What is the population question?

The population debate rumbles on. David Attenborough crashed back into the debate with a pretty crass set of remarks about not sending food aid to places struck by famine, earning lots of impassioned responses. The activist-comedian Robert Newman wrote an interesting piece pointing out that population growth is tailing off so claiming it really isn’t the issue, and so it continues, round and around.

At the Green Party autumn conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. We heard from a speaker from Population Matters, who argued that our impact on the rest of nature is a function of our population, our affluence (and inequality) and our technology. I explored this “IPAT” formula a bit in my previous blog entry. Then Sebastian Power made more or less the same case as Newman – that we suffer from (in his words) “rich white men” consuming too much, not too many people. He suggested that talk of population is really a way of blaming poor, black women from the global south for problems created by rich white men from the global north, and that we should ignore population. Sebastian offered to send references for his claims, which I asked him for after the panel, but I’m waiting for him to reply so I won’t get into his arguments. But I do want to reflect on the way in which he and the speaker from Population Matters seemed to talk at cross purposes.

The problem is, what question are we discussing when we talk about population? I think Power, Newman and others look back and make it a question of blame, but I want to look to the future.

Is population growth to blame for our environmental problems?

This is an interesting area for discussion. It is pretty obvious that poor, black women in the global south aren’t to blame for climate change. I think Newman is right to argue that, to date, “the problem facing a population of 7 billion is not too many people crowding too small a piece of land, but too few people owning too much world.”

It’s a bit of a simplification – there are plenty of examples of materially poorer civilisations collapsing, and of poorer societies today harming their natural environment. But of course to make it less of a simplification, we have to talk about technology and affluence (and inequality), as per the IPAT formula, to explore whether it’s possible that better technology and a better economy and political system could avoid these problems, making population an irrelevance.

Who is then to blame is a further interesting question. Are we Brits all to blame for our excessive consumerism, or is our ethical agency diminished by marketing and social psychology that makes it difficult for us to resist? This is a big question that would require a lengthy tangent into ethics, psychology, sociology and political theory. Suffice to say, it isn’t so simple as saying that we automatically blame people when we consider their environmental impacts to be relevant.

That said, there is another question.

Can the earth support ten billion moderately wealthy people?

This is the question I explored in depth in my previous blog entry, and which I want to return to.  I’m not interested in blame. I want to look to the future and consider whether the better world I aspire to is possible. It might be possible, with current technology, for seven billion people to live within the earth’s limits if we all converged on the average global income, and the quality of life that implies. But that’s a pretty low income! If the world were really equitable, if everybody had a similar and decent quality of life, could the earth sustain ten billion of us, or indeed seven billion?

To answer this question, we need to look at our best technology, our most radical politics, our most successful behaviour change policies, and ask whether they can meet the challenges we face. In my previous blog post I looked at whether they could:

  • reduce our greenhouse gas emissions very radically in a very short space of time, such that ten billion people could attain a decent standard of living
  • reduce our overall resource consumption to a “one planet” level, when almost no developed country is anywhere near that level, even the widely admired greener countries like Sweden

I concluded that a very large population makes both tasks a good deal harder. Stephen Emmott, in his very readable but flawed book 10 billion, takes this to the conclusion that “we’re fucked”, largely because he is pessimistic about the likelihood of the right behaviour change policies ever being enacted by democratic governments, and because he sees no problem-free saviour technologies. The flaws lie in his exaggerated use of statistics, but it is still worth a read because of the range of real problems he covers and his analysis of our chances of tackling them. Newman laughs at Emmott’s “we’re fucked” conclusion in his article, but offers no rebuttal.

There are many complicated aspects to the question of whether the earth can support ten billion moderately wealthy people. We most often hear about climate change, and the bold assertion that with the right technology and politics everything will be fine. I want to briefly look at just two wider aspects – feeding ourselves, and our consumerism – to illustrate how much more complicated it is.

Feeding ten billion

One absolutely massive challenge is feeding the world. Very often, I see people point out that we already produce enough food to feed everyone, that the problem is the unfair distribution. Too much is wasted by rich people, too much land is used to produce feedstock for cattle to give rich people burgers, too much land is used to produce biofuels and luxury crops, all while too many poor people go hungry.

That’s probably all correct to a point, but it ignores all the problems this “adequate” farming system has created and that would continue if we were to move to a more equitable system of agriculture.

Half of the world’s tropical rainforests are gone, often cleared to provide agricultural land. Large areas of grassland previously home to wildlife, from our wildflower meadows in Britain to wide open prairies in the USA, are now chemical-soaked monocultures for agriculture. Can we reverse the massive loss of biodiversity, both globally (e.g. the 30 per cent decline in biodiversity in the last forty years), and nationally (e.g. in the UK the 60 per cent of species that have declined despite all our conservation efforts) while feeding the world?

To take one example, it might be possible to stop a lot of deforestation if we massively reduced our meat consumption, possibly by getting everyone to go vegetarian. But is that even remotely likely to happen on a large scae in the next few decades?

Work by the Stockholm Environment Institute offers more problems for feeding ourselves. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society quantified nine major ecological challenges we face, including those I have already touched on. While feeding ten billion with a good diet, the paper suggests we would also have to:

  • reduce the amount of nitrogen we fix in the soils for agriculture by about two thirds, bearing in mind that artificial means of fixing nitrogen were among the key innovations in the “green revolutions” that enabled us to feed so many people
  • no more than double our freshwater usage while expanding irrigation for agriculture, both to grow food crops and others like cotton for clothing

These are global perspectives. There are also more local issues, for example in water stressed regions like south east England we are already beyond the point of sustainable water use, and it is difficult to accommodate the growing population even with technological and behaviour changes.

With all of these challenges, population becomes an important factor. Ten billion people means twice as great a challenge as five billion. Can we feed five or ten billion people sustainably – addressing all of those concerns – even if we have a more equal world, with less food waste and damaging biofuels? I’m not sure, but I think people who want to say “population doesn’t matter” need to answer these questions.

Keeping ten billion people comfortable

The more you look at the impacts of our civilisation, the harder this all becomes.

Take mobile phones, computers, TVs and cars. Just mining the tin for current demand has devastating social and environmental consequences. Friends of the Earth are pragmatically calling for better practice, but are we likely to persuade five or ten billion people to move away from a disposable, consumerist culture?

Even if we did, providing ten billion people with durable mobile phones will necessarily mean twice the amount of tin mining as for five billion. Then there are all the other components, with all the other raw materials.

As I wrote at the start, considering the environmental consequences of the global poor becoming consumers doesn’t mean we blame them, nor that we blame them more than ourselves, or those in positions of political and economic power.

The difference between realism and utopia

Underlying many of these questions is a tension between the utopian vision – what is possible in theory if we transform behaviour, economics, politics and technology at every level – and what we might learn from the past few decades of intransigence and environmental damage.

Maybe it is theoretically possible to address all our problems, but is that likely to happen? What do we think is likely to happen in the next few decades, and how do we best shape our future and adapt to it starting with the current reality? How can we continue to give hope that a utopia is possible, while fighting for realistic steps towards it and accommodating our vision within the democratic process? Unless you are a person of rigid principle, unwilling to engage in democratic politics, can we ignore population when considering those questions?

So what?

Those questions bring me to the most compelling argument against the “let’s talk about population” position that I heard in the panel at the Green Party conference. It was, essentially, “so what?” What policies can we enact that will really change this?

A population of seven billion is locked in. Even if you take out net immigration, the population of the UK is still growing in spite of some of the best family planning services in the world. The ONS found in the 2011 census that natural change accounted for 44 per cent of our population growth. Making it harder for people to drive their car while improving public transport is one thing, but trying to stop them having a child is quite different.

At this point I stray into areas where I lack the expertise and professional experience that I feel I have brought to the discussion so far. I suspect there are ways we could improve family planning and sex education in the UK, for example, but it’s not an area I know a great deal about. So I don’t have a strong answer to the “so what?” question,

What I am convinced of is that population is relevant, as well as affluence, inequality and technology. It is wrong to close down consideration of population.

You know, people aren’t stupid. Most of the arguments I have gone through in this blog entry are pretty intuitive and widely understood. Declaring that population is simply irrelevant makes you look like you have buried your head in the sand to protect an ideological position, unmoved by facts.

It would be much better to acknowledge that population is part of the equation, and to then explore the best responses to our problems that we can press for in a democratic society and that, we hope, reflect our values of ecology and equality.

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3 thoughts on “What is the population question?

  1. Jim Jepps says:

    One of the frustrating parts of the “debate” is the lack of policy suggestions and evidence to back up those suggestions. I’ve asked of (let’s call them for want of a better term) population people a number of times – “what policies are you proposing and what would the impact of those policies?”

    Despite asking very politely (naturally) what’s striking is how rarely is a response even attempted. It does leave me with the impression that “these people” are either raising a problem to which there is no solution or that the solution that they would like to see is unsayable because presumably it is entirely unethical.

    There are certainly advocates of, say, better family planning, education and female empowerment across the world – all eminently supportable policies – but there’s a great reluctance to say how much impact this would have on population size/growth. I think this is because there’s no evidence that it would have an impact at all, certainly not on a significant scale.

    There are a few, less supportable, policies like cutting child benefit that have zero evidence behind them to indicate this would impact on population size and speaks far more about the misanthropic desire to punish than any real attempt to find solutions.

    Personally speaking I find it difficult to summon up the energy to take the “debate” seriously without actual policy proposals. At least Attenborough made a proposal – as horrid as it was – and so there was actually something to debate.

  2. Really great blog. I think “Declaring that population is simply irrelevant makes you look like you have buried your head in the sand to protect an ideological position, unmoved by facts.” really hits the nail on the head.

    As for the solutions I think they’re more promising then you make out, calling for increased environmental education, female literacy, empowerment and enfranchisement and more access to health care, family planning and contraception.

    There was an interesting podcast the other day which explored some of these ideas -
    http://grist.org/article/can-we-finally-have-a-serious-talk-about-population/

    But unfortunately that discussion largely left out discussion of western consumerism and global inequality. I think you got the balance much better.

    You might also be interested in this briefing note on global population
    http://www.anthonyrae.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/ARF-Global-Population-July2013.pdf

  3. […] conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. I wrote about this in a recent blog post, describing the debate between a representative from Population Matters and Sebastian Power from […]

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