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Blog on population by Jonathon Porritt

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  • Sat, Dec 13, 2008 - 10:26pm



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    Blog on population by Jonathon Porritt

Interesting blog by Jonathon Porritt who is "… Programme Director of Forum
for the Future and Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission".
See also comments that follow it. Regards, Michael.


I thought it might be interesting to share an article done recently for
Greenpeace Business.

They have just told me that they can’t use it – too controversial,
apparently. If ever an article’s core hypothesis (in this case, that
environmental NGOs are both gutless and less than honest in addressing
population issues) was borne out by its editorial treatment, then this has
to be it.

Which element in the following quotation (taken from a report about climate
change issued earlier this year by the Ministry of Defence’s internal
think-tank) most powerfully grabs your attention?

"The Earth’s population has grown exponentially in the last century, and
rapid climate change of the kind that we have seen before would have more
dramatic human consequences, resulting in societal collapse, mega-migration,
intensifying competition for much-diminished resources, and widespread

Unless you are part of that very small minority of environmentalists who put
population right at the top of any league table of current crises, that
reference to "exponential population growth" will have gone straight in one
ear and straight out the other.

There are all sorts of reasons for this: fear of controversy (particularly
linked to population’s "evil policy twin", namely immigration); "religious
sensitivities", in as much as some of the fiercest and most bigoted
opponents of proper fertility management are Catholics or Muslims;
inexcusable ignorance; an obstinate refusal to think beyond the historical
abuses of human rights carried out in the name of "population control" in
India or China in the past; economic anxieties that without constant
population growth there won’t be enough young people paying their taxes in
the future to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed; and
umpteen different shades of political correctness all the way through from
"who are we to tell people in the third world how to live their lives?" to
"it’s over-consumption in the rich world that’s the problem, not
over-population in the poor world".

Each of those requires proper refutation, but for the purposes of this
article, I would like to focus on the "over-consumption versus
over-population" debate. This is the argument most favoured by
environmentalists who have never really looked into the issue, but are so
incensed by the uncaring profligacy of the world’s richest one billion
citizens that any other explanation of today’s converging crises seems like
an irresponsible distraction.

So let’s get one thing absolutely clear: I have spent my entire life
campaigning against that kind of uncaring profligacy, and no doubt will
spend the rest of my life doing exactly the same. There may have been some
excuse for the damage we did to the physical environment back in the 1960s
and 70s (in that the evidence was often flimsy, and it somehow all seemed to
be quite manageable), but today there is no excuse. The evidence is now in –
on every count – and what we do today we do with full and shameful
knowledge. There is no excuse, and this generation of politicians – in all
the major Parties – already stand accused of the most heinous cowardice

So I don’t need lecturing about the perils of excessive consumption, or the
idiocy of relying on exponential economic growth – fuelled by increased per
capita income – to secure a better world! But I’ve never been persuaded that
that’s all we have to worry about – as if one mega-reality shaded out every
other mega-reality that we are now having to face up to.

And the mega-reality I’m talking about here is carrying capacity: how many
people can the Earth’s resources and life-support services sustain on an
indefinite basis? The answer to that is obviously determined in part by the
level of consumption of each individual human being. But even if, by some
currently unimaginable miracle, the richest people in the world today learn
to lead what WWF calls "one planet lifestyles", does anyone seriously
suppose that this would work for the next 3 billion people aspiring to live
in the same way – and the next 3 billion who will be staking a claim on
those self-same resources and services before 2050?

It’s fascinating to see how many environmentalists have woken up in the last
couple of years to the phenomenon of peak oil – the likelihood that we have
either already passed or are very close to the "half-way point" in terms of
using up existing oil reserves. But I’m not at all sure that the full
implications of this have really sunk in. Our near-total dependence on oil
makes it very difficult for people to envisage a life without it; activists
in today’s Transition Towns movement are full of anecdotes of people’s
horror as they become acquainted with this reality. Richard Heinberg (author
of "The Party’s Over" and a leading activist in the Association for the
Study of Peak Oil) likes to rub this in by reminding people that just three
spoonfuls of oil provides the equivalent amount of energy as 8 hours of
human labour!

Richard’s latest book is called "Peak Everything" – covering not just peak
oil, but peak soil, peak wheat, peak rice, peak fisheries, peak precious
metals and, perhaps most pressingly of all, peak water.

This is not just a question of more and more people at risk because of
declining water resources. A recent report from WWF highlighted the
invisible nature of the problem here in the UK. We ourselves are not
"running out of water", so there is no direct threat to our current average
water consumption of 150 litres per day. But each of us consumes on average
thirty times as much "virtual water", which has been used in the production
of food and textiles imported into the UK. Big exporting countries like
Spain, Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and Uzbekistan
are all facing acute water stress – and it’s quite sobering to be reminded
that just one green bean from Kenya takes four litres of water to produce.
As we work our way through more than 4500 litres of virtual water per person
per day, because of these imports, are we, in effect, simply exporting

There are of course all sorts of ways in which we can "fix" some of these
problems. Hyper-efficient irrigation systems could reduce water consumption
for agriculture by up to 50%. The next generation of solar-powered
desalination technologies will bring some comfort to many coastal
communities in water-stressed areas. If we had to, albeit at a massive cost,
we could totally re-engineer our water and sewerage systems throughout the
rich world to deliver exactly the same services for a fraction of current
water consumption levels. All this is possible, but unbelievably difficult.

Given all that, one has to point out that it would be a great deal easier to
do it for 3 billion people than for 6 billion, let alone 9 billion.

That was exactly the sort of thinking China’s leaders went through 30 years
ago: that it might just be possible to sustain a population of around 1
billion on China’s limited land and natural resources, but completely
impossible to do the same for 1.5 billion. The "one child family" policy
introduced at that time has pegged China’s population at around 1.3 billion;
according to the figures the Chinese government uses, it would otherwise
have been 1.7 billion. That’s 400 million births averted.

This is where you have to start doing the sums. Per capita emissions of CO2
in China today are around 3.8 tonnes per person. An extra 400 million
Chinese citizens legitimately going about their business of improving their
economic standard of living, in exactly the same way that citizens of every
single one of our rich nations have done over many decades, would today be
emitting an additional 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2. When asked which country I
believe is doing most about addressing the challenge of climate change, I’m
only being partly mischievous when I tell my questioner that it is China.

But logic does not come easily to the hundreds of millions of people who are
only just waking up to the threat of accelerating climate change. To be told
that the best thing you can do by way of a personal contribution to the
problem is to have fewer children (or enable the millions of women all
around the world who would just love to have fewer children to do exactly
that) comes as a bit of a shock. If, instead of 70 million additional people
arriving every year, we had 70 million fewer, then we might still have a
chance of arriving at a sustainable future for the whole of humankind.
Without that, we are looking at very long odds indeed.

There’s a double irony here. Every single one of the multiple socio-economic
issues that preoccupy campaigns today would be eased by full-on,
government-led interventions to help reduce average fertility – especially
in the world’s poorest countries. And we know exactly how to generate that
double dividend: massively increase funding for education for girls, for
improved reproductive and other health interventions for women, and for
ensuring access for women to a choice of reliable and cheap (preferably
free) contraceptives. That’s what successful family planning looks like.

Yet to listen to critics of family planning, you would still think it’s all
about coercion and control. Whilst only too happy to regale you with the
shocking statistics about compulsory abortions and sterilisations (let alone
very high levels of female infanticide) in China, they know nothing of the
success stories in places like Kerala, Thailand, Korea – and even in Iran.
With the full support of Islamic leaders in that country, their total
fertility rate fell from 6 children per woman in 1974 to 2 children per
woman by 2000. And a brilliant education campaign was at the heart of this
success story.

The wilful ignorance of environmentalists is one of the reasons why funding
for family planning and reproductive healthcare has been falling over the
last decade, instead of increasing, despite a rising number of requests for
financial support from countries the world over. The other main reason is
the vengeful fundamentalism of the George Bush regime, which decreed nearly
8 years ago that no organisation would receive US funding if it so much as
acknowledged that abortion is a necessary (though always regrettable) part
of any concerted strategy on family planning. Great company for such
right-on environmentalists to be keeping.

This is not some abstract lament, detached from the reality of people’s
lives. In countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, there are tragedies unfolding
in front of our eyes right now. In Kenya, the total fertility rate declined
from 8 children per woman in 1979 to 4.7 children by 1998. Good news – but
then, funding collapsed and average fertility is now on the rise again. If
the downward trend had been continued, the population of Kenya in 2050 would
have been 44 million. On current trends, it will be more than 80 million.

It’s case studies like these (both good and bad) which persuaded the
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive
Health to re-engage in this debate in 2007. Its report, ("Return of the
Population Growth Factor"), couldn’t have been clearer in its overarching
conclusion: "The evidence is overwhelming: The Millennium Development Goals
are difficult or impossible to achieve with the current levels of population
growth in the least developed countries and regions."

So what exactly is going on here? The governments of many of the poorest
countries in the world are crying out for financial support for family
planning, but are not getting it. The lives of countless millions of women
are devastated by their inability to manage their own fertility, and
hundreds of thousands die every year because of illegal abortions or
complications from unwanted pregnancies. But their voices go largely
unheard. On top of all that, every single one of the environmental problems
we face today is exacerbated by population growth, and the already massive
challenge of achieving an 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050 is rendered
completely fantastical by the prospective arrival of another 2.5 billion
people over the next 40 years.

Yet most environmentalists will still find this article offensive. They will
go on banging their utterly inadequate "over-consumption drum", and somehow
sleep easy in their beds that they are doing "a good job". I think not.

Posted by Jonathon Porritt on November 14, 2008 2:07 PM

  • Sun, Dec 14, 2008 - 04:22am



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    Re: Blog on population by Jonathon Porritt

Reads as another big fix which is no fix. The only fair and equitable way to limit population (the only real issue) is to stop transporting food. It will happen by itself as the money and oil dry up but we could start or continue practicing beforehand. Then we are back to local resource limits instead of global. Sustainable planet population is in the order of 1.2 billion without carbon extraction. My parents were store fed and so have I been. Just now starting to head for self (well partner mostly) fed. I guess the best outcome for the planet may be achieved by doing nothing. Most store fed people will starve without the store. My partner and I may well be two of them.


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