It’s World Population Day on July 11th. Here’s some relevant stuff to get us going:

  1. Half of all pregnancies today are unintended – and the number of women affected by this continues to rise.
  2. More than 60% of these unintended pregnancies end in an abortion, and almost half of these abortions are ‘unsafe’.
  3. Between 250 and 300 million women around the world have an unmet need for proper contraception.
  4. Gender inequality is the strongest of all predictors of unintended pregnancies.
  5. Teenage girls are particularly hard-hit by this: 13% of all young women in developing countries begin childbearing when they themselves are still children (ie below the age of 17). Complications in pregnancy are the leading cause of death for adolescent girls worldwide.
  6. Women’s reproductive health rights are under greater threat today than at any time in the modern era.

I have two reasons for starting there:

  1. On July 11th, the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) will be issuing its latest projections for population growth. As usual, it will be all numbers and percentages, with much of the human suffering that lies behind some of those numbers effectively masked.
  2. Over the course of the last month, I’ve been following the online exchange organised by the Great Transition Network on ‘The Population Debate Revisited’. It’s been riveting, but interesting to me that not one of those statistics above got a mention.

Suffice it to say, however, that the good old ‘overpopulation versus overconsumption’ stand-off got a good airing! That’s understandable, but I’m still disappointed to see how many really smart people were still playing the same old tunes. These three in particular:

– People who are concerned about population growth are still being cast as enemies of just and equitable development, with a mostly unspoken assumption that they have lurking racist or xenophobic tendencies. Any attempt to stabilise world population will, apparently, almost certainly lead to injustice and the further oppression of women.

– Historically, it’s often made out that most family planning programmes in the past were coercive, and ‘done by men to women’ – as indeed happened in China and India. Rarely is there any recognition of the massive benefits to women in countries like South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica and even (at the time) Iran – from rapid fertility declines brought about by wholly non-coercive family planning programmes.

(Just by way of reference, history tells us that no high-fertility country has ever significantly reduced poverty outside of a few oil-rich states.)

– Even to talk about overpopulation apparently guarantees that people will be ‘dangerously’ distracted from a necessary focus on overconsumption – an inexcusable distraction given that the richest 1% of the world was responsible for a higher percentage of greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015 than half the world’s population.

(Of course overconsumption is a massive challenge, on which we should all be focused. But population growth just ramps it up.)

Such tropes are tediously rolled out – almost always without so much as a passing reference to the positioning of today’s leading population/family planning organisations such as Population Matters (in which I should declare an interest as its President), the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Marie Stopes and so on.

If anybody ever could be bothered to check out the positioning of these organisations, they would have discovered the following, captured in Eileen Crist’s eloquent work:

‘Transitioning to a smaller, more sustainable global population is realisable by the same set of transformations in all societies: zero tolerance of ‘child brides’; education through secondary schooling for girls; women’s empowerment (eg access to higher education, meaningful employment and leadership careers); voluntary family planning services and contraceptive choices, and the removal of all physical, social and cultural barriers to them. To these established population-related human rights, we must add comprehensive sexuality education, which can play a significant role in population degrowth. Education lowers the rate of unintended pregnancy, alongside other remarkable quality of life benefits.’

All that work has literally nothing to do with calls to ‘control population’. However strident and offensive such calls might once have been. The vast majority of population and family planning campaigners share a deep, sustained and passionate hatred for the kind of stifling and oppressive patriarchy that deprives women the world over of such basic rights.

There’s one further trope amongst critics of population campaigners that needs particular attention: that those who want to see population stabilisation included as a key goal in all international agreements ‘are playing into the hands of today’s eco-fascists’. That even raising the environmental implications of continuing population growth will embolden eco-fascist ideologies.

We would argue the exact opposite: if we don’t address these issues, responsibly, compassionately and transparently, those who are already out there exploiting the impacts of accelerating climate change to reinforce their hateful racist battlelines (particularly regarding immigration) will assuredly prevail.

This new wave of eco-fascists scare the life out of me. The recent decision by the US Supreme Court that the right to abortion should be determined at the state level rather than federally, is a massive setback. The lives of millions of women in the USA will be profoundly affected; those statistics about unwanted pregnancies that so often end in unsafe (and often illegal) abortions will inevitably move even faster in the wrong direction.

Worse yet, this is just the latest blow in a deeply disturbing global story about resurgent misogyny and oppression of women’s rights that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

The most disturbing report that Population Matters has produced in the last year is ‘Welcome to Gilead’. As its author, Monica Scigliano, puts it:

‘A growing number of populations are pushing pro-natalist policies, which, instead of promoting fewer children, actively encourage women to have more. And while pro-natalism – the promotion of childbirth – is not, in and of itself, coercive, there’s an unsettling picture emerging. Some politicians are turning to a more extreme, politically convenient and less expensive strategy: restricting women’s reproductive rights, often framed within a moralistic ‘pro-family’ agenda, and underpinned by a patriarchal world view in which women must stay at home and bear children.’

The report focuses on eight case studies: Iran, China, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and the USA, connecting the statements that politicians make on population with their often reprehensible actions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. In fact, 50 countries now have pro-natalist policies of one kind or another, all impinging (directly or indirectly) on a woman’s right to determine for herself whether or not she wants to have children.

This is today’s reality. Dwelling on past population controversies sometimes seems dangerously self-indulgent.

For those still intent on playing some kind of pathetic ‘sequentialist argument’ (‘we can’t begin to talk about human numbers until we’ve sorted out the horror story of overconsumption’), let me invite you to contemplate a different variation of this kind of sequentialism: ‘Don’t begin to talk about overconsumption until we’ve sorted out the threat of a resurgent patriarchy more and more aggressively suppressing women’s rights’.

You can see instantly how self-defeating this kind of sequentialism is.

It’s also so unnecessary. It’s 50 years since the publication of ‘Limits to Growth’, a powerful statement that the combination of overconsumption and overpopulation would take us to the very edge of catastrophe. And it’s more than 30 years since the eminent climate scientist Jim Hansen warned the world that accelerating climate change would destroy everything we hold dear if not addressed urgently. The population of the world at that time was 5 billion. Now it’s nearly 8 billion. And 50% of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere today have been emitted in those last 30 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is very clear about this:

‘Technological improvements have shown a persistent pattern over the last few decades, but gains have been outpaced both by increases in affluence (GDP per capita) and by population growth, leading to continued emissions growth.’

It’s not surprising that we struggle with this insane state of affairs. But all those who recognise it for what it is, from a genuinely just, progressive and compassionate point of view, can ill afford to fall out with each other. The next decade is going to be hard enough without that.


P.S. If you want to listen to two young voices from the front line of this debate in Uganda, connecting climate change, family planning, education and women’s rights, the words of Joan Kembabazi and Nyombi Morris should speak powerfully to all of us.