The human population reached 7 billion (or thereabouts) on Monday October 31st 2011.
Not a disaster in itself, but another tiny step along the road to certain disaster – unless we start to get our act together on family planning and reproductive healthcare.
Over-population: the global crisis that dare not speak its name - my article in The Independent, October 2011
One of the reasons that I joined The Green Party (or The Ecology Party as it then was) in the mid 70’s was its very clear and robust position on population and family planning.
This is an issue that still preoccupies me enormously, and I still remain completely baffled as to why it has been considered all but irrelevant by most environmental NGOs.
Here’s a summary of my overall position, first drafted as a response to Fred Pearce, one of the UK’s best environmental journalists, but with an incomprehensible blind spot on the importance of population and family planning:
Of course we should. Both for humanitarian and geopolitical reasons.
There are around 200 million women in the world today who are not able to manage their own fertility, with no reliable access to contraception. Around 70,000 women die every year through illegal abortions and other complications caused by unwanted pregnancies.
That was the starting point for family planning campaigners of the UN Cairo Conference back in 1994 – that every woman should be able to manage her own fertility through access to safe, reliable and cheap contraception, as well as to improve reproductive healthcare, and that all girls had the right to be in education for as long as boys. It should be our starting point today.
We know how to do this. Yet international funding for family planning fell from $723 million in 1995 to $338 million in 2007. Hopefully, higher funding levels will soon be restored, as the Obama administration has now committed to millions of dollars of multilateral and bilateral family planning support.
Meeting unmet demand for family planning by supporting programmes in developing and emerging countries with high average fertility is one of the smartest and most humane ways of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. As the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health has pointed out:
“The failure to prioritise family planning in overseas development aid is resulting in population growth levels that present a serious threat to health, economic development and the environment in some of the world’s poorest countries. Urgent action must be taken to ensure family planning provision becomes an integral part of all efforts to reduce poverty, and improve mothers’ and children’s survival and health.”
It’s also one of the smartest ways of addressing the challenge of accelerating climate change. Per capita emissions of greenhouse gases may indeed be much lower in today’s developing and emerging countries, but they are on the rise – particularly in countries like China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.
We just have to be logical about this: we roughly know the volume of greenhouse gases we can put into the atmosphere over the next few decades if we are to stay on the right side of the 2˚C increase (by the end of the century) which scientists tell us we absolutely mustn’t go above. That volume has to be divided up between the total number of people doing the emitting.
But the mainstream environment movement still won’t buy into that logic. They have a very deep fear that addressing population issues will distract people from the real issue: over-consumption in the rich world rather than over-population in the poor world. This is stupid. It really is possible to pursue two big issues at the same time!
The good news is that population growth continues to fall, and we will see our population stabilise sometime between 2060 and 2080. But the faster we can bring forward that stabilisation point, moving purposely into a downward population trajectory, the better it will be for humankind.
I'm also a member of The Royal Society Working Group on Population, People & Planet
Many would argue that the Royal Society is the most prestigious scientific academy anywhere in the world. Its decision to conduct an investigation into the very broad area of population and sustainability was therefore not uncontroversial. This is the formal remit of the Enquiry:
The aims of the study are to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study will be global. It will explicitly acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics. It will look at the implications of population decreases, and increases that are observed and predicted in different parts of the world. It will consider how scientific and technological developments might alter the rate and impact of population changes and affect human well-being.
The study will be completed by early 2012, when the world’s population is expected to exceed 7 billion. The report will be aimed at national and international policy makers, donors and funders, the media, scientific bodies and NGOs. It will be a high profile contribution to the 2012 ‘Rio+20’ UN Earth Summit and also mark the 40th anniversary of ‘The Limits to Growth’.
I was delighted to be invited to join the Working Party, which includes some of the world’s leading ‘heavyweights’ in this area. The evidence-gathering process has been extraordinary, generating a unique (and voluminous!) body of scientific insights and data. The final report is now being drafted.
This is a really big deal for all those involved in the population, development and sustainability debate, and will have a lasting impact all around the world.