British Green leader enters the population debate … on the wrong side

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There are other issues she should concentrate her efforts on and the uneasy marriage of resource depletion with population is one we could do without

by Martin O’Beirne
The Ecosocialist, July 17, 2011 

Caroline Lucas, leader of the England & Wales Green party has entered the debate on human population. I should point out that I have not read the source document or transcription (if there is one) and the quotes come from a recent Guardian article about the Beckhams 4th child.

I agree completely with this quote:

“The lesson to be learned from China is surely that efforts to curb population growth in a way that restricts individual liberty are dangerous and come at huge human cost,” and. “Policies that focus on increasing access to birth control for all who want it, reducing poverty and inequality, improving food security and tackling environmental degradation are where we should be focusing our attention.

Framing the issue around population is in my view wrongheaded:

“We need to have a far greater public debate about population, whether it focuses on improving family planning or reducing global inequality – and looking again at how we address the strain on our natural resources. The absence of an open and honest discussion about this issue means most people don’t give much thought to the scale of global population growth in recent years. In 1930, just one or two generations ago, the world’s population stood at around two billion. Today it is around seven billion, and by 2050 it is projected to rise by a third to 9 billion.

“We live as if we have three planets instead of just one. It is interesting that public figures, environmental groups and NGOs in general have tended to steer away from population to the extent that it’s become a taboo issue. The horrific consequences of China’s one-child policy and of other draconian efforts to regulate procreation have, for many, rendered discussion of the subject completely unpalatable. Yet as long as an issue remains a taboo subject where no one talks about it, then there’s very little chance of finding the solutions we need.”

Calling it a taboo is motivational propoganda, this has seeped in to the language via supporters of the ‘optimum population trust’.  Besides, people have been talking about it for a long time, Marx and Malthus had notable squabbles on the subject.

It is wrongheaded because the problem of availabilty of resources for all and of a sustainable and just future for all is a result of capitalist profligacy, expansion and disparity of distribution. This is the lens that needs to be looked through not that of human population.

I agree however that if the human population were to grow indefinately and forever that humans would eventually have to find a different  planet to occupy. This is not a fear we need have and therfore a fear we need not exacerbate by jumping upon a bandwagon that will inevitably veer dangerously toward the far right of the political spectrum.

Human population has settled and is declining in many countries. Often neglected by populationists is the fact that there are third world countries traditionally associated with large families where this is also the case. The examples here are not nessasarily headed by an increased availability of birth control or of a rebalancing of financial inequality and education. Rather a grassroots social and cultural reorientation with no government intervention, not ‘top-down’; the emancipation of women.

I should probably add a myriad of links to justify my reasoning, but alas this is an occasional organ and this is a large topic.

As the only green MP Caroline Lucas has limited influence and with the sway she has, I think she is doing a brilliant job. A public debate would likely be weighted towards the populationists; they are organised and have attracted celebrity endorsements. Jeremy Irons for example recently joined-up. I cannot recall how many properties he owns but atleast one of them is a castle. Perhaps he is concerned about sharing.

What would a public debate entail anyway, certainly nothing that smells of anything approaching democratic; we just had the first referendum for 20 years in the UK and were given options that nobody wanted or asked for.  It was a time-consuming and expensive distraction, expensive because in the first instance referendums cost and secondly because the condems could slide some austerity under the carpet whilst we and the media scratch our heads and try and work out which of two options we don’t actually want we want the most. But I digress!

In this country the populationists would introduce systems that would discriminate against those that have more than two children. Any of you a 3rd child or have one? Bastard CO2 emitting resource users.

Along with a couple of ‘good uns’ in the Labour camp Caroline Lucas is becoming a strong voice for the left on many issues and is winning the respect of the trade unions. On balance, I think it is a very complex subject, and I have concerns about the wider implications of raising it’s profile.   Time is thin. I think there are other issues she should concentrate her efforts on and that the uneasy marriage of resource depletion with population is one we could do without and in my view should head for an early divorce.


  • An excellent insight Chris. For too many environmentally concerned people, a focus on population is a substitute for confronting the real causes of the crisis.

    I would go a step further. The issue is not only which populations have big carbon footprints but which people within each population have the biggest feet.

    For example, referring to U.S. population and consumption as a whole conceals the fact that 20% of the people in the U.S. account for 70% of all end-user consumption. The richest 5% of Americans own more than everyone else in the U.S. combined.

    Viewing people as numbers, as populationist theories do, conceals the living reality of societies in which a tiny minority causes almost all of the environmental damage.

    As Marx said long ago, “population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed.”

  • I must admit that I couldn’t understand how intensely so many people felt when hearing talk of limiting population growth. It seemed a good idea in general. Something to think about in the long run. The planet would be better off with fewer humans.

    So I was surprised and caught off guard that many did not agree. But recently I was on another site in which many people were commenting on an article lamenting the degradation of our environment and the refusal of all of us to deal with the life threatening climate change we were soon going to be facing. Most accepted that we were in trouble, however a great many insisted that run away population growth was the problem and had to be solved first!

    That was the only solution they could come up with. I suppose it kept them from facing the truth. I quoted the statistics which were published here recently. I pointed out that the populations that are causing the damage are NOT growing, although they have huge carbon footprints. How will limiting their birth rate help? The populations with the highest birth rates have such small carbon footprints that we could wipe them from the face of the earth and it would do little to stop our destruction. So now I understand why everyone is so upset to hear talk of limiting population growth. It is a distraction from facing exactly what populations are truly responsible for the coming devastation of our planet and which populations need to alter their way of life immediately!

  • Thanks, a few links would be handy. I live in Aotearoa/NewZealand and locally this is not really a topic that comes up, so I’m well and truly struggling even with the language regarding a subject that is obviously deeply important and over which debate is already advanced. Just a few seminal references would help us late-comers!