Tag Archives: population

Not my image!

Population: The Elephant In The Room

Not my image!

Not my image!

“The elephant in the room” is a funny phrase because if there was an elephant in your room, you’d definitely talk about it. Pretty loudly, I’m willing to guess. If there were two elephants, there’s absolutely no chance the issue would be ignored.

And yet many people continue to ignore population growth and consumption growth.

Population growth hits the multiply button on every single environmental problem we face. The Earth simply cannot sustain 7 billion people at a Western level of consumption. We’ve all heard the statistic that if everyone lived like the average American we’d need five to six planets. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we’ve only got one to work with!!

I’ve written lots on Earth Baby already about consumption, but even I’ve shied away from the population issue a bit.
Not really intentionally, but it’s more a case of thinking (rightly) that I don’t have a right to lecture about how many babies people should have. Of course I don’t. I’m a British 19 year old young woman who isn’t planning to have children for several years. I may care for the world as a whole perhaps more than many of my peers, and I try hard to educate myself about other cultures as well as environmental, political, economic and social issues…

But the fact remains that I’ve never been outside Europe. So how can I really know what’s going on in the rest of the world?
What do I know about women in India and Ethiopia struggling with poverty and motherhood?

Well, just slightly more than nothing thanks to this brilliant documentary called Mother: Caring for 7 Billion.
It’s free to stream, please take an hour of your life and watch it.


It raises lots of issues but it provides answers as well. according to this film, population growth is best dealt with by educating women, raising their status in societies, reducing poverty… All things that are good in their own rights as well. Safe and effective family planning coupled with a shift in attitudes.

I didn’t catch her name, but I found one young woman in the film particularly inspiring.
She lives in a village in Ethiopia with her large family, who are very poor. Her mother married her father at the age of twelve and had many children. This young woman started listening to a radio drama about family planning produced by the Population Media Centre and it had a profound effect on her. She encouraged her mother to use the pill as they couldn’t afford to eat more than one meal a day, let alone support any more children, but her father was dubious. She refused her arranged marriage, even though the man was rich. Her younger sister died of AIDS five months after having a baby daughter. After this tragedy, she became like  a second mother for her niece.  She works full time in a family planning centre and supports her family, while going to school on the weekends. When she comes home from work she helps with household chores and childcare, before doing her schoolwork late at night. All her brothers and sisters look up to her and her father has completely changed his attitude. He regrets arranging marriages for his other daughters and is very proud of her. She even gives advice to the other children in the village, who admire her strength and purpose.

What an extraordinarily strong and inspiring woman, to go through so much hardship and still create positive change. All my own “problems” are suddenly put into perspective!

I really can’t recommend this film enough, it’s realistic as well as incredibly touching.

Too Many People!

Over-population is a very touchy subject. It’s much easier to kind of ignore it and try to just deal with everything else. This post was actually inspired by my doing just that. I was posting all these great ideas about organic farming, recycling, passive solar heating and etc in an earlier post (What Are We Aiming For) and EcoCatLady wisely suggested that finding a decent way to limit our population was really they key thing.

And it is. But how?

The reason it’s such a charged topic is because there aren’t really any obvious and ethically acceptable ways of stopping people having so many babies. Rightly enough, we think this is our business. The creation of new life is a sacred and ridiculously personal thing. Whether you have 2 or 4 kids is something to discuss with your partner, not your government.

Nevertheless, our global population is now roughly 7 billion, and growing. How great it’s likely to get before it plateaus is up for debate because it really depends on how many humans the planet can support. It won’t get beyond that because our natural resources will be spread too thin for us to all survive. We don’t know what that number is because we’ve never before in history pushed Earth to it’s limits in this way. But we can assume from small scale scenarios, like what happens when fish over-breed in a pond, that when it is reached, things won’t be going well for us.

The fertility rate (number of children per woman) that is required to sustain the population is 2.1. In the West the fertility rates are somewhere around or even below that, but in the Developing World, where most of our population growth is happening, it can be as high as 7.

The problem is darkly ironic: any progress with developing countries getting out of poverty and gaining better living conditions is actually worsening the issue of over-population because although the death rates from hunger and disease may go down, the birth rate often does not. This is ridiculous – a situation where curing babies of water-borne diseases is in some way bad for the world is not a situation I’m happy to have.

Clearly, the birth rate of these countries needs to decline along with the death rate, but how this is managed is not at all simple. For example, I’ve never been to Uganda, (fertility rate 6.7) but I can only assume that having large families is deeply engrained in their culture. It’s difficult to change.

As I have already mentioned, there aren’t any clear-cut and ethical ways to make that change. China is famous for it’s one-child policy, and although effective, other countries are not exactly clamouring to copy them because of the brutality of this strategy. Despite being “optional” and not an actual law, Chinese women pregnant with a second child would be forced to abort, risking being fined, jailed or fired from her job if she didn’t.

Happily, there are some positive sounding correlations relating to this issue. Apart from the obvious fact that not everyone in the world has knowledge of and access to contraception, and that birth rates go down a lot when they do, it seems women’s independence correlates smoothly with lower fertility rates. When women have little other purpose in society other than to have children, it would make sense to have a lot of them. But when women are taught to read, they tend to have fewer babies. When they have education and jobs, it lessens still. In the West, where men and women both have rewarding careers as well as family life, the fertility rate is below the replacement rate. Family size is also smaller in urban rather than rural areas, and tends to shrink with affluence.

I will also add that although China has a low fertility rate of about 1.5, it is not the lowest in the world. Other countries that have had no population limiting policies such as Taiwan, Italy, Greece, Japan and some 20 others actually have lower fertility rates. It seems humans appreciate free choice on this matter. I guess education is the only useful tool here. Explaining why it’s a problem, improving literacy and education on the subject of contraception and family planning. Human population is an issue I think is really important, but apart from not having more than 2 children myself, I don’t know there’s much else I can do about it…


The Meaning of the 21st Century  - James Martin

The Constant Economy - Zac Goldsmith