February 2018
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A battle of red herrings: let’s move on from over-population

Tomorrow, at the Upper Gulbenkian Gallery at the Royal College of Art, the 2010 “Battle of Ideas” debate will be taking place, on the subject of “overpopulation”. The theme of the debate will be “The great population debate: too many carbon footprints?” and the speakers will be Roger Martin of the Optimum Population Trust and Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked magazine. The debate promises to be one where one speaker presents a doom and gloom scenario (à la Thomas Malthus) about how dreadfully over-populated the planet is based on some back-of-an-envelope ecological footprint calculations, and the other speaker claiming that the first speaker is scaremongering and that we’ve heard these predictions of disaster before, but they’ve never come to light, so we shouldn’t be worried, and population control is coercive and unethical.


Neither side has it completely right. Reluctantly, if I had to pick one team to side with, it would have to be the OPT’s Malthusian view that curbing population growth is necessary, but probably not for their stated reasons. Endless population growth, of course, is unsustainable. The neo-liberal “people should just do as they please and we are here to propogate and pro-create” argument doesn’t hold water indefinitely. But I only agree with them in principle—the evidence that we have passed that limit of sustainability already is, frankly, poor. The ecological footprint calculations that the OPT produce are based on current levels of per capita consumption and carbon emissions: it is these that need to be reduced rather than population numbers per se. Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, gives an excellent précis of this argument.

Furthermore, OPT tends to over-egg the pudding when it comes to its proposed methods of curbing global population growth. The key driver of population growth is fertility, which can be brought under control through family planning policies, as OPT rightly points out. But oddly, OPT also targets teenage pregnancy in the UK as a major driver of population growth. In doing this, OPT muddles up the concepts of global population growth with country-specific population growth. The two are very different. Not only that, but teenage fertility isn’t even a major contributor to total birth rates in the UK, and total fertility is below replacement level in the UK anyway.

Taking that mix-up still further, OPT also targets migration in its policies to reduce population growth. It is true that population growth in the UK has been, in recent years, largely driven by net inward migration. But why this is of relevance to global population growth is anyone’s guess, since the people in question are alive already. Nevertheless, OPT devotes a lot of attention to arguing for “zero net migration”. It argues that this should be achieved by bringing immigration down to the level of emigration. It strikes me that the same could be achieved by raising emigration to the level of immigration.

I could go on, but in fact, all of this is a largely irrelevant sideshow, as there are some more fundamental issues that have been missed. Teenage fertility is of little consequence to global population growth. Migration is a major driver of population growth in some countries, but not globally, so “raise the drawbridge” policies of the type championed by OPT are of no consequence to global population growth at all. High fertility rates in poor countries are what currently drive population growth, but these are in countries where carbon footprints are tiny in comparison with richer nations, so are irrelevant to the question of carbon emissions. The population growth issue is therefore not an environmental concern, so should not be championed as such. Doing so deflects attention away from the real issue, which is changing behaviour so as to reduce carbon footprints of rich countries.

There are, however, very good reasons for promoting family planning and reduction of fertility in poor countries, but these are reasons of social justice, poverty eradication, women’s rights, and development, rather than environmental degradation. This is where I feel O’Reilly gets his argument wrong, as he overlooks both the non-environmental benefits of family planning and the fact that reduced family size is in fact a consequence of raised living standards, rather than a cause. Hans Rosling argues this point in many of his global development lectures. Here are two examples.

So this “overpopulation” debate looks set to be a squabble between “all these extra people are gonna suffocate our planet!” and “it’s my human right to procreate!”, neither of which really gets to the heart of the issues regarding population growth. The problem of treating population growth purely as an environmental issue is two-fold: it serves as a distraction from real environmental problems, and it fails to delve deeper into the underlying problems of which population growth is a consequence. Let’s move on from this battle over red herrings.


2 comments to A battle of red herrings: let’s move on from over-population

  • The problem with this argument is that it treats strategies as alternatives: we either address population levels or consumption levels; we either address global population growth or UK population growth; we either address poverty or population growth. By contrast, OPT does accept alternative strategies. We believe that population matters and that addressing it alongside other factors will be essential to long term sustainability. Today, we need a sophisticated approach which sees the connections between poverty, gender inequality, environmental degradation, resource depletion, reproductive health and population size and addresses them in concert.

  • michaelgrayer


    Thanks for your comment, although I don’t agree that my argument does what you say it does. I think your comment is fair in response to Brendan O’Neill’s arguments (if I’ve understood him correctly), but not mine.

    Accepting alternative strategies (adopting an “holistic” strategy, if you will) is all very well and good, provided each element of that strategy has a sound basis for being included. I do not say that we must adopt one thing or another in a strictly binary fashion. My argument is that some things are more relevant than others: it’s perfectly OK to adopt both strategies provided there’s a good reason for doing so. The real danger of adopting a so-called “holistic” approach is that spurious correlations are seen in an holistic framework to be causal links (because “everything is interconnected”). It’s a trap that I think OPT’s policies fall into, particularly regarding teenage pregnancy, migration, and the role of the UK population size with respect to environmental issues.

    In principle, I agree with you — that a multitude of factors need to be taken into consideration — but as always the devil is in the details.

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