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Q&A with population expert John Seager

The Devils took down the Florida State Seminoles, previously undefeated in the ACC, Saturday at Indoor Cameron Stadium
The Devils took down the Florida State Seminoles, previously undefeated in the ACC, Saturday at Indoor Cameron Stadium

As the global population continues to increase rapidly, the earth and its resources will struggle to sustain the entirety of the human race, said John Seager, the president and CEO of Population Connection. The nonprofit seeks to educate people about global population issues and advocate for family planning and the empowerment of women. The Chronicle’s Jack Mercola spoke with Seager about population growth and resource distribution as well as America’s role in helping to solve these issues.

The Chronicle: What’s the difference between the earth’s capacity and what the earth is able to support?

John Seager: Right now we’re in an age of overshoot. We want to use and are using resources up at a rate faster than they can be naturally replenished. It’s a little like those cartoons with Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote where Wile E. Coyote runs out over the edge of the cliff.

As a cartoon, of course, he’s fine until he looks down and realizes he’s over the edge. We’re kind of out over the edge of the cliff in terms of the rate at which we are using certain natural resources and also the rate at which we are pumping certain pollutants into the air.

The best work on this in my view is done by a professor at Rockefeller University named Joel Cohen. He wrote a book called “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” The conclusion he came to was that there is no answer to that question. Or, more specifically, to answer that question requires asking two other questions: One, how do you want to live? And, two, how do you want everyone else to live—the other humans, the other critters and generations to come? If everybody ate the typical American diet, two billion of the world’s seven billion would eat, and five billion would not. If everyone ate the typical diet of the Indian subcontinent—lots of rice, vegetables and a little bit of animal protein—there would be enough calories produced to feed all seven billion. If we all wanted to live like the very poorest people do in East Africa, with the resources we produce now, we could support 40 billion people. It depends how we want to live and how we want other people to live.

TC: So is overpopulation more related to density of people or distribution of resources?

JS: Population density in a given location is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a great thing. You can make a pretty good case that the most sustainable human environment in the U.S. is the island of Manhattan—people tend to live in small units, they generally don’t have a car, they use public open spaces, they walk or take mass transit, stores they need tend to be within a few blocks.

So, when you think about sustainability, that prototypical farmhouse out in Vermont may be nice, but sustainability and density can go hand-in-hand. Now, on the other hand, you could take all seven billion of us and fit us into Los Angeles County, if we wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. But heaven forbid one of us got thirsty, or had to use the bathroom, or got hungry? All of a sudden, you have a problem.

TC: Are you saying that the relative distribution of resources plays a bigger role than the density of people?

JS: You can certainly make a case that what we have are distribution problems, but that’s like telling the miners trapped underground in Chile several years ago that there was plenty of oxygen to go around, but there was a distribution problem. Distribution problems are not small problems.

For example, there are areas of Africa where millions of people experience great water scarcity. And we can tell them, “Hey, we’ve got plenty of water in the Great Lakes.” But moving fresh water from one continent to another is no small task.

TC: What role does the United States play in population control of the global population?

JS: I just want to be clear here. From our perspective, we’re never looking at this in the context of population control.

TC: Sorry, I misspoke.

JS: No don’t worry. It’s a good word to bring up because it’s a good word to focus on. There was at one time a sentiment that this was about controlling people. Our sentiment is that this is about empowering people—never coercing anybody, but rather, creating opportunities for people.

The United States has been and remains the leading international funder of family planning programs. We put about $615 million per year into them. This program was begun by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who also started the EPA. And 40 years ago, this issue had strong bipartisan support. Over the decades, it has become something of a political football. We’ve seen this dramatic shift in the political landscape.

TC: Now Population Connection and its goals lay on the left side of the American political theater?

JS: I don’t think we moved to the left so much as the landscape moved so that we sit there.

I would like nothing more than to see both political parties competing to show how much they can do for this issue. We’re a non-partisan organization. But that’s not the case right now. There are a few Democrats who are on the other side of the fence and a few Republicans who are on our side of the fence, but for the most part, it is a political football.

I like the word “connection,” because people connect to this issue in many places. For some people, the primary concern is the environment. There are also people who understand this issue’s importance because they’re concerned about global security.

Seventeen of the 20 states that are generally described as “failed states” around the world are experiencing rapid population growth. If you look at some of the hottest places in the Middle East, you have an enormous number of people competing for a limited number of resources. The issue is that, though some of those governments are strong and functioning, others are not so much, such as Syria at the moment.

One of the things [this overpopulation] means, is that [these failed states] have an enormous youth bulge. Often, there are enormous numbers of reasonably well-educated young men who cannot find jobs. It’s usually those young men on the streets rioting. The rioting leads to upheaval.

A U.N. official once said that when you’re poor and you run out of food, you have three choices: One, you can starve. I think most of us, when given that choice will ask to hear the other two choices. Two is to migrate. There are all kinds of problems with that. Often, the only place to migrate to is another place in Africa where conditions are as bad as the original location. And you may be surrounded by people you don’t know. Three is to revolt or take some extralegal action. There is no fourth option…. So there are people across the political spectrum who care about this.

TC: What programs does the U.S. implement exactly?

JS: About 10 percent of our money goes to the U.N. They, in turn, run programs around the world. The other 90 percent goes to what we call “bilateral assistance,” which is provided to a recognized organization that works in the field. They work all over the world, from Thailand to Ethiopia to Guatemala—specifically to educate women, men and couples. And we provide them with contraception.

TC: How do the goals of Population Connection affect the education status of women, and vice-versa?

JS: If I could do one thing to transform to world, beyond the obvious world peace and harmony forever, I would ask that every woman on earth had education so that she may function as an independent and successful woman in the world. The challenge there is that it’s not inexpensive. It costs roughly ten times as much to educate a woman for a year than it costs to provide a year’s worth of contraception. Sometimes, governments are placed in a position where they must decide between education for women and contraceptives.


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