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Author Talks About Consequences of Population Control and Climate Crisis

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Author, Jade Sasser, joined Midday Edition to talk about why she feels population control is ineffective at reducing greenhouse emissions or saving resources.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 When we talk about climate change, one controversial solution that comes up is population control. The idea is slowing population growth could curb carbon emissions and ensure resources and the environment stay viable, but not everyone agrees with that perspective. Some say it has consequences. Jade Sasser is an associate professor of gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. She spent more than a decade studying the topic and put her findings in a book called on infertile ground from one jade to another. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for having me. So the focus of your book is where reproductive rights, women's rights, race and climate change all meet. And what ways do all of these issues intersect? Well, the primary way that their interests acting right now is with this whole issue of weather and how addressing population growth would be a good way to prevent or reverse the effects of climate change.

Speaker 1: 00:59 Those that make that argument are a part of a long lineage of people who argue that our global population growth rate is a direct driver of large scale environmental problems. So this is everything from air pollution, water pollution, food, uh, shortages, food insecurity, uh, and more recently issues like climate change. The argument tends to go that those with the highest birth rates should have the strongest interventions to reduce those birth rates. And those were the highest birth rates tend to be the poorest, um, whether it's the poorest in a local community, the poorest in a nation or the poorest in the world. Hmm. And so what do statistics show in terms of those birth rates and countries that are producing the most greenhouse gases? The countries that are producing the most greenhouse gases are the countries with the lowest birth rates. And so this is why trying to address population growth in order to address climate change, it just doesn't work.

Speaker 1: 02:06 It's not the number of people on the planet that is causing the problem, but what's causing the problem of climate change is the way that we structure our economies around fossil fuels. So the extraction, the production, the use of oil, of natural gas, um, uh, fossil fuels in general. This is what has been driving climate change for decades. It's not simply the number of people on the planet. And yet there is, there's at least one study out there that suggests having fewer children is one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And along with living without a car and avoiding airplane travel. How do you respond to that? So at the time that I was doing the research for my book, which was, it began in around 2009, 2010, there was a group of scientists that were really concerned with making link between population and climate change.

Speaker 1: 03:02 And they wanted to produce scientific evidence to show that this was in fact a direct link. A lot of what they did was they produced these projections of the future. So, um, I don't know if you or the listeners have ever seen these growth curves that depict where our population will be in the future or where, you know, the global, uh, temperature will be in the future, but it's always this smooth curve that goes up and up and up. And the thing is, a projection is not a forecast of what will actually happen. It's not a prediction. It is a forecast of what might happen if certain conditions are met. And there are many ways that you can ask questions that can produce a forecast. But I'm saying all of this to say that when we see this scientific evidence that's based on forecasts of future population growth and future greenhouse gases, these are not actually predictions of what will happen in the future.

Speaker 1: 04:06 They're possibilities if certain kinds of conditions are met. In terms of the question of unsustainable population growth, yes, we do have unsustainable population growth, but it's unsustainable because, um, it's a reflection of the gross inequalities that people are living with, uh, in dire poverty. So Do, do you think family planning could be one tool to address climate change? Well, here's the thing again, the countries that are producing the highest rates of emissions are those countries that have the lowest population growth. So let's look at the u s and China. These are the two countries that produce the most greenhouse gas emissions every year. These two countries have two of the lowest population growth rates in the world. China has a fertility rate of 1.62 which means that the average couple will have 1.62 children over the course of their lifetime, meaning they will not replace themselves.

Speaker 1: 05:03 The United States. More recently we've seen these statistics. We are at an all time low with our birth rates in this country. We are down to 1.72 and the numbers haven't been that low in many decades in this country. Um, yet these are the two countries that produce most of the greenhouse gases. So what I'm saying is if we distributed more contraceptives in the u s and China, it would not have an impact on climate change because it wouldn't mean that we would be emitting fewer emissions. Why is the idea of population control so seductive to so many groups of people? I think it's seductive because it seems like it just makes sense. It sounds like common sense. If there is a growing number of people and a not growing a share of resources that those people need to live on, it makes sense to believe that those people will overrun those resources.

Speaker 1: 05:57 But what that doesn't take into account is the endless ways that human communities tend to innovate through science and technology and also just doesn't take into account movement. People Migrate, people move into new spaces, people adapt and change their practices in terms of resource consumption. So the simplistic framing that says that more people will consume more resources in the same way and therefore deplete the earth. It just isn't based on actual facts. However, I do want to say that you have to look at this issue of scale. So if you're talking about population growth in a local scale, in a local community with local context, then sure population can grow to a size where it's unsustainable in terms of a use or depletion of local resources, but it's not the case on a global scale. So if not population control, what would your solution be to climate change?

Speaker 1: 07:00 My solution to climate change is to change the ways in which we extract and use energy. I think it has become a really, really clear, this is no longer an era where we can rely on fossil fuel production. We really need to turn to alternative energy sources, wind, solar. Um, I think China in fact, is the leading investor nationally in alternative energy production because the Chinese government understands that relying on fossil fuels a, it's just not sustainable where, you know, some argue that we have already reached peak oil, uh, in terms of how much oil we're pulling out of the earth, but it's also just not sustainable in terms of wanting to breathe clean air, um, and turn back the tide on climate change. In order to do that, we really need to develop sustainable, clean energy solutions. I've been speaking with Jade Sasser, associate professor of gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside and author of on, in fertile ground. Jade, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.