Bill Ryerson – Dealing With The Elephant In The Room: OverpopulationPeakProsperity
Worldwide, three new humans are born every second. Every day, 225,000 more mouths are added to the global dinner table.
That adds up to 80 million new people per year — the population equivalent of the five largest cities in the world. That’s like a new Shanghai, a new Beijing, a new New Delhi, a new Lagos, and a new Tianjin being added every year.
This growth trajectory is simply not sustainable from a planetary resources standpoint. As the global population continues to grow at an exponential rate, its demand is causing key resources like fresh water aquifers, rainforest canopies, fishing stocks, fertile topsoils, etc to similarly deplete exponentially. These oppositional exponentials, mathematically, can only result in an evitable planetary ‘overshoot’ — which many argue we are already well into.
What can be done? Bill Ryerson, president of the Population Institute, joins us to discuss the work of the Population Media Center in addressing the interconnected issues of the full rights of women and girls, population, and the environment. It’s mission is to empower people to live healthier and more prosperous lives and to stabilize global population at a level at which people can live sustainably with the world’s renewable resources.
Our earlier podcast with Bill focused on the existential dangers of overpopulation (you can listen to it here). This week’s podcast focuses on the strategies that show the most promise for slowing, or perhaps even reversing, world population growth, should we be willing to pursue them:
All of those new people on the planet have needs for food, shelter, housing, and clothing. When you look at their environmental impact, the number of new people is a major driver of lost biodiversity, and it’s a significant factor in climate change.
Now, I’ve heard a lot of environmentalists say ‘Well, population doesn’t matter’ because the real culprits in climate change are the high consumers of the West who each have a huge carbon footprint. But in fact, if you take the median projection of population growth by the UN Population Division from now to 2050 — an additional 2.5 billion people — and multiply that times the admittedly low per capita carbon emissions of a citizen in the developing world, it’s the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.
Put another way, projections show that whether we have a major effort to promote family planning and small family norms and delayed marriage and stopping child marriage, or a minor effort, that will result in a difference, from a climate standpoint, of 2 United States by 2050.
I would venture that the leaders of virtually every environmental group, if spoken to privately, would clearly recognize that population growth is a major threat to the environmental goals of their organization. And yet, publicly, they’ve made a decision not to touch that issue for fear that they’ll get themselves in trouble. And part of the reason for that I think has to do with their approach to environmental issues.
Many environmentalists think in terms of regulation as the solution to everything: if we have a climate problem, let’s have a carbon tax; if we have a pollution problem, let’s have pollution laws and regulations. But if we have a population problem — oops, what does that mean? Does that mean we have to tell people how many children to have? Therefore they conclude they better stay away from population because telling people how many children to have would obviously get them into trouble.
But what’s very clear is that coercion, in addition to being a human rights violation, is not effective. Persuasion and modeling of behavior that helps people understand the benefits to them, of educating their daughters rather than selling them into marriage, of allowing women to have say in how many children to have and allowing women equal rights in the workplace outside the home and various other goals including information and access to family planning services – that all this, within a human rights context, has been the reason that countries like Thailand have moved from rapid population growth to below replacement-level fertility. Environmentalists just haven’t come to grips with the fact, or realized that, indeed, the population problem can be much better resolved through human rights-based approaches.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Bill Ryerson (41m:14s).
Chris: Welcome, everybody, to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. And today is May 16th, 2018. You live in world surrounded by exponential charts. Some good, but most bad. Rain forest is disappearing at an increasing rate, and if charted, that chart looks like a hockey stick. It starts out slowly back in the early 1900s, then rises slowly until, boom, that line turns the corner, and it shoots upwards. The number of airline miles flown also a hockey stick. Energy consumed, ditto. Fresh water use, again, we have a hockey stick. Underneath all of this, driving every one of these exponential charts and a thousand more not named here, is human population.
For many, this thorny subject seems like an untouchable topic. Either it’s too politically sensitive or well, heck, what can even be done about it? Today’s guest has dedicated his life towards working to help stem unchecked or even unwanted population growth. William Ryerson, who I know as Bill, is founder and president of the Population Media Center as well as president of the Population Institute. I’ll let Bill tell you all about it, but The Population Media Center, or PMC, seeks to address population issues head-on by going straight to the countries and people involved and uses a strategy of entertaining, educating, and empowering families and women.
