A Hard Conversation about Humankind

Photo by Dmytro

For most of us, it’s been very difficult to wrap our arms around the real drivers of our environmental crises. Might that be because we are an integral part of these drivers? Is this the classic elephant in the room? Are humans the elephant? If we look deeply into our Quaker mirror, we may well see that the answer is clearly yes to all three questions. The real drivers of the crises are population and consumption (affluence). So, yes, there are really two elephants, and we are in the picture! But these issues are truly immense, well beyond the scale of elephants. How could so many of us possibly continue to ignore them?

The Population Working Group of Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) comprises Quakers dedicated to understanding human population dynamics and the interaction with planetary ecosystems. We have a deep concern that humankind is out of sync with the earth and no longer sees it, senses it, or values it as our home. Fossil fuel is one of those resources found to be very convenient for the building of our global civilization. As our numbers have increased, our uses of fossil fuels have dramatically expanded and are threatening not only our human civilization but also the non-human populations on Earth.

Our total human impact on the earth is proportional to the number of people: more people means more impact. Each individual’s consumption (Affluence) contributes to that Impact. Affluence for a country is a mean value of consumption per person, but clearly rich people consume more than poor people. Greater Affluence magnifies the population’s impact. The Technology used to generate the Affluence is more damaging to the environment if it utilizes fossil fuels than if it uses clean energies. Thus total Impact is the product of Population, Affluence, and Technology:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

The specific application of this formula determines the units of the affluence and technology terms. Clearly for a given level of affluence and technology, impact is higher for a larger population. We can also see that decreasing population and/or affluence will reduce impact. We will highlight affluence and technology issues briefly, but the main focus will be to share our knowledge and concerns about the effect of population in this equation.

Virtually everyone knows that there is one population here on Earth that has been increasing rapidly: humankind. Most of the flora and fauna with which humans share creation have had to be in approximate balance with their environment and their available resources; in fact, they often contribute to those resources. Trees are a ubiquitous example. Unfortunately, many plant and animal populations are currently in dramatic decline and below their natural balance point because of us. Addressing our own population continues to be contentious in spite of wide agreement that more humans put more strain on the planet. We humans tend to feel we are exempt from an expectation of balance with our environment. We seem to feel inherently free to multiply without limits, ignoring all other populations, the environment, or Earth’s resources. While these unconscious beliefs are starting to change, they are changing very slowly.

Far from Sustainable

Since the 1950s, the number of humans has tripled from 2.5 billion to almost 8 billion. Consumption and related technologies have also dramatically increased over this period. Is that a problem? Well, yes, because many scientists have estimated that the planet can sustain in the long run less than 4 billion people living with a “reasonable” (European) standard of living. Friends like to be optimistic, but the predictions of scientists these days are quite dire. For instance, there’s the following from a 2021 Science Progress article titled “World scientists’ warning into action, local to global”:

Most people can now see that our planet is literally and metaphorically burning: massive wildfires; record temperatures; sustained, life-threatening high heat events and droughts; record floods; intensified tropical storms; species under high threat. We have already crossed tipping points like sea level rise and Arctic sea ice loss that will take a millennium (40 generations) or more to restore.

Technical solutions are indeed one way forward and can help decrease our impact. But in most cases they—electric vehicles, solar, wind, hydro, hydrogen, fuel cells, nuclear, etc.—are still dependent in critical ways on fossil fuels. For example, fossil fuels are needed to produce wind turbines and to transport them to their site. Renewable energy is encouraging and will help reduce consumption of fossil fuels. But how many of us would willingly give up the comforts and conveniences of modern life? The production of meat itself (especially beef) is estimated to contribute about 15 percent of CO2 emissions.

Interestingly, food production in recent decades has increased faster than population. Though food availability per capita has technically increased, the story is complex. We have cleared forests across the globe, initially in the North but today in the remaining tropical forests. Indigenous people have been pushed out of their traditional homelands, and numerous species have been forced into shrinking habitats or have become extinct. The reliance on ancient aquifers to irrigate crops has led to water extraction at rates far exceeding replenishment. And industrial agriculture itself is a major contributor to global warming because of its heavy dependence on fossil fuels.

This brief overview suggests we need to look honestly in the mirror and admit our responsibility. And we see that making our lives carbon neutral is very difficult, given our present population size, technology, and consumption habits. With the rate of change and the prognosis for our environment, the current status is far removed from being sustainable. As Friends, can we see the Spirit in all of Creation: its non-human populations, as well as our fellow humans, and all those yet to be born who will inherit what we leave behind? The QEW pamphlet Considering Limits to Human Population Size explores population dynamics in more detail.

What Do We Know?

