Do we plan for a secure and better life, or carry on blindly toward a minefield of lethal limits?
By Brian McGavin, writer and environmentalist, is a director of Scientists Warning Europe.
Most people are left in ignorance by politicians and mainstream media, who rarely think beyond the here and now. When informed about unsustainable consumption and human population growth they are shocked or deny the depth of interconnected challenges and the steps we need to take for a sustainable future, that go well beyond action on climate change.
The media invariably cloak population growth in terms of ‘increased demand’ – which narrow thinking growth economists portray as ‘good’ for growth. The key driver of overpopulation is at best ignored for ‘downstream’ sticking plaster responses by politicians and too often by ‘Greens’ who target ‘rights’ over ecological and resource realities.
“There is no social justice on a wrecked planet” –Brian McGavin
The type of powerful question put to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – and his reply was notable. We need to frame more clear questions to our politicians like this.
“Human population growth has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The planet cannot sustain this growth. I realize this is a poisonous topic for politicians, but it’s crucial to face. Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact. Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?”
Sanders responded unambiguously: “Well, Martha, the answer is yes.”
A WWF reference to ‘mitigate human and elephant conflict’ in a newsletter doesn’t shout ever more human overpopulation pressure as a causal factor, or anything WWF wants to do about this. WWF advertising is a constant reset button of ‘save’ animals and give money so we can fight this decline – and it has been going on for over 50 years as our amazing bio-diversity crashes. NGOs and politicians need to engage in a much more honest dialog.
We face Systemic Population Denialism that is intellectually bankrupt and dangerously ignorant. Where drastic exaggeration is used by people resistant to reality. When we raise our voices, we are obstructed by ill-informed media commentators with predicable recycled challenges on ageing population scares and how we need to increase births and immigration. Low birth-rate countries like Japan are NOT suffering a socio-economic crisis – and there are still 38 million people in the Tokyo metropolis alone!
Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger observes:
‘Good democracy relies on good information’.
Professor John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientist in March 2009 warned that:
“Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.”
In 2017 over 20,000 scientist in 189 countries signed a Second Warning to Humanity, warning that humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving foreseen environmental challenges and most of them are getting much worse.
We simply don’t have the time for a gradualist message and we have to speed up the timeframe for action in people’s minds. Simplistic propositions by ill-informed, growthist commentators that developed economies were ideally placed to take in Africa’s exploding populations need shredding. Nor are we facing a ‘fertility collapse’, as growth pundits try to claim.
If governments won’t talk population, then they are not serious about cutting emissions, ensuring food supplies and a secure quality of life for our future.
At the heart of green politics is the simple premise that our prosperity depends completely on a healthy, functioning planet. Go on abusing the planet, go on ignoring climate change, go on ignoring population growth, and all else fails – including our deepest yearning for human rights. (Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist)
We face huge interconnected challenges but it is easier to attract support for simple projects like saving a forest, than addressing ‘big-picture’ global problems. Major environmental groups keep their marketing too simple for the scale of the problems. Many environmental problems impact poor communities, but the social justice movement shows little interest in working with environmentalists on key challenges like biodiversity, resource depletion and overpopulation, deeming the latter as a racist agenda. We need to be clear and assertive not apologetic.
Environmental groups like XR and WWF talk about climate breakdown and ecological collapse but refuse to acknowledge the underlying over population demand driver, as they see it as ‘divisive, threatening or toxic’.
Unless we work collectively and stop creating wilful barriers of ignorance, because it might disturb people’s beliefs and comfort zones, we are leading our children to the abyss. A toxic intergenerational contract.
The ‘coercion’ taboo
Population concern organisations often run scared of any hint of population coercion. This can’t be sustained much longer as key resources decline and societies start to fall apart. In fact, society readily accepts values that could be interpreted as ‘coercive’ for the common good, with legal sanctions on the ‘freedom’ to drive at high speed in built up areas and fiscal incentives to discourage harmful behaviour. If we are to have any chance of a sustainable future we need to ‘incentivise’ fewer births rather than more, through the tax system and increase understanding so people make informed, socially responsible decisions in family size rather than merely saying it’s an individual choice.
Many people driven by self-centred beliefs will completely ignore calls for socially responsible decisions if this is all we are prepared to say. Yet social justice lobbies call for us to change to a vegan diet and travel less to compensate for ‘unavoidable’ population growth pressures.
A long-term sustainable population is a ‘life-affirming’ message with many benefits for living standards and reduced infrastructure pressures.
Several countries, like Taiwan, Japan, Iran and Bangladesh) have transitioned to lower birth rates without coercion.
What about the rights of children to a sustainable future, rather than the ‘rights’ of parents to have large families?
The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized. We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more people and more immigration to support ageing populations. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and other ways. With typical short-term vision, we forget that all these extra young people get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this.
Mainstream media invariably frames any population decline as a ‘bad’ that has to be reversed for our continued well-being and economic growth.
A typical example appeared in The Times (UK) July 4, 2019 headlining Italian birth rates fall to lowest since 1861, “Prompting fears that the country is facing a sharp demographic decline.” “Russia is facing an even graver demographic crisis after the UN warned that its population could fall to half the present level by the end of the century.”
Another country with a ‘worryingly’ declining population is ‘stagnant’ Japan. Yet the greater Tokyo metropolis is currently the world’s most populated city at around 38 million. Japan is well organised and on current fertility rates is projected to leave the list of world’s largest cities to be replaced before 2100 by Lagos at 88 million, Kinshasa 83m and Kabul in 10th place at 50m. (Population predictions for the world’s largest cities in the 21st century, Daniel Hoornweg, University of Ontario and Kevin Pope) 2017). These cities are already chaotic at their current populations. Imagine them facing such numbers.
Sustainable numbers and UN Goals
The Second Scientists Warning to Humanity in 2017 listed 13 action points. The last point (m) said: “estimating a scientifically defensible sustainable human population size for the long term. Rallying nations is the UN’s job, but how do we define a long-term sustainable population?
Global population is still growing at 1.036% a year and consumption at 3% a year, with resources declining rapidly.
Using Global Footprint data, the current average ecological footprint per capita would mean a sustainable population size for the long term would now be around 4.4 billion. But since there is no allowance made in this regularly updated snapshot for leaving any bio-capacity to conserve biodiversity, or depletion of non-renewable resources and enabling developing countries to reach more equitable living standards, we have to look at a lower population stabilisation nearer 3 billion – a number endorsed by respected ecologists like David Pimentel and Paul Ehrlich.
Unless we work collectively and stop creating wilful barriers of ignorance, because it might ‘disturb people’s beliefs and comfort zones’, our society and much of the planet’s bio-diversity will collapse before the end of the century, as critical food, energy and water resources become ever scarcer. Some might survive in an oppressive dystopia. We must plan for an equitable and responsible transition that preserves much of the diversity of our planet and a viable future for our children.
Cycle of silence.
Media coverage of environmental issues varies but remains historically low given its critical importance. There has been an upswing of concern with climate change and Extinction Rebellion protests but the media soon drifts back to celebrity gossip, economic growth and sport.
Today’s social media, with its narrow-framed ‘follow’ tags and identity politics, too often fails to see a wider connected picture. Dealing with complex issues on Twitter in 140 characters is practically impossible in a chain of slogans and responses. Celebrity manufactured social media gossip is off the scale of any proportionality and meaning. The baby boomer generation, not content with hoovering up household wealth and pensions of the generations below them are stealing from the future to pay for the present, while millennial media bubbles obsess with identity politics and seeking ‘safe space’. What matters is shaping the complex interactions and events we are all living through – absurd house prices, growing ecological collapse and the declining hope that tomorrow will be better than today
We are facing multiple and urgent global challenges, while the sheer stupidity of global turf wars for domination in fragile countries across the Middle East and Africa continue. We must appeal to sanity and the wider issues we must tackle.
