Population Growth – A Key Problem of Our Time

by Dr.Ernst Schriefl, Saral Sarkar and Dr.Bruno Kern



We are three authors, public speakers and political activists, who have been publishing and campaigning in the fields of ecology, economy and social politics for decades (see also the brief CVs at the end of this text). One of us, Saral Sarkar, an Indian citizen, who spent the first 45 years of his life in India and has been living in Germany since 1982, knows the realities of life in both worlds – that of a developing and emerging industrial country and that of a rich industrialized country –  very well.

While the manifold symptoms of the ecological and humanitarian crises are becoming increasingly visible, it is astonishing that a very weighty and obvious contributing cause thereof is hardly being mentioned anywhere – the continuing strong growth of human population (globally, and especially in many conflict areas). As is certainly well known, the world population recently passed the 8 billion mark.

We are well aware that we must not reduce the analysis of the roots of the various crises to population growth and that this sensitive issue requires a cautious approach. Nevertheless, we regard this issue as clearly underrated and neglected. There is practically no public discourse on the subject. The issue tends to be suppressed and hushed up.

So we request you to read and consider our position on the subject, which is briefly outlined below. We are looking forward to your feedback, your support and your taking action in line with our position.

The problem

The world’s population continues to grow rapidly – by an astounding figure of 85 to 90 million people per year. Figuratively speaking, the world is growing by one Germany or ten Austrias per year, at least in relation to the population of these countries.

In which houses will these newly added people live, where will they get their food from, how will they be mobile, what jobs will they have (if they will have any at all)? Will they ever have the chance of (and the material means for) a fulfilling and decent life?

This growth is taking place on an already “groaning planet,” on which the limits to growth have already been reached, as many indicators suggest. The ecosphere, on which we as species homo sapiens and all other species depend for survival, has already been severely affected.

The growth of the world population goes hand in hand with the various pressures on our natural environment, such as growing greenhouse gas emissions, soil consumption and consumption of mineral and biogenic resources.

It would of course be wrong to blame population growth alone for these pressures. But it would be just as wrong to ignore and play down its significance. Since the beginning of industrialization, per capita consumption of these resources has grown even faster than the world population; but both driving forces working together are exerting massively increasing pressure on the ecosphere and our planetary resource base.

It is also becoming very clear, though many or most people do not want to admit it, that technological innovations alone will not be sufficient to “save” us. For example, the energy transition, which is being seen by many as a key project for sustainable development, will not be realizable in the expected way. On closer examination, one can see that this project has too many weaknesses, dilemmas and limitations.

Ultimately, long-term survival of mankind and a fairly good life for all can only be possible in a degrowth society, whatever political form it might take. A degrowth society means that, on the one hand, human population growth must come to an end and that, subsequently, population should even shrink to a significantly lower, more sustainable level. And, on the other hand, it means, that also material consumption per capita cannot remain at the current high level, and that it must therefore also shrink significantly.

Although this reduction in per capita material consumption primarily applies to rich countries (in the so-called “global North”), it also applies to more than a few people in emerging and developing countries who have already achieved a relatively high standard of living. It holds true also because in these latter countries, the aspirations of most people after achieving a high material standard of living cannot be realized – and if at all they could, then only at the high price of further damaging the local and global natural environment.

Unless we at least put a halt to population growth, and a subsequent decline in global population takes place, a sustainable, ecologically sound and just economic system cannot even be imagined. Either this shrinkage of population is brought about in a conscious and planned way, or it happens in a disorderly, chaotic manner in the form of collapsing societies.

It is no coincidence that many conflicts and wars take place in regions where population has been growing almost unchecked for a long time. The Middle East conflict, that has recently again heated up, also has a strong demographic component, even if this is not the focus of media reports and analyses.

Like so many things in the world, population dynamics too differs strongly from region to region. While there are some regions that have already undergone a demographic transition, i.e., where the population is not growing any longer or may even be declining, there are other regions where population is still growing massively and a demographic transition is not in sight.