From the PMC website found at populationmedia.org, we find that “the PMC works around the world to enhance human rights, health, economic equity, and environmental protection, all of which impact population and protect the environment.” Bill, I know this is going to be a fascinating conversation. Thank for your willingness to have it with me, and welcome to the program.
Bill Ryerson: Chris, thanks so much for having me on.
Chris: Well, Bill, tell us how you got started on population matters, how it became your life, how long you’ve been at it. Let’s start with your background.
Bill Ryerson: I started an interest in this field as a graduate school in biology, and I was studying population biology and specifically vertebrate population biology. And I saw exactly what happens when other species go through the hockey stick kind of growth curb that you talked about. They generally end up having a crash, and no exponential growth curve in nature is sustainable for very long, although it happens from time to time for a limited period of time.
And through Paul Ehrlich and my own advisor who worked very closely with Ehrlich in founding a group called Zero Population Growth, now called Population Connection, I became very interested in what was going on with human population and the threat it has to human welfare and more broadly to sustainability of all life on the planet.
So I got involved in the late 1960s in the issue as an activist, and in 1971 went to work for The Population Institute. Did that for the decade of the ’70s, then wanted to know more about the family planning business and worked with two Planned Parenthood affiliates, the second one of which was in Vermont. Then got re-involved working with a colleague internationally who had been at The Population Institute who was using the communication strategy you mentioned. And after he retired in 1998, I started Population Media Center, and we’ve now worked in about fifty countries around the world.
Chris: I want to get to that story and how you work in those counties, but I can already hear the critics in the background who I run into, and I’m sure you run into them far more often than I do that say, oh gosh, the ’70s, you mean when the Limits to Growth came out and The Population Bomb – All of that’s been discredited, obviously. Look, no problems, no famines. How do you counter these critics when you run into them?
Bill Ryerson: Well, I guess the first question is if there’s anybody in the audience who has never stated anything in error, please get in touch. Certainly, The Population Bomb contained errors with regard to not the substance but with regard to the timing. So, when Ehrlich wrote that book in 1968, he did not know of the work of Norman Borlaug who, in 1972, won the Nobel Peace Prize for having created The Green Revolution. Borlaug was hard at work creating high yield wheat and high yield rice and he bought, as he put it in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he bought the world thirty years through this Green Revolution to get its act together with regard to human population growth. Otherwise, we would be facing the same kind of famine and starvation that the world was facing in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
So Ehrlich didn’t know that was coming along, and he predicted that we would have mass famine in places like India in the 1970s. But, of course, innovations happen, and more innovations may happen. So, indeed, timing may not work out exactly as people predict. I think we’ve all learned that timing is a tough one to predict when there are lots of innovations going on, and hopefully, there’ll be more innovations that will buy us more time. But there is one very clear fact that is hard to argue with, and that is infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.
So the question isn’t when will growth stop, the question is – I mean, the question is when will growth stop, not whether it will stop. So, certainly, Ehrlich is now more pessimistic than he was when he wrote that book in 1968. We have managed to expand human existence, human habitation, and therefore decimated biodiversity, the biodiversity that makes the planet habitable, through this innovation that has kept population growth growing – or going. So certainly, we have a lot of evidence that the basic underlying arguments that Ehrlich made in that book and the arguments made in Limits to Growth, are right on track in terms of accuracy, but not on track in terms of timing.
Chris: Well, very well said. And I want to bring this up because it leads into the next part, and as you know, I’m also trained in a biological science in my background. I also understand that every organism grows into its available energy source, whatever that happens to be. Whether it’s a sulfur vent and you’re a thermophilic bacterium down in the deep ocean or you’re a reindeer and wolves on an island with all that dynamic going on. Whatever it is, every organism grows into its energy source. So I look at oil as the number one energy lubricant and the number one input to how we grow things and eating the food that, of course, sustains our population.
And so the reason I go into all of that is that – and I hope this isn’t too much of a departure, but here’s how it ties in. So we got a little desperate, and oil went over $150 a barrel, and all the sudden it made sense to drill into the source rocks themselves. It’s called the shale revolution if you study it; it’s a flash in the pan. This is a Borlaug moment; might buy us thirty years, probably more like twenty in this story, honestly. But the narrative that got spun around it was its innovation; it’s American ingenuity; it’s all this amazing stuff. And that narrative was so powerful that it caused Ford Motor Company to use their very best reasoning capabilities and scan the entire environment and think about the long-term prospect of their company and say, eh, we’re going to ditch sedans, we’re going to focus entirely on F150s and SUVs, right. That’s the importance of narrative.
