Friday, 13 May 2005

Save cash & Save the planet

This month's BBC Wildlife magazine includes a feature based on information from Friends of the Earth, on how to save money by being environmentally friendly. All sensible advice -- composting, saving energy, buying local organic food, keeping car tyres properly inflated. It then summarises it all by stating that all the savings (over £300) "...Could pay for a guilt free trip to see any one of Britain's wildlife spectacles, such as the gannets of Bass Rock or the red kites in Wales." This of course makes a farce of the whole thing. Having saved minuscule amounts of energy, by keeping car tyres inflated properly, it is advocating burning huge amounts of fossil fuel driving the length or breadth of Britain! Come on FoE we're not that dim.

More seriously, this is an ancient paradox that I have mused on many times before. Saving energy, being environmentally friendly, often makes sound economic sense. But if we save money by insulating our roofs, what do we spend that money on? Invariably high on most people's list is a holiday in an exotic location -- ecotourism perhaps, but nonetheless, energy intensive, ozone depleting, international travel. And I am as guilty as the next.

Energy, climate change, resource depletion are all very, very, important issues. But there is one issue that is much, much, more important, and is the force driving all these issues. Human population growth. This is an issue that has been swept under the international carpet. And under the current UK leadership, highly unlikely to move up the agenda. I therefore highly recommend a paper in a recent issue of the Geographical Journal by Anthony Young (Geographical Journal 171 (1):83-95).

All the talk about poverty alleviation, glib statements from governments and NGOs about 'making poverty history' are nothing more than hot air, unless the population issue is addressed simultaneously. As Anthony Young concluded: "If rates of population increase in developing countries are not lowered, efforts to reduce poverty, hunger, and suffering which these cause will constantly be thwarted, often nullified; and sustainable use of natural resources, avoiding land degradation, will not be achieved." It's a grim prediction, and concomitant with this prediction we will see increasing numbers of devastating famines, epidemics and probably an increase in resource-based wars. The World Land Trust is not able to do much about any of this -- but I urge those working for relief charities and others concerned with human welfare to examine carefully their activities. Poverty relief in the absence of population reduction is a futile exercise, which will actually have the potential to exacerbate human suffering in the future.


  1. Hi John

    Rita from Friends of the Earth Publications Team here. Just to clarify, the BBC Wildlife article does indeed suggest taking a trip with your hard-saved cash, but it doesn't suggest driving to your destination. Friends of the Earth encourages individuals to use public transport, or walk or cycle where possible.

    To read more about our transport campaign, visit

    Best wishes, Rita

  2. FoE are being a little unrealistic here, since from most parts of Britain getting to their proposed destinations would be very dificulat by public transport, and a very long walk. It is easy to travel to all parts of Britain if you are based in London, but less easy elsewhere
    Furthermore public transport is not the answer to everything. It still uses energy -- and if you look at the average rural bus and train service, it often uses it extremely inefficiently. There is something Orwellian about the mantra public transport good, private cars bad. People should think carefully about the pro's and con's of public transport -- it's not everything it's cracked up to be, in terms of energy efficiency. It is designed (usually) as a public service, and energy efficiency is not part of the consideration, unless it is equated with costs.