Population Matters

Global biodiversity and population

Global biodiversity and population

Biodiversity is the sum of all plants, animals and microorganisms as well as their phenotypic and genotypic variation, along with the ecosystems of which they are a part. Biodiversity is the fundamental regulator of climate, energy, food, nutrients and water.

As the human footprint on the earth has expanded, the earth’s biodiversity has continuously declined.

The Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (2005) states: “Changes in biodiversity due to human activity have been more rapid in the last 50 years than at any time in human history.”

The Kemp's ridley sea turtle: just one example of a species that is critically endangered due to human activity
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle: just one example of a species that is now critically endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, pollution and entanglement in shrimping nets

It highlights that there is a 40 per cent decline in average species abundance, a 50 per cent decline in inland water species, and a 30 per cent decline in the population of marine and terrestrial species.

In this briefing, we report on, and discuss, the recent changes in the global biodiversity associated with the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem, the importance of genetic biodiversity, and the role of human population growth on these biodiversity systems.

The rapid reduction of tropical forests has threatened hundreds of plant and animal species with extinction.

The loss in aquatic biodiversity has resulted in a 40 per cent decline in the population of amphibians and a 20 per cent decline in freshwater fish. Housing and commercial construction along river banks has eroded the soil, polluted the water and fragmented the aquatic habitat.

Due to such anthropogenic alterations in the environment, there is a loss, not only of species but also of their genetic component that is crucial for diversity and has important uses for mankind.

Population Matters asserts that the relentless increase in the human population is primarily responsible for this decline in biodiversity, through the increased need for food and space, and higher per-capita consumption.

We conclude that, if human population continues to grow at the same rate, the depletion of biodiversity will continue unabated.

Population Matters believes that action to promote a reduction in, and reversal of, human population growth is necessary for us to maintain biodiversity in order to secure a sustainable future.

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Envisioning a sustainable society

A sustainable society is one that ensures the health and vitality of human life for present as well as future generations.

The sustainable society recognizes that there is one primary environment — the physical environment — within which all other environments function.

The current socio-economic model of developed countries is becoming increasingly unsustainable for our individual well-being, society and ecosystem. The current trends are that the people of industrialised nations consume more than their needs and, in the process, are depleting the natural resources necessary for a sustainable society.

A sustainable society ensures the health and vitality of human life for present as well as future generations
A sustainable society ensures the health and vitality of human life for present as well as future generations

In this briefing, we discuss the characteristics of a sustainable society, the ways to achieve sustainability (and the existing challenges), major constituents of a sustainable society, and relevant examples.

We assert that the dominant anthropocentric approach has been responsible for the current unsustainable lifestyle, through overconsumption and continuous deterioration of natural resources.

The steady increase in population growth across the world is a causal impediment to progress towards achieving sustainability.

The briefing highlights the urgent need to stabilise the population, and the importance of the pace of stabilisation to ensure the availability of natural resources to mankind.

It is noted that cities not only pose a challenge to sustainability but also offer opportunities to overcome these challenges, through sustainable urban agriculture, better public transport, affordable housing and poverty alleviation.

The relevant issues of social justice, organic farming and use of renewable energy in the context of sustainability are also discussed.

We conclude by emphasising the need to realise, minimise and neutralise our use of natural resources, in order to restore the balance between humanity and the natural ecosystem, and thus attain a sustainable society.

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Planetary boundaries and population

We live in the Anthropocene era, in which humans are the single largest modifier of planet Earth.

The consequences of there being seven billion of us on the planet are more than the Earth’s natural biophysical and geological systems can process.

The concept of ‘planetary boundaries’ is one of defining a ‘safe operating space’ for human societies to develop and thrive, based on the functioning and resilience of the Earth.

We live in the Anthropocene era, in which humans are the single largest modifier of planet Earth
The consequences of there being seven billion of us on the planet are more than the Earth’s natural biophysical and geological systems can process

Based on the human-induced alterations in the natural environment, nine planetary boundaries have been identified, each with defined threshold limits. Crossing these boundaries will result in deleterious consequences for all species on Earth, and damage the possibility of achieving a sustainable future.

In this briefing, we explore the approach, concept and limits of planetary boundaries, and discuss the influence of population growth on these boundaries.

The nine planetary boundaries are based on three scientific principles:

  • the level of usage of non-renewable fossil resources
  • the level of usage of the biosphere, and exploitation of natural ecosystems
  • the level of Earth’s capacity to absorb and dissipate human waste flows

Climate change and the integrity of the biosphere are the two most important limits, because they influence the threshold limits of the remaining boundaries.

According to recent estimates, we have already crossed four of the nine planetary boundaries, highlighting the current scale of human-induced alterations in the environment.

If these changes are not reversed, and if the current scale of depletion of natural resources continues, we will jeopardise our future by driving innumerable species to extinction.

Stabilising population growth is essential to avoid crossing the limits of the nine planetary boundariesPopulation Matters asserts that stabilising population growth is essential if we are to avoid crossing the defined threshold limits of the nine planetary boundaries.

