The announcement of the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge last year was greeted with criticism, as well as congratulations. Some commenters noted that with a soon-to-be family of three, the heir to the throne and his wife were out of step with the move towards small families for sustainability reasons. Population Matters offered our own comment in the national media.
With the arrival of the latest royal baby yesterday, we issued this statement from director Robin Maynard to the press.
Population Matters statement
“We welcome the Cambridges’ baby boy to the world and wish him a long and happy life. But sadly, not every child born today will have such good life chances – and our growing human population and its impacts on our planet are making life for everyone more challenging.
“Only last November, over 15,000 scientists from across the world issued a “warning to humanity”, bluntly stating that unless we change our ways, we face environmental catastrophe. The scientists didn’t hesitate to identify rising human population as a principal driver, or to propose the solution: ‘It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most)…’
“Of course, as individual families, we love and cherish our children – but we also need to love and cherish our planet, for their sake and that of future generations. Family size is not just a matter of personal choice, the impacts of an extra child on wider society and our planet should also be considered. Our good wishes and congratulations to the Duke and Duchess: we hope they will do their part to protect their new son’s future, and that of all children born today, by choosing to add no more new people to our rising population.”
Factfulness, 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 than11 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.]
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.
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
Sir 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:
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”
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.
Sir David Attenborough has urged the public to recognise the impact of the plastic age and population growth on the natural world. His concerns are backed up by a recent report from Australian scientists identifying population as a key factor in biodiversity loss.
Sir David Attenborough, the impact of population growth and the plastic age
In an interview with New Scientist, Sir David Attenborough discusses his concern for rising population. With more than three times the number of people living on the globe as in the 1950s, he notes that “they all need places to live and roads for their cars and hospitals and schools and places to grow food…In the most part, it is going to come from the natural world, so the natural world is steadily being impoverished.”
Coupled with the issue of resource depletion is a thriving global plastic market, which once was a scientific miracle and now is a global waste disaster. According to Sir David, the vast nature of this issue demands a worldwide political agreement.
Biological diversity hit by human population and consumption
A recent study of plunging biodiversity also highlights the impact of population.One of the study’s authors, Euan Ritchie of Deakin University, commented:
“It’s often a taboo topic to talk about human population size and family planning and how much we consume as individuals,but if we don’t address these issues in the context of biodiversity conservation and sustainability then we’re largely kidding ourselves.”
Environment and Policy Researcher Professor Sarah Bekessy from RMIT University in Australia explains, “I think we need to keep industry accountable for their biodiversity impacts…Industry is allowed to literally kill threatened species and eliminate their habitat and it’s all OK because we can offset it somehow.”
As the worst contributor to mammal loss, Australia must begin to locally address leading contributors including urbanisation, agriculture and extractive industries such as mining.
These are all consequences of population pressure and high rates of resource consumption. After an assessment of the 2020 targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — the world’s central conservation strategy, researchers concluded that many of the global biodiversity conservation aims known as the Aichi targets, are inadequate and lacking key indicators to measure the effects of these issues.
Professor Bekessy asserts that this pressing conservation crisis is driven by people. Therefore, global awareness and a human-centered approach to policies are necessary to create a sustainable world for the young people of tomorrow.
Leaders from the Global South continue to speak out about the implications of population growth. Recent news reports have indicated rising concern among politicians, experts and UN officials in the developing world.
While reasons for concern over population growth differ according to specific countries, they all point to one thing: that our global population is continually rising beyond the Earth’s capacity, and left unchecked will lead to faster deterioration of resources. The following articles add greater emphasis to previously reported concerns in Malawi.
Population the “main challenge” in Pakistan
A recent article reports that the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Khaqan Abbasi, has expressed his rising concern for unchecked population growth in Pakistan in a meeting with a delegation from the Population Council.
Mr Abbasi highlighted the need for immediate attention of the provincial governments to family planning:
greater investment for enhancing access
quality of service delivery in this sector especially for the people of far-flung areas
integration of these programmes with health service delivery programmes at grass root levels
Small families in Ghana
Citinews posted a recent article summarising Ghana’s national concern and developing efforts to combat population growth.
In reaction to reports that Ghana’s population hit 29.6 million, Executive Director of the National Population Council, Dr. Leticia Appiah, proposed that Ghana begin to emulate other developing countries in incentivising small families in order to manage the country’s fast growing population.
Population concerns in Sub-Saharan Africa
In November, senior African UN official, Dr Ibn Chambas, raised continent-wide concerns at a meeting in Accra. The Representative of the United Nations General Secretary to Western Africa and urged Afrcan leaders to prioritise the population challenge. “Being the most rapidly growing part of the world, sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion people will surge in the next 50 years to two billion and three billion and reach an estimated 3.7 billion in 2100, right behind Asia’s four billion by then.
“In 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. Although urbanization is needed for the transformation of African economies, its rapid pace adds to the stress on the economy.”
Family planning in developing countries has been hit hard by recent cuts in US overseas aid. Learn more and support the campaign.
When British diver Rich Horner captured film of himself swimming through plastic and waste off the coast of Bali, he didn’t expect it to be viewed millions of times. After posting it on Facebook for his friends, however, it was spotted by international media and quickly went viral. Long deeply concerned about the environment and population, Rich contacted PM to let us know he is a supporter and to offer us use of the video to spread the population message.
We spoke to him this week to find out more.
I was just going out on my friends boat, hopefully to film the manta rays. But as we pulled into the bay, at the famous Manta Point dive site, we immediately saw the big slick, which was the usual mix of organic matter and plastic trash that is not uncommon at one of the other manta dive sites during the wet season, but really not at this site… And it was also huge! Genuinely much bigger than we’d seen before. So when we jumped in, I knew I was going to try and film it, to document it, to show to my friends, but also to give to the researchers that work on the island, who work with the local university, researching the microplastics and the manta rays.
After seeing only three or four mantas and spending 10 minutes of the dive swimming around just under the floating plastic, and next to the big cloud of plastic bags, I knew the footage could hopefully be pretty impressive, alarming and useful.
How did your video end up being seen so widely?
Obviously, it was largely timing, with plastic being in the global media a lot over the last few months, especially in the UK, after your patron Sir David Attenborough‘s, Blue Planet 2 had aired. With the mind blowing footage of the beautiful underwater worlds and creatures, and finishing with the very stark reminder/lesson on how damaged it is now and how plastic was such a big part of this. With David’s own report of now seeing plastic in the sea, everywhere he’s gone this time.
The footage itself caught peoples attention, I think, because i filmed it doing a ‘selfie’. This meant that it showed a human being swimming not just next to, but through the plastic, lots and lots of plastic. I also filmed a lot normally too, close to the plastic, but that footage just didn’t seem to have the same impact at all.
Scuba diving in general, does open peoples eyes to the underwater world, showing them and teaching them what’s under the reflections, the fish, the coral, the whales… and that day, the plastic.
So getting back home, I just quickly edited 3 clips together, added the date and location, and posted it on Facebook, so that my dive buddies and friends around the world could see it…Really not long after posting, the number of views grew quite big! So i frantically added a couple of paragraphs of explanation notes… Then i got my first requests to use the footage from some NGOs, people doing fish-talks, and also a university professor in Germany. I then sat down and spent ages writing the extensive explanation notes that you can see on the original post today. Preparing them was a very educational process!
What was it like when it went viral?
The next day, the views rolled over 500,000 and I started to get lots and lots of news media usage inquiries. Plus, probably 1,500 friend requests!
It has been totally overwhelming. I thought the footage I put up did look a bit powerful, but I only thought my mates and fellow divers would be seeing it. Not tens-of-millions of people.
As it spread, I did suddenly realise that I had the responsibility to make sure the story was told accurately and not sensationalised if possible. Bali had already had a bad rap from the news media a few months back, about the ‘garbage emergency’, the huge amount of trash that had washed up onto it’s famous tourist beaches of Kuta, Seminyak and Jimbaran. But it also suffered a huge amount after Mount Agung, Bali’s main volcano, woke up and started puffing ash everywhere last year from September onwards.
This had a massive impact, partly due to some unfavorable coverage by some of the international news media. So many people just cancelled their holidays to Bali, resulting in a lot of lost business, income and jobs. So, this meant that just basking in the millions of views wasn’t possible, so I’ve accepted many interviews, met with government officials, given my video to many NGOs, students, researchers, etc. And yesterday, it was even shown at the International Marine Debris Conference in San Diego! It’s been a tiring, busy, crazy 10 days…. But, people are connecting to it, seeing it, understanding the problem a bit more because of it. So I’m immensely happy and proud about that.
Have you seen other evidence of human impacts on the seas?
We see a lot of evidence. Too much. Ask any diver, especially ones that have dived in a few different places, and they’ll tell you of some sad things they’ve witnessed… Coral reefs, which we are diving on here, when they get damaged, that damage is very visible, and that damage takes years, decades to repair. So often the damage rate is far faster than the repair rate. I have been diving in some places in the world where the reefs really are in a bad state, some sites are just dead, only rubble, with almost no life, some are showing very recent damage and an irreversible decline.
With the last El Niño weather event, Indonesia and its neighbours saw a rise in water temperatures, which this time, pushed it over the limit of what the corals can endure. So like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, we also saw quite a lot of coral bleaching. But, thankfully, because of the currents passing through Indonesia, cooler waters came and almost all of our corals were revived before they died off. Sadly this wasn’t the case on some of the GBR.
Obviously the plastic is visible in the wet season here, but we only see it passing – some gets snagged on the reef, but most is just on its way out to the Indian Ocean. We’re also witnessing lots of physical damage, much of it from the rapid expansion of tourism on and around the reefs. And then there’s the reduction in marine life. For the most part where we are, the fish life is actually really good, apart from a very distinct lack of sharks, which are absolutely key as caretakers of the reef, controlling the different levels of the food chain under them and ultimately the health of the coral reef.
With the lack of sharks, the coral reef is thought to be in danger. Which will then affect the fish stocks that the other fishermen are hoping to catch. As the reefs over here are still really quite healthy, we hope that they are more actively protected, as the local’s food and livelihood are at stake.
Are you personally concerned about population growth? Why?
Very much so. And actually, it was again due to Sir David Attenborough. He made a BBC Horizon Special in 2009 entitled: ‘How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?’ His first words after the opening tiles were to tell us, that in his lifetime, the population of the world had more than tripled! In just 83 years! That statement should make any human shudder, and it did me.
I’d possibly picked up on population being an issue before, but watching this, totally and memorably cemented our over population as being the root cause of almost every big issue we face today.
Obviously, as a diver, I knew of the dwindling fish stocks, as so many people want/need to eat fish… That farm land was scarce, so battery farming was the only way to supply enough meat people for people to eat, clearing rain forests was needed to grow more crops. That water was so scarce in many countries, that crops failed and the people deserted their farms and moved into the cities, flooding them, creating sadly huge problems.
I gather that the estimate for the carrying capacity of the Earth, such that it could sustain everyone with a typical European lifestyle, is between one and three billion. So again, in Sir David’s lifetime, we’ve managed to triple the population above that sustainable level. Even stopping the growth, still leaves us three-times overpopulated.
Has that affected your personal choices about having children?
It confirmed it. I think I’ve always known I didn’t want kids. They’re just not for me. So much responsibility, and a fear I’d probably be bad at it! Plus so many other factors too. But then learning about the overpopulation issue, it really does make it easy to confirm 100% that I wasn’t going to have kids.
So knowing that, in 2010, I actually decided to have a vasectomy. And after some research i learnt of the newer ‘No-Scalpel’ method, how quick it was, how cheap it was, and obviously how painless it was said to be… So i found surgeon in Auckland, New Zealand, where I was going to be backpacking for a while and made the appointment.
On the day, after a thorough counseling session, confirming that I was certain “my family was complete”, I had the procedure. It only took 12 minutes, and thankfully, as they had said, it genuinely did not hurt! Just a few days of not lifting heavy weights and some slight swelling and some interesting colours, I was back to normal. After 2 negative sperm counts 4 months later, I was confirmed sterile. And was very comfortable knowing so.
Do you think there needs to be more discussion about population and its impact on the environment?
Absolutely. It is actually frustrating. As I do have more exposure than most on some of the issues, being a diver, and also knowing and helping marine researchers quite often, you simply can’t separate the problems from the root cause of overpopulation. Every solution to every problem would be so much easier with less humans, and probably useless, pointless with a growing population. Also, continually learning more and more of the issues of climate change, and that the reserves of water, certain minerals, like phosphorous and the fish stocks, etc, etc, could potentially run out quite sharply, that could lead to some much, much bigger problems, that could affect us all, wherever we live.
But, as I’ve learnt about the overpopulation issue, I have also learnt about the potential solutions and fixes. Many of which are not new at all, with success stories from Thailand, Kerala in India, and so many others, some using the basics of education, empowerment of women, access to contraception, etc. Birth rates fall without any need for any strict ‘One Child Policy’ that no one should ever want. And with a global effort, that we could really be on our way back down towards the sustainable 1-3 billion population by the end of the century! The exponential growth, that’s given us the over three-times increase in Sir David’s life, can be reduced by the exponential decline if we were to chose to have only 1 or 1.5 kids say, in a similar number of years. After hearing these, and many, many more explanations of the issues and possible solutions, you realise that it’s not a hopeless cause at all. And by starting the discussion now, we can start to act and actually see results in just a generation or two.
The work that PM has done has been amazing so far, and also of the another organisation I’ve been following, World Population Balance, who have made an excellent podcast series, with so much information and date from the experts and academics that actually study the populations issues. Which also recently included an excellent interview with your own director, Robin Maynard.
Having the resource like these, that hopefully the world can find and read/listen to, will speed up the conversation and get things moving!
Please add your voice to ours and join or donate to Population Matters. Until we tackle population, solving our other environmental problems will be almost impossible to do.
Increasingly, people are taking climate change into consideration when making decisions about having children, reports The New York Times. Coverage of the subject in the past year alone indicates that these considerations are part of an ongoing, growing discussion surrounding climate change, the impact our growing global population has on it and how family size can help mitigate its effects.The article in The New York Times is the latest such example of this.
While reasons for considering climate change and ensuing decisions about family size vary, they all point to one thing: that our environmental situation is critical and people are increasingly willing to see the link to population and act accordingly.
A range of reasons …
The New York Times article mentions a recent study that shows how climate change has become a major factor for 18-43 year olds when it comes to making decisons about having children.
Reasons given by interviewees include
poorer quality of life arising from increasingly extreme weather patterns, such as wild fires, hurricanes, flooding;
unstable future society – social instability looms as the effects of climate change worsen (see the open letter 15,000 scientists wrote calling for urgent action) following a lag in governmental responses to climate change;
or the fact that having a child is one of the costliest environmental actions one can take at this stage, especially in high-consuming, industrialised countries.
Those considering climate change in their decisions do not fit a single profile. They are women, men, liberals, conservatives, individuals from different religions and regions of the world.
…a range of decisions
Responses vary. Some opt to have one child, others to adopt. Some would rather have two so they can be together when things get bad while others vow to raise their children to be climate change fighters. Other still chose to be childfree.
Often described as selfish, it is the opposite that motivates many of the childfree. Elizabeth Bogard, an 18 year old student from Northern Illinois University explains: Parenthood is “something that I want but it’s hard for me to justify my wants over what matters and what’s important for everyone.”
Seeing the effects of climate change
Choosing not to have children was particularly widespread amongst those who have seen the effects of climate change, as Ms. Kaff, 33 from Cairo said in an email: “I’ve seen how Syrian refugees, who are running from a devastating war, are being treated. Imagine how my children will be treated if they have to flee their country due to extreme weather, drought, lack of resources, flooding. I know that humans are hard-wired to procreate,” she said, “but my instinct now is to shield my children from the horrors of the future by not bringing them to the world.”
Having to take climate change in consideration is difficult for most, but important, and the feelings around the issue a measure of the extremity of the situation – and how urgently we need to take action.
Population Matters welcomes the fact that people are increasingly taking the environment considerations in their decisions about family size. Each one of us puts pressure on the natural world, consumes the Earth’s finite resources and contributes to climate change. Find out more about smaller families here.
You can find out more about climate change and population by attending our conference on the subject on the 3rd March or read more about solutions here.
On 25 January, Pakistan launched a new voluntary family planning project to address the pressures resulting from rapid population growth and help achieve economic stability and better health and nutrition for families.
Population Welfare Minister, Mumtaz Hussain Khan Jakhrani, explained that, “Voluntary family planning lessens the pressure of rapid population growth on social, environmental and economic infrastructures while reducing the risks of illnesses to women and children.”
The project is designed to support the regional government in meeting its target of achieving 45% contraceptive use rate by 2020. It aims to reach one million people. Dedicated teams of professionals and grass root community workers will carry out the work.
