Would depopulation work?

Would a reduction in our population help solve the climatic, social, and economic problems we face?
06 December 2022

Interview with 

Kathleen Mogelgaard, Population Institute


An empty park


A higher population has consequences not just for our environment, but also our economy. So should depopulation - long term measures to cut population growth rates - be on table at all? At face value, it seems straightforward: a lower population would liberate resources and living space, and probably cut disease outbreak risks. But is this even feasible, or worth pursuing? The Population Institute’s Kathleen Mogelgaard…

Kathleen - This is a really interesting question, and I think it's a question that is asked over and over again, over the decades and asked in different ways. But essentially, I think the question is how many people can the Earth support? And to me, this is a question that is kind of interesting to ask because it does lead us to further explore what that means, what the assumptions are that we're making about those people and how they live on the planet. The effects that a given population has on the planet is a result of a number of different factors, the number of people that are there, the consumption of those people, and then the kinds of technologies that we have in place that moderate that consumption. So from my perspective, there is no magic number of people that the earth can support. The answer to that question is, it depends. What do we envision for the lifestyle of those people? What do we envision for the technology that's in place, that's widely used in people's consumption? And then what do we assume about the resources that they are using in that consumption? So in my mind, there is not necessarily any benefit to a reduction of human population or to an increase in human population. It all directs us to think about how we live on this planet and what our values are in terms of people's overall levels of health and wellbeing, and how we value other natural systems on the planet too - other species biodiversity or freshwater systems, that kind of thing. So it really is a question of how we can organize ourselves collectively to ensure that the planet can be sustained, the natural systems that sustain us can continue to be sustained, and that we all can have a world in which people can enjoy health and wellbeing.

Will - So it's far more worth putting time and energy into improving our infrastructure and our levels of equality than it is simply trying to reduce the number of people we have.

Kathleen - Right, but it certainly does not mean that we shouldn't think about population issues and particularly as we've passed this population milestone of 8 billion people, it's a terrific opportunity for us to reflect on population dynamics and what that means for our life. And in particular, I think this is an opportunity for us to understand where there continues to be deep and persistent inequities that are driving rapid population growth in many parts of the world. So from my perspective, the day of 8 billion is an opportunity for us to really understand and double down on our commitments to women and girls around the world. Women and girls who don't have opportunities in their lives, who don't have access to services, who don't have rights to their own bodily autonomy and who maybe are not able to pursue an education. All of these things, when we can make these kinds of investments, will have the effect of not only improving people's lives, but reducing fertility over the long term and putting the brakes on the population growth that we are continuing to see. And that just makes our other sustainable development goals, the prospects for achieving those sustainable development goals brighter. If we can put the breaks on population growth, and do it in a way that improves the health, wellbeing and rights of people around the world. I'm not sure why we're not doing that right now. Those are investments that pay dividends now and in the future.

Will - People who go, 'oh, we just need to reduce our population', perhaps don't realize the nuance of that kind of question because as you say, there's a severe imbalance in emissions across each individual. There are huge ethical implications to decide who suddenly has to go.

Kathleen - I'm not even sure what it means to reduce our population. If people are advancing this notion that we should reduce our population... I'm not sure what they're thinking about. Because even understanding the basic demographic concepts, you know, we've passed 8 billion people right now. We have the largest generation of young people entering their childbearing years now. So I'm not sure what it would mean to reduce population when we actually have a lot of momentum that is built into the population that we have here right now. People being born today are going to be tomorrow's parents and there are a lot of them. We just need to think more about how we could create a world that is safe, healthy, full of rights and opportunities for people. And that will have an effect of shaping population trends over the long term. But population trends are not anything that can be turned on a dime. It's something that investments today will have the effects a generation or two down the line. So if people are talking about population reduction in the present moment, it's really hard for me to understand what they have in mind in terms of how we would achieve that.


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