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

@Didn'tHappenUk
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Hate crimes, social media, and the rise of the “hoax hoax”

When hate crimes rise, so do the number of people trying to discredit them.

The first thing 16-year-old Kiaira Manuel did when she saw a bold, underlined sign reading “COLORS ONLY” over one of her high school’s hallway water fountains was go to her school administrators.

“They said they were going to handle it, but so many things go unnoticed at this school and they just don’t care,” says the now 17-year-old, explaining her decision to post a picture of the sign on social media that night. “So this was taped above the water fountains at my school...” she innocuously captioned the image, which has now been shared over 1,500 times.

It took a day for someone to call her a liar. Twitter user @iH8Thots tweeted Manuel a message, which was then also shared hundreds of times on the site. “We go to the same school,” he wrote. “I watched you put that piece of paper up there and take the picture.” Manuel blocked the user, which was then seen as “proof” that his accusation was true.

These tweets were first posted in January – when the sign was stuck over the water fountain – but over the last few days, Manuel has fended off a fresh flood of people taking to social media to call her a liar. The timing is no accident. Since Donald Trump won the United States presidential election, there has reportedly been an increase in hate crime in America – with the Southern Poverty Law Center receiving 200 complaints in the last week. There has also, in turn, been a surge in people trying to discredit hate crimes, by loudly labelling them hoaxes on social media.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to unravel @iH8Thots’ claims. Less than a week after the incident, he and Manuel appeared on the comedy podcast Pod Awful to talk about their viral tweets. “You’re clearly a fucking troll,” says the host within a few minutes of speaking to @iH8Thots, even though he initially believed his story. @iH8Thots refuses to explain his side of events, is unsure of his own age, and calls his lawyer – who has, in the host’s words, “the voice of a child” – to defend him on air. When I asked – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – whether he would like to speak to me for this piece, he replied: “lol. fuck the media. journalists can go to hell”.

Before all of this, however, a cursory glance at the profile of @iH8Thots – a username that, translated from internet slang, seems to mean “I hate That Hoe Over There” – was enough to disprove his accusations. Manuel claims that when he first posted the tweet, his account said he was based in California, nearly 3,000 miles from her high school in Florida. His feed was full of similar trolling messages, and if you click on his account today, you will see a man in a gas mask holding a gun staring out from his profile picture, a design for a fascist flag of America as his header, and a timeline full of pro-Trump and anti-liberal tweets. Few people, however – both when the tweet first blew up and now it has reappeared – think to check.

Manuel’s experiences are part of a current trend on social media that I will tentatively call a “hoax hoax”. It goes like this. Someone posts evidence of a hate crime on social media. Someone else uses false evidence to out their post as a hoax. This, however, is the actual hoax. It is a lie claiming someone else lied – a hoax hoax.

This is happening on fake news websites and across social media. A Twitter account @DidntHappenUk was set up last month to expose people they believe to be lying on the social network. Despite offering no evidence for who is or isn’t telling the truth in any scenario, they have over 2,000 followers – with half of these gained over the last week since the election. “A nice display of left hand writing here,” they wrote above a picture of a swastika-laden racist message that was allegedly left on a Facebook user’s car.

“People think that, after the election, people are making up hoaxes to prove that there is hate in the world. It’s so stupid. People don’t do their research on these things and now I’m being used as a prime example for it,” Manuel says.

The problem is being exacerbated by police forces using social media to encourage victims to come forward. Twitter users jumped on the journalist Sarah Harvard when she claimed her friend’s Muslim sister had “a knife pulled on her” at her university and the campus police replied saying: “This has not been reported to police. If you are in contact with anyone involved, please encourage them to give us a call.” Though they meant well, their tweet was used as evidence that the event never happened at all. This is a problem because police reports are not the be-all and end-all of proving a claim’s veracity.

Manuel says her school administrators, for example, were reluctant to act when she reported the water fountain incident, and she felt they were dismissive of her concerns. “When I put it on social media it was forcing them to actually pay attention and actually do something about it,” she says. Contrary to what many might expect, then, some people – especially those who are disenfranchised – are compelled to turn to social media over the authorities.

“That’s why we put stuff as ‘Unproven’,” says Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of the internet’s oldest fact-checking website, Snopes, which uses “True”, “False”, "Mixture", and "Unproven" buttons to label stories. They recently labelled a story about a Muslim woman told to hang herself with her hijab in Walmart as “Unproven” after the police said they had not heard about the attack.

“We didn’t want to say ‘False’ because there’s not much we can do if two people were involved and neither of them are talking and nobody saw it. Maybe she didn’t want to go to the police. All sorts of creepy people will start threatening people who do so. And the people who are doing it certainly aren’t going to say ‘We told her to hang herself by her hijab’.”

Snopes are a non-partisan site, and investigate claims based on how many people email them to ask about a story. “Inherently, fact-checking hate crime accusations is certainly sticky,” says Kim LaCapria, a content manager and political fact-checker at Snopes, when I ask whether there are any moral considerations around investigating hate crimes. “There's definitely the idea out there it's wrong to question people who we agree with that have been purportedly attacked, but folks on the other side of the aisle clamour for a look into claims' veracity.”

It is important to note that there are undeniably hate crime hoaxes – something the right often calls “false flags” – occurring, though Binkowski says they are “extremely rare”. The conservative news website Breitbart – which has found fans among white supremacists – concludes that there have been 100 in the last ten years, a remarkably low rate of ten a year (especially considering the site’s agenda) and nothing compared to the 2,241 racially or religiously aggravated offences that occurred in the UK in the two weeks after the EU referendum. The right is also guilty of false flags, recently purporting a man was attacked because he was a Trump supporter when the incident actually stemmed from a traffic altercation.

Still, when false flag hate crimes do happen, they are seized by the right as evidence that no hate crimes are happening at all. Who can forget when, earlier this year, an openly gay pastor was forced to admit he had iced the word “Fag” onto a cake himself, and had lied that it was done by a Whole Foods employee? Just last week, a student at the University of Louisiana admitted to fabricating a story about having her hijab ripped off by two Trump supporters (it is worth noting, however, that some people may recant their stories out of fear).

It is crucial that we, as social media users, fact-check things before we share them so they can’t be used for another agenda. Just because fake hate crimes are rare doesn’t mean it’s wrong to scrutinise things you see on social media. Questioning one particular post that seems a little off is not the same as denying that hate crimes are happening.

“Even if it feels uncharitable to consider the veracity of a claim, it's important for information to be credible and not to add to the spread of bad information inside a political bubble of one's own making,” says LaCapria. “Liberals are most definitely not immune to spreading bad information or getting angry when their claims get debunked, but it doesn't help anyone's cause when a popular story inevitably proves false.”

It can be very distressing, however, for a victim to be accused of carrying out a hoax, and Manuel ended up blocking over 600 people on Twitter. “People started attacking me and calling me ‘n****r’ and all of these derogatory terms,” she says. “Two days ago, after this all blew back up, I got 50 messages in a row from one person who said he was watching me, and said my first name and last name and said my information had been leaked. That’s really frightening.”

While fact-checking, it is crucial to not cause unnecessary distress. But how?

“Even a simple ‘I haven’t verified this yet’ or ‘If this is true, it’s worth paying attention to’ marks the story as unvetted but allows people to share,” says LaCapria. “Critical thinking is important; if something sounds completely implausible, it probably didn't happen the way the person is telling social media it did. There are two good subreddits – r/thathappened and r/quityourbullshit – that just take a second (sometimes mocking) look at viral social media claims. Although users aren't always kind, they can be very good at pinpointing holes in stories.” Another, r/hatecrimehoaxes has also become popular after the election. 

Binkowski also points out that many hoaxes fall apart at the first sign of scrutiny. “They usually make it easy because they can’t handle the pressure and feel guilty so come out and recant,” she says. “Everyone should read from a variety of sources, even ones you don’t agree with. A lot of people yell at us because they think we are trying to be the be-all and end-all but we just want to be the starting point."

For Manuel, everyone being better at fact-checking would have saved her a lot of pain. At the time of writing, her Twitter mentions are still being flooded with offensive messages. In order to combat both hoaxes and hoax hoaxes, then, everyone must attempt to be non-partisan in scrutinising social media claims. 

"Even if you don’t have much time, if you read something on some site that doesn’t quite ring true or seems too perfect, then Google it, just Google it,” says Binkowski. 

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