One speaker for the project stressed how central education is for managing population size. “We need to change norms and values of people living in underprivileged areas of our country,” said Health Policy Plus Country Director Rahal Saeed, mentioning in particular, ending child marriage.
Problems and solutions in Pakistan
Last year, concerns were raised about the consequences should Pakistan fail to address its growing population. Fears were that it would exacerbate problems the country was already facing, such as housing and water shortages, and fuel existing political and military conflicts. There were also concerns that it would affect the provision of other services, such as education and energy.
The working age population in Pakistan is estimated to increase by 70 million in next 20 years, posing a huge development challenge.
Contraception funding in Nigeria
The project was launched on the same day that the Nigerian government pledged to release $1 million for contraceptives, according to an article in the Premium Times.
Although overall fertility rates are falling in Nigeria, they are currently around double the global average. Because of the very large number of young people in its population leading to high population momentum, Nigeria will have high birth rates for decades to come, causing its population to triple over the next 80 years, to more than 600m people.
As accelerated population growth poses major challenges worldwide, especially for countries with high growth and few resources to cope, governments are increasingly recognising and looking for ways to address the issue. You can read more about some of these initiatives here.
Such initiatives have never been more important. Last year, the US cut funds to organisations which provide abortion services or information about them. These cuts have had severe implications, affecting people living in some of the poorest countries the most. According to a study conducted by Marie Stopes International – an international NGO providing contraception and safe abortion services – the cuts are likely to lead to 2.5 million more unintended pregnancies, 870,000 more unsafe abortions and 6,900 more avoidable maternal deaths.
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, whichthe UK government announced earlier this month, Population Matters notes that while the Planacknowledges population growth’s impact on the planet, it fails to consider its contribution to environmental problems in the UK or propose solutions.
Commendable 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:
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
The UK’s environmental footprint is already too heavy – it consumes nearly 3 planet’s worth of resources
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
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
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
On Thursday 11 January, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new 25-year Environmental Plan. Despite some recognition of the role of population growth in damaging the environment, no measures to tackle it are included.
Too vague, too slow
The new Environmental Plan aims to tackle critical issues such as air pollution, soil degradation, waste, loss of biodiversity, plastic pollution and climate change. It establishes a number of principles and mechanisms to make progress in these areas. One of its most eye-catching goals is “achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.”
The plan also outlines goals for the UK to play a significant role in addressing global environmental problems.
Concerns have already been expressed, however, that the legal enforcement and funding required to achieve the plan’s goals are lacking. Among others, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Labour Party have all called for a clearer timetable and more urgent action.
“There is scepticism about how far the environment department Defra will be able to carry out its plans,” explains BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin, “there are huge pressures on the natural world from urgently needed house-building; HS2 threatens scores of ancient woodlands; and the Department for Transport has a major road-building programme.”
The impact of a population growth
The plan recognises population growth as a factor in environmental problems, stating:
“The scale of human impact on the planet has never been greater than it is now. At a global level, the 20th century brought many technological benefits and changes to our way of life, but we have also experienced unprecedented expansion in population, consumption, energy use, waste and pollution, and the conversion of land to agriculture.”
In a foreword to the document, the Secretary of State for the Environment also writes:
“We need to replenish depleted soil, plant trees, support wetlands and peatlands, rid seas and rivers of rubbish, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cleanse the air of pollutants, develop cleaner, sustainable energy and protect threatened species and habitats.”
In almost every case, population growth makes achieving these goals immeasurably more difficult, if not impossible. No plan to address population growth is offered in the document.
Population projections in the UK
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) anticipate a population of nearly 73m by 2041, a year before the plan’s end date. 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.
In a statement to the media when the projections were released, Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:
“(These) figures show that our environment, our infrastructure and our public services will face mounting and unbearable pressure for at least another century.”
Recognising the impact of population growth as the report does is a step forward, but its failure to address population represents a major obstacle in achieving its goals.
Population Matters has proposed a Sustainable Population Policy for the UK, which provides a strategic framework for implementing measures to bring population to sustainable levels. Adopting such an approach is an essential measure for achieving environmental sustainability in the UK and must be an integral part of any environmental plan. Learn more about the policy here.
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.
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.
The year also saw the launch of our popular Small families, small planetvideo, 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
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 Guardianby 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.