Yes, population does matter, but we need to focus on individual consumption

By Andy Hunter-Rossall

We are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. That is hard to deny. Earth Overshoot Day is a great way to visualise this over-consumption. Falling on 8th August this year, we can imagine that everything we consumed before that day – the fossil fuels we burned, the trees we felled, the food we ate – could all be replenished, sequestered, or otherwise “coped with” by the Earth if we spread that consumption over a year. But for the rest of the year – from the long August days of our Summer holidays, through to the ringing in of the New Year – everything we consume now represents the quantity of our over-consumption. The amount we’d need to cut out in order to reach some notion of sustainability.

This over-consumption is having real consequences. We are releasing carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere at a much faster rate than it can be absorbed, dangerously altering the chemical make-up of our planet and having drastic impacts on the climate and on ocean acidity. We are cutting down forests at a rate of about 50,000 square miles per year [1], and creating a global mass extinction, with extinction rates between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “background level” [2]. We are filling up our oceans with 8 million tonnes of plastic waste each year[3].

So we agree that as a global society, we need to consume less. We could consume less in total by each of us individually taking responsibility for consuming less, and by the governments, public services, corporations and other organisations that consume on our behalf also consuming less. We could also consume less globally if there were fewer humans – fewer humans means less consumption. That seems fairly obvious. This is the driving principle behind the campaign group Population Matters, and behind David Sanderson’s recent guest blogs for The Green Economy.

I don’t doubt any of this, but I do have two major concerns about focusing on population as the solution to our environmental problems. The first is that focusing on population may not be an effective use of resources for those of us concerned about environmental degradation and destruction. The second is that it may lead to a scape-goating attitude where we think that environmental problems are the responsibility and concern only of countries with large or rapidly growing populations.

So why might population growth not be a useful focus for our campaigning energies?

Birth rates are already coming down. Not because of concerns about global population, but as a consequence of female emancipation, education, access to family planning and reduced infant mortality rates. The animation below, created using, show how fertility has changed over time (vertical axis). Note here that fertility is measured as the number of children per woman. Each circle represents a different country, with the size of the circle representing the population. The colour represents the region of the world (yellow: Europe, red: Asia and Oceania, green: Americas, blue: Africa), and the horizontal axis represents infant mortality (deaths per 1,000 births).

Fertility vs infant mortality, 1800 to now

In 1800, all countries had high infant mortality rates. As we move in to the 20th century, improvements in medical care lead to significant drops in infant mortality, starting with the richer countries. As infant mortality rates become more diverse, the link with fertility can be seen. Improvements in contraception in middle of the 20th century lead to significant drops in fertility, until we arrive in 2015 when the vast majority of the world have fertility rates of between 1 and 3 children per woman. The UK fertility rate has dropped from about 5.0 in 1800, to about 1.9 now. In India, the birth rate has gone from about 6.0 to about 2.4 in the same time. There are still countries with high birth rate, largely in Sub-Saharan Africa, but even here mixed progress can be seen, with Uganda’s fertility dropping from 6.8 children per woman in 1800 to 5.7 now, whilst Djibouti in the same time dropped from 6.3 to 3.3 children per woman.

The point here is that vast progress is being made in the name of global development, economic development and humanitarianism – will the environmental perspective of lowering fertility as an aim in itself lead to any concrete improvements to ongoing successful programmes?

The other reason campaigning to reduce global population may not be an effective use of time is that  some population growth is now inevitable. Even if the birth rate leveled off now – that’s the total number of children born each year – the population would continue to increase until mid-century as larger cohorts age and replace smaller cohorts. There are far more 45-60 year olds alive now than 60-75 year olds, for example. This is partially because some people die before reaching this older age bracket, but much of the difference is because more people were born 45-60 years ago than 60-75 years ago. In 15 years time, therefore, even if the global birth rate levels off, we will expect a higher population. Factor in increased life expectancy in many countries, and some population growth seems completely inevitable. This concept was explained brilliantly by Hans Rosling in his documentary series “Don’t Panic” – see the links below for this recommended documentary on global development and population [4].

