On World Population Day 2018, Population Matters took to the streets of London with a truck-mounted mobile digital display of the “population clock” – global population growth live. People reacted with surprise, disbelief and shock. Watch the video, see the reactions – and see the numbers tick up and up.
The Population Clock
Population clock on tour
We took the van to many London locations, from Trafalgar Square to the London School of Economics to Parliament and Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. We also took it to the London HQ of Friends of the Earth, to remind them of the importance of tackling population growth to protect the environment.
The van also joined Population Matters’ London Group as they held a leafleting session near the National Gallery in London, with the help of Anthropocene campaign mascot, Big Foot.
World Population Day gallery
On World Population Day, we joined population organisations from across the world in asking for governments to respond to the Second World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. This statement, now signed by more than 20,000 scientists, demands action to avert environmental catastrophe – including on population. Support the warning and take action here.
According to a national YouGov poll commissioned by Population Matters, 74% of UK adults believe the government should have a national strategy for addressing population, while 64% think the rate of population growth projected by the Office for National Statistics is too high.
Conducted following the announcement that the UK population has topped 66 million, the poll also found that 63% of people supported the government setting targets for population. 50% believe the the current UK population is too high. Population Matters has called for the establishment of a Sustainable Population Policy in the UK.
The poll was coducted after the release of the most recent population estimates for the United Kingdom in June, showing that its population has reached 66 million – 10 million more than in 1985. The Office for National Statistics’ most recent projection for future growth is that the UK’s population will be just under 73m in 2041.
Poll shows concern across groups
The poll found consistent concern about population, across age groups, political positions and social classes. Only 2% of questioned people in total believe our population to be too low. Asked about the negative impacts of population, 41% thought pressure on public services was the most important effect and 15% thought housing pressures. Nine per cent were most concerned about impact on the environment and on quality of life.
Sustainable Population Policy
Population Matters is calling on all political parties to support the implementation of a Sustainable Population Policy for the UK. Its recommendations include setting targets for population and making population and demography the responsibility of a Cabinet Minister.
Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:
“The message of this poll couldn’t be clearer: people want politicians to address the overall issue of population and its impacts. Across all the main political parties, including across the polarised positions on Brexit, those who want action or are concerned about our present and projected population numbers, outnumber those who are satisfied or think population is too low.
“Whilst plenty of polls have told us about people’s concerns about immigration, this is the first recent poll to look beyond that narrow framing and focus on the numbers, as provided by the best available analysis. As such, it tells policy-makers that the public have broader, legitimate concerns about population pressure that cannot be dismissed as based merely on ideology, party affiliation, polarised positions on Brexit, or simply ignorance.”
“People across the board are looking for intelligent, forward-planning and positive action on population from government – a strategy for the immediate and long-term to achieve a population in balance with the available resources and infrastructure of our country, and wider, shared global ecosystems. That’s what Population Matters is calling for, a Sustainable Population Policy underpinned by best available evidence and recognising wider planetary responsibilities and human rights.”
More details on the results of the poll can be found on our press release here.
The past few months have seen an unprecedented level of attention on population and family size in the media. With articles in The Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC and many other outlets, could it be that this long neglected issue is finally getting the attention it deserves?
Population and the impact of family size on our environment has been a neglected area of debate in mainstream media for decades now. Indeed, it has been seen by many as a taboo, or an opportunity to condemn those who campaign on the issue, without even investigating what we actually believe and seek. Over the last year, welcome signs of greater openness to mature discussion have been visible, and over the last month, an avalanche of media has focussed on the value of being childfree.
Leilani’s explanation of why she has personally decided to be childfree then caught the imagination of numerous media outlets, with interviews with her, with Population Matters and with childfree individuals and couples appearing in multiple major outlets. Among many of those interviewed were friends of PM who we had linked up with journalists, including our board member Emma and one of the people featured in our recent Smaller Familiesvideo, Anna.
Recent media coverage has not simply focussed on individual choices, however. Following its publication of a letter on the subject from our director Robin and patron Jonathon Porrit last year, The Guardian produced an in-depth piece (linking to us) on the population challenge and recently published another letter from Robin two weeks ago.
Robin and our head of campaigns, Alistair, have been interviewed on many broadcast channels recently, including Sky News and TRT World.
In addition to coverage in traditional media, social media has also been galvanised by the issues. Population Matters’ Twitter page has seen 60% growth in less than two years, while among many successful posts on our Facebook page, one sharing this graphic, by Cultura Colectiva, has been viewed over 4 million times.
Breaking the media taboo
One of the most significant articles published recently is by Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential philosophers, and co-authors from the US and Uganda. Its headline in the Washington Post is “Talking about overpopulation is still taboo. That has to change.” There are promising signs that it is.
For a small organisation like Population Matters, social media are among the most effective ways we can spread our message. please follow us on Twitter and Facebook and share our content. You can also find graphics and memes on our website here, which you can share directly yourself.
US racing car driver Leilani Münter has become Population Matters’ newest patron. Combining her career driving very fast cars with untiring environmental activism, Leilani is a passionate supporter of the population cause. Describing herself as a “vegan hippy chick in a race car”, Leilani Münter joins a distinguished list of patrons, including Sir David Attenborough and Dame Jane Goodall.
Leilani’s given us this exclusive interview, talking about her racing, her activism and her family. We’re delighted to have her on board.
How did you become a racing driver?
While I was studying biology at the University of California in San Diego, I got into a race car and got hooked on the adrenaline. There’s nothing quite like a pack of race cars going into a corner at 200 mph just inches from each other. The mental focus required is incredible.
Why do you think you care about the environment so much?
I grew up with a love of nature and went on to earn a degree in biology specializing in ecology, behavior and evolution. Our generation is facing the greatest problems our species has ever seen and the future of our planet, our species and all the species we share it with depends on us
adapting and changing the way we are live on this planet to a sustainable existence that does not destroy the world around us.
What are the environmental problems we face that worry you the most?
Human population worries me the most. Climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, loss of biodiversity – all of these are due to human impact on the planet – overpopulation compounds every single one of them. Technology can help us reduce our impact: electric cars, solar power, plant-based diets, green buildings, bring it all on! But if we do not address the main factor here – population – we are ignoring the root cause of all these other issues.
How do you combine activism with racing?
I use my platform as a driver to encourage change as much as I can, I use my race cars as a 200mph billboard to promote shifts in our behavior, to inspire race fans to rethink their day-to-day habits for our planet. I don’t work with any companies that produce any sort of fossil fuels: no oil, no coal, no natural gas, no companies that produce any meat or dairy products, fur or leather, and no companies that test on animals. My racecars have promoted a future with 100% renewable energy, solar power, wind power, recycled products, two award winning documentary films: The Cove and Blackfish, and last year and this year my race car is promoting the vegan lifestyle (a far more sustainable way to feed the planet) and we are giving away thousands of samples of vegan food to race fans.
I also have been adopting an acre of rainforest for every race I run in order to offset the carbon footprint of my race car. I do everything I can to reduce my footprint and lead by example: I drive my electric Tesla to all my races, my house and personal car are powered by the solar panels on the roof of my home, I am vegan, have a vegetable garden, a 550 gallon rainwater collection system, and most importantly, my husband and I are child-free.
What triggered your interest in population?
One day when I was studying at the University of California in San Diego, my biochemistry professor told us to close our books and he showed our class a film about population. I remember being just devastated and walking across the college campus with him after class talking about it. That day I decided I was not having children and I have been quietly worried about human population ever since. Over the past few years I have become more and more vocal on population because I feel that it is one of the most important issues we face and it is not being talked about nearly enough. It’s the big white elephant in the room and it’s time to speak up and have those uncomfortable conversations.
What do you think about having a family?
