Action, not excuses, needed on population and migration

| 7th January 2015
Photo: Lisa Ruokis via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Photo: Lisa Ruokis via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
There are no good reasons for not acting on population and migration, writes Simon Ross. It's time to tackle the issues head on and openly to challenge the excuses for doing nothing - or for acting only indirectly to reduce population growth, by raising the status of women in high fertility countries.
We also need to limit the large scale unbalanced migration which weakens incentives to have smaller families in both countries of origin and destination.

Biff Vernon ('Population Matters. Women matter more' acknowledges the good work that Population Matters does in raising the issue of the impact of population growth on environmental sustainability but ultimately concludes that one should not address it directly.

This seems strange for a "lifelong environmental campaigner". You don't hear campaigners on poverty or disease saying 'let's not address the issue directly' or campaigners on climate change suggesting that we shouldn't talk about fossil fuels.

It seems that the thing we can do most about - our own family choices - is the one issue we don't wish to address. To its credit, The Ecologist has carried articles on the issue, such as 'Get a grip. Population impacts diversity' by Jonathon Porritt, or 'Population is our biggest challenge says government chief scientist Sir John Beddington'.

Many environmentalists, though, will jump at reasons not to talk about population. This is often because sexual health and women's rights are outwith their area of expertise.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that considering population forces one to consider controversial areas such as governments' role in family size, sexual rights and migration.

How important is it and what should be done?

Pretty much everyone would acknowledge that the doubling of human numbers in the last fifty years, from 3.5 billion to 7 billion, and the projected increase of even more, another four billion or so, by the end of this century, is pretty significant for environmental sustainability, particularly in the longer term.

Sure, some people consume more than others. Some consume less right now but may consume more in the future, either individually or as a society. However, we all consume and, if there were fewer rather than ever more of us, the planet and we would be a lot better off.

Like any environmental campaign, we need to help people make the environmentally conscious choice which, in this case, is to have a smaller family.

We can do that by ensuring women and men have the ability to choose a smaller family, through access to the full range of family planning and the right to make their own decisions, and that they are motivated to have smaller families, whether that be through environmental concern or access to education and employment opportunities for them and their children.

We also need to limit the large scale unbalanced migration which weakens incentives to have smaller families in both countries of origin and destination.

Should we address population?

In discussing this with other campaigners, many, like Biff, agree that population is a problem, then say 'but ... '

One objection is that consumption is more significant. I think we can agree that disparities of wealth and consumption are environmentally significant and should be challenged and that waste could be reduced. However, neither will be quick or easy. Even if it was, we can address population and consumption simultaneously.

Family planning programmes are not expensive so they are not competing with other programmes for resources. They are conceptually allied with other environmental programmes, too, where they based on the desire for environmental sustainability and individual rights.

Another objection is that reducing population will take too long. It is the case that people on earth today will be here for their lifetimes, that we are all living longer and that there are more young people on earth than ever before and that most will have children.

However, birth rates are falling worldwide. By accelerating that trend, we can reduce future populations, and hence consumption, significantly.

Conversely, some say that the problem is being solved without action as birth rates fall. But in fact, in some of the poorest countries, birth rates are stable or rising and populations are rising rapidly, while many in developed countries still have large families.

How should we address population?

A common argument is that the best way to address population is to promote women's rights, especially access to family planning, and/or social development and poverty alleviation. These are important and we support them. However, more resources will be allocated and behaviour changed if smaller families are promoted as a benefit for society as a whole.

The argument against this arises partly from the fear that governments may penalize larger families. While this has happened and we oppose it, it is rare; it is much more common for women to have larger families that they would wish, due to a lack of personal rights or lack of family planning.

We are asked whether the problem is the high consuming West, fast developing middle income countries or the very poor countries with high fertility rates. Our answer is that we focus not on the problem but on the solution; all would benefit from having smaller families.

Migration is rising worldwide but mentioning it inevitably raises the question of whether even discussing migration leads to the dubious ethics of 'Fortress Britain' or 'Fortress Europe' or even xenophobia or racism.

From the standpoint of environmental sustainability, roughly equal flows, however large, are irrelevant. Highly unbalanced flows do have adverse implications, though, for the population sizes and behaviours of both countries of origin and destination. Some limit to migration is clearly necessary, though it should always be fair and accompanied by help for countries of origin to create employment opportunities and improve living standards.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the objections are pretty weak. We would prefer to adopt a mature approach and move forward by agreeing with others within the environmental movement that we address, not consumption or population, but both population and consumption.



Simon Ross is the Chief Executive of Population Matters, the UKs leading charity addressing population and sustainability.


Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here