A species that needs to limit its numbers

Rosamund McDougall on the work of the Optimum Population Trust which is conducting research and campaiging for sustainable population policies...

Every time I have been to the Centre for Alternative Technology, I’ve left it drenched by rain. Rain is a constant companion to anyone rooted in Wales, but on the last visit, with my colleague Edmund Davey from the Optimum Population Trust, it was different. Not the seeping, comforting blanket of drizzle I used to know, but a heavy, beating waterfall, collecting in deep lakes either side of the train tracks through Herefordshire and permeating to the skin as soon as we disembarked at Machynlleth station.

The facts are stark, and need telling over and over again. World population is growing by nearly 80 million a year, adding to the billions who already need more food, more energy and more housing even if they are only to rise from poverty to enjoy a modestly comfortable quality of life.

This change, for people as finely tuned to rainfall as Inuits are to differences in falling snow, seemed growing evidence of climate change in the Welsh hills – a microcosm of what is happening worldwide. It is recognition of these changes and their implications for humanity’s future that has begun to make people think again about the number of our species that Earth and individual nations can sustain – the core work of the Optimum Population Trust.

Our visit was to arrange the setting up of the Jack Parsons Archive, the legacy of papers on population left by one of OPT’s first and feistiest patrons. A lifetime population campaigner and supporter of Malthusian concepts, against a tide of misinformed opinion, he gave his archive to CAT and it will be available to scholars visiting the Centre. His many papers will provide added research material for the new environmental MSc courses CAT plans to run as part of its graduate school for the environment.

For OPT, recognition of climate change is a development that we hope has not come too late. Soon, perhaps, the inconvenient truth that the number of climate changers is part of the problem will also be recognised.
In the 1970s, stabilisation of human population was freely discussed by environmentalists as part of the solution to symptoms emerging then. There were signs that atmospheric pollution was increasing, that natural resources were not infinite, and that Malthus’s theory that food supply would not keep up with increasing population would prove right. Now that climate change is biting and biologically productive land shrinking, his theory might become reality.

The Optimum Population Trust is a green think tank and campaigning organisation whose aims are to carry out research on sustainable population sizes, educate the public, and campaign for sustainable population policies globally, in Europe and the UK. It was founded in 1991 by David Willey, whose widow continues as its treasurer, and for its first decade it worked as a respected and scholarly group of scientists, academics and others on the implications of growing human numbers, and on measuring sustainable population levels. This was carried out by using several different approaches -- for example, ecological foot printing and net energy yield calculations, and this work continues today.

Five years ago we began a renaissance of OPT by turning our efforts outwards and facing up to an outside world where limits to population growth had become, for many reasons, an issue few people were prepared to discuss rationally. Even fewer were prepared to go the necessary step further by suggesting government policies and fundamental individual changes in attitude to family size.

It was a task more difficult than any of us imagined, because for so long no-one had attempted it. To those who remembered the relatively open debate of the 1970s, it was a shock, if not a surprise, to enter a world of overcharged emotions about population issues, to face widespread ignorance about the most fundamental facts of demography, and to have our aims attacked by persistent misinterpretation. Even friends in environment and population organisations failed to lend support, and backed away.

But if OPT was not to bring sustainable population numbers into rational debate, who would do it? In 2005, with some truths out in the open, and with our small membership rising, we doubled our efforts with the media, in political, environmental and economic fora, and at the grass roots. Two more years on, the prejudice is beginning to dissolve in understanding, and some alarm, about projected world population growth of another 2.5 billion people by 2050.

Governments have recognised the threats posed by climate change; some economists have acknowledged that perpetual population growth is no solution to the worsening demographic dependency ratios caused by ageing populations; and even the energy industry has admitted that fossil fuel supplies may peak within two decades with few viable alternative solutions in sight. Every way politicians turn in their quest to find predict-and-provide solutions, they find a cul-de-sac: hopes pinned on biofuels for example, have been tempered by the discovery that high-land-using, low-net-energy-yielding crops will compete for finite land with food crops and might, by deforestation to provide cropland, do more harm than good.

Where does this lead the work of the Optimum Population Trust?
We know that climate change continues to be taught in most schools without any simple arithmetical input that relates environmental impacts to human numbers. On the public education front, although a mass of briefings have been added to our website populationmatters.org over the last few years, there is still a long way to go. In the media, reassured we hope by OPT’s integrity, and backed by strong support from our distinguished patrons, the debate has become more sensitive, more sensible and more concerned with solutions. We still find dangerous ignorance, along with encouraging evidence of better understanding, in the furore of internet blogs where OPT releases, briefings and reports are agitatedly discussed. But as discussion widens, so people all over the world read more of the facts, figures and findings that we are able to provide.

Graph - world population growth

The facts are stark, and need telling over and over again.
World population is growing by nearly 80 million a year, adding to the billions who already need more food, more energy and more housing even if they are only to rise from poverty to enjoy a modestly comfortable quality of life. As population and consumption rise hand-in-hand, we are depleting the renewable resources of our natural habitat to the extent that we are living off ecological capital rather than income, while expected advances in clean energy technology disappear further beyond the horizon. The ideas and technology pioneered by the Centre for Alternative Technology are constantly undermined by the addition of 10,000 energy consumers to the planet every hour of every day.

And in the UK, another 10 million people are expected by 2074, mainly due to very high net inward migration. Plans to build three million new homes by 2020 reflect simple demographic facts – population growth accounts for 59% of projected housing demand – and would involve the equivalent of building another London in a country that is already more densely populated than China. The Population-based Climate Strategy briefing OPT published in May revealed that the lifetime emission costs of an extra 10 million people in the UK would be £300 billion, while a condom costs just 35 pence.

With OPT research indicating that both world and UK populations are already at least twice their long-term sustainable level, what can be done? Here there is still misunderstanding, misinterpretation and fear. What will we do to support the burgeoning numbers of older people? Are we recommending that humans should be culled, like a rampantly growing population of pests? Of course not. There are peaceful and democratic ways of reducing future human numbers. Increasing the death rate by famine and disease are nature’s brutal population policies, not ours.

OPT hopes to study solutions and fill out its broad population policies in more detail over the next few years.
We and others question politicians about UK population policy almost always to meet bafflement – the only time that former prime minister Tony Blair was lost for words in a parliamentary select committee, according to Labour MP Dr Tony Wright, was when he was asked in July 2006 whether he had a population policy. He appeared not to understand what the question meant. It means a view on what level of population the UK can sustain in the long term, and, in OPT’s view, policies to ensure stabilisation and allow gradual decrease. Populations cannot be reduced rapidly, but time appears to be running out for the peaceful and democratic solutions that we recommend.

The first solution, on a global scale, is urgently to provide access to full family planning services for at least 200 million women who are denied them, with additional support for reproductive health education and women’s rights. OPT does not ever propose coercion – most women, and men, would welcome provision if it were there.

The second is for the parents of the future to consider family size in relation to the impact of their children and their children’s children on the global environment – the simple multiplication of above-replacement-level family size that causes future population growth. Here OPT has relaunched a “Stop at Two” children campaign that first surfaced three decades ago, when world population was two billion less than today’s 6.5 billion and the first reliable contraceptives started to become widely available. How much easier it would be to solve today’s climate change problems had population stabilisation policies been effected then.

The third, no less important solution, is for governments to consider what their own national sustainable population sizes might be at a politically acceptable level of consumption and quality of life for all their citizens, and introduce policies accordingly. These considerations and policies would differ from nation to nation, but our political parties, we hope, will frame better employment policies for the old, young, disabled and ill-educated who are out of work -- of any creed or colour – to alleviate the problems associated with an ageing population. Sensible policies are also needed to curb record levels of teenage pregnancy, and, yes, to think about genuinely balanced migration in terms of numbers flowing in and out of the UK. With these policies, our population could be allowed to decrease gradually to a more sustainable level, provide us with a more certain future, reduce pressures on our environment and improve our quality of life. OPT’s recommended global and UK fertility and migration policies can be seen on our website.

Those who prefer to wait for a global solution will have to wait for a very long time – it is a decade since the Kyoto accord, but climate change has not yet been slowed. Meanwhile, the populations of rapidly-desertifying regions of the world, from Africa and Australia to southern Europe, are seeing their land area shrink, their agriculture die, and their populations threatened. The rains that fall on Wales cannot assuage the outback or nomad farmer in another continent – only reversing climate change, overconsumption and population growth worldwide can help everyone.

Alongside OPT’s external work, we have a growing membership of supporters, with many activists campaigning at the grass roots. Many are Greens, frustrated at being brushed off by environmental organisations and local politicians at best, and at worst being assumed to have sinister motives behind their concerns. Why is discussion of their local area’s growing population furtively silenced? Why doesn’t their local branch of FOE or Greenpeace mention the fact that environmental targets are constantly undermined by population increase? The answer in the past has been that the issue has been seen as too hot to handle. But opinion polls and evidence from the street show that this attitude is increasingly at odds with public concern about our deteriorating environment.

So the Optimum Population Trust is indebted to the Centre for Alternative Technology for housing the Jack Parsons Archive and, we hope, for bringing population back into environmental education, among the gentle green folds of Welsh mountains where it put down its roots more than 30 years ago.

About the author
Rosamund McDougall is an Advisory Council member and former Co-chair of the Optimum Population Trust (now known as Population Matters). She has also worked as a journalist (Financial Times Group) and publisher, and co-founded Britain’s first Population Stabilisation campaign, of that name, in the 1970s.

This article was first published in Clean Slate - the magazine of the Centre for Alternative Technology. www.cat.org.uk
Copyright © CAT / Rosamund McDougall

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