Robin Maynard: Too Many People on Earth? Why We Need to Have a Hard Talk about Population

Talking about the size of human population has become so controversial that very few people dare to do that. Director of British NGO Population Matters Robin Maynard, who’s seen the world population double in his life, explains why it’s so difficult to discuss demographics, how to achieve UN’s low projection of 7.3 billion people on Earth by 2100 and much more. 

The term “overpopulation” has become such a taboo over the past years that in the 2019 Nairobi Summit dedicated to population growth people only talked about women’s rights. What do you think about it?

Following the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, there has been a big shift from talking about overall population numbers to only talking about it through the lens of women empowerment. This meant effectively that you weren’t able to talk about the context at all. Consequently, some NGOs and government programs got nervous engaging in population and ironically, access to contraception globally has only gone up 6% over those 25 years.

Why is it so difficult to talk about demographics?

In part due to the unsavoury history of ‘population control’ in some countries. Even though there are many fantastic examples of positive, non-coercive, linked education and family planning programmes such as in Iran, Bangladesh, Philippines and Thailand, somehow people always default to the negative, coercive initiatives such as China’s One Child Policy and India’s sterilization programs which flagrantly breached human rights.

Is it the only reason why people feel reluctant to talk about overpopulation?

No, actually there are many more reasons. For example, people in developed countries think that because fertility rates are below replacement (currently it’s around 1.7-1.8 child per British woman), surely, population isn’t an issue here. But that’s not true. Our population here is projected to increase by at least 10 more million over the next decade or two and that may get as high as 86 million by 2100. Arguably, given the per capita consumption rates here in the UK, we have been overpopulated since the early 1970s.

The few people who talk about overpopulation, such as Jan Greguš in the Czech Republic, are often criticized and accused of xenophobia. How should the issue be communicated so it doesn’t create so much controversy?

The more that a wider range of people talk about it, the better. For example, it can be more powerful and compelling to hear Dr Aminu-Kano, director of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, whom PM co-hosted an event marking World Population Day in Lagos last year, speak out eloquently and compassionately about the need to stabilize the rising population in his country. Whereas, if I were to say the same in that context, some people might choose to mischaracterise me, as some white middle-aged Britisher ‘telling Africans not to develop’ – which is absolutely not what we say, stand for or promote! Having the Honorary President of the Black Environmental Network, as well as three leading female African conservationists on our Expert Advisory Group helps us dispel such crude, binary arguments that ‘you must be racist if you talk about population’. Whereas, PM deplores any form of racism applied to the population debate.

I have noticed that very few environmental organizations talk about the impact of population on nature. Do you know why?

Mainstream environmental organizations do appear to be very reluctant to talk about population, perhaps because the larger, longer established NGOs still tend to be based in or were founded in the US and Europe – and whilst not all, a good number of their CEO’s are white, middle-aged males, nervous at being labelled as ‘neo-colonialist’, ‘racist’ etc. Which, of course they’re not, and nor is anyone who is seeking to raise awareness of the issue of population ethically and compassionately. 

When many people think about the population issue, if they do at all, they fall back on that general, future projection of humanity hitting 10 billion towards the middle/end of this century and consider that’s ‘a done deal’, something that’s going to happen whatever, giving them an excuse not to talk about it. Such fatalism is a block to the discussion. It’s also not a done deal. We have the opportunity and means to bend that growth curve down and for the better. Alongside that fatalism, there’s a naive belief that if we do hit 10 billion, all is going to be okay as new technology will save us.

What is the ideal number of people inhabiting the Earth in a sustainable way according to Population Matters?

At the very least, we should and we can aim to get closer to the UN’s low projection of 7.3 billion people on Earth by 2100 – ‘bending the curve’ down from the middle projection of 10-11 billion and god forbid, the high of 16.6 billion. We have the means to achieve that low projection or lower.

Is it reachable through ethical non-coercive way?

Yes. We first need to provide family-planning methods and contraception to the over 232 million women who currently do not have access or choice over either. In Nairobi Summit, I heard one delegate saying that if overseas aid globally was increased by just 1%, we could provide for that unmet need very quickly. This is a low-hanging fruit. Of course, some major foundations like The Gates Foundation are doing a lot of good work to achieve that – much needed, as it is in the face of the Trump administration cutting billions of dollars of aid to family planning projects across the world.

What’s the other thing that needs to be done?

We need to enable all pregnancies to be wanted pregnancies rather than, as currently, with 40% being unplanned or unwanted. Around 1000 women a day die in childbirth or through complications during pregnancy; that means 400 of them died due to a pregnancy they didn’t want. Even in a rich, developed country like the UK we still have high percentage of teenage pregnancies, which education and access to contraception could prevent, allowing better, informed choices by young, vulnerable girls. Three, we need to raise people out of poverty in the developing world – whilst at the same time, persuade people, especially in rich countries, to consume less.

That’s quite a list of things to do! What would you recommend people like me prioritise?

Well, writing about and communicating the issue and the facts, not the misperceptions or false assumptions is a great start! Learning about and hearing the stories and positive experiences of women and men who’ve decide to have smaller families or have chosen not to have a child can be very empowering. An increasing number of people have started to think about having fewer children because of the current and forecast impacts of climate change. Indeed, choosing to have one child fewer, especially in rich, developed countries has been shown to be the most impactful act you can take to reduce your family’s carbon-footprint according to Lund University and other researchers. That’s a conscious, individual, ecological choice – certainly for those of us where choices over family size, access to contraception are available.

Can it really help?