For humankind to come back into balance with the planet, human numbers and consumption both need to decrease. This is in direct conflict with current economic arguments for continual growth of population and goods. At present we are adding 70 to 80 million people to the planet each year. Multiple groups of experts have estimated that the earth can only sustainably support 2 to 4 billion people. So, not just zero-growth but negative growth (population decline) is needed for the human population to reach levels that are sustainable. Human population growth has stopped in a few parts of the world and has slowed in many other regions. However, when looking forward toward global population and consumption changes, Friends must consider how these changes can happen in an equitable manner.

How Can Reduction Be Equitable?

Norms affecting population growth can be changed within individual countries in a number of ways: forcibly by law (as in China), by incentives (as in several countries that have incentives to decrease births), and by information using education and the media. As Friends, we clearly oppose coercive laws. So, as we determine that it is indeed necessary and desirable for the global human population to be reduced, we ask, “How can this be approached equitably between the more and less developed countries?” The technical analyses are sufficiently advanced and available to provide reliable environmental impact profiles for both population and consumption on a country-by-country basis. The table below (from the Union of Concerned Scientists, 2020) illustrates comparative environmental impact (CO2 emissions) for India and the United States of America. Note that the “responsibility” (percent of total impact) for the United States of America is almost twice that of India. The significant difference in consumption (affluence) is responsible for the greater U.S. environmental impact, even though its population is much smaller. In this case, because we are dealing with total emissions from fossil fuels, the affluence is a combination of both the affluence and technology components.

Population (P)(Billions)Affluence (A) (CO2 tons/ persons/yr)Impact (I = P x A) (CO2 gigatons/yr)Distribution of Impact (Percent)

Table description: Relative effects of population and affluence on CO2 emissions, for the United States and India

This table shows a tiny portion of the available data that detail relevant population and consumption patterns, but it clearly identifies the proportion of responsibility for each country. When such data pictures are as detailed and ubiquitous as the weather forecast, global public pressure could lead to changes at all levels of society. This means Quakers can help muster the international political will for change. This is an admittedly simple example, but it illustrates that country-specific changes in consumption patterns can be readily incorporated into the global population discussion.

The Path to Sustainability

The following quotation is from “Why Do Society and Academia Ignore the ‘Scientists Warning to Humanity’ on Population?” (published in a 2020 issue of the Journal of Futures Studies):

Environmental scientists and scholars who point out the danger of overpopulation do so for two key reasons. The first is that this is causing ecocide and the extinction of life on Earth. The second is that the first reason is likely to lead to famine and war, and the major loss of human population.

As Friends, we have a fundamental commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict. And we need to see the coming struggle over Earth’s resources as a call for our action. The QEW trifold “Friends Witness on Population” provides useful insights, encouragement, and more direction.

Well before critical awareness of the population level needed for sustainability arises, universal access to a range of safe and effective contraceptive options and family planning services needs to become available. The UK-based group Population Matters notes that “Empowering women is the most effective way to reduce fertility rates and achieve a sustainable population size that respects the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity.” Educating girls and securing women’s rights to high-quality family planning would be the most powerful combined solution to climate change. The QEW trifold “Empowering Women: The Link to Population” is a great resource on these issues. It is estimated that the world faces a $5.3 billion funding shortfall for providing the access to reproductive healthcare that women say they want. The QEW program “Quaker PopOffsets” offers people a means of offsetting their carbon emissions by helping fund voluntary family planning and education for those who currently may not be able to access them.

To make progress toward sustainability, today’s average desired family size in developed countries must decline from two children to one. Even after the number of births per woman reaches an average of two, the population will continue to increase for about 70 years because of the large number of people who are young. Because of this population momentum, China has had an average of fewer than two children per woman every year since the 1990s, but their population continues to grow and is only expected to level off by around 2030. It is obvious that the average number of children must, therefore, be fewer than two per family. Family size is discussed in a global context in QEW’s trifolds “Human Reproduction Is in the Commons: The Case for Smaller Families” and “Seeking Clearness on Childbearing in a Crowded World.”

Messaging for smaller family sizes is important for changing norms driving humankind’s uncontrolled growth. Population Media Center has been very successful with radio and TV programs in many developing countries. They produce popular “telenovelas” that highlight the positive effects of having small families. Individually as Quakers, we can encourage this messaging by supporting those in our communities who choose to have only one or no biological children, to adopt, to live in community and share child-rearing, or to be celibate.

Contraception enables couples to have fewer births. But for voluntary contraception to slow and then reverse population growth, several problems need to be solved. The first problem is access: more than 200 million women in the world would like to limit or space births but don’t have access to modern contraception. Cultural and religious barriers preventing use of contraception need to be confronted. For example, many leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are opposed to modern contraception. Furthermore, many modern methods of contraception unnecessarily require a physician; the de-medicalization of contraception is needed (e.g., over-the-counter contraceptive pills).

Even highly effective modern methods of contraception occasionally fail to prevent pregnancy. Abortion inherently involves a woman’s freedom of choice and equity. Safe abortion therefore needs to be available as an early option for any woman with an unwanted pregnancy. While some countries are liberalizing their abortion laws, the United States is moving in the opposite direction. We recognize that Friends lack unity on abortion. There is a very helpful consideration of this in the QEW trifold “Friends Seeking Clearness on Abortion.”

What Leadership Opportunity Do We Have as Quakers?

As Friends, can we sense the calling to a new understanding of our role as humans on this earth to find an equitable, sustainable balance with the environment and to accept a leadership role in the change process? Quakers found their role in opposing slavery and then again in opposition to war. Environmental crises and justice for Earth’s human and non-human populations are now facing us with a new challenge. And like slavery, we must admit our role in creating the problem as we assume our role in meeting the challenge.

Youth are raising their voices and demanding progress toward saving the earth for both them and their children. QEW is a leading voice for ecological sustainability and environmental justice in the Friends community. And Quakers have an established international credibility for fairness, objectivity, and moral leadership. That foundation will allow us to raise our voice in a larger conversation with other religious and equity-focused organizations that are also recognizing the gravity of environmental concerns but have yet to adequately acknowledge the population dimension. This is how and where we as Friends can individually and collectively start to make the larger changes that are needed.

10 Actions Friends Can Take

  1. Contribute to family planning and girls education through the PopOffsets program of Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW).
  2. Support organizations providing empowerment of women and reproductive health services, such as Planned Parenthood.
  3. Support organizations getting the message out, such as Population Connection and Population Media Center.
  4. Learn about population at the interactive Data Query website of the United Nations Population Division.
  5. Support those who choose to have only one or no children, adoption, community living with shared child-rearing, or celibacy.
  6. Ask your Congresspersons to provide adequate funding for family planning services to the millions of women worldwide who lack access.
  7. Join the Population Working Group of QEW and support QEW’s efforts and publications on population.
  8. Discuss these matters with your family, friends, and colleagues.
  9. Invite a member of the Population Working Group to speak at your quarterly or yearly meeting.
  10. Read online materials about human population (e.g. Population Connection resources).

The Population Working Group of Quaker Earthcare Witness

The Population Working Group of Quaker Earthcare Witness (formerly Friends Committee on Unity with Nature) began in 1993 and has worked continuously with Friends on population concerns since then. The group has published pamphlets on population size, sexuality, adoption, immigration, abortion, and reproduction. These are all available at quakerearthcare.org. Members of the Population Working Group of Quaker Earthcare Witness who contributed to this article are Russell Adams, Jeffry Barr, Stan Becker, Tom Cameron, David Ciscel, Louis Cox, Hank Elkins, Dick Grossman, Susan Newcomer, Ruah Swennerfelt, Roy Taylor, Roy Treadway, and Alice Wald.

5 thoughts on “A Hard Conversation about Humankind

  1. Indeed increasing population will put the world in peril. The Guardian reports, “Human damage to the planet’s land is accelerating, with up to 40% now classed as degraded, while half of the world’s people are suffering the impacts, UN data has shown.
    The world’s ability to feed a growing population is being put at risk by the rising damage, most of which is caused by food production.”
    Our focus should be on getting countries to make soil policies that insure that there is food in 2050 when the population peaks. “For the first time in modern history, the world’s population is expected to virtually stop growing by the end of this century, due in large part to falling global fertility rates, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the United Nations.” Healthy soil will provide more food. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/worlds-population-is-projected-to-nearly-stop-growing-by-the-end-of-the-century/ “With a global population that is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, compounded by competition for land and water resources and the impact of climate change, our current and future food security hinges on our ability to increase yields and food quality using the soils that are already under production today.” “With a global population that is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, compounded by competition for land and water resources and the impact of climate change, our current and future food security hinges on our ability to increase yields and food quality using the soils that are already under production today.”https://www.fao.org/soils-2015/news/news-detail/en/c/277682/#:~:text=It%20is%20estimated%20that%2095,foundation%20of%20the%20food%20system.

  2. Humans face a multilayered set of threats that are almost all sourced in our own actions. “Business as usual” is definitely unacceptable, if we are to mount an effective set of strategies to address our “unintended consequences” upon the Earth. We will have to re-imagine all human activities, how and what we eat, how we work, play, what expectations we have for a “good life”, or even, a good “survival life”. This is a massive task, which, I suspect, leaves individuals [including politicians and decision-makers] feeling overwhelmed, hence denial of the problems is a common response.

