Population matters. Women matter more

| 30th December 2014
Photo: Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr, CC-BY.
Photo: Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr, CC-BY.
Of course rising world population matters, writes Biff Vernon, due to its impact on the planet and its resources. But to actually do something about it, don't even mention the 'p' word. Instead let's cut back on our wasteful, high-consumption lifestyles - and empower women everywhere!
Behaviour varies greatly making it at least an order of magnitude more significant in terms of global ecological footprint than raw population numbers.

Global population growth and sustainability are sometimes confused with local and regional population and with sustainability, migration and nationalism.

The UK-based campaigning organisation, Population Matters has done much valuable work in highlighting the issues, but has unfortunately also been adding to the confusion. Here's an attempt to unravel some threads.

It's stating the bleedin' obvious but many of the world's problems would be lessened if the global population grew no further. In many areas of the world the rate of growth has already come close to zero and this has mostly come about without coercive government intervention.

Key factors are improvements in women's education and status, perinatal health-care, access to family planning and social security. Those areas of the world that still have high population growth rates tend to be places with low levels of women's status, poor health services and general poverty.

Is it a numbers game?

From the CIA World Factbook 2014 we learn that the global average Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is about 2.5. For the UK it is 1.9, for the EU it's 1.6. For Niger it is almost 7. The replacement rate for industrialised countries, with their low mortality of women before they reach the end of their fertile years, is about 2.1.

For the EU, including the UK, we can, in the long term, expect a declining population. There may still be growth for some time, despite TFR being less than replacement rate, while the age distribution reaches equilibrium.

The UK has a slightly higher crude birth rate (12 per 1,000) than most other EU nations (average 11 per 1000, Germany 8 per 1,000) but compare this with Niger and Mali where crude birth rates are 46 per 1,000.

And then there is migration. Of course migration does not change total numbers - it just moves people! But there are a couple of secondary effects. Net migration is from countries with high fertility rates to low and the immigrant tends to experience a cultural shift. Thus a girl migrating from Mali to the UK is unlikely to have 7 babies.

So migration to the UK is likely to have a suppressing effect on global population growth. It may not all be good news, however, as her ecological footprint is likely to be greater in England than it was in Mali. But that's the matter of behaviour rather than numbers.

To reduce global population, effort made in those areas with very high TFRs is likely to have a bigger pay-off than where the demographic transition has already run its course and populations are close to stable or even declining.

Of the 214 territories identified by the CIA World Factbook in the 2014 TFR List, the top 40 have a TFR above 4, and only half a dozen are not in sub-Saharan Africa. None of the hundred countries with a TFR below 2 are in Africa. Thus, to a first approximation, population growth is an African problem.

Behaviour varies greatly making it at least an order of magnitude more significant in terms of global ecological footprint than raw population numbers.

Or is it really about behaviour?

A 'sustainable' or 'optimal' population is hard to define. Much depends on lifestyle and behaviour. It has been suggested that the sustainable population for the British Isles is close to 30 million.

But are these millions eating beef, driving fast cars and taking frequent holiday flights, or are they growing their own food and reading poetry? Do they work for a bank that invests in the fossil fuel industry or are they a baker in the community bread store?

Behaviour varies greatly making it at least an order of magnitude more significant in terms of global ecological footprint than raw population numbers.

In any case, suggesting that the UK population might reduce to 30 million is fanciful, at least in timescales that are meaningful in policy terms. Even with a TFR as low as the lowest in Europe (Lithuania TFR=1.29) we still get a population well over 50 million at the end of the century.

Such fanciful notions may suggest where Utopia lies and therefore serve to provide a direction for travel. The danger is that they also provide a target for criticism and even ridicule that besmirches the whole green movement.

Halving the UK population - would it even help?

Here is an example from Conservative Home, a mainstream blog supportive of the Conservative Party:

"The Optimum Population Trust, (now renamed Population Matters) for those of you who haven't yet come across them, are an odd bunch. Bluntly, they believe the best way to save the planet is to get rid of as many human beings as possible.

On the plus side, at least they are being more honest than most greens in their open contempt for human beings. The reality of many in the environmentalist movement is at core a deep anti-humanism, an arrogant dislike for people who are somehow too stupid to see the problem with their pursuit of a happy life and a healthy family.

"On the down side, the OPT's aims are actually pretty worrying - verging on sinister, even. Buried in their website is a detailed spreadsheet laying out their ideal 'sustainable' populations for each country. And those 'ideal' populations are a little worrying, if you try to imagine the reality of them.

