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7 reasons why some progressives don’t get population

A response to Adam Ramsay's article. Wishful thinking does nothing to address real problems.

Flickr/criatvt. Some rights reserved.

Some progressives, including Adam Ramsay, (The charity which campaigned to ban Syrian refugees from Britain, 23 September), don’t get population. This seems surprising. Progressives seek poverty alleviation, environmental conservation and a better future, all goals of population concern. Like population concern, progressives are concerned about the disempowered: women, the poor, other species and future generations.  When population concern was more popular, many progressives supported it, including Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger and Jane Fonda. Many on the right did, too, but then environmentalism is a broad church. Our patrons include conservationists David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Chris Packham, scientists Partha Dasgupta and James  Lovelock, family planning providers John Guillebaud and Malcolm Potts and former Green Party luminaries Sara Parkin and Jonathon Porritt. The Green Party has a population policy. We all live on the same planet.

However, not everyone quite realizes that. Let’s make that the first of seven reasons why some progressives don’t get population. Many, especially young male ones, seek a target to attack. Since well before ancient Athens, the rich and powerful have tried to hold onto their wealth and power and the poor and disempowered have tried to get hold of it. So progressives aren’t always happy with something that doesn’t fit their simple dichotomy of rulers vs. ruled. Population concern, which says that we all have a responsibility and can make a difference, disrupts an ‘us vs. them’ world view which holds that it’s the bosses/ government/ establishment/ system to blame. Some progressives go further and deny that disempowered people are responsible for anything, though they can draw the line at crime. Similarly, some feminists argue that women have rights but no responsibilities. This seems to run counter to progressives’ faith in society. If society is a public good, hasn’t its members a responsibility to it? The number of one’s children has a greater impact on the environment than anything else one does. 

The power of the disempowered has always been their force of numbers in opposition to the wealth and structural control of the establishment. That tactical insight and idolisation of the masses should not extend to assume that more people is always better. Some progressives, with their admiration for humanity, can also be anthropocentric. Today’s continuing elimination of many other species should not be treated with equanimity.

The second reason for ignoring population is idealism, i.e. living in the world of ideas. Marx based his analysis on an understanding of the material world. By contrast, some progressives, then and now, are more interested in moral condemnation than practical solutions, or fear contaminating ‘rights-based’ campaigns with real world problems. Ignoring reality does make it easier to preserve one’s values and avoid distasteful compromises. But it doesn’t make it go away - the physical world doesn’t take account of what people think. In reality, the climate kept on changing and biodiversity kept collapsing in the background as human numbers doubled in the last half century alone. Similarly, it is no coincidence that conflict ridden regions are characterised by competition arising from limited water (and hence food) supplies and rapid population growth. Thus, the population of Syria and Iraq has risen seven fold since 1950.

A third reason is some progressives’ desire for simplicity. They need a slogan: ‘One solution, revolution’ or ‘It’s consumption, not population’. The world is more complicated. Population Matters was launched in 1991, not because we thought that addressing population was the only solution, but because it was the only one being ignored. Yes, inequality and waste should be addressed, though that may be less practical and fruitful than some imagine. We should eat less meat and explore promising technologies. But it is fanciful to think that a projected 50% increase in human numbers by the end of this century is inconsequential and should be unaddressed. Promoting smaller families is not an ‘or’ but an ‘and’.

This desire for simplicity is related to an unwillingness to make connections, perhaps because we live in an increasingly specialized and professionalised society. Thus some progressives comfort themselves on population with the thought that the world’s poorest people, who have the largest families, don’t consume much and thus their exploding numbers are immaterial. This reliance in combating climate change on people remaining poor is impractical and hardly moral. People don’t like being poor. They will, resources permitting, industrialise and prosper, or move to somewhere with better prospects. Many progressives, indeed, work hard in development to increase the consumption of the world’s poorest, somewhat undermining their argument that such communities can be relied upon to remain poor. Encouraging migration from poor to rich countries has a similar effect. There is, too, the argument that once communities become prosperous, they will have smaller families, so there’s no necessity to intervene in this blissful progress. Of course, by the time this prosperity arrives, if it does, populations will be several times larger than currently and total consumption will be vastly higher.

Moving from south to west, progressives typically ascribe responsibility for environmental degradation and resource depletion to the richest economies, which generate most emissions and consume most resources. That’s true, so doesn’t it make sense to ‘join the dots’ and promote smaller families in such countries and limit migration to them, to avoid making an unjust situation worse?

