13. 12. 2018

WWF Failing the Natural World in Ignoring Today's Overpopulation Crisis

I’ve just taken on the role of President of Population Matters.

Population Matters has been the go-to population organisation in the UK since 1991. Like all small, underfunded NGOs, it’s had its ups and downs, and has often struggled to get traction in a world that remains institutionally incapable of understanding the significance of the overpopulation crisis. But it’s well run, highly professional in its use of data, and stepping up its campaigning activities in a timely and increasingly impactful way. Which is why I now want to get more stuck in.

But it pains me to mark my arrival as President by having to protest, vehemently, about the failings of another NGO that I’ve been involved with for even longer – namely, WWF.

In October, WWF-International published its latest Living Planet Report. This comes out every two years, and is an absolute must-read for anyone concerned about biodiversity and the natural world. This year’s update was as shocking as you might imagine, confirming that 60% of the population of all vertebrate species (mammals, birds, reptiles, fish etc) has been lost since 1970. Year after year, we continue to make war on the rest of life on Earth, and seem to have no understanding that we ourselves will be the biggest losers from this insane ecocide.

The Living Planet Report is a highly respected source document, drawing on the peer-reviewed work of thousands of scientists from all around the world. But it’s also deeply flawed – in that it perversely and dishonestly refuses to acknowledge that an excess of human beings on this planet has anything to do with this unfolding biodiversity disaster – despite the fact that there are now twice as many of us as there were in 1970.

Throughout the whole Report, there are just six references to population, five of which are tokenistic, but one of which tells you all you need to know about WWF’s approach: ‘It’s economic development and growth of the world’s middle classes, not population growth per se, that is dramatically influencing change in the Earth’s life support system.’

In other words, it’s all about over-consumption – as if consumption somehow has nothing to do with the number of people doing the consuming! As if the number of middle-class consumers isn’t increasing year on year, as many of the world’s developing and emerging countries improve the material living standards of more and more of their citizens.

It wasn’t always like this. Population was a big issue for WWF when it was founded back in 1961, as it was for almost all environmental organisations in those days. But, bit by bit, even as the pressures on wildlife kept on ramping up, population became a more and more taboo subject for almost all of them. This is how one of WWF’s Founders, Sir Peter Scott, reflected on that bizarre disconnect towards the end of his life:

‘When we started the World Wildlife Fund, its objective was to save endangered species from extinction, and I am now near the end of my career and we have failed completely. We haven’t saved a single endangered species. And if we’d put all that money we had collected into condoms, we might have done some good.’

The deep disappointment there is palpable. For me, it now feels even worse. I was a Trustee of WWF-UK for 12 years, and am still one of its Ambassadors. I care a lot about the organisation, and know how much of a difference its work on the ground can make.

But I’m hugely saddened by the way it’s turned its continuing population denialism into a form of self-imposed intellectual bankruptcy, which is all the more striking when set against the academic rigour and excellence of the Living Planet Report’s contributing scientists.

As you might imagine, it has a long list of causes for the 60% loss: habitat loss and habitat degradation; conversion to agriculture; accelerating climate change; invasive species; disease; pollution; exploding human consumption. But nothing about population per se.

For each of these causes, various ‘solutions’ and interventions are heroically advanced, eloquently referred to as ‘pathways that will allow us to restore biodiversity’. Given what’s actually happening in India, China, and countries across Africa and Central and Latin America, this is little short of a monstrous lie.

Indeed, it’s not so much ‘pathways’ that we’re looking at here as isolated, disconnected refuges, more and more of which are gated, high-security compounds, open only to those with enough money to able to pay the entry fee but not enough common sense to realise that what they’re seeing is not so much nature in all its beauty and awe-inspiring diversity as pathetic, splintered remnants of the world that we’ve already laid waste to.

I’m not just sad at this cumulative betrayal of the natural world: I’m seething with anger at the craven cowardice that lies behind it. For so many conservationists and environmentalists today, opting for an easy life by avoiding the controversies associated with population is now the default option. True enough, it is indeed hard to avoid those controversies, including migration issues, or consideration of where most of today’s population growth is going on – in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia and Central and South America. Which makes it tricky, doesn’t it, for us predominantly ‘white folk’ in the UK to talk about populations in countries which are predominantly black or brown or Hispanic? Or predominantly Muslim. There be dragons!