So this brings us around, and I know that you, in joining the PMC, the Population Media Center, it’s around the use of narrative to help begin to frame things in a way so that humans, people, can hear the narrative, project themselves into that narrative, and then make decisions. Hopefully different ones or ones that are more aligned with their long-term interests. So what I’d love to do now is hear how the PMC works in all these countries you’re in and some stories about, Bill, what’s worked? Where? Why? And really if you could give us just maybe one or two like examples of how you do what you do and its effectiveness.
Bill Ryerson: Sure. I’d be happy to. When you think about how humans adapt behavior, it’s mostly based on role models, particularly people’s parents as they’re growing up. So, if I’m a boy in Northern Nigeria, and my parents have ten children and my sisters are sold into polygamous marriages with older men at age nine and ten, and my father beats my mother, then that’s my norm. That’s what I’m likely to do unless something interferes with my perception of what is normal. And so changing perception of what is normal is critically important. And what can do that, as you mentioned, is narrative.
People live based on what they see as the normal narrative of their life. And, indeed, as consumers of entertainment media, and places like the US know very well, sometimes cultural change happens because of mass media inputs. And we’ve seen this over and over in the US and other countries. So coming to a couple of examples of the use of narrative, we’re doing serialized dramas, long running programs, often on radio, in countries that are so poor that people don’t have TVs, although we’re also doing TV shows in places like the US and Mexico. But a lot of work is in Africa, where the highest population growth is occurring.
So in a typical radio drama, we’ll do 150 to 200 episodes over a period of a couple of years in which positive and negative characters that one finds in all melodrama are battling over various issues affecting the lives of the listeners. And middle of the road characters designed to represent segments of the audience are sorting out the conflicting advice they’re getting from positive and negative characters. So, for example, in Ethiopia, in that case, a 257-episode radio serial drama went out on Radio Ethiopia nationwide, and it lasted two-and-a-quarter years, and it modeled family planning use. It modeled stopping marriage by abduction, which still happens in rural Ethiopia. It modeled HIV testing at the request of the government and dealt with various other issues.
And here are just a few of the results of that program. We did a baseline and an end line survey nationwide, about a 3,000-person sample with hour long interviews with a random sample of the population. And we found in the baseline survey that 14 percent of married women reported using a modern method of contraception. In the end line survey, we found we had 46 percent of the population listening, and it’s pretty close, equal men and women. So it was a huge hit. And when I would go to Ethiopia while that show was on the air, people would ask me what I did. And I said I was running Population Media Center. And they go, oh, wow, can you tell me what happens to Dantu? So people were really hooked on this show.
And at the end of the program, after Fakurta, a positive character, had persuaded her mother of the benefits of family planning use, married women had gone from 14 percent use to 40 percent use, almost a tripling in just over two years. Non-listeners had a slight increase, but the increase among listeners was two and a half times as high as the increase among non-listeners. Male listeners reporting going for an HIV test at four times the rate of non-listeners. Female listeners reported seeking a test at three times the rate of non-listeners.
And to give you just one sample of the thousands of letters we received in response to the program, we got a letter in Oromia in Southern Ethiopia who wrote thank you for dealing with the issue of marriage by abduction. Our own daughter was abducted on her way to school at age 14, and ended up married as a result, and we’ve been afraid to send the 12-year-old girls to school for fear the same thing would happen to them. When you address this issue through the character Woballan, our entire village, which almost everybody was listening to the program, came together and we agreed to enforce the law against marriage by abduction which we had not known existed, and now it’s safe for the 12-year-old girls to go to school. Please keep your program on the air. And that was one of twenty-five thousand letters we got in response to that program.
A similar program in Sierra Leone attracted half the population as regular listeners. That means at least weekly. And at family planning clinics, interviews were conducted with 1,525 new family planning adopters to ask them what motivated the decision. And 50 percent of them answers Saliwansai, the name of our program. So it’s clear that these programs, by modeling behaviors through very charismatic characters can change the perception of what is normal and lead to dramatic changes in social norms as a result.
