Friday, 16 November 2007

10 million more people in Britain?

The Government have predicted that the population of Great Britain will grow by about another 10 million, in the next couple of decades. And this means that hundreds of thousands of new houses will be needed, and that in turn means that parts of the Green Belt will be ripped up, and thousands of acres of agricultural land, as well as wildlife habitats, will disappear under concrete and tarmac. Apart from the direct devastation, there will be indirect problems, such as increased flood risks, pollution etc etc.

But, even though I am no economist, as I have pointed out before now, it does not take a genius to work out that the other solution is to reduce the size of the population. At present the government subsidises children, and encourages those on lower incomes to have larger families. At a stroke, the housing crisis could be reversed simply by encouraging smaller families, or couples to remain childless (a decision I took voluntarily 30 years ago). Economists will often trot out the argument that we need a young, working population in order to support the aging, retired population. But this simply does not hold water. The first twenty years or so of a person's life are very expensive, in terms of healthcare, and education, and that person does no generate any wealth. In the last twenty years of a person's life, they generally have significant wealth, in the form of pensions, savings and property. The problem is, they want to hand this capital over to the next generation, rather than spend it. In historic terms, this is a relatively new phenomenon, and that is where the problem lies.

And until the governments of crowded countries like Britain, realise that continued population growth, and continued nation economic growth are unsustainable, there is little hope for the future of the planet. By allowing the population to decline, individual economic growth may be possible, but corporate profitability will almost certainly decline, and there is the nub of the problem. Policies – from environment to health -- of the world are all being driven by ultimately unsustainable economic growth. Call me old fashioned, but capitalism, as presently construed is clearly unsustainable, as it is concentrating more and more of the world’s wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. In order for this to continue, ever-expanding markets are needed to invest in, and this is seems to be what is driving the politicians to oppose any restrictions on population growth. But perhaps I am missing something?

1 comment:

  1. This recent press release from Optimum Population Trust should be of interest:


    If the UK had to provide for itself from its own resources, it could support a population of only 17 million – 43 million less than its latest official population figure* - according to new research by the Optimum Population Trust.

    Even if the UK dramatically improved its sustainability with a 60 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050 - the target set by the present Government - UK "overpopulation" would grow from 43 to 50 million, the research shows. This is because projected population growth of 17 million**, taking the country's population to 77 million by 2050, would cancel out the sustainability benefits of carbon savings.

    The sustainability of human populations: How many people can live on Earth?***, published today (Monday February 18), is based on a new analysis of biological capacity and ecological footprinting data. It suggests that in 2003, the last year for which comprehensive data are available, total world population was 6.3 billion but the sustainable figure was 5.1 billion. Global overpopulation was thus 1.2 billion.

    However, as standards of living rise across the Earth and human footprints grow, the number of people the planet can support will diminish. The paper suggests that although the UN forecasts a world population rising to 9.2 billion by 2050, the Earth's long-term sustainable population is in the 2-3 billion range.

    For the UK, a sustainable population is estimated at between 17 and 27 million – less than half the current total and between a third and a fifth of the 85 million who will be living in the country in the last quarter of this century, according to the most recent Government projections**.

    The size of the discrepancy between the UK's actual population and the number of people it could support sustainably is a result of its affluence combined with a high population density, the paper says. The wealth and population density of the UK mean that its ecological footprint is 3.5 times greater than its biocapacity. If the whole world consumed and generated waste like the UK, it would require 3.5 (an additional 2.5) planets to sustain the human race.

    To live sustainably, the current UK population of 60 million would have to reduce its average individual footprint by more than 70 per cent. This would mean Britons living a lifestyle similar to citizens of countries such as China, Paraguay, Algeria, Botswana and the Dominican Republic.

    Even a zero-carbon Britain would have a maximum sustainable population of 40 million if it refused to change its lifestyle and its non-carbon footprint therefore remained unaltered. "In reality," the paper argues, "a 'zero-carbon' UK could never reach sustainability without population reduction: the lifestyle reductions demanded would be too great."

    The world was living within its ecological means until the 1980s, when it went into overshoot, the study says. Population growth is now the main cause of increasing overshoot, which will be running at almost 100 per cent by 2050: humanity will then be using up, annually, the equivalent of nearly two Earths. Currently, overshoot is 25 per cent, which means humanity requires one and a quarter Earths for its needs.

    The paper argues that the strain placed on the global ecosystem by such demands means that the UN's forecasts of a world population of over nine billion by 2050 are unlikely to be realised. Instead, resource wars and starvation "threaten the worst population crash in the history of humankind."

    It adds: "There is an urgent need for national strategies on sustainable population not only in the UK but in all countries. Politicians need to demonstrate courage and leadership on this issue: they must persuade their nations to accept the necessity of smaller families and provide the means for people to reduce their family size."

    The study's author, Dr. Martin Desvaux, an ecological researcher, said: "There has been much discussion recently of overcrowding in the UK and whether there is an ideal number that the country could support. This study is an attempt to put a figure on that, based on the best biocapacity and ecological footprint research available. It shows how far the UK is from genuine sustainability and what a fundamental role human numbers play in the whole survival equation."

    Valerie Stevens, OPT chair, added: "Politicians from all parties have been showing more awareness of population issues over the last year or two and we hope this study will contribute to their thinking. Taken with the latest national population figures, published last October, it demonstrates the extent of the UK's overpopulation and the threat this poses to our environment and quality of life. It also shows how desperately we need a national population policy."


    *The population of the UK was 60.6 million in mid-2006, according to figures published last August by the Office for National Statistics.

    **ONS principal projections, October 2007.

    ***Summary appended to this news release and also available online at

    The full report can be viewed at