At the moment, each additional child born in the UK will have an impact equivalent to 16 people in Niger or Mali. If the average standard of living enjoyed by people in the UK was replicated by everyone across the world – we’d need nearly 3 Earth’s worth of resources annually – if everyone consumed as much as the average US citizen, we’d need 5-6 Earths! Clearly impossible and proof of the unfair use and distribution of the Earth’s resources currently. The challenge is even greater, because the estimated 3.2 billion high-level consumers in the world is set to rise to 5 billion by 2050. As the middle-class, higher-consuming sectors grow in India, China, Latin America and Africa, we need to develop different economic models and measures of wellbeing, rather than just based on consumption. But given that trend towards greater consumption, reducing the number of consumers overall by having smaller families makes sense.

What needs to be done in this respect?

We need to do two challenging things: persuade people in rich countries to consume less, whilst enabling people in the poorest countries to have more – whilst not following the excessive, unsustainable path of consumption that we have. In parallel, we need to persuade people to have smaller families. If we don’t address all those factors: addressing and altering consumption patterns; enabling everyone with the access to and means of choosing smaller families; creating the ‘space’ for positive, less energy/resource intensive technologies to come into play – we don’t stand a chance of achieving a sustainable future.

How do you want to persuade people to consume less? Consumerism is booming like never.

To be honest with you, I sometimes feel that I’ve spent the last 30 years tilting at windmills, banging on about reducing consumption, providing space for nature and to allow vital ecosystems to regenerate etc. – yet global consumption is still not going down, biodiversity is collapsing, and ecosystems are under increasing stress. We, environmentalists, are trying to change an economic system which has been dominant for the last two hundred years, which suits powerful vested interests, and in which most people’s lives are deeply entrenched – so it’s very challenging to get humanity onto another path.

Is it realistic to achieve such a major change in the current system?

New movements like Extinction Rebellion accept that you can never persuade everybody, so are focused on a ‘theory of change’ which believes that a shift by just 3.5% of people, the ‘early adopters’ is enough to break the log-jam. I hope they’re right – but I’m not convinced and am disappointed by the apparently ideological stance of a lot of climate activists to ignore or dismiss the factor of population. Whereas all the credible scientific reports, whether from the IPCC, leading biologists, and most recently in the analysis offered by the World Scientists’ Warning, signed by over 11,000 scientists from across the world, highlight human population as a key, if not the, key upstream driver.

What is Population Matters doing to slow down the population growth?

Clearly not enough, because the world’s human population is growing by an additional 82 million people each year! But it would be hubristic and deluded to believe that any modestly resourced organisation, with just half a dozen staff, could slow such growth in the short term. However, we can and are raising awareness of the issue globally and finding a greater number of like-minded organisations and partners – especially in the Global South where ongoing high population growth and the consequent negative impacts upon society, upon people’s wellbeing, upon natural resources and ecosystems are most immediately apparent. It is hugely encouraging to receive support from those partners and from high-profile individuals like Sir David Attenborough, Dame Jane Goodall and Dr Aminu Kano – that helps get the issue and our concerns heard and debated far more widely.

We also seek to work at the community level where, rather than trying to change the world or the world economic system in a matter of months(!) you can make and see the most difference to individual lives. So through our Empower to Plan project we help fund grassroots projects empowering young girls (and boys!) to gain access to education, contraception and so have choice over their future family size. Empower to Plan has supported and supports such projects in Guatemala, Kenya, closer to home in Wales and the English Midlands.

At the international level we are lobbying the UN and other global institutions and policymakers to consider and include the population factor in their programmes and forward planning.

What has the organization achieved over the course of its existence?

PM has been steadfast in continuing to raise awareness of the issue of population when other organisations chose not to – it is noticeable that the issue is rising up the agenda presently, with greater media coverage, political and public debate than there has been for years. That’s to the credit of PM and the small number of like-minded population concern organisations globally. Our Annual Reports give some good facts and stats as to our achievements over the past years.

What can each of us do to prevent overpopulation?

  1. Talk about the issue with friends, family, colleagues – read up on the key facts:
  2. Make the personal choice to have a smaller family. That is the most powerful, individual action anyone living in a developed country can make and would bring great benefits to people and planet alike:
  3. Join PM!

Robin Maynard (*1958) has spent over 30 years working in the environment movement – starting as a volunteer at Friends of the Earth (FOE) just before the Chernobyl disaster. That grim event led to his first paid environmental job tracking radioactive fall-out across the UK, finding more extensive contamination than officially admitted, so securing greater compensation for affected farmers. Holding senior campaign posts at FOE, Soil Association, FARM, and the Wildlife Trusts, Robin also spent a stint producing and presenting BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today; as well as providing pieces for Costing the Earth. From 2009 -10, he worked as director of communications for the Forestry Commission, resigning at the then government’s proposal to flog off the entire public forest and woodland estate in England. Along with other environmentalists and concerned foresters, he set-up Our Forests which, supported by grassroots groups, forced the first policy U-turn of the Coalition Government. During 2012 -13, working with PM President, Jonathon Porritt he sought to persuade environment and conservation groups to talk humanely and honestly about human population pressure and its impacts upon our planet, alongside the more routinely considered factor of human consumption – with limited, success! Presently, he is director of Population Matters. To find out more about Population Matters, check their Media Coverage page.

5 thoughts on “Robin Maynard: Too Many People on Earth? Why We Need to Have a Hard Talk about Population”

  1. If all women who wanted to reproduce limited themselves to 2 children, then our gentle decline would be achieved and many of our environmental issues would dramatically improve. The peace sign can be used to suggest this notion, 2 kids per woman who wants to reproduce.

  2. John Geoffrey Mosley

    Because up to now the false claim that concern about overpopulation and immigration is racist has worked.

    1. Most governments, businesses and religions do not strive to reduce population, on the contrary, they want to increase it. So, I don’t think that Covid vaccines have anything to do with population.

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