Whatever happened to the teeming millions?

Posted: 22 November 2005

Once it was the word on everyone's lips, now 'population' is the environmental issue that dares not speak its name. Here David Nicholson-Lord raises the flag for an unfashionable concern - and argues the case for a decline in the population of the United Kingdom.

Are you worried about population growth? Then you're in the minority. Mention it as an issue to any gathering of environmentalists these days, and the reactions will range from a thinly concealed convulsion of impatience to a stifled yawn. What's more, you'll undergo an instant downgrading of status; from a potentially rational human being to one of those suspect characters who writes obsessive letters to newspapers in fierce green ink.

Which is, on the face of it, extraordinary. The UK is currently going through its fastest period of population growth since the baby-boom decades of the last century, and is on course for a population of 67 million by 2050. And though much is made of declining birth rates globally, world population is still set to rise by around 40 per cent - some 2.6 billion people - by the same time.

Add in the fact that many of those billions will be in countries such as India, China and the US - states that have learnt, or are busy learning, the delights of cars, meat and air-conditioning - and the resource implications scarcely have to be spelt out. Scratch the surface of pretty much any environmental problem, and population pressure will be at the very least a major factor.

Going backwards

And yet when it comes to acknowledging it, we seem to be going backwards. In the 1960s and 70s, concern about population growth was a mainstream environmental issue. Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb; pressure groups flourished - Population Countdown in the UK, Zero Population Growth in the US. In 1973 a government-appointed panel declared that Britain's population could not "go on increasing indefinitely" and the government should "define its attitude" to the issue. The newly founded Ecology Party debated sustainable population levels, Oxfam publicly supported zero population growth and Greenpeace's slogans included 'Stop at Two'.

Three decades later, the mainstream has largely abandoned the topic. Greenpeace says it's "not an issue for us", Oxfam doesn't list it on its website A-Z, the Greens didn't even mention it in their 2005 election manifesto. Population Countdown, worried about alienating funders, became Population Concern and, more recently, Interact Worldwide. Zero Population Growth, for similar reasons, morphed into Population Connection. As an issue, population, is, in short, off the radar.

Why has this happened? To some extent, it's fallen foul of several potent, cross-cutting agendas - from left and right alike, such as religion, feminism, human rights and worries about economic prowess. Since the Reagan era, family planning has grown increasingly unpopular with a resurgent American right. It has also had to contend with a particularly hard-line Pope. In the other corner, as it were, reports of alleged excesses under India's sterilisation programme and China's one-child strategy gave population policies a bad name - anti-freedom, anti-women's 'right to choose'. More recently, as fertility rates have started to tumble in the developed world, governments have panicked at the spectre of national population decline, and the economic withering which it's assumed will accompany it - at least unless enough new immigrants arrive to keep up the numbers. And worrying about immigration levels can all too easily seem a thin disguise for racism - another reason why progressive environmentalists steer clear of the population issue.

Fears about 'racism'

More fundamentally, there's a growing belief that population as such isn't really the problem. The political right, for example, has always taken a dim view of apocalypse mongering, and now it reckons science is on its side. Dr Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, argues that human numbers are levelling off, that more people are an asset rather than a liability and that, anyway, human ingenuity will solve all our problems. "Technologically we can reduce the global footprint of each person faster than the number of people will be increasing," he says.

Now the greens seem to be echoing the line: that it's not absolute numbers, but how we consume, and what technologies we use, which are the key. So if you're worried about climate change, for example, put your trust in a massive shift to renewable energy, coupled with greater efficiency, rather than look to population falls as a (rather blunt) instrument to curb our impact. Charlie Kronick, chief policy adviser to Greenpeace, is critical of those who predict direful scenarios for the world based on population growth in India and China. "Implicit in these is the assumption that their energy consumption and their development path is going to be exactly the same as the one we have taken, and therefore there's going to be an arithmetical increase in the [environmental] impact. There's no reason to make that assumption."

Finding the formula

Years ago, Paul Ehrlich argued that environmental impact is a consequence of three main multipliers - the numbers of a human population, their levels of affluence (or consumption) and their technologies. This sounds especially scientific if you express it as an equation: I = P x A x T. It doesn't take a genius to work out that whether you assign the greater importance to P, A or T is a complex choice - but that if you completely ignore any one of them, you do so at your peril. Since the 1970s, however, P has virtually vanished from the equation.

Partly this is a result of newer agendas - for example, a greater focus on consumption and its disparities, such as the disproportionately gas-guzzling lifestyles of north Americans. This in turn has led to the recognition that population, since it's linked to environmental impact, is not just about the "teeming millions" of the Third World - it's about wealthy Northern countries too, which can do greater damage despite their smaller numbers.

But casting the 'P' element of the equation aside is a risky strategy. Gains in efficiency - think cars and emissions, for example - have been heavily outweighed by increases in volume. Shrinking the 'global footprint' of each person, as Pirie puts it, is unlikely to stem the tide of destruction if the sheer number of footprints continues to surge. Zero-emissions housing developments, however desirable, cannot compensate for lost open countryside or farmland. Even biofuelled cars still generate congestion - and depend on acres upon acres of biofuel plantations, with their own 'footprint' of pesticides, fertilisers, water demand, etc, to contend with. There are, in other words, limits - a point which many seem to have forgotten.

Linked with the limits issue is one of freedom. Suppose we manage to make poverty history - that we really succeed in having a well-off world which is getting better-off all the time? Think of the multiplicity of lifestyles such an affluent society would produce - and the correspondingly mind-boggling array of high-impact appetites, aspirations and technologies. Think of second homes, of SUVs, power-showers and plasma screens - and then imagine their successors, the 'must have' consumer accessories of the 22nd century. Who is to deny these new consumers their vision of the good life? Equally, who can plausibly argue that such aspirations can be magicked into the minuscule environmental impact needed to ensure they don't tip the planet into chaos?

