Population Matters

A hidden agenda? What population campaigners really want…

A hidden agenda? What population campaigners really want…

On Sunday 14 January, 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. It’s a comprehensive charge sheet with which anyone campaigning for sustainable population will be sadly familiar.

Population Matters, and some of our patrons, were named in the article and dismayed as we were to see that litany yet again, its combination of selective quotations, anachronistic accusations, misrepresentation, innuendo and guilt by association were evidence yet again, of how poorly founded the case against population concern is.

We welcome the opportunity to confront these criticisms 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 incorrect 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. 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 rather than mining Google for historical anecdotes about population advocates, he would have struggled to miss 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. 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, vicious and unfounded 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, cannot be justified.

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.

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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.

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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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.

Take action

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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A century of growth: latest UK population projections

UK population growth 1991-2041. Source: ONS

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has today released its projections for population in the UK over the next 100 years. They show a slowdown in anticipated population growth in comparison to the previous projections (issued in 2015) – but nevertheless anticipate a population of nearly 73m by 2041. The rarely reported long term projection anticipates a population of 85 million in 2116 – 30 per cent more than the UK’s population today. It also expects the population to still be growing in a century’s time.

Revised projections

In today’s National population projections: 2016-based, the ONS ascribes the lower projections to a number of factors, including reduced net immigration, lower than anticipated fertility and more modest increases in longevity than previously anticipated. Over the next 10 years, it expects 54 per cent of population growth in the UK to be caused by net migration and 46 per cent to be the result of “natural increase”, ie a greater number of births than deaths.

ONS estimates that in the ten years up to 2026:

7.7 million people will be born

6.1 million people will die

5.2 million people will immigrate long-term to the UK

3.2 million people will emigrate long-term from the UK

Population growth in the next 25 years will be lower than in the last 25 years: 7.3m until 2041, compared to 8.2m between 1991 and 2016.

Long term uncertainty

In addition to its “principal” projection, ONS produces “variant” projections, reflecting the effects of changes in the various factors underlying population, such as fertility rates and proportion of younger people (ie of childbearing age) in the overall population. For 2041, the highest projection among these is 77m people, the lowest is 67.3m. ONS has yet to publish the variant projections for 100 years but in 2014, the highest figure was 114m and the lowest 61m.

No end to growth

A key finding of the report, consistent with projections over the last 10 years, is that it foresees no peak in population growth. Before 2003, official projections expected the population of the UK to stop growing but since 2004, projections up to one-hundred years in advance have shown no peak.

In addition, expected population at the end of the projection period has consistently increased. In 1981, projected peak was 4.1m above the then-population of 56 million (an increase of 7.3% over 60 years). In today’s projections (which are based on 2016 population figures), there is no peak projected and the projected popoulation in 2116 is, as noted above, 30 per cent more than current population.

Government response to population: “improvisations, bodges and knee-jerk reactions”

In a statement to the media, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

Robin Maynard and Big Foot
Credit: Roxene Anderson Photography

“The small reduction in expected population growth since the 2014-based projections is welcome but the population of the UK is unsustainable now: today’s figures show that our environment, our infrastructure and our public services will face mounting and unbearable pressure for at least another century. The absolute numbers are frightening enough but the underlying trend is even more alarming. The ONS expects our population to keep growing for at least a hundred years – in what is already one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. It’s worth repeating: if the ONS is right, a child born today will know nothing but an ever-increasingly crowded country until the day they die.

“When you look at the huge range of variant projections for population growth in both short and long terms, it’s clear that multiple factors contributing to population growth offer the government multiple levers to affect it. Despite this, in the face of an extra 20 million people or more by the next century, there is apparently no dedicated planning or policy response from central government. We must not accept that endless population growth is inevitable and that policy on demography should be an endless series of increasingly torturous improvisations, bodges and knee-jerk reactions. It is time to start talking openly and honestly about population. The stark message from these figures is that a proper, joined-up, strategic policy for sustainable population in the UK is needed now. In fact, it was needed a generation ago.”

Sustainable population policy

Population Matters has proposed a Sustainable Population Policy for the UK, which takes a strategic approach to bringing population to sustainable levels. Learn more about the policy here.

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16bn or 7.3bn in 2100? New UN figures say both possible

The United Nations has today released new projections for global population growth up until 2100. Issued every two years, the projections for 2017 show slight increases over those produced in 2015 – increases measured, however, in hundreds of millions of people.

The figures also show that very small differences in family size will have a huge impact on the global population.

Key points

  • The principal “medium variant” projection is that the Earth’s population will be 9.8bn in 2050 and 11.2bn in 2100.
  • There is a 95 per cent probability that the global population will be between 8.4 and 8.7 billion in 2030, between 9.4 and 10.2 billion in 2050 and between 9.6 and 13.2 billion in 2100.
  • The chance of population growth ending before 2100 is only 23 per cent.
  • The 47 least developed countries will see their populations more than triple between 2017 and 2100, reaching more than 3bn people.
  • The medium-variant projection assumes that the global fertility level will decline from 2.5 births per woman in 2017 to 2.2 by 2050, and then to 2.0 by 2100. (A fertility level of 2.1 is considered to be the “replacement rate”, at which numbers of births and deaths will balance out over time.)
  • Africa remains the region with the highest fertility levels, although total fertility has fallen from 5.1 births per woman in 2000-2005 to 4.7 in 2015. Over half of global population growth up to 2050 will occur in Africa.
  • In the last ten years, fertility levels in Asia fell from 2.4 to 2.2.
  • The population sizes projected in the principal projection will not be met without action. In the words of the report, “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.”
2017 UN population projection: world
Source: United Nations Population Division

We will provide more detailed analysis of the report soon. The UN’s summary of the projections can be read here and further detail, graphs and interactive graphics are available here.

Our view

In a statement to the media, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

These figures contain no surprises – but serve to emphasise again both the challenges we face and that it is possible to surmount them. The 95% certainty range is between 9.4 and 10.2bn people in 2050 and fully 3.6bn in 2100. Beyond even that, the projections reveal that if there is on average just half-a-child more per woman than in the medium projection, our population in 2100 could be 16.5bn; with half-a-child less, it could be 7.3bn – smaller than our population today. 

Differences on that scale are vast and there is almost no conceivable scenario in which the planet can sustain the numbers at the upper end of those ranges. As the report makes clear, we are only going to see us hitting the lowest figures with concerted action, starting now. In particular, we’re seeing global population growth being driven in the very countries which can least handle the burden of more people and in tandem, the authors of the projections admit to particular uncertainty about how far and how quickly fertility rates will decline in those places. 

More, better, faster

The environmental and economic consequences of population growth are profound and alarming but the key message of these figures is that action to address it will make an enormous difference to our futures. The progress that’s been made already in bringing down fertility rates is a welcome sign that more women are becoming empowered, fewer people live in poverty and more people are getting the heath care, family planning and education they deserve. It is vital that the global community does more, better and faster on all of these fronts.  

We are already in a crisis and our current trajectory of rising numbers and rising affluence is unsustainable. The planet is groaning under the strain of seven-and-a-half billion of us and we are using the renewable resources of more than one-and-a-half Earths to supply our needs. The fewer of us there are to put more strain on the Earth, the easier it is to tackle the multiple challenges we face: getting climate change under control, lifting people out of poverty, protecting biodiversity and ensuring that the resources we have are used fairly and sustainably.

Find out more about why population matters and see the key facts regarding population, sustainability and the solutions to population growth.

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Education, family planning and population

In the UK, a committee of MPs has called on the government to increase overseas aid spending on education, while an international petition calls on world leaders to address failings in the education of girls. Girls’ education is not just vital for their personal development but plays an essential role in bringing down family size and reducing population growth.

The Committee on International Development has written to the UK government, calling on it to devote 10% of aid spending to education. It found that the average expenditure on education per child in low and middle-income countries was less than $10 per head per year, even with spending of all aid agencies taken together. The proportion of the global humanitarian budget spent on education is just 1.8% and has been declining since 2011.


The committee highlighted the value of education for girls. The Malala Fund told the committee that “If all girls had 12 years of education, child marriage would drop 64%, early births would drop 59% and child deaths would decrease by 49%”.

A petition by the campaign group One has also highlighted the need for education for girls. 130 million girls are currently not in school. In advance of the G20 Summit in Germany in July, the petition calls on world leaders to put  adequate financing in place to ensure all girls receive a proper education.

Education and family planning

Education plays a vital role in bringing down family size. It has been a key factor in success stories such as the falling birth rates in Thailand and South Korea over recent decades. It has a striking impact in Africa: African women with no education have, on average, 5.4 children; women who have completed secondary school have 2.7 and those who have a college education have 2.2.

Take action

Please sign the One petition.  In addition, take action to defend global family planning which has been hit by significant cuts in US aid funding.

