By Suzanne York,, May 30, 2012

During a week spent ensconced in the depths of the concept of degrowth at the Degrowth in the Americas conference, it was encouraging to find that population issues were interwoven  into plenaries and workshops throughout the week.  The issue is often viewed as taboo and/or the elephant in the room, yet it is a crucial part of a discussion framed around economics and planetary limits.

But first, a little bit about the idea of degrowth.  Though it has been talked about since the 1970s, it has been gaining in popularity since a 2008 meeting in Paris and 2010 in Barcelona.  There really isn’t one official definition, but most would agree that degrowth may be defined as an equitable down-scaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, both in the short and long term.  Stabilizing population growth and reducing human impact on the planet is a big part of this.

Joan Martinez-Alier, an economist and professor at Autonomous University of Barcelona, said in his plenary talk that the degrowth literature is not comfortable with discussing population.  In his opinion, people don’t want to be seen as “Malthusian.”  He felt that the degrowth movement should support women’s reproductive rights and build upon the idea of eco-feminism, based on works by Emma Goldman, Madeleine Pelletier, and Françoise d’Eaubonne in the 20th century.

Perhaps the most anticipated plenary speech was given by David Suzuki (picture above), the award-winning Canadian scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster.  He said that for most of human existence we were aware of our place in the natural world.  In 1900 there were only 1.5 billion people on the planet; today there are 7 billion.  Suzuki noted that there were never a billion mammals of any kind before (much less 7 billion). Due to technology and trade, we have broken this threshold.

William Rees, an ecologist and ecological economist, told the audience that continuous growth, whether it be population or economic, “is an anomaly”. Humans are biased toward unsustainable behavior; unless or until constrained by negative feedback, humans, like all other species, will expand to fill all accessible habitat and use all available resources.  We will push up against the carrying capacity of whatever environment in which we find ourselves.  The Living Planet Index reported a decline in the planet’s biodiversity of 28% from 1970 to 2008.  Rees, developer of the ecological footprint, said that about 80% of the human ecological footprint is attributable to high income consumers.  Rich countries have “a moral and ethical responsibility” to curb consumption.

Holly Dressel, an author and professor at McGill University, said bottom up population strategies are the only thing that really work in terms of stabilizing human population numbers. For 99% of human history, according to Dressel, population has been low and steady.  She noted that Indigenous communities learned how to live within their means and within what natural systems can produce.  Indigenous people can be seen as the original degrowth people, practicing restraint in terms of the number of children and management of their environment.

It’s crucial, Dressel said, that “any talk about limiting population has to come from women”, who have the most at stake. When women are allowed the choice things seem to get at least marginally better.

“We are a geological force on the planet,” Suzuki said, due to our numbers, technology, consumption levels, and intellectual muscle.  Despite this, “there is no way we can manage nature.”  The popular scientist ended his talk by saying that we don’t know enough to say it’s too late (for humans and the planet) and that “nature can surprise us and be far more forgiving than we deserve.”


Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies/

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