I have chosen to not contribute to population growth and I am happily child-free. The only babies in our house have four legs. My husband and I had this discussion early on when we were dating. I wish more people would look at the bigger picture and make the same decision. It is simple math, it is not hard to understand: this is not sustainable. If we don’t change our ways, humans are on a path to extinction.
Why have you become a patron of Population Matters?
I am honored to become a patron of Population Matters, they have been doing incredible work in this space since 1991. It is incredibly important to tell the population story and I look forward to working with the experts in this field to bring this story to the world. The ultimate intelligence of our species will be determined by whether we face our population issue and get it under control, or continue to sweep it under the rug because it’s an uncomfortable conversation. The future of life on Earth depends on us doing the former.
As part of our mission and commitment to giving people the power to make that choice, Population Matters is proud to announce the launch of our new crowdfunding project, Empower to Plan. Through Empower to Plan, PM supporters can donate money directly to practical family planning projects, making a difference where it’s needed most.
Women around the world want the power to choose how many children to have – and when. Evidence shows that where women are empowered, there’s a natural fall in birth rate. Yet many women – both in developed countries and in the Global South – lack the contraception, knowledge and freedom to take control of their fertility.
Worldwide, an estimated 200 million women who don’t want to become pregnant lack those basic needs. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies can limit their life choices and keep their families – and even their communities – trapped in a cycle of poverty. Meeting women’s unmet need for family planning and empowerment not only gives them the chance to improve their own lives, but naturally brings down birth rates – helping tackle the wider issue of unsustainable population growth.
At Population Matters, our role is to advocate and campaign for the changes that will bring population to sustainable levels – an urgent task, given how few political leaders and influencers even recognise the need for action. We know that that action is simple and ethical, and that it helps people in many other ways. We want to help it happen, and show just how effective it is.
Empower to Plan offers Population Matters supporters the opportunity to donate directly to carefully selected grassroots organisations, delivering empowerment and change where it’s needed. 100% of the money goes to them, with Population Matters bearing the administration costs. Each is taking practical action, aligned with our mission and values, and with a proven track record of impact. They are making a positive, immediate difference to people’s lives, and showing how easy it is to relieve the pressure of population on communities and our planet itself.
We are working with three organisations initially.
WINGS Guatemalaprovides quality reproductive health education and services to underserved, primarily rural, Guatemalan youth, women and men. WINGS aims to raise £2,400 through Empower to Plan – enough money to pay for the contraceptives distributed by five of their local Volunteer Health Promoters over the course of a year.
You Before Twois a UK-based sex education project with a mission to help adolescent girls at high risk of teenage pregnancy to make informed, positive decisions about their fertility and their futures. Following very succesful work on a smaller scale, the project aims to use money from its £3,000 Empower to Plan target to scale up, taking its life-changing programme to a large number of girls regionally.
CHASE Africa works across East Africa to deliver family planning and healthcare to marginalised communities, via a network of local NGO partners. The charity takes a rights-based approach that always prioritises the needs of the people it serves. CHASE’s £3,000 target will help cover the cost of three mobile day-clinics in Kenya, enabling up to 600 people to access modern contraception.
Supporting Empower to Plan and Population Matters
Read more about E2P, here. You can also follow the links above to learn more about the individual projects and donate directly on their pages.
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.
On Saturday, Population Matters’s 2018 conference, Climate change and Us: more feet, more heat? took place in London. Despite appalling weather in the run up to the event, hundreds of people turned up for a fascinating and engaging afternoon of discussions. Our international panel covered a wide range of topics, including the effects of climate change, its impacts on food supply, the challenges of empowering women and the future paths of population and emissions.
Ice, sustainability and food
After a brief welcome by Population Matters director Robin Maynard, the conference first heard from PM patron, Adrian Hayes, and PM Advisory Council member, Prof Peter Wadhams.
In Adrian’s arresting keynote address, he gave a telling account of his experience as an adventurer in Greenland and the Antarctic, where melting ice was not an abstraction but a daily challenge and danger. Drawing a clear link between population growth and climate change, Adrian proposed a more comprehensive and holistic definition of sustainability than is often used, describing it as “the most over-used and misunderstood word in the English language today”.
Peter’s presentation amplified and substantiated Adrian’s accounts of his polar travels. As one of the world’s leading polar scientists with more than 47 years’ experience of visiting and measuring ice at the poles, he provided a lucid and sobering explanation of the impact of global warming on the poles, and the way in which the disappearance of polar ice is itself hastening global warming, and contributing to extreme weather events such as the March blizzards preventing some people attending the conference.
Peter’s talk also highlighted the link between global temperature variations and food shortages and price rises, illustrating how the production of many staple grains will be reduced by climate change. With food demand set to soar as a result of rising global population, his talk provided a clear idication of how climate change will affect hundreds of milions of people’s lives very directly.
Womens’ empowerment and global justice
Peter was followed by Farah Kabir, the director of Action Aid Bangladesh, an NGO working across 40 countries to end poverty and empower people in the global south, especially women and girls. Farah’s presentation – Population and climate change: a South perspective – also addressed the challenges of population growth and food supply but she concentrated on the structural and economic factors also at play. She warned of the dangers of focussing solely on population and family size when people in the poorest countries are responsible for a fraction of the emissions of those in developed countries.
Farah noted that poverty, lack of education, culture and patriarchy – control of women’s bodies – are some of the key reasons for population growth and that models of development that fail to address inequality and favour industrialisation and consumption are bad for both people in the Global South and for the global environment.
The population picture
The final presentation before moving onto the panel discussion was by Robin, tying together the population and climate change picture. Robin repeated and amplified Farah’s point about the hugely disproportionate impact of people in the developed world, noting the conclusions of a 2017 study that suggested having one fewer child is by far the most effective individual measure to reduce emissions for a person in the developed world.
Robin also noted that there is little evidence in contraction of consumption in the developed world (or globally) and that “contraction and convergence” (ie less overall consumption and emissions matched with greater equality between nations across the world) will require lower numbers of people across the board.
His presentation examined how even countries with low average per capita emissions such as India can still be major contributors to climate change if their population is high. With population set to grow most dramatically in the developing world, Robin emphasised the vital role that family planning and women’s education can play, highlighting 2017’s Project Drawdown analysis of policy responses to climate change, which concluded that family planning and girls’ education were among the top ten practical solutions available today.
Following the break, the speakers were joined for the panel discussion by Judy Ling Wong, President of the Black Environment Network and Ambassador of the Women’s Environmental Network. (Former Guardian environment editor John Vidal who had also been expected to join the panel was defeated by climate change itself, with his train from Wales cancelled because of snow!).
Expertly chaired by Sara Parkin and guided by written questions from the audience, the panel’s wide-ranging discussions covered many aspects of the issue, with a great deal of emphasis put on the value of genuinely empowering women. Panellists also addressed the failings in the political response to climate change in the UK and elsewhere – and what message should be sent to the British Royal family regarding family size – to which Sara Parkin firmly answered “stop at two!”.
Robin Maynard wound up the conference, affirming the sense of positivity and constructive engagement that had emerged from it. He briefly touched upon next steps, including the work Population Mattes intends to take up working with international partners.
Both speakers and audience members seemed to judge the event a success and we are delighted that so many people – many of whom were new to the issue – joined us in spite of the weather.
We need your support to extend the reach of our campaigning, advocacy and education activities. Please consider becoming a member* or making a one-off donation towards our work – and join thousands of people across the world who are already taking positive action to change policies and influence behaviour.
UPDATE: Population Matters 2018 conference has now taken place. You can see a report on the conference here and video footage from it here.
On 3 March 2018, Population Matters will hold its annual conference in London. Entitled Climate change and us: more feet, more heat? Its theme will be population growth and its impact on climate change. A panel of experts and campaigners will discuss the evidence, the problem and the solutions from a range of perspectives.
