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  • Progressives on population

    by Rumbold
    25th October, 2007 at 3:02 pm    

    Boris Johnson has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph on overpopulation in the world and how policy makers are ignoring the potential consequences:

    “The primary challenge facing our species is the reproduction of our species itself.

    The world’s population is now 6.7 billion, roughly double what it was when I was born. If I live to be in my mid-eighties, then it will have trebled in my lifetime.

    The UN last year revised its forecasts upwards, predicting that there will be 9.2 billion people by 2050, and I simply cannot understand why no one discusses this impending calamity, and why no world statesmen have the guts to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.

    How the hell can we witter on about tackling global warming, and reducing consumption, when we are continuing to add so relentlessly to the number of consumers? The answer is politics, and political cowardice.”

    Now I am not trying to say that Boris Johnson should be considered progressive. Rather, what should the progressive line on overpopulation be? Are condoms and education enough? Do we have a right, or a responsibility, to dictate to the developing world (where most of the population growth is occurring) about how many children they should have? What are the alternatives?

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    Filed in: Current affairs,Environmentalism,Science,The World

    37 Comments below   |  

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    1. Don — on 25th October, 2007 at 3:59 pm  

      Isn’t prosperity the best way to reduce the birth-rate?
      Contraception is fine for those who don’t want children, but for many of the poor having a large family is a survival strategy, albeit one which very often kills the mother prematurely.

      Given that a large proportion of organisations working in the developing world have rigid ideological objecions to contraception, it isn’t really going too be productive to wail that ‘they’ are having too many kids for ‘our’ comfort.

    2. ZinZin — on 25th October, 2007 at 4:15 pm  

      rumbold you are asking for a progressive view on overpopulation based on this?

      The concern over the effect of over-population (a subjective term)is that there are too many black/brown people.

      Anyway here is Mr Monbiot’s view.

    3. Joe — on 25th October, 2007 at 4:17 pm  

      Here’s another alternative: Oppose religion, make the case for atheism.

      Famously the catholic church, but other religions too, tell people they ought to have children even if they don’t want to, and shouldn’t use birth control.

    4. Sofia — on 25th October, 2007 at 4:45 pm  

      why don’t we do what Indira Gandhi wanted and just sterilise people??

    5. sonia — on 25th October, 2007 at 5:10 pm  

      how many kids has Boris got?

      i thought the Tories are all about encouraging families and marriage.

      ignoring your question on population for a second, i would ask Boris to think about not just the increase in consumers, but also the fact that businesses depend on such consumers - for consumption - as growth is expected to be exponential year on year.

      back to the population thing. i dont know what ‘progressive’ is in this context - it is relative. it would make sense to encourage people to have fewer children and to plan them, and to invest in family planning, getting the message through to people, and finally, adequate healthcare and clinics as this is highly related. Cutting funding on health, privatising it, and clinics is not going to help. one would need investment in public health, that is for certain. :-)

      So there are Ways to encourage such things, of course there are, and they have been happening. for example, there has been plenty of such work in bangladesh over the last decade and a half.

    6. Sofi — on 25th October, 2007 at 5:29 pm  

      Fly Boris to China.

    7. El Cid in amsterdam — on 25th October, 2007 at 6:09 pm  

      He’s got a point about political cowardice though ennnee?

    8. Dave Hill — on 25th October, 2007 at 8:20 pm  

      I agree with Don - and not just because I’ve got six kids! Population growth will slow if and when prosperity is spread more widely. Notice how birth rates are lower in richer parts of the world.

      I disgree with Joe. As a fellow atheist (who’s married to a Catholic) I can assure him that his is a crude and mistaken generalisation about people’s relationships with their religions. Spain and Italy - home of the Pope - have some of the lowest birthrates in Europe. Seems they aren’t quite as dim and robotic as the Rev. Dawkins would have us all believe.

