21. 09. 2007

Bunting and population

I have absolutely promised not to let this blog get population-obsessed, but I have absolutely got to go on the record to clear up any misunderstanding caused by Madeleine Bunting’s recent article in the Guardian (September 10th) about why most environmentalists can’t bring themselves to utter the dreaded “p” word.

I’m sorry to have to do this. I think Madeleine is a brilliant journalist, and her ongoing battle with Richard Dawkins is just great – someone has to keep on pointing out just how prattish it is for someone like him to wage a war against religion with such religious intensity.

So I was delighted when Madeleine said she was about to do a piece on population – and sure enough, the first 80% of the article is excellent. Check it out for yourselves. But then we find these paras:

“Jonathon Porritt, chair of the government's Sustainability Development Commission, admits it is 'tough territory' but argues that 'it is intellectually unjustifiable' for the environmental movement not to address it. He wants to see a UK population policy that covers both family planning and immigration, aimed at long-term population decline. That would mark a dramatic shift in policy. In particular, he rejects the oft-cited need to keep up the birth rate to pay for pensions. But his attempts to get the government to engage have got nowhere.

"As Porritt ruefully admits, his position lands him in some unsavoury company. The Optimum Population Trust proposes some batty ideas such as government campaigns on the unattractiveness of parenthood. And it gets much worse. As is often the case where there is a disconnect between public debate and popular sentiment, the British National party (BNP) is stepping in to grab the territory. It argues that 'our countryside is vanishing beneath a tidal wave of concrete', 'immigration is creating an environmental disaster' and Britain could become 'a tarmac desert'."

That is all so misleading as to beggar belief! As a Patron of the Optimum Population Trust, am I really likely to slag it off in public for having batty ideas – especially as I spend most of my time telling anyone who will listen that it’s an excellent organization that they should actively be supporting. And would I really be talking of it as “unsavoury company”!

Worse yet, is it really fair, by virtue of (presumably deliberate?) juxtaposition to put the BNP and the OPT in the same category. Madeleine knows it’s not, and unless she can blame such sloppy journalism on her editor (which is of course perfectly possible), then she really has got a bit of explaining to do. I know I shouldn’t complain too much. It’s great that more people are joining the debate on such a critical issue, and it’s not as if I’m not aware of the controversies associated with taking a high profile on it. But it’s not really me I’m worried about in this instance: it’s the OPT, which may now, in the minds of many deluded Guardian readers, be seen as some kind of batty, BNP look-alike. Which is as far from the truth as one can possibly get.

You can do better than that, Madeleine.

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25. 09. 2007
simon ross

I endorse the charge against Madeleine of sloppy journalism.

Government campaigns against the UK's European leadership in teenage pregnancy (the specific OPT recommendation) is current government policy and is far from batty.

And the implication that this is just one of a range of 'batty ideas' from the OPT does little justice to one of the few organisations tackling this important issue of population sustainability in a serious and non racist manner.

25. 09. 2007

It might be sad, but the BNP will probably achieve better results than the OPT on this issue. The points Madeleine highlights on behalf of the BNP (below) are widely accepted and supportable. Not sure about the rest of their agenda though.

'It [the BNP] argues that 'our countryside is vanishing beneath a tidal wave of concrete', 'immigration is creating an environmental disaster' and Britain could become 'a tarmac desert'."'

26. 09. 2007
Jack B

I think you're in dangerous territory here Jonathon. Yes, we need to talk about population but is this the most effective use of your time? I think someone of your gravitas is more usefully deployed on topics that are not as volatile...

26. 09. 2007

Here is a copy of my mail to Bunting and the Guardian, complaining of this, either, sloppy journalism/editing, or, worse...

No reply from either of course.
The Guardian is getting to be as bad as the tabloids.


"Dear Ms Bunting,

Thank you for your much needed piece on the environment movement's wilful neglect of the population dimension. I say 'wilful because I have had a fair amount of contact with some of the 'decision maker' section of FoE, and some of CPRE, over the years, and find that their general level of intelligence is of a higher order than would permit themselves to fall for the statistical sleight of hand that underlies the notion that: 'consumption patterns are more important than numbers'. This being the kind of argument usually associated with the perpetrators of 'greenwash' and the climate change denier fraternity, I can only assume it is being entertained to prevent those very 'unsavoury' associations which you have alluded to...

And there lies the rub:

I believe, from the tone of the bulk of your piece, that you would not want to link in the readers' mind, an organisation of which Jonathon Porritt is a patron, with any of those 'unsavoury' groups alluded to. Yet, in your, possibly poorly edited, summing up, you have linked the Optimum Population Trust with the BNP!

It is also rather odd that you appear to contend that Porritt thinks the OPT suggestion that family size might be voluntarily reduced as the surest way to reduce personal contributions to climate change, is 'batty', when he has had very supportive things to say about this policy on his own weblog, where he begins the entry with "Absolutely love the new campaign from..." ( http://www.jonathonporritt.com/pages/population/ )!

