Don’t Control Population this Way

There are many ways to decrease human numbers, and most of them should be shunned. Indeed, some of them are quite horrifying. In this and subsequent columns I’ll write about some of them.

It has been more than 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, but it stands out in my mind as the worst episode of human slaughter in recent history. Estimates of the number of people killed in a terrible 100-day period range from 1/2 million to a million. The population of Rwanda at that time was less than 8 million; a huge proportion of this small country’s people killed each other. In addition, an estimated 2 million were displaced or fled the country.

Genocide is the intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Theories about the causes of genocide include tribalism, autocratic rulers and lack of resources. An article about this genocide, “Remember Rwanda” by James Gasana was published in WorldWatch. Gasana is Rwandan and had held 2 different cabinet positions in that country. In this article he noted that murder was common where people went to bed hungry.

In 1994 Rwanda had an almost entirely agricultural economy and was overpopulated. As the population rose the size of landholdings shrank and the overworked land became less productive. Even if people wanted to limit their fertility, the predominant religion, Roman Catholicism, preached against “artificial” contraception.

That is in the past. With international help and amazing resilience, the Rwandan people have put that terrible part of their history behind them. However, another country appears to be enduring a religiously motivated genocide. The Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma) are both an ethnic minority and, as Muslims, have different religious beliefs from the Buddhist majority.

Genocide Watch lists 10 stages that are seen in preparation for and carrying out a genocide: Classification, Symbolization, Discrimination, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Persecution, Extermination and Denial. Most of these stages can be seen with the treatment of the Rohingyas.

Although they live in Myanmar, the Rohingyas aren’t allowed citizenship classification. While they are not forced to wear identifying symbols, their freedom is restricted in other ways. They must live in ghettoes and are restricted by curfews–organization and polarization. Mobs attack Rohingya settlements while officials offer no protection–preparation. “Security” forces have killed thousands of Rohingyas while others have been tortured, “disappeared” or have suffered rape–extermination. The country admits to no wrongdoing–denial.

Perhaps the most dire of the measures against the Rohingyas is limitation of their reproductive rights. While there is no limitation on other people in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are only allowed to have two children. Apparently the Muslims tend to have larger families than the Buddhists in the same area. The state officials’ reason for this limitation is to “…ease tensions between Buddhists and their Muslim Rohingya neighbors.” Even if this is the true motivation, legislating the number of children in a family is wrong.

Unfortunately, Myanmar and Rwanda are not unique; there are many historical examples of peoples being singled out and exterminated. In the chapter on genocide, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things” tallies an estimated 32 million deaths from genocides in the past 3 millennia. This includes a huge but unknown number of indigenous people killed in the Americas when we Europeans invaded.

Currently there are several countries where genocide is happening or is very likely. These include South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which have unstable governments and terrible records of civil rights.

What can we do to prevent genocide? In “Warning Signs of Genocide: an anthropological perspective” Drs. Gene and Barbara Anderson state that the most important protection against genocide is critical thinking–the process of independently analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information as a guide to behavior and beliefs. They have written a second book, “Halting Genocide in America”, in which they are concerned that some people in the USA are already taking steps along the road to genocide.

Genocide is perhaps the most vicious way to slow population growth, but there are several others on my list of means to reject. Nature tends to limit populations with disease and famine, over which we have only limited control. Some other ways of slowing growth are imposed by people and governments. These include eugenics, family size coercion, war, gun violence, and the Voluntary Extinction Movement. More about them in future essays.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

The graph to the left shows a remarkable dip in the population of Rwanda, with the lowpoint in 1995. The numbers on the vertical axis are population in 1000s. Remember that population figures are approximate–especially in a less developed country.

Note the decrease started before the genocide, as people started to emigrate; and also note that the genocide didn’t seem to cause a permanent decrease in Rwanda’s population.

Update: Although this essay was written in 2015, I never published it on the blog. Since then I have been in Rwanda and witnessed both the horror of the genocide and also resilience of these wonderful people.


Take this Survey

            Most surveys that come online seem to just be gimmicks to get me interested in a cause, then ask me for money. This survey won’t ask for money—just for your opinion on human population, consumption and endangered species.

            The Center for Biological Diversity has more people working on issues of human population than any other environmental organization in the USA. They are also working on sustainability, a closely related goal. It is estimated that a human population of 2 or 3 billion could be sustained by our planet’s resources. Of course, with a current population of 7 3/4 billion people we are far into overshoot.

The main thrust of the Center is to protect Earth’s biological diversity. They have their work cut out for them. According to a recent report from the UN, an estimated million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction in the coming decades!

The Center uses the Endangered Species Act to protect imperiled plants and animals in the USA. Their chief strategy is to protect the habitat that these species need. There is also a large group working on climate law; remember that the climate crisis is caused by overpopulation (and overconsumption). Climate change is anthropogenic, and is one of the major factors causing loss of species.

Fortunately, the Center has recognized the connection between extinction of species and human population. I keep wondering why all environmental organizations don’t see this relationship. Are they afraid that they will lose supporters? Or do religious groups pressure the environmentalists to not wander into the field of contraception and abortion?

Seven years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity surveyed people to determine their attitudes on population. Currently they are performing a similar survey now to see if attitudes have changed, and they would like your input. Some of the current questions are the same as in 2013; it will be interesting to see if the answers are different.

Here is an example of a question from the first survey that was not repeated in the 2nd:

“Have you personally seen human population growth harming the environment, or not?”

Almost half of 657 respondents (who were all registered voters) said that they had seen this effect on the environment, and the same percentage responded that they had not.

            Here is a question from the old survey that is repeated in the current one:

“If widespread wildlife extinctions were unavoidable without slowing human population growth, do you think our society has a moral responsibility to address the problem, or not?”

In 2013 sixty percent of people responded “yes” to this question, 31% said “no” and 8% were “not sure”. It will be interesting to see if there is a shift in people’s answers to this question.

            Here’s some information for social science geeks: The 2013 survey was done by landline telephone and contacted a random sample of registered voters. The current methodology is different. It is online, and will have two samples. One is randomly selected and the other is a convenience sample—people like you and me who were not randomly selected. The Center plans to report out the findings of these two samples separately.

If you live in the USA and would like to take the survey, here is the url: 

I also recommend checking out the Center’s population programs. First go to, then click on “Programs” at the top. As you scroll down the “Population and Sustainability” page you will see several links, including to their Endangered Species Condoms. There’s a place to sign up for Pop X, the monthly newsletter “…that examines the connection between unsustainable human population, overconsumption and the extinction of plants and animals around the world.”

My purpose for writing these essays on population hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years. I want to stay positive, since limiting one’s fertility is already a goal of millions of women both here and worldwide. Another goal is to present people with actions they can take to slow population growth. Most of all, I want to keep human population in people’s minds as an issue with a solution. The Center’s survey will help me and them learn what people are thinking about population. I will be able to target my essays more accurately. The Center doesn’t want to be the sole environmental organization working in the field of population. The survey will help them understand better how to get more members of the environmental community to consider population when addressing the extinction crisis.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2020