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Fires, Refugees, Traffic, Gentrification ... So Why Isn't Anyone Talking About Population?

Even though population trends lie at the very heart of our national politics, the topic is oddly absent from our contemporary conversations.

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Wackernagel noted that if every country's citizens reproduced and consumed resources as people do in Portugal, Spain and Italy, the planet would see a mighty reprieve, with a population decline to about 4.5 billion people by 2100.

"And the consumption level would drop from 1.6 planets today to 0.9 planets," he said.

Perhaps most notably, a truly global human population decline would require the social and political empowerment of women everywhere, through education and family planning.

So if populations do begin declining, recent Republican presidential administrations will deserve none of the credit. They have repeatedly cut funding or otherwise impeded international family planning programs. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump have all disrupted efforts to provide women in developing nations with birth control and access to safe abortions. Barack Obama restored funding to the United Nations Population Fund after his predecessor held back $244 million in aid to the program over seven years. 

But upon Trump's entrance into the White House, the current president signed an executive order prohibiting any organization that receives United States funding from even so much as recommending abortions — even if the organizations use their own money for any such efforts. The president's action has been widely rebuked as an assault on women in countries where getting pregnant at a young age means an end to education and all the quality-of-life perks that may come with it.

Of course, in pushing their conservative stance on family planning, Republicans are inadvertently encouraging third-world population growth. But when people born into poverty seek brighter opportunities in the United States, the same political party tries to lock them out.

Feldstein expects no better of an administration that has stripped immigrant children from their parents and locked them in cages. But notwithstanding such policies, she is optimistic about the future trajectory of the human population. In spite of Republican efforts to inhibit the aid programs that help boost women's social standing in developing nations, she said "we are seeing a drop in fertility rates."


'If You Don't Have Kids, Good on You'

On a blistering hot afternoon in San Francisco, thousands of people recently swarmed to Baker Beach, a five-minute bike ride from the home of Clark, the consulting ecologist.

"Most of these people are coming from Martinez, Antioch, Milpitas — they're desperate for relief from the heat," Clark said. "These people are climate refugees."

A San Francisco native who devotes much of his life to cultivating native plants, listening for rare birds, and kayak fishing for salmon, Clark would be thrilled if the crowds that now swarm the areas he once enjoyed in relative solitude somehow dissipated.

"But we have to let them in," he said.

Housing more people in denser urban centers is an idea that bristles the hairs of many NIMBYs. Clark, however, views the densification of San Francisco and its surrounding cities as less a threat to the Bay Area's biodiversity and open space than an opportunity to save it.

"Let's densify San Francisco so we don't have to build on Mount San Bruno," he said. "Let's densify Merced so we don't have to build all over in the Sierras." Local parks and trails may be trampled to dust in the process, but Clark sees no other way to accommodate the masses that are coming. "Let's let these isolated places and parks be our sacrificial areas, and save everything else," he said.

Dialogues about increased density often warn of huge buildings throwing their permanent shadows over neighborhoods, noted Urban Planner Ben Kaufman.

"But density doesn't have to happen as high-rises," he said. "The population of the Sunset District in San Francisco could be doubled by adding one story to every residential building." Such amendments, he said, could ease suburban sprawl and chronic traffic congestion in spite of population growth.

One path forward, said Kaufman, a member of the board of Transport Oakland, is the unappetizing option "to continue on the path we're on now toward more sprawl, which eats up farmland and open space. Or we can build denser and more transit-oriented, and protect our farmland and our wilderness areas, and generally adjust in a carefully thought out way to a reality of more humans living in the Bay Area."

Bertulis agrees, noting that many rural areas around the world are depopulating as people move to the cities. Densification could facilitate this shift.

"I think this is going to be good for rewilding our rural areas and restoring them to some of their previous glory and abundance," he said.

But even while people clamor for the privilege of living in the Bay Area's urban core, Bertulis said he's thinking of making the opposite migration.

"When we're younger, we tend to appreciate the culture and energy of more populated areas, but as we get older, we often seek more peace and solitude," he said. "I'm sort of at that point where I may be looking for that quieter place."

As for procreation, he might be leaving the task to others. He said he doesn't want humanity to dwindle away.

"Some people should be having children, absolutely, to perpetuate humanity," he said. "But if you don't have kids, good on you — well-played."

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