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Green agendas and grey dawns

It’s not so much about how many of us there are on the planet, but how we consume, and how we cope w

Britain has never had a population policy, but it seems we are well on the way to having one. The population of this country is at present growing at approximately 1,000 people a day and is predicted to reach 77 million in 2050. The immigration minister, Phil Woolas, felt the need to “give assurances to people that that sort of figure is not on the horizon”. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been making similar noises of concern.

Yet the point of a population policy has yet to be made clear. Whether in England, which is now the most crowded large nation in Europe, or at a global level, concern about overpopulation is being expressed ever more freely. But the messages are often mixed, the rationales confused. Many think the real arguments for taking population seriously are green ones. If so, let’s hear them.

Environmental targets are much harder to meet with a rising population. Yet we also need to accept that, on a planet where a growing number of people are buying increasing quantities of stuff, merely stabilising numbers is not going to be enough. Consumer citizens gobble up resources at an alarming rate. If we demand such a lifestyle – and it seems that most of us do – we must also accept the environmental penalty clause. We need a decisive shift away from going for growth, and towards managing decline.

The sooner we get used to this transition, the easier it will be to cope with it. For one of the main facts in this whole debate is that fertility is in free fall in many countries. It has plummeted not just in the UK, but worldwide: in the early 1970s, women had, on average, 4.5 children; today that has fallen to 2.6. And it is still falling. Across the developed world, it averages out at roughly 1.6 (that is, below replacement level). The prediction is that the world’s population will plateau at about nine billion some time in the middle of the 21st century. At this point, small families will be the norm across most of the world.

It is a prediction which relies on the idea that, by 2050, the poverty and social conservatism that force so many women to have large numbers of babies will be history. It sounds like wishful thinking. In fact, it is already happening. In many countries, we are experiencing a transition from population explosion to grey dawn. Japan is seen as the trendsetter here: its population is in steady decline and the number of over-65s is set to rise to one in three by 2025. This is a pattern also now affecting South Korea.

Some countries with shrinking indigenous populations, such as Britain, Germany and Italy, have tried to buck the trend by drawing in young workers from developing countries with still-growing populations, such as India (of the UK’s predicted 77 million people in 2050, 80 per cent will be a product of direct or indirect immigration). But the fertility of many developing nations is already withering: sooner or later they will go the same way as Europe. In 1952, women in India had six babies on average. Today, that figure has halved and is likely to fall further this century. The same is true for much of the developing world (with the exception of large chunks of Africa).

It is time to adapt to this new world and deal with the consequences. The environmental implications of continuing to “go for growth” are certainly pretty scary. Coupled with an exploding rate of consumption, the impact of nine billion people on the planet in 2050 will be profound (today, we have six billion; in 1960, it was three billion; in 1800, one billion). Each Canadian consumes about 6.5 times as much energy as the average Chinese. What happens when 1.3 billion Chinese get anywhere near this? Or when each Haitian has the same environmental impact as each American (at the moment, just one citizen of the United States has the impact of 280 Haitians). It is something of an eco-ditty, but it happens to be true: that even to supply our existing six billion at US levels of consumption, we would need four more Planet Earths (the comparable figure for consumption levels in the UK is just three Planet Earths).

It has been more than 40 years since Paul Ehrlich introduced us to the “population bomb”. Yet Ehrlich’s contention that population growth would lead to mass starvation was wrong. Thanks largely to the intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, the global population is larger and better fed than at any time in human history. But does that mean population size doesn’t matter? If we approach the issue from a broader environmental perspective – encompassing everything from biodiversity to climate change – then the bomb has already gone off.

The catch-22 of today’s debate is that population slowdown is premised on rising consumption. Wealthier families have fewer children, but such children as they do have enjoy lives of cradle-to-grave consumerism. That pretty much describes my life so far, and it is just as true for most of us in Britain. The Chinese and Indians are heading exactly the same way. The western lifestyle is within reach for billions of people. As such, while efforts to reduce consumption are important, their potential is very limited. Nor is it good enough just to lie back and hope that once world population growth has levelled out, issues of scarcity and environmental degradation will cease to be a problem. They won’t. A smaller world population needs to be actively promoted, its benefits extolled and the problems of models of wealth generation based on labour growth understood.

One of the most absurd modern myths is that societies with lots of old people are destined for poverty. It is worth pointing out that demographic bulges are not permanent. In Britain, we will experience a bulge of people who are aged 70 or above in 20 years, but they will be pushing up the daisies 20 years later. The demographic profile of Britain is not an inverted triangle, but a weird, knobbly thing. Bulges come and go. In the absence of attempts to “go for growth” by inflating the population through immigration, the overall trend would be towards a smaller but then stable population (at least a few million under the present population). This wouldn’t be bad news and it certainly should not be cause for panic.

The message may finally be getting across. A report issued by the Office for National Statistics in December 2008 had the refreshing title Benefits and Challenges of an Ageing Population. So let’s rid ourselves of the mantra that old people are non-productive units. We spend far longer being an unproductive burden on society as infants and young people than we do as broken-down wrecks at the end of our lives. The old are often the main carers for the young and are far better employees. Lurid fears about hordes of welfare vampire wrinklies draining every last penny from the twitching bodies of the overworked young are fantasy.

A society with a declining population has to be an old-age-friendly society. It would also be a place that could combine somewhat reduced rates of consumption with environmental sustainability. In Britain, moreover, it might allow ordinary people to gain access to things that have been priced beyond their reach, such as space and tranquillity. This is an aspirational agenda that the current punitive discourse on population control bypasses.

Last year George Monbiot wrote in the Guar­dian that “most greens will not discuss” overpopulation. Once a favourite liberal-left cause, the whole issue has become taboo for some people. The phrase “population control” still evokes images of enforced sterilisation in Indian villages and draconian sanctions in China. State bullying of the impoverished is nasty stuff. Yet, if I am right, 21st-century population policies should not be about clamping down on the poor but about managing the numerical decline of the rich. A more positive spin on the same argument is to say that 21st-century population policies need to be pro old people. To be honest, there is not much choice. A grey dawn is breaking across the world. On our messed-up planet, it’s a welcome sight. l

Alastair Bonnett is professor of geography at Newcastle University. His latest book is “What Is Geography?” (Sage, £16.99)

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

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.