The quantity of this population growth, however, is not inevitable and, as David Sanderson points out in his article “Should we be worrying about the global population”, the UN’s projections for population by 2100, with a confidence of 95%, is between 9 billion and 14 billion people, and whilst there is an obvious difference between 9 billion and 14 billion, even the 9 billion figure could be very worrying. The Earth is not currently coping with 7 billion inhabitants – how will it cope with 9 billion? Not only that but the Earth is largely struggling to cope because of the lifestyles of the richest nations – the world could cope with many times more people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet than a typical US diet, for example [5]. As countries get richer, they inevitably want “Western lifestyles” – cars, cheap flights, the latest gadgets, and meat and dairy with every meal. The Earth could not cope with 2 billion people leading the lifestyle of the average American [6], so arguing about 9 billion vs 14 billion seems academic unless we tackle this extreme consumption.

The final reason that focusing on population may not be an effective use of campaigning time is that changing population dynamics is a slow process, and any glacial progress that is made may be wiped out by a failure of antibiotics pushing up infant mortality, or by financial crises leading to a baby boom, or any number of other factors that are largely out of campaigners’ control. In the best case scenario, where we can have an impact on the population, maybe achieving a plateau of 9 billion by 2100, we could already have irreversibly destroyed our oceans, rainforests and climate by then. We need solutions now. So we need to tackle consumption of the richer nations.

But surely we can do both? Surely we don’t have to choose between campaigning on population growth and consumption? This brings me on to my second concern about focusing on population; the potential for scapegoating, or “othering” the problem. By focusing on population, it is easy for people with small families to point to those with large families as the problem. It is easy for countries with small populations to point to those with large populations as the problem. And it is easy for those with stable populations to point to those with increasing populations as the problem. Focusing instead on the consumption per capita, the ecological footprint of each individual, leads to a complete paradigm shift. Through the paradigm of individual consumption we can think about what would be sustainable for each person, and work towards this at an individual and aggregate level. This leads to the idea of contraction and convergence – rich nations will need to do more to bring down their consumption, whilst all nations aim for a common goal of sustainability. The paradigm of populations leads to very different conclusions, with the focus being taken away from high consumption countries and shifted on to countries with large populations or high birth rates, effectively ignoring the responsibility of many of the individuals who are leading the most unsustainable lifestyles.

In summary, yes, I think we can agree that population does matter, and we should continue with global development initiatives which reduce fertility by improving infant mortality rates, improving opportunities for women, and increasing access to family planning. But given the already unsustainable levels of consumption, the inevitability of some population growth, the already declining birth rates, and given the glacial speed and potential futility of campaigning for lower populations, I would conclude that the efforts of all concerned environmentalists would be best spent in making changes to our wasteful consumerist lifestyles, rather than trying to reduce populations.

So with a focus on consumption rather than population, here they are, my top 4 priorities for creating a sustainable society:

  • Moving away from fossil fuels. 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. A radical programme of energy efficiency, increasing renewable energy capacity, improving energy storage technologies, and lifestyle change will be needed to replace our dependence on cheap oil.
  • Moving away from meat and dairy consumption. Meat and dairy require more land, more water, and more fossil fuels than a vegetarian diet. The Earth can support far more people on a vegetarian or vegan diet than on a typical “Western” diet. As an aside, there is a growing body of evidence that the diet that is best for the planet may also be the diet that is best for our health [7].
  • Creating circular economies. We can’t continue extracting raw materials, creating disposable goods and then filling up our oceans and landfill sites with our debris. We need to find new methods of production which are circular, with reuse, repair and recyclability designed in to products.
  • Equality. More equal societies care more about sustainability. This is one of the surprising findings of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in their seminal book The Spirit Level, which also found that more equal societies do better on a wide range of social indicators. In more unequal societies people try to “keep up with the Jones’”. The same is true on a global level, with developing nations wanting to “keep up with the Americans”. I find it hard to envisage a sustainable society which has such incredible levels of inequality within countries or between them as we have today [8].

AIbEiAIAAABECKHo45WWzJPW3wEiC3ZjYXJkX3Bob3RvKig1ZjM4NmYyYmQxMDA2MGE3NTlhZTI4ZWZkMTFjYzY1NDZlMTRkOWJmMAENyP3iAjRa0U22UU0lzNsunyXX_wAndy Hunter-Rossall is a maths teacher in Oldham and the secretary of Oldham & Saddleworth Green Party.








[8] (lecture 3)


Does the economy need a growing population?

