Dealing with Difficult Questions about Population

Here is an assortment of the kind of questions that we get asked occasionally, with appropriate answers. If you can think of others that we might add to this list, we’d be glad to hear from you.

1. Aren’t you being racist if you want to stop immigrants coming into the UK?

The issue we are concerned with is migration, rather than immigration to the UK. Migration is a world-wide problem and is going to be a much bigger problem soon. Take, for example, the Sahel, the semi-arid strip of land that spans Africa to the south of the Sahara Desert. Scientifically based reports state that this area is already suffering from climate change and desertification.

The UN predict that on current trends the population of the Sahel will quadruple in this century, whereas a report of the IPCC states that on present trends the Sahel will be uninhabitable by the end of the century. Where will all these people go? Similarly, sea level rise will see millions displaced from low lying fertile land, and major cities flooded. Where will all those people go? The migration crisis has barely begun.

2. Isn’t it a question of consumption rather than population?

It is a matter of consumption and population. The idea that it is ‘either/or’ is a way to avoid discussion of population, and is an artificial division. To reduce it to an absurdity, if there were no people, there would be no consumption.

3. I really want to have children. What are you telling me?

We are not telling you how many children you should have. We are giving you information that might help you in your choice of how many children to have.

4. We need children now so that when they grow up they will be able to look after the increasing older population.

The trouble with this idea is that when these children grow old they will need looking after also: that will demand even more children to look after them. Another point is that people need support at both ends of their lives. This is an argument for an ever increasing population which is not sustainable.

A youngster will be dependent for at least fifteen years, perhaps even twenty years. An old person might be independent to the very last: not many will be dependent for as long as at the start of their life

5. We need children now so when they grow up they will be able to contribute to the economy. Without them there will be fiscal collapse.

Remember that economics is a tool invented by us: it is not an inevitable set of rules. The conventional view of economists that all growth is good is currently being challenged, as awareness is growing of the fact that you cannot have unceasing growth in a finite environment. We consume renewable resources at a rate nearly twice as fast as the planet can renew them: that cannot be sustained.

So the aim should be to only have a population size that can live within the resources of the earth.  At present consumption patterns this would mean a global population size of about 2 billion and not the 7.7 billion that we currently have. Economics should be geared towards that outcome not towards continual growth.

6. I understand that there isn’t a problem with overpopulation any more.

You’ve probably been misled by the statement by the UN: Commission of Population and Development: ‘The annual rate of population growth fell from 1.4% in 1994 to 1.15 today’. While this is welcome, it is misleading. The world’s population in 1994 was 5.63 billion, and is now (May 2019) nearly 7.69 billion. 1.4% of 5.63 billion is 788,200: 1.1% of 7.69 billion is 845,900, or about ten percent more than the 1994 growth. Therefore population growth is still speeding up in real terms: its current rate of growth is about a billion every twelve years. This cannot conceivably be sustainable.

7. Hans Rosling says there isn’t a population problem. Do you think you know more than he does?

Hans Rosling was not a demographer: he was a statistician, and while very talented in that field, had not a good grasp of population issues. The article on him in Wikipedia states that he ‘did not believe that current or future levels of population and consumption…would do unacceptable damage to the planet or to civil society. ..(his) views were well accepted by neo-liberals, technological enthusiasts and some opponents of birth-control, (but) they alarmed many environmentalists’

In a detailed article on Rosling’s book Factfulness, titled The One-Sided Worldview of Hans Rosling, Christian Berggren, a Swedish professor of industrial management, finds that Factfulness, despite substantial merits, “presents a highly biased sample of statistics as the true perspective on global development, avoids analysis of negative trends, and refrains from discussing difficult issues”.

Berggren identifies three main problems in Rosling’s argument. First, selected and rose-tinted statistics (e.g. “Factfulness includes many graphs of ‘bad things in decline’ and ‘good things on the rise’ but not a single graph of ‘bad things on the rise’.”) Second, “No discussion of the ecological consequences of the current progress”. Third, misleading statistics on world population growth, plus confused or questionable suggestions that “continued population growth is inevitable and unproblematic”.

My own opinion of Rosling is formed by the fact that in his well known television programme he mentioned the sharp decline of fertility in Bangladesh in such a way as to suggest that this was a natural process, and therefore that we need not worry about population growth. The decline there, however, was the result of the Bangladeshi government applying precisely the kind of policies advocated by population activists, involving a very positive programme of health care clinics and provision of contraception. In this, therefore, Rosling was disingenuous.

8. If your cause is valid, how come out of 17,000 Quakers in Britain, you only have 101 members? (June 2019)

Difficulty of communication, and the fact that Friends are generally so busy that they feel they cannot take on more. Many Friends still have not heard of us. Not a huge number of Quakers read The Friend, for example, and an effort to reach all Area Meeting Clerks with a message for their meetings seems to have disappeared in the heap of pending business on the said Clerks’ desks. This will change, we hope, as QCOP is now a Quaker Recognised Body: this will enable us to communicate better. We also now have a Facebook page as well as a website.

9. Isn’t this white man telling black women what to do?

If you object to men of any colour telling women of any colour what to do, then have a look at this subject carefully. You will find that women’s rights over their own bodies are under attack by men all around the world. This occurs in religion; parts of Christianity, especially the Catholic church and the more extreme fundamentalist sects, some but by no means all of Islam; in politics in states headed by machismo men; in traditional cultures by men who consider large families a tribute to their own virility, or where practices like child marriage and FGM are rife. Where women’s rights are recognised, and where they receive adequate education, and where contraception is properly explained and is freely available, fertility rates drop, sometimes dramatically as in Bangladesh, for example.

So, ‘White man telling black women what to do’ is not an appropriate description of what population action is about.

10. I’ve heard it said that you could get the whole of the world’s population into Texas, with plenty of room.

Yes, there is room to put all the people in Texas, where they would each have an area about ten metres square. That might just feed one if it was fertile and had an adequate water supply, but you would presumably want to build a house on it; also you would like a road to gain access to it: you’d want reservoirs to supply water to it, you’d like schools to educate your children, you’d want shops, surgeries, hospitals, sports facilities, places of work, factories, workshops, offices. Your allocated piece of land would get smaller and smaller. To say you could get everyone into Texas is like me saying I could get everyone in my street into my house and garden: possibly I could, but it wouldn’t be comfortable

At present, there are, world wide, about two useful acres of land per person, but this diminishes as population increases, of course. The average American uses about 24 acres, including all the facilities listed above.

11. I’m not going to be told by you how many children I should have.

We’re not telling you how many children to have. We’re giving you and anyone else who listens information that you might take into account when choosing the size of your family. We realise not everyone will act on this, but some certainly will.

12. Admittedly an unlikely question from a Friend: Do you not have faith that the Lord will provide?

The Lord has already provided us with the ability to foresee the problem and to do something about it. The ball is in our court.

13. Surely Nature can be trusted to solve the problem?Nature has endured many challenges in the past: will it not do so again?

Nature will certainly adjust, but her methods are brutal. Any biologist will tell you that a population explosion of any species is followed by a catastrophic collapse. Humans are part of nature and subject to its laws: they are no different from other species.

Sir David Attenborough, in his opening address to the recent U.N. climate change conference in Poland stated that we are now in serious danger of collapse of world civilization. This would bring about unimaginable horrors, resulting in a drastic reduction of human numbers. Practically no large animals will survive a world in the grip of total famine, and the consequence would be a world very impoverished biologically, and containing very few humans. Those who survived would be likely to be living in savagery.

Any suggestion that our technology will save us begs the question, who are “us”?

14. High birth rates are a consequence, in other words a symptom, of poverty, and you can’t cure a problem by treating a symptom. The most effective way to reduce birth rates is to address the fundamental causes by lifting social-economic conditions.

This is one of those ‘either/or’ arguments similar to Question 8 above. Of course reducing poverty will tend to reduce fertility, but reducing fertility tends to reduce poverty. There is a cycle here: poverty increases fertility increases poverty increases fertility… Why should we address this point at one place in the cycle only? If you get people out of poverty, they will need contraception at that point to reduce fertility: the reduction of fertility doesn’t happen by itself. The cycle needs addressing at all points: reducing fertility of the poorest does indeed improve their circumstances.

The Indian State of Kerala is a good example of where women have been empowered though better education in addition to improved health and family planning facilities.  The result has been a massive reduction in population growth and poverty.

15. Some people associate concern for population with abortion.

Yes, that is unavoidable, I think. But abortion is not advocated as a means of population control. There is a need, however, for organisations who address family planning to be able to assist people to have abortions if they need them.

If you reduce the availability of safe abortions, you increase the frequency of unsafe abortions, with the resultant consequences of severe and often incurable damage to the health of the mother, or even her death. The best way of reducing the number of abortions is to make proper contraception available, together with the appropriate health care.

16. A question arising from Friends in Baltimore, USA; Most ecologists agree that the planet could sustainably support a population of 2-3.5 billion. How could we get from a possible ten billion to that figure?

The demographer J. Kenneth Smail, in his essay ‘Confronting the inevitable: Population reduction, voluntary or otherwise’, (tinyurl.com/qjem8qb), advocates for a ‘well conceived, clearly articulated, flexibly designed, broadly equitable and internationally co-ordinated programme focussed on bringing about a very significant reduction in global human numbers over the next two or more centuries’. This would be aimed at achieving a reduction of from two thirds to three quarters from the expected probable mid century peak of about ten billion to a future population of two to three billion, or perhaps even fewer, in the twenty third century or beyond.

Present population growth could be reversed by reducing fertility by one birth to every two mothers: half a baby per mother. We know how to do this: the problem is in confronting those who oppose it, such as the Vatican and some other Christians, and some but by no means all of Islam: economic systems that put growth before anything else: and cultures that oppress women

This would have to include confrontation with the deniers, education (of both men and women), proper support of those involved with childbirth and, of course, free provision of contraception and abortion where required.

Roger Plenty May 2019