We have to talk ……. about Population Control
17 February, 2010
There was an interesting comment piece in the Irish Times on Tuesday, “Rising populations are at core of overseas aid issue” . My main reaction to it was one of mild surprise that a respected establishment organ was providing a platform for what, for some peculiar reason, seems to be treated as if it were a radical, minority, viewpoint: that we should try to do something about world population growth. Bizarrely, it seems politically incorrect to advocate population control, even the sort of voluntary control policies advocated by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) .
This quasi-taboo was referred to in a Financial Times editorial last September:
“For too long population control has been virtually absent from international political discourse. Leaders have been reluctant to raise the issue for several reasons. One is fear of the powerful religious lobbies opposed to contraception. Another is the unfortunate legacy of some over-enthusiastic family planning campaigns in the past, such as India’s in the 1970s….But several factors are now coming together to put family planning back on the global agenda where it belongs. The most immediate is climate change.”
The link between climate change and overpopulation should be almost too obvious to be mentioned. Here’s what OPT have to say:
“All serious environmentalists know perfectly well that population growth, exploding in the 20th century, has been a key driver of every environmental problem. It’s a fact, not an opinion, that total human impact is the average per person multiplied by the number of people.
“Yet for far too long, governments and environmental NGOs have observed a taboo – invented in the 1980s by a bizarre coalition of the religious right and the liberal left – on stating this obvious fact. So they keep on implying that our numbers can grow forever with no ill effects. It’s a ‘silent lie’ and by encouraging us to ignore the vital need to stabilise our numbers by humane means (contraception) before nature does it for us by inhumane, natural means (famine, disease, war) this absurd taboo betrays our children.”
David Attenborough, the world’s best-known natural history filmmaker, is now adding his voice to those who are calling for action, and has become a patron of OPT. This was mentioned in another sensible Irish Times piece last July, called “Planet is buckling under weight of people”:
“Behind every threat to the natural world, he says, is ‘the frightening explosion in human numbers . . . I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder – and ultimately impossible – with more.’”
According to the WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature), since the late 1980s the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand – people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.
And recycling isn’t going to crack this on its own. The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) has calculated that the net benefit of recycling household waste for the average UK citizen, in terms of its effect on ecological footprint, is 0.07gha (Global Hectares) per capita (and presumably the effect in Ireland is similar). The ecological footprint is the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste.
So while recycling is laudable, its impact is small compared to the figure for the total average UK Footprint per capita, of 5.6 gha (Global hectares). Effectively, the benefit of a lifetime of recycling is equivalent for the UK to less than 1.25% of the negative impact of one additional member of the population or, to put it another way, it takes 80 lifetimes of recycling to counteract the ecological damage caused by a typical citizen.
The taboo of talking about limiting population growth is a luxury we can’t afford. Or, more accurately, it’s a luxury our children and grandchildren won’t be able to afford.