More spacious world

There is an important moral for the sustainability movement here. Much of environmental campaigning to date has been a wearying item-by-item slog against these 'unsustainable' gadgets and lifestyles - earning greens the reputation of being interfering busybodies and making the likes of Jeremy Clarkson a cult figure for standing up to them. Do greens want this to be their role in perpetuity? Do we want a society in which the alternative is either increasing state interference or some form of rationing, market-based or otherwise?

Wouldn't a much preferable, and simpler, goal be a world of fewer people, so that we were not so consistently pushing up against planetary limits? A more spacious world - one that would be able to be more tolerant of different lifestyle choices? One in which the age profile would be higher, so the mood would be gentler: less 'dynamic' maybe, but more reflective - possibly, dare one say it, wiser. There would be less crime, less competitiveness, less congestion. Pressure on resources and ecosystems would ease so other species could prosper again. Climate change would slow of its own accord.

What sort of numbers are we talking about? Ecological footprinting techniques, of the sort familiar to many through publications such as WWF's Living Planet, suggest that the UK's optimum population is in the 20-30 million range, with the world's between two and three billion - less than a third of its forecast mid-century peak. In the UK's case, this long-term goal could probably be achieved by the next century - within five or six generations. Projections commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust from the Government Actuary's Department suggest that, with zero net immigration (ie numbers of immigrants and emigrants in balance) and a fertility rate of 1.55 children per woman, we could already be down to 53 million people by 2050 - that's 14 million, or two Londons, fewer than forecast.

Stop at two?

So how would we get there? First, balance the numbers of people entering the country with those leaving it. That is much less of a political powderkeg than it sounds. Zero net immigration is easily compatible with a generous asylum and immigration policy. In 2003, for example, the UK had an estimated 513,000 immigrants, but 362,000 emigrants. If the two had been in balance - if there had been around 360,000 immigrants, that is - immigration would still be over a third higher than a decade earlier (265,000 in 1993).

Second, achieve a relatively small reduction in overall fertility rates. Again, this wouldn't require a massive shift in behaviour. Fertility rates equate roughly to average family size, and the lowest on record in the UK was 1.63 in 2001 - part of a long-term decline that set in around 1965 (it has since bounced back a little and is now 1.77). This was recorded during a period of policies relatively friendly to large families, so pushing it back down to 1.55 or so shouldn't be too difficult.

A new national population policy could encourage people to 'stop at two' - if necessary with incentives such as tax allowances, benefits and other social subsidies (maternity or paternity leave, say) which would taper off sharply after the second child. Better family planning services and relationship education would target unwanted pregnancies among teenagers - an area where the UK does particularly badly. Decent environmental education in schools - which, thanks partly to the national curriculum, we don't now have - would bring home the effects of population growth. And if we added, say, a new national density index to the government's current armoury of sustainable development indicators, people might even start to appreciate the links between human numbers and the quality of their lives, and act accordingly.

Is it realistic? It depends on your criteria. There are libertarian and maybe humanitarian objections to immigration controls (and, conceivably also, to removal of subsidies for large families) but there are far more potent libertarian and humanitarian objections to overcrowding, resource conflicts, shortages and rationing - let alone loss of homes or habitats to climate change.

There are of course economic objections, too: businesses argue that they need a sizeable flow of immigrants to solve labour and skills shortages. However, the overall economic case for immigration remains unproven - much depends on the skills levels of immigrants, for example - and many critics argue that it has simply facilitated the transformation of the UK into a low-wage economy complacent about its education and training obligations. In some cases - the NHS, for instance - solving skills shortages by recruiting abroad has plundered developing countries of scarce human resources while creating a dangerous dependency in the UK. And those much-advertised remittances home carry a high cost in fragmented families.

There's also a profound, and much-neglected, philosophical point. Is that entity we know as the UK an economy - is it UK plc - or is it a society? Is it, equally important, a place - a landscape or habitat in which we live and through which we relate to that thing called Nature? It's clearly all three, of course, but thinking of it as solely, or even mainly, UK plc - which many of us now do, routinely - is not the route to a decent society or a habitable place.

Population policies work

No one is arguing that ideas like those described above are going to be in the next election manifestos. Yet, in reality, we're not that far away - the UK's fertility rate is still below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), so without net immigration, population levels would be peaking quite soon anyway. Some of the 'controversial' ideas suggested above therefore probably wouldn't be needed. More important, national population policies have been shown to work.

One of the main reasons the forecast peak in global numbers has come down somewhat in recent years is that many states -Thailand, Bangladesh, Iran, Costa Rica, Cuba, Kerala in India - have adopted proposals similar to those advocated above. Even China's much-maligned one-child policy has meant that the world's fastest growing economy has an estimated 300 million fewer consumers than would otherwise have been the case.

There's an irony here, since the UK - where both Queen and prime minister have four-child families, and where each citizen uses five times more energy than the average Chinese - is actually more densely populated than China. So which country really needs a population policy?

There are signs that even here the penny is dropping. Over three-quarters of us believe the UK is overcrowded, according to a YouGov poll, and although we're not doing much about it - apart from emigrating in record numbers, complaining about hosepipe bans and protesting bitterly against John Prescott's housing plans - that's maybe because no one's telling us what the alternatives might be. The Great Population Non-Debate has a lot to answer for.

David Nicholson-Lord is an environmental writer and research associate for the Optimum Population Trust. His article was first published in the November/December 2005 issue of Green Futures magazine of the Forum for the Future.