    9. Dave Hill — on 25th October, 2007 at 8:22 pm  

      Ooops! My new URL didn’t show above.

    10. Sid — on 25th October, 2007 at 9:20 pm  

      Rev. Dawkins - hahaha

    11. douglas clark — on 25th October, 2007 at 9:58 pm  


      One of the things I learned a long time ago, and still believe to be true, is that the extent to which a society has superannuation benefits is a negative indicator of population growth. Now, whether that is progressive or just extremely boring is for you to decide

    12. Farouq Taj — on 25th October, 2007 at 10:45 pm  

      We can either control population growth ourselves through the use of contraception or mother nature will do it for is when we eventually run out of food and natural resources. The choice is ours.

      They key challenge is that the most primitive nations are the ones causing the population explosion and they tend to resist any attempts to help them.

    13. Don — on 25th October, 2007 at 11:37 pm  

      ‘They key challenge is that the most primitive nations are the ones causing the population explosion and they tend to resist any attempts to help them.’

      When you put it like that it’s all so simple.

      By primitive I suppose you to mean the least sophisticated in terms of a formalised education system, access to communication or effective infrastructure, inclusion in the monetary economy, contact with the rest of the world, familiarity with developments in technology and thought, a life expectancy of more than a few decades and the luxury of making considered life-style choices.

      Actually, that would probably be the tribal peoples who are facing effective extinction. Or so the infuriatingly likeable Bruce Parry would have us believe. Now, you may not have got the memmo, but it’s considered rather infra dig to refer to people as primitive these days, not everyone means it in as nuanced a way as you.

      The idea of nations breeding is intriguing, though.

    14. alan — on 26th October, 2007 at 12:10 am  

      When I last studied this subject, back in the 90′s, the single biggest factor affecting family size was the education of women.

    15. alan — on 26th October, 2007 at 12:16 am  
    16. douglas clark — on 26th October, 2007 at 12:29 am  


      Interesting. The studies I read said that a transitional economy, one moving from subsistence to something better, introduced pensions. Pensions secured parents, possibly better than their feckless children did. After a few generations of this, pension creation became as much of a goal in family life as large families had been in generations past. It is entirely consistent for that to equate to female education, and indeed emancipation. The history of the UK would tend to support that, I think.

      Which came first?

      (I left that as a question for you, personally I’m not sure that female education would have been a priority in pre industrial societies, but then again, neither was male education, I think.)

    17. douglas clark — on 26th October, 2007 at 12:43 am  


      I was responding to 14, I’ll need to take a break if I’m expected to respond to 15 :-)

      Although, I’d have been better asking you if female education was a priority in industrialising nations rather than pre industrialising nations. Though the rest of the thought still stands.

      Men were also only educated to the point of their economic utility, and it took exceptional men and women to break free of that particular trap.

    18. Sunny — on 26th October, 2007 at 1:17 am  

      As Don and alan have said above - prosperity and female education (and family planning advice).

    19. bikhair aka taqiyyah — on 26th October, 2007 at 1:46 am  


      Uh, I dont think Indira Ghandi sterilised people. I think she sterilised women. Correct me if I am wrong.

    20. rupahuq — on 26th October, 2007 at 1:46 pm  

      Hi Rumbold, I know everyone here is discussing the world population however the topic has been all over domestic news coverage lately so I thought I’d add my tuppenyworth. A lot of the foaming at the mouth by people like Migration Watch et al recently has been a response to a projection of UK population explosion made after the popularity of blighty with Polish plumbers since the latest EU enlargement. However historically there have been fluctutations and blips following poorer countries coming in (Spain, Portugal, Greece) that even out when their home country standards of living increase. The increase might prove to have been exaggerated with time and the Daily Mail’s venom to Polish plumbers who are skilled and integrating well may recede.

