Most of the United States-based environmental groups do acknowledge that human population growth is a contributing factor to environmental degradation and the strain placed on natural resources (see this blog post by the Natural Resources Defense Council, this blog post by Conservation International, this page on the World Wildlife Fund website, and this event description from The Nature Conservancy).
Some conservation organizations even have programs that address population in their lobbying efforts for more foreign assistance for international family planning (Sierra Club). Others have programs in biodiversity hotspots that work on conservation initiatives while simultaneously providing voluntary family planning education and services.
But just as climate change, wildlife protection, and deforestation aren’t the main focus of Population Connection—though we consider ourselves an environmental organization—human population growth isn’t the main focus of most conservation organizations.
Each organization and accompanying movement must stay focused in order to avoid “mission creep.” I give the environmental organizations the same pass I hope they and our environmentally-minded supporters give us for not focusing on plant-based diets or fracking—tackling too many issues dilutes the work to the point of ineffectiveness. Best to rely on each organization to do what it does best and not expect everyone to do everything.
Having said all of the above, it’s true that some environmental organizations used to be more outspoken about stabilizing human population than they are today. We have a few theories on what made them push that particular issue to the background in the last couple of decades:
- Human rights abuses — forced abortion and sterilization, demographic quotas, etc. — in China, India, Peru, and even North Carolina made people wary of coercive “population control.” So even though nearly all programs today are voluntary and exist to empower women (China being the known exception), skepticism surrounding population concerns remains. Just look at how Republican presidents have been able to cut off funding for UNFPA over the erroneous claim that the agency participates in coercive programs in China (a known falsehood).
- Anti-abortion zealots took over the political discussion about family planning in the United States and made every discussion about contraception seem like it was actually about abortion — even though restricting access to contraception increases abortion rates.
- Immigration became a major driver of U.S. population growth, making discussing population growth in the United States seem like a xenophobic exercise; in effect, population became synonymous with racism in some liberal camps.
The good news is that population is very much a discussion in countries that have rapid rates of population growth. You can see a list of countries that made increased commitments to funding family planning in their own countries at the London Summit on Family Planning in 2012 here. And nearly every country in the world financially supports UNFPA, even if their donations are so small as to be purely symbolic. After all, nobody knows better than the people who live in the least developed countries with the fastest-growing populations how important it is to stabilize the human population—for the sake of people and of the other species conservation organizations work to protect.