Killing The Golden Goose

In an earlier post “The Blue Planet” I wondered whether we might actually be alone as the only sentient beings in our galaxy, if not the Universe, and if so that suggests a great responsibility on us to ensure that we live in a sustainable way on our unique planet. Having watched ‘Human Universe’ on BBC it’s clear that Professor Brian Cox agrees with me, both about our being alone as well as having such an enormous responsibility. A paper produced by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the USA presents a gloomy outlook on how badly we are doing in living up to this responsibility. The summary from their website is as follows:

The inexorable demographic momentum of the global human population is rapidly eroding Earth’s life-support system. There are consequently more frequent calls to address environmental problems by advocating further reductions in human fertility. To examine how quickly this could lead to a smaller human population, we used scenario-based matrix modeling to project the global population to the year 2100. Assuming a continuation of current trends in mortality reduction, even a rapid transition to a worldwide one-child policy leads to a population similar to today’s by 2100. Even a catastrophic mass mortality event of 2 billion deaths over a hypothetical 5-y window in the mid-21st century would still yield around 8.5 billion people by 2100. In the absence of catastrophe or large fertility reductions (to fewer than two children per female worldwide), the greatest threats to ecosystems—as measured by regional projections within the 35 global Biodiversity Hotspots—indicate that Africa and South Asia will experience the greatest human pressures on future ecosystems. Humanity’s large demographic momentum means that there are no easy policy levers to change the size of the human population substantially over coming decades, short of extreme and rapid reductions in female fertility; it will take centuries, and the long-term target remains unclear. However, some reduction could be achieved by midcentury and lead to hundreds of millions fewer people to feed. More immediate results for sustainability would emerge from policies and technologies that reverse rising consumption of natural resources.”

There seems little doubt that this very intelligent analysis based on sound statistics is correct and the consequences for future generations far from desirable. In spite of this and similar warnings from many other quarters there appears little or no appetite to address the issues raised, because of the difficulty in both political and ethical terms.

Here in the UK the number of births in England and Wales fell in 2013 by the largest annual amount in nearly 40 years. The Office for National Statistics said live births decreased from 729,674 to 698,512 in 2013, down 4.3% which is the biggest fall since 1975. The average age of mothers was 30 compared with 29.8 years in 2012, and the “total fertility rate” – the number of children per woman – decreased from 1.94 to 1.85. This fall in the fertility rate is the best news in a while, and the annual fall in the total fertility rate (TFR) was also the largest since 1975.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report said:

Changes in the TFR can result from changes in the timing of childbearing within women’s lives as well as any changes in completed family size. It is not possible to determine at this stage whether the fall in the TFR and the number of live births in 2013 is indicative of an end to the general increasing trend recorded since 2001. Despite this recent drop, the number of births and the TFR remain high relative to figures for the last three decades.”

The report said reasons for the decrease in fertility rates could include uncertainty over employment and career opportunities, and government changes to the welfare system affecting benefits. (See The ONS said the number of births had increased every year since 2001 – with the exception of a slight fall in 2009 – rising by 23% between 2001 and 2012. The average age of motherhood has reached 30 for the first time since records began in 1938. The ONS said:

“The average age of mothers has been increasing since 1975, with increasing numbers of women delaying childbearing to later ages. This may be due to a number of factors such as increased participation in higher education, increased female participation in the labour force, the increasing importance of a career, the rising opportunity costs of childbearing, labour market uncertainty, housing factors and instability of partnerships.”

Nearly half of all babies (47.4%) were born outside marriage or civil partnership in 2013. The ONS said this continued a rising trend, with the figure 41.4% in 2003.

Despite this welcome fall in the TFR there is little sign that the size of the UK population is giving people in general serious cause for concern, and in any event although the TFR went down the population still went up by over 400000. The Office for National Statistics estimated there were 64.1 million people in the UK in June 2013, a rise of 0.63% on the previous year. Just over half of the growth was accounted for by natural change – births minus deaths – while net migration represented 46% of the rise.

A quarter of the UK population growth was in London, and The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the British population grew more last year than in any other EU country.

  • While there were 212,100 more births than deaths, the figures show 183,400 more immigrants arriving in the UK than emigrants leaving.
  • The estimated population increased in England by 0.7% to 53.9 million, in Scotland by 0.27% to 5.3 million, in Wales by 0.27% to 3.1 million, and in Northern Ireland by 0.33% to 1.8 million.
  • The estimates showed the population of the UK had risen by more than the average seen across the European Union, exceeding the growth rate in its four most populous member states.

The ONS said the UK population had increased by about five million since 2001 and by more than 10 million since 1964. Why does this matter? Simon Ross, CEO of Population Matters recently commented:

Economic growth does not improve living standards if the benefit has to be spread across ever more people and if rising demand increases the cost of living. We would all be better off with a stable or falling population. We call on the government to acknowledge this and make smaller families and balanced migration explicit goals.”

The Population Matters view is that population growth is driving up the UK cost of living, particularly in already densely populated London and the South East. Housing, utility and transport costs are rising faster than wages as demand increases faster than supply or necessitates costly infrastructure investments. Food prices are also rising, reflecting increasing demand worldwide – this will be a long term trend.

Population growth is also affecting future sustainability. A report released this week by the University of Cambridge found that Britain is running out of land for growing food and faces a potential shortfall of two million hectares by 2030. Even at our current population, the UK already runs a food, feed and drink trade deficit of £18.6bn. Other emerging issues are energy and food security, carbon emissions and increased flooding.

PopulationMatters suggests that the government can and should promote a fall in average family size, which is high by European standards. The government should:

  • make sex and relationship education statutory and invest in training teachers in the subject;
  • work with local authorities and health providers to improve family planning advice and support and reduce unplanned pregnancies;
  • promote the benefits to society of smaller families; and
  • introduce for future births a limiting of child-related payments to two children per household except in cases of proven need.
  • The government should also further limit net migration and continue to improve enforcement of immigration laws.

That this is a matter of supreme urgency is reinforced by this document, again from Population Matters. Using wholly logical and scientifically sound analysis the Overshoot Index suggests that the sustainable population of the UK in 2010 was around 17 million, so that we are exceeding that number by around 3 times. That’s like spending 4 times more than your income year after year, getting deeper and deeper into debt.

Overshoot Index 2010 v_0_7 – overshoot_country

The other stark revelation from this index is the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.  For example compare the USA with an overshoot of 159 million (i.e. 159 million people they cannot support) with the Democratic Republic of Congo who have 167 million fewer people than they can support.

We have little influence over other countries these days so returning to our own challenge, if this index is anywhere near correct in its assumptions and there are plenty of points to debate about that, and if Mr Ross is correct in his analysis then it is almost beyond imagination that we do not have a National Strategy on Population. ‘More people’ may not be as good as the Chancellor seems to think and so we need to think carefully and with our eyes very wide open about what we are doing, if future generations are not to pay a massive price for our profligacy with rapidly dwindling resources, and failure to control the growth of our own species.  And yet our politicians continue to place this policy area firmly at the bottom of the ‘Too Difficult’ pile.

We are very close to, if not actually already beyond the point where no matter what action humanity takes, we are in grave danger of killing the golden goose and making our planet that gave birth to all life, possibly uniquely, an inhospitable place for most human beings.


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