PRB Discuss Online: Environment, Poverty, and Security in Today's World, What's Population Got to Do With It?

(January 2007) How are environmental, poverty, and security trends in today’s world affected by population dynamics? What is being done to address these issues? What is needed?


During a PRB Discuss Online, Roger-Mark De Souza, technical director for population, health, and environment at PRB, answered participants’ questions about population, health, and environment links.


Jan. 25, 2007 1 PM (EST)


Transcript of Questions and Answers


Lee Miller: Doesn’t overpopulation as defined by non-sustainability have everything to do with the human condition in today’s world?
Roger-Mark De Souza: It is clear that population is a key contributing factor to many of the world’s issues. The difficulty is trying to determine to what extent and exactly how to manage the issues related to population. The models and conceptual frameworks that have included population as an important variable have provided some theoretical lenses and approaches to addressing this link and have also established the relation of population dynamics in context by recognizing the impact of other variables such as technological developments, the role of poverty/affluence, cultural factors, policies/politics, etc. These approaches don’t always provide concrete programmatic or policy directions to allow population to be addressed in a practical way. A number of projects and policies in a variety of countries are experimenting with integrated approaches—linking coastal resource management with population management policies and food security programs for example—in order to test practical ways to address these links.

Ian Macindoe: Governments, politicians and many others are reluctant to address issues of stabilising and gradually reducing population. Is this because it is not in the interests of those who stand to gain by population growth — i.e. those who fund and otherwise support political parties?
Roger-Mark De Souza: It is no doubt that addressing population stabilization is a difficult issue. Some of the benefits are short-term such as the advancement for women when they delay childbearing and are able to invest in educating themselves and increasing their potential economic contributions. Many of the benefits are longer term, and may not show absolute changes in population size and impacts on natural resources for a generation or more. Some policymakers may be reluctant to address these longer-term issues that don’t reap immediate benefits in short-term political timeframes. In addition, there are sensitivities around population issues because they are tied to questions of cultural norms, sexuality, individual choices, etc. So these issues can be politically charged. It becomes important for constituents to help governments and policymakers recognize the benefits of addressing population stabilization. We should also recognize that some countries—in Europe for example—are looking to increase their population because of declining numbers. These countries may need to promote growth in order to secure their tax base, support social security systems, or to shore up their military. With these policies, there must be a balance between population growth and levels of consumption.

Ayman Zohry: I think that the relationship between population and the environment is exaggerated and used for political reasons. Impoverish population in developing countries contribute the least to environmental pollution since they live a sort of a primitive lives. Developing countries contribute more from infancy (disposing used pampers and potato chips packages) to ageing (disposing What do you think the poor can do? medical disposables) because of longevity
Roger-Mark De Souza: You raise very good questions with regard to poverty versus affluence and links to consumption. Poverty may promote environmental degradation in a variety of ways. Poor rural families are more likely to support themselves with subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, use forest produces as fuel, fodder, and building materials, and live in ecologically fragile zones. These factors have come to the fore recently in the United States and internationally with a number of natural disasters whose impacts on the poor have been intensified by such factors. On the other hand, wealth bring greater environmental management opportunities and challenges. As societies grow wealthier, some environmental problems—like access to water and sanitation—are expected to improve, while others—like the generation of solid waste and greenhouse gases—get worse. Wealthy societies generally consume more. In a number of countries small projects are working to address these poverty-wealth-consumption issues in an integrated manner and by reaching out and involving the poor. These projects share a number of characteristics that are generally recommended for poverty alleviation programs. Such factors include supporting greater equitable involvement of men and women in projects; mobilizing communities to develop their own strategies to address critical livelihood, environmental and population concerns; capitalizing on economies of scale for beneficiaries that allow local governing bodies and programs to build off of each other; and providing lessons learned for others to use and refine for replication of such efforts. Have a look at a short article on this issue on the Population Reference Bureau’s website. The article is entitled A New Way to Address Poverty Alleviation.”

Kris Dev: Is not a unique citizen ID with biometric registration and tracking citizen’s from birth to death truly essential, to reduce population and save environment, alleviate poverty and improve life security? In most of the developing democracies of the world, there is no unique citizen ID. Is it not because of the present form of democracy followed by them, where elections are fought and won on corruption?
Roger-Mark De Souza: I think that it is very important for governments to be able to track key census data—this is often served by government registries, national censuses, hospital records, etc. Tracking immigration data is notably more difficult and prone to problems, particular given missclassification (issues such as multicitizenship status, illegal movement, transnational lifestyles), ease of movement (the fluidity of borders, numerous possibilities for transportation, etc), as well as other issues. It is particularly around immigration issues, particularly since 911 and in the context of security concerns, where I have seen examples of governments (in the European Community and the United States for example) where there are discussions around this issue and actual tests using various biometric registration methods for visa applicants and travelers. These include fingerprinting, iris scanning, and digital photos. There are still debates about standard procedures and how these procedures could be applied in different country contexts given resource constraints. So there is a clear implementation concern. Other objections have revolved around an individual’s right to democracy and freedom and the use to which governments might put such information and whether it might lead to unfair profiling of individuals of particular ethnic or country origins. So this is clearly a potentially difficult policy whose pros and cons must be carefully weighed; whose application must be fair, legal, transparent and standardized; and whose implementation must be balanced with the fundamental tenets of democracy.

Adekola Olalekan: Personally, I think population has got a lot to do with it, unless we strongly recognise this we might not be able to separate these quadruplet. What is your idea of the best policy to reduce population growth, most especially in rural areas of Africa? Will you prefer to work with government that may make “stringent laws” to reduce growth rate (e.g as in China) or working directly educating the people. The former will have an immediate impact while the later could takes ages.
Roger-Mark De Souza: My sense that it is difficult to generalize on policy prescriptions and program applications. There are clear principles that work or goals that we should aspire to. Some of these include:


    • investing in improving access to and the quality of reproductive health services will help reduce the levels of maternal and child deaths in developing countries


    • investing in girls and young women provides long term environmental, social and economic dividends


    • family planing programs and education/evidence-based information dissemination help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and can contribute to more healthy behaviors


    • addressing population factors are an effective way to address environmental factors because they can bring advantages to family planning efforts, bringing greater participation of men, and positive changes in the community perception of women and in women’s self-perception when they have access to and control of money and credit


    • family planning also benefits when it is packaged with the quickly perceived effects of health interventions, such as immunization and improved water quality


    • approaches used to implement population programs and environmental initiatives can provide economies of scale for others issues tied to the security of a population such as livelihood opportunities, economic development and disaster mitigation


The challenge is to think about at which scale should these policies work and where to best invest efforts and funding. My belief is that we should simultaneously implement programs and policies that address these issues with different targets and goals at the appropriate level of intervention looking at national, meso, and micro scales—policies that would allocate resources, set guidelines, could be implemented at the national level; other problems may be best addressed through a set of common parameters such as through an ecosystem-based approach (issues such as water tied to flows, water basins, watersheds, for example), and others may be more localized and best addressed at micro levels (such as village, communities, administrative departments, etc). Now some of this also depends on the context and on funding allocations—some countries will have more decentralized systems that would lend themselves more to having a quicker impact at a local level. It is possible, however, to have inexpensive community mobilization programs that provide significant program results within one to two years. For example, the Champion Community approach in Madagascar, which is based on locally defined needs and encourages competition among communities, mobilized strong community participation in 10 sites to achieve clearly defined, multisectoral targets within a one-year period. For many of these programs, the inclusion of a microcredit component seems to encourage even stronger community involvement and may increase impacts at the community level. “Stringent laws” as you call them, may appear to have short terms results on the surface, but they do not necessarily address the root causes of these problems and create additional unforeseen problems (such as parents’ sex selectivity for their offspring, increase in unsafe abortions, etc). The principles of voluntarism, citizen involvement, government accountability, equity in programming, adequate governance, citizen redress to legal measures in cases of abuse of internationally accepted human rights, etc are all important considerations.

J Kishore: Worse Environmental Conditions are associated with poverty and insecurity. This could be due to pushing poor people in these environment and grabbing good environmental conditions mainly fertile land, natural resources from native people. What measure an international community take to stop such kind of grabbing, looting resources of local people and pushing these people to poverty.
Roger-Mark De Souza: The questions of indigenous peoples, land and fertility are related to power, accountability, management of information and profit. One well known current example of displacement is the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China is currently being documented. The dam will span more than two kilometers across one of the world’s longest rivers. Its construction will probably result in the displacement of more than 1 million people. This displacement has been marked by corruption, human rights violations and resettlement difficulties. Many of the displaced are living under poor conditions with no recourse to address outstanding problems with compensation or resettlement. These displacements bring to the fore questions such as access to accurate information about the impacts of such projects, the need for environmental impact assessments that have strong social, gender and indigenous impact components, “adequate” compensation, long-term and meaningful resettlement, and the re-establishment of disrupted social systems. As you mention, many native peoples with more environmentally friendly practices are displaced by larger infrastructure projects that may negatively impact the environment. Similar concerns have been raised about external groups moving into areas of where indigenous populations reside and “imposing” fertility reduction goals on these communities. I, myself, have not seen explicit examples of coercive fertility limitation. In my experience, however, conservation organizations, poverty alleviation programs and community development groups will work together with reproductive health organizations to assure the availability of family planning and related health services in remote communities where indigenous populations may live. Some have proposed hypotheses about the reasons for high fertility in the areas of high indigenous populations such as the lowland neotropics. They suggest that indigenous women in this region seek large families for historical, political and other social reasons. But such hypothesis requires further documentation and testing. A major problem in these remote areas is that reproductive health services are not available unless someone—often non-governmental organizations, alone or in partnership—makes special efforts to make them so. There are many perceived benefits to providing reproductive health services in remote areas. Among these is the likelihood of greater contraceptive prevalence in communities where family planning services have heretofore not been available. Higher contraceptive prevalence tends to reduce the frequency of unintended pregnancy. Where such pregnancies are a factor in high fertility, contraception tends to bring down total fertility rates. Modern contraception also allows women to delay, space and time their pregnancies as they see fit, which tends to reduce the number of high-risk pregnancies. These effects have been shown, in repeated studies, to lower the rate of both maternal and infant mortality. In addition, family size and child spacing have later implications on the health, nutrition and educational attainment of children. If you’re interested in this further have a look at the article at the end of this post. There are a variety of “watchdog” groups that do a good job of monitoring the cases of indigenous peoples and advocating for their rights—on both environmental and social issues. Some of these efforts are even recognized by prestigious awards such as the Goldman fund. These efforts are small and underfunded, however, and need more support. Particularly as many of these indigenous populations live in areas of high biodiversity. In addition, the World Resources Institute in Washington DC oversees a very good governance program called the Access Initiative (see: that works with citizen groups to ensure that there is a provision of information about environmental projects, that that information is accurate, that the public is able to participate in the formulation of such projects and that there are methods of redress when for such populations.

Article for reference:

Engleman, Robert, Jason Bremner, Roger-Mark De Souza and Kathleen Mogelgaard. “Indigenous Population, Fertility and Reproductive Intentions in the Lowland Neotropics: A Response to McSweeney.” Conservation Biology 20 (4). Malden, MA: Blackwell. August 2006.

Joanna Vandenberg: Behind all these issues is the major overwhelming problem of overpopulation. What is going to be done about international family planning? Billions of $$$ go into AIDS, while millions plus of women don’t have access to basic reproductive health care.Why are governments not doing more? Kofi Annan finally admits that women’s reproductive health is our only hope for saving the planet.Conservative governments and churches keep fighting family planning, including Bush!
Roger-Mark De Souza: Good observation Joanna! It’s clear that international family planning must be a priority—providing access to voluntary family planning methods and safe reproductive health care are key elements in a strategy to dealing with population challenges. Research highlights that such interventions increase women’s contributions to the family and to the economy while increasing their health and well-being. It’s sometimes difficult for government to work on these issues as they can be politically sensitive given their associations with individual choice, sexuality, and traditional roles and responsibilities of women. Those of us who work on this issue also are careful of the term “overpopulation”—what does that mean exactly? How subjective is it? Who sets the limits? According to what criteria? Are these criteria scientifically established? To what level of credibility? We generally recognize the importance of voluntary access to services.

Daniela Lerda: Could you discuss some of the links between urban poverty, environmental degradation, and security? Looking at demographic patterns in Latin America specifically and the relationship between population growth and urban settings, how might investments in environment and/or development programs help influence and or promote safer cities?
Roger-Mark De Souza: Over the next 30 years, urban populations are expected to expand, while rural populations hold steady or decline worldwide. According to the UN, the percentage of people living in urban areas is projected to increase from 47 percent to 60 percent worldwide by 2030. While the flow from rural to urban areas has been a dominant trend, especially in Latin America, people also move from one rural area to another, especially when drought, famine, or political events push agricultural workers off their land. I often think about urban issues when I consider whether these links are good or bad for the environment and human well-being. The answer is neither straightforward nor simple. A population shift toward urban areas means that a larger share of people will have access to health care, education, and other services; living standards are likely to improve. Greater population densities will enable more communities to capitalize on economies of scale, for example, by investing in more efficient and cost-effective water management. And concentrating population within an urban area can preserve adjacent natural habitat, assuming that urban sprawl is contained. At the same time, dense urban populations may produce more waste than the environment can absorb, leading to significant air and water pollution and a greater incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases. Cities often develop near fragile coastal areas or rivers or adjacent to fertile agricultural land. Rapid urban growth often takes over farmland, destroys wildlife habitats, and threatens sensitive ecosystems and inshore fisheries. Urban populations generally use more water for domestic and industrial purposes than rural populations. In Jordan, for example, the rapid growth of Amman and Zarqa has led to the gradual depletion of a major underground water reserve, reducing water availability for farmers and desiccating an internationally important wetland. Urban slums in the countries that I’ve visited (and in the developing country where I’m from) really bring these issues together. I see manifestations of insecurity at the individual level (poor young men, no access to meaningful livelihoods, living in dirty environments) being mobilized for criminal activities within these areas. So it’s clear that these links are important—and the degree to which we can develop integrated responses to such issues will help us make improvements in these situations.

Dr Sohel Firdos: Evidences suggest that in some locations policies relating to preservation of environment lead to uprooting the marginalised people from their traditional modes of livelihood, how to resolve this issue?
Roger-Mark De Souza: Public/community/local participation in the process of designing and implementing of these programs will go a long way in addressing some of these concerns. A long history of this kind of impact is also related to policies associated with strong conservation/preservation goals to the exclusion of people. So called buffer zones and no take zones also allow for certain areas to be fully protected, and allow for areas of interaction between the needs of humans for survival and daily living and for conservation goals. Unfortunately, a lot of the marginalized peoples are in rural areas, and their modes of livelihood are not necessarily the most harmful. In some instances their lifestyles (for example crazing cattle) may have adverse impacts on the very resources that sustain them. I think the key question here is to design management plans that recognize both human and environmental needs, involve communities and humanely address resettlement if needed. See my comments on the earlier post about resettlement.

Pete: Hello Roger-Mark. In the early 70’s I read Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb”. From that and other sources, I concluded that overpopulation was humanity’s worst problem, because so many other problems come from conflict between people over resources of all kinds, which are ultimately relatively scarce. For example, biodiversity is apparently threatened by increased population growth. Recently, there was an article, I believe in Science or in Nature, predicting that all commercial fisheries would be depleted in about 45 years if current rates of overfishing continue. More recently I’ve heard claims that Ehrlich’s views are not valid. I believe certain business interest and some economists advocate this view. So, what is the evidence for and against these opposing views? Can you give me sources of evidence that I can explore further? Also, where do you come down on these views? Yours, Pete.
Roger-Mark De Souza: The Population Bomb is a good read and serves as one of those reference texts for anyone working in this field. Indeed, over the past several decades, scientists have developed a number of models to study the interactions among population, health, and the environment. These models cannot fully predict whether or when population growth and human activities will be constrained by shortages in food, water, and other resources, but they have helped scientists explore the role of population in environmental degradation, and have contributed to discussions of carrying capacity and sustainable development. One of these is the Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their model examined five variables: population, food, industrialization, nonrenewable resources, and pollution. In all the scenarios of future population and economic growth, population and industrialization surged upward and then fell sharply, a pattern the authors described as “overshoot and collapse.” The Limits to Growth model provoked a storm of criticism. Folks argued that human innovation and resourcefulness would improve the technology of food production, resource recycling, fertility reduction, and pollution control enough to avoid “overshoot and collapse” and produce steady sustainable growth in population, food, and industrial output per person. The “overshoot and collapse” notion has been largely replaced, at least at the global level, by forecasts of more gradual environmental deterioration over a longer period of time; the most severe degradation would be limited to specific regions. Of course, a very well known model from the 1970s, developed by Paul Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren, is the I=PAT formula. I is the environmental impact (such as pollution), P is population size, A is affluence (usually expressed as average gross domestic product per capita), and T is technology (a measure of efficiency, for example, of energy use). I = PAT formula has been criticized for a number of reasons. Some critics point out that different factors contribute to different environmental impacts. Factors contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer, for example, are not the same as the factors contributing to deforestation or biodiversity loss. The I = PAT equation suggests that the three variables (P, A, and T) operate independently, yet these factors may interact with one another. And by reducing these relationships to a simple one-way negative relationship, the model ignores some important features such as the role of institutions, culture, or social systems in mediating human impact on the environment. In addition, the P in the framework typically stands for the number of persons in a population. But households are also significant units of consumption; the number, size, and composition of households are important considerations in looking at consumption levels. Go to PRB’s webpage at and have a look at this publication for references and more info:

De Souza, Roger-Mark, John S. Williams and Frederick A.B. Meyerson. “Critical Links: Population, Health and the Environment.” Population Bulletin 58 (3). Washington DC: Population Reference Bureau. 2003.

mahmood moshfegh: Hello: dear sir.‎ What are operational indexes of relationship between environment and population? it is ‎possible, please introduce some framework conceptual and its operational indexes.‎‏
Roger-Mark De Souza: See earlier post on the Population Bomb for information on the I=PAT index and criticsms of it and how it has been used.

Other indexes and relationships are: models that include population dynamics—these have been developed by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, based in Austria. Their models incorporate variables such as educational levels and policies that affect population and environment relationships. The first series of models focused on population-development-environment interactions in Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and the Yucatán Peninsula. These studies examined traditional population characteristics, including age, sex, and education levels, as well as other variables appropriate to the local context: Labor force participation in Mauritius, or HIV status in Botswana, Mozambique, and Namibia are examples. More recently, IIASA has collaborated with the UN Economic Commission for Africa to develop an interactive simulation model demonstrating the medium- to long-term impacts of alternative policies (including policies on HIV/AIDS) on the food security status of the population. This model, called population, environment, development, and agriculture (PEDA), focuses on the interactions between changes in population size and distribution, natural resource degradation, agricultural production, and food security. Other models have focused on specific ecosystems. One such model, SAVANNA, was developed jointly by Colorado State University and the International Livestock Research Institute to help land-use planners create long-term plans for savannas, arid grassland ecosystems where wildlife, humans, and domestic livestock coexist. Another series of models have been examining threats to species linked to human activity. Population viability analysis (PVA) models have been developed to look at extinction risks of threatened species. The Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has used the VORTEX model to predict the extinction of species, including the black panther and orangutan. You could get a quick overview of these models and references (for additional details) from our website at and look at:

De Souza, Roger-Mark, John S. Williams and Frederick A.B. Meyerson.“Critical Links: Population, Health and the Environment.” Population Bulletin 58 (3). Washington DC: Population Reference Bureau. 2003.

Ruben Martinez: I am interested in putting some quantifiable indicator in the question of Ayman Zohry. Who are the “primitives” and what percentage of the global population comes from this “primitives”. What is their demographic characteristics, their fertility rate, consumption, etc. One Iraya Mangyan Household because of limited access to land has rapidly depleted remaining forest lands and wasted precious diverse flora and fauna through shifting cultivation, etc.
Roger-Mark De Souza: Ruben, I’m not sure what part of the population you’re referring to when you talk of “primitives”—so sorry—I’m not quite sure how to answer your question!

Geoff Dabelko: What are your suggestions for getting more population-focused organizations like PRB to pay attention to these links in their research, analysis, advocacy, training etc?
Roger-Mark De Souza: I would have said that a decade ago it would have been very difficult for population focused organizations like mine to address these issues. Today, I say that it has become easier, but that now it is just “difficult” versus “very difficult.” Part of that change has been a greater recognition in scholarship about the importance of these links. There is more interdisciplinary work that addresses these issues, but researchers receive relatively little funding to do that work. Those population organizations that work on programs in various countries are starting to recognize the need to think about these issues more concretely and strategically because the communities where they work are saying that these links matter. Funding continues to be a challenge. We need to better document why these links are important and to find ways to effectively communicate that importance to policymakers and funding agencies.

Alison Buttenheim: How should Population-Health-Environment issues be taught at the college level? I am finishing a PhD in Public Health and Demography with a keen interest in environmental issues and curious how (in which departments, in what kinds of courses, with what kinds of goals) these issues should be taught.
Roger-Mark De Souza: There