Population: persuading environmental NGOs to speak out

Population Matters

Campaign summary

We live on a finite planet, with a rapidly expanding population. The link between more bodies and a deteriorating environment is clear, yet until recently the UK’s major green NGOs chose to skirt round the ‘elephant in the room’ – presumably for fear of being associated with coercive strategies or extreme arguments.

This ‘taboo’ subject and the barriers to addressing it needed to be tackled. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, all environmental problems will become ‘ultimately impossible to solve’ if human population growth and its impacts are not talked about – let alone acted on. That’s why Population Matters commissioned me to persuade the UK’s top environmental NGOs of the urgent need for them, as reasoned and influential voices, to speak out on this critical issue.

Throughout the process, I worked closely with leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who acted as project advisor and lent reputational weight to my approaches to the NGOs.

By writing a serious of targeted, persuasive briefings – underpinned by principles of human rights and equality – and through persistent lobbying over a two-year period, I achieved these outcomes:

  • Population was raised up the agenda for 8 mainstream UK NGOs
  • 3 of these revised and reissued more extensive public policies on population
  • The ‘taboo’ stifling reasoned debate on this crucial issue has been broken

My role

  • Independent campaign consultant and lobbyist
  • Researched and wrote persuasive briefings targeted at the UK’s leading NGOs
  • Coordinated the design and creation (in electronic, print-ready format) of the briefings
  • Spoke at high-profile conferences and seminars relevant to the campaign

Full project details

The issue

Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues

People and the Planet, the Royal Society, April 2012

The Royal Society’s compelling 2012 ‘People and the Planet’ report, which flagged up the connection between a fast-growing world population and the declining health of our environment, was met with little media coverage and almost zero response from environmental and conservation NGOs. Given the enormity of the population issue (with latest estimates projecting between 9.6 and 12.3 billion people on Earth by 2100 – 2 billion higher than previously thought), this was very worrying indeed.

A YouGov survey of UK adults in May 2012 gave us good reason to believe that many of the NGOs’ own members and supporters saw the ‘population explosion’ as a cause for concern. Nearly 80% of those surveyed considered the UK population to be too high and over 80% felt that there were too many people on the planet as a whole.

Population Matters commissioned me, as an independent consultant, to persuade the UK’s top environmental NGOs to break the ‘population taboo’ by:

  • Accepting and promoting the findings of the Royal Society’s People and the Planet report – that population and consumption must be considered inseparable issues
  • Communicating the crucial relevance of population growth to the NGOs’ own missions and objectives
  • Advocating the principle of universal access to safe, affordable family planning
  • Calling on the Government to draw up a national population policy


How I took action

Persuasive briefings

To grab the attention of the NGOs, provoke discussion and spur them to action, I researched and drafted 3 briefings on the population issue, each written from the individual perspective of a leading UK environmental organisation (‘Why Population Matters for…’ Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the RSPB.)

Using a raft of statistics, clear arguments and persuasive techniques, I built up a powerful case for each NGO to take action on population. Crucially, I showed how each NGO’s efforts to achieve their specific aims would ultimately become futile if population were not also factored in.

It was obvious that setting out these facts in Word documents attached to polite emails wouldn’t be enough to shift entrenched opinions, so we decided to draw up print-ready public briefings to show we wouldn’t be fobbed off. I brought in Sam Allen, an experienced designer and former Soil Association colleague, to work my words into visually compelling PDFs. With their punchy format and powerful imagery, Sam’s designs set out our case as compellingly as any of the NGOs’ own official publications.

Although tailored to 3 specific organisations, the content of the briefings was relevant to a wider audience of NGOs, so I also sent them to Greenpeace, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, and WWF, as well as the conservation umbrella body Wildlife Link.

To reassure the NGOs that tackling population growth could be done in a positive, ethical manner, I emphasised the following 5 principles underpinning the initiative:

  1. Universality – Current population levels and predicted growth are of concern in both developed and developing countries.
  2. Proportionality – It’s vital to curb the consumption levels of those who currently consume the most.
  3. Equity – Improving the wellbeing of the over 1 billion people who exist on less than $2 a day, by ensuring them a fairer share of the Earth’s sustainable resources, is a priority.
  4. Equality – Women have a right to control their fertility; therefore low-cost, safe family planning should be available to all women on demand.
  5. Choice – Coercion has no place in any strategy seeking to achieve a sustainable global population.
Upping the ante

At first, the NGOs were slow to respond to the briefings, and reluctant to commit to the modest actions outlined above.

To up the pressure, I sent the briefings out to the NGOs’ boards of trustees and local supporter groups – many of whom were much more receptive to our ideas than their parent bodies, and expressed their shared concern.

Feeding this back to the NGOs helped spur greater engagement. I then revealed plans to publish a ‘league table’ which would rank the NGOs according to their stance on population and any actions they had committed to, and it was this tactic that finally prompted the more meaningful responses we’d hoped for.

Digging deeper: G8/G20 and other debates

As part of my research and network-building for this project, I attended several conferences and events, including briefings in the House of Commons. I wanted to hear the population issue being discussed at first-hand, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the barriers to more open debate.

Although these events purported to have at least some focus on human population growth, I was struck by the extent to which UK and European delegates skirted round the issue. Few, if any, dared to raise directly the need to slow growth rates down, or the benefits this would bring to the world’s poorest countries. In stark contrast, representatives from Africa and Asia were unequivocal about the need to tackle their nations’ rising populations, as well as excessive consumption in rich countries. I described one such conference, the G8/G20 London 2013 meeting, in my article ‘People or Polar Bears?’, published in The Ecologist.

Campaign outcomes

This was a tough campaign to crack, but following two years of persistent persuasion, repeated requests for responses and several shifts in tactics, we produced the following results:

  • 8 mainstream NGOs raised the population issue up their agendas.
  • 3 of these extended and reissued their public policies on population.
  • The extent of concern amongst NGOs’ members and supporters has surfaced, and is now recognised by the NGOs themselves.
  • A number of reasoned, reasonable and trusted voices have been added to the ongoing population debate.

Much of the green movement has shied away from taking any stance on population, preferring to focus on political or technical solutions to environmental problems. Robin Maynard and Jonathon Porritt recently pressed eight of the largest environment NGOs in Britain to explain their position on population and found all of them, with the exception of Friends of the Earth, more or less reluctant to do so. The Land is equally guilty. In 16 issues, over eight years, we have not carried a single article on the subject of population. We therefore offer in this issue [Issue 17, Winter 2014-15] a range of views on matters relating to the rising human population. We do offer a few pointers towards solutions, but there is no consensus among the editors… We are however agreed that this is a matter which requires thinking about.

Simon Fairlie, Editor of The Land
(Taken from the article ‘Towards ten billion’)