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Back You are here: Home Social Justice Environment Population control is the key to saving the planet

Population control is the key to saving the planet

Population_climateEnvironmentalists, including NGOs, are both gutless and less than honest in addressing population issues and how they impact on climate change. In short, a sustainable future for humankind will only come about if people have fewer children, writes Jonathon Porritt.

I thought it might be interesting to share an article done recently for Greenpeace Business.

They have just told me that they can’t use it – too controversial, apparently. If ever an article’s core hypothesis (in this case, that environmental NGOs are both gutless and less than honest in addressing population issues) was borne out by its editorial treatment, then this has to be it.

Which element in the following quotation (taken from a report about climate change issued earlier this year by the Ministry of Defence’s internal think-tank) most powerfully grabs your attention?

"The Earth’s population has grown exponentially in the last century, and rapid climate change of the kind that we have seen before would have more dramatic human consequences, resulting in societal collapse, mega-migration, intensifying competition for much-diminished resources, and widespread conflict."

Unless you are part of that very small minority of environmentalists who put population right at the top of any league table of current crises, that reference to "exponential population growth" will have gone straight in one ear and straight out the other.

There are all sorts of reasons for this: fear of controversy (particularly linked to population's "evil policy twin", namely immigration); "religious sensitivities", in as much as some of the fiercest and most bigoted opponents of proper fertility management are Catholics or Muslims; inexcusable ignorance; an obstinate refusal to think beyond the historical abuses of human rights carried out in the name of "population control" in India or China in the past; economic anxieties that without constant population growth there won’t be enough young people paying their taxes in the future to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed; and umpteen different shades of political correctness all the way through from “who are we to tell people in the third world how to live their lives?” to “it’s over-consumption in the rich world that’s the problem, not over-population in the poor world”.

Each of those requires proper refutation, but for the purposes of this article, I would like to focus on the "over-consumption versus over-population" debate. This is the argument most favoured by environmentalists who have never really looked into the issue, but are so incensed by the uncaring profligacy of the world’s richest one billion citizens that any other explanation of today's converging crises seems like an irresponsible distraction.

So let's get one thing absolutely clear: I have spent my entire life campaigning against that kind of uncaring profligacy, and no doubt will spend the rest of my life doing exactly the same. There may have been some excuse for the damage we did to the physical environment back in the 1960s and 70s (in that the evidence was often flimsy, and it somehow all seemed to be quite manageable), but today there is no excuse. The evidence is now in – on every count – and what we do today we do with full and shameful knowledge. There is no excuse, and this generation of politicians – in all the major Parties – already stand accused of the most heinous cowardice imaginable.

So I don’t need lecturing about the perils of excessive consumption, or the idiocy of relying on exponential economic growth – fuelled by increased per capita income – to secure a better world! But I’ve never been persuaded that that’s all we have to worry about – as if one mega-reality shaded out every other mega-reality that we are now having to face up to.

And the mega-reality I'm talking about here is carrying capacity: how many people can the Earth’s resources and life-support services sustain on an indefinite basis?

The answer to that is obviously determined in part by the level of consumption of each individual human being. But even if, by some currently unimaginable miracle, the richest people in the world today learn to lead what WWF calls "one planet lifestyles", does anyone seriously suppose that this would work for the next 3 billion people aspiring to live in the same way – and the next 3 billion who will be staking a claim on those self-same resources and services before 2050?

It's fascinating to see how many environmentalists have woken up in the last couple of years to the phenomenon of peak oil – the likelihood that we have either already passed or are very close to the "half-way point" in terms of using up existing oil reserves.

But I'm not at all sure that the full implications of this have really sunk in. Our near-total dependence on oil makes it very difficult for people to envisage a life without it; activists in today's Transition Towns movement are full of anecdotes of people’s horror as they become acquainted with this reality.

Richard Heinberg (author of "The Party’s Over" and a leading activist in the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) likes to rub this in by reminding people that just three spoonfuls of oil provides the equivalent amount of energy as 8 hours of human labour!

Richard’s latest book is called "Peak Everything" – covering not just peak oil, but peak soil, peak wheat, peak rice, peak fisheries, peak precious metals and, perhaps most pressingly of all, peak water.

This is not just a question of more and more people at risk because of declining water resources. A recent report from WWF highlighted the invisible nature of the problem here in the UK.

We ourselves are not "running out of water", so there is no direct threat to our current average water consumption of 150 litres per day. But each of us consumes on average thirty times as much "virtual water", which has been used in the production of food and textiles imported into the UK.

Big exporting countries like Spain, Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and Uzbekistan are all facing acute water stress – and it’s quite sobering to be reminded that just one green bean from Kenya takes four litres of water to produce. As we work our way through more than 4500 litres of virtual water per person per day, because of these imports, are we, in effect, simply exporting drought?

There are of course all sorts of ways in which we can "fix" some of these problems. Hyper-efficient irrigation systems could reduce water consumption for agriculture by up to 50%. The next generation of solar-powered desalination technologies will bring some comfort to many coastal communities in water-stressed areas. If we had to, albeit at a massive cost, we could totally re-engineer our water and sewerage systems throughout the rich world to deliver exactly the same services for a fraction of current water consumption levels. All this is possible, but unbelievably difficult.

