From July, 2015

Polar bears or people?

This article, first published in the Ecologist, was written in July 2013.

“I don’t give a damn about polar bears! I can live without polar bears,” Professor Hans Rosling exclaimed angrily when I spoke to him following his presentation at the recent G8G20 conference, ‘What place for family planning in the future of development?’ held in Portcullis House, London. His statement seemed intended to emphasise the deep division between those working in development and demography and those in the environment sector: People or polar bears.

I’d already inadvertently provoked Professor Rosling by seeking clarification on the figure of 10 billion he’d asserted in his persuasive presentation1 would be the inevitable total human population by 2050 – whereas I’d understood that the United Nations Population Division gives a range of projections for future total human numbers: Low, 8 billion; medium, 9.3 billion; high, over 10 billion. I’d asked whether it would be possible and – given the analysis by the Global Footprint Network that we humans (or some of us) were already using up one and a half planet’s worth of the Earth’s resources each year – better to achieve the low projection. In what felt like an accusation of implicit misanthropy in my question, Rosling shot back the retort that it would be achievable but, “Only by killing people!”

No wonder the environment and conservation NGOs are so reluctant to enter into any public debate involving the ‘P’ word. Attempting to talk about population from an environmental perspective, as opposed to the predominating focus on sexual health and reproductive rights (SRHR in the jargon), is to tread a path strewn with myriad super sensitive trip-wires – linking back to historic abuses of people’s (women’s predominantly) human rights through coercive birth control measures implemented in India and China during the 1960s and 70s and the even more discredited ‘science’ of eugenics that emerged in the 1930s; taken to its ultimate, appalling manifestation in the Nazis’ Holocaust. Today, dialogue about population is framed almost entirely through the lens of women’s rights – with control of a woman’s fertility and her right to determine when, whether, and how many children to have set or aspired to be set at the level of the individual woman’s choice – a deliberate distancing from any association with ‘population control’ or coercion of people to have fewer children.

That shift in focus is perfectly understandable, the statistics relating to the injuries and injustices suffered by women and young girls through the denial or restriction of their rights are horrendous and confront one with the realities of individual people’ lives and their stories, rather than the more general, indirect impacts brought to bear on biodiversity and ecosystems by simply considering the overall numbers of humans on Earth. According to the UN Family Planning Association, there are over 220 million women in the world who want, but do not have access to safe, affordable family planning. That in turn leads to over 20 million unsafe abortions carried out every year; as a result of those and additional complications in pregnancy and childbirth at least a quarter of million women and girls die through pregnancy and in giving birth every year. The majority of these deaths, which occur in the developing world, are or could be avoidable. A further factor in these horrendous statistics is that, in some countries such as those across the Sahel region of Africa, it is traditional cultural practice for girls as young as 142 to be married and expected (forced) to bear children. At such a young age, complications and ill-effects in pregnancy and childbirth are even greater. Some two million women in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and other parts of the Arab world suffer from fistula brought on during pregnancy – this foul medical condition, where a breach occurs between the vagina and the rectum, is almost unknown in the developed world, hence doctors term it ‘a disease of poverty’. Apart from the disfigurement and pain caused, girls with fistula suffer further by being rejected and alienated by their communities. In Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, women on average are still having over 7 children in their lifetime. For women over 40, the figure is higher with a quarter having borne 10 children or more.3

Faced by such statistics, Professor Rosling’s anger and focus on the human suffering, rather than on the additional environmental consequences of women having more babies at a much younger age than they would, given the choice, is justified. And after that first shock statement, he qualified his apparent indifference to the fate of polar bears, “It is the injustice to women and girls around the world that I care about – and which I think most people care about.”

That emphasis on alleviating human suffering and providing women with fundamental rights is underpinned by a theory, which also helps explain Hans Rosling’s exasperation with my question about the UN’s range of projections for eventual overall human numbers. Demographic Transition Theory (DTT) is based on an analysis of the series of stages that western developed countries went through on their path to modernisation and eventually the stabilisation of their populations – now DTT has been extrapolated as the inevitable sequence that all countries across the world will undergo, assuming they are provided with the means to develop. DTT holds there are four key stages to this transition: Firstly, high fertility/high mortality in infants and a lower life expectancy for adults – lack of access to family planning and modern medical care mean that births and deaths balance each other out and so the population overall is stable. Secondly, health care and immunisation against preventable childhood illnesses leads to a decline in child mortality and so rapid population growth (as decline in fertility is slower to come about). Thirdly, whilst the fertility rate falls overall, numbers of viable births remain high due to the large numbers of young people (‘Youth Bulge’). Fourthly and finally, people are living longer but also having fewer children due to availability of healthcare, with choice over family size enabled by family planning and access to education for women leading them to have children later, so also reducing the numbers of children born per woman.

DTT is a compelling theory and one apparently demonstrated in reality. Across the world fertility rates (i.e. the number of children born per woman) are indeed falling with the global average standing at 2.5 children per woman (Hans Rosling’s slide on this aspect was a particularly brilliant and convincing piece of communication). It is that global trend that leads many people to consider that population is an anachronistic issue and one that will resolve itself – as long as women are enabled to control their own fertility as they choose. As Hans Rosling concluded, “Take care of people and population will solve itself”.

Or will it? The transition that DTT theory purists hold is ‘inevitable’ is that our planet will be home to 10 billion people. That’s another 2.9 billion people by 2050 – at time of writing, the official estimate of the total human population is 7.1 billion. That ‘inevitable’ growth in human numbers occurs because the generation of future parents has already been born. There are more young people on Earth than ever have been, with Africa in particular having a majority of young people of or coming up to child-bearing age – 70% of Africa’s population is between 15 and 30 years of age. However, the United Nations population division, who are the source of the generally accepted data on human population growth, put forward a range of possible projections for 2050 – low, medium, and high – as cited earlier. There are various factors that can influence which of those projections turns out to be the most accurate – and that suggests there are interventions we can all choose to make and which our politicians can enable us to do so.

Faced by the general trend of falling fertility rates and the ‘irrefutable fact’ of Demographic Transition Theory, few, if any people or organisations question the dominant paradigm – especially, when if they do, it is implied that underneath their environmental concern lurks a closet racist, misanthrope, or demented deep-ecologist (see plot of Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster, Inferno) who might indeed consider ‘Killing people’ to solve what is in fact ‘a non-problem’ only existing in their prejudiced ignorance. I have first-hand experience of this reluctance by otherwise outspoken organisations to talk about population and enter into any discussion that might be seen to question the dominant DTT paradigm and the consideration of the issues only through the lens of women’s rights. For the past six months, I have been seeking to persuade the mainstream environmental and conservation groups in the UK (several of them with an international presence) to engage more publicly with population issues. It has been a frustrating process. These are all longstanding campaigning and lobbying bodies, who have the research capacity and experience to respond to government and industry initiatives and craft coherent positions and public policy positions in a matter of hours or at most days as necessary. Yet none of them has been able to furnish me with a clear and coherent public line on population to date. Such deafening silence or at best reluctance to enter into any discourse on the issue and impacts of population growth was not unexpected, indeed there is an academic study of the phenomenon whereby normally fearless campaigners flee the field claiming the issue is, “not within our charitable remit”, “time is desperately tight and immediate challenges are considerable on a number of fronts”, “while the issue of population growth is undoubtedly a very important one, our core area of concern is with … etc. etc.” Just a few of the excuses I have been furnished with.

Taboos surrounding the subject of human population run deep, as Professor Diana Coole analyses in her paper, `Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question’, published in March 20134. Professor Coole identifies ‘Five categories of silencing discourse’, which forestall and dissuade any discussion about population per se. These ‘silencing discourses’ which she titles: Population-Shaming; Population-Scepticism; Population-Declinism; Population-Decomposing and Population-Fatalism are triggered whenever anyone dares voice any concerns about growing human numbers on the planet and their contribution to socio-ecological problems. So well-rehearsed and accepted are these ‘silencing discourses’ that most people considering voicing concerns self-censor before the thought matures into the spoken or written word!

Thankfully, there are a few people who have the courage, experience and the hard-to-challenge heritage necessary to tread that trip-wire strewn path and speak honestly and humanely about population as an issue not just about women’s rights, but also which is indivisibly linked to the environment and the well-being of all species on Earth, not least of all humans.

Dr Eliyah Zulu, the director of the African Institute for Development Policy based in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of those brave souls. A Malawian by birth, he is in no doubt that enabling all women to have the access to safe, affordable family planning that they want is not only an essential human right, but also one that will also bring benefits to the environment – given the majority of those 220 million women without access to family planning live in the poorest countries, with the least resources and resilience to adapt to climate change and other environmental pressures. As Dr Zulu told me, “It is at the grassroots that people most feel the disbenefits of population growth.”