The concept of Planetary Boundaries is thus an effective tool to aid decision-makers by defining the safe operating space for humanity and a sustainable future.

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Population and resource security

Population growth and increasing affluence will increase the pressure on limited resourcesWater scarcity, energy challenges and food security are three increasingly-recognized global challenges. Resource security, however, remains largely unaddressed, in part because the majority of minerals and metals are not currently scarce and the importance of these resources is not as obviously visible.

Projected population growth and increasing affluence will, however, cause demand for resources to grow. This will cause greater competition, which means that those countries largely dependent on imports for their resources, such as the UK, may end up in a particularly vulnerable position.

This briefing will look at resource demand, security and scarcity. It will be argued that, while there are many ways in which resource security can be improved in theory, these are often not viable.

One reason is that different challenges have conflicting solutions. Land could be used to extract minerals and metals, but the same land could also be used by farmers to increase output, or by the building sector to develop residential properties.

At the same time, there are conflicting scarcity problems that appear more urgent than impending metal and mineral scarcity. Water scarcity will be a serious problem, and the increasing demand for energy will difficult to meet.

The challenge can only be solved by reducing demand for resources of all kindsWhen considering widely discussed solutions for these global challenges, it becomes obvious that much trust is placed in technology. Technology, however, relies heavily on the availability of metals and minerals, and all of these solutions would consequently influence resource security adversely.

What this shows, more than anything, is that the complicated and intertwined nature of the challenges the world faces can in the long term only be solved by actively reducing demand for resources of all kinds.

This means that we ought to reduce per capita demand, but more importantly, that population stabilisation policies are of paramount importance. This is particularly the case given the currently very low per capita consumption of much of the world’s population.

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Population growth drives migration

Sometimes a person has no choice but to leave home and seek a more bearable life elsewhereMigration is a global phenomenon of increasing scale and concern, and is addressed in our latest briefing.

The ongoing “migration crisis” in the European Union and the United Kingdom has affected every corner of society, raising a number of uncomfortable issues.

Migration is defined as the movement of people that involves change of residence from one place to another and impacts the structure, composition and growth of a country. About one in seven people worldwide are identified as international or internal migrants, a record level.

People leave their home for diverse reasons, and sometimes have little choice — for example, as a consequence of disease, conflict or natural disasters. These are, in turn, a result of pressure on the environment from high human population growth or density, and from overconsumption of natural resources, leading to poverty and low living standards.

To alleviate poverty and improve people’s living standards, which will in turn reduce migratory pressure, Population Matters promotes moderating population growth.

Population Matters believes that improving living standards through limiting population growth will enhance opportunities for every individual.

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Universal basic income could improve sustainability

UBI could be significantly more sustainable than current welfare systems (Photo credit: Bank of England)Universal basic income (UBI) means replacing means-tested benefits with an unconditional regular payment that everyone, rich or poor, receives. While there are risks, UBI has the potential to be significantly more sustainable than current welfare systems, largely due to its ability to combat poverty.

This is the conclusion of our new briefing paper, which looks at the sustainability of implementing UBI in the UK.

While there are obvious important moral reasons to address poverty, poverty is also a significant problem from a sustainability perspective. There are three reasons for this: the first is that poverty tends to cause increased population growth. The second is that even though those in poverty consume less, a great deal of resources are often required to cover the costs of poverty; child poverty in the UK, for instance, is estimated to have cost the government £29 billion. The third reason is that poverty motivates governments to pursue an unsustainable perpetual economic growth as a tool to fight poverty, resulting in long-term environmental degradation.

The main strength of UBI is its ability to combat poverty more effectively than conditional welfare. For instance, conditional welfare perversely incentivises some on welfare to not seek work, because working more would mean benefit withdrawal. UBI, by contrast, allows workers to keep all of their basic income no matter what they earn.

UBI can combat poverty more effectively than conditional welfareFurthermore, UBI would significantly increase the bargaining position of low-paid workers: instead of being forced to take the first job they can find, they could look around for better-paid work.

In one of the few basic income pilots that has been performed, in Manitoba, Canada, it has indeed been found that UBI appeared to have a significant effect in reducing poverty.

Some worry that UBI will be prohibitively expensive to implement on the required scale. While this is a concern, the RSA has published a basic income plan for the UK that would have a net cost of only one per cent of GDP — a cost which is not at all unprecedented for social spending.

UBI is no panacea, however — it does have its problems: many worry that UBI will lead to a significant decrease in the amount people are willing to work, and it is difficult to know the seriousness of this concern based on current evidence. Others worry that UBI may precipitate dangerous flows of migration, and hence it is crucial that if UBI is implemented, it is done so in conjunction with well-constructed migration policies.

These concerns are valid, and there is certainly a need for more evidence. Hopefully some of this will come from the upcoming basic income experiment in Finland.

Nonetheless, UBI may be an invaluable tool for combatting poverty and moving towards a more sustainable society.

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Population and food security

‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.’ The world set itself a considerable challenge in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Population stabilisation is a key component of improving food securityCurrently, one in nine of the world’s population is chronically undernourished and, given that population is projected to grow significantly in upcoming years, much must change before hunger can be successfully and sustainably eradicated.

