Posts Tagged ‘population growth’


JONATHON PORRITT, one of Gordon Brown’s leading green advisers, is to warn that Britain must drastically reduce its population if it is to build a sustainable society. Porritt’s call will come at this week’s annual conference of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), of which he is patron. The trust will release research suggesting UK population must be cut to 30m if the country wants to feed itself sustainably.

uk-populationPorritt said: “Population growth, plus economic growth, is putting the world under terrible pressure. “Each person in Britain has far more impact on the environment than those in developing countries so cutting our population is one way to reduce that impact.”

Population growth is one of the most politically sensitive environmental problems. The issues it raises, including religion, culture and immigration policy, have proved too toxic for most green groups. However, Porritt is winning scientific backing. Professor Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum, will use the OPT conference, to be held at the Royal Statistical Society, to warn that population growth could help derail attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Rapley, who formerly ran the British Antarctic Survey, said humanity was emitting the equivalent of 50 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. “We have to cut this by 80%, and population growth is going to make that much harder,” he said. Such views on population have split the green movement. George Monbiot, a prominent writer on green issues, has criticised population campaigners, arguing that “relentless” economic growth is a greater threat.

Many experts believe that, since Europeans and Americans have such a lopsided impact on the environment, the world would benefit more from reducing their populations than by making cuts in developing countries. This is part of the thinking behind the OPT’s call for Britain to cut population to 30m — roughly what it was in late Victorian times.

Britain’s population is expected to grow from 61m now to 71m by 2031. Some politicians support a reduction. Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, said: “You can’t have sustainability with an increase in population.” The Tory leader, David Cameron, has also suggested Britain needs a “coherent strategy” on population growth. Despite these comments, however, government and Conservative spokesmen this weekend both distanced themselves from any population policy. ”

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Zero-Sum Game

By Richard Heinberg on February 12, 2009, Post Carbon Institute

nadya-sulemanOops!—bad timing. The announcement that California taxpayers will have to pay most of the costs for raising the famous octuplets born recently near Los Angeles is provoking widespread indignation about what is often taken to be a fundamental human right—i.e., the right to reproduce ad infinitum.

The story might have raised eyebrows a year ago or five. But the fact that the 33-year-old single, unemployed mother’s plight is capturing headlines at the very moment when the State of California is in effect declaring bankruptcy (and laying off teachers and other state workers) not only provides grist for irate radio call-ins, it also highlights a profound shift taking place just beneath the surface of our collective awareness.

For most of the last century or two, economic growth has lifted all boats and temporarily increased Earth’s effective carrying capacity. Though the human population was growing relentlessly and at an unprecedented rate, few worried: every year there were more jobs, more opportunities, new careers. The pie was expanding, so the fact that there were always more people at the table was perceived as a plus. With more folks to talk to, life was becoming richer! Whatever area of skill you might be interested in, you could see records being broken, unheard-of achievements being made: there were better pianists and violinists than anyone had ever heard before, better athletes than anyone had ever seen, more brilliant mathematicians, surgeons—you name it—just because there were so many people competing with one another to develop excellence in their areas of expertise. What a time to be alive!

Now suddenly the game has changed. The pie has stopped getting bigger. As more people arrive at the table, everyone nervously eyes the remaining crumbs, anxious to avert a free-for-all but also keen to avoid being left out.

Welcome to the post-peak economic meltdown!

A lot is going to change due to the fact that we have reached the end of economic growth as we’ve known it. One non-trivial item concerns our attitude toward population.

Environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich have for decades been pointing out the obvious truism that the Earth can support only so many humans, and that the more of us there are, the more likely we are to undermine our planetary life-support systems, perhaps eventually triggering a humanitarian as well as an ecological crisis of apocalyptic dimensions.

Some listened; most did not. Efforts were made world-wide to reduce fertility through family planning; in China a one-child policy successfully reduced (but failed to end) population growth. However, on the whole our species continued to pursue its opportunities for expansion, and our numbers continued to grow (current total: 6.7 billion and counting).

Without more cheap energy, without cheap credit, and without economic growth, feelings will change. Are changing. Fewer people will want to bring a large family into the world knowing that economic opportunities are dwindling—but some will still do so. Attitudes toward parenthood are deep-seated, culturally sensitive, and controversial. But they are not immutable.

