At 12:47 UTC on Wednesday 12 January 2011 the world’s population stood at 6,893,039,425. Fifteen minutes later and another glance at the US Census Bureau’s, International Programs Centre’s World POPclock, revealed that earth’s residents had been joined by roughly another 2,500 people.
The world’s population is increasing apace and by the time we reach 2050, the global population is expected to have exceeded 9 billion. Similarly, according to the figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK was populated by 61.8 million people in 2009, and this is expected to rise to 77 million by 2050.
But are these projections cause for celebration or concern? How many people can planet earth sustain?
The current population expansion, and the accompanying increases in resource consumption, is threatening our environmental survival and quality of life, environmental charity and think tank, the Optimum Population Trust has argued. However, the question of how long the planet can continue to support its expanding population is a sensitive one that polarises opinion. While well-respected figures, such as OPT patron Sir David Attenborough, support its campaign for stabilisation and a gradual population decrease globally and in the UK, such calls are still treated with suspicion, more often than not.
In a bid to mainstream the issue and create a forum for open debate, Population Matters Scotland, a sub-group of the OPT, held an event in the Scottish Parliament shortly before the winter recess.
The event, which was hosted by SNP MSP Dr Ian McKee, made for a lively discussion. However, McKee’s wife, Penny, who is a committee member of Population Matters Scotland, argues that many people remain frightened of the issue. Those who take an interest are marginalised as “frightening freaks and outliers in society”, she says. An article previewing the event in the Scotsman newspaper described McKee and her colleagues as “eco-fascists”, with some commentators on the article callously suggesting that if McKee is so concerned about population levels, she could start by committing suicide herself.
Such malignant comments are hurtful and misunderstand the arguments the group hopes to progress, McKee asserts.
“What it highlighted was how frightened people are. If you read some of the blogs on the Scotsman afterwards and the ones that were printable, heaven knows what the ones that weren’t printable were like, we saw rampant abuse and threatening phrases. It is quite obvious that a lot of people feel very, very threatened, when in fact the idea is to try and ensure a safer, more assured future for human beings and the rest of the planet that coexists with us. That is what we are about.” With more clever management of populations, a lot of human suffering could be avoided, she says. As yet, however, politicians do not seem willing to address the issue as they see it as a “vote loser,” she says, but adds that by shying away from such topics politicians are “conniving with the denialism.” “It is partly to do with the fact that we are in a democracy with short-termism built very much into the electoral process. It takes a brave politician to not only tinker around the edges, which is what I think the Green Party are doing, but basically address the underlying central issue, which is to do with the amount of human beings on the planet and their lifestyle.” The most environmentally-friendly thing that anyone can do is to limit the number of children they have, McKee asserts.
“Now, I know that it is an ingrained human characteristic to want to have children and no one is saying you shouldn’t have children, we are just saying we need governmental support to have a bit of a paradigm shift from it being a reproductive bonanza, with everyone being able to have as many children as they fancy, to thinking about the biological effect of the number of children that we have.” In contrast to their hesitancy to engage on the issue of population levels, Scotland’s politicians were keen to discuss the recent news that Scotland is to welcome a breeding pair of pandas to Edinburgh zoo, McKee points out. However, she adds that they missed an opportunity to reflect on the danger overpopulation poses for many species, both here and abroad.
“If ever there was a country affected by a rising population it is China. And China is one of the few countries in the world that has actually, openly, I think, in a very laudable fashion, addressed the issue of population.” The Chinese government’s one-child family planning policy was “coercive”, she clarifies quickly.
“It was from the top down, shall we say. But I admire them for addressing the issue. It was pretty drastic measures but it is better than famine to limit the number of babies that people have.” Similarly, during the recent event at the Parliament, zoologist and OPT patron, Professor Aubrey Manning pressed the need to change our “crude and thoughtless, malevolent attitude towards human reproduction.” Manning continued: “There is a soft feeling that big families, new children are good.
And of course, children are good, but it is quantity we are thinking of here and quality is threatened by quantity. So that naïve view that having a new child is a good thing, we need to temper that.” One quarter of women who have children in Britain have more than two children, he said, adding his conjecture that a high proportion of them will be mothers who have had two children of the same sex first.
“I think it is intolerable,” he said. “It may have been acceptable 50 years ago but to have a third child simply because you want to have a child of another sex is acting extremely selfishly and short-sightedly towards society because in the end we are all in it together.” Similarly, Dr Libby Wilson, a pioneer of family planning services in Glasgow, pinpointed the lack of motivation to use family planning as an overriding problem and argued that the only way to encourage responsibility is through economics.
“In Australia, I was there not very long ago, one of the states has a bill pending in which they are proposing, I bet it doesn’t get through, though, that if a father doesn’t provide for his child he will have his benefits stopped. And in a way that is just what I’m thinking about.
We should actually have some economic sanction on parents who are not responsible for their children.” However, Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie MSP describes economic sanctions for larger families as a “very counterproductive idea”.
“It is certainly not going to win any friends.
If you are asking a society, a population, to make a change to the way that we live you need to win people over and you need to convince people it is in their interests and they have got a reason to make that change.” Sanctions would simply exacerbate the poverty that low-income families currently experience, he says.
“There is already in most parts of the world an economic penalty to having a large family – the food bill, or the housing bill, or the clothing bill. And adding an additional bill to the household budgets of some of the poorest families in the world would be, I think, pretty close to scandalous.” Is a growing population something we should be concerned about?
While Harvie says he believes that the OPT is right to point to the scale of the ecological crisis before us, and it is also correct to say that you can’t ignore population size when considering the impact humanity is having on the planet and each other, sometimes the argument goes a little too far. There are a number of contributing factors that determine ecological impact in addition to population size, including current consumerist lifestyles and economic systems, he argues, adding: “Bringing population into the mix is absolutely right but obsessing on it is a mistake, I think.” Those seeking to stabilise or reduce population growth must think carefully about how they frame their arguments and the policy options they consider, he warns.
“Nobody, I think, would tolerate an authoritarian approach of telling people who can have children or how many they can have or when. The only ways that have been shown to work are economic empowerment, the eradication of poverty, the education of women, social equality. These things are good in their own right. So why not argue for them because they are good things for people, rather than arguing for them because you think that people themselves are in some way a bad thing.” He continues: “I don’t think that OPT members think that people are a bad thing, but I think that their arguments will very often be perceived in that way. And if we start off with the question, ‘How can everybody on the planet have a better quality of life?’, I suspect that we will end up with a lot of those very same policies; in fact, I’m convinced we will.” In raising these issues McKee says she recognises that she and her fellow committee members are sticking their heads above the parapet, and that a significant challenge lies ahead of them to persuade others of the need for a cultural shift in regards human reproduction. However, she insists it is not an impossible problem for Scots to apply themselves to.
“It is a social marketing challenge,” she says.
“But you aren’t going to get anywhere unless the policy makers are behind you as they were with smoking. Scotland was chuffed like mad to be one of the first countries to ban public smoking. England wouldn’t have done what it’s done if Scotland hadn’t set the way.
Scotland is a liberal, far-thinking [country], it was at least, well-educated; there are a lot of good minds and informed people with a lot of influence and energy to work on things and we would just like to see them working more on this aspect of life, urgently.”