Our new briefing examines food demand and food security. The UK is affluent enough to guarantee food security for its population for now, yet it will not be able to do this indefinitely, due to its reliance on other countries for much of its food. The problem of food security is, by definition, a global problem. Global challenges, including climate change, environmental degradation and water scarcity, will affect the UK.

Though there are, in theory, many opportunities to improve food security across the globe, not all of these are viable in practice. Many opportunities, such as the expansion of crop land, intensify other challenges such as climate change or environmental degradation.

Moreover, it may be impossible to realise such opportunities in densely populated areas, due to a lack of space and competition with the building sector. Population growth will make these conflicts more prevalent, and consequently it is necessary that governments across the globe consider population stabilisation as a key component of improving food security.

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Why family size varies

Our new briefing examines the factors that influence family sizeThe main factors which influence disparity in family size in England and Wales are societal views on parenthood, gender relations, government policy, stereotypes about only children, the cost of raising children, social class/deprivation and mother’s country of birth.

This is the conclusion of Population Matters’ latest briefing paper, which examines family size in England and Wales and the reasons why family size differs.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 82 per cent of women who have completed their families in England and Wales have children, the majority have two or more, women are now as likely to be childless as to have three children, and one in every ten women has four or more children.

The briefing paper finds that culture and societal views on the importance of parenthood, including cultural views from parents’ countries of birth, seem to be the key drivers which encourage families to have children. Government failure to provide adequate family planning and SRE also plays an important role in why only one in five women in England and Wales do not have children, as this leads to unintended pregnancies, which make up one in six of all pregnancies in England and Wales.

Remarkably persistent negative stereotypes about the harmful effects of being an only child are an important reason why so many parents have more than one child. Religion and culture also tend to encourage people to have as many children as they can afford. However, considering the currently-staggering costs of raising children, which can now be over a quarter of million pounds, this is unlikely to be more than two children for most families. Government policy on child benefit affects how affordable children are, and thus also affects family size.

More women are pursuing higher education and entering the labour forceGender relations are another key factor in women’s decisions about how many children to have. Improving gender equality in England and Wales means that more women are pursuing higher education and entering the labour force, which means they are increasingly delaying childbirth, or indeed forgoing having children altogether, which leads to smaller families.

Overall, the total fertility rate in England and Wales has been falling, and continues to do so, driven by changing gender relations, perceptions on parenthood and, to a lesser extent, cost. More people are choosing to be childfree or to have only one child, and the number of people with larger families of three or more children is in decline.

Despite this, population in the UK as a whole is still increasing and is expected to rise by approximately 12 million people by 2050. In order to reduce this population growth, society must address the outlined factors that encourage people to have large families.

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Population & the world, 1991-2006

Population Matters was founded in 1991 to inform and educate about the dangers of unsustainable population growthThe Optimum Population Trust, now known as Population Matters, was founded in 1991 with the goal of informing and educating about the dangers posed by unsustainable population growth.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the organization, Population Matters has published a briefing paper which examines the changes that have occurred in the world since 1991 in terms of technology, demography, resource consumption and biodiversity.

There have been many societal changes in the 25 years since the organization’s inception, with rapid technological advancements, such as the development of the internet, the uptake in use of mobile phones and the rise of social media, dramatically altering the way we live.

Over the same time period, global population levels have increased by approximately two billion people, driven by high fertility rates and longer life expectancy.

Unfortunately, this increase in population levels has been accompanied by significant environmental damage. Consumption of natural resources has increased correspondingly, leading to deforestation, loss of arable land, significant declines in animal, plant and fish species, and huge increases in carbon emissions.

More people need more space and resources, meaning ever-more devastation for the planetThe briefing concludes that, given that global population levels are expected to increase by one billion to eight billion by 2030, and to 11 billion by 2100, demand for resources will continue to increase, likely causing even greater environmental damage.

To prevent this from happening, policymakers must learn from their mistakes and commit to confronting rapid population growth by making family planning services available to all, ensuring that girls around the world receive an education, and promoting smaller families.

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The UK in 2050

Our new briefing considers the contrasting effects of high or low population growth on future life in the UKEven though 2050 lies far in the future, government and business project what scenarios they might face by then. Futurologists aim to spot trends and challenges ahead of time, so that we can prepare for them.

Malthus could be called a futurologist. In this briefing, we will look at trends extrapolated from his food production variable.

It will be argued that, while economic changes, urbanisation, technological advancement and environmental degradation all influence consumption and resource-availability, population growth determines the severity of the influence of each factor.

A look at the different population projection variants shows that both quality of life and the cost of living are best safeguarded when Britain experiences low population growth. Consequently, it is clear that seeking population stabilization at a sustainable level must be included in future government policies.

Because the challenges of the future are not geographically confined, the UK will have to promote population stabilization beyond its borders as well as within. Only when the global population size stabilizes at a sustainable level, is a truly sustainable future possible. If it does not, conflicts caused by scarcity and poverty will drive millions to migrate, making it more difficult for Britain to manage its population size.

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