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The Challenges Presented by Global Population Growth

Bill Ryerson: The Challenges Presented by Global Population Growth
And why they're so hard for us to address
by Adam Taggart
Saturday, December 22, 2012

At the heart of the resource depletion story is the number of people on earth competing for those resources.

The global population is more than 7 billion now and headed to 9 billion by 2050. If world population continues its exponential growth, when we will hit planetary carrying capacity limits with our key resources (or are we already exceeding them?) What are the just, humane, and rights-respecting options that are on the table for balancing the world’s population with the ability of the earth to sustain it?

Population management is an inflammatory issue. It's nearly impossible to discuss without triggering heated emotions, and rare is the leader who's willing to raise it. And by going unaddressed globally, the risk of problems created by overpopluation grow unchecked. War, poverty, starvation, disease, inequality...the list goes on.

Which is why we feel we need to have the courage to address this very important topic directly. And to have an adult-sized conversation about these risks and what can done about them.

In this podcast, Chris talks with Bill Ryerson, founder and president of the Population Media Center as well as the president of the Population Institute. They explore the current forecasts for world population growth, the expected future demand on world resources, and the range of options available for bringing them into balance sustainably.

We are adding about 225,000 people to the dinner table every night who were not there last night. So that is net growth of the world’s population on an annual basis of a new Egypt every year. In other words, 83 million additional people net growth annually. And that from a climate change perspective alone is a huge increment. Most of this growth is occurring in poor countries, so on a per capita level, the people being added to the population have much lower impact than, say, if Europe were growing at that rate. But nevertheless, just from a climate perspective, with most of that 83 million additional people in low per capita greenhouse-gas output countries – this is between now and 2050 – at this rate of growth, it is the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.

Clearly resources like oil, coal, and gas are non-renewable and will eventually run out or become more and more expensive and therefore not reliable as a source of energy. But what is the renewable long-term sustainability or the carrying capacity of the environment in each geographic territory, and globally? What is the current and projected future human demand for those resources and do we have sufficient natural resources to meet our needs?

Doing this kind of accounting is not difficult. There are very good robust scientific designs for measuring resource capacity and human demand, and projecting out what do we need to do in some time in the next few decades in order to get from what is clearly population overshoot to achieving something that is in balance. Because as long as we are in overshoot – and the global footprint network’s calculation is we are now at 50% overshoot – that means we are digging into the savings account of our ecological systems, as you mentioned; the fisheries being one, forests being another. We are eating into the capital to sustain the growing population. In nature every overshoot is followed by a die-off...

They also explore why population management is such a uniquely controversial topic. Not only are moral, civil, and religious beliefs in play, but the debate is also heavily-influenced by large corporate and governmental organizations protecting their interests. So it's no wonder that a calm, respectful, and reasonable conversation on population remains so elusive.

But we're going to try to have one here:

Chris Martenson: Welcome to another Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, of course, Chris Martenson. And today we welcome Bill Ryerson to the program.

Now, I know Bill and have met Bill. And Bill is the founder and president of the Population Media Center as well as the president of The Population Institute. As you can guess from his titles, Bill is here to discuss a very important topic with us, a topic controversial to many: population growth.

At the heart of our resource depletion story is the number of people on earth competing for those resources. We are more than seven billion now and headed to nine billion give or take, by 2050 unless something really dramatic happens. If our population continues its exponential growth, when we will hit planetary carrying capacity limits with our key resources? Have we already hit them? What are the just, humane, and rights-respecting options that are on the table for balancing the world’s population with the ability of the earth to sustain it? Bill, I know this is going to be a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for being here and your willingness to approach this very difficult topic.

Bill Ryerson: Chris, thanks so much for having me on. It is a great pleasure to be with you.

Chris Martenson: Excellent. So let us start with the numbers. Where are we in terms of world population, and where are we headed? I gave a couple of outline numbers, but why don’t you tell us what you see in the numbers right now?

