Pathfinders: Top of the Pop Charts

While the Cop15 delegates were largely copping out at Copenhagen recently, one fairly relevant aspect of the world’s dire whether forecast (that is, whether we survive or not) scarcely rated a mention, which was the question of global population. This oversight was duly noted by the Chinese delegation (China Daily, 10 December) which, possibly anxious to offset western criticism of their tactics at Copenhagen, seized the opportunity to justify the country’s unpopular and repressive One Child Policy as a positive contribution to global emissions reduction. The news report quotes research by postgraduate student Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics: “Each $7 spent on basic family planning would reduce CO2 emissions by more than one ton whereas it would cost $13 for reduced deforestation, $24 to use wind technology, $51 for solar power, $93 for introducing hybrid cars and $131 electric vehicles.” Such research will no doubt bolster China’s already unparalleled enthusiasm for reducing its, and other countries’ populations, either by birth control or firing squad.

There’s no question that population growth is going to pass the carrying capacity of the planet at some point. The world is currently pushing 6.8 billion people and if you go to the website of the Optimum Population Trust at you can watch the ticking counter go up at the rate of two per second. David Attenborough, a patron of this trust along with Jane Goodall, James Lovelock and other notables, takes the same doomsday view (Horizon Special, BBC1, repeated 5 January) as that other famous patron and author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich.

Socialists have often criticised Ehrlich’s view in the past, in particular his claims, written prior to the flowering of the Green Revolution of the 1970s, that population had already outstripped food capability and that hundred of millions would starve to death. But as food yields have gone up, so have populations, and the argument is not going to go away. Global population by 2050 is estimated at between 9.2 and 10.6 billion (, with most of the growth occurring in the least developed countries, while in developed countries there is a steady decline in fertility and death rates. Population is likely to be a factor in the resource wars we can expect to see in the next century.

Ehrlich, the Trust, and David Attenborough in the Horizon programme all argue the same simple view, that the population growth rate can be slowed or reversed by just two factors, contraception and education. This view has the benefit of being uncomplicated by questions of culture, politics or religion and thus palatable to the broadest audience, but is it true? Yes, says John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London, who argues that conventional wisdom, which says that couples in poorer societies actively plan to have large families to compensate for high child mortality, to provide labour, and to care for parents in their old age, is wrong. According to Prof Guillebaud, half of all  pregnancies worldwide are accidental conceptions rather than insurance policies, and demand for contraception increases when it is available, regardless of a society’s wealth or child survival rates: “The evidence is clear within a wide variety of settings that – despite no prior increase in per capita wealth or child survival or other presumed essentials – demand for contraception increases when it becomes available, accessible, and accompanied by correct information about its appropriateness and safety.” (

One wonders how the professor knows that fifty percent of all children are accidents, but population growth rates do indeed seem to correlate roughly in inverse ratio to the rate of birth control, if one compares figures

However, to imply from this that the issue is simply a practical ‘numbers game’ with no ethical or political dimension is a bit contra-perceptive. The UN estimates that over 200 million women worldwide lack access to effective contraception, but it is not necessarily because it is unobtainable, but because religion opposes it or men refuse to use contraceptives. Globally it is women who take responsibility.  The number one method of contraception worldwide is female sterilisation, IUDs are second, the pill third, and male condom use is number four, and mostly confined to Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, as is well known, the Pope and his ilk have been going around sub-Saharan Africa helpfully telling locals that condoms spread AIDS (TimesOnline, March 17, 2009). Thus at the least there are gender and religious issues to be addressed.

And let’s get population numbers into perspective. It used to be said you could fit the world’s population comfortably onto the Isle of Wight. Well, times have changed, and one enterprising commentator has recalculated this figure to show that, as of October 2007, you would have to add in the Isle of Man, as well as Jersey and Guernsey ( As of 2010 you would need to start on the Scottish islands as well. But the basic point remains the same – humans don’t take up that much space by themselves. It’s what they do with the rest of the space that counts.

And that is a political issue, because rich countries demand far more space and resources than poor ones, and rich people far more than poor people even within rich countries. Carbon emission footprints also increase in lock-step with income, not population. Though population growth is clearly not sustainable long-term, it is made a much worse problem because of the disparities in wealth and consumption that capitalism causes.

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