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

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An army with lead boots

Last Friday morning, within a few hours of the street massacre in Nice, I arrived in Paris.

Last Friday morning, within a few hours of the street massacre in Nice, I arrived in Paris to report on the way France was responding to the attack. Even before my report went out on that night’s BBC News at Ten, reports of the attempted coup in Turkey were coming in. By Saturday morning, I gave up asking senior French politicians for interviews because British interest in Nice was fading. By Sunday three policemen were dead in Baton Rouge. The next day an Afghan attacked railway passengers in southern Germany and was shot dead. New events crowd in on us constantly, overlaying and obliterating whatever happened yesterday, or this morning, or tonight.

But not, understandably, in France. Nicolas Sarkozy says that France is now at war. So does Le Figaro, which was calling on Saturday for a “pitiless response”. “Merah, Charlie, Bataclan, Magnanville and now Nice . . . How many savage murders and blind massacres before our leaders admit that Islamic fanaticism is engaged in a struggle to the death against our country and our civilisation?”

As Le Figaro’s editorial director whipped himself up into a frenzy of imprecision in his editorial, I was reminded of a television interview I once did with Margaret Thatcher at the height of the IRA’s terror campaign. I was never an admirer of hers but on this occasion I thought she was magnificent. “War?” she said as the camera turned over. “War? This isn’t a war. These are criminals, murdering and injuring decent people. We’ll find them and the courts will put them in prison, and there’s an end to it.”

It worked. A lot of other things had to be done, including addressing the serious grievances of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and changing the whole basis of life and society there. Yet after its appalling early mistakes the British government stopped declaring war and demanding pitiless responses. On the contrary: life went on as close to normal as possible throughout the IRA’s bombing campaign. There’s no doubt that some shameful things happened in secret, but the basic principle – that a civilised society should remain true to its values even when it’s under attack, and perhaps especially when it’s under attack – was maintained; and the IRA was eventually beaten.

There are dangerous characters in any country and they require monitoring and infiltrating. The Bataclan attackers in Paris last November were a disciplined group with a clear plan. But some of the worst incidents in Europe have been the work of deranged loners. Le Figaro called Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the mass murderer of the Promenade des Anglais, “a soldier of the caliphate”. Bulls**t: he was just a sad, nasty little character with a propensity for violence against women, who had stopped taking his medication and wanted to validate his craziness. No doubt the Afghan teenager who was shot dead on the German train after going berserk with an axe was deranged, too, but that didn’t make him a soldier in anyone’s army. Attacking people in the street is a horrible, vicious fashion, just like storming on to a university campus in America and shooting people with an ­assault rifle, or stabbing children to death in Chinese schools. You have to take proper precautions and eventually, with luck, the fashion fades away.

However, the security authorities have to get their act together. This is where the French system has fallen down. According to the right-wing president of the Nice regional council, there were only 45 policemen on duty at the 14 July celebrations. No significant roadblocks had been set up, and it was pathetically easy for Lahouaiej-Bouhlel to steer his lorry round the concrete barriers and get on to the boulevard.

The previous week a government commission under a centre-right politician, Georges Fenech, reported that France simply wasn’t very good at defending itself against terrorism. The commission recommended the establishment of a single national counterterrorism agency, in place of the six competing and, by all accounts, mutually hostile intelligence organisations. Fenech said France’s inadequacy was like equipping an army with lead boots. Yet directly after his report came out, the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, rejected the notion of overhauling the intelligence services.

As many as 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France since the start of last year. “Something bad seems to happen every six months,” said a woman I filmed outside the Bataclan, “and we don’t know how to stop it.” France feels itself uniquely targeted. Yet the British example shows that Fenech was right and that it is possible to stop terrorism. After the 7 July 2005 bombs in London, an inquiry showed – in terms remarkably similar to Fenech’s – that intelligence about the culprits hadn’t been shared properly. Regional counterterrorist units were set up across Britain and the Security Service, MI5, opened up to the other agencies to a remarkable extent. The long rivalry between MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, was defused.

Now, once a week, MI5 and MI6 hold a meeting with GCHQ and the police at MI5’s headquarters, at which they share intelligence and agree what action to take on it. Extremist groups have been infiltrated with great success. As a result, Britain hasn’t suffered a mass-casualty terrorist attack since 2005, though 40 plots have been foiled in that time – including seven in the past 18 months. Sometimes, of course, we’ve just been lucky: a car bomb was planted outside a London nightclub in 2007 but it was so poorly assembled that it didn’t go off.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who despite his last-minute radicalisation would certainly have been picked up under the British system, rented his white lorry, drove it past the inadequate police check-points, and murdered 84 people who were just out to enjoy themselves. Forget about pitiless responses and declaring war on abstract nouns: what is required is proper, joined-up policing. That’s how a civilised society protects itself best.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He tweets @JohnSimpsonNews

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt