The big taboo – Population and population growth

Look at the news today and it’s like the ‘Day after tomorrow’ has arrived. Resource scarcity and degradation is here and now. So many solutions float around – none, by the way, properly implemented by our political-cycle motivated ‘leaders’. I want to focus your attention on one solution that I believe is neglected and taboo but the most powerful one…

There is one neat equation I came across through my trawls through a climate change textbook recently:

COemissions = population x income/head x watts/income x emissions/watt

Everything we talk about is generally focused on emissions/watt – using renewable energy such as wind, solar, biogas. The easiest and most powerful part of the equation to go after is population. Now, people who are riling with ‘she said what?’, I do NOT mean kill people. No! I mean stop incentivising having lots of children and instead incentivise having one or two. Incentivise. That is different from forced abortion and legal limits. I’m not saying let’s go the way of China and have a forced one-child policy. But I do firmly believe we need to reward people who do the responsible and sensible thing for the environment and act less selfishly by having fewer children.

It’s a common unanalysed belief that having children is a selfless endeavour. People who believe this should revisit their knowledge from basic biology: all species reproduce. Remember MRS GREN or whatever you called it (7 characteristics of living things: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, REPRODUCTION, Excretion and Nutrition). We are hard-wired to reproduce. Our offspring are an extension of ourselves, the closest thing possible without cloning. You are also hard-wired to love and care for them. You are NOT being selfless by having lots of children. You are propagating your own genes, you are actually being SELFISH. So first step in accepting my proposed solution is de-glorifying childbirth as this wonderful holy selfless act. If you love children so much and truly believe you are selfless then why not adopt a few of the millions of orphans in dire need of a loving home? Why not give one of them shelter alongside your one or two biological children?

Nor do we live in a planet that is short of people by any means. There are around 7 billion people in the world right now and projected to be 9 billion by 2050. The strain this puts on our planet’s resources is unbelievable – see ‘Harvesting the biosphere’ by Vaclav Smil. It leads to deforestation; more mining; more plastic production; more landfill; more toxic waste, greater carbon emissions. The knock-on effects of those are well-known: you get more climate change, more tropical disease, more drought, more crop failure, more frequent and more intense storms. In England alone, we produce 177 million tonnes of waste every year. It’s all got to go somewhere. In India, you see plastic lying on the sides of the roads in millions of tiny unintentional landfill sites. In developed countries, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it disappears, and per capita we produce a lot more than any developing country, so there’s still fair argument to be made about developed nations keeping the right incentives in place for population.

Human overpopulation also leads to less room and resources for all the other species on this planet. I’ve had a ‘who owns the planet’ debate a lot with friends and it seems there are two types of views in the world: 1- the planet is for humans 2- the planet is for all species. I’m in category no.2 and most of my western friends are in category no.1. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing? Hinduism is a pluralistic religion with many animal Gods and I think this has influenced Indian beliefs. In India, we tend to believe that this planet belongs to everyone including those without a voice and without human intellect. In other cultures the prevailing thinking is along the lines of ‘might is right’ and humans have might. I’m going to have the guts and say category no.1ers you need to evolve your thinking and expand your bounds of empathy to other species.

So the choice is ours: we keep growing like mad, creating artificial islands in the sea to house ourselves, keep building upwards, packing each floor with humans, spend time commuting in traffic jams, Governments constantly worrying about high unemployment rates and how do we create enough jobs, happily accepting people in (now predominantly) developing nations having 10 children even though they can barely sustain themselves, keep dumping rubbish until the Great Pacific garbage patch spans the whole friggin’ ocean


We make population control a priority. We choose a world with fewer people who can enjoy more abundance each. When we give out food-aid to poor people, we also educate them on family planning and give them free protection and stop being scared to EMPHASISE IT. We reward those who stopped at two with tax breaks, and penalise those who carry on. The choice is still the family’s but at least now we’re aligning their incentives with the greater good. We choose a world where everyone has a chance to be happy and prosperous because there is enough for everyone.

My concrete policy recommendations are for developed nations to make getting population growth to conservative levels a key priority that influences design and structure of foreign aid packages, and for developing nations to put this on their policy agenda in big letters and roll it into education and healthcare policies.


And if you still don’t believe population is a big challenge for us, please go to India and please try walking on a road in Old Delhi and tell me you had a pleasant time as you walk through hoards of people, poverty-stricken, desperate for a dime, wishing they could pursue their dreams in a world of ever-scarcer resources.  And I haven’t even touched on spiritual aspects yet: how special do you feel when there are 7 billion of us? 

Barely room to walk. Sea of heads. Heads full of dreams. Most dreams won't come true.
Old Delhi: Barely room to walk. Sea of heads. Heads full of dreams. Most dreams won’t come true. Photo by Andrew Harris

2 thoughts on “The big taboo – Population and population growth”

  1. Right On! Wow, your post makes three(!) posts addressing overpopulation in the past few hours in the “Environment” category on WordPress. That’s a first in the two years or so we’ve had this bookmarked. Heartening. As one of my biology professors said over 30 years ago, “Next to overpopulation, every other issue facing humankind is trivial, because virtually all of our problems are due to overpopulation.” That back in 1980. The situation has only gotten worse. You’re exactly right: let’s start by ceasing to provide incentives for large families. Couple this with education and better health services, and we Could still pull this out of the fire. Thanks for having the courage to address a reality many are still afraid to address.

    1. Thanks for your note and kind words! Yes, I really hope this theme catches on and we start hearing about it in our political debates and on TV. And more than that, let’s hope there’s some action. There’s a bill been sitting with the UK Parliament for ages – about abolishing child benefit for the third child onwards. Policies like that need to be passed and publicised.

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