Planet Overload

The world’s population is 6.8 billion. That figure will rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, climate change is speeding up alarmingly. So are there too many of us? If so, how long before our planet becomes unfit for purpose?

If you write about the environment you become used to a measure of
unfriendly criticism. In the main, it's pretty innocuous stuff -
charges of miserabilism and so on. But since concentrating on the issue
of human population growth, I have found the criticism noticeably
darkening. The other week, after helping to launch a campaign
encouraging couples to "stop at two" (children, that is), I received an
email accusing me of "real, hard-hitting fascism" and adding: "The
Nazis . . . would be proud of you!" This was nothing, however, compared
t0 the hate mail I received when the organisation of which I am a part,
the Optimum Population Trust, published a report arguing that, as human
beings were the agents of climate change, one way of combating climate
change would be to produce fewer new humans.

Population can arouse violent feelings. Much of the hate mail
originated from religious groups in the United States. But the more
recent message came from an academic address at Oxford. Personally, I
find it hard to conceive that an intelligent, acquisitive, expansive,
territorial, aggressive and physically large species such as Homo
sapiens could increase in numbers from 2.5 billion to 6.8 billion since
1950 and not cause an environmental crisis. Moreover, I cannot see how,
on top of the existing 6.8 billion, we can accommodate another 2.4
billion people over the next 40 years (which is what the United Nations
says we can expect) without something to go seriously wrong on the

Such views were once widespread but have become less so. After
making much of the running on population in the 1960s and early 1970s,
green groups, for instance, have become wary of the issue. The UK's
best-known environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt (see page 27), a keen
advocate of stopping at two, is among those critical of the green
lobby's neglect of the population growth issue, describing it as
gutless, wilfully ignorant and "less than honest".

There are many who regard the silence of the greens on population as
a shameful episode in the history of a movement that has done an
enormous amount to change the world for the better. One might cite a
number of factors in mitigation, however. The rise of the religious
right, particularly in the US, has added to the ranks of those who
believe that birth control infringes religious or political liberties -
and in the process forged an unlikely holy alliance with Catholicism
and Islam. The excesses of state birth control programmes in India and
China have left a residue of suspicion - although China's one-child
policy has prevented the addition of 400 million to a population
already facing environmental nightmare. The burgeoning human rights
agenda has, meanwhile, made all exercises of judgement over the lives
of others potentially suspect. So, aid-givers have lapsed into silence
on population for fear of being labelled white imperialists.

To an extent, seeing, and experiencing, is believing. In the UK,
concern about population was at a peak in the postwar baby-boom
decades, when family size was well above the replacement level of 2.1
and the effects of growth were plainly visible. Domestically at least,
a quieter demographic era then dawned: below-replacement family sizes,
the expectation that the UK population would peak early this century
and thereafter decline. This comfortable vision of Britain is now

Under the impact of an upward twist in birth rates and record levels
of immigration, which now accounts for over two-thirds of population
increase, numbers are rising at rates not seen since the baby-boom
days. Government statisticians tell us that the UK's population, six or
seven million in 1750, 50 million in 1950 and 61 million today, will
reach 85 million in 2081, with no sign of levelling off. And why should
it, when we live in a globalised and globally warmed world with
potentially millions of environmental refugees heading our way - making
the British Isles, as the environmental guru James Lovelock puts it,
one of the planet's lifeboats?

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the population
issue has been reignited, at least at grass-roots level, as millions of
us, particularly in the south-east of England, experience crowding and
congestion every day and read in our newspapers, as we strap-hang on
some packed commuter train, that it is going to get worse. Last
September, England was confirmed as the most densely populated of all
the larger countries in the EU: only Malta is more crowded. It is also
not surprising that, among the political classes, the immigration
component of population growth has led to silence on the issue as a
whole - after all, who wants to be accused of racism? But never
underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance: that human facility,
only too familiar in matters of a green nature, to think one thing but
do the opposite. In this respect the Daily Mail, which fulminates
against higher densities, but describes those in favour of limiting
family size as green zealots, may be all too representative of Middle

Yet if the silence on population has lately begun to crumble
somewhat under pressure from below, a larger question lies behind it.
How do we know that the world is overpopulated? Common sense might
argue there must be a causal link between the loading of an extra four
billion people into the biosphere in the second half of the 20th
century and the contemporaneous appearance of severe ecological ills.
But common sense also argues that there is lots of land left in the
world - think Canada, Siberia.

The contemporary environmentalist, meanwhile, will defend his
silence on population by arguing that it is not human numbers that are
the problem; it is more about how those human beings live. This employs

I = P x A x T formula popularised by the population ecologist Paul
Ehrlich, author of the 1968 classic The Population Bomb. IPAT says
human beings' impact is a product of their population numbers,
multiplied by their affluence and their technology. In other words, the
more stuff you own and do, the more burdensome you are to Planet Earth.

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently argued that as global
economic growth, before the credit crunch, was 3.8 per cent and
population growth was 1.2 per cent, the affluence or consumption half
of the equation bore twice [sic] as much responsibility for
environmental damage as the population half.

The truth is far more complex - partly because the figures assume an
exact equivalence between economic growth and human impact at variance
with the facts. Some of the ingredients of economic growth (oil,
mining) have a great deal of environmental impact; some (financial
services) have much less. Many human activities do not register in
gross national product at all. If I go for a walk in the park - or, for
that matter, cut down a wild tree to use as firewood - I will be
contributing to impact but not to economic growth.

This is more than scholasticism, however, because we are making
value judgements about future human numbers all the time - whether we
acknowledge it or not. Faced with sub-replacement birth rates in many
countries in the developed world and with talk of a "birth dearth", for
instance, many governments have begun to promote the economic benefit
of women having more babies or of higher immigration as a means of
paying for our pensions. You hear less of this in the UK since the idea
was rubbished by the Pensions Commission, but it is a remarkably
durable piece of mythology that carries startling demographic
implications. Since new arrivals grow old and then require pensions
themselves, you need an ever-growing population to keep the "support
ratio" between workers and non-workers the same. To maintain the
present support ratio in the UK, for example, would demand a national
population of 136 million in 2050 - more than double the current number.

Is that too many? Most of us would think so - including, apparently,
the new immigration minister, Phil Woolas, who said last year that
Britain required a population policy, and that the government wouldn't
"allow" the population to reach 70 million (we're on target to hit that
in 2028). But explaining why it might be too many is a different
matter. It is not easy to determine the "carrying capacity" of a place
- whether it be the United Kingdom or the planet. The American
population scientist Joel Cohen asked, in his 1995 book of the same
title: how many people can the earth support? But he could not answer
his own question, though he noted that the carrying capacity of the
number of human beings the earth could support had ranged over the past
three centuries from half a billion to more than a thousand billion.

Ecological footprinting

Since the publication of Cohen's book, however, a new methodology -
"ecological footprinting" - has emerged and this is providing a higher
level of consistency. Ecological footprinting measures national and
global biological productive capacity (the stuff we live off) against
human demand (the "footprint"). The resulting data takes both
population and consumption into account and provides what many regard
as the best guide yet to measuring sustainability. It has been reported
that, at the current rates of consumption, the world can support only
five billion people. This means the planet is already overpopulated by
nearly two billion.

Given that the new science of ecological footprinting has borne out
what common sense was suggesting as far back as the 1960s, it's
probably a good job we haven't all waited for proof. In 2007, 69 out of
195 countries had policies to lower population growth, compared with 39
in the mid-1970s.

This included 70 per cent of the less developed countries: 34 out of
53 African states, for example. And there have been some remarkable,
and unexpected, success stories - not least Iran, which decided after a
census in 1987 that population growth was holding back development and,
between 1988 and 2000, reduced its fertility rate from 5.2 children per
family to a below-replacement level of two. Thailand cut fertility
rates from 6.3 in 1967 to 1.7 in 2003. Many other states have reduced
their birth rates at a speed comparable to China but without coercion.
They include Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Morocco, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Taiwan, Tunisia, Vietnam and India (the southern states).

Half a century after the first population and family planning
programmes began, the ingredients of success are well established:
strong government support, often through explicit population policies;
partnership with NGOs; an emphasis on women's status, rights and
education; education on sex and relationships; and, above all, the
ready availability of contraceptives - supplied in Iran, for example,
by a nationwide network of "health houses".

Yet more than 200 million women worldwide lack access to
contraception, and international spending on family planning - partly
because of anti-abortion policies adopted by the Bush administration in
the US - has recently been in steep decline. Given that even the UN
middle-range world population projection of 9.2 billion by 2050 assumes
a further drop in birth rates of up to 46 per cent, this is worrying
indeed. Without reductions in fertility, the UN says, we could be
nearing 12 billion in 2050.

How to make a difference

Oddly, in a world of large populations, small decisions do make a
difference. If every woman had half a child less than currently
projected, for example, the world population would be 7.8 billion in
2050 - 1.4 billion fewer people, or roughly one China less. In the UK,
meanwhile, if the 26 per cent of women currently expected to have three
or more children were to limit themselves to two, our mid-century
population would be cut by an estimated seven million - enough to
return an area the size of Wales back to nature or food production.

Would that be a good thing? If you are concerned about other species
or that nebulous but powerful grouping of ideas we label "the wild",
yes. But even from a brutally anthropocentric standpoint, it has a
certain logic. Footprint data suggests that, based on current
lifestyles, the sustainable population of the UK - the number of people
we could feed, fuel and support from our own biological capacity - is
about 18 million. There are thus 43 million "too many" of us, all
reliant on the outside world for sustenance. In an era of impending
shortages - of food, oil, gas, water - does that not seem a little

The UK has no population policy - despite ranking in the top 20 of
the most overpopulated countries, judging by the standard above. If we
had such a policy, it would need to address immigration as well as
birth rates - a good enough reason, cynics might think, for politicians
to forget the whole idea. It would also need to address a further vexed
issue - what numbers are sustainable and what are desirable?

Environmental orthodoxy treats population and consumption as two
factors in an equation, and thus accepts, by implication, that both are
important, but concentrates on one (consumption) while ignoring the
other (population). This not only compounds errors in analysis with
errors of logic: it has had intangible but far-reaching effects, not
least in giving environmentalists a reputation as killjoys, forever
telling us what not to consume and making calculations of
sustainability seem dour technical exercises in survivalism. Both
tendencies have damaged the wider green mission. But there is another
way of looking at the numbers question, one that goes beyond
sustainability and perhaps bears more directly on what it is to be

Consider two Planet Earths - one of nine billion people with x
amount of "consumption", the other of one billion with 9x consumption.
Bear in mind that the world of nine billion may be more inventive, but
also more pressured and stressful, less spacious. Bear in mind
particularly that often, by "consumption", we mean activities which for
many people, laudably or not, make life worth living - holidays,
hobbies, travel, freedom to choose. In the modern environmentalist's
formulation, both worlds are the same. In practice, they are not; there
are choices to be made. Shouldn't we be making them, and urgently?

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