"For example, the UK should shrink to 29 million people, from the 60 million we currently have. We are of course a small island, but ask yourself which half of your friends you would rather did not exist?"

DFID - doing the right things (very quietly)

For today's UK politics we have to be mindful of the May election and Population Matters have issued what they call a UK election manifesto: 'Why population matters for the 2015 UK general election'.

Given that the most effective action on population growth has to be directed to those nations with the highest population growth rates, the focus should be on the Department for International Development.

One might think that DFID does not put sufficient emphasis on population, yet prominent on their website is this interesting piece.

Nowhere on that webpage does the word 'population' occur yet the policies are exactly those that most directly address the issues that have the greatest impact on population. The heading is "Improving the lives of girls and women in the world's poorest countries".

It seems that the UK government gets it, the policies reflecting what it says on the lid, while Population Matters introduces a number of spurious issues.

The only real 'system boundary' is the planet

Some campaigners on population make the mistake of focussing on UK population but this plays straight into the hands of the far-right, the racists, the xenophobes, the little-Englanders and, electorally, of UKIP and BNP. It is, firstly, unnecessary, in as much as the UK population growth is not a significant contributor to world population growth.

Secondly, there is the issue of sustainability, which as I've described above, is contingent on behaviour. But there is another aspect: where the system boundaries are drawn.

National boundaries are arbitrary, emerging from history, and should not be given too much significance. There is nothing particularly wonderful about a nation being self sufficient in food, energy or any commodity. Trade is not a bad thing in itself, though transport has its ecological footprint.

The UK is only about 60% self-sufficient in food, but that is a function of system boundaries. London is not self-sufficient but staves off starvation by trading financial and other services for food. Lincolnshire, on the other hand, produces a vast surplus of food.

There is nothing, technically, to prevent the UK producing more than enough to feed itself, but currently we find it convenient to work in manufacturing and service industries and buy large quantities of food from elsewhere in the world.

It is our choice to leave much of the land agriculturally unproductive so that we may enjoy golf courses and grouse moors and to work in offices rather than in labour-intensive horticulture.

Apparently we like 'over-crowding' - most of us choose to live in cities

It's the same with energy. It is our choice that we live in poorly insulated houses, are profligate with our transport fuel and object to wind-farms, preferring to buy imported oil and coal.

That is a choice we may come to regret and certainly could be changed so that we become entirely reliant on renewable energy produced within and around the British Isles. If we are worried about energy, then this is the practical way to go, rather than halving the population.

It's a similar story with minerals. We could be self-sufficient in copper but have decided not to dig up Snowdonia. There are richer deposits elsewhere in the world and we are willing to trade. By all means campaign for better recycling and reuse, efficient use of limited supplies and less consumption generally. These are the timely ways in which we reduce our ecological impact.

System boundaries are especially important in discussions about 'overcrowding'. While some prefer the wide open spaces of remote countryside, many people prefer to live in cities.

Most people choose to spend their days in urban areas, places far more 'overcrowded' than the UK as a whole, most of which is a green and pleasant land and too far to walk to the pub from.

About 50 countries are more densely populated than the UK, including India, Japan, and Belgium. Interestingly, Population Matters cherry-picks system boundaries here, emphasising the density of England & Wales, rather than the UK, which still includes Scotland where population has changed little over a century.

It is when people talk of 'overcrowding' that they are most likely to be associated with xenophobia and racism. So when campaigning organisations question Britain's sustainability, complain that immigration exceeds emigration and say that the UK is 'overpopulated', one might be forgiven for looking for the UKIP logo.

Women matter!

  1. Migration is not a global population issue.
  2. The UK is a very small part of the planet and is hardly relevant to global population.
  3. Sustainability is much more about behaviour than about numbers.
  4. The key to stopping global population growth is empowerment of women.

If we are to stop and even reverse global population growth, and thereby address humankind's adverse impact on the planet, point 4 above has to be central. Care must be taken to avoid adverse criticism by inappropriately introducing spurious arguments that lead to the Little Englander mentality.

Population Matters has done much fine work and it would be tragic if a rift between them and the wider green movement, which focuses more on behaviour than simple numbers, were to open.

But some of their current campaigning is little short of disaster, pandering to the worst elements of the Little Englander mentality, undoing the trust we had vested in them. Their name has already changed from the Optimum Population Trust.

It has been suggested that they should drop the 'P' word altogether and change further to 'Women Matter'.


Biff Vernon is a retired geologist, science teacher and life-long environmental campaigner and gardener.

Biff blogs at biffvernon.blogspot.co.uk/, and twitters @transitionlouth.

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