Here’s the rub: Unless previous beliefs about the sacredness of unlimited fertility (and the corresponding proof-of-masculinity afforded by the siring of many offspring) can be openly questioned and honestly discussed in these new circumstances, the cognitive dissonance between long-held beliefs and deep-seated biological urges on one hand, and the painful awareness of ecological and economic limits on the other, is likely to lead to a kind of societal explosion that will take the forms of heightened demographic competition and intercultural violence.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The discussion about the octuplets now taking place in the popular media is a good thing if it can help us collectively process new information and let go of old thinking. The point is not to blame the single mom; the point is to use this current news trivium as a mirror by which to see ourselves and reassess and change what we observe.

Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

overpopulation3Some 43 countries around the world now have populations that are either essentially stable or declining slowly. In countries with the lowest fertility rates, including Japan, Russia, Germany, and Italy, populations will likely decline somewhat over the next half-century. A larger group of countries has reduced fertility to the replacement level or just below. They are headed for population stability after large numbers of young people move through their reproductive years. Included in this group are China and the United States. A third group of countries is projected to more than double their populations by 2050, including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda.

United Nations projections show world population growth under three different assumptions about fertility levels. The medium projection, the one most commonly used, has world population reaching 9.2 billion by 2050. The high one reaches 10.8 billion. The low projection, which assumes that the world will quickly move below replacement-level fertility to 1.6 children per couple, has population peaking at just under 8 billion in 2041 and then declining. If the goal is to eradicate poverty, hunger, and illiteracy, and lessen pressures on already strained natural resources, we have little choice but to strive for the lower projection.

Slowing world population growth means that all women who want to plan their families should have access to the family planning services they need. Unfortunately, at present 201 million couples cannot obtain the services they need. Former U.S. Agency for International Development official J. Joseph Speidel notes that “if you ask anthropologists who live and work with poor people at the village level…they often say that women live in fear of their next pregnancy. They just do not want to get pregnant.” Filling the family planning gap may be the most urgent item on the global agenda. The benefits are enormous and the costs are minimal.

The good news is that countries that want to help couples reduce family size can do so quickly. In just one decade Iran dropped its near-record population growth rate to one of the lowest in the developing world. When Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership in Iran in 1979, he immediately dismantled the well-established family planning programs and instead advocated large families. In response to his pleas, fertility levels climbed, pushing Iran’s annual population growth to a peak of 4.2 percent in the early 1980s, a level approaching the biological maximum. As this enormous growth began to burden the economy and the environment, the country’s leaders realized that overcrowding, environmental degradation, and unemployment were undermining Iran’s future. (See for more information.)

overpopulation1In 1989 the government did an about-face and restored its family planning program. In May 1993, a national family planning law was passed. The resources of several government ministries, including education, culture, and health, were mobilized to encourage smaller families. Iran Broadcasting was given responsibility for raising awareness of population issues and of the availability of family planning services. Some 15,000 “health houses” or clinics were established to provide rural populations with health and family planning services. 

Religious leaders were directly involved in what amounted to a crusade for smaller families. Iran introduced a full panoply of contraceptive measures, including the option of male sterilization—a first among Muslim countries. All forms of birth control, including contraceptives such as the pill and sterilization, were free of charge. In fact, Iran became a pioneer—the only country to require couples to take a class on modern contraception before receiving a marriage license.

In addition to the direct health care interventions, a broad-based effort was launched to raise female literacy, boosting it from 25 percent in 1970 to more than 70 percent in 2000. Female school enrollment increased from 60 to 90 percent. Television was used to disseminate information on family planning throughout the country, taking advantage of the 70 percent of rural households with TV sets. As a result of this initiative, family size in Iran dropped from seven children to fewer than three. From 1987 to 1994, Iran cut its population growth rate by half. Its population growth rate of 1.3 percent in 2006 is only slightly higher than that in the United States.

While the attention of researchers has focused on the role of formal education in reducing fertility, soap operas on radio and television can even more quickly change people’s attitudes about reproductive health, gender equity, family size, and environmental protection. A well-written soap opera can have a profound short-term effect on population growth. It costs relatively little and can proceed even while formal educational systems are being expanded.

The power of this approach was pioneered by Miguel Sabido, a vice president of Televisa, Mexico’s national television network, with a series of soap opera segments on illiteracy. The day after one of his soap opera characters visited a literacy office wanting to learn how to read and write, a quarter-million people showed up at these offices in Mexico City. Eventually 840,000 Mexicans enrolled in literacy courses after watching the series. Sabido dealt with contraception in another soap opera, and within a decade this drama series helped reduce Mexico’s birth rate by 34 percent.

Other groups quickly picked up this approach. The U.S.-based Population Media Center has initiated projects in some 15 countries and is planning launches in several others. Their radio dramas in Ethiopia, for example, address issues of health and gender equity, such as HIV/AIDS, family planning, and the education of girls. A survey two years after the broadcasts began in 2002 found that 63 percent of new clients seeking reproductive health care at Ethiopia’s 48 service centers reported listening to one of the dramas. Demand for contraceptives increased 157 percent.

The costs of providing reproductive health and family planning services are small compared with their benefits. Expanding these services to reach all women in the developing countries would take close to $17 billion in additional funding from both industrial and developing countries.

overpopulation2Shifting to smaller families brings generous economic dividends. For Bangladesh, analysts concluded that $62 spent by the government to prevent an unwanted birth saved $615 in expenditures on other social services. Investing in reproductive health and family planning services leaves more fiscal resources per child for education and health care, thus accelerating the escape from poverty. 

Helping countries that want to slow their population growth to do so quickly brings with it what economists call the demographic bonus. When countries move quickly to smaller families, growth in the number of young dependents—those who need nurturing and educating—declines relative to the number of working adults. In this situation, productivity surges, savings and investment climb, and economic growth accelerates. This effect lasts for only a few decades, but it is usually enough to launch a country into the modern era. Indeed, except for a few oil-rich countries, no developing country has successfully modernized without slowing population growth. 

The United Nations estimates that meeting the needs of the 201 million women who do not have access to effective contraception could each year prevent 52 million unwanted pregnancies, 22 million induced abortions, and 1.4 million infant deaths. Put simply, the costs to society of not filling the family planning gap may be greater than we can afford.

Adapted from Chapter 7, “Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at

Released January 21, 2008 

The United Nations Populations Fund thinks that 1.1% population growth is too high for Asia. Australia under Rudd grows 1.7%, 0.2% more than under Howard. Based on the continuation of that rate we will have a population of 42 million by 2051 and 100 million by the end of the century. Yet the Rudd government is in denial, pleasing the business community, while we run out of resources to sustain people and the land. And of course, at those rates we will not meet the currently envisaged pollution reduction targets. 



Illustration: John Shakespeare


Mark O’Connor
Sydney Morning Herald
December 19, 2008


The United Nation’s Population Fund is concerned population growth in Asia averages 1.1 per cent a year. Australia, as a First World country, should have a much lower growth rate. It does not. By the end of the Howard era, our annual population growth had risen to a stunning 1.5 per cent: almost off the First World scale and high even for Third World countries. (Indonesia’s, by contrast, was then 1.3 per cent, but has recently come down, with much effort, to 1.2 per cent.)

Under the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, our rate has increased. According to Bureau of Statistics figures, it is now 1.7 per cent. Both natural increase and net migration continue to rise. At this rate, one which many are determined to maintain or increase, our population will reach 42 million by 2051. By the end of the century, it will pass 100 million.

This is far above any credible estimate of the population Australia could hope to feed.

Troubles will come sooner. This week’s government white paper proposes a 5 per cent cut in emissions, but this, like Ross Garnaut’s report, assumes large per capita cuts can outpace population growth, like a swimmer prevailing against the tide. But this planning is based on the dubious assumption we are heading for 28 million people living in Australia by 2051, rather than 42 million. If the Rudd Government does not change course, even painful per capita cuts will deliver no overall cuts, but an increase.

Much the same goes for water consumption. El Nino droughts come two or three times a decade, yet state and federal governments are, in effect. gambling it won’t happen on their watch. Several of Rudd’s ministers, most notably Penny Wong and Peter Garrett, are “population deniers”. Even Rudd has been heard repeating the nonsensical claim that “numbers are not the issue”. They are.

Some claim Australia is a big country, “boundless plains to share”, etc. Yet the geographer George Seddon has remarked Australia is more truly “a small country with big distances”. Even our agricultural areas are not so large, or fertile, as population boosters pretend. Wheat is our main crop, yet France, for instance, grows twice as much wheat (and far more of most other crops).

The human as well as the natural environment deteriorates as population grows. Two years ago, the NSW Government instructed Sydney’s councils to accommodate an extra 1.1 million people within 25 years. Bankstown, for instance, was told to build 26,000 extra homes. Most councils protested it was impossible to reconcile this with conserving the amenity of the suburbs. Even these draconian plans will be overwhelmed by additional people.

In the Hawke-Keating days, the knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion that population growth, and therefore perhaps immigration, should be reduced was to accuse the critic of “racism”. Yet polls show most immigrants think immigration is too high.But the Government seems asleep at the wheel. The Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, claims to foresee only “a continuing modest increase in our population levels over coming years”.     

Others continue to claim that births are not keeping up with deaths. Bureau of Statistics figures show that births each year in Australia are twice the number of deaths, have been so for decades and look like being so for several years more. Baby bonuses are the last thing we need.

Tim Flannery has suggested that, granted the rate at which we are losing soil, Australia’s safe carrying capacity in the long term may be as low as 8 to 12 million people. As he points out, humans are extremely long-lived mammals. Population growth, like herpes, is easily acquired but very hard to lose.

In 1994, the Australian Academy of Science held a conference to publicise its findings on population: 23 million people should be our limit. Today, with peak oil and climate change now realities rather than theories, that might have to come down.

Over the years, Australians have been promised a series of points at which population growth would supposedly be capped: Bob Hawke spoke of 25 million, which the Fitzgerald report had suggested might be the limit set by water resources. Within the last decade, Philip Ruddock, as minister for immigration, spoke soothingly of our population naturally peaking at some 23 million (later he said 25 million). Peter Costello’s Intergenerational Report claimed that population would be only 28 million in 2051. Our current trajectory is to break 100 million by 2100.

Just as every fat person was once a normal child, so every bloated behemoth nation of 100 million-plus was once a nation of 5 or 10 million, with intact ecosystems and abundant water. Even Java, as late as the early 19th century, had fewer than 5 million people.

Population increase suits governments wanting to please the business community now, by doing something the full cost of which will only emerge over the next 20, 30, 40 or 50 years – far beyond the attention span of three-year governments. There is still a way out and it is not economically naive to think population growth can be slowed.

Much of politics is repetitive and unproductive, but sometimes a logjam breaks. In the past two years, most politicians have ceased being in denial about climate change, greenhouse emissions, limits to water, and peak oil.

All these crises reflect the deeper underlying problem: our population growth is out of control. Waiting for the population debate to begin is like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mark O’Connor is co-author of Overloading Australia : How Governments And Media Dither And Deny On Population, published by Envirobook.

Talking about population growth: directly after finishing the previous post, I came across this BBC News article by Joanna Benn, reflecting on how responsible or irresponsible it is to have babies. [and it’s worth following the link to the BBC site to read the many comments responding to the article].

Joanna Benn
Joanna Benn


How responsible is it to have children in a world whose environmental health is already under stress? That’s the question Joanna Benn poses this week in the Green Room. On the other hand, she wonders, will a couple more hungry mouths make much difference?

I came out of my house last week and got caught up in a fleet of mothers and prams. They were wearing a middle class yummy mummy uniform combining comfort and fashion – skinny jeans, UGG boots, black tops and large sunglasses. The prams were all state-of-the-art three wheeled, balanced, air-bagged mini cars that can fold to the size of a postage stamp and carry the week’s shopping.

When I see babies, not only do I see the beauty, joy and miracle of life, I also see nappies, landfill waste, vast amounts of food and money needed, and a very shaky, unpredictable future

The urban mother tribe looked chic, proud and collectively cool. It got me thinking. I love kids, I love babies. I love the idea of the Brady Bunch, of close-knit large families and a stream of brothers and sisters of different heights with crazy hair. However, perhaps it’s my age; suddenly everyone I know has children and it is confusing me.

I don’t even know when it all happened. I remember conversations about university, jobs, flats, boyfriends and partners, but I seem to have missed the pre-baby musings. One minute people were childless – or child-free, depending on your viewpoint. The next – magic wand, small bang, plume of smoke – it was insta-family, complete with new people-carrier in the drive and more often than not, a house extension.

Two weeks ago, a single childless friend confessed she’d been looking into freezing her eggs. That apparently is not a taboo subject. Nor are conversations about contraception, fertility patterns, mastitis, post-partum depression and sex, child behaviour problems, sleepless nights, credit crunch worries or redundancy. However, dare ask how green is it to have kids in a world of dwindling resources, vast global inequality, terrifying climate change scenarios and dying empty seas… then people get uncomfortable and usually defensive.

Ugly truths

I have couched the question a few times: “Why did you want children?” The answers have usually been – “It seemed the next thing to do, we wanted to, it felt right, I couldn’t imagine not…” Push again – “Have you thought about what kind of world you are bringing them into to? Some climate change scenarios give us a 10 to 15 year window before things get very ugly and scary indeed.” Resounding silence.


Crowded planet: a Tokyo street brings home the size of the human population

Being an environmentalist is, quite frankly, an awkward thing. When I see babies, not only do I see the beauty, joy and miracle of life, I also see nappies, landfill waste, vast amounts of food and money needed, and a very shaky, unpredictable future. According to United Nations projections, the world population will nearly stabilise at just above 10 billion people after 2200. That’s a lot of people on one small planet. When we talk about the environment and available natural resources, we bandy around statistics; yet none of it seems to be about me or you or that guy that everyone talked about during the US election campaign, Joe the Plumber.

Mood swings

Ask any environmental organisation what it thinks about birth control; it’ll sidestep the issue, and say it’s not their place to comment. If a commentator says there are too many people on the planet, their words smack of authoritarian dictatorships and human rights violations, and echo traces of unpalatable eugenics.


Are many people concerned over the ethics of having children?

However, the reality is that every time we eat, switch on a light, get in a car, drink a beer, go on holiday or buy something to wear or use, we are adding to our environmental footprint. Toddlers – small beings that they are – require almost unlimited nappies, a fair amount of food, and apparently a loungeful of loud, battery-powered plastic toys.

I am not saying we shouldn’t have kids. They may well be the leaders of tomorrow, steering humanity into a just, equitable, fair and healthy future. The new generation may indeed succeed where all others have failed, and learn lessons of the past.

Perhaps it’s just my mood. Or perhaps it’s the media’s fault that some of us feel as if humanity is sliding from one patch of melting ice to another in a murky sea of financial, environmental and social woes. I am curious to know if I am the only 30-something woman who has these dilemmas, worrying about the planet’s future and what we could and should do to ease the strain.

Am I fretting needlessly? Because in the grand scheme of things, one or two more children in the world really make no difference, do they? And as for the future – rising sea levels, bare former forests, desertification, empty seas and a few dollar bills floating in the wind – well that’ll all take care of itself. Won’t it?

Joanna Benn is a journalist, writer and consultant specialising in environmental issues
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

This 8-part lecture by Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado (Boulder), is quite convincing and sometimes even entertaining. Bartlett uses simple arithmetic to demolish the myth of unfettered growth. He starts with population growth and then looks at energy (peak oil and US coal reserves) and comes to the conclusion that, if we don’t start soon living more sustainable, we’ll be finished. Once you start looking at periods comparable to human life spans, no amount of tweaking the edges by skeptics of all kinds will diminish the cogency of Bartlett’s arithmetic argument. The 8 parts of his lecture are highly recommended educational viewing.

[Thanks to Carsten for the link!]

Global population growth is looming as a bigger threat to the world’s food production and water supplies than climate change, a leading scientist says.

Speaking at a CSIRO public lecture in Canberra yesterday, UNESCO’s chief of sustainable water resources development, Professor Shahbaz Khan, said overpopulation’s impacts were potentially more economically, socially and environmentally destructive than those of climate change.

”Climate change is one of a number of stresses we’re facing, but it’s overshadowed by global population growth and the amount of water, land and energy needed to grow food to meet the projected increase in population. We are facing a world population crisis.”

In the past four years, the price of rice in Thailand had risen from $A200 a tonne to $A800 a tonne, and India had banned rice exports in a bid to ensure the country had sufficient supplies of this staple food, Professor Khan said.

”It would be a mistake for Australia’s governments to assume they can adapt to declining water availability within the Murray-Darling Basin by deciding staple crops like wheat and rice can be grown in other countries. We need smarter ways to improve water efficiencies so we can continue to grow those crops.”

Before taking up the UNESCO post in Paris earlier this year which involves supervising sustainable water development projects in 190 countries Professor Khan led CSIRO’s irrigation systems research and was founding director of the international centre for food security at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga.

Original article published in the Canberra Times; thanks to Climate Ark for the link.