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Human Population and Animal Extinctions: An Interview with Dr. Jeffrey McKee

“As our human population grows and our difficulties mount to feed over 7 billion people, we are not the only species at stake.”

As part of Worldwatch’s investigation on how voluntary family planning relates to environmental sustainability, we reviewed a population paper published in 2013 by Jeffrey McKee, Erica Chambers, and Julie Guseman.

In “Human Population Density and Growth Validated as Extinction Threats to Mammal and Bird Species” (Human Ecology, October 2013), the authors conclude that both the density and growth of human populations are causally related to increases in the number of threatened bird and mammal species.

We caught up with Jeffrey McKee, a physical anthropologist and professor at Ohio State University, to learn more about the implications of his article on the fields of family planning and environmental sustainability.

What’s the one fact or takeaway you hope people will remember from your paper?

As our human population grows and our difficulties mount to feed over 7 billion people, we are not the only species at stake.  More and more pressure is put on the sustainability of species of mammals and birds, as measured by my research. By extrapolation, that applies to plants and other animals as well.

We need biodiversity – many species, not just a few – to sustain the ecosystems we humans rely upon.

Worldwatch’s Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) report explores the connections between environmental sustainability and access to voluntary family planning. What are your perspectives about the connections between these issues?

Those issues are tightly connected, but the focus must be on voluntary family planning. That said, families must be made aware of the broader picture. Couples cannot make informed decisions about reproductive rights and responsibilities in an educational vacuum.

As scientists, we must make the broad picture clearer that there is an issue to be resolved, but it is not meant to trample on the dignity of one’s right to personal decisions.

In your opinion, should access to voluntary family planning be considered as a strategy for safeguarding biodiversity?

The greater the access, the better.  I’ve argued that better education (in the broadest sense) and female empowerment are also keys. The three pillars, as I call them, are education, access, and empowerment.

Are there any updates on your research? What are you working on now?

My research continues on some of the details of the relationship between human population growth and biodiversity loss, such as why the correlation is not as tight in Africa as it is elsewhere.

The major project I am working on now is a book about reconciling science with a faith in a God. This sounds strange to those who know me, because I’ve been an avowed atheist for most of my adult life until recently. But it bears on the subject of human population growth and biodiversity conflicts directly. How can we better be stewards of this Earth? How can the faithful see that science is for them, rather than against them? How can faith in a God lead to a resolution of the scientifically observed problems of human overpopulation, global warming, and biodiversity loss? I see it as an imperative that views on these issues become reconciled soon.

Who did you meet, as part of your research, whom you most wish you could speak with again, and why?

There have been too many people I’ve met and communicated with to narrow that down. But as an educator, the people I’d most like to speak with again are my former students. I’d like to know what they have observed and learned from themselves since taking my university classes. What did they think then, and what do they think now about issues of population and environment?


More about Jeffrey McKee:

mckeeDr. Jeffrey McKee is a physical anthropologist conducting research on hominid evolution and paleoecology. He has directed excavations at the early hominid sites of Taung and Makapansgat, and has published on fossils from other South African sites. His current interests focus on computer modeling and simulation of evolutionary and fossilization processes, toward an understanding of the pace and causes of human evolution in an ecological context.

More about Worldwatch’s Family Planning and Environmental
Sustainability Assessment (FPESA):

Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability: Assessing the Science coverFPESA explores whether scientific evidence demonstrates that the use of family planning contributes to environmental sustainability. The two-year collaborative review of more than 900 peer-reviewed research papers from around the world published from 2005 through early 2016 identified considerable evidence supporting—and very little refuting—that voluntary family planning promotes environmental benefits. Download the full report free.

7 thoughts on “Human Population and Animal Extinctions: An Interview with Dr. Jeffrey McKee”

  1. Hm.. and what about the tons of food that’s simply thrown into the bin, not bought by anyone?…. May be we should change the way we think and our priorities…

  2. Food waste is definitely a problem. France is regulating this. Some might consider it a limit on their freedom but our ancestors would not have tolerated it.

  3. In Australia, Prof Chris Dickman has found that, for every extra one million humans (we’re at 24 million now), we lose one vertebrate species. I’m interested in McKee’s interest in faith and our role in being stewards of the Earth. We’re certainly failing to be good stewards while population grows by 80 million a year!

  4. Our own reproductive success comes, in part, at the expense of other species, indeed the biosphere itself. That said, …the purpose of life is to survive and reproduce. Is it possible to reverses the natural path of evolution? The good news is that we are currently heading for voluntary extinction. The Total Fertility Rate on a global basis has been in decline for over a half century. More so in the first world. The real question is: can we out ‘tech’ the negative affects on the biosphere itself

  5. Many thanks to Dr. McKee for pointing out the important relationship between human population levels and the stress put on other species, biodiversity, and the environment. As Dr. McKee correctly notes, we can address this relationship compassionately with education, access to family planning, and empowerment of women. Overpopulation must be a part of our dialogue about environmental sustainability — sadly, it is too often ignored or denied.

  6. The higher fertility rates in many developing countries has resulted into population explosion. There are two categories of people in these countries. First one is a small category, and in this people reproduce with full awareness and respect to sustainability, in second category which is a major one, people have some idea of sustainability, but do not respect it and for them reproduction is natural, personal, cultural and religion based fantasy. So unless family planning is regulated, globally, politically & legally in these countries, 50% to 60% of the animal, aquatic and bird species will extinct when world will touch 10 billion population, due to resource scarcity and climate impact. The earth is capable only to support 6 billion people with ~0.75 HDI and only 3 billion people with > 0.95 HDI.

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