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Why the media doesn’t talk about population

In past decades, “population control” and “overpopulation” were at the tip of everyone’s tongues. So why don’t we talk about population anymore?

Last week, I was lucky enough to travel to Washington, DC to pick up EarthSky’s award for “Best Radio Show” from the Population Institute’s 30th Annual Global Media Awards. You don’t hear much in the media about population issues. EarthSky has been covering population for years, based on our fearless leader, Deborah Byrd’s belief that population is the foundation for many of the world’s sustainability issues.

At EarthSky, we talk mainly about population dynamics – how human population grows, lives, and impacts the world. But population is also about slowing down the rate of population growth. In past decades, “population control” and “overpopulation” were at the tip of everyone’s tongues. People were concerned about the world filling up, and food and resources running out. Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb was a bestseller.

So why don’t we talk about population anymore? This question was posed by the filmmaker Robert Stone, whose documentary “EarthDays” won the award for best film.

Michelle Goldberg, author and awardee for her book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World answered, that’s because Paul Erlich’s predictions were disproved and discredited. Somewhere along the way, population became not the big deal that it once was.

Today, the discussion around population is much different. It’s evolved from population control – which feminists say viewed women as carriers for a worldwide disease – to women’s rights, empowerment, and education. Giving women choices in their lives, including the ability to choose the size of their families, has been shown to lead to smaller families and declining fertility rates – not to mention better lives for women around the world.

This all comes under the heading of “family planning.” Family planning involves controversial questions about birth control, abortion, culture, and human rights. Family planning services have come under repeated attack by religious leaders and politicians, with US funding for women’s health in developing countries being revoked or restored depending on the political affiliation of the American president. For these reasons, Grist’s David Roberts has called population “political poison” – and refuses to write or talk about it.

Roberts’ declaration motivated John Feeney (winner of the Media Outreach award) to start Global Population Speakout, an event that encourages people to write and talk about population. But just how to do this? There is no consensus about the best way to get people talking about population once again. A heated debate was sparked between the award winners, when a long-time feminist stated that we can’t talk about population unless we talk about abortion. Many among the collection of academics and journalists disagreed, saying that abortion alienates the public.

Sure, everyone can agree that a woman should be empowered to make her own choices, but can we agree that it is her right to safely terminate a pregnancy she didn’t choose? In a word, no.

Understanding the history, forces, and issues of population is not an easy thing to do, and communicating about it – in a way that would appeal to a mainstream audience – is difficult. But still, there’s that belief that population underlies all those issues that we do talk about, those issues we have resolved to solve. So we have to keep talking about it. And we will.

Take a listen to some of our population-related podcasts: economic challenges for the world’s aging population, how to feed an estimated 9 billion people in 2050, and how climate change will influence human migration.

Lindsay Patterson

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