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Why "Population Matters" is wrong

As the global population climbs ever higher, is there an argument to be made that combating climate change and many other environmental problems require taking steps to limit this growth? Adam Ramsay from Bright Green Scotland argues against such thinking, say it blames the victim and can even be anti-women.

Adam Ramsay

This article was originally published in Bright Green Scotland.

Someone isn’t happy. Here at Bright Green towers, we received a pretty miffed email from a member of the Green Party of England and Wales complaining about the party magazine – Green World.

They seemed to want us to expose Green World for “censorship”. So, what is the allegation?

Well, it boils down to this: Population Matters – the people who think that the population of the world should be a major element of public debate – wanted to advertise in Green World. The editorial board ruled that they shouldn’t be allowed to, because they support political positions we ought not to support. It seems that those who are cross about this ruling are exercising their right to shout about it. So, let me explain why I disagree with them.

First things first, this isn’t censorship, it’s editing. My right to free speech does not equate to my right to have anything I want published in any magazine I choose just because I am rich enough to buy an advert. The Green Party magazine must, on occasion, refuse to run things it finds problematic.

And Population Matters are problematic. Join the dots marked out by their campaign and you draw an ugly picture of a world where those blamed for environmental problems are not those who do most to cause them, but those who suffer most from their consequences: theirs is the doctrine which blames the unemployed for the recession, the people of Iraq for Saddam Hussein.

But before we get to why they are offensive, let’s look at why they are (mostly) wrong.

Focus on the numbers

A family in Mali

A family in Mali

The birth rate in Mali is 6.29 births per woman.

In the USA it is 2.1.

So, if the problem is population, then Mali is where we should start to point our fingers.

But let’s look at another stat: the average person in Mali is responsible for 0.06 tonnes of CO2 per year. The average person in the USA is responsible for 17.

So, the average person in the USA is responsible for about 283 times more carbon than the average person in Mali. To put it another way, the average Mailian family is responsible for 1/136th of the carbon of the average American family.

In this context, complaining about another Malian baby seems foolish.

American-family-450x328

A family in the US

Population Matters might respond that yes, this is true, but that if we aspire to a world where Malians have a better quality of life than they do now, then they will each use more resource. And so this will only be possible with a lower population. And largely, they are wrong. It is possible for a society to live well and use less of the world’s finite resources. It just isn’t possible under the current economic system (capitalism).

For many, the certainty that population correlates to consumption comes from the belief that we should learn from ecology: too many rabbits in a garden can eat all of the flowers and then have none left. Each new rabbit means an equal increase in the rate of consumption of flowers. But humans are different. We are the only species with such vast inequality.

Don’t blame the victim

But that they are wrong isn’t why the point is somewhat offensive. It is offensive because the implication that we should blame Mali for a problem they do almost nothing to cause, but from which they will suffer more heavily than the richest, is cruel. Talking about population serves to shift blame from the rich in the west (and the capitalist system established by the rich in the west) and onto those who are least to blame.

And when we take a problem largely caused by rich white people, but highlight ways of discussing it which shift the blame onto poor black people, we are perpetuating white power and the racism in our society. This isn’t to say that the people who run Population Matters are intentionally racist – I am sure they are lovely. But just as it is possible for me to accidentally do things which contribute to a sexist society, what they do contributes to a racist, classist society.

The gender aspect

It does something else too – something which climate campaigning is all too often guilty of. It shifts blame onto women. As Fiona Ranford has pointed out, it shifts blame onto women.

Now, this is a complex point. Because Population Matters aren’t fools, and they aren’t wilfully cruel. They don’t call for eugenics or one child policies. They call for something that no one could disagree with: women’s empowerment. Or so they say. But, as Fiona’s article explains, you are not empowering women to have more control over their reproduction if you pre-define the outcome of their family planning. This is like telling people they have democracy so long as they vote for you. It may be that fewer children is what women would choose. But we should give them control over their fertility because they ought to have that control – if they want fewer children, or if they want more.

Like people in poorer countries, women are likely to be the main victims of climate change. There are more women farmer. When natural disasters happen, usually, more women and girls die as sexist societies (ie all of them) prioritise help for men and boys, or support for the things men and boys need. And blaming women for this is nothing new: most solutions presented to climate change are domestic – changing lightbulbs, recycling, etc – things which usually mean more work for women. Yet climate change is driven by an economy owned almost entirely by men.