Population and climate change
For too long, population has been ignored from discussions and plans to tackle climate change, to devastating effect. However, last year, analysis undertaken for a plan to reverse global warming – Drawdown – identified family planning and the education of girls as among the top 10 workable solutions available today. We are pleased to contribute to an initiative like Drawdown with a conference focusing specifically on the link between population growth and climate change. It is urgent.
Their message was clear: the primary driver of the key problems, is population growth:
“[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.”
Population needs to be at the core of discussions on how we are going to combat climate change, and part of the solutions.
PM patron Adrian Hayes – Record-breaking British adventurer, author, speaker, documentary presenter and sustainability campaigner.
Farah Kabir – Country director for Action Aid Bangladesh.
Judy Ling Wong CBE – President of the Black Environmental Network and Ambassador for the Women’s Environmental Network
Robin Maynard – Director of Population Matters
John Vidal – Journalist, commentator and former environment editor of The Guardian.
Sara Parkin OBE – Principal Associate at The Sustainability Literacy Project
Prof Peter Wadhams – Emeritus Professor of Ocean Physics, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge
Details and registration
The conference begins at 2pm on Saturday 3 March 2018, at Conway Hall in central London.
More information on the event and how to register here.
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.
It’s deeply disappointing to see such a misrepresentation of a cause that is positive, rational, relevant and driven by a deep concern for people everywhere, and the planet we share with other species. Population Matters, and some of our patrons, were named in the article and dismayed as we were to see that litany yet again, it is also a reminder that the case against population concern is often reliant on assumptions and misinterpretations and, occasionally, simple hostility.
This urgent and vital issue deserves an open, honest and unprejudiced examination. We welcome the opportunity to confront the criticisms we face most often head-on.
Getting it wrong
A charge frequently levelled against population concern advocates is that past predictions of crisis and disaster were not fulfilled. The two classic examples are those of Thomas Malthus, who theorised in the late 18th century that population would inevitably outstrip food supply leading to starvation, and Paul Ehrlich (a patron of Population Matters), whose The Population Bomb in 1968 predicted mass starvation and famine within a generation. Their predictions turned out to be wrong – or at least hugely premature. In both cases, improvements in food production technology and techniques allowed food supply to keep pace with population growth.
It is clearly, however, wishful thinking at best to extrapolate from Malthus and Ehrlich’s unfulfilled predictions that food production can meet the demands of any population size. At the time Malthus made his predictions, less than a billion people lived on the planet – when Ehrlich made his, the population was less than half what it is today. In 1970, Norman Borlaug, known as the”father of the Green Revolution” which vastly increased crop productivity in the 20th century, himself said that it had only given humanity a “breathing space” – not a solution to hunger.
Today’s 7.6bn and the 2bn more expected by 2050 must feed themselves from soils with, according to the UN, less than 60 more harvests to give, decimated fish stocks, a finite supply of fresh water facing even greater demands upon it and, most frighteningly, the risk of a collapse of insect pollinators and of millions of square miles of land made unproductive by climate change. Those challenges demand urgent attention, not a complacent dismissal based on the mistakes of the past.
More than food
Concerns about population are no longer confined to how we feed ourselves. Malthus and even Ehrlich lived in worlds in which the scale of the global environmental crisis we face today was almost unimaginable. Just a few weeks ago, 15,000 scientists signed a “warning to humanity” detailing the gravity and urgency of the environmental threats of our time. Unlike Dominic Lawson (who fails to acknowledge environmental problems at all), those best qualified to know and evaluate the facts are unashamed to identify population growth as a “primary driver” of impending environmental catastrophe and to be clear about a solution:
“It is … time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most)”.
Focusing on the historical errors by population advocates on food supply is a convenient and sloppy way of avoiding the critical questions of today: can our atmosphere, soils, water supply, seas, forests, grasslands and fellow species withstand the pressures applied by billions more of us than existed just a generation ago – and the billions more to come?