Bill Ryerson: You mentioned the big one of seven billion, which we reached on Halloween a year ago. And we are adding about 225,000 people to the dinner table every night who were not there last night. So that is net growth of the world’s population on an annual basis of a new Egypt every year. In other words, 83 million additional people net growth annually. And that from a climate change perspective alone is a huge increment. Most of this growth is occurring in poor countries, so on a per capita level, the people being added to the population have much lower impact than, say, if Europe were growing at that rate. But nevertheless, just from a climate perspective, with most of that 83 million additional people in low per capita greenhouse-gas output countries – this is between now and 2050 – at this rate of growth, it is the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.

Chris Martenson: Wow, two United States. So the other thing I track and on the resource side is food. And we have this extraordinary green revolution. But a lot of the charts for food productivity are really nosing over. And I saw a UN projection that suggested that by 2050 we might have to double our food production. I just do not see how we can do that.

And then on the other side, you look at stories like phosphate and other non-renewable key mineral resources – in this case a fertilizer input – plus the issues on water. To me this is the key driver of all of these somewhat difficult trends that we just talked about here, whether it is in climate or food production or water or even energy. All of these are being driven by population.

You are at the heart of this population conversation. How come I do not hear this conversation come up very often? In fact, I do not think I heard one mention of it in the last presidential election cycle.

Bill Ryerson: Nor did you hear much about the climate change. It is possible to make a subject taboo by having enough money thrown at PR around that issue being unacceptable to discuss. And indeed, that is what has happened. There is a big money machine cranking out people going on talk shows saying population is not the problem, people who are concerned about population are either racist or in favor of free sex with contraception or whatever. And trying to make it controversial so that it gets off the table of the global community’s agenda. And instead allows these self-serving interests to continue to profit from population growth. Most people in the world do not profit from population growth. But there are a few who do. And of course, when you stop and think about who profits from population growth, one is real estate developers. The builders of houses clearly think population growth is a great idea because it means more housing starts. And that is how they measure their welfare.

There are others, land owners, who think the more people there are, then the more demand there will be for my land, and that means the price of land is going to go up. Indeed, that is the case. And there are people in the energy business who say the more people there are, the more demand there will be for my product, so I will make more money. And that is the case. So there are monied interests and there are also religious interests who are fighting the whole idea that population might have any relevance to the future of humanity and putting out a huge amount of literature on the subject on a daily basis.

Chris Martenson: A huge amount of literature. So you have noticed that there is what you would call a campaign, as it were, for the market share of ideas. And you are on one side of the campaign and you have noticed that there are people on the other side.

Bill Ryerson: A few years ago, we started an initiative to put sustainability experts onto talk radio around the U.S. And we started to crank up interest, and particularly around the seven billion mark last year there was a lot of media attention to population, which had fallen off the global radar screen for some decades. And the response has been tangible. Entities like the Wall Street Journal and various other conservative media and conservative think tanks have responded with books like The Empty Cradle, claiming there are just not enough people. We need more people in order to sustain the economy. A whole series of economic articles about the aging of the population of Europe saying the aging of population and even places like China are much more important than slowing population growth and therefore we need to stimulate people to have babies.

We now have a situation where Germany is paying $13,000 per German baby born. Australia is paying $5,000 per Australian baby born. And these bonuses or bribes are actually affecting the birth rate, it appears. However, what they are really doing – and I do not think they were aware of this, although they should be – is, they are actually worsening the dependency situation that they claim to be trying to solve. The concern in Germany, for example, is we have so many aging pensioners and a shrinking or potentially shrinking workforce to support them, and therefore we need to increase the birthrate so we have more workers in the future. This, of course, assumes that those kids, when they grow up, will have jobs in a growing economy.

Second, it ignores the fact that those kids are 100% dependent on working adults for at least the first eighteen years of their life – and if they are going to have a college education, which is almost required now in Germany, they are going to be dependent for some years after that. And in fact, the aged in Germany, who may be retired, often have savings that supplement their income from pensions. And so they are not nearly as dependent as the young people that the government is trying to add to the population. And furthermore, since the retirement age was set at the time of Bismarck, if they only were to recognize what has happened to longevity and health they could change the retirement age by a couple of years and adjust the pension system very slightly and solve that problem rather than trying to solve it through a Ponzi scheme of endless population growth.