We live in a racist, sexist and classist world. This world props up its racism and its sexism and its classism by encouraging us to blame the victims of oppression for the problems they face. It is the responsibility of all progressives to challenge any voice which supports this process – intentionally, or not. And it is, therefore, for Green World, the only responsible thing to do to refuse advertisements from well meaning groups like Population Matters.

note – I’ve done some more research into Population Matters:

UPDATE 1: I’ve just found a policy statement showing that Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust) are in favour of no net migration to the UK. This immigrant bashing stance is more extreme than the Tories  or, even, than UKIP.

UPDATE 2:  They have a story on their website saying that population is ‘to blame’ for the HS2 train line, and that the solution to this is less immigration.

UPDATE 3:  In 2009, Population Matters (then known as the Optimum Population Trust) launched a ‘carbon offsetting’ scheme – whereby rich people could, rather than reducing their emissions, pay for contraception for people in impoverished countries.  (Thanks to a friend for highlighting this).

Date Published

15/02/2013

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Comments

  1. A lazy anthropocentric article that shows little understanding of population issues at all. Worse still is The Green Party running scared of the only issue that could ever make any difference; the amount of us that are making impacts. No let’s just allow the mass species extinction event to play out, empty the seas, lets exploit and kill ever more non-humans, lets just see how runaway climate change goes etc.

    Even if we cut impacts per head by the impossible total of 50% it would be cancelled out if the population hits ten billion. To try and slur pointing out that reality as “right wing” is ridiculous and asinine.

    Humans have always been greedy and selfish and formed elite groups who they favour above outsiders. Overpopulation is defined by the animals that occupy the turf, behaving as they naturally behave, not by a hypothetical group that might be substituted for them in your ideal utopia.

    Poor people (with large families) do not produce large amounts of CO2 but they do consume large amounts of biodiversity, which is effectively ‘free’. Poor people do not intend to remain poor and will use the available means to escape poverty- eg, poaching parrots, kidnapping baby gorillas, removing rhino horns from the faces of rhinos, tusks from the faces of elephants, fins from sharks, selling undersized lobsters out of season and orchids pulled from the Nature Reserves and so on. As well as cutting down trees to use as housing and charcoal, polluting clean water supplies and much much more…

  2. “Heaven preserve me from my friends!”
    Can we please keep this discussion civil and avoid words like asinine and allegations of “classism” – whatever it is?

    Adam, You make strong points by using Mali as your example and you are right to note that the real problems lie in the West; though the increasing prosperity of China can’t be ignored. It’s also true that there is no population policy that can produce, for example, worthwhile reductions in GHG emissions in less than decades. Our priorities must be actions in the developed and fast-developing countries.

    But as Greens we ought to think about the long-term. And in the long-term population does matter. I’ve been at two Population Matters fringe meetings at conferences and they provide useful opportunities to discuss this difficult area. If PM’s presence at conference is legitimate then I don’t see why Green World should reject the leaflet offered by PM.

    And we should not try to close down discussion by throwing charged labels at each other. We are not the SWP!

  3. Adam Ramsay is frighteningly wrong.

    To recognise that over-population is a (the) major cause of environmental problems is not to blame anyone. It is to indicate where the solution will be found.

    We (humans) are already consuming substantially more than the ecosystem can sustainably produce. I assume I don’t have to substantiate that statement, but extinctions, deforestation, etc., do that readily.

    Our total environmental impact is our average individual impact multiplied by our number. So, to reduce that total we must reduce the average impact, the population, or both. Those are the only possible choices.

    However, it’s clear that we are not going to reduce the average impact. Those in the rich world simply won’t do that voluntarily, while those in the much more populous poor world are doing their best to improve their lifestyle (and who can blame them?), which is bound to increase their average. It may be comfortable to push reducing invidivual consumption, but it is also futile. Try doing the arithmetic, if you think I’m wrong.

    That leaves only a smaller population as a solution.

    And it is just as important to reduce the population of rich countries (which already have a huge impact) as that of poor countries (which have a rapidly-growing one). That’s one reason the “blame the Malians” idea is so ridiculous. If the Malians, and those like them, are to improve their quality of life, then there must be fewer of all of us (not just those in “The West”), including the Malians.

    Of course population can be reversed ethically only by reducing female fertility. But this must be done voluntarily by each woman. Fortunately, experience in countries as diverse as Iran and Thailand shows that increasing knowledge about and availability of contraception results in women substantially reducing the number of children they bear, by their own choice.

    This obviously isn’t sexism or racism (such convenient labels for besmirching those who disagree with you!).

    And, finally, reversing net immigration to rich countries will significantly help slow environmental damage. Obviously, a Malian moving to UK immediately adopts the UK lifestyle, and thus the UK resident’s impact.

    Your suppression of debate about policy in this area is indeed censorship (and certainly not just the cosy-sounding “editing”), but is also an unwillingness to put your unfortunate views to the test. There is something badly wrong here, and it isn’t at Population Matters.

  4. The above post distorts what happened inside the Green World and reflects a woefully misinformed understanding of population, its impacts and consequences for overall sustainability. It also is quite wrong in its bizarre endorsement of the bizarre view that Population Matters (PM) is anti-woman.

    The refusal of a flyer from PM was not some minor editorial choice. It was indeed unwarranted censorship. It was done in a very high-handed way and with no political justification.

    The disgraceful events have been described in a circular by Andy Chyba who resigned from the Green World editorial board (GWEB). It is also noteworthy that the only woman in the GWEB has published a statement dissenting from what was done (so much for the claim that the leaflet was anti-women). It must be stressed that the overwhelming majority of the GP would not have known about all this if the proverbial whistle had not been blown.

    Population Matters (PM) is a legal and democratic organisation. We should be prepared to listen to its views. At a general level, there is a broad congruence between its position and that of the Green Party in its Manifesto for a Sustainable Society. Of course, there are differences in the details, as noted in the post. Otherwise the two organisations would fuse.

    PM has a legitimate right to canvass for its ideas. As my original circular inside the Green Party tried to show, PM is firmly part of the broad green tradition. That is why a peer-reviewed academic like Professor Andy Dobson (himself a GP member) underlined in his books the centrality of human numbers in green analysis (as well as, of course, many other dimensions).

    No serious Green can doubt that population pressures are critical. Here are two good summaries why:
    http://www.postcarbon.org/Reader/PCReader-Ryerson-Population.pdf
    and
    http://www.meteor.iastate.edu/classes/mt404/Papers/Harte-PopEnv07.pdf
    Such literature refutes many of the claims the post makes.

    Sadly the blog is part of a tendency that would sweep under the carpet what is in fact a critical matter. Some America examples are reviewed here:
    http://www.agoregon.org/files/RetreatfromStabilization.pdf
    It is reflected in organisations such as FoE who completely ignore the issue. With friends like that!

    Of course ought to be worried about many other issues. But it is surely not an either/or choice. The threat from, say, nuclear weapons & CBW is appalling. We desperately need tax justice. The financial sector must be brought to heel and money reformed. The food supply system is clearly rotten and needs root-and-branch repair. But it is still myopia not to see the population elephant in the room.

    For example, the birth rate in England has gone up by 20%, while lifespans continue increase. To keep things just as they are, that means 20% more nurseries, 20% school places, 20% more houses, 20% more jobs etc, at a time when the ecological base on which everything depends is contracting. Take another example. London’s population is set to growth by one seventh in the next 10 years. Will that makes its problems better or worse, easier or harder to resolve? Across the world, some 42% of all pregnancies are, apparently, unwanted. Is that a good thing? Does it improve the health and opportunities of women?

    Obviously there are all sorts of economic and cultural issues here but numbers per se still have their direct impact and, uniquely, multiply the impact of all other variables such as per capita consumption and technology (for the scale of growth, see: http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/).
    Denial of population’s role in the overall crises we face is, quite frankly, incredible and no Green should let it go unchallenged.

