11 July 2024

Jane O’Sullivan: UN World Population Day 2024 focuses on anything but world population


The below is from SPA’s own Jane O’Sullivan,  writing for  The Overpopulation Project.  We encourage you to read the article “UN World Population Day 2024 focuses on anything but world population”  at TOP and leave a comment of support.


This year for World Population Day, the United Nations champions data collection, because ‘everyone counts’.  What they choose not to measure is more telling.

by Jane O’Sullivan

This World Population Day, we see the UNFPA celebrating 30 years of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action. Yes, it’s been 30 years since that fateful conference in Cairo, when a welcome focus on women’s reproductive rights and the quality of health services turned out to be a Trojan horse for the population taboo, defunding the very family planning programs that were elevating women’s rights and freedoms.

According to the UN, World Population Day is celebrated annually on 11 July “to enhance awareness of population issues, including their relations to the environment and development.” Only they don’t anymore. They focus on the individual rights of women to breed or not breed when they choose. Not their rights to food and shelter and a homeland not so overwhelmed with increasing numbers it is incapable of providing essential services and maintaining civil order. Not the rights of their children to avoid being dispossessed by more siblings. The link between ‘population issues’ and either environment or development is denounced.

The more painfully the symptoms of demographic entrapment manifest themselves, in the increasingly interlinked metacrisis of environmental and social strains, the more ardently their link with population growth is denounced. We can always blame tyrants and terrorists for violent conflicts, and climate change for food and water shortages.

A recent study by Kompas and co-workers on the impacts of climate change on irrigated agriculture illustrates this capacity to squeeze around the elephant in the room with averted eyes. Their data clearly showed that food insecurity would escalate in the places with high population growth, not in the places where impacts of climate change would be most severe.  Indeed, population decline would negate the climate change impacts in countries like China. Yet population growth was mentioned only incidentally.

To point out the connection between population growth and food insecurity is not to deny the impacts of climate change. Similarly, to point out the well-established connection between population growth and violent conflicts is not to deny the interference of Saudi Arabia in Yemen or petro-politics in Syria. Human societies are complex systems with many concurrent dynamics. Nevertheless, they say we manage what we measure, and over the past 30 years we have decided not to measure or discuss impacts of population growth.

This leads us to the theme of this year’s World Population Day, ‘investing in data collection’. This is what sociologist Diana Coole termed ‘population decomposing’ in her anatomy of the population taboo. Assessing numbers of maternal deaths, births not attended by a trained health worker, women not receiving sufficient pre-natal and anti-natal care, child marriages, female genital mutilations, or women with an unmet need for contraception all add up to a praiseworthy interest in elevating women’s health and rights. But fertility decline and population growth rate are no longer metrics of interest.

It might, for instance, be salient to test the relationship between population growth rate and progress on any of the above-mentioned measures of women’s interests. Should it turn out that rapid population growth impedes improvements in economic and health outcomes, that would encourage bigger investments in the promotion of lower birth rates. That would seem to be exactly why the UN avoids any such analysis.

A new International Conference on Population and Development might bring the best data together about the wider impacts of population growth and what programs best address it. It might question whether the UNFPA’s post-1994 agenda has, as promised, created an environment more conducive to advancing women’s rights, or whether, indeed, it has done the opposite by allowing population growth to deepen the poverty and insecurity of high-fertility countries.

Such conferences were held each decade from 1954 and became venues for intergovernmental consensus-building from 1974. But the 1994 conference was to be the last, its Programme of Action enshrined as a holy text that must never be challenged by new evidence. Then in 2014, lest anyone be reminded that the ICPD Programme of Action did actually raise concerns about population growth harming development and environment, it has been quietly superseded by the 2014 Framework of Actions for the follow-up to the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, a document written behind closed doors, without the status of negotiated treaty. It mentions population growth only to vilify all past ‘population control’ efforts as ‘highly politicised’ (invoking racism, eugenics and/or neocolonialism – any motive other than the evidence-based humanitarianism that actually prevailed) and conducted ‘without heed to people’s reproductive aspirations, their health, or the health of their children.’ Yet women’s and children’s health, and their prospects for fulfilling aspirations of all kinds, have improved rapidly in the countries that implemented those programs. This is not true in countries where high fertility persists.

Meanwhile, most of the rich countries of Europe, North America and Oceania have been experiencing a resurgence in population growth driven by unprecedented immigration levels. They are not immune to the economic drag this causes. This malaise has nothing to do with the proportion of working age people. It is driven by the suppression of wages for the low-paid, inflation of housing costs and ballooning of debt, both private and public, in a futile effort to ‘catch up’.

Opposition to immigration is toppling governments, whether Left or Right. Although most commentary focuses on cultural incompatibilities and failure to ‘integrate’, the disgruntled voters are not wrong to conclude that their own prospects have been undermined by higher competition for jobs and housing, while government expenditure on infrastructure causes cut-backs in social programs. It is tragically ironic that lower immigration has been cast as a far-right issue and opposed by the green-left when population growth undermines all progressive and environmental goals.

World Population Day is now only a couple of weeks from Earth Overshoot Day. Whatever economic justifications for high population growth are contrived by vested interests, let’s remember that overshoot has consequences that are best avoided. There is so much more that could be done to help countries, both rich and poor, stabilise their populations, without impinging on people’s reproductive rights and freedoms. To its shame, the UN has abandoned this agenda.


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