You may, yourself, feel that such a measure is 'batty', but you should not be putting these words into the mouth of Mr Porritt. It is regrettable that you have added in your summing up, this silly comment, so as to undermine one campaigning group that has been trying, for many years, to provide the very forum for the discussion that you believe to be sadly lacking in other groups! That your editor then goes on to lump the OPT remark, with a further one aimed at the BNP, which really does have a long history of 'unsavoury' associations, is most regrettable, and amounts to a misrepresentation bordering on the libellous.

As it happens, you have also been guilty of misleading the public in your simplistic dismissal of the BNP's own simplistic statements. For example, it is not what percentage of all land in the UK has been built on that matters, but what amount of land is required to support each member of our burgeoning population: if that amount of land is not available in the UK, then we are requiring other countries and individuals to provide it for us: a situation that OPT and anyone looking seriously at the future, in a world of exponentially declining resources and growing population, can only, and very rightly, view with alarm. Unfortunately, alarm is exactly what is needed, and the longer you in the media refuse to sound such an alarm, and, furthermore, stifle the efforts of those who do try, the more serious the outcome is going to be for us all.

Your final remark on "the authoritarianism that lurks in the background of environmentalism." is also an unfounded and regrettably alarmist remark. It is straight out of the copybook of those who brought us 'The Great Global Warming Swindle' and would have routinely included 'Guardian readers', as a whole, in your 'environmentalist authoritarian' cohort. Surely this was not your, or your editor's, intention!? There may well be a lunatic fringe in this, as in any other, field (Kate Barker herself being a case in point, I would say...) - though I have to say, I have met very few, if any, 'authoritarians' in the env movement (As demonstrated by their fighting shy of the very issue on which you write.) - but you imply that all environmentalists are just closet dictators angling to force unreasonable constraints on the rest of the population.

You began your piece in very good vein, and made some serious observations: why then shoot down your own piece in the final remarks, and moreover, why shoot other well meaning persons and groups down with you?

I do hope that the very least that the Guardian will now do is to take steps to disabuse the public of the unsavoury association you have set up between the OPT and the BNP.


13. 10. 2007

My concern in the 'population debate' is the assumptions that each individual consumes the same resources no matter where and how they live.

We tend to project particlarly unsustainable patterns of resources consumption (our own in the UK) on individuals, systems and future communities we do not know.

But maybe i don't deserve a place in the debate because I know I won't accept a vision of sustainability that is based on a form of eco-eugenics

15. 10. 2007
Waheed Saleem


Your comments are absolutely right; my point of posting the comment was to generate a debate on economic growth, inequality of wealth in our world and the growth of populations. Is it time we consider lowering the Western standard of living, rather then creating this illusion for developing countries having to ‘come up’ to our standards of living? Although one would agree that there is a role of managing population growth in creating a more sustainable world, we must not forget the economic and social dimension that this policy then generates.

17. 10. 2007

Lowered expectations and smaller families - something to be hoped for! I can think of at least two reasons it'll never work: the encouragement of unrestrained materialism and a well-known brand of religion...

28. 09. 2007
Waheed Saleem

Controlling population growth a laudable aim some people may claim, as less people would use less natural resources, produce less waste, CO2 emissions etc. However, is this not an attack on the very freedom we all crave for, the freedom to family life, freedom to choose? In some cultures and countries having a big family is fundamental to their very survival. Would it not be better if we looked at reliving the abject poverty and unequal wealth in our world before we consider reducing the size of families. There is of course the other issue in Western countries, the ageing population requires more people to be working to support them in old age, otherwise the economy could be in serious trouble. Or are we advocating subjecting older people to poverty?? Not as simple as calling for reduction of the size of families!

01. 10. 2007

Waheed - Is freedom to have an unlimited number of children what you crave for? I haven't read anyone saying, 'stop having children', full stop.

In the main, cultures where large families are more the norm, are not the problem from a consuption/pollution view point, yet. Their 'aspirations' (not necessarily their own) for a Western standard of living is a huge problem. See China now, then India next.

As Jonathon has effectively pointed out, China's one child policy has already had a massive effect on keeping their emissions significantly below where they are today. Although as a country their emissions are now the largest in the world, they are still small per capita (around three tonnes vs. America's 20+ tonnes ... tiny compared to Qatar's 60 tonnes plus, the world's biggest per capita polluter). Mind you, China's per capita emissions will need to be a third of what they are today by 2050. By then, as a global population, we'll have the capacity to emit just one tonne each, probably less.

Your final point about the economy is the big question. Is it, 'It's the economy stupid!'? Or is it, 'Its the environment, stupid!'? We are going to have to trade off economic growth for environmental survival at some point. Afterall, the economic system is a subsidiary of the eco-system. It can never outgrow it, which, unfortunately, is what it has already done.

This question/statement is probably more unpopular than the population question.

Saying we have to move to a sustainable economy is a fanciful wish. Quite simply, there are too many mouths consuming too much stuff ... turning it into land waste and air pollution. The UK alone consumes almost four times its biological capacity to meet its populations needs every year.

Thank God we still have hope.

And forget bikes. Build rafts.

01. 10. 2007

There is one thing that is never mentioned in all this debate. And that is the inevitability of collapse. Has it not been noticed by anyone that just like the Titanic, that the current human society has continued to sail on, and just as was done on the Titanic, stoking the boilers up to go even faster? The analogy is pertinent in the glimpse it gives into human behaviour under immanent survival stressors as a species. In a nutshell, it is/they are all ignored. Glib reassurances are given by the ‘Captain’ of the ship. Various dumb moves are made to continue the attempt to break all records for the fastest crossing while the ship itself begins to sink. This is typical of the problem of paradigm paralysis. Having adapted (something humans are good at) to one paradigm of socio-economic existence, they then find it almost impossible to adapt to another. This is seen as well in the psychology of the smoker. Though the cigarettes have robbed them of the ability to breath, often the smoker will continue in their ‘habit’. This is of course the behaviour of the addicted. And boy are we addicted. Addicted to material acquisition, addicted to food, addicted to sex (the primary population driver!) addicted to status and other ephemeral things like political and religious beliefs. And by addiction is really meant attachment. An inability to let go, even when those on the lower decks are drowning.

The illusion of freedom is just that. There is no freedom in the world, there never has been. All there is, is availability of choice, choice made available by simple systemic forces that combine rapidly to weave very complex webs. These are too numerous to go into now, but one that is ominous and again receives little attention is the debt bubble. For the last few decades, instead of creating wealth by the standard investment/production cycle, the ‘west’ has taken on a system of finance through credit. The debt subsequently built up has led to a hyper-overvaluation of western currencies with respect to the amount of currency in circulation. To rebalance this there will be a period of ‘hyper-inflation’ or de-valuation of these indebted currencies. But is won’t stop there. As there is little manufacturing base left in these countries, (as it has migrated to the new ‘real’ economies of Asia), there will be no recovery. At least not in the normal sense of the word. That’s the debt bubble. That will hit before peak oil (and alleviate that problem for a few years due to the massive recession that it will incur), and before climate change really kicks in and starts to alter the potential for any life to survive.

But that's my take on it.


31. 10. 2007

It is quite absurd for quality broadsheets like the 'guardian' to make such patronising comments about someone of Jonathon Porritt's calibre and to make the all-too-predictable comparisons with the BNP.
The prevailing atitudes to population growth call to mind the victorian refusal to acknowledge and discuss sexual behaviour,yet we ignore this most important issue at our peril.
I know from experience at work how quickly and effectively the BNP can tap into widely-held,but suppressed opinions and fears about population growth and immigration.
The matter cannot be ignored any longer;the sooner it is brought into the mainstream of discussion the better it will be for us all.

08. 06. 2008
Richard Gunner

To separate the emotion from the practicalities, it is quite possible for a government to encourage a reduction in numbers of children without imposing a limit on family size or any other form of direct interference.

Some countries have incentives to couples to have more children; the opposite can be encouraged by education, tax advantages, and constructive contraception, for example.

In some cases, governments seem to believe that a large (or growing) population is necessary for a viable economy. Economists need to develop detailed models to enable economies to operate smoothly in decreasing populations. Is any work being done on this?

09. 10. 2007
Cecily Smith

I have not read the Bunting article.I suggest that the inability to even think about population control,is the result of a powerful cultural prohibition with historical roots.Large families developed in agricultural societies without machinery or draft animals, where growing food involved backbreaking, grinding human labour,so that "many hands made light work".Any motivation and knowlege for avoiding large families was lost.There is, among many people,an unthinking assumption that nothing can be done.A discussion of incentives and actual methods for population reduction,ensuring choice,and without resort to coercion or abortion, might enable people to see that a sustainable population in a healthy environment is indeed possible, with all the benefits that would ensue to human society.

18. 12. 2007

Sid - 1/10/07

I'm not quite sure, as a Christian, how religious beliefs (which you describe as an ephemeral adjunct to addiction) are destroying the planet in environmental and ecological terms.

Certainly the Christian friends with whom I am acquainted in the UK are among the most modest consumers in our society, and are certainly not addicted to materialism. The spiritual dimension is the all-encompassing, important thing in their lives. Furthermore, most of them either contribute generously or assist actively towards sustainable ways of living in the developing world. Many of Christ's teachings exhort us to respect the Earth.

Please don't lump us all together with the American fundamentalist right.

19. 01. 2008

To Jonathon Porritt-

As an architect (my undergraduate final year design 20 years ago was a farm powered by alternative technolgy) with a PhD in energy use behaviour in UK housing, I have been subsequently been employed as a research fellow in the areas of energy & housing. I am now keen to encourage architects and planners to question the feasibility of building more housing and the reduction of natural resources on the grounds of environmental unsustainability: I would like to encourage an interdisciplinary debate that would include questioning of human motivation to reproduce and what alternatives there might be and what resulting communities might look like.

There is a housing and environment conference this summer at which I would like to present a short discussion paper on this subject. I would be grateful for any ideas and references to support my argument. In particular any research on environmental destruction and its impact on human habitation, health and psycological well being.

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