Population and consumption: two sides of the coin

Cycling home along the lanes just outside Winchester on Friday evening, I was confronted by an unattended horse. This sleek, black monster had a distinctly shifty look about him so I deemed it prudent to whizz by.

Sure enough I soon encountered the panicky owners, running up and down screaming into their phones. Behind them, the paddock gate swung leisurely on its hinges.

I interpret this incident as divine endorsement of my prejudices. I had spent the week finishing off our new Population Guide, a topic on which the metaphor of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted has been uppermost in my mind. All those passionate entreaties that overpopulation will destroy the life support systems of the planet strike me as cries of despair at what has already happened rather than helpful advocacy.

Our superiority over the animal kingdom has proved so emphatic that every corner of the earth has opened its doors to accommodate 6.8 billion of us. Closing the doors will not prevent the irreversible consequences that the biosphere already suffers.

Universal access to family planning is of course an essential goal, but as much for the sake of the 200 million women who are denied it as in hope of turning the tide of ecological calamity. This requires something much more fundamental in our lifestyle choices, more painfully described as cutting consumption.

The divorce between population and consumption debates was betrayed in the alarmist reaction to the latest UK population projections published just last week. The estimated increase of just over 15% in the next 24 years to a figure of over 71.6 million prompted the Optimum Population Trust, amongst others, to declare that things are “out of control”, taking the country “nearer to a position of extreme environmental precariousness.”

These extra numbers will indeed exert pressure on our food, water and energy needs. But there are two elephants in the room of our little country and population is the baby elephant. The big daddy is the behaviour of the 61.8 million people that we already have.

I don’t have the resources to calculate the change in real GDP per capita over the last 24 years and will have to appeal to intuition. Imagine how the standard of living of the average British family has changed since 1985 – the boom in overseas holidays, the throughput of household goods and digital equipment, the wider range of packaged food, the additional car for the children. We all love these things but another 24 years of that pace of change will trample over the impact of population when it comes to environmental limits.

The OPT explains that it focuses on population-related pressures on the environment rather than “wasteful consumption” because green groups are guilty of the reverse. That’s fair enough, but two wrongs don’t make a right, especially on such a vital issue. And by slipping in populist references to tougher migration policies, the OPT comes across as just another anti-immigration lobby.

I’m baffled why Jonathon Porritt has signed up with this outfit. He knows that migration is a zero sum game within the global population. He knows that many European countries try to correct their demographic imbalance by offering incentives for families to have more babies. He could help by scrubbing the noise out of OPT, revealing the constructive message about population that’s in there somewhere.

This has been the trouble with population. It prods a hornets’ nest of family planning, religious dogma, immigration and consumer sacrifice. No wonder campaigners and politicians steer clear.

I already sense that I may have said too much, with the wrong emphasis. Time to stop.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK