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

ANDRÉ CARRILHO FOR NEW STATESMAN
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A progressive's guide to Theresa May

The new Prime Minister has rebranded herself as a champion of social justice and equal rights. Should we believe her?

Over the past two weeks, a strange phenomenon began to afflict Labour MPs, left-wing think tankers and progressives of all sorts. They started to wish fervently that Theresa May would triumph in the Tory leadership election. Yes, the woman who sent vans around north London ordering immigrants who had overstayed their visas to “go home”; she who has long been the darling of the Daily Mail, which praised her lukewarm speech in favour of staying in the EU in terms it normally reserves for actresses who have lost their baby weight freakishly fast; the woman who (erroneously) claimed in 2011 that human rights laws had allowed an asylum-seeker to avoid deportation because he owned a cat.

May’s rivals for the Conservative leadership included the blustering Boris Johnson, the neocon Michael Gove (“I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once,” as Ken Clarke put it), the disgraced Liam Fox, the largely untested Stephen Crabb and, finally, Andrea Leadsom, the brittle Brexiteer who crumbled under scrutiny. May turned out to be the only serious candidate.

When the contest came down to the final two, she continued to pursue a quiet, calm strategy. On the night it was revealed that Andrea Leadsom had suggested that being a mother gave her the edge over May, who does not have children, her rival was on the front page of the Telegraph talking about her “positive vision” for the country and profferring a “clean campaign” pledge.

Then, at lunchtime on 11 July, Leadsom pulled out, saying a nine-week campaign would be “undesirable” and that she could not hope to govern when only 25 per cent of Tory MPs supported her. (This had the happy side effect for Conservatives of delivering a swipe at Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys the confidence of only 20 per cent of Labour MPs.) Immediately, May rushed back to Westminster from Birmingham, where she had given the first speech of her campaign, to be acclaimed as the new party leader and thus our new prime minister.

With that coronation, the yardstick against which May must be judged has changed. No longer is she merely preferable to the British Tea Party stylings of Leadsom; she must be judged on her own record and professed opinions. As we outline below, these are mixed. Nonetheless, it appears that May intends from the start to differentiate herself from David Cameron and George Osborne’s brand of corporate, chummy, laissez-faire Toryism. In background and temperament, she is already offering something new.

***

The daughter of a vicar, Theresa May attended a grammar school before studying geography at Oxford University (rather than PPE or classics, the usual favourites of aspiring Conservative politicians). She worked at the Bank of England and then, after being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997, she was the first of that year’s intake to reach the shadow cabinet, as shadow education and employment secretary. In July 2002, she became the first female chairman of the Conservative Party and at conference that year made her famous “nasty party” speech. A succession of shadow cabinet roles followed, at Transport; Culture, Media and Sport; and Work and Pensions. When Cameron formed a coalition government in 2010, she became home secretary historically a poisoned chalice – and she was the longest-serving holder of that post since Rab Butler in 1962.

The first inklings that May was seriously considering running for the Tory leadership came in 2013, the year after George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget, in which he slashed the 50p income-tax rate and paid for it by raising taxes on grannies and pasties. Addressing the grass-roots organisation ConservativeHome, May delivered a speech that strayed widely from the Home Office brief. It also ranged freely across the political spectrum, borrowing as much from Ed Miliband as it did from David Cameron. She outlined “the three pillars of Conservatism”: freedom, security and opportunity.

When backing May’s candidacy, the right-wing papers inevitably compared her with Britain’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. But a better choice would be Angela Merkel, a purposefully dull technocratic workaholic who has spent 11 years as chancellor of Germany.

May seems to be offering the same pragmatic spirit, which may come as a relief after the ideological fervour of the EU referendum campaign, with its grandiose promises and divisive debates. Had she spent the summer running against Leadsom, she might have had to tack right, stressing her anti-immigration credentials. As it is, given her rival’s early departure, the only substantial statement of her political mission is her launch speech in Birmingham.

This was an astonishing statement for a Conservative to give though perhaps not as unexpected as her speech to the Police Federation in 2014, in which she excoriated a roomful of (mostly male) officers over the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and sexist language used about women who reported domestic violence. “If anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that it’s time to face up to reality,” she said.

The surprise in Birmingham this week was that she talked about Britain’s problems in a way that was reminiscent of Milibandism. Energy bills were too high (an echo of the former Labour leader’s most popular policy, to freeze bills). Bankers’ bonuses had swollen, while real wages had stagnated. Monetary policy since the economic crisis, which has relied on low interest rates and quantitative easing, helped those who own their homes, at the expense of renters.

“There is a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation,” she added. “And there is a gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country.” There was even a passage that would not have seemed out of place in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn:

“Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

Are these just warm words a social and fiscal conservative appropriating the language of social justice and equal rights? Behind the scenes, May has been a quiet champion of women in the party, co-founding the mentoring group Women2Win in 2005. Her “nasty party” speech of 2002 was a rebuke to an activist base that was socially conservative to the point of indulging racism and homophobia. Sam Gyimah, one of the party’s most prominent black and minority ethnic MPs, supported May’s candidacy because of that. “The reason the Conservative Party now has roughly a third of women MPs and a record number of BME MPs is because front-line politicians like Theresa set the party on that course,” Gyimah says. 

“I backed Theresa because her politics chime with my politics – that delivering on the economy is not enough if it doesn’t work for everyone. But also her track record of standing up for real injustices even where there isn’t an electoral dividend to be had, like on modern slavery and stop-and-search and her determination to confront issues head-on, which she did with our own party when she was party chairman.”

That said, her willingness to criticise her own side should not blind us to the many ways in which Theresa May is a conventional Conservative. Much of her success recalls Bill Clinton’s despairing phone call to Tony Blair about George W Bush, then a candidate for the presidency: “One reason Bush is doing so well is because he criticised one thing on the right. He is making people think he is saving them from the right.” 

"But," Clinton concluded, "It's a fraud because he actually is for them on everything else. I have to find a way to expose the fraud."  He never did. The opposition will hope for better against May. 

Now read the full policy audit on Theresa May

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM