Population Matters

Why isn’t one Earth enough?

Why isn’t one Earth enough?

Zombie video earthToday is Earth Overshoot Day – the symbolic day in the year when we have exceeded the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. Just seven months into 2018, according to calculations by the Global Footprint Network, we have already used the natural resources that it takes the planet a year to renew. At our current level of consumption and impact, we would need 1.7 planets to sustain us.

Earth Overshoot Day was created by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), to provide a tangible illustration of the extent to which we are outrunning our planetary resources. The earlier in the year the date is – the more we are overshooting what it can provide. Each year for more than 40 years, Earth Overshoot Day has moved earlier in the year – a sign that our demands are growing greater.

Humans depend on the Earth to generate resources such as wood and fertile soil, and to absorb our waste – especially carbon dioxide. GFN calculates how much the Earth can produce, and how much we are using. Each year, we are demanding more. Because it cannot renew its resources at the same pace as we are using them, each year the planet can provide less of them.

Population overshoot

Many factors influence when EOD falls. One of the most significant is population. GFN itself identifies population as one of  the root causes as our overshoot – and addressing it as one of the solutions:

If the average family size is half-a-child smaller in the future, i.e. if every second family has on average one child less, there will be one billion fewer of us in the world than the 9.7 billion that the UN expects by 2050 – and four billion fewer by the end of the century. Given increasing longevity, the end of this century is within the expected lifetimes of children born today.

“Reducing family size at this rate is equivalent to moving back Earth Overshoot Day by about 30 days, or one month, by 2050. Long-term benefits are even more striking. This continued reduction in family size would result in 50% more biocapacity per person in 2100. More biocapacity makes it easier to have thriving lives for all within the means of the planet.”

One Earth will be enough, if we can bring our consumption and numbers into line with what it can provide. We have no other choice.

Take action


In November 2017, 15,000 scientists signed a “Warning to Humanity”, explaining how indicators of environmental damage are all becoming worse. To avoid “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss” they called on governments to take action – including through improving family planning and working towards a sustainable population size.

Support the scientists’ warning and add your voice to the call for action here.

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What’s the future for biodiversity?

May 22 is the International Day for Biodiversity. In 2018, it comes as the recognition that we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction is growing widely. As we celebrate biodiversity, it is under greater threat than ever before. Is all lost, or can we turn things around?

Human impact on biodiversity

A recently published study has revealed that humans constitute less than a ten-thousandth of the weight of all living things on Earth. Bacteria account for 13%, plants 82% and all animal life just 5%, with humans a fraction of that. Despite the insiginificance of our physical presence, it also calculates that humanity is responsible for eradicating 83% of wild mammals, and half of all plants.

Climate change remains one of the gravest threats to biodiversity. This month, another study was published, predicting that half of insect habitats could be lost unless further carbon emissions cuts are pledged by nations.

Last year, a group of scientists, including Population Matters patron Paul Ehrlich, described the level of species extinction that is currently taking place as “biological annihilation“.

Hope for biodiversity?

Welcome to the Anthropocene circleIn April, a scientific paper was published, offering some hope. From bottleneck to breakthrough argues that the pressures that have driven our decline in biodiversity will soon ease, and a smaller, wealthier, more urbanised population will put less pressure on wild habitats, be free to consume more responsibly and be in a position to foster the recovery of species and biodiversity.

The paper’s optimism derives from a bold prediction that “100 years from now, the Earth could be inhabited by between 6 and 8 billion people”. That conjecture is based on a deep allegiance to the theory of demographic transition, which assumes increasing prosperity leads to lowered fertility (ie family size), operating in a virtuous cycle bringing birth rates down and reducing population. The authors identify urbanisation as another factor contributing to increased decline in fertility rates.

Demographic transition is not happening everywhere, however, and without effective family planning and education will simply not take place. Indeed, the authors’ population figures are significantly lower than the lowest UN’s projected “95% certainty” range for the end of this century. They are possible to achieve, but not without concerted effort. The authors do not call for such effort, relying instead on the belief that such changes are inevitable.

No hope without action

The paper offers a vision of a future in which population pressure is so reduced as to offer hope for recovery in our living systems .However, threats to biodiversity are extreme and time is running out. As the authors themselves put it, “the profound danger is that by the time the foundations of recovery are in place, little of wildlife and wild places will be left.” Their theory is speculative, and very unlikely to come about under present policies. But action can be taken.

For more information on how unsustainable population can be addressed, read about Solutions. To take action, visit our Welcome to the Anthropocene pages.

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Ending child marriage “morally right, economically smart”

Economic impacys of child mariiage Ethiopia 2018 coverA new report examining the impact of child marriage in Ethiopia has highlighted the many devastating impacts it has on individuals and society. More than one-in-three girls are married below the age of 18 in Ethiopia. Girls married young have larger families, increasing population growth as well as making it more difficult for their families to escape poverty.

The report Economic Impacts of Child Marriage: Ethiopia Synthesis Report was published by the World Bank and the International Center for Research for Women, and partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It describes how child brides are “often robbed of their rights to safety and security, to health and education, and to make their own life choices and decisions”.

As it does across the world, child marriage increases family size. According to Modern Diplomacy:

“In Ethiopia, about four out of five early childbirths (children born to a mother younger than 18) are attributed to child marriage. The report estimates that a girl marrying at 13 will have on average 24 percent more children over her lifetime than if she had married at age 18 or later. Ending child marriage could reduce total fertility rates by 13 percent nationally, leading to reductions in population growth over time.”

The report estimates that higher GDP per capita from lower population growth could inject close to $5 billion into the Ethiopian economy by 2030.

The report’s author, Quentin Wodon of the World Bank, said “ending this practice is not only the morally right thing to do but also the economically smart thing to do.”

The global picture

Girls Not Brides logoMore than one-in-five girls are married below the age of 18, and 650m women worldwide were child brides. In Niger, the country with the world’s highest fertility rates, three-quarters of girls are married under the age of 18. Campaigning organisation Girls Not Brides identifies that “at its heart, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men.”

Take action

You can support the campaigns of Girls Not Brides here. Population Matters also supports women’s empowerment projects through our Empower to Plan crowdfunding portal.

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Population “Factfulness” – where Hans Rosling goes wrong

Hans RoslingFactfulness, the new book by the late Hans Rosling and his family is rightly receiving a great deal of attention. At Population Matters we commend Hans Rosling as a brilliant communicator and a person dedicated to improving the lives of people across the world. We also strongly share his belief that understanding facts and data is essential to solving the challenges we face.

In that spirit, we offer the following facts, which run counter to Prof Rosling’s popular but shakily founded position that population isn’t a problem and future population growth will effectively sort itself out. We believe that he was only able to maintain that position through neglecting environmental problems, over-simplifying population data and placing his faith in demographic theories that haven’t been proved and technological solutions that haven’t yet been invented.

At Population Matters, we maintain that making a better life for everyone – a goal we share with the Roslings – requires concerted action on population, not assurances that it isn’t really a problem.

Fact One: There could be far more than 11 billion people in 2100

The UN offers a range of projections for population growth, of which 11.2bn people in 2100 is one possibility. The UN’s 95% certainty range for 2100 shows a maximum of nearly 13bn and a minimum of under 10bn – a range of nearly 40% of the current global population (7.6bn). The top projection shows almost no decline in rate of growth by the end of the century.

Further, according to the 2017 World Population Prospects report, “for countries with high levels of fertility, there is significant uncertainty in projections of future trends, even within the 15-year horizon of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and more so for the projections to 2100 [emphasis added].”

Fact Two: Very small differences in family size make major differences to future population

According to the UN, variations in global population size caused by even small changes in the size of families are very significant. For example, If there is just half-a-child per family more than the UN’s medium projection expects, our population in 2100 could be more than double what it is now – if half-a-child less, it would be smaller than it is now.

Fact Three: Without concerted effort, even achieving 11.2bn will not be possible

The UN’s medium projection is not what will happen if we let things carry on as they are. The UN’s 2017 World Population Prospects report states:

“To achieve the substantial reductions in fertility projected in the medium variant, it will be essential to support continued improvements in access to reproductive health care services, including family planning, especially in the least developed countries, with a focus on enabling women and couples to achieve their desired family size.” [Emphasis added.]

200 million women worldwide continue to have an unmet need for contraception, mostly in Least Developed Countries.

Fact Four: Global fertility won’t fall if governments work to make it go up

South Korea flagA number of governments are now encouraging or incentivising larger families. These include Iran, South Korea and China.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, however, has said he has “absolutely no worries” about Japan’s low birth rate and high ratio of older people, describing it as “an incentive to increase productivity”.

Fact Five: Education and economic development are not enough

Hans Rosling is absolutely right that women’s empowerment, education, lifting people out of poverty and contraception are essential to bringing down family size and reducing population growth – but of those, what actually does the practical work is access to and provision of high quality, effective family planning services. Countries which have introduced active family planning programmes which provide services, education about contraception and actively encourage smaller family sizes see greater falls in fertility than the average for developing countries.

Source: O’Sullivan, J (2016) Journal of Population and Sustainability

Growing evidence also suggests that Prof Rosling’s reliance on the theory of “Demographic Transition” – in which countries moving out of poverty experience lower fertility rates – is misplaced. While the pattern was strong in the history of many currently developed countries as they moved out of poverty, fertility rates are falling so slowly and haltingly in a number of Least Developed Countries that demographic transition is barely happening at all.

Fact Six: The current human population is demanding more resources than the planet can provide

Focussing on population growth, as the Roslings do, broadly assumes that population is not a problem now and the issue is stopping it becoming a problem later. That conclusion can only be reached by neglecting resource and environmental concerns.

Population – and associated consumption, especially in the developed world – is a driver of multiple environmental problems now: further population growth will exacerbate the problems.

Fact Seven: Human population correlates to major environmental problems

Fact Eight: More people, more climate change emissions

People emit carbon. Gross disparities exist in the CO2 emissions of citizens of different countries but high population can drive high emissions even where per capita output is low. (Indian per capita emissions are a fraction of those of the USA but it joins the US as one of the world’s top three carbon emitters.)

A key study published in 2017 by the Universities of Lund and British Columbia argued that the single most effective long-term measure an individual in the developed world can take to cut their carbon emissions is to have one fewer child (which will also have an ongoing effect by creating fewer grandchildren and descendants).

Another major international study by Project Drawdown in 2017 identified practical policy measures that could be taken to minimise greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Project Drawdown analysed more than eighty policy options and identified family planning and educating girls as among the top 10 workable solutions to combat climate change available today. Project Drawdown calculated that together, these would reduce CO2 emissions by 120 gigatons by 2050 — more than onshore and offshore wind power combined.

Their enormous positive effect is a result of their role in reducing family size and population growth.

Fact Nine: More people, less wildlife

As human population has increased, the number of both animals and animal species has shrunk dramatically.

Fact Ten: Not everyone is as relaxed as the Roslings about population

A growing scientific consensus is emerging about human population impacts upon our planet:

  • In November 2017, 15,000 scientists signed on to a “warning to humanity” which identified population as a “primary driver” of environmental destruction
  • A 2017 survey of Nobel Laureates found that “population rise/environmental destruction” was the issue of greatest concern
  • Sir David AttenboroughSir David Attenborough has spoken frequently about the issue. In an interview this March he said: “The natural world is steadily being impoverished. The situation is becoming more and more dreadful and still our population continues to increase. It’s about time that the human population of the world came to its senses and saw what we are doing – and did something about it.”
  • A paper published in Nature Ecology and this March identified population growth and high consumption as the “main drivers” of biodiversity loss

Meanwhile, leaders from the Global South have repeatedly expressed concerns about the impact of population growth on their economic developments:

Dr Ibn Chambas
  • In November 2017, Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the United Nations Special Representative to West Africa and the Sahel said:

“In [the] case of Africa, so far…population grows faster than the economy, and countries cannot cope with the increasing demands for basic social services such as water, sanitation, education, and health.”

