|The dangers facing the earths ecosystems are well known and the subject of great concern at all levels. Climate change is high on the list. But there is an underlying and associated cause population growth, according to Attenborough.Indeed, in Attenboroughs view, there is no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people and no problem that does not become harder and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more. And yet there seems to be a taboo on bringing the subject into the open. He challenges to engage in dialogue on the issue in this thought provoking 22min lecture:
Read the discussion thread below it too – it illustrates just how impassioned, to the point of getting obnoxious, people seem to get about this subject.
Hopefully we can have a rather more reasoned and rational debate here.
As a starting point, let me echo one theme from Attenborough’s speech. There are only two options. We either manage population in some way or form, or we don’t.
If we do not, then starvation, disease and war will impose controls on population numbers at some point. The Green Party acknowledges the oxymoron that is long-term sustainable growth; the third option that underpins capitalist thinking.
The challenge therefore seems to boil down to how we should manage the situation. There are no easy answers, and lots of patently unacceptable ones in a civilised, just society.
At this point, I would like to invite readers to respond with their suggestions as to how the Green Party should respond to this issue, keeping our core values of environmental and social justice firmly in mind please!
PLEASE – do not engage in slating what you perceive to be other people’s or organisation’s views (this is far too easy and achieves nothing – and I therefore reserve the right to remove/edit such posts from this blog ) – keep it to positive suggestions for the way forward that you would support.
I have a number of issues, they come down to a number of things:
Multiplier – he uses this phrase, that population is a “multiplier” of all other problems – his discussion of population puts all new births on the same level, all new borns have the same level of impact. In order for them to be a multiplier in the way he discusses, they would have to be. However, this is far from the reality. My kids have a much greater impact on the environment than three kids the same age in central africa. The multiplier of each of them is different, and it is this point of difference which he fails to address, principally because it suits his narrative to discuss each of them as though they had the same impact.
The Green Revolution – Attenborough seems to support Borlaug and the Green Revolution – that is, he supports putting the growing of food into the hands of the smallest possible number of transnational corporations – the pursuit of profit over people. This is something which permeates his discussion, there is little to no discussion, let alone critique, of the systematic problem which underlies the whole process of environmental degradation (that is, capitalism) doesn’t get a mention, yet Catholicism comes in for specific criticism.
Poverty – This is an extension of the above, but it’s worth noting. Whilst he does highlight that education, access to contraception and empowerment do decrease population, and then goes on to cite limited examples (which from an academic perspective are poor, and presented in such a way as to prove his point, but don’t really prove anything.) and i don’t doubt that this is the case, however, the reality is that poor people have more kids, and yet poverty (unlike catholicism, or voting) doesn’t really get a proper mention, it’s not discussed and it is glossed over completely.
If Attenborough and his like were consistent with their approach, if they were asking everyone else to take population into account, and when they did so, they took other things into account as well, then I might take them more seriously. However, what we get is the glossing over of the most massive elephant in the room – notably the one which is the biggest challenge to his particular class perspective, and the one which unlike poor people who live in countries far away slugging out less kids, is actually difficult for his audience to swallow.
As it stands, it’s an excuse for a person with an enormous amount of wealth, who could actually do something positive towards decreasing environmental degradation, who chooses to whine at rich people about how poor people are having too many kids, and how we should inflict western style democracy on them to stop them having more kids, and not mentioning their own serious part in the process.
Does population matter? Within the bounds of restricted parameters, and taking into account a wide variety of factors it is something which must be considered, should it be considered before capitalism? absolutely not – the latter is significantly more damaging, more destructive and more problematic than population can ever be – it’s taken millions of years to get the the current planetary population of humans, and yet capitalism is screwing it up in the blink of an eye, by comparison.
Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Doug. However, your response is primarily a critique of Attenborough’s speech, rather than offering policy pointers going forward – unless I am to interpret your last point as meaning it is not worth worrying about until we bring capitalism down. But I wonder if you would use the same argument about climate change.
The ‘multiplier’ argument is a bit of a non-sequitur in my opinion. It is obvious that ‘rich kids’ are going to use more resources than ‘poor kids’; but if we are striving to reduce inequalities, how will continued population growth in the poorer regions ever allow them to close the gap – it can only make it a lot more difficult; and is more likely to widen the disparities. (Take this as a response to your Poverty point too). Of course we need to address excessive consumption in developed countries, but given that their populations are relatively stable (and actually shrinking in some cases), this is not a population issue as such.
I fully endorse what you say about the Green Revolution – and this certainly is not going to be the answer in a capitalist system. But the cultural impact of primitive cultural/religious doctrines (like Catholicism) are a significant factor, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and one we should not shy away from.
It is all well and good to point out the obvious hypocrisy in rich ‘westerners’ preaching solutions to the ‘poor’, just as it we do about deforestation once we have stripped our own lands of forest, but is this in itself reason to shun the issue? I don’t think so.
I also think you are seriously mistaken in inferring that problem is a trifling issue compared capitalism. The removal of capitalism could be achieved relatively peaceably. Failure to mange the population issue before tipping points are reached will bring widespread suffering and casulaties. Google ‘population explosion’ and see the inaccuracy in your point about taking millions of years to get to where we are today.
Millions of years?
The human population did not reach 1 billion until the early nineteenth century, and it took more than 100 years to reach 2 billion. After that, the intervals between billions grew even shorter: we added the third billion in 33 years, the fourth in 14 years, the fifth in 13 years, and the sixth and seventh in 12 years each. Anyone alive today who was born by 1940 has seen our numbers triple. The most widely cited United Nations projection shows world population hitting 8 billion in 2025 and 10 billion before the end of this century.
The problem with Douglas’ contribution is that it fails to realise the urgency of crises facing us, and offers no practical solutions. Most Greens recognise that capitalism is a root cause of the world’s problems – not just those who operate under labels like green left, ecosocialist, etc. Clearly to achieve the fair and sustainable society we desire, the capitalist system has got to be dismantled, but short of a horrendous bloody revolution (which might easily produce something worse), displacing capitalism is going to be a very long, upward struggle. The dominance of capitalism continues to expand. The collapse of the USSR, the emerging economies of Brazil, India… Even the so-called communist states like China and Cuba are moving that way.
The idea that we should channel all our energies into the long haul of overturning the capitalist system whilst ignoring the consequences of 80 million additional people occupying the planet every year is …. (choose your own expletives) .
I am not optimistic about the future. It seems extremely unlikely that the world’s nations will ever agree to a binding treaty to stabilise the climate – it’s probably too late already, and yet the scramble to extract and burn every scrap of coal, oil and gas continues relentlessly. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and an expanding population will devastate wildlife habitats. We will witness mass extinction of species and appalling human suffering on a biblical scale.
Meanwhile there will still be some saying we must not talk about stabilising population because it might be interpreted (mainly by themselves) as racist.
A healthy, thriving world where social justice, equality and sustainable lifestyles could prevail through the adoption of Green policies as documented in our MFSS. But what is the fastest most effective way of getting them implemented? Certainly not by restricting our appeal to the minority of the population attracted to ‘anticapitalism’ and a far left position. Like it or not, the UK electorate comprise mainly of slightly left or right of centre supporters. Most of them are genuinely decent people who believe in fairness and if they but knew are actually socialists in nature. Unfortunately years of exposure to mainstream media have rendered them antipathetic to words like socialism.
The way through to them is via environmental concerns, to which they will becoming increasingly susceptible as environmental disasters become more prevalent. In the late 80s there was an unprecedented interest in green issues, largely brought on by a series of events including Chernovyl nuclear explosion, masses of dead seals appearing on Scottish coasts, ozone layer depletion, massive Exxon oil spill, etc. Membership of the Green Party nearly doubled to almost 20,000 and we knocked the LibDems to third place in the 1989 Euro Elections.
Unfortunately it didn’t last – interest in green issues faded whilst the Green Party imploded. It wasn’t our time – but our time is coming – and this time the environmental problems will not go away.
I was one of many who joined the Green Party in the late 80s out of the environmental movement (Greenpeace, FoE, etc). I had no interest or real knowledge of politics, and was, if anything, inclined towards the right (my dad was Tory Mayor of Surrey Heath). After a conference and heavy exposure to Green Party publications, meetings and party members, I was totally socialist within a few weeks.
That is the way forward if we want to capture mass support in this country!
People need to be educated at school about the issues so they can take responsible descisions. Environmental studies should be on every schools curriculum. As too should politics and economix in a democracy. There was a time when it was fashionable to have large families post wars etc to build up the nation. It should now become the opposite. However,even bringing the subject up I have been accused of eugenics! I remember a big count-down board that used to be opposite Heals off Warren St in the sixties that should how the population was growing, there needs to be a big poster campaign to raise awareness and people should go into schools to raise awareness amongst the next generation of would be parents.
As an ex-secondary school geography teacher, I can tell you that these issues are part of the curriculum, although only at a significant level in GCSE Geography syllabi. You can see what is currently being taught here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/population/
Some of it is contentious, but there is plenty of content in history, RE and economics that is a lot more contentious, I would suggest. I too remeber the big counter near Warren Street – and have seen similar ones in Japan and Australia – an online equivalent is here: http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
Yes, it is a critique of Attenborough and his speech, however, in general terms, Attenborough can be replaced by many of the people making the argument about population – they come from relatively rich, generally white, western backgrounds (people on very modest incomes in the UK are part of the worldwide 1%).
I come to ecological thought from a perspective very close to Bookchin and regard the separation of social problems from the environmental to be impossible, so, yes, I would argue that the ecological crisis of climate change is socially based, and those social problems are related almost exclusively to the pursuit of profit and the extraction of surplus value from labour.
““Until society can be reclaimed by an undivided humanity that will use its collective wisdom, cultural achievements, technological innovations, scientific knowledge, and innate creativity for its own benefit and for that of the natural world, all ecological problems will have their roots in social problems.” – Bookchin
In your response you state that “this is not a population problem as such” which I suppose is my point – the people who have the most impact on the environment, the people with the “biggest feet” on the planet, all live in countries with stable or falling growth rates. You use this position to state that we should address population in poor countries before poverty – this is very much putting the cart before the horse, having a large family is a requirement of poverty, it is needed to survive, provide support into old (relative term) age and so on. The eradication of poverty facilitates drops in population growth, to suggest that you need to drop population growth first is a non-starter, it’s something which will sentence people to poverty into old age.
“Millions of years” – “population explosion”
The response to my comment on the growth of population over time is predictable – it’s predicated on a very restricted view of history which assumes that the growth in population took place at the time it did, purely on the basis of the things of that time – and not on the basis that it took a very long time to get to a position where that level of population growth was possible – the growth of human population might have taken place in the main in a short space of time, but the ground work which made it possible goes back to the discovery of fire and the wheel – this is not the case with capitalism.
With regards capitalism – I find my self in a difficult position in this discussion – on one side, it is painted as a trifling thing to overcome in comparison to population growth, and yet on the other it’s too difficult to overcome, and population is an easier target. Personally, I think that’s missing the point – getting rid of capitalism should be seen as a way of dealing with population.
In terms of the criticism that my contribution doesn’t offer solutions – this is because I’m not one for offering population solutions – I don’t see population as a problem in and of itself, it’s a surrogate symptom of a deeper, more problematic malaise in our society.
I find the idea that the party should mould it’s policies around the narrow interests of the electorate problematic – the narrow interests of the electorate as presented in the media are already catered for by the big three parties, and they have no solution for the impending crisis – because it’s not something which genuinely exists within a populist narrative.
If anything, it is those who suggest we should stick to the safe, left of centre path where we remain electable in the view of the readers of the mail who fail to see the urgency of the problems we face.
There is not very much I disagree with here, Doug, but the small differences are significant ones. To summarise, I think that consideration of population policy is an important strand to achieving ecosocialist goals and that your inclination to ignore it, in the assumption it will sort itself out come the anti-capitalist revolution, makes you seem a bit of a callous bastard. Whereas your view seems to be that population policy must involve the imposition of alien values on people, and thus makes me seem a bit a fascist bastard.
I read Bookchin’s ‘Post Scarcity Anarchism’ when at university and remember it primarily as an optimistic view of the potential of technology to solve all our problems. I probably need to read some of his more recent stuff – ‘communalism’ sounds a concept well worth exploring. The point about the separation of social problems from the environmental being impossible is a given. It was the profundity of this realisation that brought me to the Green Party and Green Left.
However, as a trained geographer I cannot accept that it is anyone’s interest, most of all the people in the poorer regions of the world (and they often say as much), to take no stance on population matters. It is not a matter of addressing population before poverty or vice-versa. They are not carts and horses. They are much more closely intertwined than this analogy allows.
In the long term, reducing poverty and inequalities has to be about re-allocating resources amongst the peoples of the world. Neither resources or population are evenly spread, and it is the mismatch of these spatial patterns that, alongside the pernicious effects of the capitalist system, that yield the disgusting inequalities we see across the globe. The elimination of capitalism cannot in itself eliminate all these inequalities. Given that people are more mobile than natural resources, the eco-socilaist goals i think we both share will still necessitate some managing of population somewhere along the line. Such issues have been one of the main drivers of population movements since the dawn of mankind. We manage it or wait for mass-migrations driven by ‘malthusian catastrophes’.
All of these issues are much harder to resolve the greater the overall population. Simple mathematical logic dictates that if we could distribute eveything perfectly equally amongst every body on the planet, every aditional body makes everybody that tiny bit poorer.
As for the popuation explosion, the graphs and the extrapolations they produce do not depend on much more than the last two hundred years. You are right to point out the link with the capitalist era, but progress and the removal of capitalism will not involve a simple reversal of history. We need a brave new world , not a return to pre-industrial societies.This is where consideration of policy is important – and the safe, centre left path ain’t gonna cut it. A point of agreement is where I will leave it.
When Douglas says that many of the people making this argument come from white middle class background he is seeing it from a suburban UK point of view. Globally, most people raising this concern live in other countries and belong to other races. Many of those countries are successfully tackling the problem, others are trying and struggling, others are failing – usually those with corrupt or right wing governments. Critics of population concern in the UK show a very patronising attitude when they talk of this being a white middle class concern, as if people of other races and in poor countries do not appreciate the issues.
The criticism of Attenborough for not distinguishing between the different impact of rich and poor is, literally, illogical, since one cannot discuss any complex issue without isolating the variables. When you do that, it remains true that population acts as a multiplier whatever the individual level of impact one is talking of. Multiply a small number by another and you get a biggger number. I see no evidence for the claim that people concerned with this issue place more importance on poor countries/people, than on the rich. It is a fact that population growth in both rich countries and poor ones is a campaigning topic of those of us concerned about population. These three points are made over and over: population growth in rich countries has a much higher impact per captia on resource and land depletion; population increase in poor countries has a high local impact because of pressure on land and local resources; population increase in poor countries holds back raising of quality of life and living standards.
Toi say that population increase in poor countries doesn’t matter because they use so few resources is the same as saying their poverty doesn’t matter. It does.
Agree with Peter, of course the impact equation is calculated by what we do multiplied by how many of us are doing it. Even the poorest people on Earth have huge impacts on the biosphere, which is freely available for exploitation and degredation.
The anthropocene epoch is driving other species extinct 200 a day, 1000 times the normal rate. Overpopulation is defined by an animal acting as it naturally does (Greed, rapaciousness, selfishness, elites etc), not by replacing them with some utopian, hypothetical animal that could eventually switch political systems, share resources evenly etc. Time is running out…
As the ecological crisis worsens and The “Green” Party backs off from an ecological message and instead retreats into anthropocentric politics, it is interesting to hear that a green focus on population issues was key to the foundation of the party: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krj5NgS1fEk&list=UUGN-NVD_FT_Kyv_VdUxzc7A&index=2
I am not sure that we are backing off from our ecological agenda – but I would argue the need to to see it in an ecosocialist perspective that is essentially anthropocentric, admittedly.
The population issue is, almost by defintion, anthropocentris too.
As an animal liberationist, I believe the hugely excessive human world population represents a form of oppression of other animals, because human beings occupy far more of this Earth than is fair and just in relation to all the other species that have just as much right to be here as we have.
I use the word “occupy” pointedly, because the excessive number of humans means that, In my view, our presence here amounts to occupation rather than inhabitation and the Nazi policy of Lebensraum springs to mind, in that we have done to other creatures what the Nazis wanted to do to other races.
In my opinion, the world’s human population needs to be reduced to less than 300 million, which is what it was in the middle ages, before the majority of forests in Western Europe began to be destroyed.
How we bring about this reduction is, of course, another matter, but we need to realise that it isn’t just about the human master-species and how we can be fed and live comfortably, but about all the species of animals that live here.
300 million! That is one hell of a cull!!
I have to admit that I struggle somewhat with the animal liberationist mindset. There are always essentially arbitrary divisions involved. This may seem facile, but are we stop vaccination programmes that persecute micro-organisms? Or is they way we achieve that massive reduction to 300 million people?
And why the focus on animals over and above plants?
And what about invasive species that implement their own versions of Leibensraum?
Is it possible that you could end up being whatever the opposite of anthropcentric is (biocentric?) ? And if so, where would that get us?