    The issue of immigration controls is a separate matter. Suffice it to say, no region can aspire to sustainability if the numbers it has sustain keep increasing, regardless of whether those additions come from internal or external sources. For a really bright and green treatment of the issue, see https://www.numbersusa.com/content/about-us.html

    However I am against censorship. Green World also needs money. Oxfam, for example, has long denied any problem with human population growth. In that respect, its views differ more markedly from the Green Party than do those of PM. But Oxfam’s voice should be heard if it wants to pay for a flyer insert. If the Guardian columnist George Monbiot wanted to give us money for a flyer advocating that we change our energy policy to back his pro-nuclear position, that too should be acceptable. Debate is healthy… providing, of course, it is with organisations who do not break the law (incitement of racial hatred etc.).

    PM is a pressure group, lobbying for specific policies. It is not a party with a comprehensive programme so it beats the drum about its chosen issue. Yet a study of its literature would confirm that it does talk about ‘appetites’ as well as ‘mouths’. Amongst its patrons are veteran Greens such as Jonathan Porritt. I have shared public platforms with Roger Martin, its chair, and well know that he and others in PM well recognise the role of factors such as poverty, inequality and powerlessness.

    Actually, to be honest, I think that our specific policies on population are mealy-mouthed and ineffective, given the scale and urgency of the challenge. I would take on board what PM advocates. But that is a matter for democratic debate. It should not be decided by behind-doors censorship.
    I hope fellow Green Party members at home and abroad will support the principles of openness and accountability, whether or not they agree with everything PM advocates.

    Best wishes
    Sandy Irvine
    member Newcastle Green Party

  5. It is completely wrong to believe that tackling population in poor countries is to blame those people for environmental problems. By this logic Oxfam blames the hungry for famines when it sends food aid. Medecines sans frontiers blames the sick for epidemics when it sends doctors. Population Matters campaigns for both rich and poor countries to stabilize their population levels. In all countries, including the poorest, it supports voluntary family planning, healthcare and education for women, because these have direct as well as indirect benefits for all, and provide synergy with other aid objectives. Tackling population is a win for everyone. The knee-jerk and irrational reaction of a faction on the left that there is an implicit racism in all population concern is as harmful to the cause of anti-racism as it to those of tackling poverty and environmental catastrophe.

  6. As a Green Party member, I do believe that “over-population” is a serious issue for the planet. However, thinking you can address this problem by campaigning on “over-population” is like thinking you could have stopped the 1st world war by preventing Gavrilo Princip from assasinating Archduke Frans Ferdinand. It’s focussing on effects and retorical pretexts, rather than the causes of the problem.

    I am thankful that Green World declined their advertisment, because it has made people think a bit deeper about this issue.

  7. Is it not true that concern about population growth has been a matter of policy for the Green Party from its earliest days? See http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/pp

    In what way is this inconsistent with Population matters policy?

    Regardless of that, it is obvious that Green members are by no means uniformly supportive of the move to suppress PM information in GW. If there was real feeling that the population issue should be dropped from GP policy, wouldn’t the correct procedure be to bring it up at the annual congresss and discuss it properly? Perhaps the fact that the instigators of this have not done so is because they have a feeling that they could not carry the membership with them.

    The impulse to suppress the discussion of population without proper reference to the membership suggests the manipulations of an ingroup whose motives are ideological. Certainly the chop logic they use to justify their actions would be consistant with that

  8. Population isn’t a “first world vs third world” issue, as the author seems to suggest in his eagerness to jump on the bandwagon of western self loathing.

    Reducing the population is something we BOTH have to do, for differing reasons which impact the environment differently.

    In the developed countries, reducing our population would be a major helper in reducing the CO2 emissions. For the sake of argument, if we cut the population to 75% of current values, the energy demand would cut by a sizeable amount. It would not necessarily be 25% , as there might be economies of scale involved.

    On the other hand, such a cut might be enough to allow the majority of traffic to flow freely with the current road system and massively reduce the time most cars spend on the road at their most inefficient speed. Conversely, an increase in populaiton might cause a disproportionate rise in emissions

    Therefore, it is absolutely logical to suggest that there should be no net migration to the UK. It’s not “immigrant bashing” – it’s a recognition that any human moving to the developed world cannot help but increase the CO2 emissions.

    In the third world, CO2 isn’t the issue, but there are others such as biodiversity. Madagascar is a case in point – around 90% of its forest has been removed to make room for humans and their crops. How many of its utterly unique, irreplaceable species have been removed or put in jeopardy by this?

    Also, we need to understand the power of exponential growth. In Africa, the average woman has about 5 children. WE desire them to have full lives, so imagine a situation where fewer than 20% of the children die- this correpsonds to 4 per couple, and therefore a doubling in each generation.

    In 4 generations, you would have 16 times the people. In 8 generations, 256. It’s easy to see that given enough time this doubling can dwarf any amount individual greed by the West.

    Finally, it’s clearly desirable to look towards a future where the inhabitants of the thrid world enjoy the education, medicine, and to a certain extent the consumer goods of the first world. All this would inevitably cause an increase in emissions.

    The author seems to have let his desire to be politically correct hugely outweight his desire to save the planet. He seems to think that reality should listen to his PC protestations and carefully not apply the laws of Physics if he believes that there is a moral imperative for them not to apply.

    Learn some mathematics, Adam. It’s far more important in understanding what might save the planet than gender studies and race relations.

  9. […] views are online on two blogposts on Green European Journal and Bright Green Scotland with vigorous counter-argument and comments under each, taken up also by […]

  10. The “rescue triangle” (Perpetrator-Victim-Rescuer) is notoriously unstable. It could equally be argued that Adam Ramsay is the Perp and Population Matters the victim, so I am here to “rescue”. Poor psychological models are no substitute for demography and energy calculations.
    UK oil consumption remains fairly static at 1.5 billion tons a day. Energy efficiency and renewables are offset by UK population has been growing by about 400,000 a year. Each of those people needs 450 megajoules of energy a day. As this nearly all (91%?) comes from burning hydrocarbons, it could also be expressed this way: each new person in the UK needs an additional car tankful of petrol every five days. If the Green Party gets its wish and the oil is “left in the ground” , an additional 17 wind turbines a day would need to be commissioned. As the 32% turning time is exceeded mainly on the north-west coast, this would mean deporting the population of the Hebrides and designating the Cuillins as an industrial zone. Who will be the victim then?

  11. I’m very relieved that all of the people commenting on this article are pointing out the absurd use of straw men in this article. I can’t really add anything else as you’ve summarised exactly what I was going to say but I wanted to thank you all for giving me some hope in humanity with your intelligent objective points. Sadly there are too many people who think that their opinions are equally as valid as scientific fact and, as a scientist myself, I find this offensive. Over-population is a fact and until people put away their blinkers, its horrific effects will continue to worsen.

  12. Had to stop reading as it was such tripe. Of course population matters. I support the charity, I read their matrial and there is never the slightest suggestion of blame in any direction. Simply education. PM has encouraged me to take the debate to my friends, which I do. It has never encouraged me to take the debate to Mali.

  13. I can scarcely believe the staggering naivety of this article. It has to be one of the most complacent and frustrating articles I’ve ever read. Let’s talk facts.

    Africa’s population alone is set to explode in the next fifty years causing immense suffering for the individual and total environmental obliteration. Human population is set to hit 10.5 billion by 2050.

    Incredibly they justify avoiding embarrassing un-PC ideas like confronting the idea of having ten children because it conflicts with religious and cultural belief. Incredibly the main argument is that emissions are far lower. Of course they are!

    In the name of all that is holy do you honestly think they want to remain in an eco mud hut? They naturally want dignity for their children and a better life. That needs resources we don’t have for 7 billion, let alone 10.

    Unless we address this idiocy urgently the Green party will stay a fringe party. it needs to be in power, and articles like this make us a laughing stock.
    Many will not change but to others I plead with you to listen to Sir David Attenborough before it’s too late. We need to give women back control of their bodies, and we need to drastically reduce births to stop the suffering.

  14. What a load of rubbish! Of course Population Matters. You are attempting to make this a political argument rather than an ecological one of which the latter applies. The destruction of our environment is not measured exclusively in terms of CO2 emissions (important as it is). Your brand of moral relativism does nothing to address the issue in hand, and ignores the empirical evidence. It is telling that as a ‘Green’ advocate you are more concerned with Libetarianism than addressing practically one of the most pressing problems of our age.

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