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Paul Ingles Talks With Peace Talks Radio Co-Founder Suzanne Kryder

SK: Hey Paul.

PI: People who have been listening to Peace Talks Radio for some time probably know that you and I were a couple. We were together for 20 years and married for 13 years and we had some personal history with this conversation about population because we had a very conscious conversation about whether or not to have children.

We did, and we talked to some of our friends who had children and did not have children. The ones with children said, “Oh yes, it’s great! You should have children.” The ones without children said, “Eh, don’t have kids.”

PI: It was a little confusing. We also noticed that our siblings had done quite a bit to populate the planet. What else was coming up?

Oh gosh, my age. I was turning 40 and I figured I needed to make a decision.

PI: I think we were also thinking, or I can speak for myself about where we were in our lives and whether we had the capacity to put the energy into raising kids. I can remember there were times when we said, “We can barely take care of ourselves.” Do you remember that?


PI: So, some of that thinking has led to, as we think about topics for Peace Talks Radio that you wanted to explore the conversation about population numbers and its relation to conflict on the planet and peacemaking. Tell me more about where you want to take this show.

Yes, the current population of the planet is about 7.5 billion and there is controversy on how many people the planet can hold. Some people say 4 billion, some people say 16 billion and I was curious about the individual versus the social issue.
There are two conflicts. People have to decide if they want a baby and what will the impact be on society. I guess I was looking for confirmation of our decision in a way, but I’ve also seen lots of other things happen to the planet like species extinction, climate change and I’m wondering; should the U.S. population be concerned about the population elsewhere.

PI: There was this very famous book written by Paul Ehrlich in 1968 call The Population Bomb that predicted a lot of calamity if people weren’t paying more attention to our procreation rate. As we started to explore this topic, I guess we both found that much of what was predicted in that landmark book didn’t come to pass, which kind of undercut the conversation a bit about concern over population. Is that fair to say?

Yes, and he, in his book predicts mass extinction due to starvation. Well, that didn’t happen, but it’s happening in some places. That’s why I wonder if we should care about some places and should we stop having so many babies. Do babies just consume more? It seems like if you have one baby it’s different than having 20 babies because babies would consume 20 times as much stuff. They’d have a car, they’d have a vacuum cleaner, they’d have lots of food and so I really wonder if we should keep having babies without thinking about it.

PI: As we’ve tried to line up guests, is it also fair to say that it was hard to find people who really wanted to talk about this issue?

I spent lots of time researching and looking on the internet for people who had written about population and peace. The closest I found was a report in 1984 and so that concerned me that no one currently is writing about it. In fact, there was one person who said, “The population and peace issue is the real inconvenient truth.

PI: We’re going to talk later about the woman who helped write that 1984 report, that’s Nazli Choucri. Who is our first guest?

Our first guest is John Seager. He’s the president and CEO of Population Connection which used to be Zero Population Growth; ZPG.

Suzanne Kryder Interviews John Seager, President/CEO of Population Connection

SK: John Seager, your work at Population Connection suggests that you have some concerns about population size maybe in the U.S. and globally, so briefly, what are your concerns?

Well, one has to go back a bit, say 160,000 years, but not for long. It took about 160,000 years for our species to get up to one billion people on this planet. Today we add another billion every dozen years or so.

Our population, the human population is growing rapidly and we’re having a real impact on this crowded planet that we share with so many other critters and of course, the rest of the members of our species. We think it’s a big challenge and we think there’s a very humane and sensible and common-sense ways of addressing it.

SK: When you say “impact,” give me the short list. What are a few impacts?

We are undergoing a vast species extinction, the likes of which has never been seen during our time on this planet. It has happened before, but that was before we showed up and evolved into homosapiens, so that’s one major impact that we’re having on all of the other species on this planet.

We’re having a great impact on the lives of the humans here. Some of us are doing quite well, but for billions of us, every day is a struggle; a struggle to get enough food to eat, a struggle to find clean water, a struggle simply to survive and those challenges become worse as we become more crowded.

SK: John, Paul Ehrlich wrote a book in 1968, The Population Bomb and he predicted things like mass starvation. He wasn’t exactly right about that. He didn’t get all of his projections exactly right, but I’m curious, what’s your opinion of his original book?

Well, Dr. Ehrlich, who then and now is a professor at Stanford is a scientist, not a soothsayer. Scientists work with the data they have. That’s all they can do. The data that he had available suggested that things were going to happen at a time and a pace that seemed coherent.

One of the things that occurred almost simultaneously with the publication of The Population Bomb was something called the “Green Revolution” which was spearheaded by, not alone, by a man named Norman Borlaug who deserves credit, he and his team, for saving the lives of about one billion people through enhanced agricultural practices. Just as the moment when that famine was unfolding, there was this dramatic development which certainly reduced the number of people who were impacted by those challenges.

But in turn, that Green Revolution has created a whole series of problems and challenges for us today in the form of climate change. That’s something that Dr. Ehrlich will tell you he didn’t see coming back then.

SK: How does the number of people in a given geographical area in the U.S., how does that impact the peace for the person individually and also for society in general?

It is a numbers issue, but it also has to do with how we live.

You can make a pretty good case that the most sustainable lifestyle in America today are the people who live on that island called Manhattan. They tend to live in small units. They share in common their open space. Most of them, sensibly, don’t own cars. Why would you want to own a car in Manhattan?

In many ways, you can have a very sustainable lifestyle in particular place with a pretty dense population. The challenge is that all of those people need to have enough food to eat, water to drink, we have to deal with issues like waste disposal.

It’s these challenges that come together, particularly in places that tend to be conflict-ridden. When you look at those conflicts, they almost always occur in places where there is intense life and death competition for scarce resources. It’s a combination of those things that creates the conflict, not just the density in a given place.

SK: Why is there an absence of current writing on this issue of population peace? I saw one writer refer to it as “the real inconvenient truth.”

When Dr. Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb back in 1968, he and his wife Ann cowrote it, he would tell you that when this book was published, the United States was undergoing a dramatic fertility transition.

Back in the 1950s, the average American family was about 3.7 children. It dropped by nearly 50% in just 20 years. We were undergoing this enormous change to smaller families ourselves and that helped people connect the personal with the global.

Now that Americans have smaller families, by and large, I think it’s more difficult for people because they look around their own communities, they look at their own lives and they say, “We’re already having smaller families. It seems like the problem has been fully addressed.” And yet, if you look at it globally, it hasn’t.

I think when you can’t connect what you see out your own window on a given day with a global challenge, it can be difficult to put it all together.

SK: There’s a website called “Small Families,” and they have a list of good reasons to have a child and bad reasons to have a child. One good reason is that they may have been an older child with no siblings and they want a lot of children. A bad reason was pressure to have kids. Society says, “That’s normal; we should all have children.” What are some other good or bad reasons to have a child, John?

If you and whoever else is your significant other, if you’re fortunate enough to have one, have room in your heart, have room in your wallet, have room in your home and want to have a child or more than one child, that’s wonderful! That’s great! We wouldn’t be talking today if somebody somewhere hadn’t made the decision to have children. I’m not going to come down hard on that.

The real issue isn’t that. It’s the fact that there are so many children born here in the United States and around the world who are unplanned and even more tragically, unwanted.

Dr. King wrote eloquently about this some 50 years ago when he talked about the fact that there are 400,000, back then, unwanted children born in the United States every year. That’s still true today. That’s the real tragedy.

I don’t see it as tragic if people want to make whatever choices they want to make as long as they have the capacity to do so. I’m not a professional busy-body and I try not to be one in my personal life either. It’s really a question of removing the barriers that enable people to fulfill their destinies, not trying to tell people what to do.

SK: Okay, so you’re saying that if people have the money and the heart, they can have 20 kids.

Well, first of all, I’ve been around this planet for a while and I’ve never had anyone ask me for my opinion. If ever they do, I’ll try to put one together. I think that when you look at the facts and you look at what we’ve learned, particularly over the last 50 years since say the publication of The Population Bomb, what we have learned in every society in every culture is that when women and couples have the information, have the access to services, have the education, by and large, they choose smaller families.

There’s nothing really to debate here. It’s just a question of removing the barriers that prevent people from doing that and if someone wants to exercise their right to have a larger family then that’s fine. One can’t very well be supportive of human rights and reproductive rights and then get irked when they don’t do what you think they should.

SK: I want your opinion though. I’m really asking for that. We’re a program about peace, so I’m curious; if I choose to have 20 kids, is that going to impact the peace of my neighbors or the people in the city that I live in or maybe the country I live in?

I don’t know. I guess it depends on your neighbors. You could probably ask them and see what they think about it.

What we have discovered though – I’ll give you a way of looking at this. Back when that book was published in 1968, there were about four countries on earth that were at or below what’s called “replace rate fertility.” That is to say, a couple has two kids essentially to replace themselves. Today, there are nearly 100. We’ve made incredible progress.
The key to that progress is to always, always refrain from telling other people what to do. I don’t really have an opinion on that because I can’t imagine anybody who would care what my opinion is. I don’t even care what my opinion is, I don’t know why anybody else would.

What we focus on is trying to remove those barriers that prevent people from fulfilling their own destinies. That’s enough to keep me busy all the time.

SK: John Seager, tell us more about what Population Connection is doing to address the population issue.

Population Connection, and I might use this occasion to mention that we were founded under the name Zero Population Growth. We changed our name about 15 years ago because the name was starting to sound a bit old frankly and we were trying to reach young people and the old name just didn’t seem to work with them.

What we do at Population Connection are two things. One, we engage in population education. We train about 12,000 kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers a year and we produce a full array of curriculum materials that’s used in about 50,000 schools all over the United States, most of them public schools I might note.

We have a network of 600 professional educators around the country who are volunteer teacher trainers. Many, but not all of them, are professors of education often at state universities who integrate our materials into their program for teachers in training.

We also offer in-service programs within school districts and the first step in that process is to get approval from the state. For example, we have the approval, for example, in the State of Texas, so we meet the state standards for in-service teacher education and we’re able to go to a school district and say here, we have some materials that fit state standards. We’re approved by the State of Texas to do this and we’re able to provide this to you.

We reach about three million school children a year. Our goal with that population education program is not to tell students what to think, but rather to get them to think about these things.

The other half of our work, equally important but quite different is grassroots advocacy on behalf of international family planning because we see that as one of the best ways to meet the challenges that we face on this planet.

SK: John, you talked about education that you all do at Population Connection and I’m curious if you get any pushback from school boards saying no, you can’t bring that curriculum because it’s social engineering.

With our population education program, we make sure that every single piece of material that we produce meets state education standards. For example, if a school board member or a parent or a teacher or anyone in Colorado or Alabama or North Dakota were to look at one of our informational pieces and say well, wait a minute, why is this being presented in a classroom in my state? We can show them the state standards that we follow in terms of developing our material.

The key with our materials is that they are issue neutral. We stick to the facts. We’re not trying to sell a program in schools. We’re trying to get students to think about the implications that are involved with population growth. We don’t want to tell them what to think. If we can just succeed in getting students to think, we will have accomplished our education mission.

Suzanne Kryder Interviews Nazli Choucri, Political Science Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

SK: Dr. Choucri, I read your report online. It was published in 1984 about population conflict. It was so hard for me to find other resources that are even more current on population conflict. I saw one guy wrote actually, “This is really the inconvenient truth; that no one is talking about or writing about the impact of population size on peace.” How do you feel about this? What’s going on?

NC: I think it is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable, but it’s not just size, it’s when people cross borders to areas where they meet communities or cultures that are not their own. The reason I keep saying, “It’s not just size” is because if you look at Europe, they really are having trouble reproducing themselves so to speak.

I remember years ago just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, I was looking at some data trends on fertility in the Soviet Union as a whole and the trend was going up and then it kind of curved and went down and I looked at this and said, “My god! What’s going on here?” And then we got the breakup of the Soviet Union. I don’t say it’s a cause and effect, but I do say that population trends give us a signal as to what the impact might be. It’s kind of an advanced notice.

SK: So, it’s uncomfortable to talk about population and peace, but it sounds like size is not the only issue. You’re not as concerned about size.

NC: No, I’m not.

SK: Particularly in the U.S., you’re not really concerned. People can just keep having babies and you don’t care about the size?

NC: They’re not really (having too many babies). I haven’t looked at the U.S. statistics recently, but they’re not out of line. We wouldn’t target the U.S. as a major problem size-wise. We may target it as a major problem in terms of what people are doing; their consumption patterns. Still, too many bottles are being thrown away, etc., but size per say, at least that’s my take on it. Because in the back of my mind, I multiply size by level of economic development or the type of behavior that the society has, etc.

SK: But let me push you on this because consumption relates to size.

NC: Absolutely! Absolutely consumption relates to size. So, in the United States, that consumption is still, although given the changes we’ve seen, we’re trying to be cleaner and smarter and leaner, but still a lot of guck comes with the consumption. We may have half of the guck, but wouldn’t it be terrific if industry responded a little bit faster?

The challenge now, back to the India case, will they be able to steer their own growth or their own development or their own improvement in the human condition without having to have a whole set of high rise buildings, without having to reproduce, the way you mentioned earlier,the model of successful industrial realities that we have in the West. At least I hope so.

Now let me give you a plug for the U.S. system, not that you need one. As I look around, the backlash that we’ve seen in many of the European countries against reacting against the refugees, even reacting against their long-term migrants, that have been there for decades, to me has been really quite shocking.

In the United States, diversity is not something we dislike. At least in principle, we honor diversity. We accept it. The Statue of Liberty view is far from dead. It’s sometimes maybe a little bit subdued, but it’s still the dominant, dominant ethos. It’s not so in Europe. It’s not so. What this means for the Europeans, if they don’t want to throw all those migrants and refugees out, they’re going to have to go through some cultural adjustments, both the refugees
themselves and the mainline Europeans to accept diversity as normal and not as a pathology. That sounds like as if I’m preaching. I really am not. I’m thinking pragmatically from their point of view.

