What to Read on Copenhagen

December 11, 2009

World Bank and dirty coal; rain makes you taller; IMF v Brazil on capital controls; Oxfam in Copenhagen; climate rows in graphics and the onward march of US unemployment: links I liked

December 11, 2009

Population: why it's a dangerous distraction on climate change (and makes us feel uncomfortable)

December 11, 2009
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Trust the military to give it to me straight. Population comes up at virtually every talk I give – on climate change, development or just about anything else. But usually my questioners are a bit more circumspect than the man from the armed forces who recently asked what could be done about ‘women popping them out’ in poor countries.

People cause climate change, therefore cut the number of people. Right? Not really. A closer look shows that the conventional view is wrong, or at least a gross over-simplification.

Malthus goes to the beach

Malthus goes to the beach

First, the numbers. The global population is about 6.8 billion and rising, but the rate of growth is slowing and the world population is expected to peak at about 9 billion in 2050. The growth rate is slowing fast, verging on collapse in some countries (South Korea is in a national panic about falling fertility rates and shrinking populations and is likely to look to immigration to fill the gap). The drivers for a far faster demographic transition than that seen in previous centuries in Europe or America are a combination of urbanization, women’s education, access to contraception and (one hopes) the spread of notion’s of women’s rights and control over their own fertility.

So one response is that the ‘problem’ is self-correcting, and indeed, if the transition gets any faster, the world could be faced by a serious shortage of working age people to look after the rising numbers of elderly. If their arguments were based on logic alone, the population control lobby would probably be advocating compulsory euthanasia rather than birth control, but its preponderance of elderly white male members makes that pretty unlikely.

In what sense is population growth a ‘problem’ (or ‘challenge’, as the management-speak people like to say….)?  Certainly not on climate change mitigation – as The Guardian’s George Monbiot argued in a great recent polemic, over the last 30 years, the countries with fastest population growth rates have the slowest emissions growth rate, and vice versa. But that hasn’t stopped a bit of blatant opportunism by the Optimum Population Trust, launching an offset scheme where you can offset your carbon emissions by funding birth control programmes in developing countries. Guys, the problem is consumption, not population. A cull of rich Americans or Australians might have an impact; population growth in Africa is largely irrelevant.

Adapting to climate change is more of an issue. In dozens of developing countries, Oxfam has witnessed the hammering that poor communities are already taking from climate change. Overcrowding in rural areas can increase their vulnerability. But the OPT doesn’t seem too bothered about that (wonder why?). Population is undoubtedly one among many contributory factors t0 hunger and local environmental degradation, although often there is enough food, it’s the distribution that goes wrong.

So if population growth is (sometimes) important, what is to be done? Listen to women, stupid.

the best contraceptive

the best contraceptive

No coercion is required, just access to education and family planning services (not just contraception, but also proper abortion facilities to reduce the horrendous death toll from backstreet butchers). (And to be fair, the OPT would agree with this). Amartya Sen famously showed that a combination of girl’s education and access to contraception prompted a demographic transition in Kerala every bit as fast as China’s coerceive one child policy.

I’m talking evidence and arguments thus far, but the choice of language also matters. As soon as the issue is framed as ‘population control’, the problem becomes ‘them’ – those women ‘popping them out’. That, along with population control programmes’ chequered history of coercing and tricking people into being sterilized in several notorious cases, is why many people in developing countries find the term so offensive.  Start with ‘women’s rights’ and the discussion becomes about ‘us’, our shared rights and the solidarity to achieve them. Talk about the problem of over-consumption, and the debate revolves around equity, redistribution and low carbon development, not fewer babies.

That discomfort on language is, I think, why so many NGOs tend to avoid the subject altogether. But in doing so, we unwittingly abdicate the ground to the bad guys. Time to go on the offensive?

The population debate matters, especially in these Copenhagen weeks, because it risks becoming a massive distraction. We need to focus on curbing consumption and emissions, not babies and women’s rights. Otherwise we risk blaming the victims and letting the climate villains off the hook.

