How important is Population?

Once upon a time it was obvious to anyone who joined the Green Party that two forms of growth must stop: per capita consumption – and population, if a planet fit for future generations was to have any chance.

At last week’s Green Party conference a fringe addressed by Karin Kuhlemann, of Population Matters, was attended by approximately 120 paid up Green Party members. Ms Kuhlemann estimates that perhaps 1/3 were sympathetic, 1/3 were neutral, or perhaps seeking further information. The remainder, though it was difficult to estimate their strength because they were much more vocal than the rest, made their implacable hostility plain. I understand that it was suggested that PM should be banned from any Green Party activities.

This fringe was drawn to the attention of the Leader and two Deputy Leaders of the Green Party at the Q&A session on the final morning of conference. It was reported as being offensive, but Ms Kuhlemann feels that might be going too far, though the level of hostility, and the way it was expressed were certainly robust. She says:

I wouldn’t say people were rude as such (I didn’t get interrupted or shouted at during the talk), just hostile and completely disinterested in what I had to say, as they came into the room with their minds made up that population growth is not a permissible subject of discussion.

A letter published by William Pinkney-Baird was read out, saying PM was:

“a racist, sexist, imperialist political organisation who claimed Britain had no room for Syrian refugees”.

Anyone still trying to form an unbiased opinion can do so from PM’s website. Their policies are entirely in line with a Green approach.  The reference to Syrian refugees was a comment several months ago – before the recent escalation – on the issue of sharing the burden. But that this comment is taken as proof that PM is evil, rather than something we need to get right together in a very difficult situation betrays a mind set totally oblivious of the ecological realities which brought both PM and the Green Party into existence. Some individual members of PM may well be as adrift from its principles as William Pinkney-Baird is from the Green ethos as I see it.

The leader, and two deputy leaders’ replies dismayed me more than the outright hostility. They could do no other than stress that courtesy was de rigeur, but all three implied that PM was an organization they were not personally in sympathy with. They could have said, but didn’t, “Limiting population on a finite planet is essential, but we do not necessarily agree with everything said on behalf of PM.”

This links up with the subject of last weeks’ blog – climate change. There is clearly a substantial portion of the membership which either has no conception of the Green paradigm, or does, and disagrees. Until ecological limits became a factor to be taken seriously, only those with a ‘right wing’ mind set offered any answers to Limits to Growth type problems of resource shortages – exclusion of others with less claim, and if necessary, removal of them entirely. Both the Green Party and Population Matters – see their website – were formed expressly to deal with impending ecological limitations in ways which are inclusive and fair.

But you would not guess this from the Green Party website, which makes no mention of why the Party was founded. New members could be forgiven for not even knowing that stabilizing population was basic to Green politics, but the leadership?? They were taken by surprise, but that none of them thinks PM is an organization we should be in dialogue with, indeed in close collaboration is abysmal.

My personal view is that population stabilization globally is indeed fundamental to a sustainable world, but that social justice measures, especially women’s empowerment (as in the PM website) should be given the chance to show that other measures are not necessary, so the Green Party need not feature population limitation prominently. However, the Basic Income , not part of the PM proposals, will be an essential component. We all agree on less inequality. But my personal take on the Basic Income will, I imagine reveal me as just another fascist. I think it should be generous for a first child, adequate for a second child, but gradually decreasing for subsequent children in a family. The Basic Income is drastically redistributive, but if all it does is allow a poor but expanding population to consume even more  than the rich do now, our common goal of eradicating poverty on a finite planet will be further away than ever. We need to help impoverished people to reach the replacement levels in the affluent areas.

The vocal opponents of PM were all young. Do Young Greens associate themselves with or dissociate from this hostility?

Perhaps the opponents of PM were over-represented at the fringe. But if the ignorance of, and/or hostility to basic Green philosophy shown there, and in the climate change debate are typical, the Green Party is as far from its roots as is the Labour party from its roots, and we don’t have a Jeremy Corbyn bent on dragging us back.

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12 responses to “How important is Population?

  1. The problem with PM is an error in aggregation. It assumes (through it’s roots in classical economics) is that ‘wants’ are insatiable. If that is the starting point then their theory is in trouble straight away.

    • I need to have a closer look at the PM website – and Karen K’s presentations, of which she sent me a copy. Ihave always understood PM’s position to be that HELP towards smaller families was one of the ways that poverty will be alleviated.

  2. Young Greens the organisation, or young Greens the demographic? One answer is an email away, the other… I spent three months on the phones to members and I still couldn’t say what they all think.

    I jest, but there’s a serious point underneath all this. The Green Surge includes a great many former Labour or Lib Dem types who are anti-fracking or anti-hunting (i.e. engaged with hot button issues surrounding the environment or the countryside) but whose core values are more to do with social justice. These people will bristle at the thought of population control despite population being one of those areas in which infinite growth is not possible and a sustainable mindset is demanded.

    I don’t think there is a divide between the Social Justice Greens and the Actual Green Greens. People who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on their plates do not have the luxury of considering the environmental impact of their lifestyles; raise the standard of living above ‘struggle for short term survival’ and you increase the time people have to think about the long term. Achieving a practical level of social justice is, I think, a prerequisite for achieving the party’s environmental goals. All that said, I think a divide could easily emerge and exists in the minds of many members, including some in the upper echelons.

    • Having published just after midnight, and checking on getting up, I assumed that two comments already must be hostile! My personally prognosis for the Green Party is optimistic, but only if we can somehow get round the unreconstructed cornucopians who have been joining the GP en masse since Blair’s makeover of the Labour Party. I hoped for a ‘blessing in disguise’ from the Corbyn effect, but it seems that a significant number of them agree with Corbyn’s detractors that he will fail. I fear the split is real. The Basic Income will allow those struggling to keep a roof over their heads to think about environmental impact.

  3. Dear Clive,

    The problem with Population Matters I think seems to stem from it being just that, a single issue campaign group, which is just focusing on the population side to the ecological crisis.

    Of course more people use more resources, and the world can only hold a finite population. I don’t think any of the people critical of Population Matters thinks otherwise.

    Like me most people critical of Population Matters are probably more aware that the majority of our emissions come from the excessive consumption of the very wealthy, and that transitioning to a carbon neutral society requires changing our economic system not just limiting the amount of children that people in less affluent parts of the world have.

    (Hopefully as someone who ‘was major contributor to the Party’s first ‘Manifesto for a Sustainable Society’, drafting the section outlining the crucial link between social justice and preserving the planet’s life support systems’ you’re very aware of that too).

    Now hopefully the people at Population Matters are aware that total world population is only a very small facet in regulating our use of the planet’s finite resources. But by just focusing on that aspect, and completely ignoring the effects of massive inequality and over-consumption (and recklessly ecologically harmful consumption at that) by the wealthy it actually covers up the main sources of environmental harm, and helps shift the focus of the debate away from the people who are actually destroying our planet but onto poor people who have the least responsibility, but are going to be (and already are) the first to feel the effects of climate change.

    If we want to prevent climate change we have to change our economic system, and our patterns of consumption (mainly here in the West). That’s very threatening to ruling elites. However, if you instead frame the problem of climate change, not as one of the excessive consumption of the affluent west and an economic system that privileges private profit above the environment, but as one of population growth, it deflates attempts movements for change and reinforces the status qou. This is especially so as populations in the most polluting affluent nations of the west are mainly either stable or in decline, so the question of global population growth really becomes a question of population growth in the global south.

    Also your point “The reference to Syrian refugees was a comment several months ago – before the recent escalation ” is a bit ridiculous. Yes there’s been an escalation in media coverage and movement of people in recent months, but the Syrian civil war has been going on since 2011 with millions of refugees and displaced people suffering for many many years. The fact that Population Matters comments were made several months ago doesn’t make them that much less inflammatory and offensive.

    Here’s an argument in an old edition of Bright-Green that I found very illustrative:

    “The birth rate in Mali is 6.29 births per woman.
    In the USA it is 2.1.
    So, if the problem is population, then Mali is where we should start to point our fingers.
    But let’s look at another stat: the average person in Mali is responsible for 0.06 tonnes of CO2 per year. The average person in the USA is responsible for 17.
    So, the average person in the USA is responsible for about 283 times more carbon than the average person in Mali. To put it another way, the average Mailian family is responsible for 1/136th of the carbon of the average American family.
    In this context, complaining about another Malian baby seems foolish.”

    • Where to start? OK, Mali. Is 6 babies really in the interests of Mali society? How sure can a mother be that two of them will grow up? Do the women have control of their fertility, and if so the education and means? I doubt whether you will find much difference between my answers and PM’s, but perhaps Bright Green have other answers. But let’s move on to Nigeria. Same questions and answers, except that large and obviously increasing numbers want to escape. The infrastructure in the places they escape to is such that their eco-footprint cannot help but become that of the rest.
      Personally I don’t think PM critics worry about the eco-limits that terrify me. The rest of us in the GP, and certainly the PM website and Karin Kuhlemann, from her presentation, fully agree with the need to reduce consumption by the rich. I have tweaked my blog post, probably after you read it, to read “There may well be PM members who are as adrift from their principles as is William Pinkney-Baird from the Green ethos as I see it”. He could not base his condemnation on anything he had heard in the presentation.
      Syrian refugees. That the problem is 5 times the size it would have been in 1950 might be dismissed as irrelevant, except that the increase is still happening, for a lot of wrong reasons. Migration cannot be disentangled from population, but it is here that dialogue is crucial. But Bright Green and Co don’t do dialogue. They just find enemies and attack them.
      We are all in favour of drastic redistribution, but that seems to blind some to the idea of growth of anything having limits. Even if you think PM focusses unnecessarily on one aspect, to me the notion that they should be excluded from the discussion is preposterous.

  4. Meant to put this at the end of my comment:

    Their narrow-minded focus on numbers of people and where they live ultimately fails to address the underlying roots of the environmental crisis.

  5. I do think population growth is a “red herring” and of course a divisive
    topic.
    When a certain level of wealth/education is reached by society population growth no longer exists rather population decline sets in, becoming the new problem.
    We need to boost the wealth of African countries such as Egypt and Nigeria so that when they can (partly) share our affluence, that will partly ease that problem.
    That then leaves the problem of extremist Jews/Zionists living illegally in the occupied zones who propagate human multiplication, who will grasp this nettle?

    • I keep saying (but nobody comments, for or against) that the Basic Income should apply as between nations as well as between individuals within a nation, though with the proviso, used effectively in Brazil (search for ‘Bolsa Familia’) limiting certain benefits to the first two children. I am not sure this will be enough in Nigeria, where the British imposed boundaries which pit tribes against each other, and whether for this or other reasons a strong pro-natalist culture exists. Do the anti PM people not have any qualms about Nigeria?
      What is their view on illegal Zionist settlers?

  6. Clive, you need to look at the internal membership survey the party got conducted by a university in Scotland. It showed nearly 90% of members who joined IN THE PAST YEAR put protecting the environment above economic growth. It was a very similar figure for members of more than one year standing. If they believe that, then it would be a short step to convince them that population growth is good for conventional GDP growth but bad for the environment. The other thing the survey showed is that a far higher number of party members (the majority) put themselves on the left of the spectrum than they did a decade ago. But this is not surprising given that all major parties have arguably moved to the right.

    • Ah! Light at the end of the tunnel? My impression is that the core of the hard line anti-PM group are chiefly ex-Labour party members who took a strategic decision after Blair became Labour leader that it would be easier to turn the then quite small Green Party into the ‘real’ Labour Party. The sooner they could get the environmental millstone off their backs the better. Pay lip service to it of course, but they got rid of any mention of why the Green Party was founded (see ‘Limits to Growth’) on the website. My impression of the ‘Green Surge’ is that although they start from a mind set quite close to what I call the Pirates, they are mostly much more open minded, and once they have a clearer grasp of the original Green philosophy, assuming us old fogeys get a chance to explain it to them, which combines drastic redistribution with a recognition of eco-realities, the two ghastly events at this conference over climate change and population will be a temporary problem.

  7. Yes unfortunately new entrants to the party, especially the younger ones have not been well served by our leaders in this regard.

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