Population Matters

2017: progress, challenges and Big Foot

2017: progress, challenges and Big Foot

2017 saw, of course, a further expansion of the population of human beings on our planet – since 2015, from 7.2bn to 7.56bn. That disappointing but entirely expected news was counterbalanced by signs of progress in the campaign to highlight and generate action on the population threat. Population Matters contributed to drive that debate and we are optimistic that understanding will grow in 2018.

Our campaigns

Global gag rule

The year started with disturbing news – the re-imposition and expansion by President Trump of the ‘global gag rule’. Withdrawing US aid funds from organisations offering abortion or information about it is deeply damaging to vital family planning and other health services in the world’s poorest countries – frequently those with very high population growth. While the impact will really take place when he next funding cycle begins, organisations are already reporting a direct impact on their services, and the well-being of the people they serve.

Population Matters has supported the campaign to address the impact of the cuts. Some hope was provided by the London Family Planning summit in July when other governments and big donors pledged more money, including in support of the SheDecides initiative.

Sustainable Population Policy

In June, to coincide with the snap UK election, in June we launched our Sustainable Population Policy, a framework for bringing UK population to sustainable levels. Neither the current or any recent UK governments have had any population or demography policy, despite our continued and high levels of population growth. Population Matters’ policy sets out principles that must be considered in creating a population strategy, including setting realistic targets, taking account of the international impacts of domestic policy decisions and respecting the rights of all UK citizens and residents.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Big Foot at the Natural History Museum
In July, the Natural History Museum in London received a visit from Big Foot, our new campaign mascot – a life-sized human sculpture made of a mesh of steel babies and standing upon a squashed planet Earth. Big Foot is our symbol for the Anthropocene, the period in the lifespan of our planet in which human beings have become the major force shaping the Earth.  From altering our climate to leaving radioactive traces in our rocks and bringing about the Sixth Mass Extinction, human beings – as a result of our massive population growth – are now the main drivers of what used to be called “natural history”.

Our campaign has called upon organisations which educate the public about the natural world to ensure that people know about the Anthropocene and the impact of our activities. We delivered an 1,800 signature petition to Sir Michael Dixon, director of the NHM, calling on him to ensure that the museum does its part. He has replied that:

Understanding man’s relationship with and impact on the natural world is central to our public programme and our scientific research. Of course, we do seek expert input to our work and, where appropriate, Population Matters is certainly an organisation we would wish to consult and potentially work with.


We have contacted other organisations, such as Kew Gardens, London Zoo and the Eden Project. The director of Kew Gardens wrote

I agree entirely that this is an extremely important issue and that building public understanding of the issue and mitigating actions is critical.

The campaign has contributed to a debate in the media, including an article in The Times and a number of local media articles accompanying Big Foot’s travels around the country. Wherever we take him, he stimulates interest and discussion – with most people quickly recognising what he represents.

Smaller families

The year also saw the launch of our popular Small families, small planet video, in which young people respond spontaneously to learning about the impact of population on the planet. The video has now been seen more than 10,000 times.

Waking up to poulation impacts

Chris Packham
Chris Packham

The year has seen increasing recognition of the effects of population growth in the media. A hard-hitting opinion piece by our patron Chris Packham in January was followed by a number of articles in key publications, including a prominently featured letter in The Guardian by PM director Robin Maynard and PM patron Jonathon Porritt.

Population and family size also featured in reporting of a number of science stories in the year. This year, a study was published identifying that having one fewer child was the most effective step an individual in the developed world can take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In November,a stark warning was issued by 15,000 scientists about the gravity of the environmental threats we are facing. They were unambiguous about the role of population growth in the crisis, stating:

“[b]y failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.”

They went on:

“It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most)…”

Progress on population

While the UN projections issued this year foresee our population reaching 11bn by the end of the century, they also show that if, on average, there was just half-a-child less in each family than it anticipates, our population in 2100 could be lower than it is today.

For that to happen, a concerted effort must be made to bring modern contraception to the 200 million women in need of it, to educate and empower women and girls so that they are free and able to plan their family size and to challenge opposition to contraception and social conventions that favour large families.

Allied with action to address our unsustainable consumption, these measures provide real hope for the (smaller) generations to come.

Support Population Matters

Population Matters is one of a handful of organisations across the world focussing on the environmental threats caused by unsustainable population. Please join us and support our work and campaigns in 2018. Thank you.

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“I hear a lot about it – but not like this”

Population Matters has today launched a new video and campaign focusing on the positive impact of smaller family size. Presenting young people with the facts about population growth and its impact on our planet, it elicits some reactions of amazement and horror, and sees participants thinking again about the impacts of their own choices.

Small families, small planet uses animations to reveal the truth about our numbers, our consumption and the importance of bringing down family size in both the developing and the developed world.  The film records the authentic reactions of randomly selected young people as the information is projected on a screen in front of them.

Video surprises and enlightens

Its focus is on the key statistic that while the UN projects a population of 11.2 billion by the end of the century, just one fewer child in every second family than it expects would see the global population lower than it is today by then. This striking statistic shows that far from being an impossible problem, the power to achieve sustainable population levels is in our hands. As one participant says at the end of the video: “everyone is powerful; everyone can make a difference.”

Having smaller families

How big a family to have is a very personal choice and our new web pages about smaller families look at the decision from global and personal perspectives. Featuring testimonies about their experiences from people who have small families or are child-free, we hope they will help people with one of the most important decisions they can make.

Take action

Please share the video on your Facebook or Twitter, or send the link on to other people who might be inspired by it.

If you have yet to have children, are considering it or already have a family, read our pages on the positive impact of having a small family or being child-free.

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Livestock, extinction . . . and population

Robin Maynard (right) with campaigners Tony Juniper and Pete Myers

Last week, Population Matters attended the high-profile Livestock and Extinction conference in London, organised by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and WWF-UK. The conference brought together experts on food production, wildlife, the environment, policymaking and health to examine the impact of industrial agriculture on the natural world and identify solutions.

PM held a stall at the conference – featuring our Anthropocene campaign ambassador, Big Foot – to bring the message that any discussion of food production must also look at demand for food arising from population growth.

The Anthropocene in action

Attendees at the conference heard in depth about the human impact on the environment, much of the content reinforcing the messages of PM’s Welcome to the Anthropocene campaign. Issues such as the decimation of bees, climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction were discussed and audiences were left in no doubt about the role of intensive livestock production – especially the production of animal feed – in driving these problems.

  • There are 23 billion domesticated birds alive at any one time on the planet (WWF)
  • Up to 40% of all crops grown globally are for animal feed (CIWF)
  • The livestock industry contributes 14% of greenhouse gas emissions (FAO)
  • Vulnerable natural habitats such as the Amazon Cerrado and Yangtze River basin are already used to grow feed for livestock (WWF)

A consistent message reinforced throughout the event was the need to move towards more plant-based diets, a measure that Population Matters has advocated as a way for individuals to reduce their impact.

Human populations drive food demand and extinction

A number of presentations and speakers touched on the impact of human population growth- both as a direct threat to the environment and a driver of demand for food. Some addresed the issue directly – one said “we’re overpopulated and we all know it” – and a speaker from WWF recognised the importance of family planning and women’s education and empowerment as tools to help prevent extinction through reducing population pressure.

Overall, however, the issue was very under-represented. Nevertheless, when PM director Robin Maynard raised it during a question and answer session, his remarks received a round of applause and almost all delegates who visited the Population Matters stall expressed support for our position.

Find out more

Welcome to the Anthropocene circleOur Welcome to the Anthropocene campaign details the impact of human beings on the natural world, and calls on natural history organisations such as museums to do more to inform the public.

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Meet Big Foot


In a week in which scientists warned that other species are facing “biological annihilation”, Population Matters is urging organisations which educate the public about natural history to stop pulling their punches and tell people what’s really going on. Earlier today, we launched our new ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ campaign outside London’s world-famous Natural History Museum, with the help of Big Foot, a spectacular and provocative “exhibit”.

Big Foot

Life-size Big Foot is made of hundreds of steel mesh “babies” and is standing on, or rather in, a squashed planet Earth with the remains of living things on his over-sized foot. A strong message which we think is needed to help people wake up to the danger the living world faces and the urgent need to do something about it.

Chris Packham
Chris Packham

Last month, our director Robin and PM patrons Chris Packham and Professor Aubrey Manning wrote to the Natural History Museum’s director, Sir Michael Dixon, asking him to ensure that the museum provides its millions of visitors with vital information about the state of our planet. In their letter they asked him to ensure the museum “takes the lead in presenting the facts about the impacts of our species upon the Earth, its biodiversity and ecosystems”, saying it is entirely in line with the museum’s stated mission:

“to challenge the way people think about the natural world – its past, present and future. We aim to stimulate public debate about humanity’s future and equip our audiences at every level with an understanding of science.”

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The impact of human beings been on the Earth in the last 200 years has been so deep that scientists are now calling for our period in the planet’s history to be called the ‘Anthropocene’ – the age of humans. Tragically, our impact has almost always been for the worse. Species of animals and plants are disappearing so fast that scientists and conservationists call it the ‘sixth mass extinction’.

The fine balance of chemicals in our air and seas has been disrupted with dangerous consequences – our carbon emissions are driving global warming and ocean acidification, while excesses of nitrogen and phospohorous from industry and agriculture are turning parts of the sea into dead zones.

Our enormous population growth – we are now adding a billion people every 12 to 15 years – and consumption are driving these changes. Population growth is not inevitable and we can end and reverse it, to the benefit of everyone, and everything, on our planet.

Find out more about the Anthropocene, the reasons for it and how we can help put things right on our Welcome to the Anthropocene campaign page.

Taking action

Robin Maynard and Big Foot outside the Natural History Museum
Big Foot photos: @roxeneandersonphotography

In the coming weeks and months, we shall be contacting museums, zoos, conservation groups and other organisations across the world to urge them to tell the public the truth about the natural world in the ‘age of humans’.

Please join our campaign, and sign our petition to the Natural History Museum.

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Election 2017 – time for a National Sustainable Population Policy

Tree in fieldPopulation Matters is calling for the next government to adopt a national Sustainable Population Policy. With population growth affecting almost every aspect of national life, it is an issue that can no longer be sidelined or partially addressed on a piecemeal basis. If you are a UK citizen, please contact your Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to ask them to support the call.

The UK’s population is growing at a rate that has not been seen for more than 40 years. That growth affects people’s quality of life, their economic opportunities and the health of the environment they live in (learn more). It makes it more challenging to house everyone, to provide infrastructure and public services and for the UK to meet its international obligations in regard to climate change.

This comprehensive challenge demands an  integrated and effective solution. The UK needs a National Population Policy which is managed and driven at the highest levels of government.

The policy should:

  • Accurately determine future population growth in the UK and what factors and policies will affect it
  • Assess the impact of population on other policy fields (such as  climate change targets and public services) and integrate population policy into those areas
  • Set targets for ending population growth and stabilising population at a sustainable level
  • Develop an integrated policy framework to meet these targets, including through reducing the birth rate and reducing net migration
  • Ensure the UK takes positive, effective action through aid and intergovernmental activity to support stabilising the global population

In addition to these basic requirements, the policy must recognise the impact of decisions made in the UK on other countries and ensure it meets all its obligations for refugees and asylum seekers. Achieving a stable and sustainable population in the UK can and must be done ethically and fairly, and while respecting the human rights of all who live in the UK and beyond.

Learn more about the National Population Policy.

Other election priorities

In addition to adopting a National Population Policy, there are other steps the next government should take to address population challenges at home and abroad.

  • Protection of the existing 0.7% GDP principle in determining levels of overseas aid, and the devotion of increased levels of aid for education and family planning in developing countries with high fertility rates. 200m women worldwide have an unmet need for contraception, while length of education has a direct correlation with reduction in family size in developing countries.
  • Ensuring family planning services in England are fully funded, to provide an effective service to all in need and reduce the levels of unwanted pregnancy. Currently, one-in-six pregnancies in the UK are unwanted.
  • Provision of high quality, universal Sex and Relationships Education to all secondary school pupils. The UK currently has the highest level of teenage births in Western Europe.

Find out more about our General Election Campaign and how to take action.

Should every country have a population policy?

