.

Fifty years ago, population growth was seen as a major problem by much of our political leadership, including President Nixon. It has dropped completely off the screen. Growth is the reigning mantra, ignoring the scientists who are documenting the damage that population growth is doing to the Earth’s life support systems.

This essay is addressed to my fellow population activists in hopes of revitalizing an epochally important cause. Changed circumstances call for an approach very different from the past. I will start by summarizing what I believe is happening, and then offer some suggestions as to how we can best achieve our goal of population decline to a truly sustainable level.


(I am indebted to William R. Catton, Jr. for the term and a seminal book: Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, 1982.)
The quadrupling of human population has been accompanied by comparable or greater growth in consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources.

It would be remarkable if such growth – on a finite planet – did not generate huge dislocations. Indeed, they are under way, and documented elsewhere: anthropogenic climate change, rising sea levels, warming and acidification of the oceans and the loss of corals and other nurseries of marine life, more intense storms and droughts, the looming decline of fossil fuels, growing scarcities of essential non-fuel minerals, shortages of fresh water and receding water tables, desertification, intensified competition for arable land, the continuing loss of forest area and of species (including human pathogens), and more crowded and conflicted societies.

In our fixation on lesser issues, let’s not forget that, barring an external cataclysm such as the Cretaceous extinctions, these are the central changes that are shaping the future of our species. They are driving the rising tensions we see around us. They threaten the most basic of human needs: food. Present populations – to say nothing of those projected – will not be sustainable.

And it is happening in an instant of geological time.

Suddenly, we must confront the question: how many people can exist at a decent level, in a sustainable world?[…]  

Continue reading the full Forum paper by clicking here.

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Lindsey Grant

Lindsey Grant is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he was a China specialist and served as Director of the Office of Asian Communist Affairs, National Security Council staff member, and Department of State policy Planning staff member. As Deputy Secretary of State for Environmental and Population Affairs, he was Department of State coordinator for the Global 2000 Report to the President, Chairman of the interagency committee on Int'l Environmental Committee and US member of the UN ECE Committee of Experts on the Environment. His books include: Too Many People, Juggernaut, The Horseman and the Bureaucrat, Elephants in Volkswagen, How Many Americans?

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