Note. The forthcoming general election in the UK means that there is currently no value in writing to MPs or the UK government about aid.

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Have we reached 7.5 billion?

At some point this month, the seven-and-a-half-billionth person alive on this planet will be born – if they haven’t been born already. No one knows quite when that will be, or where it will be, but it’s a milestone we can’t ignore.

It took until the time of Napoleon for the Earth to have a population of one billion. We reached two billion less than a century ago. Today, we add a billion every 12-15 years. The UN projects a likely population of 9.7bn by 2050, nearly 30 per cent more people than there are today – but it acknowledges 11bn a a genuine possibility. By 2100, a population of 11bn is likely, and 16bn possible.

The numbers

Population growth is slowing – but not by enough. In many parts of the world, the “total fertility rate” (TFR, a way of reflecting birth rate) has fallen to below “replacement rate” of 2.1 children, at which births and deaths equal one another and population eventually stabilises. In most countries TFR is falling and has been doing so for many years. But a fall in the average rate is deceptive.

Graph of UN population projections
United Nations world population projection 2010 to 2100

Today, the UN reports that global TFR is still above replacement rate, at 2.5, and in the least developed countries, a fertile woman will have four children on average. Niger has the world’s highest TFR – 7.5 children per woman.

In some countries, the decline in fertility rate has slowed to a stop, or has even reversed.

Population and poverty

Sub-Saharan Africa is not just driving global population growth: high birth rates are holding some African countries back from escaping terrible poverty, as communities and families struggle to meet the food, education and health needs of their growing numbers and national and local infrastructure cannot meet the demands of such high population growth. Locally, soils, water supplies and habitats for wildlife are all under pressure.

Lower fertility but more babies

Other factors drive our global population growth, including living longer. The most significant factor is the sheer number of us to have children: when there are more than a billion more people than a generation ago, fewer people being born per couple is outstripped by the growing number of couples and more people than ever before are being born.

More people, more impact

Plane taking offWhile numbers are growing quickest in the poorest countries, children born in the richest countries have the greatest impact on the environment. An American produces 160-times more CO2 than someone from Niger – a British person 70-times more.

Levels of consumption in the developed world demand more of the planet than it can provide. We are already using the resources of 1.6 planets – if we were all to live as Americans do, we would require four Earths to sustain us all.

Today, many more countries are escaping poverty but that welcome and necessary development poses a challenge for us all: as they become more affluent, their consumption and emissions increase. The rich world must cut its consumption – and the most effective way is to reduce numbers of consumers.


Every new human being makes sustaining a good life for all of us on a healthy planet more difficult to achieve. We have the power to reduce that impact and end population growth sooner.

If, on average, there is just half-a-child less per family in the future, there will be one billion fewer of us than the UN expects by 2050 – and four billion fewer by the end of the century (within the lifetimes of many children born today).  Billions less mouths to feed, land to use and greenhouse gases to be produced.

Ensuring everyone has the opportunity and the right to choose their family size and that everyone who has that right exercises it thoughtfully and responsibly will mean a better future for the seven-and-a-half-billionth child and those born after them.

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See the key facts about population and its impact, and learn about the solutions.

Find out more about what Population Matters believes and what we want.

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Chris Packham speaks out on impact of population

Population growth is stifling our green and pleasant land

by Population Matters patron Chris Packham

The Times published an edited version of this article on 9 January 2017. Here is the piece in full. 

“I remember when this was all fields full of birds and butterflies.” It’s a cliché isn’t it . . . but those words frequently describe changes most adults have seen if they have been fortunate enough to spend time in the countryside. It’s also a powerful metaphor for the wider situation we find ourselves in today. You see, our natural world is forced into competition with the unnatural world we humans create – and it is losing. It is losing badly and this destructive competition will inevitably continue as long as human numbers are growing.

You don’t have to be bemoaning the loss of wildlife to feel the effects of a burgeoning population. The latest research from Population Matters – of whom I am a patron – looks at our human environment and the the impact on road and rail congestion of a projected population growth in the UK of almost 10 million people in the next 25 years. The results show that this could cost our economy more than £23bn . . . and that figure, significant as it is, covers just the direct financial cost of congestion. The full, hidden cost is even greater.

Cars, roads, pollution

We know that every car, every truck and every railway carriage adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and makes it harder still to meet the targets we have set ourselves to get climate change under control. More congestion also means more pollution – combustion engines are getting cleaner but when we put more of them on the road, we are chasing our tails.