BabyDealing with our growing global population requires a global approach. Countries must work together through institutions like the UN to establish coordinated policies which put action and resources where they are most needed and which recognise the impact of national policies beyond a country’s own borders.

However, governments have the greatest power to make changes in their own countries and should adopt policies to stabilise their own populations at sustainable levels. Each country has different challenges, population dynamics and requirements and all will require to develop their own integrated policies. The basic principles outlined in our proposal will be relevant almost everywhere.

See our key facts about global population.

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Challenging the ‘Global Gag Rule’

Population Matters is supporting a range of international efforts to defend family planning following the Trump administration’s ban on overseas aid for organisations providing abortion or information about it. Please join the campaign.

In January, the so-called ‘global gag rule’ was reinstated by President Trump. The rule, which had been rescinded by President Obama when he entered office, means that the US government will not give any aid to organisations which provide abortion services or even provide clients with information about them. The impact of the rule extends beyond family planning to other health services, such as child and maternal health programmes and HIV prevention. The US is currently the world’s largest funder of family planning services through overseas aid and the move could lead to the withdrawal or redistribution of more than US$9bn of funding.

Since the measure was announced, governments and non-governmental organisations worldwide have been developing plans to address the threat to services. Population Matters is supporting these activities, including the global Day of Action which took place on 28 February.

Government responses

Very shortly after the ban was introduced, the Dutch government initiated the She Decides project, intended to generate funds to replace those likely to be withdrawn and lobby other governments to provide additional funding.

In March, an international conference was held in Brussels organised by the Dutch, Belgian, Swedish and Danish governments to examine the issues and generate action. As of March 2017, the governments of Finland, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Canada, Cape Verde and Australia have pledged money to the initiative.

In response to calls from a group of Labour MPs to address the problem and following the She Decides conference, the UK government has made no specific commitments but announced that it will “lead efforts to secure extra funding for family planning” at a previously planned global family planning summit in London this July.

The UK is currently a leading funder of family planning worldwide.

Taking action

Population Matters is one of more than 230 organisations worldwide to support a statement backing the She Decides initiative. We have also joined more than 400 development, social justice, women’s rights and family planning organisations in signing a joint statement condemning the reinstatement of the gag rule.

Please join the campaign to defend family planning:

  1. Support the She Decides initiative.
  2. Sign the international petition.
  3. Ask your elected representative to push their governments to provide additional aid for family planning.  (If you are a UK citizen, you can use WriteToThem to identify and contact them.)
Global reaction

The reinstatement of the global gag rule (known officially as the Mexico City policy) has drawn widespread condemnation from leading health and family planning organisations across the world, including Marie Stopes International, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates told The Guardian that the policy could “create a void that even a foundation like ours can’t fill”.

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Third runway at Heathrow

Population Matters is campaigning against the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. Airport expansion, with all the negative consequences that ensue, is a product of population growth and the unsustainable approach to using the earth’s resources. It is based on an economic model of growth before quality of life. For these reasons we oppose airport expansion on principle; not where the expansion takes place.

The government has justified the Expansion of Heathrow largely in terms of economic growth, not overcapacity. It argues that it “(…) will better connect the UK to long haul destinations in growing world markets, boosting trade and creating jobs, passengers will benefit from more choice of airlines, destinations and flights (…)”.

malvern_hills_viewYet this will come at a significant cost.

More airports mean more emissions and faster climate change. With a third runway, Heathrow is expected to emit 23.6 million tonnes of CO2 every year, which Greenpeace has estimated to be as much as what 54 of the least polluting countries produce combined.

It also means that over 700 acres of green belt and woodland would be destroyed, up to 950 homes would be demolished and 70,800 new houses built in an area that is already experiencing severe housing pressure.

The link between population growth, economic growth and environmental degradation is clear and deeply problematic.

Over the next year there will be much debate over the third runway. This offers an excellent opportunity for Population Matters to show the wider public and policymakers why considering population when developing plans to combat climate change is a matter of urgency. While this is not our core campaign, it is an important issue and a chance to get population on the agenda. We must be part of the debate.

We will contribute to government consultation, contact policymakers and continue to look for opportunities to engage as a process of development of our core campaign.

What you can do

Thank you for your help!

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