In his article, Dominic Lawson identifies one notorious example of the dark history of population control – forcible sterilisation in India in the 1970s – another being China’s one child policy. These great and shameful injustices deserve our condemnation. Like the vast majority of people concerned about our unsustainable population, Population Matters, for the record, is wholly opposed to punitive population control, forced sterilisation or abortions, or any other activity which violates human rights. The right to have children, or to have none, is a human right.
Coercive policies have cast a long shadow over population concern but dwelling on them and ignoring the explicit condemnations of those policies made by population concern advocates is deeply unfair. Most of these abuses were perpetrated by regimes or governments that were contemptuous of human rights in many ways, and/or may have reflected dynamics such as endemic or institutionalised racism in the societies in which they occurred.
Population Matters exists in and entirely endorses a sphere of action that recognises and protects human rights. It is obvious that one can believe that people should do something without believing they should be coerced into doing it. Population concern advocates no more hold that people should be forced to have fewer children than democratic politicians believe people should be forced to vote for their parties.
Solving the problem
Coercion is not needed to bring down fertility rates. Countries like Bangladesh and Thailand have achieved remarkable results without coercion. We can reduce, and eventually reverse, population growth through actions which help people in multiple other ways – female empowerment and education, lifting people out of poverty and providing access to and education about family planning. Combined with incentivising and promoting the positive case for smaller families, population can, and should, be brought to sustainable levels through the free choices people make.
Double standards and punching down
Lawson saves his trump card until last (although for many, it is the first accusation to be made): population concern is about rich (usually white) people telling poor (usually not white) people to have fewer children while they have as many as they want. A parallel accusation is that high-consuming people from the developed world are responsible for the environmental problems we face but seek to blame poor people for having large families. Some critics refer to it as “punching down” – attacking those more vulnerable than yourself.
In his article, Lawson skewers what he calls “population control advocates” with the killer accusation that rich people demanding that the poor change their ways is hypocritical and may even be “eugenics dressed up as environmentalism”. A killer blow – if only it was true.
Population Matters – along with the vast majority of people concerned with population – is absolutely clear that the world needs fewer high-impact Western consumers being born, and campaigns for it. It’s why, for instance, we produced and regularly share the graphic to the right. Economic development is the right of those currently living in poverty, and the only way a finite planet can cope with the strain is for the rich to consume less of its resources – by moderating their behaviour and reducing their own numbers.
Had Dominic Lawson chosen to look at Population Matters’ website, he would certainly have found that point being repeatedly made.
But this is not only about the rich. If the price of arguing for sustainable populations in poorer countries is hostility and criticism, population advocates must bear it. Reducing and eventually reversing population growth in poorer countries helps us all.
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.
Second, where developing countries do improve their overall economic situations, their citizens will increase both their levels of consumption and their life-spans. That means a greater environmental impact over a longer period for each individual. Smaller families and slower population growth in developing countries – where birth rates can be double or triple those in the rich world – is therefore also vital to prevent environmental crisis in the decades ahead.
To achieve a sustainable population, people everywhere must have smaller families.
What we want
It’s hard to conceive of a more damning insinuation than “eugenics dressed up as environmentalism”. That Dominic Lawson feels free to make it without taking any effort to find out whether it’s true is a worrying sign of how poisonous and shallow the debate about population can be. It is undeniably true that the history of population concern has included some dark episodes, that population concern advocates have not always been right about everything and that some have used loose and counterproductive language or arguments at times. But to exploit and obsess over those errors in order to condemn an entire argument, and those who make it, does rational debate a deep disservice.
Population advocates want – and work towards – the same thing as every decent, rational person: a global community in which everyone can live better lives, on a healthy planet that can sustain all the life upon it for all the generations to follow. We are guided by compassion, reason and deep concern for human beings, other species and our future. Our argument is simple and self-evident to anyone who looks clear-sightedly at the issues, our values are those of good people everywhere, and the solutions we propose are humane, just and achievable.
Little wonder that support for our cause is growing.
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.