Professor Rosling’s stated indifference to the fate of polar bears appeared designed to emphasise the irrelevance of such species to poor people struggling to survive in sub-Saharan Africa and to characterise concerns about one species as self-indulgent, hand-wringing by wealthy people in the developed world whose consumption patterns and flagrant burning of fossil-fuels are the real reason for the destruction of the polar bear’s Arctic habitat. There’s a good deal of truth in that. Yet Dr Zulu had the admirable capacity to see the connection between the fate of polar bears in Antarctica and poor people in Africa and that both concerns had to be addressed, “We must recognise that the Earth is finite and focus on addressing both population growth in poor countries and high levels of consumption in developed countries.” The projections for Africa’s population growth over the coming decades are sobering – from the present 1.1 billion, the UN forecasts are for 1.9 to 2.5 billion people on the Continent by 2050 and between 2.4 to over 3 billion by 2100. Even more sobering, when population growth is considered at the level of individual countries, rather than the amorphous Africa as a whole – which enables some commentators to shrug their shoulders and say, ‘So what, Africa’s huge, there’s a lot of empty space’. Not in Malawi, Dr Zulu’s birth country – whose 15 million inhabitants today are projected to rise to 50 million by 2050 and possibly 100 million by the turn of the century. “How can the country sustain such a population?” asks Dr Zulu rhetorically. Quickly answering his own question, “It can’t.”

Such high projections for population growth in Africa are driven by the fact that the Continent has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world – 70% of Africans are in the age range of 15 – 30 and so in the peak child-bearing cohort. For economists, this ‘youth bulge’ offers a huge opportunity for Africa, combining a Continent rich in natural resources with a young, vibrant economically active population. Yet over 60% of Africa’s landmass is made up of desert or drylands, making the Continent particularly vulnerable to greater water stress and shortage as is predicted under increasing climate change – and it is the most arid areas of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the highest population growth rates are occurring and set to continue, as Dr Zulu observed, “Population growth goes hand in hand with those countries that are least resilient against climate change.”

There is no disputing the gross inequities of current consumption patterns across the world. A child born in the UK will be responsible for carbon emissions over its life 35 times greater than for a contemporary born in Bangladesh and 160 times that of an Ethiopian child. This gross disparity and inequity is apparent across Africa – the average ‘global footprint’ per African in terms of impact upon the environment and share of the world’s resources is many times lower than for Europeans and Americans.5 In fact, the average per person footprint, calculated as global hectares per person, has decreased over the past 40 years. An individual African is taking up – or rather getting an even smaller share – of the Earth’s resources. Yet because of the continent’s rapid population growth, Africa’s overall footprint has tripled over the same period.6

Nevertheless, given that consumption per capita is so high in countries like the UK and America, it seems right that the focus of NGOs in the developed world has almost exclusively been on seeking to get consumption per capita down. Or is it? Such high consumption rates per capita in the developed world suggest that the missing or ignored factor of population must also be addressed – given that each additional consumer in the developed world makes a globally disproportionate impact. There is also the unfortunate fact, which few NGOs care to admit, despite it being over 25 years since the term sustainable development was coined in the Brundtland report of 1987,7 and despite the concerted efforts of the environmental groups consumption figures in the developed countries continue to rise.

In 1997, Friends of the Earth published ‘Tomorrow’s World – Britain’s Share in a Sustainable Future’,8 presenting a stark summary of how far we, in a western developed country had to go if we were to meet the accepted definition of sustainable development as, ‘development which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ – and to do so, whilst re-balancing the inequity between the developed and developing world. Tomorrow’s World concluded that to deliver sustainable, equitable development the UK needed to reduce its consumption of available resources by between 15 and 100%, depending on which resource sector was under consideration. The headline calculation was that, “If people in developing countries used as much fossil fuel as people in the UK currently do, then by 2050 we would need 8 atmospheres, not one, to prevent global warming.”

In its detailed sector by sector consideration of the cuts in consumption necessary, if the UK were to achieve sustainable development, Tomorrow’s World set targets for reducing various environmental negatives and increasing other beneficial activities and practices in the UK by 2010: Road traffic to be reduced by 10%; 15% decrease in water use; 30% cut in energy use; 25% of Britain’s home produced food to be grown organically by 2010 and 100% ‘converted entirely to organic or sustainable agriculture by 2050.’ The sad reality 15 years on is that: UK vehicle use has increased by 14%; Water use per person has continued to increase by 1% year on year since the 1950s. Current per capita household use is 150 litres per day – a ton of water a week. And despite the promotion of energy-saving measures, UK domestic energy use has risen by nearly one-fifth over the past four decades. The area of UK farmland under organic management stands at less than 5%, expanding just 2% since 1997.

In any case, several of the ‘green lifestyle’ choices promoted by environment groups as ‘easy things everyone can do to help save the planet’ have been shown to be less effective at reducing an individual’s impact on the planet than other individual choices. A study by Oregon State University in 2009, compare the impact of an individual adopting six well-known ecological life-style changes to cut their carbon budget over a lifetime, against the single action of having one less child. By adopting the practical and available ‘environmentally-friendly’ actions of driving a more fuel-efficient car; halving annual car mileage; fitting double glazing and low-energy light-bulbs; replacing an older, inefficient refrigerator; recycling all paper, tin and glass – an individual over their lifetime could curb their carbon budget by 486 tonnes. By taking the single, personal decision to have one less child, an American woman and her family would save 9,441 tonnes of carbon over her lifetime. Nearly 20 times the amount saved from all those other positive eco-actions combined.9

At the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994 (known as ‘The Cairo Conference), the focus on population issues shifted away from a numbers game onto individual human lives and rights – especially those of the young women and girls who bore (sic) the brunt of the impacts of lack of access to family planning; suffering enforced childbirth, curtailment of any education, and loss of opportunities to choose a different role than as a constant mother.10 That woman-centred perspective rightly re-oriented the previously dominant population framework, but it is arguable that it has swung too far from one extreme to the other. At the G8G20 Conference the Turkish MP Öznur Çalık, a highly-respected champion of women’s access to family planning and Executive Committee Member of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF) stated, “Women should have the right to give birth as much as they wish”, adding that in her view, “The world has sufficient resources to feed the growing population.”

Those statements indicate a worrying disconnect with and do not reflect the agenda of the wider women’s rights movement, which has been in the forefront of recognising that respect for human rights goes hand in hand with respect for the environment – and from which, to name but a few, the most effective leaders of the global green movement have emerged: the female forest defenders of the Himalayan Chipko movement; Petra Kelly, founder of the German Green party; Wangari Maathaii, Nobel Peace prize winner, who sowed the seeds of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya; and Vandana Shiva, fearless champion of traditional knowledge and farming practices against the threat of globalisation and GM-pushing agribiz. What Öznur Çalık seemed to be suggesting is that having children is always and only ‘a self-regarding act’ where personal liberty is paramount, rather than ‘an other regarding act’ whereby the consequences on other people and society more generally should be considered. This is difficult territory, as Professor Coole underlines in her discussion paper, as ‘an other regarding act’ as originally defined by the political economist and social theorist John Stuart Mill is open to personal liberty being curtailed in the interests of the ‘greater good’. It was by such logic that the discredited coercive population control policies of China and India were justified. But that does not mean it is unreasonable for that American woman to consider the impacts of her putative additional child on the global environment, upon poor people in developing countries who are most vulnerable to climate change, or upon future generations’ wellbeing – not least the future wellbeing of her own child and its off-spring.11

That throwaway follow-up comment by the Turkish MP that the world had sufficient resources to sustain a growing human population whatever the eventual numbers, impressed upon me the need for the environmental movement to engage more closely with those working on what has become an exclusive sector focused on population only through the lens of women’s reproductive rights and health. WWF’s latest biennial Living Planet report for 2012 produced in collaboration with the Global Footprint Network, the Zoological Society of London and the European Space Agency provides the most comprehensive data set on the state of our planet, its biodiversity and human impacts upon that. Living Planet 2012 does not make for comforting reading. Overall global biodiversity has declined by 30% since 1970 and by double that (60%) in the tropics. We, humans, or at least some of us are using up one and a half planet’s worth of the natural resources available annually. The authors conclude that a major factor driving this decline and excessive exploitation is human population pressure,

‘Human population dynamics are a major driving force behind environmental degradation. One aspect of this is the overall size of the global population, which has doubled since 1950 – to 7 billion in 2011 and is forecast to reach just over 9.3 billion people by 2050.’

Yet despite having assembled the facts, WWF won’t commit itself to anything but the most policy-wonkish of recommendations regarding population leaving it until the last of 16 recommendations,

‘Explicitly integrate population dynamics (size, growth rate, composition, location and migration) and per capita consumption trends into national planning policies to support a better balance between population and available resources.’

And reasonably enough, affirming the dominant paradigm of the rights-based agenda,

‘Ensure universal access to gender-sensitive reproductive health services and information, reduce child mortality and support the empowerment of women and young girls through greater access to higher education and employment opportunities.

Environment NGOs have self-censored themselves on the issue of population, particularly environment NGOs in the UK which in the main are headed up, as John Sauven CEO of Greenpeace describes himself, by ‘white, old men’ (well, middle-aged anyway – in which doleful profile, I include myself), acutely conscious of the past pitfalls of talking about population and if they do dare to, are fearful of being stereotyped by those ‘silencing discourses’ as ‘human-hating’, ‘neo-colonialist’, ‘misogynists’ and in the UK, where present population growth comes from immigration, finding themselves labelled as fellow-travellers with political groups with dubious agendas outwith any genuine environmental concern.

They should take heart from the fact that a large proportion of the public are concerned about the impacts of population growth in the UK and globally. A YouGov survey carried out in May 2011 of 3,538 adults found that almost four out of five (79%) thought the UK population was too high and over four out of five (84%) thought the world population was too high. Surveys are designed to be representative of society generally. That sample of 3,538 people would not be composed just of ‘white, old men’, but made up of people across age ranges, genders and ethnic origins. The results suggest strongly that a significant proportion of the NGOs own supporters share those views – so surely they have a responsibility to provide them with a view on the issue. By not doing so, that large body of concern has no politically acceptable discourse currently available. And the only sources for information are the very organisations the NGOs are fearful of being associated with.

Voices within the reproductive rights/family planning sector are at last after two decades since Cairo’s narrowing of the focus, calling for a broader, more inclusive agenda. Dr Zulu emphasised the importance of, “not isolating population, consumption and the environment – we need to look at ways to integrate these issues. We shouldn’t box in our policy makers, it’s not just about economics or human rights or environmental benefits – it’s all there.” Sentiments echoed by Diego Palacios of the UNFPA, co-ordinating the UN’s efforts to ensure the Millennium Development Goals up survive beyond 2015 (the year they were meant to have been achieved – but in several cases won’t be), who spoke of, “involving new audiences, those interested in human rights but also economics and the environment – not have them opposed to eachother,” adding, “environmental sustainability is not yet linked into the reproductive rights, family planning agenda sufficiently.” The need for that linkage was one of the main recommendations of the Royal Society’s, People and the planet’ report,

They should not. The challenge and invitation to the environment movement is to become re-engaged with the issue of population and add their expertise, energy and effort to pushing forward truly sustainable development in the interests of people and planet alike.

It should not be a stark choice between polar bears or people, but people and polar bears.


  1. Professor Rosling, notwithstanding his indifference to polar bears, is a brilliant speaker, communicating complex data in a compelling and highly entertaining series of talks.
  2. In Niger, 60% of girls aged between 15-19 are married and nearly 30% were married before the age of 15. A UNICEF survey found that two-fifths of girls in Sierra Leone give birth for the first time between the ages of 12 and 14.Progress for Children, A report card on adolescents, Number 10, April 2012
  3. People and the Planet, Royal Society, 2012
  4. ‘Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question’, Environmental Politics vol. 22.2 (March 2013), pp. 195-215
  5. The available global ecological footprint averaged out for everyone on the planet is 1.8 global hectares per person. According to the latest Living Planet report, Africans individually were accessing less than 1.8 global hectares per person, far below the European per capita average at c. 5 global hectares or a US citizen at over 7 global hectares.
  6. Living Planet report, 2012
  7. Our Common Future (popularly known as the Brundtland Report, after its chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland), UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987.
  8. Tomorrow’s World: Britain’s Share in a Sustainable Future by McLaren, Duncan; Bullock, Simon; Yousuf, Nusrat; Friends of the Earth 1997.
  9. Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals, Murtaugh, P; Schlax, M; Department of Statistics, Oregon State University, Global Environmental Change 19 (2009) 14-20.
  10. In countries where fertility rates and numbers of births per woman remain high, a woman can spend 70% of her life bearing and rearing children; where low fertility rates are the norm, that figure has fallen to 14%. Lee R (2003) The demographic transition: Three centuries of fundamental change. Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17(4): 167-190
  11. For an excellent example of an American woman, herself from a large family, making the journey and decision to limit her family to two children, see: the film, Mother