You are here

Populate and Perish

Citizens arrest

Tackling climate change is now a worldwide crusade - so what's stopping campaigners driving its simplest solution?

David Nicholson-Lord

Wednesday July 11, 2007

The Guardian

The simplest truths are sometimes the hardest to recognise. This month, according to the UN, world population will reach 6.7 billion, en route to a newly revised global total of 9.2 billion by 2050. The latest housing forecasts for England predict that we will need about 5m more homes in the next two decades. The economist Jeffrey Sachs devoted this spring's Reith lectures to a planet "bursting at the seams". And the most recent Social Trends analysis from the Office for National Statistics painted a picture of a Britain driven mad by overcrowding. Meanwhile, Gaia scientist James Lovelock has been warning about ecological collapse and world resources able to support only 500 million people, with many extra millions driven to take refuge in the UK.

In the midst of all these alarms is a very quiet place where the green lobby should be talking about human population growth. Today has been designated World Population Day by the UN, but you will not see any of the big environment and development groups mounting a campaign on population. Indeed, you will be lucky if they even mention the P-word. Earlier this year, Nafis Sadik, former director of the UN's population fund, berated such non-governmental organisations for being more concerned with fundraising than advocacy. Their silence on population, she observed, was "deafening".

Mainstream concern

So why isn't the green movement talking about population any more? In its early days, back in the 60s and 70s, population growth was a mainstream concern. Groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE), WWF and Oxfam took well-publicised positions on population issues - endorsing the Stop at Two (children) slogan, supporting zero population growth and publishing reports with titles such as Already Too Many (Oxfam). These days, Greenpeace declares that population is "not an issue for us" and describes it as "a factor [in] but not one of the drivers of" environmental problems.

FOE last year tried to answer some "common questions" on the subject, including: "Why isn't Friends of the Earth tackling population growth?" Oxfam, which as recently as 1994 published a report entitled World Population: The Biggest Problem of All, now does not list it among the dozen or so "issues we work on", and nor does it figure in the "What you can do" section of WWF's One Planet Living campaign.

The green lobby's main argument is that numbers do not matter so much - it is how we live and consume that counts. FoE even remarks that "it is unhelpful to enter into a debate about numbers. The key issue is the need for the government to implement policies that respect environmental limits, whatever the population of the UK". It is a statement that seems to treat population and environmental limits as entirely separate subjects.

There are two powerful counter-arguments to this. One is common sense: that consumption and numbers matter and that if a consumer is absent - that is, unborn - then so is his or her consumption. The second is the weight of evidence. Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, told a parliamentary inquiry last year: "It is self-evident that the massive growth in the human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor."

The increase in global population over the next 40 years, for example, is roughly what the entire world population was in 1950. The UK, currently around 61 million people, is on course for 71 million by 2074, by which time England's densities will have outstripped those of South Korea, which, by some measures, is currently the world's second most crowded country - second only to Bangladesh.

The Optimum Population Trust today publishes a new report, Youthquake, that warns - echoing Lovelock - that environmental degradation caused by the number of humans may force more governments to follow China's lead and introduce compulsory limits on family size.

Many suspect other motives for the green lobby's neglect of the population issue. It is a sensitive subject, bound up with issues on which the progressive left, which most environmental groups identify with, has developed a defensive intellectual reflex. These include race and immigration - the latter accounts for more than 80% of forecast UK population growth, for example - reproductive choice, human rights and gender equality. Calls for population restraint can easily be portrayed as "anti-people" - surely people are part of "the solution"? It is far easier to ignore the whole subject; let somebody else - or nobody - deal with it.

Verbal contortions

This often involves intriguing verbal contortions. The 70s organisation Population Countdown, having morphed into Population Concern, in 2003 rechristened itself as Interact Worldwide - under its former name, consultants told it, its funders, and future, would dry up.

Faced with escalating forecasts of housing need - one recent government projection says we will need 11m more households in the UK by 2050, an increase of over 40% - the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) proclaims itself in favour of "development that protects the countryside and the environment" and ignores the fact that the main cause of forecast housing growth, responsible for 59% of the total, is population increase.

So why does the CPRE not campaign on the issue that poses the greatest threat to rural England? "If we did," says Shaun Spiers, CPRE's chief executive, "it appears unlikely that our actions would have any effect on population growth, and that would lay us open to the charge of misusing our charitable funds."

How to categorise such reactions? Pragmatism? Cowardice? Sensible tactics? Or an overdose of organisational self-preservation? Whatever the reason, it is infectious - the media (and politicians) take many of their awareness cues from NGOs so the silence on population becomes society-wide. As a result, family size is seen as an exercise in individual lifestyle choice: few people consider the consequences for the planet of their fertility decisions. That means fertility rates in the UK rise, and the population keeps on growing.

· David Nicholson-Lord is an environmental writer and research associate for the Optimum Population Trust. The Youthquake report is available at

· David Nicholson-Lord is an environmental writer and research associate for the Optimum Population Trust. The Youthquake report is available at

· Email your comments to society |AT| If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly "for publication"


This was posted to the Brisbane 'notunnels' yahoo mailing list by Michael in response to this article

In my opinion, there is a quite reasonable human trait that for most of us tends to want to be popular rather than hated ... or more accurately, in most cases, people probably prefer to be towards the popular side of the middle (perhaps almost un-noticed?) on a Lichert (linear) scale from "popular/loved" to "unpopular/hated".

"Green" groups are similarly inclined to want support including in the form of people as well as in-kind and financial support ... and you don't get that by upsetting people ... and for "people" read criticising the dominant paradigm or dominant hegemony.

The ABC TV Peter Singer "Talking Heads" interview covers this well where he explains his role as thinking about and explaining problems and issues ... for OTHERS to think and act further on ...

So the RACQ does not really want to promote greener cars or bicycles any more than Bicycle Queensland wants to attack motorists for threatening if not killing cyclists (and pedestrians) ... thus many of these types of groups become implicit if not explicit supporters of the dominant hegemony/paradigm by way of choosing NOT to upset
people with what is usually (and hopefully) accurate but bad news.

This is one reason why governments consult widely with these groups which position themselves as "oppositional" but on close scrutiny are far from that ... and in most cases are supportive of the dominant paradigm/hegemony.

To take a couple of current SEQ transport policy examples, the cost of which is into the billions, BQ has in effect (implicitly but in print explicitly) supported the Gateway Duplication and the Houghton Duplication so in no way can it claim to be other than supportive of the RACQ and the car based transport planning for SEQ.

However BQ has a caveat in supporting these projects. It says it supports them only because in each case, cycling (and walking) space has been provided. In a version of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" with the state and BCC, BQ has seen it necessary to lobby publicly for the cycling space and the government has reluctantly almost begrudgingly agreed after some "argy bargy" to provide the cycling space at what would appear to be a massive cost.

What (almost?) nobody asked was the question "why was cycling not included initially as part of the project cost rather than positioned as an extra cost, given cycling is supposed to be provided for under policies and plans such as the IRTP?"

Indeed similar questions can be asked about why Beattie is suddenly interested in light rail and cycling bridges across the Brisbane River as he prepares to resign as Premier? is he handing Anna Bligh a "poisoned chalice"?

It is not hard to imagine the light rail and cycling advocates suddenly dropping their criticisms in order to try to get their favoured outcomes.

But why are these state and not BCC projects?

Why are similar 'state' projects not being built in other "big" cities in Queensland and in smaller situations, pro rata funding made available for similarly "green" transport?

The "Redcliffe" rail line comes to mind as does the Springfield rail ... both of which could have been built before the major road upgrades (as per the North Perth expansion).

It is also easy to forget that just about this day in 2000, PB was going to have light rail in Brisbane but he then reneged but NEVER provided the reasons. Similarly at the same time, he was going to reduce the Queensland Government's fuel subsidy ... and he reneged.

So even he knows not to upset the dominant paradigm or hegemony ...

The question then is really how to form (or from another perspective, how to deal with) groups that form up as "oppositional" but are then tempted to "go easy" if not become co-opted and implicitly if not explicitly become supporters of what they might have been expected to oppose.

Population growth is another case of a similar problem.

Beattie knows people enjoy having jobs and so the best way to ensure employment is to create jobs and the "best" (?) way to do that is to promote development and to do that by encouraging an un-natural population growth to fuel demand ... then even the downside impacts give support to the need to create more jobs ... more dams, more roads, more power stations, etc ... the classic "Growth Machine" ...

Add to that a lifestyle which if shared globally would require as many as 5-6 or more equivalent planet Earth's ... and the outcome is not hard to foresee. But try to address that and see what happens.

Indeed I found it interesting that the BCC is paying only $15m to upgrade electricity supply for the tunnel boring machines but nobody has mentioned the MWH rating of these two beasts and the effect of their EXTRA load at normal peak loading periods...

$15m sounds like a token donation but would Beattie want to charge or disclose the full cost of the energy to be used in building and maintaining the NSBT when he has so strongly supported it and his friend Campbell's plans for even more roads and more tunnels?

The rapid increase in local average temperatures in Brisbane and SEQ combined with the drought might just be an aberration ... but what if after a little over a 100 years, it is a return to normal conditions?

How many people should be allowed to live in SEQ? On what basis? Did Terry the Fox care about these issues or even know about them as he master-minded the SEQ plans then headed off to help build the intended outcomes?

Same questions for Campbell Newman and his visions of car dominated Brisbane and SEQ run on carbon offset somewhere else.

Did the consultants and bureaucrats care about these issues or even know about them as they worked on developing and implementing the plans?

Do they even know or care now?

I enjoyed the opening line namely ... "The simplest truths are sometimes the hardest to recognise."

There are some other gems too. ... I have also highlighted them in red. (can't read red highlight on my e-mail client program - JS)

Bring on the debates ...