Want some more ammunition? Enjoy these spectacularly wrong assertions from Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller ‘The Population Bomb’, published in 1968 and I would guess a major, if subliminal, influence on the current crop of population controllers:

‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

‘”India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980,”

‘”One general prediction can be made with confidence: the cost of feeding yourself and your family will continue to increase. There may be minor fluctuations in food prices, but the overall trend will be up”.

‘The United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 years by 1980 because of pesticide usage, and the nation’s population would drop to 22.6 million by 1999′

Oh, and here’s a video of me giving a grumpy interview on the Optimum Population Trust nonsense – it was late and I wanted my dinner…..

A condensed version of this blog was published yesterday by the New Statesman


  1. Duncan, if I had to pick the best blogpost you have done on this site, I’d pick this one.

    It’s that feeling of when someone has put into exact right words the frustrations you have been finding it difficult to contain for years but couldn’t quite articulate.

    Thanks to you I won’t have to physically harm the population controllers to make them shut up…

  2. Duncan,

    “…proper abortion facilities…”

    I don’t see how killing another human being is anyhow linked to prosperity, and what is more, to the prosperity of the woman who aborted…

    No nice feelings after having done that. Regret obscures every other thing.
    We’ll never have peace as long as abortion is instilled in our communities.

    I guess the belief that abortion is a solution is just the result of poor research: researchers, please go back and ask women who aborted how they feel about that.

    What about the women who go to these backstreet butchers? I’m with you: proper education.
    No abortion.
    Besides, a lot (a lot) go there almost obliged by family or men.
    It’ll never be a solution.

    Best regards

  3. Much to like, much to dislike. Good for you in promoting the idea of voluntary contraception and education of women and girls — not need for top down population control, just the enhancement of women’s reproductive liberty.

    However, the projections of 9.2 billion in 2050 assume that governments around the world will make the necessary investments in family planning, and that is not a guarantee.

    Shame on you for falling into the “its only a consumption problem”… its not either/or, its both/and.

    If we should be liberating women anyway — regardless of the ecological crisis — and if doing so will help mitigate that same crisis, then why on earth would you take pains to obfuscate the matter?

  4. Duncan,

    First, I don’t think you were all that grumpy and I really enjoyed your arguments. Thanks!

    Second, I most certainly agree that the focus needs to be REfocused on the issue. While population control is of utmost importance for developing nations, insofar as it helps to alleviate problems associated with resources shortages and overcrowding, I think the emphasis that is being placed on this issue regarding climate change is outrageous!

    The countries that have the highest levels of emissions are those in the developed world. The unconditional acceptance and endorsement of overindulgence in the Western nations has lead to these nations to go consumption crazy. The percentage of people with SUVs, the industrial parks that appear consistently throughout the US terrain, the massive lawns that people tend to, the protein based diets that Westerners are addicted to…THESE are the issues we should be focusing on. It is ridiculous that people are trying to argue that the families in sub-Saharan Africa (granted some may have 10 people) are contributing to climate change at the same rate as the developed world. What these people consume in one week is what Westerners consume in one day!

    I agree that consumption is the issue. The communities in these developing nations must be exposed to family planning and contraceptives as a means to enhance their lives, NOT in order to thwart the affects of environmental degradation. The blame is being passed again, however, I am not surprised.

  5. Much like population size is not the heart of climate change, whether abortion is the answer to population control is not the heart of what Duncan is proposing (from my reading). Yes, the ability to choose not to have a child is central to questions of women’s rights and population growth, but I am inclined to agree that in terms of climate change the problem is “consumption, not population.” This is supported by my periphery understanding that areas with high fertility rates and lower GDP are more inclined to find resourceful ways to meet their needs, waste less, and consume less– especially compared to Western countries where the birth rate is low, GDP high, and consumption of goods embarrassingly high.

  6. A very good post. There was a debate at the Economist on the same topic, and I was flabbergasted how many people, even academics support a simplistic belief in a push for population control for saving the planet, mostly of the poor. It really makes me uncomfortable.

  7. It does seem like a solution that solves itself in the short to medium term. The demographics of states that develop shows us the trajectory and what to expect. States that develop show initial increases in birth rates and population because access to better health care enables more children to survive to maturity. The next event that influences population growth is the subsequent decline in birth rates themselves. This is a process that is evident across societies since development began. The answer to population growth is development and women’s education. The same answer is necessary for climate change. Technology and investment in education are the ways forward.

  8. I was a bit shocked that the officer really thinks that global climate change was caused by too many women in developing countries having too many babies. Passing the buck, perhaps? As you rightly identified, the cause of climate change is consumption, and the distribution of consumption weighs heavily on developed countries (or the military for that matter). There are so many indicators that come to mind, which negatively impact families in developing countries (e.g. like high child mortality, extreme hunger, maternal mortality) and which in some ways counter high fertility rates. I also am glad that you mentioned that people living in low-income developing countries are more likely to be affected by climate change, both directly and indirectly.

    And finally, props to identifying the importance of education for girls. Education = empowerment, which goes a long way in improving their quality of life and that of their future families.

  9. I agree that the population should not be blamed for the climate change. It’s true that overpopulation in some regions leads to the shortage of natural resource, but the effect would not spill over worldwide. I think the article gave very good suggestion on curbing the population, such as women’s education and access to contraception.

    Actually, most of such regions are victims of climate change. First, the lagging behind economy make them impossible to consume and emit a lot. Also, their burden of overcrowding and inadequate resources makes them more vulnerable to climate change. So, authorities and international community should devise wise policy to minimize the effect of climate change by passing on the know-how to the locals.

  10. In addition to what you’ve stated, part of the solution to the ‘problem’ of population growth is for the rich world to allow for more immigration. Not a new idea of course, but it’s missing in your piece. It would preclude the need to euthanize rich whites (though that would help the over-consumption problem a bit), help distribute wealth via remittances and also work toward population control as kids become a blatant liability in capitalist economies.

  11. Population growth in poor societies doesn’t currently lead to a large increase in CO2 usage. But it does lead to local environmental degradation and it increases that populations vulnerability to natural disasters, for example people move to over-crowded cities and live in vulnerable locations on steep slopes or at risk of flooding. As you wrote in a previous excellent blog (with John Magrath), natural disasters can rarely be attributed to just CO2 driven climate change and the impact of ‘an act of God’ relates to the communities vulnerability (my words – I read it a while ago).

    I hope these climate talks are not distracted by concerns over population growth – but I do believe that this is an issue that needs more of our attention, quite possibly with a focus of improving womens rights, education and access to family planning.

    And while you’re at it, can you solve corruption too please.

  12. Great blog.As others have said, in terms of global zapping of ecosystems and emissions of greenhouse gases the problem is mainly consumption, not population. Energy expert Prof Kirk Smith – see http://sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/298/5600/1847#affiliation – says there are 2 billion people in the world who currently have nothing else to cook on but biomass (=deforestation and an appalling toll on women’s lungs). If they were all able to cook on LPG, it’d add less than 2% to global GHG emissions – that’s how little energy the poorest people consume (and how much – 98% – the rest of us use up). But what chance for global redistribution towards an equallising of consumption based on meeting needs but not pandering to luxury?? Much talked of, never achieved….the sticking point to solving climate change is not that it requires us in the rich world to DO something, it requires us to STOP doing something….and that’s much harder (I include myself. )

  13. I also find it a bit absurd to link population growth in poorer countries to climate change. I have to reitterate the point made by many here that consumtion in richer countries is the biggest culprit. Bigger families in poor countries can’t contribute much to climate change because they don’t have the resources to do so.

    High population growth can be an issue in development, and I also agree with many here that women’s rights, education and availability of contraception are keys to progress. As the previous comment states, we have to “do, or stop doing” certain things in developed nations to help with climate change. I am one of the offenders as well, but am becoming more and more aware of it.

  14. Re abortion – I dislike abortion too but forcing a woman to carry a child that she doesn’t want is even worse. Millions of children (people) live in poverty because the societies they were born into care more about the sanctity of birth than about how these children (people) actually live once they have been born. How many children are forced to work in slave labour conditions, live on the street, become prostitutes because of this? There are too many countries that have too large a population for their economies/environments to support. It is governments that care about planning for their long-term futures which will support family planning. Governments who don’t care about their people (their women or their children) don’t.

    And countries worrying about their falling populations probably should look at their patterns of consumption which would help them address climate change too!

    Also, your comments about David Attenborough are a bit unfair. He supports the Optimum Population Trust because of decades of seeing the effects of huge population growth on the environment and for people not the other way around. And he’s not alone amongst experienced environmentalists. When, two years ago, Attenborough came out and supported the science behind climate change, he convinced many wavering members of the public. I believe he is on equally sure footing when it comes to population and the problems that it is causing and creating. It is the establishment that believes that there is no need to act that needs to reconsider.

  15. Duncan,

    I agree with your theme.

    Many assume that “population” is a poor nations’ issue. But in rich nations big footprints are multiplied by big populations. For example the USA in 2009 had 4.2 million births, and 2.6 million deaths, giving a 1.6m “natural increase” (added to 300 million total) multiplied by 9 gha footprint.

    But your relaxed suggestion that population is “self-correcting” troubles me. The UN projection of a peak (after 2050) depends on global average fertility (TFR) falling to 2 by 2050 (including “least developed” nations going from 4.39 to 2.41). As you know, advances in women’s empowerment, and in men’s culture, are needed.

    The level of peak is important, because a plateau is likely. Governments (especially rich ones) do not like populations falling, for structural reasons.

    Duncan> “South Korea is in a national panic about falling fertility rates and shrinking populations”

    To clarify, “shrinking” is future fear not current reality. In 2009 there were 433,000 births and 288,000 deaths in South Korea.

    Please don’t play into the hands of US and European natalists and the “depopulation panic”. Because future falls in fertility are already built in to the UN forecasts, there is no room for rising fertility now (or in the future).

    best wishes,

  16. Duncan,

    While the positive argument you make in favor of girls education and increased access to family planning is solid, there is a sense of this post being more feelings-driven than factually-driven. This may reflect that I do not share your unease over the word population, which has long been neutral in its development usage among health professionals.

    But there are some shortcuts in the logic that I hope are simply condensations of more complex facts. Specifically, it is a bit of a straw man argument to argue that because consumption drives emissions, population levels are not critical, or that (as you quote) countries with faster population growth have slower emissions growth. Unless you believe that the lower emissions levels in Africa or other poor regions reflect something essential about those people, you should know that the rate of consumption of individuals is constrained largely by their wealth. If you took individuals from those countries with high levels of income comparable to people in developed economies, would they have lower emissions rates? It transforms much of the discussion into an issue of allocating “blame” for emissions over national identities rather than a thoughtful dispute over the best means to address climate change.

    Framing the discussion on climate change to focus around population rates misses the point, as that’s neither the key reason to work on women’s reproductive rights nor a sufficient step to mitigate climate change. I certainly agree with this core of your post.

    However, in correcting such misapprehensions as regards drivers of climate change, please don’t rely on shortcuts and shorthand. Those do a disservice to the value of good population programs in their own right, and also neglect the potential contribution to climate change of every person, economic circumstances allowing; it gives the appearance of confusing poverty with essential preferences about how to live. Particularly as one considers rapid gains in wealth in China, it is a part of the discussion to consider future contributions to emissions of large, poor populations as they start to have the means to buy cars, bigger living space, etc.

  17. Great post. There are no easy answers, are there?

    I like how you talk about the need for better education and family planning choices for women. As someone living in the Western world we tend to take this for granted.

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