04/11/2007 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


At Grist, we're constantly getting yelled at for not discussing population, which according to the yellers is the ultimate problem of all problems, such that addressing any other environmental problem without addressing it first is to demonstrate one's total subjugation to The Man and False Consciousness. I thought I'd say for the record why I never bother to discuss population.

It's obviously relevant to the ecological health of the planet that there are so many human beings on it. In the long-term, we human beings need to vastly reduce both our per-capita and our aggregate environmental footprint. That almost certainly means scaling human population back from the 9 billion or so it's expected to hit later this century -- how far back is up for debate, but probably a lot.

So why not talk about that more? For me, as usual, it's about effectiveness.

We know of a few politically and morally acceptable ways to reduce population growth, and they work quite well. Above all is empowering women: making it possible for them to get an education and make their own reproductive choices. That means political reform and, relatedly, family planning, sex education, and distribution of contraceptives.

The other biggie is prosperity. The wealthier a society gets, the bigger its middle class, the smaller its average family size.

Each of these -- empowering women and spreading prosperity -- is worth pursuing in its own right. Each is a powerful political rallying cry. Each produces a range of ancillary benefits.

In sharp contrast, talking about population as such alienates a large swathe of the general public. It carries vague connotations of totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics. It has been used quite effectively to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. It is political poison.

The conclusion's obvious, right? If you're worried about being the smartest, deepest guy at the coffee shop, keep talking about population. If you're worried about population, work toward sustainable development and female empowerment.