Chris Martenson: What a perversion of logic, I suppose, the idea that we have a system of pensions that we operate in a certain way. And because it is shaped in a pyramidal shape it is a Ponzi scheme, in essence; we need more entrants to support the people who came before. The solution to that, if we ever detect a defect in that system, is to try and incentivize getting more people into the system rather than saying there is potentially something wrong with how we designed the system. Because sooner or later, you have to say maybe not now, but even the most conservative among us at some point, whatever our motivation happens to be, would have to say there is a set limit to the number of people we can fit on this planet. Maybe we could argue about when that is; some might say we are already past that mark. Some might say the mark is very far in the future. But sooner or later you say there is a mark, which means, then, that it is not incumbent on our monetary system or our economic system or our pension system. It is not that we have to fit people into those systems. It is the reverse.

Bill Ryerson: Exactly. We need to have the global community come together and do planning for a sustainable future. And part of the process of doing that is actually doing an analysis of what our resources are, country by country, and renewable resources. And what is the productivity of those renewable resources, in a sense the way the global footprint network has done by saying how many acres’ footprint does each person have in terms of the use of biodiversity forest, fields for agriculture, et cetera, for all of the human activities that are being carried out by that person? And then look at how do our resources – sustainable resources, i.e., renewable resources – stack up against those demands? And what is very clear globally and in most countries of the world is that the total scale of human activity has outgrown the long-term sustainable yield of the environment to sustain that population. So in most countries we have already exceeded the carrying capacity.

Chris Martenson: I find the arguments that more people equates to more growth, which therefore I think translates into more prosperity, is how that thought train goes has a logical break in it for me. Because at some point, after a certain moment, growth itself actually steals from prosperity. They are both funded from the same source. And the real question is would you rather live in a nation of a hundred million people with just absolutely abundant resources for a very prosperous lifestyle, or in a nation of a billion people where everybody is sort of fighting over a relatively tiny share? To me that is a self-answering question. But you outlined that the process here would be to A) recognize that there is a limit that we have to live within, and then secondarily B) to create a strategy around that which involves a survey of some sort. What do we have? What kind of a lifestyle can we sustain given what we have here and within these boundaries we are talking about? And then the third thing is C) you would have to then manage to that.

And that analogy I have here is that we have recognized that there are limits to fisheries in the United States and we have been managing those fisheries for decades. And just a month ago they announced the closure, the complete closure, of the Grand Banks Fisheries because they had collapsed completely – just illustrating to me that even when you have the intention to manage carefully even a renewable resource, which fisheries potentially are, there is still obviously some learnings that are going to have to happen there. Which is kind of a long way of asking when is a good time to get started on this, do you think?

Bill Ryerson: Yesterday. [laughter] Clearly, at the Rio conference on the global environment that occurred last June, that was a great opportunity for the world to come together and talk about not how do we make the Titanic greener but how do we actually put the world on a course towards long term sustainability, where we start by saying what is the planetary and each country, the national capacity for sustaining a population with renewable resources? Because clearly non-renewable resources like oil, coal, and gas are non-renewable and will eventually run out or become more and more expensive and therefore not reliable as a source of energy. But what is the renewable long-term sustainability or the carrying capacity of the environment in each geographic territory and globally? And then looking at what is the current and projected future human demand for those resources and do we have sufficient natural resources to meet our needs?

And doing this kind of accounting is not difficult. There are very good robust scientific designs for measuring resource capacity and human demand, and projecting out what do we need to do in some time in the next few decades in order to get from what is clearly population overshoot to achieving something that is in balance. Because as long as we are in overshoot – and the global footprint network’s calculation is we are now at 50% overshoot – that means we are digging into the savings account of our ecological systems, as you mentioned; the fisheries being one, forests being another. We are eating into the capital to sustain the growing population.

Another example of this is India. India is pumping out underground aquifers for irrigation of farmlands at a rate greatly exceeding the rate of replenishment of those aquifers by rainwater and by river availability. And therefore the water table is sinking. In some parts of India it is sinking by ten feet a year. Farmers are having to drill deeper every year in order to access irrigation water. And some farms now are starting to find that it is just impossible to reach the water; the land is turning to desert and the farmers are giving up and moving to the city. Well, the long-term picture is that much of India is going to face this collapse of agriculture. India is one of the top three grain-producing countries on the planet, and this will drive the price of grain out of reach of many people who get an Indian salary. Indeed, there are about 150 million people in India alone being kept alive now through over-pumping of underground aquifers. And when those aquifers run out, far more than that will face immediate starvation and will go rampaging across India and across other countries to find food.

And the security agencies, including the CIA, are well aware of this and are very concerned about it. But for some reason, our political will to address these issues and the threat that they pose to habitability of the planet has been lacking. And yet there is nothing more important than addressing these issues. India is growing by 18 million a year. That is a new Bombay every year and yet nobody is talking about the fact that what is going on is totally unsustainable. And there is not nearly enough being done to change the demographic projection in India. Certainly there have been efforts, and there have been some successful efforts.

But much more should be done. Much more attention should be paid to family planning information as well as services, because right now it is really a drop in the bucket in the global community’s budget. And as we have seen in the last two years, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to de-fund all assistance to family planning worldwide. Thankfully, the Senate stopped that from happening, but in an era when we are already at an unsustainable level of people to stop any funding for family planning is absolute insanity.

Chris Martenson: I agree completely. It sounds like the math is clear. Adding up the resources is a fairly trivial exercise, as far as these things go. And yet we find that it is not just a controversial topic, it is so controversial that often we cannot even entertain the conversation at all. It seems like tempers flare really rapidly. What is it about this topic that makes it so difficult to talk about?

Bill Ryerson: I have spent 41 years working full time in the population field and I will say it has been endlessly fascinating – and I have had to get something of a tough skin to withstand the controversy. Where do we start? One, it is dealing with sex. That is controversial enough. Abortion, of course, has become a big issue in the U.S. and in some other countries. And the failure of contraception or its availability often creates a demand for abortion. There clearly are a lot of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies going on around the world. But the abortion issue adds to the controversy. Contraception is opposed by the Catholic church, and that is a major stumbling block for addressing that issue when you have a member state of the United Nations that is a religion that stands in opposition to all forms of artificial contraception.

And then at a country level, including the United States in particular, population growth is driven in many countries by migration. So in the U.S., trying to go from where we are now, 310 million people, to a sustainable level – one good ecological estimate is that at a western European lifestyle, the U.S. could sustain 200 million – would mean reducing net growth to zero and then ultimately to a negative number. And when more than half of our growth is driven by migration across our borders, it means addressing the immigration issue. And immediately you have people saying well, if you are trying to stop immigration, you must be racist. So all of these issues add up to something that when somebody brings up population at a dinner party people will jump down their throat and they will say wow, I will never bring that topic up again.

It is really interesting. We all have antennae that we have up in the air to find out what is acceptable and what is the norm with regard to all kinds of issues. And people, of course, want to be liked, want to be accepted by their friends, so they try to steer clear of controversial areas. And there is a very interesting psychological study that is really the only thing I remember from freshman psychology, a study in a paper by Solomon Ash, who was a Princeton psychologist who asked his students to identify two objects – just to give you an example, a glass and a yardstick – and to say which of these is longer. And in advance of the class, he asked every student except for one to lie. So when he then held the class, he said okay, I am holding up two objects, a glass and a yardstick, which of these is longer? Every student said the glass. And the poor student who did not know what was going on, when it got to be his turn, said the glass. So we know from these studies of conformism that for young people in particular but for all of us, fitting in, being normal, and being accepted by our friends is more important than telling the truth.

And therefore, when we are dealing with a difficult subject like population, people say, oh well, I am opposed to contraception. I am opposed to abortion. I am opposed to limiting migration. People will say well, I guess we will not talk about that. And so it has just disappeared. And yet the problem is it is not unimportant. And it is so vital to the future habitability of the planet that despite all of these controversies we cannot afford to ignore this issue. We must address it.

And there are ways, within a human rights context, to address this issue successfully. We have great success stories: Iran being one which is at replacement-level fertility. Thailand being another which is at replacement-level fertility. These countries have achieved it. We can get there if we pay attention to it, and we can do it in a human rights context. It is very clear what needs to happen.

