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Curbing Overpopulation with Positive Psychology Strategies

Plants growing out of sand.

Rather than lecturing on the detrimental impact of a crowded planet to address overpopulation, some researchers are promoting positive psychology to appeal to families to have fewer children.

Daniel Fiorino, director of the SPA Center for Environmental Policy, hosted an online discussion on the topic on September 9. Panelists included Professor and Chair Alon Tal and Senior Lecturer Dorit Kerret, both of Tel Aviv University, and Michael Kraft, professor emeritus of political science, public affairs, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

With the world adding 230,000 people a day, scholars estimate that the global population could grow from 7.7 billion today to 9.6 billion by 2050. “People need food, transportation, energy, and jobs,” said Kraft. “That translates into a tremendous demand on the resources of the world.”

Tal and Kerret recently published a paper advocating a more direct approach, emphasizing the individual benefits of limiting family size over societal gains to the environment. 

“We are trying to convince people living in countries with high fertility rates to move in a more sustainable direction,” Tal said. His previous work focused attention on overpopulation by describing collapsing ecosystems, loss of open spaces, and spiraling greenhouse gases. Kerret, however, suggested that these catastrophic messages paralyzed people instead of offering a path forward. 

“Positive sustainability” combines positive psychology and environmental policy to appeal to a family’s self interest. Research shows that relationships, educational levels, and economic opportunities improve with fewer children.

The argument needs to be less about the state of the environment and more about the very personal consideration of the quality of life with a smaller family, she said. 

“Having two children––and not more––is good for your individual well-being, your family well-being, and, of course, the biosphere. So, it’s a win-win situation,” Kerret said.

The paper examines national strategies to promote two-child families, including policies that support education and careers for women. In some developing countries, the status of women and cultural norms can be barriers to family planning: Tal noted that the empowerment of women is at the core of slowing population growth. 

Kraft added that although birth rates are lower in developed countries, the higher standard of living means an individual uses more resources than his or her counterpart in less-developed regions. Therefore, the path to a sustainable planet is a combination of lowering birth rates and addressing over-consumption in Western economies. The U.S. represents both challenges, with high levels of consumption as well as a projection of 56 million more people by 2050. 

“I love the [Kerret-Tal] paper because of the positive spin it puts on what has long been a contentious issue,” Kraft said. “People say we have to control the population or get people to do what they are not doing. This approach turns that around and says it’s really in people’s own best interest to do this.”