Overpopulation and demand drives people to destroy the very resources they need to survive – freshwater, soils and forests. The social justice movement shows no interest in working with environmentalists. They simply have no concept of the impact of endless growth in our numbers and demand on biodiversity, infrastructure pressures and food security.
Religious extremism, from fundamentalist Christians, to ultra-orthodox Jews, to patriarchal Muslim cultures who all believe large families are integral to their beliefs and ignore the multiple environmental and social impacts is another barrier to sustainability. The denial of fertility management support translates into coercive child-bearing.
Given the immense challenges that will likely see starvation and conflict over remaining resources in the lifetime of people alive today, why would we think it better to create energy shortages, food shortages, lowered quality of life, a housing crisis, grid-locked traffic, bio-diversity loss, and many more calamities caused by ever increasing population pressures?
A lower population offers an enormous upside to environmental and social problems.
- We avoid awful things like mass starvation, resource wars, rising pollution and catastrophic bio-diversity loss.
- Small families in developing countries helps parents to afford their children’s education.
- Ever more people simply drives humanity to a lower and lower standard of living.
- Climate breakdown is an acknowledged danger, yet governments ignore the simple, most cost effective step we can take to reduce emissions – having fewer children. Several studies have shown this. (See drawdown.org and Wynes and Nicholas).
A number of tactics are widely used to grossly exaggerate claims and suppress discussion. There are common sense answers to all these challenges.
- Population shaming Worrying about population growth and advocating for stabilisation and reduction is motivated by morally reprehensible characteristics like racism.
- Population growth is good. Economies thrive with more people – increasing consumption. Population and technology gamble will resolve environmental problems of more people. Population fatalism Population may be a problem but there’s nothing we can do about it. Don’t scare the kids is a new media angle since climate warnings by teen activists.
- Large families are caused by poverty. But large families amongst the rich go unnoticed. Regular TV shows showcase large families without any thought of the impact on others.
- Lack of infrastructure is the fault of austerity not demand. Lack of housing and hospital beds is blamed on government cutbacks. We simply turn swords into ploughshares and infrastructure will be delivered. But the need to reduce total throughput and impact is ignored.
- China’s former One-Child policy was coercive and denied ‘human rights’. In fact, China’s one-child policy was widely supported by the people because they were well informed by the government on the benefits. It lifted millions out poverty, helped China’s spectacular rise in living standard and only applied to people in cities. People in rural areas could have two children. Now China has dropped the limit, with a still huge population because it swallowed the scare that there will be too few young people to support the transient phenomenon of an ageing population.
- The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized. We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more young people and more immigration to support an ageing population. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and many other ways. We forget they get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this.
- Malthus was wrong. We are doing fine. Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798 on the Principle of Population, predicting mass starvation if human numbers kept on rising, was only wrong in his timing. He couldn’t then know of the one-time binge the discovery of fossil fuels would give to global economic growth and how oil enabled the development of intensive agriculture.
Population Ignorant statements
Many media commentators ignore “doomsday” warnings, not because there is no supporting evidence, but because it does not fit with their long-held convictions of how the world works. Other tactics include ‘the practice of ‘Defamation’ to censor inconvenient truths.
Being a ‘National Treasure’ appears to be a license to talk rot. (Alex Massie. The Spectator, 26/9/2013). Take the case of Sir David Attenborough. The poor booby is another neo-Malthusian. Which is another reminder that expertise in one area is no guarantee of good sense in another.
Australian bishop raps Green Party campaign on population fears 19/8/ 2010. Bishop Anthony Fisher. “The fears of a population explosion are absurd. Australia has close to the lowest population density in the world. Most of our country by far is uninhabited.” (Yes – it’s desert!)
We have to change the mind-set of political leaders. Swedish Minister Ylva Johansson said her country “would take in refugees and “improve its population demographics with a smile.”
Brian McGavin, writer and environmentalist, is a director of Scientists Warning Europe.