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Empowerment or ‘kicking down’? The truth about population concern

Population Matters Director Robin Maynard responds to environmental writer George Monbiot’s denigration of population campaigners in a recent Guardian piece.

Earth at night
Earth at night

George Monbiot quite reasonably castigated Jeff Gibbs’ film, Planet of the Humans (‘How did Michael Moore become a hero to climate deniers and the far right?’, 7 May 2020), for its indiscriminate denigration of renewable energy, thus giving oxygen to climate deniers and enemies of the energy transition. But he succumbed to his own toxic swamp of denial and indiscriminate denigration when he directed his anger against anyone who dares to raise the subject of human population as being a factor in our global ecological crisis. In doing so, he gave oxygen to those same dark forces and false prophets of infinite growth on a finite planet.

It wasn’t climate deniers who raised the factor of human population, which so provoked Monbiot’s ire, but internationally respected experts such as Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. As Gibbs notes in the film, Heinberg is not alone amongst the reputable academics who identify population growth as one of the leading drivers, alongside consumption, in driving climate change: “Though each of them takes climate change seriously, every expert I talked to wanted to bring my attention to the same underlying problem: there are too many human beings, using too much, too fast.

In 2014, the world’s leading climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), bluntly stated that “Globally, economic and population growth continued to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.” Their SR15 report published in October 2018, identified high population growth as a potential “key impediment” to meeting our climate goals. At the report’s launch, the panel emphasised, “All options need to be exercised… We can make choices about how much of each option we use… but the idea you can leave anything out is impossible.”

While it receives far less attention than climate change, our current biodiversity crisis – rightly called the Sixth Mass Extinction – poses as grave a threat to our future as global heating. The biodiversity equivalent to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), published its landmark global assessment on the state of global diversity a year ago. It explicitly identified human population growth as one of the key indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and stated: “changes to the direct drivers of nature deterioration cannot be achieved without transformative change that simultaneously addresses the indirect drivers.

Add to those august voices, the more than 20,000 scientists from across the world who signed the 2017 World Scientists Warning to Humanity endorsing its thirteen recommendations to political leaders for ending our environmental crises, including reducing global fertility rates through education and family planning.  The follow-up Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, published last year, reiterated this call to end and ultimately reverse population growth alongside other urgent measures to prevent “untold human suffering”.                     

Providing universal access to family planning and education would, according to the analysis by the excellent Project Drawdown, cut more carbon dioxide by 2050 than all onshore and offshore windpower combined. For those of us fortunate to live in rich, developed countries like the UK (excluding its deprived regions), exercising our generally freely available choice and means to have a smaller family or remain childfree is one of the most powerful actions individuals can take to curb their climate footprint.

Population – one driver among many

Acknowledging population is not the same as fetishising the issue – but simply recognising it as a key contributor alongside other drivers. To effectively label, as Monbiot does, those scientific bodies and indeed anyone who raises the issue of population as far right, racist, blaming the poor, or, in his words, “kicking down” is deeply offensive. Not least to the many colleagues and partners I work with across the world who are neither “wealthy” (to use his word) or white. The reality is that many people, whatever their colour, creed or race, recognise that both overall population growth and per capita consumption must be addressed if we are to avert an existential crisis for people and planet.

Indeed, Population Matters was honoured to mark World Population Day in Nigeria last year and I travelled with a Ugandan-born colleague to Lagos for the event organised by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and seventh largest globally, with a current population of 200 million people projected to double to 400 million by 2050. NCF’s Director-General, Dr Muhtari Aminu-Kano was unequivocal about population growth being a primary driver of biodiversity loss, challenging conservation organisations world-wide to address the issue, “If we don’t discuss it, who will?”

Monbiot’s denigration of population concern is dangerous and damaging in its potential to further deprioritise urgently needed solutions – already undermined by Trump’s global gag ruling which has cut billions of dollars of US funding to women’s healthcare and family planning projects worldwide.

Since the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, the proportion of women using modern contraceptives has increased by only 6% to 58% today. Still almost half of all pregnancies are unintended, with more than 800 women dying every day from pregnancy complications, and nearly half of women in 57 low- to middle-income countries having no decision-making power or basic human rights regarding their health, contraceptive use and sex lives. 

Challenging inequity

Monbiot believes that the interests and focus of population campaigners are essentially confined to the Global South. He writes: “Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people. When wealthy people, such as Moore and Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not Us consuming, it’s Them breeding.”  In so doing, Monbiot conflates concern about population with concern about population growth. Our efforts, and the attentions of the vast majority of people concerned about population, are most certainly not just about or focused on “black and brown people” whose per capita consumption and global impact is low. Population Matters’ work promoting smaller families is focussed on the number and behaviour of high consuming, high-emitting people in the Global North because of their disproportionate impact on the global environment. Our messaging that overconsumption, global injustice and systemic inequity must be addressed is explicit and consistent.

Population Matters also supports grassroots groups here in the UK, in North Wales and the English Midlands, who are working to enable young women to make informed choices about their futures and break the cycles of disproportionately high rates of teenage pregnancies in the still shamefully deprived areas of my home country, an alleged ‘rich, developed nation’. We do not go to Lagos, Nairobi, Nottinghamshire, North Wales or anywhere else to ‘kick down’, to blame or point the finger at others – but to listen, learn and to provide help as requested when we can.

What the numbers mean

George Monbiot and I are of a similar age. I was born at the end of the 1950s, he in the early 60s – over our lifetimes, the human population has more than doubled from around 3 billion people on the planet to over 7.8 billion today. Attempting to communicate that population is no longer a significant problem, Monbiot recently tweeted: “Global population growth today is 1.05%. That’s half the peak growth rate, reached in 1963 (2.2%).” Yes, but in 1963, the world population stood at 3.2 billion; 2.2% of that total is 70.4 million. Today, with the global overall birth rate standing at 1.05% and a total population of 7.8 billion people on our planet, we are adding around 82 million more people each year, equivalent to the entire population of Germany.

George Monbiot somewhat grudgingly admits that population contributes to environmental degradation, but then goes straight on to savage the motivations, integrity and intelligence of those who campaign for positive, equitable and empowering solutions. In this he does the causes of environmental protection and global justice a great disservice.

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