Environmental campaigner speaks out on population

Posted: 20 June 2008

Jonathan Porritt, Director of Forum for the Future and Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, warns that unless more effort is put into family planning world populatiom will rise to unsustainable levels. It should be given a much higher priority in relation to spending on HIV and Aids, he says.

Addressing the Cheltenham Science festival earlier this month, he said funding for family planning has significantly reduced over the years, while funding for HIV and Aids has grown from US$300,000 in 1996 to 8.3 billion dollars in 2005.

"The world would simply not be able to sustain a population of 9 billion by 2050, but the tragedy is we are missing the opportunity to turn that around.

"Massive investments in fertility management today could still reduce that figure to less than 8.25 billion by 2050."

Porritt said nothing is being done because church leaders, `politically-correct' environmentalists and `superannuated' development experts ignore population growth as a threat.

He added: "And the vast majority of cowardly politicians in the rich world are only too happy to play their game."

Twin crises

Commenting later in a personal blog, he writes: "For some time now, I have been reflecting on the way in which the world is responding to the twin crises of HIV/AIDS and continuing high levels of population growth. The UN body responsible for co-ordinating HIV/AIDS has called for funding to grow to around $22 billion per annum – and it seems probable that governments, donor agencies and big foundations will respond positively.

By contrast, funding for family planning peaked some time ago (as a percentage of total expenditures on population-related activities), and is still on a downward curve.

Donor Expenditures 1994 1999 2004 Family Planning Services 55% 37% 9% Reproductive Health Services 18% 30% 25% HIV/AIDS Activities 9% 23% 54% Research & Development 18% 11% 12% Millions in Current US$ 1314 1655 4907

HIV/AIDS kills about 8000 people a month, and there are 5 million new infections every year, so I have no problem about the scale of expenditure in addressing this. However, along with many others, I do have major reservations about the way in which the sums are being invested, especially in terms of the US-driven programmes which are much more ideology-based than evidence-based.

Kenya's future

But the fact that this year in Kenya (where the rate of population growth is on the rise again) a sum of around $480 million will be spent on HIV/AIDS, compared to just $7.7 million on family planning and reproductive health, is just completely bonkers. What that means is instead of Kenya’s population stabilising at 44 million by 2050, which is what would have happened with the Total Fertility Rate continuing to decline, it could now go as high as 80 million – and god knows how many of that vastly expanded population will have died of HIV/AIDS between now and 2050.

The additional suffering that all this imposes on some of the world’s most poorest countries is literally incalculable. Continuing population growth is already having a marked impact on the efforts being made to meet the Millennium Development Goals. As the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development & Reproductive Health put it in 2007:

“The evidence is overwhelming: the Millennium Development Goals are difficult or impossible to achieve with the current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions.”

It’s still the case that most “progressive” development experts think that “addressing poverty first” remains the best response, and that most environmentalists, in a reprehensibly politically-correct way, think it is exclusively about over-consumption in the rich world, than over-population in the poor world.

Real world

But exactly what kind of world are these people living in? Certainly not in a world where water consumption is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth, where available arable land continues to decline year on year, where many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are increasingly at risk specifically because of rapid population growth, where oil at $139 a barrel is already having a devastating effect on hundreds of millions of very poor people, and where accelerating climate change and rising sea levels are going to cause havoc over the next 20-30 years.

That’s our world – not some make believe cornucopian world that some still dream of, where the number of people on it is of no material significance.

Jonathan Porritt addressed the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 8, 2008 on the theme 'Sustainable World: Too Many People?'. His commenta above were made on June 9. Porritt's blogs may be seen at http://www.jonathonporritt.com/pages