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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?

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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood