Too many people?

A new campaign for population control in Britain sees humans as a problem, rather than the solution.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Britain’s most famous naturalist, David Attenborough, is backing a campaign to reduce the UK population by half. He claims that if population control doesn’t become government policy, nature will do the job for us – and the poor will suffer most. (1)

The campaign is organised by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a group set up in 1991 by environmentalists and population campaigners, whose current patrons include Paul Ehrlich, Norman Myers and Jonathan Porritt.

In the 1960s, Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which claimed that ‘the battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death…. Population control is the only answer’ (2). In 1969 he said: ‘If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.’ (3) Three years after doomsday, we’re still here.

According to OPT, ‘failure to reduce population is likely to lead to a population crash when fossil fuels, fresh water and other resources become scarce’ (4). But do its arguments stand up to scrutiny?

1) We’re running out of space

‘The amount of land available to each citizen, to provide for his or her needs and to absorb the waste products of his or her consumption, has shrunk to a tenth of what it was just 250 years ago.’ (5)

It is true that Britain’s population has increased tenfold, but there are no food shortages and nor is there a great problem with disposing of waste – because agriculture and industry are vastly more productive than they were in pre-industrial Britain. Not only do 10 times as many people live in Britain now, but they live longer and healthier lives.

Agriculture, which employs just one percent of Britain’s working population, is now so productive that there are debates about diverting agricultural subsidy so that farmers are paid to protect the environment instead.

2) The threat of disease

‘Disease can spread quickly in densely packed and internationally mobile populations.’ (6)

OPT uses the example of the SARS outbreak – a disease that disappeared within months of first emerging. How? Because in densely populated urban districts there was easy access to healthcare and potential sufferers could quickly be isolated. A big fear with SARS was the threat it posed in undeveloped countryside – just the kind of sparsely populated settlements that OPT approves of.

3) Global warming

‘Climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions requires Earth’s population to stabilise, reduce and change its economic behaviour without delay.’ (7)

Global temperatures are rising. But whether this rise is the result of human-produced greenhouse gases and whether it will be as extreme as some suggest – such issues are still the subject of debate and dispute.

Even if Earth gets much warmer, increasing development will allow us to cope with such climate changes. Rising living standards and rising populations go hand-in-hand. The solution could be, not to reduce the population, but to speed up development so that more of the world can live comfortable lives and cope with change.

4) Food shortages

A classic Malthusian argument: population will outstrip food supply, leading to shortages in the future. Yet this has simply not been the case in the developed world. Indeed, current panics claim that we are eating too much. The average number of calories consumed per head in the West has risen steadily over the decades.

About half the world’s cultivable land is not used to grow food at present. If we used the best technology available today, a population of 32billion people could be supported on just the land available in the developing world (8).

5) Energy shortages

‘UK sources of oil and gas are likely to be almost depleted by 2050…. Britain will become dependent on imports of oil and gas from foreign sources.’ (9)

You would have thought that Ehrlich and co might have learned their lesson about resource shortages (10). Known reserves have tended to go up, rather than down, over the past 30 years. As for energy, there is no problem – Britain could easily replace imports with nuclear power if it needed to.

6) Paying for imports

British manufacturing is in decline, and we import more and more from overseas. How on Earth can we continue to pay for it all?

Britain may be past it industrially, but it’s hard to see how reducing the population will help. This argument appeals to the simplistic notion that if we continue to let people into the country, there won’t be enough houses, jobs, schools and hospitals for us all.

It is largely irrelevant whether goods are manufactured in Britain or not. While manufacturing may be in decline, UK GDP continues to rise – even if it is rather slowly these days. As a result, Britain still has the ability to pay for imports. It is ridiculous to reduce a complex economic and political question to a matter of how many people live in the country.

7) Housing

‘London and the South-East is rapidly becoming a single megalopolis of gridlocked urban sprawl. England is vanishing under a sea of concrete.’ (11)

Yet in the same paragraph we learn that just 17 percent of England’s land is in urban use. Presumably, that includes all the swathes of park land in our cities and towns. And conveniently, OPT suddenly stops mentioning underpopulated Scotland and Wales.

The list goes on: road congestion, an ageing population, urban crime – you name it, there isn’t a social problem that, apparently, could not be solved by controlling population growth.

OPT has its fingers on the pulse of Britain’s fears and panics. Every one of the concerns it raises is the subject of handwringing in Whitehall and Westminster (apart from the imports thing – they gave up all hope for British industry decades ago).

The reason that these have become big concerns is an underlying outlook that views people, especially too many people, as a problem. Human beings are seen as greedy, rapacious and destructive, and the solution is apparently to cut our numbers.

In truth, the fact that six billion people can live on Earth – while living conditions continue, in the main, to improve – suggests that people are the solution, not the problem.

(1) Attenborough: cut population by half, Sunday Times, 3 August 2003

(2) Dossier: Dr. Paul Ehrlich, National Center for Public Policy Research

(3) The Doomslayer, by Ed Regis, Wired, February 1997

(4) UK: Too many people, Optimum Population Trust

(5) UK: Too many people, Optimum Population Trust

(6) UK: Too many people, Optimum Population Trust

(7) UK: Too many people, Optimum Population Trust

(8) See The Third Revolution: Population, Environment and a Sustainable World, by Paul Harrison

(9) UK: Too many people, Optimum Population Trust

(10) The Doomslayer, by Ed Regis, Wired, February 1997

(11) UK: Too many people, Optimum Population Trust

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Topics Science & Tech


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