Festival of Debate: Should People in the UK Have Fewer Children to Save the World? / 1 May 2018

In Association with the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures
Tuesday 1 May 2018

A simple answer to this question could be ‘no’. The fertility rate in the UK is approximately 1.7 children per woman; the global replacement rate is about 2.1, and the UK only makes up 0.87% of the world population. However, the discussion at this event showed us how the UK population affects the world disproportionately to its birth rate and that a simple answer is not enough.

On 1st May 2018 (the date of the panel discussion on this topic) there were 7,619,299,218 people in the world.  In 2017, 15,000 scientists signed the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: ‘We are jeopardizing our future by …. not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.’

Alistair Currie, of Population Matters, showed a series of graphs to present the close correlation between the steep rise in global population since 1850 and many environmental problems; most strikingly there is close similarity in graphs showing rising carbon emissions and total population, and population vs. species extinction. The UN has shown that very small changes in fertility – half a child per woman less – can make a huge difference. This is relevant to the UK even if our population is relatively small: we are seeing many extinctions and loss of biodiversity as well. Probably most people endeavour to take some environmental action such as recycling, not eating meat or leaving the car at home – but not having a child is 25 times more effective than anything else an individual can do to reduce their environmental impact.

The question is a hugely controversial one in today’s world, and there are potential human rights issues here. Currie stressed that having or not having a child is a personal choice, but that there are changes to UK policy and international projects which could alter the factors which influence it, for example educating girls and access to decent family planning services has a huge effect on decreasing population growth.

Currie also touched on another sensitive subject – migration. Migration is the major factor in the UK’s population rising and Currie briefly explored responses to this. You could stop skilled workers migrating which would help solve education and health issues in their country of origin and would lower populations in richer countries. However, remittances sent home can be essential to the economies of developing countries and although migrants to the UK might then consume more than in their countries of origin, within a generation they tend to have lower fertility rates than if they hadn’t migrated.

A different take came from Emeritus Professor Rob Gray, an accountant specialising in social and environmental accounting. He’s spent thirty years examining ways to account for the social and environmental impact of Multi-National Corporations’ activities, important in this debate as Global Justice Now shows that 69 out of the top 100 economic entities in 2015 were Corporations, not governments. Gray showed how accounting can assess impact and inform reduction in negative impacts of economic activity, for example by factoring in a product’s whole-life costs. This, he said, would show that most MNC’s are not profitable. Another important function of accounting can be to tell truth to power, for instance by giving accounts of species extinction or the costs of a company’s unsustainability.

An equation familiar to geographers enlarged on this:  I = P x A x T (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology). This equation shows that reducing negative impact requires either major reductions in population and/or in affluence and technology – that is, as Gray put it: a major change in international capitalism and how humanity organises itself. Otherwise, he said in answer to a question, it is possible international capitalism will kill us all.

The equation shines a light on the UK and on our behaviour as individuals:  people in the audience (and probably anyone reading this) are incomparably more affluent than almost all humans who have ever lived, and so we all have a responsibility to change what we ask for. Regular accountability by those MNCs (which seems to encompass both keeping accounts and holding to account), Gray argues, could be more instrumental in saving our world than having fewer children.

The third panel member, Carl Lee, a geographer, also questioned whether population really is the main cause of environmental degradation, and drew a similar conclusion that the problem is overconsumption by those people. Someone in the UK emits 7 times as much carbon as someone in Niger, where the fertility rate is 7.2.  And birth-rate wise, no need to worry, we are already moving in the right direction. The highest percentage growth in population was in 1968, and now the rate of change is accelerating, fertility is in rapid decline in many countries, with countries in Asia leading the way.

Cultural and social aspects are important here, and overlap with the value placed on women – having children is still expected of women, even in the UK where women are relatively independent. To take a very different country, in Chad the desired number of children is 9 to 13 (This raises many questions: How do these expectations arise? Should the West wade in and tell people in Chad to have fewer children? How should change be created in an already destabilised nation?). Lee pointed out that to help change expectations political stability is necessary, since conflict leads to greater fertility as well as empowerment and education of women.

There are other influences on population than fertility, one of which is longevity; Lee joked he was proactively helping this by being a fifty-year-old smoker (but didn’t recommend it as a wider solution). So, as pointed out by a member of the audience, in Japan (and elsewhere) people are now worrying about how to sustain their ageing populations. Dependency ratios are seen as a problem, but Lee argued this is a problem of politics, not demographics: alter the taxation system and a country can easily afford to provide care for older people.

Similarly political is the ‘clamouring’ for consumption and growth, rather than a search for sustainable approaches. The answer is a redistributive and circular economy, as well as less consumption. Overall, we all need to look at how we live our lives and the political choices we make.

The last point from Lee clearly echoed Gray’s earlier call for greater accountability, perhaps a surprising tangent away from the original question posed. The takeaway from the evening was that the environmental effects caused by rising population size have complex origins. Wide-ranging discussions are increasingly needed of this sensitive, global issue, taking into account our culture of consumption as well as individual choices regarding family size.

Words: Joanna Collins


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