By Dave Sanderson

The final blog in our series this week from Dave Sanderson to mark World Overshoot Day

It all depends on who you ask!

The view of most mainstream economists in the 21st century (so-called ‘neo-classical’ economists) is that a growing population provides more workers and thus more production and also more consumers, so Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will increase, and that this is a good thing. Indeed, during the industrial revolution in Europe and the USA, this appears to have been the case, as GDP grew, infrastructure such as railways and drains became widespread and the foundations for national prosperity were put in place.

But not everyone would agree. Many people in 19th century British factories worked very long hours, were poor and lived in awful accommodation. They didn’t share in the new wealth. And this is the case today, in countries such as India and Nigeria. Population may increase, GDP may increase, but if GDP increases by the same or a smaller percentage, GDP per head decreases so on average people become poorer. GDP / head is thus a much better measure than simple GDP.

The availability of investment and other materials also matters. There may be more workers but if the resources are not there to increase production (land, raw materials, investment etc), there might be a serious shortage of work and many people become poor. Land in particular is a fixed asset. We cannot make any more. So if more land is used for factories and offices, there is less available to grow food or to build houses on.

The majority of newly created wealth may be captured by a small elite (eg in a dictatorship), leading to serious inequalities and no benefit for most people. An increase in GDP or an increase in population are not the same as an increase in well-being for the majority.

Some politicians argue that immigration (or indigenous population growth) is essential to maintain standards of living when an increasing proportion of the population are ageing and thus no longer in work. These additional people can work in business, making money to support the elderly. This is lazy thinking, of course. These young workers will have children, who will need supporting. And the workers will eventually become old themselves, so requiring more workers to support them in turn. It becomes a pyramid scheme, always requiring more people to keep it going, until it eventually collapses.

Development economists like to point out that a fast increasing population offers the possibility of a ‘demographic dividend’ for a limited period of time. Forty per cent of the population of the world’s least-developed countries (LDCs) is under the age of 15, and the total population of these countries is expected to double by 2050. This poses great challenges, but if countries can lower fertility rates and reduce population growth, it also provides a great opportunity for accelerated economic growth, as measured by GDP.

The term “demographic dividend” (DD) refers to the accelerated economic growth that a country can achieve when the proportion of its population that is of working age is greater than the proportion of its population that don’t work (children and the elderly). This frees up household and state resources that can be invested to generate economic growth rather than supporting dependents. In order to achieve a DD, countries with rapidly-growing populations need low fertility rates, a healthy and educated population, female participation in the labour force and a positive investment climate and appropriate infrastructure.

A number of current developed countries have achieved a DD during their journey to their current affluent status but many currently undeveloped countries seem to be a long way from achieving the four criteria above. In other words, a DD is theoretically attractive but if a country encourages its birth rate to boom to try to achieve this, it seriously risks ending up with much bigger problems than it would have had otherwise.

There are other significant, common drawbacks with the mainstream, neo-classical economic argument, although there are sometimes potential solutions:

Increasing consumption leads to resource depletion, which in turn limits consumption unless alternative resources can be substituted (as they often are, at the moment, via innovation),

Increased consumption leads to increased emissions and waste, hence the rise of reuse, repair and recycle initiatives and the circular economy. Regulation is frequently put in place to limit emissions,

Increasing population requires the building of additional infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, roads, water supplies and sewers. The cost of doing so absorbs much and sometimes all of the extra GDP generated, leading to economies ‘running to stand still’ with no net benefit to their people,

Biodiversity is falling fast, as is the total biomass of non-human, non-domesticated animals and plants. Nature reserves and biobanks are attempting to conserve genetic diversity as many wild species are thought to have the potential to provide materials of benefit to people (pharmaceutical products for example),

Loss of the eco-system services provided at no cost to humans by nature are often hard if not impossible to replace. These range from pollination of crops by wild bees to prevention of coastal erosion by mangroves, carbon capture by peatlands to the emotional benefits of peaceful and beautiful places.

Hardly anyone talks about the likely economic effects of decreasing populations. Yet in an overcrowded world, this is worth thinking about. Population increase is not pre-ordained. Anyone (in a free society) can decide not to have children or to just have one or two. A change of culture in a society, a change of behaviour in a population could thus rapidly alter the population. What might happen? GDP would no doubt decrease, but GDP per head may well not.

