The great non-debate

Governments are hard-wired to population growth for economic prosperity. But, asks CIWEM executive director, Nick Reeves, what is the environmental impact?

Water scarcity, reserves of fossil fuel in decline, creeping urbanisation, loss of species and habitats, global warming – these are big issues. But, there’s an even bigger one, the environmental issue that dare not speak its name: population.

Mention population, and the reactions will range from disinterest to indignation. You risk being called a racist or dismissed as an obsessive. This is odd because, if you scratch the surface of almost any environmental problem, population growth will be a major factor. The UK is going through its fastest period of population growth since the baby-boom of the last century, and is on course to hit 67M by 2050. And, although a lot is made of declining birth rates globally, world population is set to rise by around 40% – some 2.6B souls.

The ability of the planet to support such growth must be in doubt. Put in context, the present world population represents about a third of all humans that have ever lived.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Government appointed a panel which declared the UK’s population could not “go on increasing”.

Oxfam supported zero population growth, and slogans such as “stop at two” were everywhere. Now, even the Greenpeace policy wonks say it’s not an issue for them, and none of the political parties mentioned it in their manifestos.

Off the radar

Population is off the radar. It has fallen foul of cross-cutting agenda – religion, immigration and human rights. And it has been bent out of shape by those politicians who spread the myth that population growth is good and leads to economic prowess.

In other words, every single one of us is just an economic unit. How nice to be loved! Meanwhile, reports of over-zealous population-control measures in some developing countries have given the issue a bad name. Population control is now perceived as anti-women’s ‘right to choose’, anti-freedom and anti-religious. And, with reports of lower fertility rates, some governments are spooked by the prospect of national population decline and associated economic free-fall. Immigration policy is a no-go area. Accusations of racism are a main reason why progressive environmentalists steer clear of the subject, leaving governments free to pursue it as a way of growing their economic stock when, in reality, it leads to low-wage and low-skill economies.

But, more fundamentally, there’s a growing belief that population isn’t the problem, and Dr Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute argues that ‘technofix’ solutions and human ingenuity will solve all our problems. “Technologically, we can reduce the global human footprint faster than the number of people will be increasing,” he says.

It’s not, say some green groups, about absolute numbers but lifestyles. Shrinking the global footprint of each person is unlikely to slow the rate of the Earth’s demise if the sheer number of footprints continues to grow. Zero-emission housing cannot compensate for loss of countryside or farmland.

Even bio-fuelled cars still generate congestion – and depend on acres of biofuel crops, with their own footprint of pesticides, fertilisers and water demand to deal with.

There are, in other words, limits. And just suppose that we could make the developing world as well-off as the rest – the multiplicity of lifestyles such an affluent world would produce – and the scary array of high-impact appetites, aspirations and technologies.

Who will deny these new consumers their vision of the good life? And who can imagine that all these aspirations can be magicked into a miniscule environmental impact? It’s become a metaphor for our times and for our consumer madness. If all who live now achieve the wealth of the average US citizen, we will need the resources of four planet Earths.

A more spacious world might, in fact, be more tolerant of different lifestyle choices. A slightly older population may be wiser and more gentle. There would be less crime, less congestion and more team working. Pressure on ecosystems would ease. Climate change would slow.

The WWF’s Living Planet report suggests the UK’s optimum population is 20-30M, contributing to a global population of no more than 3B. It’s possible, and it needn’t hurt. But, while we continue to think of this country as UK plc, we stand little chance. China is less densely populated than the UK. It also uses one fifth of the energy per capita. So, which country needs a population policy? Well, over 75% of Brits, according to a YouGov poll, believe the UK is overcrowded. Although we’re not doing much about it – apart from complain about hosepipe bans or emigrating in record numbers – it’s because no one is voicing the alternatives. The great non-debate on the issue that dare not speak its name has much to answer for.

Successive Governments have been obsessed with performance indicators and measures of environmental quality. So, how about this for a performance indicator: a national density index as a measure of sustainable development. It might force people to spot the link between human numbers and the quality of their lives.

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