Population concern and family size are sensitive and sometimes controversial issues, surrounded by myths and misconceptions. On this page, we lay out what we actually believe, want and do.
Population Matters is driven by our vision and a desire to create a sustainable future for all, through positive, voluntary solutions that people freely choose and which improve their lives.
We promote human rights
We believe in human rights, freedom to choose and empowering people. We are wholly opposed to “population control”, forced sterilisation or abortions, limits on family size or any other activity which treats people as numbers or tools. The right to have children, or to have none, is a human right. Population Matters aims to enable women and men to freely use modern family planning and make informed choices about their family size.
Coercion is not just wrong, it is also simply not needed to achieve a sustainable population. What is needed is concentrated, dedicated, positive action to advance rights and opportunities, especially those of women and girls.
Women’s empowerment is central to our goals
We live in a world in which no country has yet achieved full gender equality and four out of five women live in countries where it has been rated poor or very poor. As a matter of simple justice, all women should have the right and ability to determine whether or not they want to have children, along with all other human rights. These include the right to access and use contraception without discrimination or control. Women and girls must have equal access to education, full political rights, the ability and freedom to gain employment and to have every right and opportunity men do. In regard to abortion, Population Matters is pro-choice.
Population Matters advocates for sexual and reproductive healthcare and education because they are human rights – important in and of themselves. They also tend to lead people to have fewer children, which slows population growth, benefiting both people and planet.
We promote reduced consumption as well as sustainable population
Population Matters aims to achieve a sustainable future in which all humans and animals can thrive. In order to achieve that, people must take action to address not just total population size but consumption too. While birth rates are comparatively low in most developed nations, each individual consumes at rates which are simply unsustainable. For that reason, Population Matters advocates sustainable lifestyles, backs the use of technologies and policies which reduce our impact and supports progress towards global and environmental justice. Action to address the international problem of population doesn’t mean we don’t have to look in the mirror and make significant changes to the way we live as individuals, or to the systems which preserve global inequality.
We also, and most importantly, advocate for smaller family sizes, including in the richer parts of the world, which immediately and effectively contribute to reduced consumption by reducing the number of new consumers.
We show that population is a problem in rich and poor countries alike
Concerns about population do not simply focus on people in poor countries with high population growth while allowing people in rich countries with low population growth off the hook. All countries have a responsibility to bring population to sustainable levels.
Population growth is very low in many developed nations (and in some cases is reversing) but that does not mean that population isn’t a problem. People in developed countries have a disproportionate impact on the planet: a person born in the UK will produce 11 times more consumption carbon emissions per year than one born in Nigeria, for example. That means that fewer people being born in the rich world has the most immediate and positive impact on our environment, climate and sustainability.
“The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis and putting the planet in peril.”
Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam
People in the Global South do not consume at the same unsustainable levels as the rich at present, and indeed many of their citizens live in dire poverty. A very significant contributor to that poverty is the historical and current actions of rich countries, including the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and unfair and exploitative trade and political relationships.
People in low-income countries have an absolute and non-negotiable right to economic development. Among other challenges, high population growth and large families make it more difficult to escape poverty. At the same time, in many of these countries, people are unable to access or freely use modern family planning. Empowering people to choose smaller families if they wish to is essential to achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals and ensure that in a world in which fewer people are poor, there are enough resources for all in the future.
It’s important also to recognise that although people in poorer countries have a limited impact on global environmental problems such as climate change at the moment, as countries move out of poverty, their citizens will increase their individual consumption and, as a result, their environmental impact over their lifetimes. Smaller families and slower population growth in developing countries is therefore also vital to prevent environmental damage in the decades ahead.
People living in poverty can also cause environmental damage where they live, because they do not have any other choice. Deforestation, overexploitation of natural resources and pollution can all arise because people need to sustain themselves using what’s available to them locally. Often they are acutely aware of the consequences of their actions, and that large families can make things worse, but lack the opportunity to use modern family planning. To acknowledge this reality is not to “blame” people, but to look for positive solutions that give people the freedom to make other choices.
“Kenya is becoming a desert. There’s pressure on the environment because we use charcoal and firewood. The larger the family, the more it consumes. There’s no provision to plant trees because trees cost money. If nothing is done soon there won’t be any resources left. Communities are beginning to realise that it’s better for the eco-system around them if they have smaller families.”