This leads me to the fourth reason why progressives don’t get population and that is migration. Migration is running at unprecedently high levels and is the British public’s greatest concern. People can see the impact of one of Europe’s highest levels of population density and population growth, particularly in London and the south east – a growing insufficiency of affordable housing, conveniently located education, responsive healthcare and comfortable transport. These all hit the poorest hardest. However, progressives typically consider themselves internationalists, with a hearty welcome for others, and so would rather not address the issue. We think there has to be limits to migration for any society concerned about environmental sustainability. That doesn’t mean no immigration. If well managed, UK emigration of 300,000 each year provides plenty of leeway for admitting some refugees while achieving balanced migration. That said, the huge numbers involved, with three million fleeing Syria alone, preclude migration being a solution for most. There are also significant outflows from Somalia and Sudan, and that’s just one letter. Negotiating to end persistent conflict and properly funding refugee camps is much more helpful. In the longer term, directing development aid to improve family planning provision and women’s empowerment in the poorest countries, as recommended by UK parliamentarians, is the only sure way of reducing migratory pressures. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, is experiencing a population explosion, driven by improved health and nutrition, just as climate change and overexploitation threatens already precarious natural resources.

Another kind of idealism, in the sense of being guided by ideals rather than self-interest, is the fifth reason. Succouring the poor, like the Good Samaritan, is meritorious.  We, too, think the poor should be helped. However, providing most people with a state subsidy for every child, no matter how many they have, sends the wrong signal in a world where rising numbers increase everyone’s cost of living and lowers their quality of life. That’s why we, like the public, think phasing in a two child limit to child benefit, while maintaining support for poorer families, is right, particularly in the UK, which has one of Europe’s highest proportions of large families.  While on poverty, ending world poverty isn’t made easier if the number of poor keeps increasing. Moreover, population growth actively impedes development by putting pressure on limited services and diverting resources from productive purposes.

A six reason is some progressives’ lack of comfort with sexual and reproductive health and rights – a very British response. Progressives, especially feminists, are vocal about allegations of forcible sterilization. It doubtless occurs; human rights abuses do, though many far more common abuses receive vastly less publicity. However, forcible sterilization is universally illegal and condemned by all international and civil society organizations, including ourselves. Unsurprisingly, it is rare. Conversely, deaths and disability from pregnancy, especially when frequent or occurring at a young age, and from abortion in unsafe circumstances, are all too common in resource poor settings. Moreover, women’s impaired rights over their fertility are inescapably bound up with impairment of other rights, such as to education and employment. Promoting smaller families empowers women. Couples who can access affordable and appropriate family planning and thus have a real choice usually have smaller families. Some have one child, some none, and these should be accepted choices. Those who have larger families anywhere are often under the influence of conservative, patriarchal and hierarchical traditions. We don’t apologise for promoting smaller families. Encouraging socially responsible behaviour is not coercive – it’s what progressives do.

Reproductive health is not an issue only for the global south. The UK has relatively poor sexual health – poor sex education in schools, ineffective family planning provision and a high rate of unintended pregnancies. Addressing this would help bring the UK birth rate down to the European average, yet how many progressives are campaigning alongside Caroline Lucas for compulsory sex education, or against cuts to public health?

The seventh and final reason is lack of foresight. It is only human but hardly prudent to think only about the here and now. Admittedly, politicians, to remain politicians, must be re-elected, business leaders, to stay in post, must increase profits, employees must satisfy their employers, while progressives must campaign for change and thus many focus on today. Yet sustainability is a long game. Use of fossil fuels must end, because of depletion or their environmental impact. Seafood is a finite resource which is declining. Fertile land and water supplies are falling due to overuse and climate change. Areas remaining to be exploited are declining. Fertilizer and some minerals will become less freely available. Meanwhile, demand is relentlessly upward. Those who do not eat enough, want more. Those who are vegetarian want more varied, albeit much less environmentally friendly, western style fare. Those of us who should eat less, struggle to do so. And there are annually 80 million more to feed as people live longer, as the number of mothers increase, and as birth rates decline only slowly.  Resources will become scarcer and those with the least will suffer most.

Let me sum up. Humanity is consuming too much for sustainability, even though almost 800 million people eat insufficient for good health. Slowing and reversing population growth through improving sex education and family planning, women’s empowerment and promoting smaller families, is not the only solution, though it is the cheapest, most reliable and most beneficial one. However, making the world a better place is not a competition between exclusive alternatives. Promoting sustainability is about adopting and combining all factors that contribute to improvement.

What I would say to progressives, is this. Our policy positions are public. Do support what you would anyway: sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s empowerment and reducing inequality (yes, we support this – gross inequality is not sustainable). For other policies, like limiting subsidies to larger families and to net migration or promoting smaller families, consider how they help address the need to secure and retain resources for the poor, other species and future generations.

There is a real danger from wishful thinking and comforting platitudes and it is this: that needful action is not taken and that, consequently, future generations have to deal with the consequences of human numbers several billions greater than the world can provide for.


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About the author

Simon Ross is chief executive of Population Matters, Britain's leading charity and membership organization concerned with population and sustainability issues. Its vision is of a global population size enabling decent living standards and environmental sustainability.

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