Including the likes of George Monbiot, who persists in his near-messianic determination to pursue any ‘white male past breeding age’ who dares to address the overpopulation crisis. He recently launched a stinging attack on no less an icon than Sir David Attenborough himself, accusing him of being an unreconstructed neo-Malthusian in some ‘cruel and ignorant comments’ that he made about the famine in Ethiopia back in 2013.

Judging by these gratuitous slurs, I can pretty much guarantee that Monbiot hasn’t bothered to check on any of David Attenborough’s hugely thoughtful and hugely compassionate comments about population during his lifetime, not least his 2011 RSA President’s Lecture.

Attenborough is a Patron of Population Matters, and has never hesitated to spell out what should be blindingly obvious to environmentalists the world over. As he demonstrated, with admirable gusto, at the launch of this year’s Living Planet Report, sitting right next to WWF-International’s Director General, Marco Lambertini, and a host of other dyed-in-the-wool denialists:

‘For the first time in 12,000 years, we must face an unstable and unpredictable planet – at exactly the time that we are placing our greatest demands on it. We can still stabilise our planet, but there is not much time. It will require significant global cooperation on issues like population growth, climate change and the management of our oceans.’

Attenborough believes, as I do, that we not only have a right to speak out about such matters, passionately, but that we have an obligation to do so. That’s all the more pressing today, as the sad truth is that human numbers are not likely to plateau before the end of the century, despite all the seductive (but deeply misleading) projections of the late Hans Rosling et al. Check this out on the Population Matters website: https://populationmatters.org/the-facts/the-numbers

Perhaps these denialists are afraid that they will be accused of right-wing, repressive tendencies, on the basis of a few notorious examples of coercive family planning in China and India in years gone by – either overlooking or remaining deliberately ignorant of the much greater number of hugely inspiring stories of non-coercive, rights-based, usually women’s-led programmes.

As Paul Hawken’s authoritative ‘Project Drawdown’ has so powerfully demonstrated, a combination of educating girls and providing a choice of affordable contraception is the single most effective way of combating climate change today. Good family planning is all about putting women and children first, starting with the 220 million women who still have an unmet need for family planning – often in male-dominated, misogynistic and abusive cultures. These are the men that George Monbiot should be worried about.

Promoting and consistently funding the right kind of family planning is all upside – and the difference to the future of life on Earth would be staggering.

Without getting to grips with the overpopulation crisis, all WWF’s ‘pathways’ will remain forever blocked. So it’s hard to imagine a greater failure of collective leadership than today’s wilful, persistent denialism across the organisation.

Add your comment


03. 05. 2019
Annabel Hill

Yes good points but what about the western population living longer and longer now?

23. 01. 2019
Chris Keene

No-one ever thinks about the suffering those children born today will probably endure as their old age turns into a climate hell

24. 12. 2018
Stephen R Miles

Well done Mr Porritt for highlighting once again a real serious issue. Sadly I guess most of the human race is just too selfish to think about other life on earth as deeply as it is necessary to do. "Man" capable of doing something sensible, don't make me laugh. You only have to take the example of a well known "first world" president to see the danger we, including all wildlife are in. Until it hits many people and their investments in the corporate pocket, and I guess this is why WWF would have problems in this area, nothing sensible is going to happen. The "limits to growth" is sadly not yet an issue!

23. 12. 2018
Kathleen Stringer

I am 100% in agreement with your article. I too have supported WWF over the years but will write them today excoriating their choice to ignore overpopulation as the root cause of the loss of species and continuing instead to address the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself.

23. 12. 2018
John Faulkner

Jonathan Porritt has hit a few nails squarely on the head. There are some stark truths which should be spoken - firmly but sympathetically - even when there is a risk of being attacked by those whose tactic is to shoot at the messenger rather than the message. The relationship between Population and the Biodiversity is the ultimate case in point. This was the underlying theme of my concluding chapter in The Natural History of Ulster published in 2011. What concerns me most is that, as a Society, we seem to have gone into intellectual reverse gear in the 7 years since then.

23. 12. 2018
Lalit Hirani

Brilliant well written article. Thanks

23. 12. 2018
Antoinette Wynne

I absolutely agree with all that is said in this essay and totally support Population Matters in its efforts to bring this issue to the forefront of public debate.

22. 12. 2018
Ken Stewart

I could not agree more with all Johnathan's points. As a Greenpeace supporter I have been writing to them periodically for years without the slightest change in their answers. I suspect they think a programme on birth control will damage their income. If so, their position is almost immoral.

There is no discussion in the media either. I cannot understand why the topic seems to be so consistently avoided on TV and Radio and in the press.

