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.