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Obstacle 3 - The taboos and misconceptions regarding population degrowth

Updated December 2021

Many scientists and environmental activists do not address overpopulation (Obstacle 2) because the issue is surrounded by misconceptions and fears as detailed below; the need for population degrowth has become a politically-incorrect taboo.

3.1 - The prejudice that coercion is the single means to stop population growth

China tried to limit the number of children per family at national level by coercion (the “LLF” and ”One Child Policy” ) and the result has been rather a failure: the violation of human rights was unacceptable, thousands of girls were killed or abandoned due to sex selection, and population grew only a bit less with numerous unregistered children out of the official statistics. Other coercive population controls have been implemented in Perú and India, also unacceptable and also with poor results (Scharping 2018; Hedberg 2020; Zamora and Rodriguez 2020).


On the contrary, in the countries where population actually stopped to growth (Table 1) the switch occurred by changes in the values and perceptions of the society (Hellstrand et al. 2019; Lebano and Jamieson 2020). Family planning in these countries is a private issue and there is not any compulsory maximum number of children, there are even subsides and other initiatives favoring more children per family. The 1970' Indonesian Plan for family planning and contraception was voluntary (Brown 2021) and the recent decline on Chinese fertility rate is also due to changes in the perceptions of the society and not to coercion policies (Zamora and Rodrigues 2020).

3.2 - The fear of conspirations and “ecofascist” ideologies

As detailed by Hedberg (2020) many people associate “population degrowth” with “sterilization campaigns”, “enforced family planning”, limitation of “procreative liberty” or “suppression of certain populations”. And all these negative ideas are somehow related to conspirations of the wealthy countries against the poor ones (or of the poor against the wealthy), or capitalists against proletariat, or supremacist whites against non-whites, etc. Unacceptable ideologies and plans have been implemented in the past to justify compulsory birth control (Dyett and Thomas 2019, Brown 2021) while some authors propose alternative policies that in their understanding are not compulsory but for sure are most controversial (e.g. Bognar 2019). The ethical objections to alternative approaches to reduce human population are discussed in depth by Hedberg (2020) who shows that the existence of unacceptable proposals does not impede the transparent analysis of cultural and non-compulsory incentives of population degrowth as the most plausible way (may be the single one) to stop the disintegration of the biosphere.  

3.3 - The misconception that overpopulation is a phenomenon limited to under-developed countries

Some of the researchers addressing the overpopulation issue limit the problem to the least-developed countries which have a high number of children per woman (e.g., Crist et al. 2017; Bongaarts and O’Neill 2018; Bradshaw et al. 2021). Female empowerment is then proposed as an indirect way to reduce population growth. But the analysis of demographic data (United Nations 2019) shows a different picture. For example, the group of countries with ca 1.8 children per woman includes (among others) Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France and USA. The reality is that the presumed dependence of population growth and density on income and/or education level is foggy (Tables 1 and 2). Although the fertility rate is high in many low-income countries, in many wealthy countries the number of children per woman is much above 1.5 and most people in these countries are still unaware of the effect of overpopulation on sustainability.

3.4 - The misconception that “it is too late” to address overpopulation

This misconception has been sustained in the past (e.g., Bradshaw and Brook 2014) based on the calculation that even with a maximum potential reduction in expected fertility rates (0.5 child below forecasted medium) world population would reach almost 9 billion by 2050 (United Nations 2019, see Obstacle 2). Thus, a required reduction in population may be achieved only in another one hundred years when biosphere will be already totally destroyed.


The rebut of this argument is that the fertility rates adopted in the demographic models are based on “natural trends” under the assumption that no any serious effort will be made to reduce them (proposing population degrowth is a taboo). We are trapped in a vicious circle: the public (including cultured people) reject the idea of population degrowth because they ignore that it is the single effective action to reach sustainability, and then the information on the issue is not made public. The first step to break down this vicious circle is to INFORM the public on the unsustainability of population growth and on the consequences humankind is already suffering due to overpopulation.

Table 1. Children per woman in wealthy areas of the world.

Source: United Nations 2019; Hellstrand et al 2019

Table - Children per woman en selected countries.JPG

Table 2. Population density in selected countries / regions.

 (source Our World in Data, accessed 6/2020).

Population density.JPG


Bognar G (2019) Overpopulation and procreative liberty. Ethics Policy Environ. 22(3):319-330.

Bongaarts, J and B O’Neill (2018) Global warming policy: Is population left out in the cold ?

Science 361(6403):650-652.

Bradshaw C and B Brook (2014) Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems. PNAS 111(46):16610-16615.

Bradshaw C, P Ehrlich, A Beattie et al. (2021) Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers Conserv. Sci. 1:615419.

Brown, J., (2021) “Controlling overpopulation - is there a solution? A human rights analysis”, Fields: journal of Huddersfield student research 7(1).

Crist E, C Mora and R Engelman (2017) The interaction of human population, food production and biodiversity protection. Science 356:260-264.  

Dyett J and C Thomas (2019) Overpopulation Discourse: patriarchy, racism, and the specter of ecofascism. Perspect. Global Develop. Technol. 18:205-224.

Hedberg T (2020) The environmental impact of overpopulation - The ethics of procreation. Routledge, CRC Press, SBN 9781138489752, 192 pp.


Hellstrand J, J Nisén and M Myrskylä (2019) All-time low period fertility in Finland: drivers, tempo effects, and cohort implications. Max Plank Inst. Demograph. Res. Work Paper 2019-006, 14 pp.

Lebano A and L Jamieson (2020) Childbearing in Italy and Spain: postponement narratives. Populat. Develop. Review 46(1):12313.

Scharping T (2018) Abolishing the one-child policy: stages, issues and the political process.  J. Contemporary China 28(117):327-347. 

United Nations (2019) - Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division. World Population Prospects.

Zamora F and C Rodriguez (2020) From one child to two: demographic policies in China and their impact on population. Rev. Española Inv. Sociol. 172:141-160.  

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