Somehow the media must be faced with the subject as an item of news. I suggest that an international conference in London on the relationship between population and either human poverty + migration (politically correct) or biodiversity featuring big names like Attenborough and Erlich (if he is still alive). It could be funded by a philanthropist but would need organising.

In addition, some body should fund one or more PhD studies on these topics to provide ammunition with an impeccable scientific basis which cannot be rubbished by the politically correct.

22. 12. 2018
Ivan Cicin-Sain

Agree with all. On a minor note, re Project Drawdown, note it is possible to lump together all renewable energy solutions and rank that at the number one position. Or combine food issues into 'food efficiency' (food waste + plant-based diet) which also overtakes population-related issues combined. Having said that, the important thing I believe is not achieving number one in the ranking, but - as Jonathon correctly implies - getting everyone to consider population slowdown as a competitive solution, and not to continue ignoring it.

22. 12. 2018
Jeanette Arbnold

Hopefully many people will read this and agree as whole- heartedly as i do.
I am no campaigning feminist: forget the so called"glass ceiling" met by some , this emphasises the real problem -women who are extremely disadvantaged!

22. 12. 2018
Robin Payne

Dear Jonathan and colleagues,

I followed a link from the 'Population Matters' newsletter to your article about the WWF. I have been supporting the WWF for some time and feel sad to read you believe they are 'avoiding' the population growth factor in humanities impact on the natural world. I see the quotes and cannot remember any tangible WWF article addressing population. I believe they do good work... but now I am more focused on population matters than ever before.

I would like your advice... other than sending money, which is sometimes my only means of support, but not my preferred means (I would prefer to be active)...

what can a simple scientist managing projects over the internet from Portugal do to help?

Are there some tips on getting involved? on spreading education? on lobbying for human rights? for women's rights in particular?

Thank you.

22. 12. 2018
Lapâque, René

I am from Germany and receive the newsletter of population matters. I really liked the article. You really hit the nail on the head. I used to be a member of the WWF for over three years and determined for myself that you can do more for the environment with single important daily actions and your buying behavior. As you mentioned in your article that the WWF is wasting energy by approaching the problems from the wrong side. Population is totally unregarded. At least that was my impression, too.
And yes, Sir David Attenborough really gives me and a people all over the world hope by waking those in charge up with a sledgehammer, in the form of directly, thoughtfully and honestly announcing what is going on. A great man, considered that he would not have to do all of this work in his age. That shows his passion and unquestionable love for the planet.
These are a just a few thoughts that came to my mind when I was reading your article. I liked it and for the greater good I will share it.

Thank you and have a merry christmas.

22. 12. 2018
Betty Lee

So sad that environmentalists are not working together on this blindingly obvious cause of climate heating and biodiversity loss. We should take a lesson from pest species dynamics, how their population rockets - and then crashes after they have consumed everything. Abuse of girls and women leading to unwanted or unplanned pregnancies should be one of THE major political concerns in world politics. Easy to talk of climate warming but what we need is focus and immediate concerted action. Why can't we all pull together and pressurize polititians who are allowing our world to go to rack and ruin!

22. 12. 2018
Ian Butterworth

As a member of Population Matters in Australia, thank you for your informative and powerful contribution to the biggest environmental issue of our time: over population. As we approach the new year, I plan to double my efforts. Thank you again.

22. 12. 2018
César Torres - Perú

¿Porque los ricos del mundo no son más generosos y comparten más de sus fabulosas ganancias en educación y mejores condiciones de vida en los países pobres?...¿porqué no se despojan de sus egoísmos e indolencias ante tanta pobreza? ¿porqué miran indiferentes a gobernantes corruptos que se adueñan del poder para robar y someter a la población?
¿Porqué echarle la culpa a los pobres de las terribles consecuencias del cambio climático, si quienes amasan riquezas son los grandes depredadores de los recursos naturales?.....

21. 12. 2018
Geoff Meaden

Well said Jonathon. It would be interesting to ask WWF, the UN and other "denialists" the numerical point at which action needs to be taken to stop human population growth. It has tripled in my lifetime and shows few signs of slowing down. Surely the point when the total weight of homo sapiens plus their domesticated animals is equal to 99% of the weight of all larger mammals on the planet (as it now is) is past the time when enough is enough. The simple fact is that continual population growth cannot be sustained and we are well past the point when we can carry on as usual.

21. 12. 2018
Joanne Castleton

I believe the only answer is to educate children about the impact humans are having on the earth by giving
talks to school children all over the world.
Speaking from experience, I remember when I was 7 years of age (now 56 )
How I was made aware about litter and its devastating impact on wildlife .
I have been environmentally aware since especially about over population. I personally decided to only have one child
It was all due to the talk I was given at a young age.

21. 12. 2018
Jane Church

I heartily agree. Having read the two most recent 'Living Planet' reports I wrote to WWF to ask why they had not included over-population in their assessment of the issues, and the need for family-planning in their list of possible actions. I was told that this was not an area of central interest to WWF, as there were other organisations operating in the field already - a pretty thin argument given the plethora of environmental organisations working on similar issues to their own. I also contacted Green peace, of whom I have been a decades-long supporter, and was disappointed by a similar lack of recognition that over-population was at the root of most of the man-made threats to the planet that we face.

21. 12. 2018
N E Corbally Stourton

What an informative and hard hitting article, Who would expect less from Jonathon Porritt? It supports the urgent case for Focus on Year 2050 which will achieve far greater awareness of the interrelated issues of population, the environment and our resources. Shame on WWF.

21. 12. 2018
Peter Tilbrook

Congratulation Johnathon, I've been saying this for many years about WWF and have never joined them because of their attitude over population.

I can't understand why they're so resistant to embracing the call of Population Matters, but it's very sad, so I'm delighted to read of your outspoken criticism.

It would be good to know how they react to your public rebuke .

21. 12. 2018
Frank sibly

Agree absolutely. We need Jonathan to find a way of publisizing this message

21. 12. 2018
David Butt

Unfortunately WWF are not alone, Greenpeace also I am sad to say (as a longtime and rather despairing Greenpeace supporter).

21. 12. 2018
Mark Thriscutt

This 'rich white man' accusation is a good example of shooting the messenger without considering the validity of the message judged on its own merits. A pity that George Monbiot (who writes so much thought provoking material) cannot let go of this outdated irrelevance.
But each and everyone of us has to take personal responsibility to promote the important message about population matters, in our daily interactions with others.

21. 12. 2018
David Butt

Just so heartily agree. thank you for all you are doing.
I will try to do my bit.

19. 12. 2018
Jeremy Coulson

At last, a comprehensive, cogent and flawlessly stated description of planet Earth's single most important and dangerous issue - overpopulation. This message must become essential reading for every politician on the planet. For respected economists in first world countries to still be proselytising the "need" for economic growth - especially via population growth - is ignorant and delusory and a short cut to self destruction.

15. 12. 2018

Sounds a lot like the Green Party and to be fair most environmental NGOs. Said it all that Extinction rebellion occupied the supposedly radical Greenpeace.

Have you posted about your old political party and their regression from an ecological basis and overpopulation narratives?

15. 12. 2018
Richard Smith

I freely admit I became quite emotional reading this incredible column. At last someone apart from Attenborough can lead the charge against the madness gripping environmental movements that makes them loose all credibility.

Dealing with overpopulation by empowering women can be a win-win for all. Having fewer children could bring dignity to the poor of the world. The alternative is absolute horror.

I tried to take on Monbiot in a polite way when he attacked Attenborough. This is a man that seriously believes we can have a sustainable world with 11 billion people as long as they are all vegan like him!

In return I was banned from commenting in “The Guardian” Many got the same gagging. “Population Matters” were shouted down at a recent Green Party conference.

You hear it all. Anything to avoid dealing with the obvious.

“Our fertility is declining” “The 3rd world has lower emissions” “Europe is ageing”

They trot out the same tired excuses for doing nothing all because they are justifiably worried about being accused of Extreme Right Wing ideas.

The sadness for the world is by doing nothing they pass the debate to the Far Right.

Then the real horror starts!

14. 12. 2018
Lance Kinnear

As always the very people who know what is really happening are disregarded, abused and humiliated. How pathetic this world has become, caused primarily by us the so called custodians of the Earth? As Albert Einstein has said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former”.

14. 12. 2018
Mark Hollidge

I've been involved in environmental activism for many years and this article is one of the most logical and powerful I have read on the subject. Bravo! The academic argument to address our population levels was won decades ago; the political and philosophical argument will be won in the next few years, I'm sure. Alas, changing the mindset of corporations will prove more difficult. The Capitalist model of Economic Growth at all costs, whether on national, corporate, or individual levels will need to up-turned if our species is to survive. If not, then the sooner we are extinct the better. Every second counts when it comes to preserving the biodiversity of this small blue dot of a planet.

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