Part of the problem in addressing the population issue is that many people have made really bad efforts to deal with it – some using coercion, others missing the mark on what is needed. There has been a lot of money put into things that are not effective. But it is very clear what is needed in order to increase contraceptive use, decrease the fertility rate, stop child marriage, allow people to be educated and get married to people of their own choice as adults, and space and limit childbearing for better health and better economic welfare. All of these are no brainers in the public-health community, but for some reason the politicians have run screaming.

Chris Martenson: That is interesting. I note that often I hear that when we want to avoid the population issue people will drag out a statistic and say oh, well, that is easy. All we have to do is X. Usually X is raise the economic living standards. And we find that there is a correlation with a decline in birthrates at that point. But I have here a headline, just came across my desk this morning; if you are not familiar with it we could push it off. But it says here that the U.S. birthrate has now plummeted to its lowest level since 1920.

Bill Ryerson: Yes.

Chris Martenson: And I know sometimes, like I said, economic advancement is held to be the key to lower birthrates. But here they are assigning causation to this declining birthrate to the recession. So it seems that maybe economic decline in some cases spurs lower birthrates like we saw in the former USSR. Russia has – you can tell us about those numbers I am sure.

Bill Ryerson: Yes.

Chris Martenson: So – maybe is it okay to be confused here? What are we seeking here? Economic advancement or recession?

Bill Ryerson: I am so glad you brought this up, because many people have assumed that the demographic transition theory is correct. That is, economic growth leads to more women in the workplace and lower birthrates, so all we need is economic growth. But as you pointed out, Russia has had very low birthrates in the face of economic decline. U.S. immigrants have had declining birthrates since 2008 and the US population because of, at least in part, economic decline in this country. And if you look back a little bit in our history to the Great Depression, the U.S. had below-replacement-level fertility, the lowest birthrate in its history, during the 1930s, because people were motivated to limit family size because they could not afford to feed a lot of children during the Depression.

So motivation to limit family size is in many ways the most important factor. And we have also seen examples of countries where economic welfare increased and the birthrate went up. There are demographic and health surveys carried out in about 95 countries in the world on a regular basis, about every three to five years. In Nigeria, the fertility rate is 5.7 children per women on average during each woman’s lifetime. They are averaging 5.7 children. The average woman in Nigeria wants 7 children. The average man wants 8.5. So why are they having only 5.7? Well, because of poverty.

Migrants to the U.S., largely from Mexico and Central and South America, but a lot of them from Mexico, for many years up until the Recession of 2008 would have more children once they moved to the U.S. than they or their peers were having in the villages from which they came in Mexico. Their incomes had gone up and they could now afford to have the number of children that they wanted for cultural reasons, because they had grown up with the idea of large family size as a good idea; they therefore wanted to increase family size and could finally do so because they could afford to with the incomes they had achieved in the U.S.

So it is very clear the demographic transition theory is flawed. What we have concluded looking back at every country that has gone from developing status to developed status since World War II, and there are eight of them, what actually happened was not that the economy went up and then the birthrate fell, but the reverse. The birth rate fell and then the economy started up. So the cause and effect has been mixed up in people’s minds because of the correlation. But what has happened in each of those eight countries is, first the country instituted an effective family planning program including promoting it, not just having clinics, but promoting smaller family norms and promoting delaying marriage and childbearing until adulthood and spacing of childbearing. And when the birthrate got down to the low twos, like 2.3 children per women, without any change in family income people had a little money left over. They were not feeding so many children; previously maybe they were having 5. Now they are having 2.3. So suddenly instead of spending all of their income on food, housing, and clothing, there is some money left over.

What can they do with that money? Well, number one, they can buy some elective goods stimulating the manufacturing sector. Number two, they can put some in savings. This builds capital. One of the great limitations in economic growth in poor countries is lack of capital. So the capital market starts to form. Businesses can borrow and expand building employment demand in the face of slightly declining numbers of people – or at least declining growth in the numbers of people – trying to enter the labor force. And that builds wage pressure, which in a poor country is a good idea. So people are earning more money. The government has the ability to tax those incomes. That allows the government to spend some of that money on environmental protection but also on infrastructure: power, water, sewer, roads, schools, all of these things that build economic productivity. And individuals have the ability to spend some of that money on education, which improves the economic productivity of their children.

So demographers have known this for a long time. And demographers refer to this as the “demographic dividend.” In fact, when fertility rates fall, economies get better and people get out of poverty. And when you look at the Asian tigers including China, with the highest economic growth rate on the planet in recent years, these are benefiting from the reduced fertility rates that have been achieved in those countries. So the idea that all we need to do is grow the economy and population will take care of itself is absolutely wrong. It may not be the case that all we need to do is reduce the fertility and the economy will take care of itself. But as we have talked about previously with regard to the resource limitations, including water and energy, it is very clear: If we are going to have some number of people living a decent quality of life with incomes that allow them to live comfortably, the only way we can achieve that is getting to replacement level – and ultimately, because we have overshot the long-term carrying capacity of the planet, below-replacement-level – fertility, so that we go into a slight decline in numbers until we are at a level that can be sustained indefinitely.

Chris Martenson: So part of China’s economic miracle, then – with all the fantastic growth that China has had, obviously there are multiple factors in this, but – you would describe one of those factors being that they had a one-child policy. They brought their overall fertility rates down. And through this demographic dividend, I believe you called it, this is part of the China story. Is that how you would frame that?

Bill Ryerson: With one minor amendment, it is certainly how I would frame it. But the amendment is, the one-child policy, in my opinion, was unnecessary. China achieved most of what they did through persuasion, not coercion. But being the type of government they are, they said well, if people do not go along with it, we are going to coerce them. And obviously that has earned a black eye for China and for the whole population field because a lot of people associate the word “population” with Chinese coercion. But I have traveled all over China and I have talked to ordinary people all over that country. They are all persuaded that the one-child concept is a good idea. China mobilized a million people to go all over the country talking to people about the benefits they would achieve by avoiding another thirty million deaths from starvation that they had during the Cultural Revolution And by limiting family size, because the country had become so huge in numbers.

So people in China are well educated about demography and are persuaded that limiting family size is a good idea. They did not, in my opinion, need to hold out economic penalties for people who did not go along with it. Certainly the persuasion got them below replacement level fertility. And if a few people had more children than one in urban areas or two in rural areas – many people do not know the one child policy is only for the urban areas. They allowed two or in some cases three in rural areas.

Chris Martenson: Oh, I did not know that.

Bill Ryerson: But this would average out. What is important in any country is not the number of children each couple has but what is the overall average. And if they are averaging below replacement level, then eventually the population is going to start to shrink. And that is really what they achieved through persuasion. And they could have avoided all the controversy by not doing the coercion along with it.

Chris Martenson: This is an important conversation to have because I think for a lot of people, when population comes up. the immediate reaction – and I am not sure if this is a reaction that has been marketed to us or how legitimate it is, but often it comes up – is that oh my gosh, this is going to be coercive. There is going to be forced sterilizations or the economic punitive measures of China or whatever. And somehow they are imagining that it has to be Draconian. And what I hear you saying is no, it does not have to be Draconian. In fact, the best successes are worked through the art of persuasion at the individual level. It makes sense – what makes sense for the nation and what makes sense for individuals is the same thing. And so getting that in alignment and talking about it openly is the path that we would like to take, because it works.

Bill Ryerson: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, look at Europe. There is no coercion in Europe, and all of Europe is at below replacement level fertility. Japan the same; Thailand the same; Sri Lanka is just approaching replacement level fertility. There are only two countries I am aware of – China, and, much less known, Vietnam – that have used coercion. There are countries that have used coercive pregnancy, like the Philippines. And during Chauchesku, Romania banned contraception and caused untold damage through people being forced to have babies they did not want and they are stuck in orphanages. And that type of coercion has been far more frequent, although less talked about than coercive family planning. But all of this coercion has been unnecessary. There are intellectuals – maybe that is too polite a word – there are people who ethereally in their minds think coercion might be a good idea because this is such an important topic. And if it is threatening the future habitability of the planet, if we are going to give people tickets for speeding and for going through red lights, we should certainly give them tickets for having too many children. But I have never seen a situation outside of China and Vietnam where coercion worked.