Particularly Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotspot in this regard. UN forecasts say that the population in this region will at least triple by 2100 (unless something is done against that). Considering the instability and the multitude of problems that already exist in this large region, this prospect of a population multiplication in the coming decades can only be understood as a demographic catastrophe, a catastrophe that the international community is virtually watching helplessly.

But there are unsustainable, problematic developments in other regions of the world too. For example, the population of India, now the most populous country in the world, is growing by around 14 million per year. This means that more than 15 percent of global population growth is taking place in this country alone.

And the “solution”? Is there one at all?

If one accepts this outline of the problem as essentially correct – at least to a large extent or in key areas – many questions arise:

What can we do? Can we influence the demographic development at all, especially if the people in question live in distant geographical regions and in other cultures?

    Is it even legitimate for “us in the global North” (or the West) to think about what others – countries, regions, groups of people – should or may do? Is it not perhaps presumptuous and hence inappropriate in view of our colonial past characterized by exploitation?

And are not the contentions of critiques right that any population policy actually implemented has shown that it is inherently reactionary and inhumane?

We believe, despite all such concerns and objections, that it is time to overcome this defensive attitude and bring the subjects of population growth and population policy out of the taboo zone.
Stopping population growth is not only a planetary necessity. It is also in the interest of the countries that are overburdened in every respect by a rapidly growing population.

Population policy is not reactionary per se. As in other policy areas, it depends on the specific form it takes. The highest possible degree of participation, education and self-empowerment of the people concerned, which builds on their own maturity, prevent abuse. There are already encouraging examples of this here and there, such as the educational work of Hermione Quenum in Benin.

So what can be done?

1. Make it visible, make it a topic for discussion!

We are well aware that it is particularly difficult for politicians from rich countries and countries with a colonial past to address this issue publicly. But they get many opportunities to draw, in confidential talks, the attention of their counterparts of the global South to the urgency of the issue.

Clarity in communication is particularly important. For example, by making it clear that high numbers of children do not mean more wealth, but, on the contrary, even more poverty and underdevelopment. And that it is not only “evil forces from outside” that are responsible for underdevelopment and lack of prospects of better times in these regions. It must be made clear that there is also a substantial home-made contribution to this bad situation and that it includes, first and foremost, high population growth.

There are many other ways to make the problem of population growth visible at various levels: at the grassroots level, through local, regional and global NGOs; within the framework of UN organizations, through international conferences, at which appropriate initiatives, measures and encouraging examples are presented, etc. Above all, it must be made clear everywhere that the commitment to preserve our livelihoods and a healthy environment is closely linked to a sensible population policy.

2. Reorientation of development cooperation (development aid)

In our view, a very effective approach is a reorientation of development cooperation (aka development aid).

In the “South,” national population policy measures (see point 3) require foreign funding. Politicians from countries of the “North” can offer to fund programs in the problem countries that have population policy objectives. Such dedicated funds would be among the most effective types of development aid.
Allocation of funds for development aid (or development cooperation) can be made dependent on the existence of a population policy and/or on the effectiveness of existing population policies. Establishment of monitoring, support and advisory mechanisms also requires external financial support.

3. Population policy measures

There is a whole range of non-repressive measures that have already been tried out in various countries.
    These include:

  • Awareness and education programs, especially for young women and girls
  • “Positive campaigning”, e.g., advertising for small families (for two-child families), as was done in India in the 1970s
  • Free provision of contraceptives
  • Financial incentives for voluntary sterilization (of men and women)
  • State guarantee of a pension for the poorer classes, which is linked to not having more than two children
  • Establishment of advisory and support structures as part of development cooperation (see also point 2).

Who we are

Initiative Population Policy

Dr. Bruno Kern, born 1958, author, translator, public speaker. Published, among others, “Das Märchen vom grünen Wachstum” (2019) [Tr. The Fairy Tale of Green Growth]. Lives and works in Mainz.  

Saral Sarkar, born 1936 in West Bengal (India), lived in India until 1982, then in Cologne. Author and activist. His publications include “Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices” (1999).

Dr. Ernst Schriefl, born 1969, works in a firm for building physics and energy efficiency. Also active as author; e.g., book “Öko-Bilanz” (2021) [Tr. Ecological Balance-Sheet]. Lives and works in Vienna.

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