26. 02. 2014

Population: Still the Big Taboo

I’ve been pre-occupied with the overlap between population and the environment ever since I read the Ecologist’s ‘Blueprint for Survival’ in the early 1970s. I’ve campaigned assiduously for progressive family planning programmes since that time on, just as I have for environmental and social justice issues. It’s always been a no-bloody-brainer that the two go hand in hand.

That’s not the case for the majority of people in the environment movement. For most of the big NGOs in the UK, population has either been completely off-limits or grudgingly acknowledged as an important area of concern but not one in which they feel any need to get actively involved. Throughout that time, the intellectual and moral disconnect has, for me, been startling. And it still is.

A few months ago, as a Patron of Population Matters, I teamed up with my good friend Robin Maynard (who is as baffled by this disconnect as I am) to invite the eight leading environmental NGOs in the UK to review their position. Guided by the headline conclusion from the Royal Society’s ground-breaking ‘People and Planet’ Report in 2012 (“Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues”), we asked them whether they would be prepared to commit to the following six actions:

  • Accept and promote the findings of the Royal Society’s People and Planet Report that population and consumption must be considered as indivisible, linked issues;
  • Acknowledge publicly and actively communicate the crucial relevance of population to your organisation’s mission and objectives;
  • Support and advocate the principle of universal access to safe, affordable family planning for all women throughout the world;
  • Call on the Government to act on the findings of the Royal Society’s Report and draw up a national population policy;
  • To use your organisation’s considerable policy resources, voice and influence to speak and engage members of the wider public in an intelligent, informed and honest debate about population;
  • Include the population factor in all relevant communications and policy pronouncements.

Hardly a revolutionary manifesto - but you might have thought the sky had fallen in. Lengthy delays, prevarication, excuses, weasel words - that was our reality for the next few months. The responses confirmed all our worst fears, and with the honourable exception of Friends of the Earth (that has now developed a new and rather more progressive position on population, which - to be completely fair - is a much better position than the organisation had when I was its Director back in the 1980s), they’re all pretty much where they were four decades ago. Despite a massive increase in human numbers and a correspondingly massive deterioration in the state of our physical environment.

In the interests of transparency, Robin and I have therefore decided to publish summaries of all the responses, based on which we’ve produced a ranking of the best to the worst.   (SEE PRESS RELEASE, REPORT AND BRIEFINGS HERE)

1. Friends of the Earth
2. The Wildlife Trusts
4. Greenpeace
6. Wildfowl and Wetland Trust
7. National Trust

As you can imagine, I take no pleasure in those findings, but my continuing anger on this score remains proportionate to that sense of collective blindness on the part of organisations that for the most part I respect and love.

Add your comment


12. 04. 2014
"A global one child policy"?

A good slogan might get some attention from the eco organisations - and the IPCC. Its WG3 is supposed to report on 13th April, but leaks suggest they will say nothing about birthrate. Each child in the OECD will need a tank of petrol every 5 days for life. Mitigation measures are unlikely to keep up with the emissions. Even with a one-child policy, China's population will still grow for a few years yet. One birth per woman might just slow climate change and species extinction.

05. 03. 2014
Val Stevens

This has been a brilliant exercise by Jonathon and Robin. Some of us have tried for a couple of decades to get our friends in the environment movement to admit the link between environmental destruction and burgeoning human numbers - with no success at all. There is a slight hope that these guys have really made a difference. And I do so like the naming (and shaming where relevant) list.

27. 02. 2014
Andrew Harmsworth

Nice work, Jonathon. The idea of "decoupling" population growth from environmental degradation is even more difficult to achieve than decoupling economic growth from the same.

27. 02. 2014

Population, and Peak Oil. To ignore either is daft, both probably suicidal.
I have been a member of Greenpeace for maybe 30 years, and written to them twice over the last few years re their irresponsible attitude to Population/Peak Oil. Their reply was long the lines of - nothing to do with us. "We are all doomed".

27. 02. 2014
Mike Childs (Friends of the Earth)

Thanks for this Jonathon, although it is still work in progress here at Friends of the Earth.

Obviously population will feature in our Big Ideas work - across a number of topics - but we are also beginning a process of scoping how we can best contribute to the international campaigns led by rights-based organisations.

Add a comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

We appreciate your comments.