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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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times