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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Who would oppose Scottish independence in a second referendum campaign?

The case for unionism is there. But after Brexit, who will make it?

Back in September, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mobilised her troops. Standing on the stage at the party's conference, watched by thousands of SNP supporters, she instructed activists to speak to at least five people each month in the run-up to St Andrew’s Day. 

At the time, with opinion polls against independence and the possibility of a soft Brexit still dangling above the Remainer heads, it seemed like a diversion tactic.

But by March, staying in the single market had been ruled out. Support for Scottish independence rose to 50 per cent, according to an Ipsos Mori poll. And Sturgeon has now declared that she wants another vote by 2018. 

Which will leave a lot of Scots asking: “Where’s the unionist campaign?”

***

Now that Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor, has retired from frontline politics, there is little doubt about who the star of Scottish unionism is. Ruth Davidson, the lesbian kickboxer who single-handedly revived the Scottish Conservatives, did so by defining her party as the voice of the union. 

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election campaign, held before the Brexit vote, the Scottish Tory party leader pledged to do “a specific job” – oppose a second indyref.

However, despite Davidson self-described reputation as a “photo tart”, she is unlikely to spearhead a campaign. The Scottish Tories’ official position on a second referendum is denial (to acknowledge it is seen as playing into the SNP’s hands). She is also seen as too divisive for a cross-party campaign. 

“I think Ruth is a very talented politician and a good communicator,” Blair McDougall, who was head strategist on the 2014 cross-party Better Together campaign, tells me. “But she is not a figure everyone would unite around.

“I think she is smart enough to know a Scottish referendum isn’t the next stage in the rehabilitation of the Scottish Conservatives.”

If a second referendum should be called, McDougall expects unionist politicians to accept less prominence than in 2014. 

“You need politicians to do the dog-fighting in the TV studios when there is a particularly hot debate,” he says. “But actually this time it is probably more fruitful to be a campaign that is led by civilians.” 

While many of Better Together's big beasts are savouring retirement, the prospect of a second referendum is already causing some of them to stir.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last-ditch speech in favour of the union has been watched more than half a million times. Since the EU referendum – in which he made an equally impassioned, but less successful pro-union intervention – Brown has been lobbying for a federalist solution to the UK’s constitutional woes.

McDougall describes Brown as “indefatigable”, but expects him to focus his attentions on the “Labour side of things”. 

This touches on another change from 2014. Labour entered the Scottish referendum as a party defeated in Westminster, but still holding 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Today, only one Labour MP, Ian Murray, remains. Since the referendum, activists have fought and lost two elections and an EU referendum. They are exhausted and demoralised.

***

Then there are the issues. In 2014, the Better Together campaign’s message of cold, hard economic facts worked. Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK. 

McDougall believes economic realism is still the best strategy, if focused on an argument about protecting the NHS, and other public services put at risk by an economic crisis.

Scots on both sides of the 2014 debate have remarked to me that, as the Brexit negotiations sour, voters may think twice about quitting another economic union. 

Others are less convinced. The veteran campaigner I speak to compares the Better Together campaign to the later Remain campaign, which backfired after being parodied as “Project Fear”.

He says of the 2014 message: “It got us to the finishing line, but it didn’t make people feel particularly good.”

Some of the unionists I speak to believe a second pro-union campaign would be more targeted, with different messages for “left behinds” who voted to leave the UK, but approve of Brexit, compared to the pro-Remain pro-EU crowd in leafy Edinburgh neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, unionists fear the SNP may summon an emotional nationalism powerful enough to eclipse spreadsheet slogans – and that Westminster may inadvertently help if MPs try to block a second poll. 

“Most people I’ve spoken to think Sturgeon wants to have a fight about getting to hold the referendum,” the unionist campaigner tells me. “The moment [Westminster] Parliament turns them down, they’ve got a grievance.”

***

For now, the Holyrood and Westminster gossip is focused purely on whether there is going to be another referendum, and if so, when. But to me, the lack of an organised union movement betrays a deeper challenge for the UK constitution.

In 2014, Brown declared that Scottish achievements happen “not in spite of the union but because of the union – and none of us is any less a Scot as a result of it”. 

It was still possible, at that time, to imagine a Lib-Lab coalition taking power in Westminster the following year. The UK’s membership of the EU was intact. The economy was improving. 

Since then, Scottish Tories aside, the unionists have lost representation in Westminster, lost membership of the EU, and spend their energy fighting cuts and debating the impact of Brexit on the economy. 

Even if a second referendum is never called, progressive unionists have been left homeless by the UK’s mainstream parties. The Tories ask them to defend the UK's single market while turning their back on the EU’s. Labour, from opposition, is asking the same. Neither party is making the case for a soft Brexit, let alone a coherent argument for the ideal of unionism. If it dies in Scotland, perhaps not in 2017, but in 2020, or 2025, they will only have themselves to blame. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.