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Planet Overload

The world’s population is 6.8 billion. That figure will rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, clim

If you write about the environment you become used to a measure of unfriendly criticism. In the main, it’s pretty innocuous stuff – charges of miserabilism and so on. But since concentrating on the issue of human population growth, I have found the criticism noticeably darkening. The other week, after helping to launch a campaign encouraging couples to “stop at two” (children, that is), I received an email accusing me of “real, hard-hitting fascism” and adding: “The Nazis . . . would be proud of you!” This was nothing, however, compared t0 the hate mail I received when the organisation of which I am a part, the Optimum Population Trust, published a report arguing that, as human beings were the agents of climate change, one way of combating climate change would be to produce fewer new humans.

Population can arouse violent feelings. Much of the hate mail originated from religious groups in the United States. But the more recent message came from an academic address at Oxford. Personally, I find it hard to conceive that an intelligent, acquisitive, expansive, territorial, aggressive and physically large species such as Homo sapiens could increase in numbers from 2.5 billion to 6.8 billion since 1950 and not cause an environmental crisis. Moreover, I cannot see how, on top of the existing 6.8 billion, we can accommodate another 2.4 billion people over the next 40 years (which is what the United Nations says we can expect) without something to go seriously wrong on the earth.

Such views were once widespread but have become less so. After making much of the running on population in the 1960s and early 1970s, green groups, for instance, have become wary of the issue. The UK’s best-known environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt (see page 27), a keen advocate of stopping at two, is among those critical of the green lobby’s neglect of the population growth issue, describing it as gutless, wilfully ignorant and “less than honest”.

There are many who regard the silence of the greens on population as a shameful episode in the history of a movement that has done an enormous amount to change the world for the better. One might cite a number of factors in mitigation, however. The rise of the religious right, particularly in the US, has added to the ranks of those who believe that birth control infringes religious or political liberties – and in the process forged an unlikely holy alliance with Catholicism and Islam. The excesses of state birth control programmes in India and China have left a residue of suspicion – although China’s one-child policy has prevented the addition of 400 million to a population already facing environmental nightmare. The burgeoning human rights agenda has, meanwhile, made all exercises of judgement over the lives of others potentially suspect. So, aid-givers have lapsed into silence on population for fear of being labelled white imperialists.

To an extent, seeing, and experiencing, is believing. In the UK, concern about population was at a peak in the postwar baby-boom decades, when family size was well above the replacement level of 2.1 and the effects of growth were plainly visible. Domestically at least, a quieter demographic era then dawned: below-replacement family sizes, the expectation that the UK population would peak early this century and thereafter decline. This comfortable vision of Britain is now history.

Under the impact of an upward twist in birth rates and record levels of immigration, which now accounts for over two-thirds of population increase, numbers are rising at rates not seen since the baby-boom days. Government statisticians tell us that the UK’s population, six or seven million in 1750, 50 million in 1950 and 61 million today, will reach 85 million in 2081, with no sign of levelling off. And why should it, when we live in a globalised and globally warmed world with potentially millions of environmental refugees heading our way – making the British Isles, as the environmental guru James Lovelock puts it, one of the planet’s lifeboats?

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the population issue has been reignited, at least at grass-roots level, as millions of us, particularly in the south-east of England, experience crowding and congestion every day and read in our newspapers, as we strap-hang on some packed commuter train, that it is going to get worse. Last September, England was confirmed as the most densely populated of all the larger countries in the EU: only Malta is more crowded. It is also not surprising that, among the political classes, the immigration component of population growth has led to silence on the issue as a whole – after all, who wants to be accused of racism? But never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance: that human facility, only too familiar in matters of a green nature, to think one thing but do the opposite. In this respect the Daily Mail, which fulminates against higher den­sities, but describes those in favour of limiting family size as green zealots, may be all too representative of Middle England.

Yet if the silence on population has lately begun to crumble somewhat under pressure from below, a larger question lies behind it. How do we know that the world is overpopulated? Common sense might argue there must be a causal link between the loading of an extra four billion people into the biosphere in the second half of the 20th century and the contemporaneous appearance of severe ecological ills. But common sense also argues that there is lots of land left in the world – think Canada, Siberia.

The contemporary environmentalist, meanwhile, will defend his silence on population by arguing that it is not human numbers that are the problem; it is more about how those human beings live. This employs the

I = P x A x T formula popularised by the population ecologist Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 classic The Population Bomb. IPAT says human beings’ impact is a product of their population numbers, multiplied by their affluence and their technology. In other words, the more stuff you own and do, the more burdensome you are to Planet Earth.

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently argued that as global economic growth, before the credit crunch, was 3.8 per cent and population growth was 1.2 per cent, the affluence or consumption half of the equation bore twice [sic] as much responsibility for environmental damage as the population half.

The truth is far more complex – partly because the figures assume an exact equivalence between economic growth and human impact at variance with the facts. Some of the ingredients of economic growth (oil, mining) have a great deal of environmental impact; some (financial services) have much less. Many human activities do not register in gross national product at all. If I go for a walk in the park – or, for that matter, cut down a wild tree to use as firewood – I will be contributing to impact but not to economic growth.

This is more than scholasticism, however, because we are making value judgements about future human numbers all the time – whether we acknowledge it or not. Faced with sub-replacement birth rates in many countries in the developed world and with talk of a “birth dearth”, for instance, many governments have begun to promote the economic benefit of women having more babies or of higher immigration as a means of paying for our pensions. You hear less of this in the UK since the idea was rubbished by the Pensions Commission, but it is a remarkably durable piece of mythology that carries startling demographic implications. Since new arrivals grow old and then require pensions themselves, you need an ever-growing population to keep the “support ratio” between workers and non-workers the same. To maintain the present support ratio in the UK, for example, would demand a national population of 136 million in 2050 – more than double the current number.

Is that too many? Most of us would think so – including, apparently, the new immigration minister, Phil Woolas, who said last year that Britain required a population policy, and that the government wouldn’t “allow” the population to reach 70 million (we’re on target to hit that in 2028). But explaining why it might be too many is a different matter. It is not easy to determine the “carrying capacity” of a place – whether it be the United Kingdom or the planet. The American population scientist Joel Cohen asked, in his 1995 book of the same title: how many people can the earth support? But he could not answer his own question, though he noted that the carrying capacity of the number of human beings the earth could support had ranged over the past three centuries from half a billion to more than a thousand billion.

Ecological footprinting

Since the publication of Cohen’s book, however, a new methodology – “ecological footprinting” – has emerged and this is providing a higher level of consistency. Ecological footprinting measures national and global biological productive capacity (the stuff we live off) against human demand (the “footprint”). The resulting data takes both population and consumption into account and provides what many regard as the best guide yet to measuring sustainability. It has been reported that, at the current rates of consumption, the world can support only five billion people. This means the planet is already overpopulated by nearly two billion.

Given that the new science of ecological footprinting has borne out what common sense was suggesting as far back as the 1960s, it’s probably a good job we haven’t all waited for proof. In 2007, 69 out of 195 countries had policies to lower population growth, compared with 39 in the mid-1970s.

This included 70 per cent of the less developed countries: 34 out of 53 African states, for example. And there have been some remarkable, and unexpected, success stories – not least Iran, which decided after a census in 1987 that population growth was holding back development and, between 1988 and 2000, reduced its fertility rate from 5.2 children per family to a below-replacement level of two. Thailand cut fertility rates from 6.3 in 1967 to 1.7 in 2003. Many other states have reduced their birth rates at a speed comparable to China but without coercion. They include Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Morocco, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Tunisia, Vietnam and India (the southern states).

Half a century after the first population and family planning programmes began, the ingredients of success are well established: strong government support, often through explicit population policies; partnership with NGOs; an emphasis on women’s status, rights and education; education on sex and relationships; and, above all, the ready availability of contraceptives – supplied in Iran, for example, by a nationwide network of “health houses”.

Yet more than 200 million women worldwide lack access to contraception, and international spending on family planning – partly because of anti-abortion policies adopted by the Bush administration in the US – has recently been in steep decline. Given that even the UN middle-range world population projection of 9.2 billion by 2050 assumes a further drop in birth rates of up to 46 per cent, this is worrying indeed. Without reductions in fertility, the UN says, we could be nearing 12 billion in 2050.

How to make a difference

Oddly, in a world of large populations, small decisions do make a difference. If every woman had half a child less than currently projected, for example, the world population would be 7.8 billion in 2050 – 1.4 billion fewer people, or roughly one China less. In the UK, meanwhile, if the 26 per cent of women currently expected to have three or more children were to limit themselves to two, our mid-century population would be cut by an estimated seven million – enough to return an area the size of Wales back to nature or food production.

Would that be a good thing? If you are concerned about other species or that nebulous but powerful grouping of ideas we label “the wild”, yes. But even from a brutally anthropocentric standpoint, it has a certain logic. Footprint data suggests that, based on current lifestyles, the sustainable population of the UK – the number of people we could feed, fuel and support from our own biological capacity – is about 18 million. There are thus 43 million “too many” of us, all reliant on the outside world for sustenance. In an era of impending shortages – of food, oil, gas, water – does that not seem a little risky?

The UK has no population policy – despite ranking in the top 20 of the most overpopulated countries, judging by the standard above. If we had such a policy, it would need to address immigration as well as birth rates – a good enough reason, cynics might think, for politicians to forget the whole idea. It would also need to address a further vexed issue – what numbers are sustainable and what are desirable?

Environmental orthodoxy treats population and consumption as two factors in an equation, and thus accepts, by implication, that both are important, but concentrates on one (consumption) while ignoring the other (population). This not only compounds errors in analysis with errors of logic: it has had intangible but far-reaching effects, not least in giving environmentalists a reputation as killjoys, forever telling us what not to consume and making calculations of sustainability seem dour technical exercises in survivalism. Both tendencies have damaged the wider green mission. But there is another way of looking at the numbers question, one that goes beyond sustainability and perhaps bears more directly on what it is to be human.

Consider two Planet Earths – one of nine billion people with x amount of “consumption”, the other of one billion with 9x consumption. Bear in mind that the world of nine billion may be more inventive, but also more pressured and stressful, less spacious. Bear in mind particularly that often, by “consumption”, we mean activities which for many people, laudably or not, make life worth living – holidays, hobbies, travel, freedom to choose. In the modern environmentalist’s formulation, both worlds are the same. In practice, they are not; there are choices to be made. Shouldn’t we be making them, and urgently?

www.optimumpopulation.org

Click here for statements from the three main political parties in Britain on population and immigration

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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