  • In 2018, Executive Director of the Ghanaian National Population Council, Dr. Leticia Appiah said the government must “incentivize small family size. You have to make small family size attractive and a norm.”
  • In 2017, Malawi’s Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Goodall Gondwe, said:
    “The high population is exerting a lot of pressure on our economy. As a country we have made tremendous gains over the years but the impact is not reflected on our economy because the gains have been dissipated by population growth”

    Shahid Khaqan Abbasi
    Shahid Khaqan Abbasi

  • Pakistani Prime Minister Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi recently told a delegation from the country’s population council that population growth was the country’s “major challenge.”

The global crisis we face is too great to allow hope and theories to solve it. We hope these facts will help to increase the demand for action that will make a difference.

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Show the love with a small family

Valentine’s Day is when we think about what we love and who we love. At Population Matters, we care deeply about people, planet and the other living beings we share it with. That is what moves us to act. For increasing numbers of people today, choosing a small family comes from a place of love.

Small families are key to helping us achieve a future with decent living standards for all, a healthy and biodiverse environment, and a stable and sustainable population size.

It is time to show the love, for our home and ourselves, with smaller families.

PM director Robin Maynard speaking to the public about the Anthropocene @roxeneandersonphotography

What our world needs now…

Our impact on the planet is huge and a consequence of our technology, how and what we consume, and our total numbers.

The world has changed dramatically in the past 100 years. Thanks to advances in science, medicine and social justice people are living longer and child mortality rates continue to fall. These are huge victories. But these advances have contributed to unsustainable population growth that comes at a great cost to our planet’s health, and our own – and that of our children.

Among the many consequences of our numbers and what we do are climate change and the 6th mass extinction (mass loss of species and biodiversity).

Many people are now recognising that we need to change the way we think and the way we act, to reflect the situation we find ourselves in today. This will be key to our success in surviving as a species and protecting what we love – our children and planet.

Love and smaller families

Choosing to have a small family is one of the most loving acts we can take to secure a better future.  For people living over-consuming lifestyles in industrialised

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

countries, having one fewer child is the most effective action they can take to reduce their impact on climate change. For those living in the Global South, smaller families help families, communities and nations escape poverty.

In many parts of the world, smaller families come about as a consequence of the empowerment and education of girls and women, leading to more equal, educated and fairer societies.

Everywhere, smaller families reduce human impact on the environment.

By choosing to have one fewer child we remove the pressures rapid population growth places on our planet’s saturated systems. We can effect positive change in just a few generations and at very little cost.

Making a choice

For many choosing a small family is a conscious, caring response to our current circumstances that comes from understanding one’s impact, responsibility and ability to effect positive change.

Acting from a place of love in this day and age, means choosing a low impact lifestyle. Small families help us do this (and can bring other benefits besides). They are key to sustainable lifestyles. More and more people are making this choice, for others and the environment.

Take action

Population Matters raises awareness of the positive impacts that smaller families have on people and planet. We work to ensure everyone understands our collective need to talk about the benefits of smaller families, understand the barriers to better remove them, and support all individuals in exercising this choice, which is a fundamental right.

For more information on the benefits of small families and how you can help, please visit our Smaller Families page. We produced a short video Small Families, Small Planet on the subject which you can view here. Please share it to help us raise awareness.

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UK Sustainable Population Policy needed now – not in 25 years

Population Matters director Robin Maynard has written to the Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, to urge him to address population pressures on the UK environment. In a submission in response to the 25 year environmental plan, A Green Future, which the UK government announced earlier this month, Population Matters notes that while the Plan acknowledges population growth’s impact on the planet, it fails to consider its contribution to environmental problems in the UK or propose solutions.

United KingdomCommendable but compromised

In his letter, Robin Maynard welcomes the government’s overarching objective, that “ours can become the first generation to leave that environment in a better state than we found it and pass on to the next generation a natural environment protected and enhanced for the future”.

He goes on, however;

“We welcome the government’s renewed energy on environmental issues since your appointment and commend the plan’s ambitions. We consider the plan to be flawed, however, by its failure to address one of the key drivers of the UK’s environmental problems: unsustainable population levels and continued population growth. We hope that as the government puts flesh on the bones of this plan, it will also integrate effective and appropriate policy measures accordingly.  We also urge the government to introduce an overarching strategy across all relevant departments to address population in the UK.”

A Sustainable Population Policy

The submission calls for an overarching strategic and ethical population policy in the UK to meet the aspirations of A Green Future and the other issues arising from population pressure, including multiple social and economic problems, and greater pressure on infrastructure, public services and even social cohesion.

The key points put forward in the submission are:

  1. Population growth is not a predetermined fact – ethically acceptable, non-coercive ways to manage population for sustainable ends exist and include education, family planning provision, migration policy and incentivisation of smaller families
  2. The UK’s environmental footprint is already too heavy – it consumes nearly 3 planet’s worth of resources
  3. The most effective ‘possible action’ for curbing climate change, population is being ignored – enabling and encouraging people to have smaller families and fewer children is an essential component of a climate change strategy, and especially important in high consumer nations like the UK
  4. Water scarcity, which is a real issue in the UK, particularly for England – is a result of demand, a direct factor of numbers of consumers
  5. The urgent need to act and think nationally and globally – enabling women the right and means to choose how many children they conceive is critical for enabling sustainable economic development and delivering effective and significant environmental goods
A million households in the UK are overcrowded
A million households in the UK are overcrowded

The submission concludes that the UK needs a Sustainable Population Policy now – not in 25 years.

The submission has also been sent to other Westminster politicians.

Take action

You can ask the government to adopt a Sustainable Population Policy by contacting Michael Gove at Defra via this webform.

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A hidden agenda? What population campaigners really want…

In January 2018, The Sunday Times published a column by journalist and commentator Dominic Lawson, in which he damned concern for population as a witches’ brew of eugenics, colonialism, coercion, hypocrisy, scientific fallacy and blaming the poor. His criticisms echo those  which population concern campaigners face almost every day.

We understand the reasons such accusations and concerns recur. It’s a difficult issue and, in some respects, has a chequered past. It’s  deeply disappointing, however, to see such a misrepresentation of a cause that is positive, rational, relevant and driven by a deep concern for people everywhere, and the planet we share with other species. Population Matters, and some of our patrons, were named in the article and dismayed as we were to see that litany yet again, it is also a reminder that the case against population concern is often reliant on assumptions and misinterpretations – and occasionally, sadly, simple hostility.

This urgent and vital issue deserves an open, honest and unprejudiced examination. We welcome the opportunity to confront the criticisms we face most often head-on.

Getting it wrong

A charge frequently levelled against population concern advocates is that past predictions of crisis and disaster were not fulfilled. The two classic examples are those of Thomas Malthus, who theorised in the late 18th century that population would inevitably outstrip food supply leading to starvation, and Paul Ehrlich (a patron of Population Matters), whose The Population Bomb in 1968 predicted mass starvation and famine within a generation. Their predictions turned out to be wrong – or at least hugely premature. In both cases, improvements in food production technology and techniques allowed food supply to keep pace with population growth.

It is clearly, however, wishful thinking at best to extrapolate from Malthus and Ehrlich’s unfulfilled predictions that food production can meet the demands of any population size. At the time Malthus made his predictions, less than a billion people lived on the planet – when Ehrlich made his, the population was less than half what it is today. In 1970, Norman Borlaug, known as the”father of the Green Revolution” which vastly increased crop productivity in the 20th century, himself said that it had only given humanity a “breathing space” – not a solution to hunger.

