There is a long-standing case made for the benefits of a steady-state economy. With climate change, collapsing biodiversity and increasing pressure on key resources, that has to be the way to go. As the WWF Living Planet report says, humanity is consuming one-and-a-half times what the planet can produce sustainably, even though billions still have very low standards of living.
Encouraging people to live sustainable, low-impact lifestyles must be part of the answer, as must reducing inequality. Re-engineering industry, government and society to reduce wasteful consumption and inappropriate incentives is necessary. A considered use of technology is also important – achieving the same results with a reduced use of resources and energy.
Yet the one factor that we should have the most control over is the one we address the least – ourselves. In the last fifty years, populations of vertebrates around the world have dropped by half. All except one – humans. Our numbers have doubled in that time, from 3.5 to 7 billion. We are still growing, by 80 million a year. We are living longer and, while birth rates are falling, the number of mothers is rising and more children are surviving to adulthood. Official projections are that the global population by 2100 will probably be half as much again as today, and could be much higher.
Some people argue that this isn’t so important, because the greatest population growth is in the poorest countries and communities, which consume the least. Even if we ignore the devastating impact even the poorest communities can have on wildlife and habitat, such an argument relies on these communities staying poor. With industrialisation and rising aspirations, continuing poverty cannot be taken for granted, and it is hardly a moral position to rely on it. In practice, the rising numbers fuel the trend towards ever more development and industrialisation. We are not managing the resources we have, particularly non-renewables, with any sense of future requirements. Instead, individual interests compete to extract the remaining resources as quickly as possible. When they are exhausted, the world will be a much less hospitable place to live.
Imagine instead a world where human numbers were falling rather than rising. Nature would be reclaiming towns, instead of towns inexorably consuming the countryside. Endangered species would be recovering instead of being extinguished. There would be more green spaces and access to amenities, instead of fewer. House and room sizes would be rising, instead of falling. Falling resource prices would enable rising living standards for the poorest, instead of the current position where rising competition for resources puts increasing pressure on the poor and other species. Even climate change would be a thing of the past, eventually.
Of course, family size is a very personal issue, but then so is lifestyle. It varies widely; in the UK, only 40% of people have the average of two children; large proportions have none, one, three or even more. Some say that their larger family is environmentally efficient – lots of people in one house – or that they are being brought up to live in an environmentally efficient way. These arguments are hardly convincing. More people consume more than fewer people on average. Having one child fewer typically reduces one’s impact much more than everything else one can do put together, particularly when you take into account the impact of that child’s descendants.
In surveys, most people recognise that populations are too high, but don’t know what to do about it. No-one wants the swingeing fines China imposes on families exceeding state guidelines or the excesses of local officials working to sterilization targets. In the absence of compulsion, won’t everyone have large families? In fact, the real answer, like encouraging people to be more environmentally conscious in other ways, is not compulsion but freedom. After all, where people have a choice, families are typically low.
We need to give women, particularly young women, the freedom to say no to sex when they do not want it, to say no to forced and child marriage, and to say no to pregnancy where it is unintended. We were engineered to enjoy sex and to have children as a consequence; that is why we are all here. However, we know how to manage our fertility and, as a consequence, many countries today have very low birth rates. It involves good quality sex and relationships education, respect for women and good access to a range of affordable and appropriate family planning methods.
We also know how to create the circumstances where women can develop their full potential in other ways than simply having a large family. This requires equal access to education and employment at all levels and the provision of good quality health care, particularly sexual and reproductive health.
For poorer countries, some commentators suggest we have to wait before encouraging people to have smaller families. Wait until they are developed. Wait until women are educated. In fact, the poorest communities benefit from access to family planning and smaller families. Women who can decide whether and when to have children are more likely to have safe and healthy deliveries and to have healthy children. They are more likely to complete education and to develop independent employment. Households and communities without the economic burden of a high birth rate can invest in the development required to improve people’s lives.
This topic is absolutely not about first world vs. third world, black vs. white, natives vs. immigrants, secularists vs. faith groups or men vs. women. Richer countries and communities, with their much higher per capita consumption, have even more cause to limit their family size in order to reduce the degree to which they exploit the resources which are needed by the poor to improve their living standards.
Our case is simple: a smaller family is a sustainable family.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Dennis Harvey January 7th, 2015
I agree but how do you get democracies with poiticians to put the long term survival of people above the short term emphasis on economics?
2Dave Darby January 8th, 2015
exactly. as long as our political system is controlled by economic power, then it’s impossible. we need systemic change – a lot of greenies miss that. Just read a piece by Tim Flannery. He writes about what’s happening to ecology beautifully – especially the feeling of helplessness when you ‘get it’ but you realise that so few people do. But he runs out of steam when it comes to what to do about it. We have to grasp the nettle. We can’t stop destroying ecology within capitalism. One of them has to go. I really hope it’s capitalism.
3Luc January 8th, 2015
Politicians try to do what voters want (in order to get their votes). Thus if enough voters want the government to stimulate population reduction, then the government will consider this. However, the number of required voters will depend on the type of democracy, especially its election threshold.
Anyway, I think politicians are not the only ones with leverage: Excellent blogs like this can make us aware of the benefits to the planet of smaller families, and can thus influence people’s family size choices.