How not to talk about population

Do we need to talk about population and justice? Climate change, as terrifying a threat to future generations as you could find, is partly the result of growing human numbers, along with consumption and the lack of sufficient technology to turn one planet into the 1.6 we’re pretending we have. That’s just the IPAT equation: Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. Moreover, those human numbers – 7.3bn in 2015 – are predicted to go a long way up before stabilising: to 9.7bn by 2050, and 11.2bn by 2100.

Climate justice campaigners, Copenhagen 2009. Photo: lightsinmotion, Creative Commons

So, on the face of it, we can’t ignore population. I think that’s right, and I’ll come back to what it means in the next instalment of this two-part blog. But we need to talk about it in the right way. I make this point in my chapter for the new Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics, and I can’t stress it enough.

Let’s begin with how not to talk about population: as though it was the only variable in the IPAT equation. It’s an obvious temptation for those in developed states, complacently eyeing their own declining birth rates. You start talking loudly about population and – oh look! – you’ve shifted the responsibility for action onto poorer countries whose populations are still rising.

But, as Stephen Gardiner has pointed out, it takes several additions to the global poor to equal the ecological footprint of even one extra member of the global elite. (Seven or 10 Bangladeshis to one extra Brit or American, on 2012 estimates.) There may be more of ‘them’ (that proverbial distancer), but it’s ‘us’ pushing up the ‘A’ in the IPAT equation. Nor should we be too quick to cite the biodiversity declines that accompany increasing populations in developing states. Much of the blame lies with our tendency to outsource the more environmentally costly production and disposal of our consumer goods to just those states.


Sumatran palm plantation. Palm oil production is associated with major biodiversity loss. Photo: James Anderson, World Resources Institute

Even assuming that population growth in the developing world should matter to climate justice theorists, there’s no glib fix here. It’s easy for us in the West to say that ‘they’ should have fewer children. But without a background of social security and basic rights protection, that’s either going to be impossible (no access to contraception, woefully inadequate opportunities for women) or involve unacceptable sacrifice. (What if there’s no other means of protecting yourself from starvation in old age?) Against the current status quo, it might be impossible even for some states to do much on population: those lacking resources to provide universal social security and contraception. Incentivising some other states to do so could mean incentivising morally abhorrent means, such as forced abortions, sterilisations, or even infanticide.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be talking about population. It’s just to say that global justice, climate justice and population cannot be treated separately. To deny that population growth in the developing world matters because living standards are so low is to assume that they will continue to be low. (Or to gamble, in the face of underfunding and improbability, on the technological progress necessary for them to improve without worsening climate change.)

Instead, we should start by assuming collective duties of justice to address global poverty and climate change, with all the lifestyle changes and technology investments that involves. Then we should ask what that means for population. And population does still matter, because the more people there are the harder it is to achieve sustainability without sacrificing basic global justice.

Even on 2010 figures, the average carbon footprint for the whole human population would have to be no larger than the current footprint of the average Ghanaian, to stick within planetary limits. In other words, to be sustainable, we’d have to bring the global per capita footprint down to that currently produced in a country whose low standard of living puts it 140th on the Human Development Index. Remember, too, that there were only 6.9bn of us in 2010, but are predicted to be 11.2bn by 2100.

Fishermen at Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo: David Stanley

Fishermen at Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo: David Stanley

The danger, then, is this. If global population grows as expected, those two crucial goals, climate change mitigation and basic global justice, could become incompatible for some future generation, leaving it unable to secure a basically decent standard of living without contributing to climate change. The only way for that generation to achieve temporary global justice would be by sacrificing its successors. That would be a truly tragic choice: a legacy we have morally imperative reasons to avoid.

There are some no-brainer policy conclusions from this. We have yet more urgent reason to act immediately and effectively on both global justice and climate change: to make the necessary cuts in the West and investments in green technology. It is also reason to prioritise ‘choice-providing’ population policies such as the education of women and availability of contraception. These are both clearly morally permissible ways of addressing population growth and a key component of basic global justice.

A 12 year-old girl at a 'safe space' in Zambia provided by the Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme/Population Council. Photo: Jessica Lea/DFID

A 12 year-old girl at a ‘safe space’ in Zambia provided by the Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme/Population Council. Photo: Jessica Lea/DFID

But what happens – or should happen – in terms of population policy beyond that? Then, as I will argue in my next post, we are into the realm of unavoidably tough moral choices.