Today’s 7.6bn and the 2bn more expected by 2050 must feed themselves from soils with, according to the UN, less than 60 more harvests to give, decimated fish stocks, a finite supply of fresh water facing even greater demands upon it and, most frighteningly, the risk of a collapse of insect pollinators and of millions of square miles of land made unproductive by climate change. Those challenges demand urgent attention, not a complacent dismissal based on the mistakes of the past.

More than food

Concerns about population are no longer confined to how we feed ourselves. Malthus and even Ehrlich lived in worlds in which the scale of the global environmental crisis we face today was almost unimaginable. Just a few weeks ago, 15,000 scientists signed a “warning to humanity” detailing the gravity and urgency of the environmental threats of our time. Unlike Dominic Lawson (who fails to acknowledge environmental problems at all), those best qualified to know and evaluate the facts are unashamed to identify population growth as a “primary driver” of impending environmental catastrophe and to be clear about a solution:

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

Focusing on the historical errors by population advocates on food supply is a convenient and sloppy way of avoiding the critical questions of today: can our atmosphere, soils, water supply, seas, forests, grasslands and fellow species withstand the pressures applied by billions more of us than existed just a generation ago – and the billions more to come?


Propaganda poster for China one child policyIn his article, Dominic Lawson identifies one notorious example of the dark history of population control – forcible sterilisation in India in the 1970s – another being China’s one child policy. These great and shameful injustices deserve our condemnation. Like the vast majority of people concerned about our unsustainable population, Population Matters, for the record, is wholly opposed to punitive population control, forced sterilisation or abortions, or any other activity which violates human rights. The right to have children, or to have none, is a human right.

Coercive policies have cast a long shadow over population concern but dwelling on them and ignoring the explicit condemnations of those policies made by population concern advocates is deeply unfair. Most of these abuses were perpetrated by regimes or governments that were contemptuous of human rights in many ways, and/or may have reflected dynamics such as endemic or institutionalised racism in the societies in which they occurred.

Population Matters exists in and entirely endorses a sphere of action that recognises and protects human rights. It is obvious that one can believe that people should do something without believing they should be coerced into doing it. Population concern advocates no more hold that people should be forced to have fewer children than democratic politicians believe people should be forced to vote for their parties.

Solving the problem

WINGS GuatemalaCoercion is not needed to bring down fertility rates. Countries like Bangladesh and Thailand have achieved remarkable results without coercion. We can reduce, and eventually reverse, population growth through actions which help people in multiple other ways – female empowerment and education, lifting people out of poverty and providing access to and education about family planning. Combined with incentivising and promoting the positive case for smaller families, population can, and should, be brought to sustainable levels through the free choices people make.

Double standards and punching down

Lawson saves his trump card until last (although for many, it is the first accusation to be made): population concern is about rich (usually white) people telling poor (usually not white) people to have fewer children while they have as many as they want. A parallel accusation is that high-consuming people from the developed world are responsible for the environmental problems we face but seek to blame poor people for having large families. Some critics refer to it as “punching down” – attacking those more vulnerable than yourself.

In his article, Lawson skewers what he calls “population control advocates” with the killer accusation that rich people demanding that the poor change their ways is hypocritical and may even be “eugenics dressed up as environmentalism”. A killer blow – if only it was true.

Population Matters – along with the vast majority of people concerned with population – is absolutely clear that the world needs fewer high-impact Western consumers being born, and campaigns for it. It’s why, for instance, we produced and regularly share the graphic to the right. Economic development is the right of those currently living in poverty, and the only way a finite planet can cope with the strain is for the rich to consume less of its resources – by moderating their behaviour and reducing their own numbers.

Had Dominic Lawson chosen to look at Population Matters’ website, he would certainly have found that point being repeatedly made.

But this is not only about the rich. If the price of arguing for sustainable populations in poorer countries is hostility and criticism, population advocates must bear it. Reducing and eventually reversing population growth in poorer countries helps us all.

Population challenges everywhere

Smaller families help people escape poverty – a fact not lost on the hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who embrace family planning, or many of their political leaders, their demographic experts and representatives of the Global South in international institutions. It’s one that the 200 million women in some of the world’s poorest countries who have an unmet need for contraception are acutely aware of.