Chris: That is absolutely fantastic, and thanks for sharing that letter. That really hit home. I’m wondering, did you basically just take the script you used in Ethiopia, changed some names, and use it Sierra Leone? Or does it have to start all over from ground up because the cultural norms and practices and laws are so different?
Bill Ryerson: The latter. So to just translate a program from one language to another will miss a lot of the cultural differences that exist between different language groups. And you still have the expense of hiring actors and recording it and so on, plus the translation cost. And it’s just slightly more expensive to actually just create a new program based on the cultural realities of that language group. So we always do unique programs for each language group.
Chris: And how is all this funded?
Bill Ryerson: That is what gets me out of bed every morning, asking that question. It’s a not profit charity, so it’s funded by individual donations, by UN Agencies. The UN is our biggest institutional partner, by about eight governments who have supported our work including the government of Ethiopia, by a few dozen foundations and a few companies that have either made charitable contributions or sponsored programs with the thought of being a sponsor of a very popular show and increasing their own sales.
Chris: This is fascinating. What I’m intrigued by is really sort of the forces working for and against this whole idea. It seems to me like a no-brainer that what we would want to do is exactly what you’re describing, which is empowering people to make their own decisions, whether it’s to get STD testing or to make their own decision rather than let biology determine the pacing and timing of when they’re going to have children, of shifting and renormalizing cultural norms where we can say, clearly, abducting young girls on the way to school is not an awesome thing we can support here.
All of that feels like really something – it’s almost like mother and apple pie, of course. Of course, you would do that. But yet, I’m sure there’s resistance as well against this, otherwise you would be more well-funded, and you wouldn’t have to get out of bed every day with quite the same urgency. What are the sources of resistance that you run into?
Bill Ryerson: Certainly, some people in the audience may be wondering, well, is this some form of propaganda or mind control. And, indeed, there is that concern of how we can go into some other country and tell people how to live. So, in fact, we’ve asked ourselves that question, and I think we have a pretty good answer. Number one, we are, unlike most health and social development communication programs that literally do tell people what to do, use the bed net, use a condom, don’t do this, don’t do that, giving people instructions on how to improve their health.
Instead, we’re modeling positive and negative behaviors and, very importantly, transitional behaviors and never telling the audience what to do. So we’re, as you put it, empowering the audience to make their own decisions based on what they’re learning from the consequences of the decisions made by different characters. And so the audience doesn’t feel lectured to. Second, we develop a policy framework in each country, and we look at their policies with regard to population, family planning, environment, gender, and various other issues that we may be addressing in the program. And we base our programs on those policies unless the policy’s counter UN agreements or human rights accords.
So the governments love it. We don’t have any resistance from governments because we’re there not to tell their people how to live – we’re there to help them achieve their policies. And the programs are written by country nationals in the local language based on the policies of the government. So we’re really there to help them achieve their national goals. The resistance has been really minimal at the country level. We’ve had no controversy regarding any program, and I’ll give you an example.
In the US, we have a program that became a top hit in Hollywood, and it deals with teen pregnancy issues. It’s a show on Hulu called East Los High which lasted five years on Hulu. And in season one, one of the characters has an abortion so she can go to college, and there was no controversy around that because we weren’t telling the audience what to do, we were showing what is possible and showing the consequences, but not telling the audience what to do.
So we have avoided controversy. But there are people who are either concerned that we’re somehow imposing on other cultures, which is an inaccurate perception, or that communications are ineffective at changing norms. Now, that second form of resistance is less and less as we’ve developed country after country programs and shown dramatic impact in virtually every country we’ve worked in. So people are beginning to recognize that this strategy is replicable over and over again around the world.
Chris: It’s interesting. Are any other groups approaching and saying how are you doing this? I don’t know, environmental groups, civil rights groups? How would I use it, for instance, potentially in the work I’m trying to do?
Bill Ryerson: There are a lot of groups that have expressed interest both in the fields we’ve been working in and in other fields. I’ve had a number of presentations before environmental groups, including the Environmental Media Association, that are quite interested in how we go about this. And, indeed, we’re addressing environmental issues in a number of programs. So, for example, we want to do a program in China to make it unpopular to buy ivory carvings. In Rwanda, we addressed reforestation, and 11 percent of tree seedling buyers in Rwanda at the time named our program as the motivation to buy tree seedlings. We are working in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute in Eastern Congo to suppress use of bush meat in order to preserve wildlife. And we’re addressing other environmental issues: climate change and marine conservation for example, in Papua, New Guinea.
So we have branched into multiple issues that each of which relates in some way to sustainability. We haven’t gone into all forms of communication, but, for example, I’m speaking at a conference at Purdue later this year that’s on agricultural practices. And they’re having me come really to talk about how do we change behavior with regard to farming practices, and so I’m going to share our experience. We’ve done a little bit because a lot of our audiences are rural with regard to farming practices, but that’s not our major area of focus. But there are lots of groups, including The World Bank, that’s involved in this conference, that are quite intrigued by the fact that this particular methodology leads to the lowest cost per attributable behavior change of any social change communication strategy that so far has been developed.
Chris: And, you know, I’m not surprised. Bill, because the more I study it, the more I realize that – imagine you can see me, and I’m holding my arms as far, as wide open as I can, and if that’s the human history timeline, written word is like the width of my fingernail in this story. It’s just like this little tiny piece. All the rest of our history was oral, and it was narratives. and so we are evolutionarily wired to, as you said, you need the models, you need to shift the norm, we need to – we watch by both positive and negative association. Oh, that didn’t work. YouTube, I think, has been wonderful for a whole generation of young boys who say, oh, I shouldn’t skateboard off the roof. It’s been amazing.
But we do learn that way. We can, of course. We’re primates so we have mirror neurons and association networks and all this stuff. We’re wired to watch people around us and get cues from that. So that’s really important. Now, this idea of having the right narrative just seems absolutely critical, and when I talked about this idea of resistance, I have a series of headlines here – I just pulled them off of Google – I’ll read a few of them in a second. But they all decry a reduced birth rate. Some even sound panicky to me. Here they are – here’s a few:
“US Fertility Rate Just Hit a Record Low, Why Some Demographers are Worried” – that’s The Washington Post.
“Declining Birth Rates Raising Concerns in Asia” – this is from a place eastwestcenter.org
“Should We Worry About Low Fertility?” Brookings Institution
Yes, they’re very worried because, in particular, if we want more upward mobility, why we need people coming in at the bottom and so on and so forth. I won’t read them all. I’ve got a dozen, and it took me .01 seconds of googling to figure out. How are you – is this a source of resistance you’re running into, and what’s behind this?
Bill Ryerson: It is certainly, I think, a concern. And one of the reasons that some people are worried about slowing population growth is that in some countries we’re at below replacement level fertility, and while not too many countries are in rapid population decline, a few are moving into that direction. So Germany, for example, is paying about $16,000 per German baby born in order – they justified it, in order to help with the pension problem based on the retirement age that they set decades ago when changing the retirement age by a couple of years reflecting the greater longevity of the German population compared to when they set the retirement age would make sense.
But, instead, they are paying people to have babies. And, as I said at a global economic summit in Germany a few years ago, some people in Germany, some couples, will have babies without being paid $16,000 to do so. And they are pretty well-motivated parents. But those who have a baby in order to get the money are the worst motivated parents that one can imagine. So it’s a terrible misuse of public funds.
Not to mention that if we have a climate crisis, if we have a loss of biodiversity crisis, if we have other forms of pollution, in toxification of the environment going on, if we have a water crisis, if we have an energy crisis as you alluded to, why is any government paying people to produce more babies? And, indeed, the dependency ratio is actually worsened by having babies because they don’t go to work the day they’re born. They require parents to care for them and bring them up. So, indeed, it is worsening the problem, whereas they could solve their problem by changing retirement age by a couple of years.
And this, then, goes back to the more fundamental concern with population stabilizing and perhaps going into decline. And that is a lot of economists are trained that the only way the economy can function is with endless growth. And now, the number of people on the planet wouldn’t matter if we were all ethereal beings. It’s the combination of the number of people times our economic activity that are causing the problems that I just mentioned. And so, indeed, increasing, per capita, the economic activity and increasing the number of capita’s is what’s gotten us into this mess. And economists are trained to believe that there are no limits to growth, and therefore we have to do whatever it takes including bribing people to become parents, in order to keep this game going. But it’s very clear to those who have biological training that this is a fool’s errand, that we cannot have endless growth, and we will not. And trying to stimulate additional growth is ultimately going to fail. But in the short term, it’s going to cause a lot of damage and waste a lot of money.
So just one other factor, to go back to the narrative that makes this narrative approach important is in countries with very high rates of population growth, and that growth is, indeed, a major driver of poverty in those countries, the reasons people give for nonuse of family planning methods has almost nothing to do with lack of access to services. There are demographic and health surveys carried out all over the world every five years in developing countries, and we’ve analyzed the data from all ninety-five of those countries as to the reasons people give for nonuse of family planning.
And the most common reasons are, number one, wanting more children, and particularly in West Africa, desired number of children is above actual fertility rates. So, for example, Niger has an average number of children born to a woman during her reproductive years of 7.6. And when women are asked how many children they think is ideal, they say 11 and men say 13. So in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, a fertility rate of 5.7 women want 7 and men want 9. So they’re not even having the number that they want, and they see no reason to use family planning until they have more children. So that’s a major driver, perceived norms with regards to ideal number of children.
And then, beyond that, the reasons given by those who don’t want a pregnancy immediately are they’ve heard it’s dangerous, and there is a lot of intentional misinformation about safety of contraception which is clearly far safer than early and repeated childbearing by somebody, say, starting at age 15 having a baby every year. It’s much more risky than using any modern method of contraception. And then, various forms of opposition, religious opposition, spousal opposition, and personal opposition combined with fatalism that comes out of some of the interviews, people saying that they think God determines how many children they’re going to have, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
So those are the dominant reason given for nonuse of family planning. Lack of access, in most countries, is cited by less than one percent, and yet much of the world’s effort on issues related to issues related to population and reproductive health have been focused just on the service side and not on the communications side.
Chris: All very well said. And I want to focus now on this idea that – well, you just raised a ludicrous proposition which is Germany saying, hey, we have a pension problem, let’s incentivize people to have babies which, of course, as you mentioned, might result in moral hazard, adverse selection, a variety of non-ideal things to come along. But again, it’s the idea that we’re growing our population to be in service to our economic models rather than the other way around, that our economic models would serve the people. What a bizarre upside down thing. And, of course, you started by pointing out one of the things that vexes me most which is very well trained, very smart, mathematically, quantitative for the most part, economists who haven’t figured out you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. I don’t know how to connect those dots. It feels like it’s not a rational argument anymore. It has nothing to do with like logic or anything like that.
Bill Ryerson: I wish all economics majors were required to take a course in population biology.
Chris: Well, that would be great. I don’t where they come from, whether it’s from some purely quantitative area, but the disconnect is astonishing. And, of course, this whole idea that resources are just a subset that magically appears as a consequence of the uber set which is the economy rather than the other way around. It just feels sort of upside down. So to get there we’re going to have to really turn some narratives around, and quickly, too, because let’s turn to some numbers here.
Your website notes that every day 225,000 more people sit at the global dinner table – well, there are only 86,400 seconds in a day. I just calculated it, Bill. So that’s roughly three new people a second every day of the year multiplying that out – what is that – 80,000 million new people a year. So let me compare that now. I went to Wiki and found that if these people went into cities, they would entirely populate the five largest cities in the world. So that’s like a new Shanghai, a new Beijing, a new New Delhi, Lagos, and Tianjin showing up every year. That seems entirely unsustainable.
Bill Ryerson: Well, you’re talking about the equivalent of new Egypt added to the world’s’ population every year.
Chris: It’s astonishing.
Bill Ryerson: And all of those people have needs for food, shelter, housing, and clothing. And when you look at their environmental impact, the number of new people is a major driver of lost biodiversity, and it is a significant factor in climate change. Now, I’ve heard a lot of environmentalists say well, population doesn’t matter because the real culprits in climate change are the high consumers of the West who each have a huge carbon footprint. But in fact, if you take the median projection of population growth by the UN Population Division from now to 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people, and multiply that times the admittedly low per capita carbon emissions of a citizen in the developing world, it’s the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.
So it’s very important, and whether we have a major effort to promote family planning and small family norms and delayed marriage and stopping child marriage or a minor effort can lead to a low projection or a high projection being realized by 2015. And the different between those two is about the same as, from a climate standpoint, as to the United States. So it’s not 100 percent of the climate problem, and it’s very true that consumers in Western countries have much higher carbon footprints and need to reduce their emissions through all kinds of ways, but it’s not zero, either.