    21. Sofia — on 26th October, 2007 at 2:03 pm  

      Bikhair yes it was women but I thought to put it under the “women are people too” category

    22. Tim Worstall — on 26th October, 2007 at 2:13 pm  

      Gaah! It’s wealth that reduces fertility, not contraception.
      90% of changes in actual fertility come from changes in desired fertility…pretty obvious when you think about it, who would use contraception if they didn’t want to limit their fertility?
      And it’s wealth that changes the desire. Wealth that leads to female emancipation, to female education, to falling child mortality rates, to longer lives in general, to greater options for women (and thus higher opportunity costs of having many children).
      You want to get fertility rates below replacement levels so as to shrink the population? Then do what the IPCC scenarios suggest: get the currently poor parts of the world rich.
      We also know how to do that, more globalisation.
      And before you assume that this is just some liberal (classical branch) mouthing off, go and look up the SRES, th economic projections that the IPCC reports are based upon. Pay special attention to the A1 family of scenarios. It’s all laid out there for you.

    23. sonia — on 26th October, 2007 at 2:54 pm  

      the interesting thing to note with regards to the relationship between wealth and children - there is of course the fact that the reason people had so many kids was that the kids were the means to future income! in an absence of pensions and state apparatus to look after you, the market conditions were harsh, the organisation( parents) bred the workers ( children) who later on in life, would be obligated to look after the parents. therefore, the kids were the pension. and you’d have to have a few cos you couldn’t depend on just one to make it.

      so..that’s why, with the change of socio-economic environment - why you’re having kids - changes!

      big surprise,?! but there you go/

      time for a weekend thread i think!

    24. Rumbold — on 26th October, 2007 at 4:28 pm  


      “One of the things I learned a long time ago, and still believe to be true, is that the extent to which a society has superannuation benefits is a negative indicator of population growth. Now, whether that is progressive or just extremely boring is for you to decide.”

      Well, it is certainly not boring.


      “Hi Rumbold, I know everyone here is discussing the world population however the topic has been all over domestic news coverage lately so I thought I’d add my tuppenyworth. A lot of the foaming at the mouth by people like Migration Watch et al recently has been a response to a projection of UK population explosion made after the popularity of blighty with Polish plumbers since the latest EU enlargement. However historically there have been fluctutations and blips following poorer countries coming in (Spain, Portugal, Greece) that even out when their home country standards of living increase. The increase might prove to have been exaggerated with time and the Daily Mail’s venom to Polish plumbers who are skilled and integrating well may recede.”

      I agree with you up to a certain point. However, I think that low air fares has increased the numbers coming to Britain, and it is now easier to go home and come back as well (not a criticism of the situation, just an observation).

    25. douglas clark — on 26th October, 2007 at 5:07 pm  

      So, Rumbold @ 24,

      Tim Worstall, as you’d expect, spells it out far better than I can. It’s money what makes the world go round, y’know. Phew! That lets me off the hook of attempting to reply to the link in 15.

      And Sonia says it all a lot more clearly too!

    26. Rumbold — on 26th October, 2007 at 5:09 pm  


      A lot of people seem to have hit the proverbial nail on the head in this thread. Wealth will on average reduce birth rates, but I still think that female education is important is this regard.

    27. douglas clark — on 26th October, 2007 at 5:30 pm  


      Completely agree with you.

      I happen to think that female education, and it’s wee sister emancipation, are probably amongst the most important issues facing the world right now.

    28. Jason — on 29th October, 2007 at 2:11 pm  

      If you allow your opponent to define the question you lose the debate before its begun.

      One billion people could destroy the environment as easily as nine billion, if they all lived like millionaires. The number of people is only one factor in the consumption equation.

      The progressive response to the overpopulation ranters, who essentially want less brown babies so white pensioners can play more golf, is to draw attention to the strain consumerist capitalism places on the planet. One kid born to rich parents in California is a bigger threat to the environment than all the babies in a Bangladeshi village.

    29. Katy — on 29th October, 2007 at 11:49 pm  


      I’m relieved that after 27 comments *someone* has raised this obvious- but annoyingly overlooked point.

      And note that the child in California more than likely does more damage because…. they are wealthy. There is a link between population, wealth and shares of essential resources such as water. But as for dangers to the planet, the link seems to be- mo’ money, mo’ problems.

      Please take a squiz at the World Development Movement’s (WDM) Climate Calendar report which outlines the unequal culpability for our planet’s problems excellently, and chillingly. The WDM have a press release on their website of recent findings that UK flights emit same amount of CO2 as the 15 poorest countries’ total CO2 emissions.

      I’m not suggesting that people living in poverty should be made to stay that way. But neither can they all start living like us. It is interesting to consider that even the poor of this country probably weigh heavier on the planet than the poor of ‘developing’ countries such as Bangladesh. I would say that it is the overall ‘wealth’ of the countries which is at fault- our lifestyles.

      “How the hell can we witter on about tackling global warming, and reducing consumption, when we are continuing to add so relentlessly to the number of consumers?” Well, sorry Boris, but it ain’t that simple.

      We need to find a way for all of us to live comfortably and sustainably on this planet. I think it can be done, but we need to urgently address the over-consumption problem in order to do so. I think over-consumption in rich countries is more of a problem for the whole of the planet than overpopulation in poorer countries. Indeed, it is making the crisis of dwindling resources in those poor countries worse- salination of fresh water and the melting of glaciers being two examples.

      As an aside- when it comes to ‘developing’ countries appalling pollution levels, the problem could be that there are some rich people somewhere, looking for a place to produce their stuff as cheaply as possible- damn the consequences to the environment and local people.

    30. sonia — on 30th October, 2007 at 12:05 am  

      yep brilliant points jason and katy.

    31. Sunny — on 30th October, 2007 at 1:23 am  

      Jason and Katy - I think you’ve both made good points. I don’t disagree. I only think that the average Indian is less worried about environmental damage than about living. So my view would be that India and China especially need to take a lead on managing population growth and economic growth with more sustainable living. I don’t think the USA or UK are likely to lead in this regard - both those countries have to do it because they are going to be the biggest drivers of the world economy this century. China is belatedly making a start sinces it cities are so badly over-polluted. I hope that technology will come to the rescue.

    32. Katy — on 30th October, 2007 at 11:44 am  


      Cheers for that. But I would contend that for the poorest of Indians and Chinese, it would be nigh on impossible to separate the environment and living. If you look at it plainly, none of us should be separating the environment from living because the two are intrinsically linked and always have been. It is our vanity to think that they aren’t. We are biological organisms living within a larger biosphere that, by our vanity, we are damaging like no other species has ever done.

      Like you, I sincerely hope that we can stop the rot before it gets too bad. Unlike you, perhaps, I have less faith in technology and more in existing solutions that don’t rely on high technology. I just wanted to stress the point that by the way *we* live, people in countries like Bangladesh and China are suffering now.

      The reason that the (less populated) USA and UK won’t lead is because we are so mired in our exploitative way of living that we won’t change because it’s too uncomfortable in the short term. Doesn’t seem fair to me. Also because we have corrupt government, as is discussed on another thread. People here are not totally to blame because we are disempowered and constantly misinformed.

      So not only are we causing the majority of the problems, we’re promoting the way of life that will speed us all into oblivion if we’re not careful. If China uses it’s coal reserves to power itself then- technology or no- we’re all f****ed.

      I know this is a bit off topic, so I won’t pursue this any further- I just wanted to make the point that over-population in and of itself is a bit of a red herring- unless you are talking about access to resources or environmental damage for the people in the area in question. Incidentally, my boyfriend and I had many long talks about whether to have children- partly due to the population debate- but then realised that we would bring our children up in a way that meant their ‘footprint’ on the earth would be as light as possible. We know ways to do it without compromising health and well being, as do many others in this country and around the world who are putting it into practise.

    33. Jason — on 30th October, 2007 at 2:23 pm  


      Thanks for the support! I shall look into the WDM report - should provide ammo for debating with others who think its all about too many babies in the third world.


      I agree that a lot of the pressure to act will fall on India and China. But why should that be, when the western world must surely take most of the blame for where we are today? Is this about what’s politically possible as much as what’s morally right? Because, if so, you’ve highlighted a difficult issue. Presenting overpopulation as the main problem provides a handy scapegoat that taps into fears of the foreign horde and provides an excuse to avoid difficult sacrifices. So how do you counter that without sounding like a sanctimonious kill-joy?

    34. justforfun — on 30th October, 2007 at 5:08 pm  

      Progressive solution?

      I’ll give it a go - idealistic blue sky stuff or niave unthought out rant?

      It would be to increase the spending on education from £6k pa per child to more like £25k. Why? - To educate the next generation and the generations after that to be self sufficient emotionally, and see themselves and their activities as being ‘wealth’. To be able to sing, ride, sport, drama, chess, mountainclimbing, bungy jumping anything that we can think of - anything that will allow them to break the cycle of seeing themselves as consumers - the human race as merely a production line for making consumers. A population educated to value their acts and their friends acts rather than the stuff they own or the reasources they can consume. This is because I see wealth as political and social stability, and not money. Money is merely our current post bronze age manifestation of that social stability. The more stable and politically secure we have become, the more money there seems to be around. (Is face book really worth $15b? will the world stay stable enough for Microsoft to collect on their investment?)

      We are fast approaching a T junction. We can take one of two paths, as the current road stops at a dead end.

      We either commit ourselves and the next 4 generations to suppressing the aspirations of the other 8 billion people on this planet so that they cannot increase their standard of living and use up the scare reasources we need. All the while we will wait for the demographic hump to pass and the population to collapse to a more sustainable level. We will have to use what ever is at our disposal. We, or rather our descendants will have to have a steady nerve. Is it acheivable? Of course it is - history has shown many precidents where one small group of humans can dominate a larger group.

      The other fork is to the “sustainable world” is to reduce our consumption drastically and meet the developing world somewhere in between at a level that allows the whole world population to live sustainably. Then we can wait together for the demograpghic hump to pass by and have a soft landing into a static sustainable human population.

      There are costs to both routes. I content that for the first route, the cost will be our freedoms, but the benefits will be a comforatable life, albeit in prisons of our own making.

      For the second route, the costs will be our material possessions, but I think the retention of our freedoms and hard won human rights will be easier.

      Only the WEST has the current wealth( political and social stability)in the form of oodles and oodles of money to spend on education - to experiment and createsocieties where a drastic reduction in material wealth is engineered while maintaining wealth. In the meanwhile the benefits of this research over the next few generations will need to be shared with the rest of the world. They currently aspire to our lifestyles because that is what they have in front of them. We have to put an alternative that their children can aspire to.

      Both routes will lead to sustainable future, but I think the second route is the one that will lead to a future where we will have maintained our human freedoms (and for those worried about their souls, perhaps even they might be spared the final judgement)

      However the second route is only possible if we spend the money now on re-educating our future society to value themselves for their own worth and not by their “Stuff”. Portion packs of yogurt are really more addictive and dangerous than heroin. At least with heroin you are feeding an Afghan through the cold winter. Hence my opening solution :-)

      Rant over


      PS - what sparked this thought was Jane Tomlinson and her raising £1.5m for charity. Her acheivement was immense and immeasurable, but the press always seemed to mention the money she raised as some sort of measure of her acheivement. Her acheivements were immeasurable and the wealth she created was in her inspiration. I had this grotesque thought - this £1.5m she raised, the equivalent of the amount that Ed Balls and his wife will be able to swindle from the tax payer during his career in parliment, by his petty manipulation of their housing allowances. That is the grotesque consequance seeing money as wealth and our contribution, not our social acts that bring better stability and improved connections with each other. If fact Ed Balls makes me puke and now I feel better.

    35. Katy — on 30th October, 2007 at 11:09 pm  

      Justforfun- I largely agree with you, and needless to say I would choose the second option.

      But there are two things I’d like to say:

      First of all, I don’t believe that we need loads of money to achieve the very important goals you outlined. Obviously, helping children to grow and develop as healthy, happy people deserves money if anything does. But I don’t think you need alot of it to develop that stuff.

      Second of all, I think that there are plenty of examples of workable sustainable living all around the world and especially in ‘developing’ countries. They could probably be improved with knowledge from ‘developed’ countries, but I think it would and should be very much a two-way street. In fact, I think ‘we’ have alot more to learn from ‘them’. One of the problems is that, due to pressures from the ‘developed’ world, those ways of life are under threat.

      I think those cultures could also teach us alot about the first problem you outlined- about being happy and the satisfaction that you are self-reliant, whilst having a hell of a lot of knowledge that helps you to be a part of the ecosystem instead of trying to dominate or ignore it.

      Those studies on the happiness of nations speaks volumes. The truth is- you can be happy, fulfilled and comfortable and live sustainably. Notions of hardship from lack of gadgets and modcons are to do with perspective. I’m not suggesting we blindly go back to the Stone Age. But I think it is ridiculous not to look back to see whether certain ‘old’ ways of doing things weren’t better after all, coupled with a modern outlook on how we can adapt those ‘old’ ways in the light of new (not necessarily high) technology. There’s so much innovation around now that revisits previous ways of doing stuff. And it doesn’t all come from rich countries.

      I haven’t seen it yet- just a preview and synopsis- but the film ‘Power of Community’ sounds excellent. It is about how Cuba survived their oil crash. I’m looking forward to learning from that.

    36. justforfun — on 31st October, 2007 at 9:12 am  

      Katy - I’m away for the next week but checking final emails and PP of course, so can’t respond at length but you are right about much to learn from ‘poorer’ societies about their sustainable lifestyles and how we need to get back to some of that into our lives. I just am not sure how much can be acheived in small scale ‘step by step’ organic proporgation of those ideas. I think perhaps a real commitment from society in the form of a ramped up education budget is needed, just because the problem is so severe and we are approaching the junction very fast, and I’m afraid the there are other hands tugging on the streering wheel as well!!. So its oodles and oodles of money into an education budget - mush will be wasted I am sure - but what is the alternative? And that from someone who cringes at the ‘jobs’ pages in the Guardian :-) . We are after all talking about a complete de-brainwashing (?) of the Western consumers mind spread over many years and we need to value ‘humanities’ more. This is from someone who is really an engineer who understands the inanimate and has created many of the problems we see, but perhaps I just have realised what I have been doing in my career and am taking steps to rectify the stuff I create.

      Good luck with the rest of the thread - it is the most important discussion yet , because as Rumbold says, few seem to want to discuss it or even think of solutions. Some even want to turn the strategic into the tactical and just discuss immigration, because it is just easier on the mind. Far easier to squabble over the colour of someones skin sitting on the back seat, rather that look forward out the winscreen at the approaching cliff and actually drive the car.

      Anyway have to rush


    37. justforfun — on 20th November, 2007 at 1:26 pm  

      Blasphamy on R4 Today Programme - Thought I’d post this link on this thread. Its not the Islamic kind so no effigy burning required (think of the CO2 mind, when burning future effigies - you know who you are - think of the environment)

      Did John Humphries commit blasphamy on the Today Programme yesterday - listen to it at about 7am 21 minutes.

      He definately uses the words ‘cut in living standards to cut global warming’

      Is this the first time that these words have been strung together on the BBC by a presenter on a mainstream programme? Does he know something we don’t? Should we PANIC?


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