    One of the more hopeful areas for solving the climate change / food / water / soil degradation challenges is the rapidly emerging re-generative farming approach, this results in healthier soils, healthier food, more food and carbon sequestration. Perhaps there are alternatives to current approaches to other areas of this cluster of challenges that can also deliver great benefits? We’ll only know if we really commit ourselves [corporately, nationally, as a species] to the tasks at hand…

  3. There are so many solutions. 3 things to help humans live in balance on earth.
    1. Permaculture, Regenerative Farming and Food Forests. Learn from Indigenous People how to developing local food systems. With greenhouses, vertical growing food can be grown in most climates. Geoff Lawton shows how Permaculture can “Green the Desert” https://www.permaculturenews.org/2020/01/13/geoff-lawton-leads-a-teaching-tour-of-the-greening-the-desert-project/

    2. End Ecocide. International laws are on the brink of acknowledging The Rights of Nature. https://www.stopecocide.earth/ This would criminalize Ecocide, hold companies responsible for cleanups and make it illegal to do business with companies committing Ecocide. https://www.endecocide.org/en/amending-the-rome-statute/?fbclid=IwAR1FQ3BwMxruQuxMF-0GPDGZtcH2Yc8mGEHvphS9Pm4TS_GApGX_o3my0FA

    3. End Homelessness. Medicine Hat Alberta has pretty much ended homelessness. They found it cheaper than Policing, Emergency Medical and foster care for homeless children. Medicine Hat created a model that can be adopted by any city. How great if community gardens and Food forests were included in all new housing developments and why not add Solar or Geothermal power. https://community.solutions/case-studies/medicine-hat-becomes-first-city-in-canada-to-end-chronic-homelessness/

    It is possible to live in balance on Earth. “Two Eyed Seeing” is Indigenous knowledge and Western science which offers so many solutions. https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.6304574?fbclid=IwAR3D4PuB9nABXzt7UkdpYuVOIx8579p_BXfseCUUWSkHp4e9oyx8kR4S4jQ

    I know this is a lot of information … but there are so many solutions and so much hope

  4. A baker’s dozen Friends met on Sunday August 14 in Saratoga Springs Friends meeting house. Quaker Springs NY and via zoom to discuss “A Hard Conversation About Humankind”, a timely and thought-provoking article which appeared in Friends Journal online May 1, 2022.

    We were in unity with the authors, the Population Working group of Quaker Earthcare Witness, that there are too many of us  vying for finite resources on a planet which cannot sustain our ever increasing numbers , let alone the many other species we are  driving to extinction. They challenged us to look into the mirror and face the fact that we are part of the problem.

    There was some disagreement among Saratoga Friends about whether, at this point,  there is anything we can do to change the situation for the better. While some Friends  advocated for more education and access to birth control,  as well as decreasing our consumption of dwindling resources, planting trees, eschewing meat, and taking small steps, one Friend wondered if overpopulation might be a problem that is “too big to fix”.  Someone else pointed to times in the past when problems seemed insoluble but were somehow overcome.

    People are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint, is it time to talk about decreasing our population footprint so as to make room for other species and leave a sustainable planet to our children and grandchildren? Young people’s awareness and commitment to their own survIval (Extinction Rebellion) is a hopeful sign. Ignoring the problem is not.

    I see a connection between the issues raised by the Population Working Group and the recent Urgent Call by weighty Friends. Remaining silent in the face of disturbing trends, whether those are social justice issues or population numbers, is not acceptable if we value our testimony of Integrity.

    Claire Cafaro
    Fort Collins CO

  5. A reply from the authors by Tom Cameron:

    A focus on food insecurity, for example, in response to an article on population is a clear example of how we as humans avoid thinking about the important connection between the size of the population and problems like the food supply. The fear of future soil inadequacy is a very human anxiety about our future ability to feed ourselves – all 8 billion.

    Not only food and water, but also energy, land, diseases, waste disposal, non fuel minerals, forests, biological diversity and many others are all areas where we impact all non-human and human populations alike, with a magnitude that can be directly related to our human numbers.

    To understand why our focus avoids population, we need only look at how we view other non-human species. What enables humans to increase at the expense of virtually all other parts of Creation is the belief in the exceptional status of our human species. We value our existence above all other parts of Creation and claim the inalienable right to consume anything for our own use. Herein lies the simple reason we cannot face the current and continuing problems that our human numbers represent. And why our knowledge of decreasing limited resources now leaves us so concerned about the food supply. What we are missing is the realization that we are not only an integral part of that disappearing Creation, but dependent upon it for our survival.

    The science is correct. The sixth extinction and progressive climate warming are very clear proof that humanity is already well beyond earth’s sustainability levels. And with our population now beyond 8 billion, we are late, very late in starting to make the real, radical changes that are needed to change our behavior. The big targets are our consumption and how we think about human population, exceptionalism and our place in Creation.

    Late or not, change we must.
    Project Drawdown is a very good place to start.

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