It’s Time To Talk About Population Growth

Wherever I go in the world, wild nature is being devoured by human population growth. I can tell you stories from Kathmandu to Lima to Nairobi to Los Angeles. Devoured.

But you don’t have to travel to see it — it’s right here where I live in Colorado. In Fort Collins, Boulder, and across the Front Range, explosive population growth is devouring the landscape and pushing nature to the brink.

As I enter the last decades of my career, I’ve decided to make “fighting growth” and "normalizing the topic of population growth" one of the mainstays of my work. Why?

Human population growth is either the root cause, or a primary cause, of every environmental problem we face on the planet, as well as every problem I’ve worked to address in my career. A quick list of the causes I’ve fought for: protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, fighting fossil fuel extraction and climate change, and protecting free-flowing rivers and waterways. All are under siege by human population growth as either the root cause or a primary factor.

People often ask: Is the problem “human consumption” or “human population growth”? I answer, “yes”, the problem is too many people consuming too many resources. I know this is not any big news flash —this issue has been directly worked on by environmental activists for decades and is seen by many people, including climate scientists across the planet, as the elephant in the room. At the same time, many activists shy away from the issue because it can be controversial.

Population growth in the U.S. can be especially controversial, causing some people to experience a kind of “population denial” that is just as damaging to America’s — and the planet’s — survival as climate-science denial. We need to normalize the conversation about population growth so everyone can talk about it again without fear and without hesitation.

Many groups are working on this issue at the global scale, but yet much more needs to be done. Only a few groups are working on the issue of population growth in the United States, where a lot more needs to be done. At the state and local level here in Colorado, almost no one is working on the issue. Furthermore, almost every American environmental group has completely abandoned working on the U.S.' population growth problem. I intend to advocate on all three scales because all three are tied together. 

In 2019, “Earth Overshoot Day” — which is calculated by the “Global Footprint Network” — occurred at its earliest point in history, on July 29th. “Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources (fish and forests, for instance) and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.”

According to a report by the Sierra Club, Americans hold the special distinction of being the most voracious consumers of the earth’s resources compared to any other country. Americans are also in the top three countries for the amount of total climate change emissions and per capita emissions, as calculated by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Therefore as Americans, we have to work vastly harder to drive down our resource consumption rates as well as address the U.S.’ rapid population growth problem. In fact, America is rapidly adding the population of another Los Angeles County every five years. Our American landscape — and the wild nature it protects — is being devoured by population growth. (see the "World population clock" and the U.S. population clock here)

In the coming months, you will see me speaking out more on this issue — in writing, videos, and speaking engagements. Over the last year, I’ve begun this advocacy in the state of Colorado with a series of columns in newspapers and on social media. My work will be escalating and it will be a larger portion of my professional career. If you follow me on social media because of my river-protection work or climate-fighting work, you will now also see a significant amount of communications — of mine and others — about population growth.

I will continue to advocate on behalf of groups fighting climate change and protecting rivers — this is work that I founded, I love, and I continue to have a great passion for. In addition, I will be forming new groups and alliances around the topic of human population growth at the global/U.S./state/local scales. Stay tuned for more on all of that.

I’ve had a life-long interest in the topic of demography and population science. In fact, I served as the ~demographer for the City of Boulder, Colorado, when the 1990 U.S. Census was released, and I began my PhD work at CU-Boulder on this topic in 1993. I shifted, and finished, my PhD into environmental policy, which has formed the backbone of my career. Now I’m shifting back.

I love wild nature and the non-human world, but my goal with this new work is not just to preserve the non-human world, but to save ourselves. The biosphere around us is our life-support system — protecting the non-human world from being devoured by humanity is the single biggest step we can take to ensure our own survival.

-- Gary Wockner
Follow me on twitter: @garywockner