While the urgency (especially with regard to climate change) is for fewer new rich people, ignoring those currently poor is short-sighted and dangerous.

First, where demand for resources is high and supply limited, local environmental destruction can be the result, as forests are cleared for firewood, fishing stocks decimated for food and soils eroded by livestock. Those impacts eventually make things worse for people who can no longer rely on the land that used to sustain them.

Climate change - desertificationSecond, where developing countries do improve their overall economic situations, their citizens will increase both their levels of consumption and their life-spans. That means a greater environmental impact over a longer period for each individual. Smaller families and slower population growth in developing countries – where birth rates can be double or triple those in the rich world – is therefore also vital to prevent environmental crisis in the decades ahead.

To achieve a sustainable population, people everywhere must have smaller families.

What we want


It’s hard to conceive of a more damning insinuation than “eugenics dressed up as environmentalism”.  That Dominic Lawson feels free to make it without taking any effort to find out whether it’s true is a worrying sign of how poisonous and shallow the debate about population can be. It is undeniably true that the history of population concern has included some dark episodes, that population concern advocates have not always been right about everything and that some have used loose and counterproductive language or arguments at times. But to exploit and obsess over those errors in order to condemn an entire argument, and those who make it, does rational debate a deep disservice.

Population advocates want – and work towards – the same thing as every decent, rational person: a global community in which everyone can live better lives, on a healthy planet that can sustain all the life upon it for all the generations to follow. We are guided by compassion, reason and deep concern for human beings, other species and our future. Our argument is simple and self-evident to anyone who looks clear-sightedly at the issues, our values are those of good people everywhere, and the solutions we propose are humane, just and achievable.

Little wonder that support for our cause is growing.

Take action

Find out how you can support Population Matters.

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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.

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Not forgetting the men…

With a rightful focus on women’s unmet need for contraception and the roles of female education and women’s empowerment in family planning, the importance of male contraception can sometimes be neglected. World Vasectomy Day in November was one of a range of global initiatives designed to improve services for and engagement by men in empowering people to control their family sizes. Increased investment in men’s education and new contraceptive methods for men is expected to yield significant gains in coming years.

The problem

Traditionally, male contraception has been overlooked because of misconceptions around possible side effects, such as decreased pleasure or long-term infertility and the belief that there is no market for it. There is also the widespread belief that masculinity is about having many children.

Such disparity was highlighted in a UN study that shows that 60 per cent of women in partnerships used modern contraception, against only 8 per cent of men.

One gender equality NGO has reported “If we look at the global data on contraceptive use over the last 20 years, men’s rates of use have barely shifted … [and] in some areas we’ve actually seen reduction … particularly in vasectomy.”


World Vasectomy Day in 2017 was 17 November

World Vasectomy Day is one of many global initiatives designed to challenge these norms and encourage men to participate in family planning. The event was held on 17 November and has been running for five years. This year was the biggest event to date, with over 12,000 doctors offering free vasectomies to men who have chosen not to have more children in more than 50 countries worldwide.

Also investments in innovations in male contraception, such as vasectomies, male contraceptive pill, and hormonal gels, implants and injections will help address this imbalance.

Changing attitudes among men

Ones scientist active in the field has noted that technological advances are not enough. Regine Sitruk-Ware told a development website that:

“We need to shift the paradigm around this and build stronger commitment globally and nationally around men and [their role in] family planning,” he said. This needs to include a “focus on working with men and women around male gender norms and the benefits of using family planning for both men and their partners, and the broader benefits to gender equality as well as to communication and decision-making.”

Together, such initiatives will help decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, as well as reduce the number of child and maternal deaths. It is also likely to help promote gender equality – another key factor in helping support better access to family planning.

These developments are important and welcome. Family Planning globally is now severely under threat, following US cuts earlier this year, that have left over 214 million women, and families, worldwide wanting and needing contraception but unable to access it.