Wendo Aszed, Founder, Dandelion Africa
We see population stabilisation as a necessary condition for a sustainable future in which all of humanity thrives, and one which we must all take responsibility for, wherever we live, wherever we can.
Migration is good – but it brings challenges
Population Matters does not campaign on issues relating to migration, advocate for any particular policies, or comment on immigration or emigration in normal circumstances. It is, nevertheless, an important issue with regard to the demography of many countries, and one we often get asked about, so we outline our overall position here.
We believe immigration enriches societies and can be good for countries in multiple ways. Emigration, meanwhile, can help relieve population pressure locally or nationally, and benefit the local and sometimes global environment. Remittances home from migrants in wealthier countries back to relatives in poorer ones are also increasingly important to global development, and young people moving from high- to low-fertility countries usually end up having fewer children, which helps slow global population growth.
No government should oppose immigration in principle and all countries must meet their legal and moral responsibilities to accept and support refugees and asylum seekers. We vehemently oppose any migration policy which discriminates on racial, religious or cultural grounds, and any and all hostility towards migrants in the countries they choose to live in. Wherever they are from and wherever they live, people should feel welcome and safe.
Net migration is also a significant driver of population growth in some countries – including many of those with the largest environmental footprints. It can be driven by negative factors such as conflict, resource competition, poverty, bad governments – many of which are made worse by population pressures. According to some estimates, hundreds of millions of people will have to migrate (within and beyond their own borders) as a result of climate change. These issues should be addressed so that migration is something people choose, not something they are forced into.
Wealthy countries should acknowledge the contributions of historical colonialism and global injustice to these pressures, and meet their responsibilities to help poorer countries tackle the problems that drive people to leave – not build walls or pull up the drawbridge.
In some circumstances, large-scale migration can also put a strain on the sustainability of destination countries – which, critically, include poorer nations, as well as rich ones. Population growth, whether caused by births or migration, contributes to the depletion of resources and environmental damage within countries, and in the worst cases can combine with other factors to cause serious or irreversible consequences.
Population Matters believes it is right at this point in time for countries to have control over immigration as a means of achieving a sustainable population, as long as this is done with genuine consideration of the positive and negative effects on other countries, including the countries people leave, and other possible destination countries. Overall, an effective, ethical and just global framework addressing population, demographics and migration is likely to be the best mechanism for governing migration.
These are complex issues without simple solutions. They will not be solved without a mature, evidence-based debate, free of ideological positions, rhetoric and snap judgments. Population Matters’ work does not at present address migration policy nationally or internationally, but we support that reasoned debate on the issue.
We deplore and condemn racism
Race has nothing to do with population or family size. It’s true that the places where population growth is most acute are mostly – though not all – in sub-Saharan Africa but that is a consequence of poverty, not ethnicity. The legacy of colonialism, and exploitative and unjust trade and relationships between the Global North and the South are significant contributors to that poverty.
Meanwhile, although some countries with very low birth rates are almost entirely racially homogenous (such as Japan), many are ethnically diverse – the US and Canada, and European countries such as the UK and France, for instance.
Nor can easy generalisations be made about religions. The countries in Europe with the lowest fertility rate are Catholic – Portugal and Italy – while one of the most successful family planning programmes ever was in Iran under an Islamic theocracy.
Because the populations of most countries with high fertility rates are not white, some people are concerned that talking about population is really about criticising and blaming non-white people. It’s important to acknowledge that in the past some advocates of reduced population had a racist or eugenicist agenda, so concerns about the racial component of population concern are not without justification.
However, as we’ve outlined above, population concern is not about “targeting” those places where birth rates and population growth are high – we think it’s vital that people in rich (predominantly white) countries also work hard and fast to achieve sustainable populations, and we actively campaign for people in those places to choose smaller families.
Meanwhile, many people in or from African, Asian and other countries with high population growth are very concerned about the problem and openly talk about it and how to solve it. There is no racial division in concern about population.
“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.”
Rev Martin Luther King Jr
At Population Matters, we want a better life for everyone. We hold in contempt those who are selective about who deserves a better life or who should change their behaviour to achieve it. There is no us and them. Only us.