People or Polar Bears?

Robin Maynard tells the Ecologist why he is trying to encourage environmental NGOs to have the courage to move beyond a politically correct stance on issues of population growth and really engage with the big questions......

"I don't give a damn about polar bears! I can live without polar bears," Professor Hans Rosling told me earlier this year at the G8G20 parliamentarians' conference, ‘What place for family planning in the future of development?' His outburst emphasising the deep division between those working in the development and environment sectors: People or polar bears.

Professor Rosling was provoked by my seeking clarification on the figure of 10 billion people he'd asserted in his presentation was the inevitable global population by 2050 - the United Nations Population Division gives a range of projections: Low, 8 billion; medium, 9.3 billion ; high, over 10 billion. Wouldn't it be possible and better, I asked - given the analysis by the Global Footprint Network that we (or some of us) are using up one and a half planet's worth of resources annually - to aim for the lower projections? Rosling shot back that it was achievable but, "Only by killing people!"

No wonder environment and conservation NGOs are reluctant to enter into any public discourse involving the ‘P' word. Attempting to talk about population from an environmental perspective, as opposed to the predominating focus on sexual health and reproductive rights (SRHR in the jargon), is to tread a path strewn with super sensitive trip-wires - linking back to historic abuses of human rights through coercive birth control programmes implemented in India and China during the 1960s and 70s.

Today, dialogue about population is framed through the lens of women's rights - with control of a woman's fertility and her right to determine when, whether, and how many children to have set at the level of the individual woman's choice, an understandable focus. Statistics relating to the injuries and injustices suffered by women and young girls through the denial or restriction of their rights are horrendous, revealing the grim realities of individual lives, rather than the impacts of overall numbers of people on the planet.

According to the UN Family Planning Association, over 220 million women want, but do not have access to safe, affordable family planning - hence over 20 million resorting to unsafe abortions annually. At least a quarter of a million women and girls die through pregnancy and giving birth every year - the majority in the developing world and wholly avoidable.

Across the Sahel region, it is cultural practice for girls as young as 14 to be married and expected to bear children. At such a young age, complications in pregnancy and child birth are inevitable. Two million women in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and other parts of the Arab world suffer from fistula brought on during pregnancy - a foul condition, causing a breach between the vagina and the rectum. Almost unknown in the developed world, doctors term it ‘a disease of poverty'.

Given such statistics, Professor Rosling's focus on the human suffering of women having more babies at a much younger age than they would choose to, is understandable. Qualifying his indifference to the fate of polar bears, he added, "It is the injustice to women and girls around the world that I care about - and which I think most people care about."

The dismissal of the relevance of the UN's range of global population projections stems from his conviction as to the ‘truth' of Demographic Transition Theory (DTT). DTT, based on an analysis of the stages that western developed countries went through on their path to modernisation and stabilisation of their populations, has been extrapolated as the sequence that all countries across the world will undergo - assuming they are provided with the means to develop.

There are four key stages: Firstly, high fertility/high mortality in infants and a lower-life expectancy for adults - lack of access to family planning and modern medical care mean that births and deaths balance each other out so the population overall is stable. Second, health care and immunisation against preventable childhood illnesses leads to a decline in child mortality and so rapid population growth (decline in fertility is slower to come about). Third, whilst the fertility rate falls overall, numbers of viable births remain high due to the large numbers of young people (‘Youth Bulge'). Finally, people live longer due to available healthcare, but women have fewer children later, through access to family planning and education.

DTT appears compelling - across the world fertility rates are falling, with the global average standing at 2.5 children per woman. A global trend that leads many people to believe that population is an anachronistic issue that will resolve itself - as long as women are enabled to control their own fertility as they choose. Hence Hans Rosling's conclusion, "Take care of people and population will solve itself".

But birth rates are not falling everywhere. The assumption they will relies on all cultures following the path of the developed world. Proponents of DTT accept that our planet will be home to 10 billion people - another 2.9 billion by 2050. An ‘inevitable' increase because the next generation of parents has already been born (70% of Africa's population is between 15-30 years of age). The UN's range of projections suggests there are interventions and choices we can make to influence which is the most likely. Yet few individuals or organisations question the dominant paradigm of DTT- when if they do, it is implied that underneath their environmental concern lurks a closet racist, misanthrope, or a demented deep-ecologist considering, ‘Killing people'!

For the past six months, I have been seeking to persuade the UK's environment and conservation NGOs (several with international presence) to engage publicly with population issues. It has been a frustrating process. All longstanding campaigning bodies, with the research capacity to respond rapidly to government and industry initiatives and craft coherent positions. Only one, Friends of the Earth, has been able to provide me with anything approaching a convincing public policy on population.

Their reluctance to enter into any discourse on the issue and impacts of population growth was not unexpected. Taboos surrounding population run deep, as Professor Diana Coole analyses in her paper, `Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question', which identifies ‘Five categories of silencing discourse' - Population-Shaming; Population-Scepticism; Population-Declinism; Population-Decomposing and Population-Fatalism - preventing discussion about population and triggered whenever anyone raises growing human numbers as a factor in socio-ecological problems.

A few people are prepared to speak honestly and humanely about population, as an issue of women's rights, but also indivisibly linked to the environment and well-being of all species on Earth, not least humans. Dr Eliyah Zulu, director of the African Institute for Development Policy based in Nairobi, is one such brave soul. A Malawian by birth, he champions access for all women to safe, affordable family planning as their human right, but also because it will benefit their immediate environment, noting that, "It is at the grassroots that people most feel the disbenefits of population growth."

To poor people in developing countries, concerns about one threatened species might seem hypocritical hand-wringing by those in the wealthy world whose consumption patterns and profligate burning of fossil-fuels are the real cause of the polar bear's demise. Yet Dr Zulu had no hesitation in connecting both, "We must recognise that the Earth is finite and focus on addressing both population growth in poor countries and high levels of consumption in developed countries. Population growth goes hand in hand with those countries that are least resilient against climate change."

Projections for Africa's population growth over the coming decades are sobering - from the present 1.1 billion, UN forecasts are for 1.9 - 2.5 billion by 2050; 2.4 to over 3 billion by 2100. Even more so, when considered at the individual country level. Take Malawi, Dr Zulu's birth country, whose 15 million inhabitants are projected to rise to 50 million by 2050; possibly 100 million by 2100. "How can the country sustain such a population?" asks Dr Zulu. Quickly answering his question, "It can't."

There is no disputing the gross inequity between global consumption patterns. A child born in the UK will be responsible for 35 times the carbon emissions over its life than a child born in Bangladesh, 160 times that of an Ethiopian child. The ‘global footprint' per African (impact upon the environment and share of the world's resources) is many times lower than for Europeans and Americans - and has decreased over the past 40 years. Yet because of rapid population growth, the Continent's overall footprint has tripled.

With consumption per capita so high in countries like the UK and America, it seems only right that the NGOs have focussed on curbing consumption. Yet with each additional consumer in the developed world making a disproportionate impact, the factor of population should be acknowledged. Despite the NGOs' efforts over the past 25 years since the phrase ‘sustainable development' was coined, consumption figures in the developed countries continue to rise.

At the G8G20 Conference the Turkish MP Öznur Çalık, a highly-respected champion of women's access to family planning stated, "Women should have the right to give birth as much as they wish", adding that in her view, "The world has sufficient resources to feed the growing population." Her words indicate a worrying disconnect to the wider women's rights movement, which has been in the vanguard of recognising that respect for human rights goes hand in hand with respect for the environment.

To name a few, the most effective leaders of the global green movement have emerged from the wider women's movement: the ‘Chipko' defenders of the Himalayan forests; Petra Kelly, founder of the German Greens; Wangari Maathaii, Nobel Peace prize winner, who sowed the seeds of the Greenbelt Movement; Vandana Shiva, fighting for traditional farming practices against the threat of GM-pushing agribiz.

Öznur Çalık's statement suggests having children is ‘a self-regarding act' where individual choice is paramount; rather than an ‘other regarding act', where the consequences on society generally are considered. This is difficult territory, as Professor Coole notes in her paper, for as originally defined by the political economist John Stuart Mill, an ‘other regarding act' lays personal liberty open to being curtailed for the ‘greater good'. The rationale used to justify past coercive population programmes. But it should not prevent a woman (especially in the developed world) from considering the impacts of her putative child on the global environment, upon her fellow global citizens, or upon future generations' well-being - not least that of her own child and its off-spring.

Environment NGOs have self-censored on the issue of population, fearful of being labelled ‘human-hating' or ‘neo-colonialist' - and in the UK, where present population growth comes from immigration, bundled together with groups with dubious agendas outwith any genuine environmental concern. They should take heart from a YouGov survey, which found that almost four out of five people (79%) thought the UK population was too high, with 84% agreeing the global population too high. The 3,538 people polled included all age ranges, genders and ethnic origins and undoubtedly, a proportion of the NGOs' own supporters.

Voices within the reproductive rights/family planning sector are calling for a broader, more inclusive agenda. Diego Palacios, co-ordinator of UNFPA's efforts to ensure the Millennium Development Goals survive beyond 2015 (the year they were meant to have been achieved), spoke of, "involving new audiences, those interested in human rights but also economics and the environment - not have them opposed to eachother." Adding, "Environmental sustainability is not yet linked into the reproductive rights, family planning agenda sufficiently." A call the environment NGOs should respond to.

Further reading and points of interest;

A study by Oregon State University in 2009 compared the impact of an individual adopting six well-known ecological life-style changes to cut their carbon budget over a lifetime, against the single action of having one less child. By adopting the practical and available ‘environmentally-friendly' actions of driving a more fuel-efficient car; halving annual car mileage; fitting double glazing and low-energy light-bulbs; replacing an older, inefficient refrigerator; recycling all paper, tin and glass - an individual over their lifetime could curb their carbon budget by 486 tonnes. By taking the single, personal decision to have one less child, an American woman and her family would save 9,441 tonnes of carbon over her lifetime. Nearly 20 times the amount saved from all those other positive eco-actions combined.

Over the past 15 years, UK vehicle use has increased by 14%. Water use per person has continued to increase by 1% year on year since the 1950s, current per capita household use is 150 litres per day - a ton of water a week. UK domestic energy use has risen by nearly one-fifth over the past four decades. The area of UK farmland under organic management stands at less than 5%, expanding just 2% since 1997.

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Robin Maynard is an independent campaigner/communicator/writer working on various issues including sustainable agriculture; food security; population; forestry. Read his blog here. Follow him on twitter here. 

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