Population Connection got its start in education and activism through the work of young people on college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the United States was roiled by social changes and environmental catastrophes. Our curiosity was piqued at the idea that today’s young people — millennials (the generation currently aged 22-37) — might have a take on the role of Population Connection and the importance of our work that’s different from those who founded the movement fifty years ago.
Fortunately, we have many millennials working here in the Population Connection office in Washington, D.C. I asked a number of them — Ben Allen, Kate Anderson, Lindsay Apperson, Marcella Cage, Isabelle Rios, and Lauren Salmiery — to join me around the conference room table for some bagels and conversation.
After talking with these young people, I can say with confidence that their generation is the most politically active since the 1960s. They understand how important population stabilization is to the survival of our species and the environment, and how it intersects with other social justice issues. They “walk the walk and talk the talk,” living their lives in ways that reflect their progressive values of fairness, equity, and respect for others.
We opened our conversation by sharing how we talk about Population Connection and its mission and programs to friends and family. Several staff pointed out that people who are unfamiliar with demographic trends don’t know why there’s a need to stabilize the population, and don’t realize that population growth has a negative impact on the planet and the other species that share it with us. Population Education Associate Isabelle Rios likes to ask the person she’s speaking with to guess how many people live on Earth. They are often shocked, she says, to learn that the current population is estimated at 7.6 billion, and that the median projection going out to 2050 is 9.8 billion.
Others emphasize the reproductive rights work of the organization. “I talk a lot about the environmental and sustainability issues. And when I explain to people that when you give women the rights they deserve, fertility rates naturally go down, they have that light bulb moment, connecting the environment and women’s rights,” says Ben Allen, Senior Education Fellow. “We have a special niche in this field, working at the intersection of public policy, grassroots advocacy, and education. Because of this, we’re able to spread our message widely and reach diverse communities.”
Our millennial staffers don’t shy away from the negative aspects of the history of the population movement. Most have had friends and colleagues immediately connect the word “population” with “population control.” Field Coordinator Lauren Salmiery says, “I really try to emphasize the voluntary aspect of access to reproductive rights.” Ben adds, “People are often discomfited by even the word ‘population,’ but I think we’re turning that perception on its head, and slowly making these issues familiar and mainstream in a productive way.”
Depending on the program they are working in, advocacy or education, our millennials tend to approach population issues from either the environmental or the reproductive rights perspective. But all of them understand that population is at the center of both perspectives. They also realize that population issues are nuanced, and don’t lend themselves to “black and white” solutions.
Finding Their Way to Population Connection
Our interviewees discovered Population Connection through various means. Advocacy Fellow Marcella Cage had recently earned her Master’s degree in Applied Global Practice when she listened to a TED Talk by Hans Rosling (1948–2017), a Swedish physician and academic who used statistics to illustrate global population growth and other indicators of health and development. That TED Talk left her wanting to learn more about the intersection between international development and population dynamics. She went “down the rabbit hole” of YouTube videos about population issues, which included a viewing of the famous Population Connection “dot video.”
“When I went to the Population Connection website,” she says, “I saw a lot about women’s rights and access to contraceptives.” Marcella saw that the organization’s values aligned with her own, and remembers thinking that Population Connection was “cool.” She applied for (and was offered) the fellowship position last fall.
Lauren Salmiery says she’s always been interested in reproductive rights, “pretty much forever.” Lauren first learned about human population pressures on the environment as a student at American University, when she took the course “The Honeybee and International Relations.” The course examined the relationship between bees and, among other things, the environment and sustainability, and brought home the importance of protecting environmental resources for future generations.
Isabelle Rios spent her childhood summers in the mountains in South America, mostly in Ecuador. “Just seeing what life was like there, I thought, ‘This is really different from my life in Brooklyn or St. Petersburg, Florida, when we moved there. It gave me a global perspective that not everyone lives the same.’ ” But, she says, she didn’t make the environmental connection to rapid population growth for a long time. That is, until courses she took in college on natural resources, the environment, and climate change led her to realize that “the missing piece was people and population growth.”
Isabelle learned about Population Connection when John Seager spoke at a GreenDrinks event in North Carolina, where she was working for AmeriCorps. John’s talk reinforced the “population connection” for her and raised the possibility that she could address her social and environmental concerns at one organization.
A presentation by John Seager was Ben Allen’s first exposure to the connection between population growth and global problems as well, in an evolutionary anthropology class at Duke University. He recalls, “I became very enchanted with the idea of coming at environmental questions from a different angle and a systemic level. I was already interested in environmental issues.”
During his year abroad in South Africa, Ben “saw a host of conservation issues in and around the national park that were deeply tied with the social issues of the area.” These real life examples of the “connection between the health, rights, and property of these communities,” and the conservation work at hand, made him “think more and more about the human ties and the effects of humans on the environment.” He quickly made the switch from thinking about a career in academia to one in environmental education and advocacy.
Education Program Associate Kate Anderson learned how the human population interacts with the environment in a high school AP science class. She remembers, “It was so awesome to learn about empowering women and helping the Earth. It’s a win-win situation.” Like Ben, Kate found her study abroad during college to be an enlightening experience. Living in Madagascar, she says, “I saw firsthand that there was a really high fertility rate, and not many opportunities for people — especially women.”
Kate witnessed the real impacts of high fertility when she and her colleagues would drive down the road and see forests burning to make space for cattle. She worked in a fishing village during that time, with a mentor who talked about the difficulty women had in accessing contraceptives. She realized that rapid population growth was connected not only with forest clearing for cattle, but with women’s reproductive health and rights. She says that she came to Population Connection because of her interest in the environment, but that it’s really important not to do just environment or reproductive rights and health.
Field Organizer Lindsay Apperson was involved in politics during her college career, as a supporter of nuclear nonproliferation and farm workers’ rights. Through a storytelling project, she raised awareness about the impact of nuclear testing on maternal health, which made her more interested in reproductive rights within that. A class on sexuality and citizenship that was activism based and focused on reproductive and child rights piqued her interest in the subjects even more.
Lindsay describes her search for an organization that addressed all of her primary interests: “I was really interested in international health and reproductive rights, and international development, in general. I was also really interested in grassroots activism. Population Connection is one of the only organizations where I can work on an international issue through domestic grassroots activism.”
Lindsay notes, “I feel like my generation was kind of apathetic; we’ve had so much congressional gridlock that it feels like we can’t really do anything. Millennials were pretty complacent until the last election, and that kind of woke people up. We’re seeing that we have to really stand up for these causes.”
A Promising Future
Young adults have always been the trendsetters, founding movements and setting the tone for social change. With ZPG/Population Connection it has been no different. When they were in their twenties, baby boomers spearheaded the zero population growth movement. Millennials now in their twenties are continuing it forward, putting human rights at the center of the work. We couldn’t be more proud to have this fine group of young adults engaging our activists, educating the country’s K–12 students on population concepts, and representing Population Connection at conferences, festivals, and congressional meetings.