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The Ecozoic Lens on Population

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

By: Ursula Georgeoglou


Through the Ecozoic lens, the L4E students gained confidence this summer to build upon and rethink the current rhetoric around population and environmental issues. The first cohort of Ph.D. students, called the “Population Cohort,” attended the Population and Environment course. Under the guidance of Dr. Jon Erickson and Dr. Leiwen Jiang, this course involved two sections: preparatory seminars and workshops, and a field course in New York City.


The preparatory section of the course started with a reading discussion lead by L4E student Shaun Sellers: The Emergence of State-Level Population Policies, Historical and Modern-Day Enclosures. Most students agreed that this was a very important discussion in order to understand the connection between the development of capitalism and the control of women’s bodies, also the power dynamics that existed and continue to exist in regards to women’s reproductive issues. According to one student, this interpretation and the analysis of Silvia Federici was essential to understanding the motivations behind population interventions, its correlation to economic structures, and the control desired by the financial elites. Another added: “This seminar brought a truly ‘ecozoic’ lens to the issue of population because Sean [sic] and Federici employed a holistic, transdisciplinary approach to considering population in the context of social institutions, historical events, and environmental factors."


The course then hosted introductory lectures to the population debate, the history of the family planning movement, the human carrying capacity of the earth, population dynamics, and ecological pressures presented by many scholars such as Dr. Leiwen Jiang (Senior Associate, Population Council), Dr. Joel E. Cohen, (Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations at Rockefeller University) and Dr. Steven Sinding (former Director-General, International Planned Parenthood Federation). In addition to the lectures, and with the purpose of connecting population data analysis with the SSP platform, the course held a two-section R workshop offered by Sheila Weaver (UVM Statistics Department).


The field course in NYC included engagement with scholars and visits to different stakeholders. One of the most appreciated speakers was Dr. Robert Engelman (Senior Fellow at World Watch ), who presented a lecture titled:  An End to Population Growth: Why Family Planning is Key to a Sustainable Future. Dr. Engelman was an engaging speaker whose presentation was informative, transdisciplinary, and in line with the Ecozoic pathway. He engaged in discussion without political hang-ups. One of the students added: “I was most grateful for the opportunity to share and briefly discuss some of the things that bother us most about population discourses. It was valuable to hear everyone’s questions and concerns and also to hear Bob’s responses to them. I also really appreciated Bob’s emphasis on the vulnerability of aligning family planning with national governments.”


In addition, Dr. Hardee, (CEO, Hardee Associates LLC), presented on Human Vulnerability and Resilience to Environmental Stress and Sustainable Development, and Mr. Clive Mutunga, (Population, Environment and Development Advisory, USAID), presented on Population Dynamics, Environment and Sustainable Development in Africa: Linking Science and Policy to Programming.


Students had the opportunity to visit: The Center for Biomedical Research (CBR) at the Population Council, The United Nations Population Division (UNPD), The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, The International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the Guttmacher Institute. Topics included the history of contraception, birth control discourses, the type of interaction of academic researchers and drug companies, the relationship between population, family planning and inequity, the politics of family planning and abortion policies in the US and around the globe, abortion statistics, polices, and the population connection to development, US politics and family planning efforts etc. Institutional perspectives on topics such as population dynamics, polices and environment, the connections between the handling of data, policies and programs were shared. Some comments included: “It was a good exposure to how the UN Population Division approaches the data analysis of human populations around the world”; “The mentality we are up against is very entrenched”; “It highlighted the fact that data can tell different stories depending on how it is framed.”


It seems that the high point of the course was the social capital developed among instructors and students. For most students, the most significant moments were group discussions and debates. Also, students noted that the course offered a unique opportunity to begin to learn and understand the important challenges of population dynamics and environmental pressures. It was recommended that this course continue to be an important part of the L4E curriculum:

“It is essential to understand the relationship of human population and the environment for the goal of improving environmental sustainability.”

Some students would have liked a more holistic guided discussion of topics, more time to reflect, more insight into environmental challenges, a more comprehensive look at consumption and population impact, and more discussion about the genesis of population growth. However, everyone agreed that the course was productive. One student stated: “Even the speakers that did not excite me contributed to a broad understanding of different perspectives at play.” Another concluded by saying: “It seems that the cohort themes might be able to provide an understanding of topics that are little covered yet important if we want to look to our research in a holistic way. This type of transdisciplinary approach is a strength of L4E."


Most agreed that this issue affects everything and it is a challenging topic which needs understanding and discussion. One of the students added:

“It is important to understand this discourse because it is deeply embedded in anthropogenic power structures, and understanding population dynamics as it is discussed these days, in relation to the environment, is critical to arguing against ideas like the tragedy of the commons, or ecomodernism.” Another stated that: “Our vision can identify the necessity for current approaches to population and family dynamics to shift in acknowledgement of deeper issues of inequity and interdependence.”

In sum, this course was a process of discovery, exploring the current rhetoric related to human population, the stakeholders and the interests behind polices and current projects. It also provided insights into the lack of connections between human population studies and the environment.


The final output of the course will be a series of publishable editorials that reflect the controversial and edgy character of the population discourses. Topics will include UN Population Growth Projections (the human population is projected to level off at 11 billion by 2100), Malthus was Wrong, Right? (the current version of the debate arguing that slowing population growth will cause more harm than good), The Global Gag Rule (the US House of Representatives has been trying to repeal the Trump administration’s global gag rule in the budget), Degrowth and the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, Urban Population Growth and the Environment, Population Growth will Solve Climate Change?,  Changing Demographics and Changing Political Power, Aging Population Hurting Economy, What Would Investing the Demographic Dividend Look Like to Move Towards an Ecozoic?, and Population Growth and Species Endangerment. Stay tuned to hear more from our students!


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