SK: Dr. Nazli Choucri, I’ve seen in several reports this quote: “Population size and growth, crowding and density alone do not lead to violence.” Do you agree?

NC: I agree, but actually, once there is crowding and once there is density then conditions lead to tempers regardless of what the situation is on the ground and that leads to social conflicts and social violence, but density per say, not necessarily.

SK: So, how dense can it be?

NC: Well, it’s in relation to how many people, in the relation to the food available to them, in relation to the quality of the air, in relation to a whole set of living conditions. It’s very hard to come up with a number, but it becomes much easier to understand tensions that arise when you put the people in the particular context that they have.

SK: Many people feel that population problems are only about births and deaths, but there’s also demographic changes. How so?

NC: In the old days, really old days, we used to think it was births and deaths, but the migration movement, the voluntary movement or refugees, the age of the population distribution meaning very many young people are not or the aging of the population which is Europe’s problem and the problem of Russia.

It is also whether societies have enough births to reproduce themselves over time. These are problems that we really never thought we would have when we talk about population 10, 20, 30 years ago.

SK: You mentioned several things. Define migrant versus refugee for us.

NC: Well, generally it’s useful to think about migrants, people moving voluntarily in search of employment or in search of being with their families or in search of a better life. The key element being it’s really voluntary. Now you might say, well, if they’re looking for jobs elsewhere, it’s really not voluntary because they don’t have a job at home, but there is no gun to their head so to speak. The refugees are people who move to really save their own lives. And we
see what’s happening in Europe and the border between North Korea and China and recently in Myanmar. This is really a set of very, very sad situations.

SK: If we look at migrants versus refugees, I’m curious, which one impacts population and peace the most?

NC: It’s hard to say. I want to add one more part to your question. In the very short run, the refugees are a consequence of conflict. There is conflict, so they move out. They can impact a receiving community as we may be seeing in Bangladesh on short order. The migrants, when people move, it’s more subtle. I would use the European situation there when people move for employment from a non-European country to France or to Germany or whatever. Over time,
given the number of people and so forth, they tend to find it difficult to integrate in the society and they become strangers in the land where many of them have been born. The ways in which different societies deal with this, the way that different migrant communities deal with this could lead to violence, but not necessarily to military conflict, if you wish. It’s interesting to see what’s going to happen in Europe because this is really a test case.

SK: Dr. Choucri, you’ve mentioned before that the U.S. is really a leader in sustainable development. I’m curious, because we’re seeing Houston and Florida and these hurricanes and maybe in those cities there wasn’t great planning. I’m curious, it seems like there are some lessons that the U.S. still needs to learn about managing its own population.

NC: Oh, absolutely. The irony in the U.S. is that the leadership in sustainable development is more from the private sector, not from the government itself. I think the private sector sees the opportunities in getting in there. Here’s the dilemma we have. On the one hand we don’t want an overbearing government that goes into planning. On the other hand, we really need
somebody planning since we know there’s another hurricane coming down. It’s being caught between a rock and a hard place and the rocks are flying all over the place.

Just to add one more thing and this is that the U.S. government itself does not either use the phrase “sustainable development” or doesn’t consider that as part of the core values. It’s not that it’s against it. It’s simply not part of what society is and the M.I.T. campus is, (what) the private sector that is producing innovative products is, and all of those involved in the internet related economies. There is leadership in this respect. So, there we are.

Paul Ingles talks more with co-host Suzanne Kryder

PI: Suzanne, we heard a little bit from John and Nazli. What about what they had to say about population numbers and peacemaking answered your question about whether you and I, when we decided not to have children many years ago when we were together, was answered?

These guests and the reading I did, did not confirm our decision and I disagree still because I feel like you and I made the right decision. I feel like people are sometimes driven to have children and we weren’t, neither one of us was. I don’t feel like we should have children just because there is social pressure to have kids. Then those kids have kids and their kids have kids and it just keeps going. I wanted our decision to be confirmed, but I don’t think it was, but I don’t think it was wrong frankly.

PI: To be clear, a lot of our listeners will hear that and say, Suzanne thinks that nobody should have kids.

I’m not for total extinction. I’m not for complete extinction. There is a movement called Human Extinction and I’m not for that and…. I don’t know who should be having kids. I’ll say that, but I feel like the planet has too many people.

As a person who has a background in health education, I firmly believe that many of our health problems; poverty, food, violence, healthcare, I just feel like so many problems are because we have too many people. I feel like there are too many people on the planet. I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. I was hoping to speak with someone who would confirm my beliefs, but I don’t think I did and I’m really concerned about that frankly.

PI: If you listeners and readers have ideas on this issue, you can contact us at Maybe we’ll revisit this in a future program.