There are (roughly) two kinds of theatre. One re-writes life to help you face it, put up with, get you through it. The other, tries to tell you what’s there, to open it up, explore it, as it really is.
But there’s the thing itself. Without water, without grub, without shelter you die. So if your life is a ‘play’ with our planet as a setting and the planet starts to fail you (collapse about your ears} – you have to think about it.
Going off (slightly) at a tangent (‘real-life’ drama, though)… here’s a letter that went off recently to the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
Dear Colin Butfield,
Re: Taking the self-deception out of One Planet Living.
I am a long-standing member. I have donated substantial (for me) amounts to the W.W.F. I see that you are Head of Campaigns focusing on One Planet Living. All the changes in life-style you wish us to adopt are vital – but cannot possibly work without a key, missing ingredient; which is to help people understand that we must also reduce our own numbers. Omitting this is misleading the membership and everyone who uses your first class information.
This is my third attempt to engage executive and staff of W.W.F. with the vital responsibility of telling our membership that unless we all, steadily, reduce our own numbers on this planet, as well as accept the energy saving measures you propose, we are being dishonest and must fail.
I am not an uninformed punter who likes the idea of giving money to help glamorous, cuddly creatures survive. All the best and most up to date scientific evidence from EARTHWATCH, THE INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL FOR CLIMATE CHANGE, U.N.E.P., THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY, W.W.F.’s own GET ON BOARD campaign, etc. etc. signals that if we do not include a steady reduction in our own numbers, the growing fight for sustainability will simply solve itself with bloodier and bloodier resource wars. They are happening in Africa now – where, in many districts, there are already too many people for the carrying capacity of a given area of land. In the struggle to subsist, local people kill each other over the shrinking parcels of land each expanding family has left. No one has time to think of the rest of the biosphere when you are fighting to stay alive?
The two bland replies from W.W.F., I’ve had so far make me wonder whether you are scared of your own staff. Afraid that your own staff cannot cope, emotionally, with explaining to local people that if they limit family size they will be better off. What is the point of emerging from the womb to die young? Very few of us in the cushioned West are present when a child dies of hunger; it’s a very painful way to die.
On page 10 of your June magazine you state; “If we, as individuals, do everything we can to reduce our ecological footprint, we can probably reduce our impact by about a third or ‘one planet’.” But if the population of the U.K. goes up by ten million (as predicted) and world population by three thousand million (the minimum) then how can that extra number, even making the savings and sacrifices you urge, possibly limit itself to One Planet living? Surely it’s cheating the membership to suggest it? We all agree that every child should be a wanted child. If you included that idea with all W.W.F.’s campaigns you would satisfy an immense thirst, world-wide, for family limitation – and we would have a realistic chance of preserving significant parts of our planet for other life forms.
Here’s something Peter Scott said, quoted by Professor Short, with whom he was working on elephant populations in Zambia. “You know, I have often thought that at the end of the day, we would have saved more wildlife if we had spent all WWF’s money on buying condoms.” He was right, and human overpopulation is ultimately the greatest threat to wildlife.
But…the sums as you present them cannot add up and people are intelligent enough to know that. Given the enormous respect we all feel for W.W.F…. were you to explain the sums carefully, and point out the economic benefits of voluntary family limitation, then we would realistically have some chance of saving tigers, or orangs, or slow the melting of the ice, instead of making gratifying but futile gestures towards sustainability.
Those delegated to reply to members writing awkward letters clearly don’t bother to read them. One of the key points I made was that we in the U.K. must work to bring our own population down, because of our profligate use of energy and global resources. To become sustainable we must, over time, bring U.K. population down to at least a half and – more realistically – to one third of its present size.
This is perfectly possible, if we make it part of One Planet Living and, IF WE START NOW, it can be done without excessive pain or sacrifice. Wherever I go, these days – most recently talking to a volunteer at the Wetland Centre in Barnes – people are becoming aware that the thoughtless expansion of our own numbers must end in severe species extinction and habitat loss – and our own, human misery. If the government of Iran can implement a successful family planning programme surely the major ecological movements can find the will and energy to make an unanswerable case to do the same across the planet?
I’m aware that you pursue a very successful family planning policy wherever you believe it to be acceptable and unobtrusive. That’s much too low profile to get us anywhere.
Supposing you added another branch to your One Planet Living campaign by opening a debate on world over-population.
Why not start with another quotation from Peter Scott :
“ If the human population of the world continues to increase at its present rate, there will soon be no room for either wild life or wild places…. But I believe that sooner or later man will learn to limit his overpopulation. Then he will become much more widely concerned with optimum rather than maximum, quality rather than quantity, and will rediscover the need within himself for contact with wilderness and wild nature.”
Help our membership to understand that :
1) A city of 1.5 million people has to be built somewhere in the world EACH WEEK to accommodate the world’s excess births over deaths. But if we do that, how can we avoid destroying ever more forests and wetlands and all other habitats for wildlife?
2) However little a poor country consumes, a slum of half-starved people can still sprawl across an enormous amount of countryside. (I’ve witnessed it myself in Peru.)
3) In the U.K., if we build accommodation on demand for every new family unit then we must build on flood plains and encroach on open country. The demand for flood protection will also drive up energy use. However… if we agree, over time, to work to reduce U.K. population we can preserve habitat for other species, for local food production and reduce our energy consumption to help limit climate change.
4) It is consumers who consume. That’s us. It is cheating ourselves to believe that we can grow our population unchecked and still limit our impact on the planet. No one wants to live a marginal existence. Least of all the marginalized. The Pill and the IUD and the Condom are icons of the environment, no less than our bicycles are!
5. Bringing young people into the U.K. to support the rising number of our old people is self-defeating. To have any effect, that increase must continue indefinitely – which is impossible and political nonsense. Those incoming young people become pensioners themselves, who have to be supported. W.W.F. could easily show that it is far better to allow European populations to decrease naturally – as is happening in Italy – and so reduce the number of high-level consumers.
6. There is an immigration crisis in the U.S.A., where the current 300 million population is expected to reach 420 million by 2050 – mostly from Mexico. But then, very soon, each Mexican living in the U.S. multiplies his/her consumption 4 times. It also introduces to the U.S.A. a more than average number of children – who will all be high-level consumers. Mexico is merely exporting its population problem, and the US is multiplying it! Let W.W.F. help Mexico directly by talking to and persuading Mexicans. It does not make sense for vast numbers of people there to try to live below sea level. People are trying to live on marginal land everywhere, as in Bangladesh, from sheer desperation, and walking into ecological disaster.
Human over-population is now a threat to humans, too. However, there are strong signs that the Conservative and Labour parties are both quietly admitting this; but each is too frightened of the other to proclaim it aloud, in case it loses electoral clout. W.W.F. could help the major political parties to frame the over-population problem in a sensitive and convincing way.
If tigers in India weren’t on their last legs; if the Chinese weren’t moving into the Antarctic to suck it dry, like the rest of us, I wouldn’t be writing to you in this anxious tone.
But if you at W.W.F. don’t help us, right now, to make the case for limiting human numbers on this one planet we have, then I look ahead, with rising fear, to watching my fellow humans fight over water, oil, food and a warm place to shelter – always grateful that I’m lucky enough to live in the U.K., where the battle for survival may overwhelm me and my friends and family later than many less fortunate places on earth. But that’s only a minor consolation; I’d rather you helped us avoid this outcome.
For further information, please visit: www.optimumpopulation.org
A BMJ Editorial Of July 25th Says:
Population growth and climate change
Universal access to family planning should be the priority
The world’s population now exceeds 6700 million, and humankind’s consumption of fossil fuels, fresh water, crops, fish, and forests exceeds supply. These facts are connected. The annual increase in population of about 79 million means that every week an extra 1.5 million people need food and somewhere to live. This amounts to a huge new city each week, somewhere, which destroys wildlife habitats and augments world fossil fuel consumption. Every person born adds to greenhouse gas emissions, and escaping poverty is impossible without these emissions increasing. Resourcing contraception therefore helps to combat climate change, although it is not a substitute for high emitters reducing their per capita emissions. In 1798 Malthus predicted that as the population increased exponentially, shortfalls in food supply would be unavoidable. A sevenfold increase in the population has led, 210 years later, to unprecedented food shortages, escalating prices, and riots. Until these events Borlaug’s “green revolution” had seemingly proved Malthus wrong. Yet fertilisers, pesticides, tractors, and transport are dependent on fossil fuels, which apart from being in short supply, exacerbate climate change.
Last year’s parliamentary hearings concluded that the United Nation’s millennium development goals, including millennium development goal 1—to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger—”will be difficult or impossible to achieve without a renewed focus on, and investment in, family planning.” The number of people now living on less than $2 (£1; 1.3) a day is about 2 billion, which is equal to the world’s total population when Oxfam was founded in 1942.
It is often assumed that “any quantitative concern for population must be intrinsically coercive.” India in the 1970s polluted the whole concept by adopting coercive means for population “control.” China stands similarly accused. But why consider infringing human rights when around half of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned? Moreover, numerous countries as varied as Costa Rica, Iran, Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand halved their total fertility rates primarily through meeting women’s unmet fertility needs and choices.
Conventional economic wisdom says that couples in resource poor settings actively plan to have many children to compensate for high child mortality, to provide labour, and to care for parents as they age. Often with cultural and religious endorsement, those factors enhance the post hoc acceptance of large families. But economists overlook the fact that, everywhere, potentially fertile intercourse is more frequent than the minimum needed for intentional conceptions. Thus, having a large rather than a small family is less of a planned decision than an automatic outcome of human sexuality. Something active needs to be done to separate sex from conception—namely, contraception. But access to contraception is often difficult. Barriers to access for women intrude through lack of empowerment and abuse of their rights by husbands, partners, or mothers in law, or from religious authorities or, regrettably, even contraceptive providers.
The evidence is clear within a wide variety of settings that—despite no increase in per capita wealth or other presumed essentials—demand for contraception increases when it becomes available, accessible, and accompanied by correct information about its appropriateness and safety; when barriers are removed; and when the principles of marketing are applied. This is consistent with normal consumer behaviour.
In Iran, where the total fertility rate (“average family size”) declined from 5.5 to 2 (replacement level) in just 15 years, all couples must learn about family planning before marriage and contraception is endorsed by the pronouncements of religious leader. The Population Media Centre uses serial radio dramas or “soaps”. Audiences learn from decisions that their favourite characters make—such as allowing wives to use contraception to achieve smaller and healthier families. In Rwanda, 57% of new attendees at family planning clinics named the radio drama “Rwanda’s Brighter Future” as their reason for attending.
As doctors, we must help to eradicate the many myths and non-evidence based medical rules that often deny women access to family planning. We should advocate for it to be supplied only wisely and compassionately, and for increased investment, which is currently just 10% of that recommended at the UN’s Population Conference in Cairo.
The Optimum Population Trust calculates that “each new UK birth will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emissions . . . than a new birth in Ethiopia.” Should UK doctors break a deafening silence here? “Population” and “family planning” seem taboo words and were notably absent from two BMJ editorials on climate change. Although we endorse everything that those editorials recommended, isn’t contraception the medical profession’s prime contribution for all countries?
Unplanned pregnancy, especially in teenagers, is a problem for the planet, as well as the individual concerned. But what about planned pregnancies? Should we now explain to UK couples who plan a family that stopping at two children, or at least having one less child than first intended, is the simplest and biggest contribution anyone can make to leaving a habitable planet for our grandchildren? We must not put pressure on people, but by providing information on the population and the environment, and appropriate contraception for everyone (and by their own example), doctors should help to bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars.
Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a576
John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health, Pip Hayes, general practitioner.
1 University College, London WC1E 6BT , 2 St Leonard’s Practice, Exeter EX1 1SB