A  UK focused 2015 paper by the charity Population Matters listed many benefits that could be had. These include economic benefits such as full employment, rising wages and increased incentives to increase efficiency and productivity. The need to keep expanding infrastructure would end, enabling the money to be spent on other things. Food, water and energy security should increase as demand falls, while quality of life should improve, with less traffic congestion, noise, pollution and pressure on public services. House prices would fall, increasing affordability. Carbon emissions would decrease, slowing climate change, wildlife would have more space and in general sustainability would become much more achievable.

So there is significant interplay between the changing number of people and economics but whether you see population increase as a benefit or not probably depends on whether you are a politician or economists or a normal person lower down the hierarchy.

Dave Sanderson is a retired economic development professional, active in many areas of sustainability. He is deeply involved with Greater Manchester TreeStation, is on the Board of the Woodland Trust’s Smithill Enterprise Hub, helped found the Saddleworth Hydro Scheme, acts as a Woodland Creation Champion, monitors bird populations for the RSPB and BTO and is an active member of the charity Population Matters.

To find out more about how population growth and sustainability impact the planet, and get involved.


Should we be worrying about the global population?

By Dave Sanderson

The second of three guest blogs this week from Dave Sanderson to mark World Overshoot Day, 8 August 2016

Immigration featured highly in the recent Brexit debate but much less was said about the overall population of Britain. And very little is ever said about the rapidly increasing global population, despite it being one factor behind increasing immigration to Britain, Europe and the USA. Clearly, the number of people on the earth cannot grow forever, so should we be concerned?

Let’s look at the current situation. As of June 2016, UN data shows the global human population was 7.33bn. The ten most populous countries are:

1. China 1,373,541,278   6. Pakistan 201,995,540
2. India 1,266,883,598   7. Nigeria 186,053,386
3. United States 323,995,528   8. Bangladesh 171,696,855
4. Indonesia 258,316,051   9. Russia 142,355,415
5. Brazil 205,823,665   10. Japan 126,702,133

The UK population is 65.1m, making it the second most populous country in the EU after Germany (80.7m) and greater than third placed France with 64.7m. The total population of the 28 EU countries is 738m, 10.05% of the global total.

It is interesting to see how population is changing over time. Again the UN provides the numbers:


The global population is currently growing rapidly, at about 80m / year but with very different rates of growth in different countries. These latest (2015) UN population projections were published in 2016, referring to data from 2015. They predict higher world population figures than the previous set did. In a nutshell, the current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 (16% increase), 9.7 billion in 2050 (33% increase) and 11.2 billion in 2100 (53% increase). These are the median figures and small changes in fertility now could lead to higher or lower figures in the future. 

Several very striking points are made in the UN report which we must think about carefully as they will affect us all. Half of the world’s population growth is expected to be concentrated in nine countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America (USA), Indonesia and Uganda, listed according to the size of their contribution to the total growth.  So the world’s biggest consumer, the USA will have significant population growth, with dire consequences for our environment.

Ten African countries are projected to have increased by at least a factor of five by 2100: Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia. How very poor, hot, dry and weakly governed countries with small economies like Somalia, Mali and Niger could sustain a population 5 times as great as they have now is very hard to imagine. A humanitarian crisis (famine, war etc) seems inevitable and millions may die or emigrate if they can. A very good reason to ensure that national and international aid programmes focus on provision of sex and female health education, provision of free contraception etc…if the local governments will allow that.

Europe is predicted to see a fall in its indigenous population. Indeed, in June 2016 data showed that for the first time, deaths exceeded births in the EU. Yet the report also says that rich countries will increasingly become a magnet for economic migrants from poor countries with fast growing populations; overall EU population is still growing for this reason, leading to significant political and economic effects. According to the UN, most of UK population growth will come from immigration in future. It would seem unlikely that this net in-flow (net, because a smaller number of people migrate in the opposite direction) can be stopped as nations perceived as wealthy and liberal will be an irresistible draw to ever increasing numbers of young people in poorer nations desperate to better themselves. Many developed nations have ageing populations and some say they need young immigrants to help maintain economic growth and standards of living. Yet that is an unsustainable ponzi-scheme argument, as those young immigrants will themselves age, so will need more young people to support them etc etc. As the UK Brexit vote demonstrated, most people (not just in the UK) don’t want more immigration as it is perceived to dilute social cohesion. There is thus a need for a pragmatic, data-driven debate about this to arrive at a wise and practical way forward.

These figures ARE worrying. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste, according to the Global Footprint Network’s Overshoot Index . Obviously we only have one Earth. A bigger population makes solving existing problems (political, economic, social as well as environmental) worse and the issues harder to deal with. As Sir David Attenborough said on January 17 2016 ‘It seems to me that every one of the ills of the past 200 years – hunger, famine, loss of identity, forests disappearing, loss of dignity, overcrowding, loss of countryside – it’s all to do with increased population…Anywhere that women have control of their bodies and education and are literate and politically independent, the birth rate falls.

This surely is good reason for Governments (and all political parties) to place this issue at the heart of policy making and strategies. And, as Sir David points out, the solutions are well known.

Dave Sanderson is a retired economic development professional, active in many areas of sustainability. He is deeply involved with Greater Manchester TreeStation, is on the Board of the Woodland Trust’s Smithill Enterprise Hub, helped found the Saddleworth Hydro Scheme, acts as a Woodland Creation Champion, monitors bird populations for the RSPB and BTO and is an active member of the charity Population Matters.

To find out more about how population growth and sustainability impact the planet, visit and get involved.

New research suggests that family planning plays a significant role in achieving sustainability gains

Wordwatch Inst

Photo credit: Wilson Center

By Anders Lorenzen

It is a controversial issue that has divided environmentalists, but new research suggests that family planning could have significant environmental and sustainability gains.

A joint project between Worldwatch Institute and the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) evaluated hundreds of peer-reviewed documents released since 2005. The project found that there is an indirect link, demonstrating that family planning can contribute to a more sustainable world.

The comprehensive report Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability: Assessing the Science, which documented the findings of the project was launched in Washington D.C. last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

The researchers found that major reductions in unintended pregnancies, which now account for two out of five pregnancies worldwide, would significantly lower birth rates in both high and low-consuming countries. This could, in turn, achieve a lower trajectory in world population growth in the first half of the 21st century, which would reduce greenhouse gasses to an extent equal to eliminating all deforestation. On top of this, a greater use of family planning would also facilitate more participation by women in economic activity and in civil society. This, in turn, could improve environmental outcomes locally and globally.

However, Robert Engelman, former president of the Worldwatch Institute who directed the project did underline that the family planning issue is controversial. This is because the use of family planning should always be a private choice, which people are making for their own reasons, though he stated:

“Yet demonstrated synergies between the two might help advance both environmental sustainability and access to family planning for those who want it. Our objective has been to see what the scientific literature has to say about the connection and to assess the evidence base.”

A total of 939 papers were evaluated. Out of those, 112 papers were identified as ‘certainly relevant’ to the concept that family planning benefits the environment, with 302 other papers ranked as ‘probably relevant’. The ‘relevant’ papers either support or undermine the above theory, with the majority of the ‘certainly relevant’ papers supporting it, but none undermining the theory. Through the research, several theories arose. One such theory links slower population growth and the empowerment of women as pathways in which family planning might contribute to environmental sustainability.

A smaller proportion of the reviewed papers gives credence to the idea, that women who are able to make their own reproductive choices are more likely to contribute to environmental sustainability. This would be through consumption choices and/or participation in politics and civil society. A secondary theory was also in play: that research interest in the family planning-environmental sustainability linkage is widespread among women and men in developing as well as in developed countries.

Robert Engelman felt that the theory that the researchers examined was a success. He based this on the high proportions of relevant authors who are women and many from developing countries.  He also called for further research into this subject, stating:

“Given high levels of interest in the potential contribution of family planning to the environment, and the importance of the linkage for both sustainability and reproductive health and rights, more research and funding is needed, especially for young researchers and those in developing countries.”

It was also deemed important to the findings that the researchers collaborating in the assessment shared a commitment to the human rights foundation of family planning. It was seen as a personal choice for couples and individuals, in deciding if and when to have a child. And, crucially, the group identified no research suggesting that a weakening of this foundation would make any contribution to sustainability.

China’s controversial one-child policy which some believe had sustainability gains also had serious human rights implications. The authors of this report seem adamant that the China example is not one to follow. But voluntary family planning should be greatly encouraged, and this route could have very positive sustainability and environmental gains.

Originally published on A greener life, a greener world