“Tackling rising human population and consumption”
19th May 2010 : Transition Westcombe & Transition Ashburnham Triangle joint meeting
What is an ethical approach of equality and fairness in sharing out limited global land and resources? Today, it would take the resources of 1.4 Earths to renewably produce all the resources we consume, and to absorb the carbon dioxide emissions we create, and by 2030 we will require the resources of two Earths, if population goes on increasing. These figures are based on the Ecological Footprint of the Global Footprint Network, which has emerged as the fairest and best way of sharing out limited resources internationally. It relates population levels and per capita consumption, to the land productivity of each country, using United Nations statistics.
For instance, figures show that in 1970 there were still significant world ecological reserves. But since then world population has almost doubled, from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion, and there has been a linked rise in human land requirements for cities, forest land, cropland, grazing land and fishing grounds, and land to absorb carbon. The increase in human population has been a bigger factor than rising consumption of resources alone in our global 40% overshoot.
The Ecological Footprint of the U.K. is roughly double what nature can regenerate from the productivity of the land. This is average for Europe. To arrive at a sustainable position we either need to halve our resource use or halve our population, or do some of each.
Halving our resource use would be difficult, and to achieve it will take time and money from government, business and the community. It involves the long term rebuilding of much of our infrastructure – energy, transportation, housing, agriculture, water and forestry. But none of this will have the desired effect if human population rises as well.
Jane Goodall, the English scientist who researched relations between humans and chimpanzees, said in March this year that it is human population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we've inflicted on the planet. She is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a British charity which campaigns for population stabilisation and a gradual decrease both globally and in Britain. It argues for improved provision of family planning and sex education; better education and rights for women; and advocates that couples voluntarily "stop at two". She believes a cornerstone in any drive to stabilise population growth must be the improvement in the quality of life of the poorest.
In 2006, 7 out of 10 people said that Britain is already overcrowded, yet by mid-2007, our numbers were still increasing, passing 61 million. Officially projected to rise by a record 0.7% a year to reach 71 million by 2031, our population could be 100 million before the end of this century. UK population grew by 434,700 in 2007 alone, an increase equivalent to a city larger than Cardiff. In that year we recorded a net inward migration of 237,000 (more immigrants than emigrants), and a natural increase of 197,700 (more births than deaths). In 2005 the U.K.’s population density makes it more densely populated than China, and the third most densely populated in the EU 15 after the Netherlands (393) and Belgium (341). The environmental impacts of this growth are already clear - in both the development pressures on our own land and natural resources and the impacts of UK consumption on other parts of the world. Surveys across the whole European Union in 2004 report that women’s ideal number of children is at least two and that total fertility will soon return above replacement level there of 2.1 births per woman.
In the last 40 years the world’s population has doubled from 3.5 billion to over 6.8 billion, matching the rise in greenhouse gas emissions during that time. According to the United Nations, the global population could be as high as 11 billion in 2050 or as low as 8 billion, but this lower figure will only happen if the right programs are put in place now. At least 200 million of the poorest women around the world would like to delay or end childbearing but have no access to contraception.
Many countries that have lowered their birth rates, such as South Korea, have eradicated or greatly reduced poverty because there is the money for the government and parents to invest in education and health. An educated, healthy population can change the trajectory of a country in a single generation. The potential economic as well as ecological benefits of reducing population should be explored in more depth.
With the exception of a few oil-rich states, no country has risen from poverty while still maintaining high average fertility. The UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015 called for poverty reduction, equity, universal primary education, and combating disease, but they have been made impossible to achieve because of population growth. In much of the world, rising population is bringing increased poverty and hunger. The way to combat this trend is for women everywhere to be rapidly empowered with civil, political, and legal rights, with opportunities in education and employment and with a full range of reproductive health services.
The UK’s previous Chief Scientific adviser Sir David King stated that it is self-evident that the massive growth in the human population through the 20th Century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor. It is the ultimate driving force behind all deforestation, destruction of ecosystems and much human conflict, both in developed countries which demand the resources and in developing nations where people are fighting for survival.
During the 1970s and 1980s, national family planning programmes everywhere were voluntary and extremely popular, having a very positive health and economic impact on women who are otherwise compelled to bear many children for lack of contraceptive options. Then China and parts of India instigated controversial programmes associated with coercion. Old memories were revived of some very unpleasant episodes in human history, and population reduction became a taboo subject. Since then, family planning programmes have stalled for lack of money and lack of political will.
Although rising population may seem difficult to address, ultimately the best way to confront it is simple: trust women and make sure they are empowered and educated. The ability of women to control their own fertility is absolutely fundamental to their empowerment and equality. Women who have access to family planning and who are able to work and be mothers generally have the number of children they desire. This number tends to hover around replacement level.
Lack of access to contraception may be due to price, but there may also be medical practices that are not based on scientific evidence, religious opposition, cultural practices such as child marriage or desire for large families, and unnecessary laws and regulations. There is much misinformation about contraception: that it is dangerous, will cause infertility, that condoms do not work, that they do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases, or that they give less sexual satisfaction. Education programs are needed to raise awareness around many issues, including maternal health, child marriage and early child birth, high fertility rates and poverty, and how they relate to family planning and reproductive choices.
Many experts agree that world population growth of 50% by 2050 poses serious threats to human health, socioeconomic development, and the environment. There is a proposal by Bolivia to create a UN Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth which would work like the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We need this Mother Earth perspective so that we consider the impact of extra population not only on the poorest people on earth, but also on all the other species and ecosystems that live there too.
The Ecological Footprint is a fair and equal way of rationing limited planet space and resources between countries. We still have time to reduce our ecological footprint by investing in sustainable infrastructure and setting our population onto a downward trajectory. The global problem of how to reduce population ought to be addressed in countries like the UK first, because we have the resources and knowledge to get it right. The question is, exactly how do we get it right?
Global Footprint Network. www.footprintnetwork.org
Optimum Population Trust. www.optimumpopulation.org
Population Connection. www.populationconnection.org