Moral panic about overpopulation: the distracting campaign of Population Matters
—For Immediate Release —
28th October 2011
On the 31st October the world population will pass 7 billion. It is essential that evidence rather than myth informs the challenges and opportunities that such population growth presents.
Population Matters describe themselves as “the leading environmental charity and think-tank in the UK concerned with the impact of population growth on the environment”. The group have promoted their apocalyptic views of population in well funded media campaigns to mark the passing of 7 billion global population.
Radical Statistics’ Population group of UK demographers/population scientists and statisticians, have examined the claims and policy of Population Matters finding them guilty of frequent overstatement, rhetoric and one-sided assertion rather than evidence that population growth is the main cause of environmental threats. Like others concerned about overpopulation before them, Population Matters promote policies that erroneously focus on the groups who consume the least. The Radical Statistics group calls on high profile patrons of Population Matters to reconsider their support, including the naturalists and broadcasters David Attenborough and Chris Packham, environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt, and senior academic and cultural figures.
Seven key myths that are promoted by Population Matters are summarised below:
|Myth 1Population growth is increasing at an ever faster rate.Evidence
Current UN projections indicate slowing growth and a maximum world population that remains between 10.0 and 10.5 billion from 2083. In the UK levels of fertility are below the level required to replace the current population.
|Myth 2Population causes resources to run out.Evidence
This myth has a long history; it has been expressed by Malthus, Plato, Aristotle and Tertullian, and many times since. Resources are not fixed or knowable; what is considered a resource changes over time. This myth overlooks the potential for human ingenuity to overcome problems, discover and use resources more efficiently. Historical evidence of steadily increasing population fed by successive productive revolutions demonstrates that a fixed human carrying capacity for planet earth is nonsense.
|Myth 3More population means more environmental damage.
The link between population growth and environmental damage is not supported by evidence. For example, there is a weak relationship between a country’s population growth and carbon emissions. The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection’s final report in 2011 found consumption and the impact associated with each unit of consumption more important than population in terms of environmental impact. Historical experience clearly shows that current population growth has not the prime driver of environmental degradation.
|Myth 4The economic and social inequality experienced by women and their access to contraception are being ignored. Evidence
Improvement of women’s educational and economic conditions, and non-coercive facilitation of family planning throughout the world, are embodied in the Millennium Development Goals, although more efforts to empower women are needed.
|Myth 5Population growth causes poverty by preventing development in poorer countries.Evidence
There is no empirical evidence for this claim. Poverty is recognised to be a result of inequality stemming from social factors rather than population size. For example, globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, farmers produce more than the necessary nutrition requirement to feed the world population. This supports views that not limited world resources but the unequal distribution of resources mainly explains the current poverty and hunger problems in the world.
|Myth 6Reducing teenage pregnancies will reduce the population of the UK (a policy advocated by Population Matters).
Teenage births represent only 7% of all births and births to young women below the age of 18 and around 2% of all births in 2008. Reducing teenage pregnancy would very likely have little impact on population size especially as many teenagers would simply delay having children to a later date.
|Myth 7Reduction of migration is needed to reduce the impact of population on the environment (a policy advocated by Population Matters).Evidence
The Royal Commission on the Protection of Environment (2011) found no case for further controls to regulate non-EU migration on environmental grounds. Any policies on migration will have no direct impact on population size. Population Matters are keen to restrict immigration to the UK but do not encourage migration away from the UK to less populated regions. Restricting non-EU migration to the UK might well lead to greater world population in the future as research suggests migrants to the UK from developing countries tend to have lower birth rates than the country they came from.
For more detail on the critique of Population Matters see the paper ‘Moral panic about overpopulation: a distracting campaign?’ by the Radical Statistics Population Studies group available at:
Dr Alan Marshall is the contact for Radical Statistics Population Studies Group on this matter and is available for comment on Friday 28th October 2011: