Why we need population reduction

A trustee of the Optimum Population Trust responds to Brendan O’Neill’s report on their recent conference.

Adrian Stott

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On 1 April 2009, Brendan O’Neill reported from the Optimum Population Trust’s conference in London (read his report here). Below, Adrian Stott, a trustee of the OPT, responds.

spiked editor Brendan O’Neill attended the recent ‘Environmentally Sustainable Populations’ conference, put on by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). According to his report on spiked on 1 April, he didn’t enjoy it. Not because of the scary picture the event painted, because the one he described was quite different. No, it was the characteristics of the speakers and the audience that really upset him. Of course, putting one’s own words into a messenger’s mouth, and then shooting him, can be much easier than dealing with his real message.

The OPT actually welcomes being taken to task, especially on matters of principle. If it can’t justify its positions, then it accepts that it should change them. However, it does get frustrated when it is accused of espousing views that it actually opposes, or is condemned based on information that is irrelevant or simply wrong. Unfortunately, it’s had a lot of that from spiked. Yet from conversations I have had with O’Neill, I have found that he and I actually share many principles; I don’t understand why he doesn’t see that, too.

Let’s start with some facts.

Earth’s human population is already at a level well in excess of that which the eco-system can sustain. In other words, in each period we are now using up more natural resources than the environment produces. We are spending all our biological income, and then running down the capital to cover the rest of our consumption. Do that for too long, and the capital runs out.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is fish. We are now catching a significantly greater weight of many species each year than the living stock grows. The result is that the average age of many such fish has dropped substantially, and we are now catching only youngsters because they never get the chance to grow big. And, of course, as a fish stock declines, so does its ability to reproduce. Fewer fish make fewer new fish.

For years, deceptively bumper catches were presented by the fishing industry, driven by the ever-rising price of landed fish, as evidence that no reductions in take are needed. Then, suddenly, there are no longer enough fish alive to make up a year’s take, and the fishery abruptly collapses. This is what happened on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, which once had an enormous cod population which could have provided partners for our chips indefinitely. Fishing, or rather over-fishing, stopped there several decades ago, but only after the fish population crashed. The cod have never returned. We’ve turned to exterminating other species.

As with fish, so with other natural resources. Forests are destroyed by over-cutting, animals are hunted to extinction, or both simply die out because we turn their habitats into farmland or cities.

And it isn’t just living things. Climate change is occurring because we are putting pollutants into the atmosphere faster than it can clean itself. Our over-consumption has already badly damaged many of the very systems that keep us alive. And our numbers are still growing fast. Irreversible and potentially deadly changes to our environment seem all too likely in our lifetimes. I’m not making this up – there is plenty of credible scientific evidence to support it (1).

So what might we do about it? The following equation covers all the possibilities:

I = P x A x T

I is our total environmental impact. It is made up of the average Affluence (consumption) per person, times the number of people (Population), mitigated by improvements in Technology.

So to reduce our impact, we could reduce average Affluence. The trouble is, most of the world is determined to do the opposite. Can you really believe that all those Indians and Chinese, who outnumber us, are going to agree to forego rising out of poverty? In that light, trading our Chelsea Tractors for Priuses, or not leaving the TV on standby, is simply irrelevant.

Or we could improve our Technology. And we surely will. But, also surely, not enough and not in time to prevent even more serious damage. Technology didn’t prevent the destruction we’ve already caused, so why should we believe it will do that enough in future? There’s simply too much inertia.

That leaves only Population, which fortunately we can do something about. Births are already fewer than deaths in several countries. We know how to achieve this, and it isn’t difficult or expensive. It needs little government intrusion and no coercion, although it does require persuasion.

That is the OPT’s message. The conference O’Neill attended merely filled in some details. However, O’Neill described something quite different. Apparently, pointing out there are too many of us shouldn’t be taken seriously, because the idea is dark and apocalyptic. So you should ignore it, even though it’s true. Estimating how many people the planet can sustain, using studies on urbanisation and the availability of fresh water, is ‘spooky’ and therefore should be dismissed.

Our campaign is portrayed as an intention to kill off millions of people, something only an insane person would endorse, when in fact the opposite is proposed – to reduce the number being born. No matter, the idea is branded as anti-life, and thus repulsive, according to O’Neill.

The whole concept is condemned as ‘population control’, when what is being aimed for is actually population reduction. There’s no need to control the number of children a woman has. She must continue to decide that for herself. It turns out that, with education and better availability of contraceptives, most women choose to have fewer children all by themselves, especially because one-third of present births around the world are unwanted. Even a country as religious as Iran has reduced its fertility to below replacement levels using only these means, not by using dictates from ayatollahs.

By the way, the man that O’Neill especially scorns, Thomas Malthus, actually wasn’t as wrong as he was portrayed. He was merely premature. He didn’t anticipate the huge increases in land under cultivation or the scientific advances that have occurred since the 1700s. However, with the understanding developed since his time, we can now see the great difficulties in extending these trends.

Nevertheless, the OPT can be dismissed because those attending our conference were overwhelmingly ‘of a certain hue, age, and class’. So, presumably, if one of them shouted ‘fire’, O’Neill, unlike Elvis, would not leave the building.

It is true, though, that the OPT’s membership is heavy with white retirees. That is because it sprung from the upper reaches of British academia and the professions. However, it is now realising that it will succeed not by intellectual approaches to the elite, but by mobilisation of the man in the pub and the woman in the street, irrespective of race or age. It understands that members of parliament tend to count letters and emails rather than to judge their rigour.

The OPT is publicising a vital problem that is being caused by personal ignorance and irresponsibility, but which can be solved by education, small government, and individual free will. Aren’t those things that spiked supports? Then why doesn’t it support us?

So, Brendan, I am sorry the OPT’s graphs frightened you, but that’s unavoidable because the situation they represent is terrifying. But see clearly what they tell you, and you may also understand how to deal with it. Don’t wear rose-tinted glasses, or close your eyes. And don’t shoot the messenger.

Adrian Stott is a trustee of the Optimum Population Trust. Visit the OPT’s website here.

Read ‘Mixing with Malthusians’, by Brendan O’Neill, here.

(1) The OPT’s website is a good place to start for references: click here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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