16 September 2012

A Solution That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Seeing the crowds packed into Trafalgar Square and the Mall to welcome the Olympians and Para-Olympians recently gave me pause for reflection. I had thought that one only saw crowds like that at the Kaaba in Mecca or in the streets of Bombay. For a small country we certainly pack in an awful lot of people. This is a matter of concern for some and something that must not be spoken about for others.  

The Forum for the Future produced a report in 2010 called Growing Pains, about human numbers, which was well covered in the media at the time – yet it did not spark the much-needed national debate and the issues it raised are rarely discussed now.  Population as a discussion topic is off-limits for most UK politicians, in a way that plays into the hands of illiberal and xenophobic organisations.

However, the UK population is projected to grow at its fastest rate since the post-war ‘baby boom’, increasing from 61.4 million now to 70.6 million in 2030. A further 9 million people by then will increase pressures on public services, infrastructures and the natural environment – all requiring long-term planning. Therefore all major public infrastructure bodies and service providers should carry out detailed planning for the impacts of continued population growth. So far there is little sign of that and it will not happen if the political will is not there. Back in 1972, at the first UN Conference on Environment and Human Development in Stockholm, population was a big, controversial topic of debate. If governments had started planning then, we would not be facing the crisis we are now.  So,why the vast silence?  A possible explanation for that is that environmental NGOs and opinion formers are anxious that we concentrate our minds on environmental degredation and over –consumption in the rich world – while ignoring the ultimate cause of both of these pressing problems: over population. Jonathon Porritt worked on the Royal Society’s People and Planet report which came out in April 2012 and it is well worth reading – although it shies away from tackling over-population head on.

The reason for this is the almost universal preconception that “coercion lies at the heart of the population control agenda”.   This stems from the fear of China’s one-child policy being repeated here. But this need not be the case. Deciding voluntarily to limit your family to two children would be another way of dealing with the problem.  Jonathon Porritt says: “A voluntary, rights-based approach is the only way to promote effective family planning. In other words, make family planning and other reproductive health services freely available and fully accessible to everyone – and empowering and encouraging them to use it”.  I heard the Duke of Cambridge say recently that he would like two children and wondered if he and the Duchess of Cambridge were knowingly setting a trend! 

In July this year I attended the “UN Forum 2012 – Bringing the UN to the UK”. This was the largest civil society gathering on the United Nations in the UK this year. It was organised by the United Nations Association (UNA-UK) and was an opportunity for people of all walks of life to come together and discuss some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today – from intractable conflicts to sustainable development.

The Forum was well attended by people of all ages – and yes, it did tackle the issue of over-population in one of its workshops. One of the speakers on the panel was Sara Parkin OBE. She is a Director of The Forum for the Future. She spoke passionately about the need to educate women in the developing world on birth control and access to contraception. She demonstrated that the issue of birth control is linked to population growth, which is inevitable linked to sustainability and climate change – and she referred to the Secretary General of that 1972 Conference, Maurice Strong, who said bluntly back then: “Either we reduce our population voluntarily, or nature will do it for us brutally.”  

As a species we think that we have – or will have - the technology to solve the problems of population growth and climate change. This is an arrogant and foolish pretension. The reality is far more complicated.  Sara Parkin had this to say: “Currently, rich countries are alone in showing a rise in average family size. With a disproportionate impact on the environment, this puts them on fragile ecological, moral and diplomatic territory. A child born in Europe accounts for 11 times more greenhouse gas emissions than one born in Africa; for North America, the figure is 24 times. (These do not include ‘offshore’ emissions embedded in imports.) Ultimately, it is clear that, with increasing pressure on key resources, such as land, food and water, everywhere, planning our family is a personal responsibility, as well as a global dilemma.” She also pointed out that: “The UN has three projections for the global population in 2100: High = 16 billion; Medium  = 10 billion (we are roughly on track for this); Low  = 6 billion .   And that lower projection - of 1 billion people fewer than there are now - is achievable”.

“This is a target that could be met simply by responding to the two hundred plus million couples around the world who say they want contraceptives to help plan their family but can’t get them, and by ensuring new generations get the information and contraceptives they need to plan their future families. There are countries with hugely successful programmes to learn from. Thailand, for example, has achieved lower birth rates without any sort of coercion, as has Iran, a country not often cited as an exemplar of world leadership. Above all we need – in the UK- to talk about the numbers of people and our demography as we plan for the future. Any hopes of ending environmental degradation, meeting the Millennium Development Goals, creating resilient communities and economies, and building trusted governance systems will be dashed unless there are fewer of us in the future than there are now. If we can’t do that by bringing down birth rates thoughtfully and carefully, then we shouldn’t be surprised if rising death rates do it for us. At all levels the crisis is a humanitarian one. The solutions are known, are cheap, and come with many collateral benefits”.

All that may well be so, but the political will to achieve them must be there too – and I leave you with the stark statement of Roger Martin, Chair of Population Matters. Reporting on the Earth Summit, he said: “I had to conclude that governments basically don’t care if the planet collapses under us in 20 years time. Their concerns are to get re-elected by providing short-term growth that unsustainable growth capitalism has persuaded us to demand. This raises the hugely challenging question of the tension between sustainability and democracy. The only solution is to persuade electorates to demand more sustainability and less consumption – easier said than done, when politics and the media are unanimously desperate for growth”.

Links to reports mentioned above:


  1. Unfortunately, the ex-leader of the Green Party had three offspring.

    P.J. o'Rourke had it about right when he said "way too much of you,just about enough of me"

    Your Malthusian pessimism excites green types but I was very surprised by something I read in the First Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs. It was in Ch 2:

    17. In the long term, all of the projected growth in the UK population is attributable to net immigration. If there was no migration (that is, zero immigration and zero emigration), the projected population in 2081 would be 3.3 million lower than in 2006. Professor Robert Rowthorn of Cambridge University calculated that, with zero net immigration or "balanced migration" (i.e. when immigration equals emigration), the population would be 3.7 million higher by 2081 (p 27). Balanced migration increases population growth because immigrants are, on average, younger than emigrants and are thus more likely to have children (p 2).


    Real ammo for the racist loons...

    1. Thank you, Chuck, for your comment. What a lot of points you make!
      I haven't any children so, if we're being personal, the ex-leader of the Greens and I balance out at 1.5 each - but I don't see that it's relevant. Let's have no special pleading from "America's most provocative satirist", since P.J.O'Rourke's country is an even bigger problem than ours is. Let's see whether Malthus was a pessimist, a realist or merely a dyspeptic clergyman when the facts themselves resolve it.
      Of course the Lords are correct: the UK population has always been about net immigration - ever since the first humans trudged wearily behind the retreating glaciers. So what?
      At least the racists think they know where they're coming from, in a manner of speaking, though I'm uneasy about their views.

  2. Malthus was hopelessly wrong - although very aware for his time - since we are more than capable of feeding the world several times over thanks to massive advancements in 'technology'. We just don't. Big difference. The carrying capacity of the planet is potentially huge if we can get along with each other.

    Your comments about Malthus belie your excitement at a future potential human tragedy proving you 'right'. I don't get that. I also don't get the leader of a Green Party having three children? I kind of like Bill Hick's take on it when he said: "Can you calm down on your rutting just for a couple of seconds until we work out this food-air deal?"

    The first 'humans' were nowhere near any glaciers. But that's another story. They did, however, probably look a bit like Kelvin McKenzie despite being more evolved.

    Ignore me, I basically agree with you but can't be serious.

  3. I worrty about this concern with populationh growth because it obscures the real problems which are the control of food production and distribution by monopoly cartels, the global inequality between states and within states, the political aspects of immigration - its not about food and numbers but about who is able to consume and pollute with impunity - generally the better off in the West and increasingly the rich elites of the Third World