Given all that, one has to point out that it would be a great deal easier to do it for 3 billion people than for 6 billion, let alone 9 billion.

That was exactly the sort of thinking China’s leaders went through 30 years ago: that it might just be possible to sustain a population of around 1 billion on China’s limited land and natural resources, but completely impossible to do the same for 1.5 billion.

The "one child family" policy introduced at that time has pegged China’s population at around 1.3 billion; according to the figures the Chinese government uses, it would otherwise have been 1.7 billion. That’s 400 million births averted.

This is where you have to start doing the sums. Per capita emissions of CO2 in China today are around 3.8 tonnes per person. An extra 400 million Chinese citizens legitimately going about their business of improving their economic standard of living, in exactly the same way that citizens of every single one of our rich nations have done over many decades, would today be emitting an additional 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2.

When asked which country I believe is doing most about addressing the challenge of climate change, I’m only being partly mischievous when I tell my questioner that it is China.

But logic does not come easily to the hundreds of millions of people who are only just waking up to the threat of accelerating climate change. To be told that the best thing you can do by way of a personal contribution to the problem is to have fewer children (or enable the millions of women all around the world who would just love to have fewer children to do exactly that) comes as a bit of a shock.

If, instead of 70 million additional people arriving every year, we had 70 million fewer, then we might still have a chance of arriving at a sustainable future for the whole of humankind. Without that, we are looking at very long odds indeed.

There's a double irony here. Every single one of the multiple socio-economic issues that preoccupy campaigns today would be eased by full-on, government-led interventions to help reduce average fertility – especially in the world’s poorest countries.

And we know exactly how to generate that double dividend: massively increase funding for education for girls, for improved reproductive and other health interventions for women, and for ensuring access for women to a choice of reliable and cheap (preferably free) contraceptives. That's what successful family planning looks like.

Yet to listen to critics of family planning, you would still think it’s all about coercion and control.

Whilst only too happy to regale you with the shocking statistics about compulsory abortions and sterilisations (let alone very high levels of female infanticide) in China, they know nothing of the success stories in places like Kerala, Thailand, Korea – and even in Iran. With the full support of Islamic leaders in that country, their total fertility rate fell from 6 children per woman in 1974 to 2 children per woman by 2000. And a brilliant education campaign was at the heart of this success story.

The wilful ignorance of environmentalists is one of the reasons why funding for family planning and reproductive healthcare has been falling over the last decade, instead of increasing, despite a rising number of requests for financial support from countries the world over.

The other main reason is the vengeful fundamentalism of the George Bush regime, which decreed nearly 8 years ago that no organisation would receive US funding if it so much as acknowledged that abortion is a necessary (though always regrettable) part of any concerted strategy on family planning. Great company for such right-on environmentalists to be keeping.

This is not some abstract lament, detached from the reality of people's lives. In countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, there are tragedies unfolding in front of our eyes right now. In Kenya, the total fertility rate declined from 8 children per woman in 1979 to 4.7 children by 1998. Good news - but then, funding collapsed and average fertility is now on the rise again. If the downward trend had been continued, the population of Kenya in 2050 would have been 44 million. On current trends, it will be more than 80 million.

It's case studies like these (both good and bad) which persuaded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health to re-engage in this debate in 2007. Its report, ("Return of the Population Growth Factor"), couldn't have been clearer in its overarching conclusion: "The evidence is overwhelming: The Millennium Development Goals are difficult or impossible to achieve with the current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions."

So what exactly is going on here? The governments of many of the poorest countries in the world are crying out for financial support for family planning, but are not getting it. The lives of countless millions of women are devastated by their inability to manage their own fertility, and hundreds of thousands die every year because of illegal abortions or complications from unwanted pregnancies.

But their voices go largely unheard. On top of all that, every single one of the environmental problems we face today is exacerbated by population growth, and the already massive challenge of achieving an 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050 is rendered completely fantastical by the prospective arrival of another 2.5 billion people over the next 40 years.

Yet most environmentalists will still find this article offensive. They will go on banging their utterly inadequate "over-consumption drum", and somehow sleep easy in their beds that they are doing "a good job".

I think not.

Jonathon Porritt, is co-founder of Forum for the Future, and an eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development. 

He was formerly director of Friends of the Earth UK (1984-90); co-chair of the Green Party (1980-83) of which he is still a member; chairman of UNED-UK (1993-96); chairman of Sustainability South West, the South West Round Table for Sustainable Development (1999-2001); a trustee of WWF UK (1991-2005), a member of the Board of the South West Regional Development Agency (1999-2008).

He stood down as chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission in July 2009 after nine years providing high-level advice to government ministers.

His latest books are Capitalism As If The World Matters (Earthscan, revised 2007), Globalism & Regionalism (Black Dog 2008) and Living Within Our Means (Forum for the Future 2009).

Jonathon blogs here and at Forum for the Future.

 

 

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