We need to talk about… population
At the age of 18 I made the decision not to have children. My reasons for this are complex and varied, but it ultimately boils down to concern over the number of people on the planet and my wish not to contribute to a growing population.
Since then (despite many people telling me otherwise), I have only grown more certain that I made the right decision. Concerns for the environment have dominated my life and career (having worked in sustainable transport/behaviour change for many years, I am now Director of Flight Free UK), and I have always maintained that addressing population lies at the heart of solving the climate crisis.
Talking about population is always difficult. Many environmentalists shy away from it for fear of being labelled Draconian. We speak of managing a population and we instantly think of China’s one-child policy and other oppressive regimes. But for me, it’s simple maths. We are currently using more resources than this planet can provide – an estimate of 1.7 earths. A lot of it is about consumption – if the entire global population lived as we do here in Europe, we would need three earths to sustain us. If we all lived as they do in the US, we’d need five. But ultimately, even if our consumption dramatically dropped, every living person has an environmental impact; efforts to reduce our carbon footprints can come to nought if we just keep on increasing the number of feet.
Population isn’t just about carbon, or consumption, it’s also about logistics. People need food, shelter and water, and more people need more food, shelter and water. The demands of an ever-expanding global population puts a massive strain on our finite resources and space. The human population has doubled in the last fifty years; wild animal populations have halved in the same period. We desperately need to address the climate and biodiversity crisis, and in order to do that, we need to address the population issue. David Attenborough says it better than I ever could: “All of our environmental woes become easier to solve with fewer people and harder, and ultimately impossible, with ever more people.”
I have variously received a lot of abuse for talking about this: “Who’d shag her anyway…” “If you really cared about your carbon footprint you’d kill yourself” (I nearly replied to that one with, no, I’d kill lots of other people, but jokes about mass murder are not such a good idea on Twitter), and on the other hand, lots of support. It’s a topic that certainly splits an audience, understandably – deciding to have fewer (or no) children is not the same as deciding to eat less meat or not to fly on holiday. This is a life-changing, emotional, wholly-involving decision with potential repercussions on the relationships with those around you. It’s not easy. But we must be brave.
I was on Women’s Hour recently talking about this, with Dr Sarah Harper from the Oxford University Gerontology Department. It was a good show, and I’d recommend you listen again, here.
Side note: As with anyone, I’m my own worse critic, and listening back, I can’t help but think, “I wish I’d said that here,” or, “I could have expressed myself better.” While I am a confident speaker and mostly pretty eloquent, I often get words stuck in my head and can’t quite say what I mean. I don’t tend to resort to “um” (much!), but there are more silences than I would like when I’m frantically searching for that elusive word or phrase. If anyone has any knowledge of therapy for this, please let me know! (I mean for interviews specifically rather than presentations or speeches – I am really good at giving a pre-prepared speech).
There’s a short synopsis of the main points from the discussion below (focussing mainly on my contributions – Sarah made plenty of excellent contributions which can be heard in the podcast), with a couple of additions of, ‘things I might have said had we had more time’.
I am also a Trustee of the charity Population Matters who campaign for increased awareness of the issue of population. You can find out more about them here.
Women’s Hour phone-in, “Would you stop having kids to save the planet?”, Monday 20th January 2020.
Sarah: births in UK is below replacement rate. Huge number of people in Africa having between 4 & 10 children because they don’t have the choice, so we need to empower them. In high income countries we consume so much more.
Jane: but isn’t not having children is a contribution to reducing consumption? We previously had a good conversation on Women’s Hour about Harry and Meghan’s choice not to have more than two children.
Anna: I get criticisms that I’m selfish and I’m judging others who have families. Not true: This is a personal decision made with awareness of what having a family and particularly having a large family means, and I’m proud of Harry and Meghan for saying they’d have no more than two for the sake of the environment, mainly because it has opened up the conversation to a wider audience.
Anna: These decisions depend a lot on your relationships. I’m lucky enough (is it luck or design?!) to have only been with men who either didn’t want children or weren’t bothered, except for one who, while he respected my right to choose not to have children, didn’t understand why I didn’t want his children. That didn’t last long! But while I’ve never had the absolute overwhelming maternal urge to procreate, even if I did, I would say no. I do absolutely everything I can to reduce my carbon footprint and my impact upon the planet, and not having children is part of that.
Sarah (in response to a caller agonising about whether to have children or not): please do have children if that’s what you want, ideally stop at two, and make sure it is a low consumption child.
Anna: yes of course have a low consumption child, but every child has a level of consumption, no matter how much you try to keep it down, and by virtue (or otherwise!) of living here in the west, that consumption is going to be pretty high (this is a point I didn’t make on air, but wanted to).
Contributor on Twitter: in Europe we are reaching a caring crisis, so we need more babies.
Anna: having more children to address an ageing population only defers the problem and creates other problems. It’s about restructuring and balancing. Sarah says migration can be key here and I agree. And we mustn’t forget that we are in a climate crisis, and one of the effects of climate crisis is climate migration. Like it or not, we are going to have to restructure our societies because of the climate crisis.
Anna: Environmental problems around the world have been developing for decades and we haven’t taken the necessary action. So far it’s been mostly the poorer parts of the world affected. Now Australia is on fire, does that mean we here in the West will finally wake up? Is that what it takes? These are things that have been affecting the human race for a long time. And though I’m not having a family of my own, I do have children in my life who I care about. I’m terrified for my nieces and nephews – they’re going to have a very difficult life ahead of them.
Sarah: we are fortunate to be able to choose our family size.
Anna: yes, we are, but we need to make informed choices. We need to be aware of the impact that our choices have upon the planet and on the future of the human race – this is very important. For example, I would argue that someone who has four children or six children has not made an informed choice, because having a large family, especially here in the West, contributes a huge amount to over-consumption, resource-use and carbon output (this final point was not made on air).
Jane: One of these children born in the world today or tomorrow might be the one to come up with the solution to the very real problems we face.
Anna: there are already 7.7 billion people on the planet! That is more than enough brain power to solve the problems we face. But we can’t just rely on one person. Greta Thunberg, the face of climate change action, is doing a fantastic job of raising awareness – but what has actually changed? Where is the government action to back this up? In any case, we already have all of the solutions. We’re just not using them (last sentence didn’t quite come out right because Jane was making cut-throat signs to wrap me up!!)