And what of the roads we might build to ease the crush? In towns and cities we need to replace demolished houses, pushing our urban boundaries out further. When we build roads in the country, we squeeze out the natural world again. But we depend on that natural world so we simply cannot afford to do that, financially or ecologically.

Valuing nature

From a purely monetary perspective, there is an increasing understanding that nature underpins so much of what we think of as “our” economic activity – from worms turning the soil our food grows in to the provision of clean water. In 2013, the National Ecosystems Assessment placed the worth of insects pollinating our crops at £430m per year. Of course, for myself and millions of others, the value of nature isn’t solely measured in pounds and pence nor also the deep and essential pleasure and contentment it brings. It is more that we are intrinsically connected with the natural world, woven into its fabric and complexity and as one very small part of it – entirely dependent on it. We must re-adjust our thinking to know this, because if we don’t we are doomed – pure and simple.

And however you measure it, the hard facts say we don’t value it enough. The State of Nature report published in September by more than 50 UK nature conservation and research organisations found evidence of significant losses in biodiversity – bleeding life’s richness. 56 per cent of recorded species declined between 1970 and 2013. The UK has experienced significantly more biodiversity loss than the global average, and is now ranked as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Yes, that’s our back yard, going down the pan.

The report attributed significant blame to intensive agricultural practices. Our countryside should not be a factory floor but we treat it as if it is. We smother it with crops and destroy the diversity on which the whole system depends. More people means more food: a drive to ever-increased productivity – at whatever cost to the natural environment – seems sadly inevitable. And what applies on this island, applies on Island Earth too. More so, in fact, because Island Earth cannot import resources from anywhere else and the pollution and emissions its population generates have nowhere else to go.

A global problem

WWF’s 2016 Living Planet report pulled no punches in describing the devastation to our natural world caused by human activity. The report calculates that by 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970. In 1970, the global human population was half what it is now.

One of the report’s most shocking conclusions is that the current rate of extinctions is 100 times what would be considered normal without the impact of human activity. WWF’s head of science bluntly described what we face as the first “global mass extinction of wildlife” since the dinosaurs were wiped out. Commenting on the report, Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, didn’t shy away from identifying the cause: “The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities in every corner of the globe, including now the most remote parts of Africa, is clearly pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.”

A simple solution

The irony is, this is a global problem with the most local solution of all. You see most of us, certainly most readers of this article decide, how many people there are on this planet. Very sadly that choice is not global yet; an estimated two hundred million women worldwide cannot access the family planning they need. But the rest of us can help put that injustice right. But let’s be clear, this isn’t just about putting contraceptives in people’s hands. Helping women empower themselves through political rights, economic support, and essentially, education enables them to choose smaller families – and whenever they have those opportunities, that is exactly what they do.

Here in the UK we already have the choice of how many children we have. If we want them to enjoy the natural world – to have a thriving supportive natural world they will need to survive – we have to recognise that the more of them we have, the more difficult it will be for them to do that. We all need breathing room: animals, plants, human beings. We shouldn’t have to compete for it, and we don’t have to.

Chris Packham is a naturalist and presenter of wildlife programmes on television. 


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Panic and pragmatism: population in Korea and Japan

Flag of South KoreaSouth Korea’s official statistics agency has just announced that it expects the country’s population to shrink by 8 million over the next 50 years. Currently around  50 million, the agency projects that the population will peak at 52.96 million in 2031 and then gradually decline to 43 million in 2065.

Alarm has been raised in the country about the working age population, which is already starting to decline, “plunging”, in the words of a Korean news outlet, by 300,000 every year from 2020 to reach 20.62 million in 2065. Currently 74.3 percent of the entire population, it is the highest among OECD nations but is now projected to be the lowest by 2065, at under 50 per cent.

South Korea has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates at 1.26 (the global average is 2.5) but is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world at more than 500 people per square kilometre.

In contrast to the concern in Korea, in September the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, declared its ongoing population reduction to be an opportunity. With a birth rate of 1.4 births per woman, Japan has both a shrinking workforce and the developed world’s largest proportion of people over 65 – more than one-in-four of the population.

“I have absolutely no worries about Japan’s demography,” Abe told Reuters. Describing Japan’s situation as “not an onus, but a bonus”, he said he saw it as an incentive to boost productivity, including through the use of technologies such as robots and Artificial Intelligence. The Japanese government aims to stabilise Japan’s population at 100 million people by 2060, about one-fifth below the current level.

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