"The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous."
When we discuss environmental, social and economic problems with our students, the issue of population is seldom explored. This is possibly because any discussion of population must include the controversial or uncomfortable issues of sexuality and contraception, hot topics involving personal rights and religion. We, as teachers, often don't even know what we can and cannot say when discussing these issues. Furthermore, "overpopulation" is such a broad concept, we do not know where to begin when trying to discuss the concept, much less how to present it to young people. Because the subject is politically sensitive and the concept is so broad, few of our students are learning that population is a critical subject over which they have total control of any consequences. Students rarely even know what they mean by "overpopulation."
"Overpopulation" is a relative, not an absolute term. Each student will possess their own opinion regarding what is too much--too much competition, too much stress--both symptoms of overpopulation. Some students will identify their school, home or neighborhood as overpopulated; others will firmly disagree. Because "overpopulation" is such a subjective term, it is recommended teachers request that students complete a survey or open the discussion with an empathy lesson. Feelings associated with overpopulation are personal. Educators should question where students feel crowded and redirect students back to these feelings they have as they complete the activities. Do not assume students' perceptions associated with overpopulation is the same yours, or that they share a concept.
Start with a reasonable working definition of overpopulation by an author in the field: " . . .when there are more people than can live on the earth in comfort, happiness and health and still leave the world a fit place for future generations." For each component of this definition, there are many issues which need to be considered. For example, under the category of "comfort," housing, food, health, and perhaps employment are a few topics that may be discussed. But the standard by which these items should be judged is subjective. For example, on the issue of housing, the following questions might be asked: What kind of housing? How much space for each person? What is necessary for comfort? Students will all have their own varying responses to all these questions. Their inability to agree on a concept as simple as "comfort" underlies the difficulty presented when trying when teaching the abstract concept of "overpopulation".
It's impossible to come up with a definition of "happiness" that would satisfy everyone in the class, much less the world. One person's definition of happiness might be "to provide adequate shelter, food, and health care for my family," while another's might be "to have two cars, a big house, servants, and a swimming pool." A life without fear associated with crime might be considered happiness for many in urban areas. Ask students to list three things needed in their own definition of happiness. Compare these lists. These is sure to be little agreement.
Consider "leaving the earth a fit place for future generations." What, for example, is "fit?" Does that mean completely pollution free? Do we only concern ourselves, humans, when we consider "a fit earth"? Is the damage cause by pollution, desertification, and deforestation reversible? These are some of the questions that might be asked about the state of the planet.
Students will often associate comfort and happiness with social, economic and environmental standards. To further their understanding of the impacts of overpopulation on each of these issues, examine each individually, first at the student's personal level, then at the city or community level and aggregate this information to provide a national or international perspective on overpopulation and its impact on societies, wealth and incomes and the environment.