A world too full of people

Politicians of western countries avoid talking about population control, but if we invest in family

Leucadia Quispe, a 60-year-old mother-of-eight, was born and raised in Botijlaca, a settlement that sits in the foothills of the Chacaltaya and Huayna Potosí mountains in Bolivia. High above, the Chacaltaya glacier is retreating at an unexpected pace: three times as fast as predicted ten years ago. It will be gone in a generation.

Seven out of her eight children have already migrated to other parts of the country, Leucadia says, "because there is no way to make a living here". Because of the dwindling water supply, she must spend hours hauling water in five-litre containers, one in each hand. The scarcity of this precious resource makes it hard to find fodder for her llamas and sheep, and some of her llamas have starved to death.

Women such as Leucadia are on the front line of the struggle against climate change, according to Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch
Institute. But her plight as a mother dramatises an issue that was largely ignored at the UN summit in Copenhagen last December and is also missing from the agenda of the UN summit in Mexico (COP16), scheduled for late this year. It is the problem of human numbers.

It is predicted that, if the global population continues to grow at the present rate, the world will need the resources of a second earth to sustain it by 2050. Today, there are 6.9 billion people on the planet; in 40 years, this figure will reach 9.2 billion. Most political leaders, however, are reluctant to examine the matter. The term "population control" has connotations too sinister for many, even though it can simply mean sensible family planning.

It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of all pregnancies around the world are unintended; addressing this could make a vital difference. Research from the Optimum Population Trust, whose patrons include the environmentalists David Attenborough, James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt, suggests that, for every $7 (£4.50) spent on basic family planning services over the next 40 years, global CO2 emissions could be reduced by more than a tonne. It would cost a minimum of $32 (£20.50) to achieve the same result with low-carbon technologies.

Between now and 2050, meeting the world's family planning needs could save up to 34 gigatonnes of CO2 - nearly 60 times the UK's annual total. As Unicef reported as far back as 1992: "Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology available to the human race."

This hasn't escaped the notice of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), whose latest State of World Population report - written by Engelman - revealed that there are more than 215 million women across the world wanting but unable to get contraception. The logic goes that if more resources were poured into fixing this, fewer unwanted babies would be born - and it would be better both for the women involved and for mankind as a whole, because it would lead to lower carbon emissions.

Wrong multiplication

So far, so uncontroversial. However, the world's poorest billion people (who account for very many of the 215 million women without adequate contraception) produce only 3 per cent of the global carbon footprint. In other words, focusing exclusively on this group is not particularly efficient. If change is to be made through family planning, it follows that richer countries must be involved: by current estimates, the average British child has a heavier carbon footprint than 30 children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet when I asked the head of the UNFPA's population and development branch about the need to introduce policies encouraging women throughout the world - and particularly in the west - to have fewer children, he would not endorse it. "We're not promoting any particular policy to increase or decrease fertility," José Miguel Guzman explained to me on the phone from New York. "Our main goal is to give women the power to decide how many children they have, and to pressure governments into introducing policies that reduce per-capita emissions." The focus, in other words, should be on reducing human consumption rather than human numbers.

This seems logical for wealthy countries such as Britain, which is among the world's highest per-capita energy consumers but has just two children per family, on average. Yet due in part to immigration, the UK's population is projected to rise from the current 61 million to 70 million by 2029, and 77 million in 2050. That's more than another two Londons. If the Tories and the Lib Dems manage to agree on an immigration policy, this could have an impact, but no one can say how much. And no matter how "green" the coalition says it is, this volume of extra people will add substantially to the UK's already heavy carbon footprint. If British families have two children on average, at least some women must be having three children or more. Given Britain's disproportionate consumption patterns, can the world afford this?

The question drifts dangerously into the arena of women's autonomy. Initiatives encouraging smaller families - such as child benefits, or tax breaks for families with two children or fewer - could be seen as unfairly weighting a woman's reproductive choices. When does an incentive become something more sinister? What, in policy terms, amounts to coercion?

It is an area fraught with difficulty and efforts to tackle it invariably meet with opposition. Oxfam's head of research, Duncan Green, has been critical of the Optimum Population Trust's PopOffsets initiative, which invites people to offset their carbon emissions by funding family planning services in the developing world. The scheme, he said, is tantamount to blaming the victims. "I'm all for supporting women's reproductive rights," Green explained to me, but, in his view, PopOffsets puts "the wrong people in the frame". This kind of attitude, he says, tries to make light of the harm to the environment done by the developed world and by emerging-market economies such as China. "Would you have more population control in China?"

At its heart, the debate exposes a worrying paradox: the fundamental contradictions in the goals aimed at helping poorer countries. The UNFPA, along with many major charities, advocates reducing carbon emissions and promoting investment and education. Yet, as nations get wealthier, they pollute more. This means that helping countries to develop - at all - sits awkwardly with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions.

It is argued that, with enough support committed to helping countries grow sustainably, a damaging jump in pollution can be avoided. (It's also true that, as nations become richer, their fertility rates drop.) But most experts concede that, even with the best-laid development plans, there will be a time lag during which emissions will rise. And given that one of the few agreements at Copenhagen was that Planet Earth's temperature cannot rise beyond 2°C in the coming decades, this could be the worst possible time for such a blip.

In the mincer

Thinking about population numbers is important for many reasons - many of them basic and uncontentious. The UNFPA used this year's World Population Day in July to drive home a message about the importance of governments gathering good demographic data, in order better to predict where resources will be needed and to mitigate, for example, the effects of India's swelling cities. So, why are the consequences of birth trends not being considered more seriously?

“Population growth is the kind of area that gets ignored because people want to ignore it," says the environmental scientist James Lovelock. "But it can't be wished away." He points out that humans and animals contribute 25 per cent of global emissions by "just existing on the planet, [even] before you add cars or anything".

What can be done? No one would suggest that we should hold back on helping countries to get richer or their citizens healthier in order to cut down human numbers. Nor is China's one-child policy palatable to most western voters or policymakers, even if it has produced between 300 and 400 million fewer people on the planet. Likewise, population control should not be seen as the catch-all solution to climate change: technological innovation, political co-operation and meaningful social change will all have important roles to play if, as Lovelock puts it, we are to give our descendants a chance, "instead of letting them get ground up in the mincer".

But just as in the past not enough attention was paid to the effects of polluting gases on our atmosphere, now too little thought is going into what multiplying human numbers will mean for future generations. We must ask ourselves tough questions. Although we cannot deny women the right to choose how many children they have, does offering tax breaks for smaller families in richer countries amount to the same thing? Or does it, in fact, grant the poorest citizens of the developing world, people such as Leucadia, the right to a better life?

Mary Fitzgerald is assistant and online editor of Prospect magazine.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
Show Hide image

Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster