CBC radio gives a platform to populationism

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Quirks and Quarks lets overpopulation ideology masquerade as science

by Ian Angus

Quirks and Quarks is a weekly science program broadcast across Canada on CBC Radio. The format is simple: host Bob McDonald interviews scientists about their latest work and discoveries. Usually there are 3 or 4 interviews in the hour.

To say I like it would be an understatement. I am constantly amazed by the ability of host Bob McDonald to ask appropriate questions and offer analogies that make complex scientific topics very clear.

So you can imagine my disappointment on October 29, when Quirks and Quarks dealt with the topic “7 billion and counting” not with science, but by devoting a third of the program to an interview with two populationists, Madeline Weld of the Population Institute of Canada, and Robert Engelman of Worldwatch Institute.

They said nothing that hasn’t been said many times by the populationist lobby, but those who are interested can listen to the segment here.

I sent this letter to the host.

Dear Bob McDonald:

I am a long-time fan of Quirks and Quarks. Your program is an invaluable source of information on the latest scientific developments, and I am always impressed by your ability to help scientists make complex ideas accessible to a lay audience. I hope you will be on the air for many more years.

But the “7 Billion and Counting” segment on your October 29 program was not up to your usual high standard.

The relationship between population growth and environmental destruction is complex, and an entirely appropriate topic for Quirks and Quarks. Unfortunately, rather than explore the issues, you gave an exclusive platform to two lobbyists for populationist ideology. What they offered was not science, but the simplistic claim that complex environmental and social problems all result from “too many people.”

You didn’t challenge Madeleine Weld’s claim that population growth is responsible for world hunger – when the world actually produces more than enough food to feed everyone.

You let stand her bizarre assertion that the world’s population should be under 2 Billion, a figure that cannot possibly be achieved without policies far more draconian and inhumane than those now enforced in China.

Even worse, you allowed both your guests to portray everyone who disagrees with them as religious fanatics and opponents of women’s rights. There was no hint that many strong supporters of women’s rights refuse to blame the fertility of poor women for environmental problems caused by the world’s richest corporations and governments.

I don’t believe that Quirks and Quarks should give its platform to political lobbyists. But since you did, how about equal time for some environmentalists who disagree?

Ian Angus

co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. Haymarket Books, 2011.

editor, Climate and Capitalism

I’ll let you know if I get a reply.

UPDATE: On Quirks and Quarks on November 5, Bob McDonald read excerpts from my letter and others protesting the one-sided, unscientific coverage they gave this issue.


  • The point is not producing enough food, it is how to produce it sustainably. 2 billion is not bizarre when fossil fuels are finite, soil, fish and water are being depleted and climate change will hit agricultural productivity. And two billion is not an immediate goal; it implies a gradual decline in numbers through the existing trend to smaller families. I expect overturning the prevailing social order, as you advocate, would be a bit draconian and inhuman, going by past revolutions. Ian, I don’t think you fully understand sustainability; read up on the Global Footprint Network to understand the limits humanity faces.

    • Cheap shot, Simon. You know perfectly well that Climate & Capitalism frequently addresses the problem of sustainable agriculture. This article — How to feed 9 billion without destroying the planet — was posted a week before you claimed I don’t get it. There is lots more on this subject.

      But I’m intrigued by your claim that a population reduction to 2 Billion will be achieved through “a gradual decline in numbers through the existing trend to smaller families.” If that is so, what is the point of all your bombast? If the existing trend will do it, why does Optimum Population Trust exist?

      On the other hand, if the world has already passed its human carrying capacity, as you and your Canadian co-thinkers believe, isn’t there some urgency about getting the numbers down? if the “existing trend” continues, global population will increase through this century, and only decline slowly after that. The most I’ve seen from you is a pious hope that third world birth control programs will slow the increase, not reverse it.

      If you think we are already 5 billion above the maximum sustainable limit, but are willing to wait centuries for a solution. then you and OPT don’t fully understand sustainability.

  • Everywhere you look in the media this week, you see unquestioned populationist assumptions. Thanks to Ian for doing excellent work to take on this reactionary “common sense”. If you need to arm yourself with arguments to take this on, you need to read Ian and Simon’s new book, Too Many People? If you are in the Toronto area, there is a launch for the book this coming Sunday afternoon, at 3 pm; at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor W. It couldn’t be more timely or needed.