Oh, No! Has the United Nations Population Fund Gone ‘Woke’?

It seems numbers don’t matter as long as we keep our “xenophobia and hatred of the other” in check.

What’s gotten into the United Nations Population Fund? It used to worry about population growth. Now, as we officially reach 8 billion on November 15, its executive director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, warns us against “population alarmism.”

“Some express concerns that our world is overpopulated, with far too many people and insufficient resources to sustain their lives.” You don’t say, Dr. Kanem! The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) used to be among those warning us about exactly that. But now, Dr. Kanem says, “I am here to say clearly that the sheer number of humans is not a cause for fear.”

That must be a huge relief to the over 800 million people who another branch of the UN, its World Food Programme, warns us face “a year of unprecedented hunger.” But instead of focusing on mundane matters such as where their next meal is coming from, perhaps these hungry people should “look beyond the numbers” at  the opportunities that a world of 8 billion presents. Indeed – just imagine all the great things that young people can do in their quest to find “transformative pathways” toward “greater equity and solidarity” as they compete with billions of others for food, employment and resources. It seems that the UNFPA has come to believe that if we just use the proper social justice jargon, a “just, prosperous, and sustainable world for all” is within our grasp.

A sober look at empirical realities, however, does little to alleviate the worries that the UNFPA tells us we shouldn’t have. Realities such as continuingly rapid population growth, deforestation, massive loss of biodiversity, depletion of aquifers, diversion, overuse and pollution of rivers, and erosion of soil and desertification, among other environmental catastrophes. Not to mention the untold human suffering caused by hunger, inadequate shelter, inadequate hygiene and medical care, unemployment or marginal employment, displacement, conflict and war.

Chances are that Baby 8 Billion will be born in a poor developing country, because that is where most births occur. There is a close correlation between rapid population growth and poverty. The arrival of Baby 8 Billion won’t change that.

The overall global total fertility rate (TFR) is 2.4 children per woman. In the more developed regions, it is 1.6, in the less developed regions it is 2.5, while in the least developed (i.e., poorest) countries it is 3.8. These data are from the UNFPA’s own State of World Population (SOWP) 2022 (table of Demographic Indicators, starting on p. 132.)

Countries with high total fertility rates are having trouble pulling themselves out of poverty. Much of Africa remains impoverished. Its current population of 1.3 billion is projected to reach over 2 billion by 2050 and 4 billion by 2100. Unemployment levels are high and food insecurity is rising. The boatloads of African migrants desperately trying to reach European shores reflects the hopelessness of many about making a living at home and belies the UNFPA’s blithe pronouncements of opportunity for 8 billion in a world of social justice solidarity.

The UNFPA would do better to remind us just how much population growth has contributed and continues to contribute to our current crises of environmental decline and increasing hunger. For example, regarding the ongoing food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, it could remind us that between 1970 and 2020, the populations of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya increased 4.05-, 4.61-, and 4.76-fold, respectively. It could point out that not only are such large increases in population the primary driver of food insecurity but also of environmental degradation in the form of deforestation, soil erosion, and water depletion.

The denial and inaction by our political and religious leaders and by global organizations such as the UNFPA are bringing us closer to a Malthusian future. Malthus’ very basic message was that poverty and hunger are destined to remain part of the human condition, because whenever humans manage to increase their food supply, they increase the population. So the gains of increased food production are eaten up by population growth. Malthus postulated that “this constantly subsisting cause of periodic misery” would “forever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature.”

Unfortunately, time has proven Malthus correct in his gloomy prognosis. When he published the first edition of “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, the world population was about 800 million. Now, as we approach 8 billion, the number of hungry people is over 800 million, despite the spectacular increase we have achieved in food production.

The meteoric rise of the human population in the 20th century and beyond got its first boost through the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer, and the second, even more spectacular one, through the “green revolution” which massively increased crop yields.

Norman Borlaug, the “father” of the green revolution, is credited with having averted a famine in India. But few seem to realize that Borlaug was very concerned that an increased food supply might, as Malthus predicted, simply lead to more population growth. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he said, “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” Alas, as Borlaug feared, increased food production led to population growth. India’s population, under 560 million in 1970, is now at 1.4 billion. During the same period, the world population more than doubled from 3.7 billion to 8 billion.

Norman Borlaug would not be celebrating the fact that we are turning the Earth into a feedlot for humanity and a concrete jungle. In his Nobel Lecture, he praised Malthus for raising the alarm about food, while noting that Malthus could not “have foreseen the disturbing and destructive physical and mental consequences of the grotesque concentration of human beings into the poisoned and clangorous environment of pathologically hypertrophied megalopoles.” And it is into just such a world that Baby 8 Billion will be born: grotesque concentrations of slums and metastasizing megacities.

There is some good news. In addition to progress in food production, there has been progress in family planning methods. We can choose to have small families. Although some future growth is inevitable due to the “demographic momentum” of a large number of young people, we could reach a sustainable, much smaller population within several generations if small families were to become the universal norm. A planet with ever fewer humans but more humanity is a goal we can and must work toward.

It is nothing short of shameful for the UNFPA to disparage concerns about overpopulation as “population alarmism” and to insinuate that such concerns are inextricably linked to the implementation of abusive and coercive population control policies. How is it that the many success stories of governments that recognized population growth as a problem and implemented ethical, effective and non-coercive programs escaped the UNFPA’s notice?

The arrival of the eight billionth human on Earth could have served as a teachable moment for the United Nations Population Fund to make our leaders and the people of the world understand the threat that human overpopulation presents to ourselves and all life on Earth. But instead of giving humanity a wake-up call, the UNFPA chose to appease the ‘woke.’ However, Mother Nature doesn’t care how woke we are. Our current trajectory of “overshoot” is likely to condemn billions to a life of misery, deprivation, and in many cases violence, while destroying the ecosystems we all depend on.

Welcome Baby 8 Billion – and Good Luck, You’ll Need It!

Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: mail@populationinstitutecanada.ca