Nandita Bajaj Talks Human Population Dynamics and the Impacts on People, Animals, and the Planet
by the PZI Team
July 11, 2023
From aerospace engineering, to teaching, to humane education and nonprofit management, Nandita Bajaj’s career evolution reflects the evolution of her values and passions.
Participating in a youth mentorship program, meeting the person who became her spouse, adopting a rescued animal, and stumbling upon a humane education master’s program have all been turning points in the awakening and expanding of her values to pursue what have become her “passions for science, environmentalism, animal advocacy, and reproductive autonomy using an anti-oppression lens.”
Currently, Nandita is the Executive Director of Population Balance, an organization that addresses the intersectional impacts of human population dynamics and overconsumption on people, animals, and the planet.
She also is on the faculty of the Institute for Humane Education at Antioch University.
We talked with Nandita about her work to create a healthy and just world for all by bringing a humane education lens to population issues.
PZI: You run the nonprofit Population Balance. How does your organization define “population balance” and why is it important in today’s world?
NB: At Population Balance, our vision is to create a future where our human footprint is in balance with life on Earth, enabling all species to thrive.
We base our work on humane education principles whereby all our solutions seek to elevate the health and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet. We are guided by three pillars:
To live in balance with nature would mean that we shrink our population and economies to a level that is compatible with planetary boundaries and that makes room for all its wondrous creatures and biodiversity.
PZI: How can society balance the needs and rights of individuals and families with the need for population balance and sustainability? What about concerns about eugenics or the infringement of reproductive freedoms?
NB: We at Population Balance are aware that any discussion about population must reckon with the dark history of population “control” that violated the reproductive freedoms of countless marginalized groups through the practices of eugenics, slavery, and other social inequalities.
However, we also understand that reproductive control goes back thousands of years and that compulsive and coercive natalism—pressures to bear children for other agendas—is the oldest form of population control, one that is also at the heart of our unchecked population growth.
In our work, we advocate for reproductive autonomy and responsibility so that people can make liberated, informed, and responsible family choices for themselves, their families, and the planet.
PZI: How do you define family? How are definitions of family changing? How do definitions of family influence policy around human population dynamics and affect the most vulnerable?
NB: A family can consist of any (set of) relationship(s) that bring love, belonging, connection, care, companionship, and purpose to our lives–including relationships with nature, friends, relatives, a partner, foster or adoptive animals, foster, adoptive, or biological children, and/or any combination that makes sense to them.
The traditional definition of a family is changing rapidly, and more people are forgoing marriage and parenthood in pursuit of other meaningful endeavors and relationships.
However, human society’s policies and norms still privilege those who fit into the dominant narrative of family and implicitly discriminate against those who don’t.
From pressures exerted by family members, to pronatalist religious messaging, to the glorification of pregnancy and parenthood in celebrity and media culture, to political restrictions on contraceptive use and abortion access, reproductive decision-making is powerfully shaped by conformity with pronatalist cultural norms and policies.
Our institutions need to evolve so that our policies and norms reflect changing cultural values and family structures in order to equitably serve the wellbeing of all.
PZI: There has been a rise in rhetoric that declining population rates threaten our future. What do you think the root causes are of these policies and messaging?
NB: The aging and decreasing populations that several countries are experiencing are an unprecedented phenomenon in human history.
A decreasing population leads to significant benefits, including less infrastructure, lower unemployment, better wages, fewer stresses on the planet, more habitat for other species, more access to nature, and greater overall wellbeing.
Bemoaning these population trends can only be justified within an organizing system that has been built upon the ideas of perpetual economic growth and unabated domination over the natural world and over disempowered human communities to benefit a small minority.
But since the global population is still growing at about 80 million people each year, these headlines are also misleading.
These alarmist trends arise from fears that certain ethnic populations are decreasing while others are still growing, since immigration could offer a positive solution to those countries experiencing declining population trends.
There is also a lack of reckoning with the great unraveling of our ecological crises, which is harming—and will continue to harm—the most vulnerable populations across the globe.
A global population decrease is projected to happen only later this century.
In the meantime, we are quickly crossing many of our ecological tipping points, which will likely bring unimaginably dire consequences for humanity and other species over the next several decades.
PZI: You’ve said that human population dynamics are inextricably connected to the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet. Tell us more.
NB: The rapid expansion of the human enterprise is a recent phenomenon. For over 90 percent of human existence, the world population remained less than five million.
The Agricultural Revolution, which began about 10,000 years ago, marked a shift to settlement societies. This shift led to a systematic diminution of female status, as women went from being active gatherers of food to being relegated to the home sphere, as males dominated the fields. The subsequent rise in population, cities, and tribal conflict over land and power created the need for more laborers and warriors, which raised the value of women as childbearers, to the exclusion of other roles.
Meanwhile, the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe played a dramatic role in shifting our view of nature and the nonhuman world, which came to be seen as resources to exploit.
The discovery of fossil fuels around 1800 expedited growth in our numbers through the invention of new technologies that allowed for better health outcomes and greater life expectancy.
The human population has grown to eight billion, while our consumption has grown by a factor of 100 over the last two centuries.
Climate change, the sixth mass extinction, and gross social injustices are the defining issues of our time that are only exacerbated by further growth in our population.
Once you look at these issues through a humane education lens, it becomes inevitable not to see population dynamics as an issue that is inextricably connected to the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet.
PZI: You’ve said that “considering the needs of Earth in all our decisions makes us more human, not less.” What do you mean by that, and what does it look like to manifest that sentiment?
NB: I had written that in a recent post to address a common misconception that being ecologically minded and reverent toward nature somehow makes us less caring toward our own species.
We understand that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. Our origin and our fate are interwoven with those of the biosphere.
So the conclusion that caring about the planet must mean that we forsake the wellbeing of our own species points not only to a lack of imagination but also to a worldview of separation—where we see ourselves as separate from (and often above) nature.
That’s the result of our modern dominant worldview of separateness, inspired by the colonialist ideas that took root in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and now encircle the globe.
They are learned worldviews, which can be unlearned; they are not a result of “human nature.”
So, considering the needs of our planet in all of its wondrous forms—living and non-living alike—would mean that we are living up to our highest potential as human beings.
And that would only make us more fully human.
A manifestation of this sentiment would look like deep intentionality in all our major choices—consumptive and reproductive—so that we consider not only the impacts on our wellbeing but also the wellbeing of the planet; choices that would lead to doing more good, and less harm overall.