Population Matters

2017: progress, challenges and Big Foot

2017: progress, challenges and Big Foot

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

Our campaigns

Global gag rule

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

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

Sustainable Population Policy

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

Welcome to the Anthropocene

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

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

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


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

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

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

Smaller families

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

Waking up to poulation impacts

Chris Packham
Chris Packham

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

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

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

They went on:

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

Progress on population

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

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

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

Support Population Matters

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

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

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

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

Video surprises and enlightens

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

Having smaller families

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

Take action

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

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

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Meet Big Foot


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

Big Foot

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

Chris Packham
Chris Packham

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

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

Welcome to the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

Taking action

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

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

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

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Election 2017 – time for a National Sustainable Population Policy

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

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

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

The policy should:

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

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

Learn more about the National Population Policy.

Other election priorities

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

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

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

Should every country have a population policy?

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

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

See our key facts about global population.

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Spreading the word on population

Logo for BBC TV programme The Big QuestionsPopulation Matters has recently had considerable success in bringing the population concern message to new audiences in the media. Meanwhile, our growing social media following helps us reach hundreds of thousands of people online.

On Sunday, Population Matters board member Karin Kuhlemann made a strong case for population stabilisation when she took part in a discussion on the BBC television programme, The Big Questions. The item arose from the recent conference on biological extinction held at the Vatican and brought together advocates for population concern, representatives from the Catholic community and sceptics about the population case.

The Big Questions can be viewed here. The population discussion begins at 40 minutes. The programme will be available online until 2 April and can be viewed in the UK only.

In a vigorous debate, Karin eloquently outlined the multiple threats arising from population growth, including food insecurity and environmental damage. Journalist John Gibbons also spoke persuasively on the programme about the threats posed by population growth to climate and wildlife. Karin emphasised that the risk of enormous population growth is genuine but that we have the tools and ability to prevent that through choice.

Note: the beginning of the programme contains an interesting discussion on he provision of sex education in the UK, a subject on which we have long campaigned.

Reaching new audiences

The programme followed widespread coverage in major UK media outlets for Population Matters’ comments in response to statistics showing the UK’s population is likely to reach 70m by 2026 and that the proportion of elderly people will continue to grow. Our statements were featured in The MirrorThe Sun and The Mail, among other media outlets.

In addition to the traditional media, we use our highly successful Facebook and Twitter pages to reach new audiences.

Twitter logo

Facebook logoWith nearly 300,000 “likes”, our Facebook page has grown hugely in recent years. It is an excellent source of information and up-to-the-minute news on developments in population and the environment.

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Meet our new chief executive

In December, Robin Maynard started work at Population Matters as our Interim CEO. In this interview he explains why he is here and what he hopes to achieve.

What’s your background?

Having read English at university, I worked briefly in advertising where my burgeoning environmental concerns soon ran up against the requirements of the day job (sell more stuff!).

After short stints as a tree-surgeon, then teaching in Egypt – where the school ran two shifts to accommodate pupil numbers – I returned to England, volunteering for Friends of the Earth, whilst looking for teaching posts. Shortly afterwards, Chernobyl blew up and that dark cloud led to a job with FoE tracking radioactive fall-out across the UK. A 30-year career followed as an environmental campaigner working with FOE, the Soil Association and other conservation bodies – as well as periods presenting BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today and working for The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick. Latterly, I’ve been freelancing with various farming and wildlife organisations.

How did you get involved in the population concern movement?

Population was regularly raised as a concern by Friends of the Earth’s Local Groups – but the prevailing HQ mantra was to focus on ‘consumption alone’. This didn’t satisfy a number of us, including key figures such as Jonathon Porritt, then director of FoE, and Val Stevens, chair of the Board. But ours was not the majority view. Over 2012-13, Jonathon and I worked on behalf of Population Matters to try to persuade FoE and other mainstream environment/conservation NGOs to accept the finding of the Royal Society’s People and Planet report that both consumption rates and population numbers needed to be taken into account.  We had fun tweaking the NGOs’ tails, approaching their activists and members directly (who were more inclined to accept the argument than their head offices), but limited success in shifting stances – although we did force them all to review their positions.

What did you think about PM’s work before came on board?

I have always admired PM for putting its head above the population parapet. Too often, anyone who talks about population is falsely labelled as ‘racist’, ‘neo-colonialist’, ‘anti-human’ (even when those speaking out come from developing countries!). None of those crude stereotypes apply accurately to PM. I believe our agenda is wholly pro-human – but pro-human within the constraints of a finite planet; where living in balance with other beings and respecting natural ecosystems are not only essential for our survival, but also our well-being.

What do you think the priorities are in campaigning on population?

Being only just in post, I don’t presume to have as in-depth an understanding as others closer to the issues for far longer. But my sense, just as when I was at FOE, the Soil Association or the Wildlife Trusts, is that if the facts alone were sufficient, none of us would need to be doing this work. Robust evidence is essential, but the ways and means of its communication are as important. The reluctance by otherwise reasonable people not to touch the population issue is psychological, emotional and tangled in confused value systems. My early stint in advertising may prove to be of more worth than it seemed at the time!

What do you hope to achieve at PM?

Although taken on as an interim director for 6-months in the first instance, rather than view that as merely caretaker cover, I want to provide a fresh and unflinching perspective for the organisation and provide a positive challenge as to how we can best deploy our modest resources to achieve most positive change.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Like many campaigners, too much of my time is spent tapping at a keyboard, crafting cunning phrases for press releases or talks and shaping strategy papers… Getting out into the natural world, the inspiration for my work, is essential for my mental as well as physical well-being – as I believe it for everyone.  Attempting to grow some produce on my allotment also gives me great satisfaction along with equal bouts of slug-led humility!

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MPs vote against universal sex education in UK schools

An attempt by MPs to make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) compulsory in all UK schools has failed after being voted down in a parliamentary committee. 

In addition to information on the biology of sex, SRE provides information and guidance in areas such as consent, relationships, abuse, and LGBT issues. Under current legislation, however, it is mandatory only in schools managed by local authorities.

Despite hints from Education Secretary Justine Greening that she was willing to reform existing law, Conservative MPs on a committee considering an amendment voted against any change. According to junior education minister Edward Timpson the proposal was incomplete and its potential repercussions meant it needed further consideration.

The parliamentary decision not to make SRE compulsory goes against the view of teachers, parents and pupils.

70% of 11-15 year-olds in England believe all children should have school lessons on sex and relationships and 75% think that making SRE compulsory would make them safer according to Barnardos.

Currently, only state schools offer compulsory Sex Education lessons from age 11. Parents can chose to withdraw their child from parts of it. Sex Education classes focus on the biological aspects of sex. As a result of the vote, independent, fee-paying schools and schools which are state-funded but not managed by local authorities (such as academies) are still free not to teach SRE. Many do choose to do so but standards are not monitored.

MP Stella Creasy, who introduced the amendment, remarked that millions of children are not getting the information they need.

The UK still has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. In 2015, 9.9 out of 1,000 abortions were under 18s. Research has established that high-quality SRE helps to prevent teenage pregnancy.

Population Matters is a member of the Sex Education Forum, a coalition of organisations which have been pressing for compulsory, universal SRE in UK schools. In September, the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee called for mandatory SRE in its report on widespread sexual harassment of female students in schools.

Support our campaign to make Sex and Relationships Education mandatory in schools.

Mandatory sex education

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PM research shows traffic congestion costs to soar

New analysis released by Population Matters estimates England will face total annual costs of £23.8 billion by 2030 as a result of road and rail congestion caused by surging population. This would mark a 58.7 per cent increase over the £15bn figure for 2015, costing the economy an extra £8.8 billion annually.

The original research commissioned by Population Matters, and featured in an exclusive report in The Times newspaper today, uses statistical data and analytical reports from the UK’s Department for Transport and the latest population projections by the Office of National Statistics to calculate the effect on road and rail traffic. It shows that England’s projected population growth of 10 per cent by 2030 will have a far bigger impact on road and rail congestion than the percentage increase alone suggests.

Among the conclusions of the research are that by 2030:

  • the cost of traffic congestion per household could increase by 40 per cent, translating to a total of £2,100 per year
  • average lateness as a result of rail traffic could increase nationally by 48.2 per cent, and by 103.4 per cent in London
  • road users could waste more than 12 hours per year more – a total of 136 hours – than in 2015 on average, because of traffic congestion
  • number of cars on England’s roads could increase by 20 per cent to 31 million.

The Times‘ environment editor Ben Webster published an exclusive report based on our research, entitled Population boom ‘could bring nation to standstill’

To accompany its report, The Times also published an article by Population Matters patron Chris Packham reacting to the figures and highlighting how human population growth is affecting the natural world in the UK and across the world. In the piece, Chris writes:

“Our natural world is in competition with the unnatural world we create — and it is losing badly. This destructive competition will continue as long as human numbers are growing.

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

(Note: The Times operates behind a paywall and the articles will only be fully visible to subscribers. You can read Chris Packham’s article on our website here.)


Further information about the research and its findings can be found here.

Because rail and road statistics for the entire United Kingdom are compiled separately across devolved administrations, the research focuses on population growth in England but its principle conclusion – that population growth can have far greater effects on congestion than  numbers suggest – applies across the UK. To produce the most effective projections using available data and statistical techniques, the road traffic analysis reflects urban and national “strategic” roads only: the effects of minor road congestion will add additional time and cost. The calculations are based on a number of calculations and assumptions and the results provided are not predictions.

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Award for Population Matters ‘Zombie’ film

Our Zombie Overpopulation video has won a gold prize at the EVCOM Clarion Awards, which recognise ‘good purpose’ communications by charities, companies and public sector organisations. Released just over a year ago, the video, which takes a sideways look at the impacts of population growth, has been viewed almost 9,000 times on YouTube. 

Zombie video earthThe video was created to appeal to young people and features zombies blundering around destroying their environment in a comic, mock-documentary style. It is narrated by Anthony Head, star of the cult TV programme Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and mixes live action, remarkable special effects and hard information about human population growth.

Zombie Overpopulation concludes with a simple message: “Don’t be a zombie. Use your brain. we all have a choice about how many babies to have and how much we consume.”

Our congratulations to Media Trust who helped us to produce the film and collected the award.

You can view the film below or on YouTube. Please share it with your friends and family this Halloween. This film is frightening in more ways than one.

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WWF: we are facing the next global mass extinction

The 2016 Living Planet report published by WWF today pulls no punches in describing the devastation to our natural world caused by human activity. The report calculates that by 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.

In 1970, the global human population was half what it is now.

By 2020 populations of wild vertebrate animals will have declined by nearly 70 per cent since 1970.2020 is the target date set by the United Nations for halting biodiversity loss — something the report’s authors believe is highly unlikely to be achieved. Instead, they conclude that the average two per cent drop in animal numbers each year is unlikely to slow.

One of their most shocking conclusions is that the current rate of extinctions is 100 times what would be considered normal without the impact of human activity.

Dr Mike Barrett. head of science and policy at WWF, said: “For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife.”

The report highlights particular problems faced by freshwater species in lakes and rivers, with a shocking decline in numbers of 81 per cent. It attributes the decline to “the way water is used and taken out of fresh water systems, and also the fragmentation of freshwater systems through dam building.”

Human pressure on water resources is expected to worsen considerably due to population growth, with, according to the UN, two billion people likely to face absolute water scarcity by 2025.

Dr Barrett continued: “It’s pretty clear under ‘business as usual’ we will see continued declines in these wildlife populations. But I think now we’ve reached a point where there isn’t really any excuse to let this carry on. We know what the causes are and we know the scale of the impact that humans are having on nature and on wildlife populations — it really is now down to us to act.”

The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities is pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.Commenting on the report, Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, was more explicit in identifying the cause: “The relentless expansion of human populations and economic activities in every corner of the globe, including now the most remote parts of Africa, is clearly pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.”

The report itself, however, treats population growth largely as an inevitability which must be taken into account, rather than as a problem which can be solved. Its close and systematic look at the underlying drivers of the crisis — including consumption, food production and distribution, global economic dynamics and much more — is extremely valuable, but its failure to recognise the importance of managing population growth is a deep and disappointing failure.

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