So despite or in addition to the fact that coercion causes a huge backlash of resentment, stop and think about who would we have coerce us. Would it be Rich Santorum? Would it be George Bush? Would it be Obama? Who is going to make the decision as to how many children we are allowed to have and how are we going to go along with that? I can imagine the debate that would be going on about that. But as we have seen all over the world, with effective family planning programs and information and discussion, as you brought up, maybe countries have achieved a replacement level or below fertility without any hint of coercion. So why would we go to Draconian measure when it is not necessary and would be a violation of human rights?

What is missing is this: We have done an analysis of the reasons given for non-use of family planning in all 95 countries where demographic and health surveys have been carried out. And the global community is convinced that the problem must be lack of access to contraceptives. You read this all the time. Well, there are millions of women who want family planning and cannot find it. There are clinics where they are out of stock for some time. And you go in there and there are no contraceptives, or at least some brand of pill is missing but maybe you can get a condom. And that is a problem that needs to be solved. And if Coca-Cola can be in every village in India, why not contraception?

But that is not the reason women are giving for non-use of contraception. Number one reason they give is they want more children. That is logical. If they have not finished what they perceive as childbearing desires, they are going to hold off, and if they want to be pregnant they are going to hold off until they have the number of babies they want. But after that, those who do not want to be pregnant now or in the immediate future, the number one reason they are giving is they have heard it is dangerous. And religious fundamentalists are handing out information that condoms contain the AIDS virus and the lubricant, the pill gives you cancer. And people are hearing this misinformation and they are going oh my God, why would I want to use a dangerous thing like that?

So number one, they are saying they have heard it is dangerous, they are afraid of health effects. Number two, religious opposition, husband’s opposition, or personal opposition to the whole concept of planning one’s family. And this relates closely to another major reason that is measured in some demographic and health surveys: fatalism. There is a very interesting study by Etienne Vanderwall that looks at the transcripts of interviews with women who did not want to be pregnant and are not using a method of contraception. And the interviews often go like this:

Are you married and sexually active or in union and sexually active? Yes.
Do you want to be pregnant now or in the next two years? No, I desperately do not. I cannot feed the children I have.
Are you using a modern method of contraception? No.
Do you understand because you are sexually active and not using a contraceptive that you could become pregnant? Well, that would be okay.
But I thought you said you desperately do not want to be pregnant, you cannot feed the children you have. That is true.
So how can you say it is okay if you become pregnant? If God wants me pregnant it is up to God. I am here to serve God.
In Pakistan, 38% of the non-users give as their reason the number of children I have is up to God. So this type of fatalism, not even [accepting] that it is in one’s ability and one’s right to determine the number and spacing of their children, is a critical stumbling block. So these concerns, and in some countries not knowing a method that one can use, are the major barriers. In Nigeria, these are the top reasons given for non-use of contraception: lack of access to contraceptive services is cited by 0.2%, cost is cited by 0.2%. And yet much of the effort going into promote family planning is going into increasing access to services when that is not the reason people are giving for non-use.

So one of the great failures in some countries, in my opinion, has been not putting the emphasis where it needs to be: helping overcome the misinformation, helping people understand they have the right and the ability to determine how many children they are going to have. In the world of Islam, for example, their official findings say that the Koran inherently endorses family planning even though it never mentions the term because of the commandment that a woman should breastfeed her infant for at least two years and therefore she must use contraception because if she becomes pregnant the breastfeeding scenario comes to an end.

So in Islam and in Indian Catholicism, with some methods the church does approve, it is possible for people to plan their family. Italy and Spain have among the lowest birth rates on the planet. And what methods people are using is of less concern to me than that they are achieving their goals. So we can overcome these informational and cultural barriers if we use communication strategies that are effective at changing norms with regard to family size desires and with regard to informational or misinformation and cultural factors that stop people from using contraception. And that is not to say we should not increase the supply of contraceptives. We need to, because while we have grown from 10% of world’s couples using family planning in 1960 to 56% today, the 44% non-users outnumber the 90% non-users from 1960 because of population growth. So we definitely need to increase the supply. But we desperately need to increase communications around these issues in a way that will change behavior.

Chris Martenson: All right, Bill, it sounds like communication is the key on this because the math is clear, the trends are clear. We have now plenty of data in evidence to suggest what works. There are a lot of things that can work and do work as you have already outlined. I am listening to this right now. I am a listener; I am hearing you; I am concerned; I would like to help. What could I do?

Bill Ryerson: Well, you brought up Population Media Center. One of the things that we do – and that is the primary thing we do – is to use a strategy of communications that has turned out, from everything we have been able to measure, to be the most cost-effective strategy for changing behavior with regard to family size and contraceptive use on a per-behavior change basis of any strategy we have found on the planet. And this is the use of long-running serialized dramas, melodramas like soap operas, in which characters gradually evolve from the middle of the road in that society into positive role models for daughter education, delaying marriage and childbearing until adulthood, spacing of children, limiting of family size, and various other health and social goals of each country. And we have now done such programs in forty-five countries. And I can give you a couple of statistics.

For example, in northern Nigeria, a program we ran from 2007 to 2009 was listened to by 70% of the population at least weekly. It was a twice a week program. It was clearly a smash hit. And it was a smash hit because it was highly suspenseful and highly entertaining. But it had a storyline dealing with a couple deciding to use family planning, which is almost taboo in northern Nigeria because less than 10% of the people in that region use any modern method of contraception. We had eleven clinics have healthcare workers ask clients what had motivated them to come in for family planning, and 67% percent of them named the program as the motivation.

Chris Martenson: Congratulations.

Bill Ryerson: Our cost per family-planning adopter of that entire program, 208 episodes, writing, acting, production, and primetime air purchase, plus the research pre- and post-broadcast and the monitoring research, came out to 89 cents per family-planning adopter. That is the kind of thing that can dramatically change demographic trends globally. We need to greatly expand this type of work. And there are very few organizations doing this. So one thing people can do is become involved in supporting the work of Population Media Center. They can go to and read all about our work. They can also encourage their policymakers, i.e., members of Congress and others, to pay attention to the communication needs on this issue and not just the medical service provision side of it. Because we can set up all the clinics we want, but if people are afraid to go into them, we will not change demographic trends.

Chris Martenson: Bill, I really want to thank you for your 41 years, I believe you said, of service in this regard.

Bill Ryerson: Yes. [laughter]

Chris Martenson: And to bring to us a very challenging conversation that you have made thoughtful and positive and non-draconian, showing the way that these are things that are well within our control. Often I find in topics of discussion around population there is often the sense of tossing up the hands, lack of agency, what can possibly done? And you have articulated for us that there is lots that can be done. In fact, there is already evidence of what works and what does not work. And so it is not a shortage of information that we are facing right now. It is really the will to get out there and make this a top priority for ourselves. So thank you.

Bill Ryerson: In some ways, I am working in this field because I do see this as a solvable problem. I think the issue of reducing our per capita consumption is a more difficult challenge. It also needs communications to change norms with regard to lifestyles that could be considered over the top. So the excessive consumption is reduced, but it is, I think, a bigger challenge, because people seem to have an endless appetite for increasing their lifestyle.

Chris Martenson: Well, maybe there are some things that work there as well. We are seeing changes in behaviors there, too. And if the story is right, if the narrative is correct, people will live into that narrative. And in the absence of a good narrative will default into – maybe I will call them more “primal” sort of behavior sets. But I, too, have great faith that people, with the right narrative, with a good story, with right information, will make very rational decisions. But in the absence of good information it is impossible to make a good decision.

So I want to thank you for bringing clarity to the population topic and remind people that I have been talking with Bill Ryerson and you can find out more at his Did I get that right?

Bill Ryerson: That is correct.

Chris Martenson: All right, well, there you go, and I hope we can have another conversation in the future. It has been great.

Bill Ryerson: Chris, thanks so much for having me on; I really enjoyed it.