We Need to Talk About Overpopulation: An Interview with Nandita Bajaj

Nandita Bajaj is the Executive Director of Population Balance, a non-profit organization that educates about—and offers solutions to address—the impacts of human overpopulation and overconsumption on the planet, people, and animals. A humane educator and a passionate advocate for planetary health, Nandita’s area of interest is on the intimate links between pronatalism, anthropocentrism, and overpopulation and their impacts on human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation. Previously, she was a high school science and math teacher and administrator for 12 years in Toronto. She also serves as a Board member for the Canadian Society for Humane Science. She recently completed her M.Ed. degree from the Institute of Humane Education (IHE) through our partnership with Antioch University. She will be joining us as an adjunct faculty member in 2022 to teach her course, “Pronatalism and Overpopulation.” 

IHE: Nandita, you have become committed to exploring the impacts of pronatalism and have been embedding the issue of human population growth ever more deeply into humane education. What inspired you to devote so much thought and time to this particular issue?

Nandita: I became aware about the human overpopulation issue about a decade ago when I met my husband, Mike. We shared the same love for minimalism, environmental advocacy, and philosophy. Early on in our relationship we chatted about the decision to have kids, and we both decided that wasn’t in line with our passions and advocacy work. Ironically for me, I had grown up in India, the second most populous country in the world, and I had not made that connection until our discussion about children.

About five years ago, I came across the work of Laura Carroll (The Baby Matrix), Dr. Amy Blackstone (Childfree by Choice), and Maxine Trump (To Kid or Not to Kid). Each of their works illuminated the various aspects of pronatalism, which is a set of social beliefs, assumptions, and forces across different cultures that pressure people, especially women, into having children. 

I became deeply engrossed in the pronatalism research from that point onward and learned just how pervasive pronatalism is in our culture. Current social and political pronatalist norms promote motherhood as a necessary part of a woman’s normal adult role. The idea that all women want to be – and should be – mothers undermines fully-informed and free decision-making about having children. There is sufficient research to support that not everyone has a biological drive to have children, but the social bias is so strong that we are made to believe that our desire to procreate is not only natural, but also universal. Cultural notions of the biological clock, the maternal instinct, and masculine virility perpetuate these pronatalist pressures and prevent an authentic discussion around family choices. This bias is perpetuated by religious leaders as well as growth-based economists and politicians. These pressures are a source of much confusion, suffering, as well as reproductive and social injustice around the world for adults and children alike. Pronatalism is also at the heart of our unchecked population growth.

IHE: You’ve developed an elective course for IHE’s graduate program on this issue. Can you tell us about it?

Nandita: For years, I had been deeply concerned about the impacts of overpopulation on the planet, animals, and people. Human population has doubled in the last 50 years, growing from approximately four billion in 1970 to almost eight billion currently. During that same time period, consumption has skyrocketed. For example, global meat consumption has more than tripled. Yet, there continues to be much silence around discussing and addressing overpopulation. My journey into pronatalism helped me understand this silence, and that’s where the idea for my course, “Pronatalism and Overpopulation: The Personal, Cultural, and Global Implications of Having a Child,” was born. 

The course is designed with both a personal and global focus, and we explore the different manifestations of pronatalism and population growth within our own lives and also in communities around the world. We also look at the impact of these pressures on people, animals, and ecosystems. We explore the complex history of population policies and initiatives, as well as the sensitivity that broaching this subject requires. In true humane education fashion, each strand in the course is peppered with skills and knowledge to affect both personal changes and system changes within students’ spheres of influence.

This past summer I piloted the course with a group of eight IHE faculty and students. This group represented a diverse set of family configurations – biological families, adoptive families, families without children by choice or by chance, and families with nonhuman animals. Despite our varied backgrounds and experiences, we were able to come together to speak about these sensitive topics in ways we never could have imagined. I am very excited about offering this course, the first of its kind, through IHE in January.

IHE: There is great concern about the negative impacts of declining population growth in a number of countries on their economies and on their elderly populations. Can you speak to these concerns? How can we ensure that declining population growth doesn’t have harmful unintended consequences?

Nandita: There is no dearth of media reports on “baby bust” alarmism. Such reports perpetuate the narrative that our economies and elderly-care costs will greatly suffer if we don’t keep adding more people. Certainly, we have to ensure that with what is ultimately a necessary reduction in population, we attend to the challenges that will arise, but the current alarmist narrative assumes a model of perpetual population growth on a planet with finite resources. We must remember that with population growth comes environmental degradation; habitat loss and destruction of other species; increased global warming and frequency of climate-related disasters such as fires, floods, droughts, coral bleaching, melting glaciers, and desertification; increased vulnerability to pandemics and epidemics; as well as an increased vulnerability to global supply shocks.

Let’s remember, we are adding about 80 million people a year, which is about 1 million people every five days. While the global fertility rate has halved from an average of about 5 children per woman to about 2.5 children per woman since 1950, we have three times as many people giving birth today, meaning we are adding to our numbers faster than ever and are on pace to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100, according to UN projections. All this would be less problematic if our current 7.9 billion wasn’t already consuming more resources than the Earth can sustainably provide.

Several studies have shown that in the countries that have aged the most, there has been no shortage of workers. Instead of less employment, they have less unemployment and underemployment, with Japan being a prime example. Entering a phase of zero growth and then a slow decline is a sign of progress and prosperity, and should be embraced as such. It signifies a society where people, especially women, have increased reproductive autonomy, and there is a greater focus on the individual wellbeing of the citizens as well as the planet. This phase of population decline is fairly new for humanity, and as such we need new ways of thinking in order to develop and adopt alternative economic models that recognize we live on a planet of finite resources and that respect natural limits to growth. 

IHE: As you well know, discussions about population can be fraught. Many people in wealthy countries talk about how people in poorer countries should stop having so many children. The response is often that a single child in a wealthy country uses more resources and produces more pollution than many children in poorer countries. There’s a lot of finger-pointing without much solutionary thinking. What’s your response to the varying impacts of population growth across the globe? What’s a solutionary approach to pronatalism that threads the needle when there are so many competing interests and liberties at stake?

Nandita: Yes, what you’re pointing to is a very common ideological division in this discourse. The problem is often presented as a dichotomy between overpopulation in low and middle income countries (LMIC) and overconsumption in the high-income countries (HIC). This is a false dichotomy, because the two issues are intimately linked, and there are a few points that are often missed in such debate.

First, it is true that there is significant inequity in the per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in HIC versus LMIC, and that absolutely needs to be addressed. This is why having fewer children in HIC can have such a substantial impact. According to a recent study, not having a child in a HIC is 20 times more effective than changing your diet or forms of transportation. In addition, HIC and LMIC often have different kinds of environmental impacts. Factors other than GHG emissions, like biodiversity loss, degradation of ecosystem services, water and food insecurity, and plastics pollution are all degrading our ecosphere, and not all of these things can be equally “blamed” on HIC. Further, the consumption ideals of HIC are quickly expanding to the rest of the world, and the global middle class is rising swiftly, especially in LMIC. 

Second, there are several hundred million people currently living in abject poverty, and a few billion people living in substandard conditions. Their footprint arguably needs to go up significantly, which is also the number one UN Sustainable Development Goal. Continued population growth in poorer countries and communities perpetuates the cycle of poverty and reduced opportunities.

The third and most damaging assumption is that addressing overpopulation relies on exploitative population control measures. What most people in this camp do not realize is that the current pronalist structures around the world, but especially in LMIC, are mired in a type of population control that pressures women into procreating. Driven by political, economic, or religious ideologies, most societies presume that a woman’s identity is intertwined with motherhood and do not afford women with the most basic level of reproductive autonomy and care. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are about 270 million women worldwide who want to use modern contraception aids, but they are denied access because of such ideologies. And that is why this kind of divisive rhetoric prevents any kind of real work in family planning and reproductive health services from reaching the communities that need them the most.

From a solutionary perspective, it is important to note that there are several examples of countries that have managed to stabilize their populations through humane, non-coercive, and empowering approaches, such as Iran, Thailand, and Costa Rica, which, within decades, brought their total fertility rate from about 6 children per woman to less than 2.

I envision a future where people can make free and informed family choices for themselves, their families, and the planet – including how they define their family.  Moving beyond pronatalism is essential for achieving true equality for women and children. We must give all people, especially women, the freedom to create fuller expressions of their identity and capacity and to seek meaning in their lives as they define it, with or without children and free from oppressive social pressures.