In fact, Brian O’Neill at University of Colorado, Boulder, did an analysis of what would happen to climate if we made a major effort in promoting family planning and small family norms. And he concluded it would yield between 16 and 29 percent of what is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. So it’s not 100 percent, but it’s not zero either, and yet, at climate conferences population is never discussed.
Chris: I ran into that first when I was down in Washington D.C. with yourself and some other people in 2009 or so, I guess, somewhere back there, and found that only one environmental group out of many invited even showed up to talk about population issues. And I found that startling to me because I thought well, my goodness, if the Sierra Club hasn’t figured out – not to pick on them but just to name one or some, any of these big environmental groups – if they’re not able to identify the single largest source risk for what they’re up to it really confused me as to – that felt like rearguard action devoid of actual strategy. The strategy should be let’s figure out the key driver of the degradation we’re fighting and figure out how to operate there. I think they should be front and center on all sorts of issues ranging from immigration, emigration, population, all those things that really can impact an area.
Bill Ryerson: I would venture the leaders of virtually every environmental group, if spoken to privately, would clearly recognize that population growth is a major threat to the environmental goals of their organization. And yet, publicly, they’ve made a decision not to touch that issue for fear that they’ll get themselves in trouble. And part of the reason for that I think has to do with their approach to environmental issues.
Many environmentalists think regulation – so we have a climate problem, let’s have a carbon tax. If we have a pollution problem, let’s have pollution laws and regulations. And so if we have a population problem, oop, what does that mean? Does that mean we have to tell people how many children to have? So they worry that – or they think that the only way to solve any problem is regulation, and therefore they better stay away from population because telling people how many children to have would obviously get them into trouble.
But what’s very clear is that coercion, in addition to being a human rights violation, is not effective. Persuasion and mauling of behavior that helps people understand the benefits to them, of educating their daughters rather than selling them into marriage, of allowing women to have say in how many children to have and allowing women equal rights in the workplace outside the home and various other goals including information and access to family planning services – that all this, within a human rights context, has been the reason that countries like Thailand have moved from rapid population growth to below replacement level fertility. So environmentalists just haven’t come to grips with the fact, or realized that, indeed, the population problem can be solved through human rights-based approaches.
Chris: Very well said, Bill. And sadly, we’re out of time for today. But I want to first, I want to thank you so much for your time today but especially, Bill, for dedicating your life and your talents, obvious talents, to such an important subject and doing it with such grace and humanity. Thank you for that.
Bill Ryerson: Chris, it’s been a great pleasure for me to be on your show.
Chris: Well, you’re most welcome, and you’re kind to say so. And please, tell people where they can learn more and perhaps follow the success and programs of your organization and contribute.
Bill Ryerson: Okay. I would be happy to. Our website is populationmedia.org, and one can become a donor on that spot and read about our work all over the world and the impacts we’ve had in numerous countries. Also, you can watch our show East Los High on Hulu. It stopped production, but five years’ worth of East Los High are on Hulu or at eastloshigh.com for those in the US, and you’ll see how we’ve addressed the teenage pregnancy problem in the US.
Chris: Well, very good. And thank you so much, again, for your time, Bill. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Bill Ryerson: Same here, Chris. Thanks so much.
About The Guest
William Ryerson is the Population Institute’s Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer. Ryerson, who also serves as President of the Population Media Center, has a 37-year history of working in the field of reproductive health, including 20 years of experience adapting the Sabido methodology for behavior change communications to various cultural settings worldwide. He has also been involved in the design of research to measure the effects of such projects in a number of countries, one of which has led to a series of publications regarding a serialized radio drama in Tanzania and its effects on HIV/AIDS avoidance and family planning use. He also serves as President of the Population Media Center, which works in partnership with the Population Institute. He received a B.A. in Biology (Magna Cum Laude) from Amherst College and an M.Phil. in Biology from Yale University (with specialization in Ecology and Evolution). Before founding Population Media Center, he served as Director of the Population Institute’s Youth and Student Division, Development Director of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania, Associate Director of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Executive Vice President of Population Communications International. As a graduate student, he was Founder and first Chairperson of the Yale Chapter of Zero Population Growth (ZPG). He also served on the Executive Committee of ZPG, as Eastern Vice President and Secretary of the national organization. Mr. Ryerson is listed in several editions of Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the East. In 2006, he was awarded the Nafis Sadik Prize for Courage from the Rotarian Action Group on Population and Development.
Article by Peak Prosperity