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Developments aimed at engaging men are key to the global campaign on population growth. Support our campaigns. please help us generate more understanding of the role men can play by following us and sharing these stories on social media.



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Should greens back immigration controls?

Jonathon Porritt

Two senior green campaigners have today released a paper calling on UK environmentalists and people on the political left to recognise the need for action on immigration. PM patron Jonathon Porritt and Colin Hines argue in The progressive case for taking control of EU immigration – & avoiding Brexit in the process that progressive politicians should adopt a policy of “no new mass immigration” and end reflexive support for the principle of free movement of people.

They maintain that doing so will increase social justice, help address environmental problems, weaken the influence of right wing populism and be of benefit to many countries which currently lose people through emigration to the UK and other developed countries.

Immigration and globalisation

The paper outlines the extent of population growth and the role of net migration in driving it in the UK and describes how public concern about immigration has been consistently high and was a major contributing factor to the Brexit decision.

Porritt and Hines affirm their own belief in the value of immigration, the obligation to respect the rights of existing immigrants and their profound opposition to racism and xenophobia. They argue that progressive politicians have, however, long had a confused approach to immigration and that ignoring or rejecting public concerns on the issue is counterproductive and unjustifiable.

In the view of the authors, population pressure has contributed to inequality and declining quality of public services in the UK – although they maintain that the root cause of these problems is government policies starving services and infrastructure of resources.

They also maintain that freedom of movement tends to favour the wealthy and the neoliberal globalisation agenda, by depressing some wages and enhancing the power and freedom of corporations and employers, rather than workers.

Immigration and economic development

The paper addresses the challenging issue of how migration tends to push up environmental harms, as people move to places with greater economic development and higher environmental footprints. (That dynamic applies to British emigrants too – two of the top three UK emigration destinations, the US and Australia, have higher per capita CO2 emissions than the UK.)

The authors recognise that despite potential environmental harms, people living in developing countries have a fundamental right to economic development. It states:

“First and foremost, we have to redouble the commitments that we make to improve people’s economic and social prospects in [potential emigrants’] own countries. And the crucial thing is to tackle the root cause of why people feel they have no choice but to leave friends and communities in the first place.with genuine and effective action to improve people’s economic situation in their own countries.” 

The population taboo

In a concluding note on population, the paper says:

“In a world where overall population growth projections are rising, and where global migration is also on the increase, it is a complete dereliction of environmentalists’ duty to protect the planet to continue to ignore population growth and not to campaign for its reduction. Without this decrease, all solutions to other aspects of ecological and social concern are made far more difficult to deal with. This refusal to engage becomes harder and harder to explain.”

Population Matters’ support

In a statement of support for the paper, PM director Robin Maynard said:

An early draft of this report was titled, ‘Getting real about immigration’ – being directed at the Green Party and the green movement generally that would have been a good title; even better with one small change, ‘Getting real about population’.

As Colin Hines and Jonathon Porritt demonstrate, the green movement, which prides itself on being ‘progressive’, has been willfully blind to the issue of population, whether here in the UK or globally. It is particularly ironic, that by dismissing the concerns of a broad swathe of the British public about uncontrolled immigration and overall population growth, the greens find themselves in harness with neo-liberal free-marketeers and unscrupulous employers, who exploit fine principles about ‘free movement of people’ to force down wages and avoid investing in training. As NHS budgets are squeezed, desperate hospital trusts are forced to suck in already trained doctors and nurses from elsewhere – such as Romania, where the number of doctors has fallen by one-third over the past 5 years – making the UK the second largest importer (or should that be depleter?) of health workers in the world.

The latest projections, released last month, by the Office of National Statistics estimate that the UK population will grow to just under 70 million over the next 10 years and by another 16 million over the next 100 years. Globally, the world population is projected to reach over 11 billion people by 2100 – with much of that increase occurring in countries already suffering from the impacts of climate change, conflict and economic stresses. It is indeed time for the green movement to ‘get real’ about the issue of population. Not least, in supporting PM’s call for the UK Government to develop a Sustainable Population Policy.’

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