Is Overpopulation Overlooked?

A column in The Los Angeles Times last week singled out NPR for failing to cover what the authors — Mary Ellen Harte and Anne Ehrlich — said was "unsustainable population growth" in the United States and the world.

"Take National Public Radio, for example," they wrote. "Of NPR's sparse record of population pieces, just one or two actually address unsustainable population growth."

NPR science reporter Richard Harris said it's not that it isn't being covered; it's that the conversation has shifted. Harris covered the U.N. population conference in London in 2004, where he said the theme was, "OK. Let's stop talking about overpopulation, but let's start talking about things that control it like infant mortality, maternal health, education and access to contraception."

"I think we should ask the deeper question, is NPR covering these issues of maternal health in the developing world? Those are really important stories and we need to keep covering them," he said.

A quick transcript search by NPR's broadcast library turned up more than 60 stories in the last year, which seems pretty substantial to me.

Harris continued, "[Also] Counting heads doesn't really give you a realistic picture of global warming issues. I would say it's not negligible, but it's clearly secondary to how much energy an individual or a society uses." The U.S. represents only five percent of the world's population, but produces more than 20 percent of the world's emissions, Harris said on Talk of the Nation in January.

Harte and Ehrlich also criticized NPR's blog The Baby Project saying it, "devotes a plethora of articles to pregnancy, with the most serious subjects the problems some women have conceiving and birthing. If there is even a hint of too many babies, it is well hidden."

Coburn Dukehart, an editor of The Baby Project, responded:

The goal of The Baby Project is to tell the stories of nine moms and their birth experience. We are keeping the blog focused on their individual stories, while also publishing related articles on topics relevant to other expectant parents. The blog wasn't designed to address whether or not to have children, but instead to share the stories of those who have already chosen to do so.

I'm not convinced by Harte and Ehrlich that NPR dropped the ball. Harris' approach seems both more nuanced and sophisticated. As for The Baby Project, it's about family, not population.

Readers of different political persuasions may find that they agree on the assertion about overpopulation per se, either endorsing or dismissing the fear. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

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