Opinion: How to tackle over-population for the sake of our planet

Monday, 31st October 2011, is ‘7 billion Day’, the day chosen by the UN to represent symbolically the world’s human population reaching 7,000,000,000.

In 1800, the world’s population was approximately 1 billion. We ‘achieved’ 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, by 1999 it had doubled to 6 billion, and it has taken 12 years to reach 7 billion. By the middle of the century the best estimates are that it will be around 10 billion. (You can find the UN’s figures here.)

Medical advances and public health measures have led to much lower infant mortality and much greater longevity. Industrialisation and technology have enabled the earth’s resources to be exploited with greater efficiency.

BUT… our poor Earth cannot sustain even our present population. Already the average citizen of the planet consumes its renewable resources at a rate of about one-and-a-half times the rate they can be replaced. If everyone in the world consumed resources at the rate of the average European, we would need three and a half planet Earths; at the rate of the average North American, some five planets.

Already some areas of the world face serious water shortages; we see the result of drought and famine daily on our television screens. By 2025, according to the UN, two-thirds of the world’s people will be living in water-stressed countries. China, the US and other rich countries are already buying up vast tracts of the developing world so that they can produce food for their own use rather than giving locals the opportunity to use the land to feed themselves.

Oil, copper, and other minerals, formed over hundreds of millions of years by infinitesimally slow geological processes, are being consumed as if there is no tomorrow. Carbon emissions, climate change, damage to the environment, over consumption of dwindling food and fresh water stocks and a burgeoning human population, are all linked.

    ‘All environmental problems become harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people’, Sir David Attenborough.

Reducing our carbon footprint is important, but the most important environmental decision we each take in our lives is how many consumers we produce, for the next generation. In other words, how many children we have.

There are several voluntary organisations who are trying to tackle this problem of over-population – not, as some would have you believe by coercive means, but by getting this message out to those who are in a position to decide how many children to have – two maximum, one, or none are the recommended figures, and to leave child-bearing later rather than earlier.

We also need to get contraception to those 215 million women in the world who at present have no choice, because for whatever reason they cannot use contraception. 40% of pregnancies in the world are unintended. (The site www.populationmatters.org is excellent for more information.)

Many detractors say population increases aren’t a problem of the developed world. But celebrities like the Beckhams are having four to five children each, and people are starting to emulate them.

Westminster is still paying people to have children but financial incentives should be introduced to discourage more than two pregnancies (simply replacing ourselves is a step in the right direction). It is time the decision-makers woke up to ‘the elephant in the room’ and made difficult but vital decisions for the sake of those who follow us.

I made the choice not to have children for this very reason.

Councillor Marc Oxley is the group leader of Rutland Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Laura Gordon 31st Oct '11 - 6:04pm

    I really don’t think this is something we need to make policy on – most developed economies now have birth rates well below replacement level, and as countries develop then their birthrates drop rapidly – just look at Bangladesh. Apart from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Asian countries are quickly dropping to replacement rate, as are South American countries – only Sub Saharan Africa now has birthrates well over replacement rate. The obvious lesson to draw is that if you can produce economic development, which brings a higher opportunity cost for women’s time, better healthcare and greater opportunities to save for old age, as well as a greater dividend for investing in children’s education, then the birthrate will drop on its own.

  • Adam Corlett 31st Oct '11 - 6:08pm

    Quite right. Providing family planning to those that want it but don’t currently have the choice (empowering women in the process) is good news for everyone (except the Pope?). And it’s an extremely cost-effective method of tackling environmental and resource problems (all while giving people MORE choice).

    The difference between low and high population projections would have an immense impact in terms of living standards, resource competition, GHG emissions and biodiversity. We need to ensure we’re aiming for the low projections. A post-2015 MDG perhaps?

  • The facts about burgeoning populations in the developed world speak for themselves. In 1940 the UK population was 48,220,000 and owing to the UBoat blockade, rationing had to be introduced . Every inch of available soil was ploughed up to grow food for the Home Front and many went hungry as a result. We haven’t had the ability to feed ourselves in a sustainable way since Victorian times (It has been calculated that a sustainable population for a country the size of the UK is 27million). Our population now stands at 59,911,000. Almost 12 million more mouths to feed in 70 years. It is the same across the whole developed world. We have a choice, leave it to nature to find the balance with pestilence and famine, or allow the strongest to take what they need from the weakest by force of arms, or we act now to try to create a more sustainable global population using education, contraception and most importantly financial incentives.

  • This whole area of debate does tend to split between hysteria & complacency, each encouraging the other.
    Prediction of future Population numbers is fiendishly difficult & often distorted by cultural fashion. For example, between The Wars most predictions were that Britains Population would fall sharply in the later part of the Century. Most of the Estimates for The End of The Century cluster around 40 Million. The real figure was 60 Million.
    While World Population is still growing the rate of growth has been falling for 40 Years.

  • More people on the planet isn’t the problem, but rather issues like inequality and bad infrastructure are. There are many reasons to celebrate 7 billion on the planet. This milestone proves how ingenious we are, that we’re better at keeping more people alive longer now than ever before, and we have more brains to create and develop more useful technologies and innovations to accommodate a growing population. Yes, there are still problems of starvation and lower standards of living for many on the planet, but neither history nor mathematical logic bears out the conclusion that population pessimists reached – which, btw, only views humanity as consumers and not producers. Where there are these problems, we need to go about creating more for everyone rather than curbing our numbers. In the Victorian times, the world’s population was a small fraction of what it is now, yet there was still poverty. What changed and improved our lives in the West was not going down from 1 billion to less, but improving sanitation, healthcare, our general standards of living, and discovering and taking advantage of scientific breakthroughs. We should see humanity as a solution and not the problem. I came across a spoof recently that parodies the many ridiculous overpopulation fears and paranoia – it is hilarious and brilliant! http://www.worldbytes.org/get-off-my-planet-happy-birthday-7-billion/

  • I can’t quite understand how it is ok to be consuming more than we can produce in ever greater quantities. Hysteria is a word that is often used to diss those who are trying to bring attention to bear on the greatest single crisis humanity has faced in its history. But how can it be tenable to have a world population grow from 2.5 billion to 7 billion in only 50 years. Or a I missing something. Devout Christians say God will provide. Is that what those who turn their face away from the truth are hoping is going to happen? Only time will tell. I am not holding my breath.

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