Companion to Key Points

Posted 9th August 2009.

Note. This article is a preliminary speculative sketch only. We would welcome serious critical comments.

The article is divided into two sections, the second much shorter than the first but equally important. The first deals with the reasons for the failure to draw attention to the adverse effects of population growth and migration; the second deals with reproductive rights.

Part 1. What are the reasons for the failure to draw attention to the adverse impacts of population growth and migration?

That population growth can have adverse consequences is undeniable. And while there have been some people and organisations that have drawn attention to such adverse effects, the topic has never entered mainstream public discussion; if anything, attention has rather been focused on the benefits of population growth. Especially the whole idea of population control has been a topic that has been largely avoided, except to condemn it.

Why is this? We think there are a variety of interconnected, overlapping causes.

1). We must remember that man is an animal, and has been subjected to the same laws of genetics and evolution as other animals. In nature, there is the innate impulse to produce offspring. This innate impulse must operate in mankind. One might then expect some psychological resistance to consider, in a rational way any evidence that we should take seriously claims that population growth might be disadvantageous to society and should be controlled. Paul Demeny and Maurice King have called this the ‘Hardinian taboo' after the American biologist Garrett Hardin. They regard this taboo as arising through a sort of psychological failing inherent in our psyche that effectively disables people from considering or confronting to need to control population numbers.

2). In 1968 discussion of the topic of population growth effects was re–ignited by Garrett Hardin in his paper in the journal Science entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” (see our article “The Tragedy of the Commons – and Human Population Growth” on the Other Literature page, which provides access to Hardin's paper). Hardin developed his argument in terms of herdsmen operating in a commons as distinct from a land divided by property rights. He argued that each herdsman will seek to maximise his gain. “Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, 'What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?' This utility has one negative and one positive component”.
The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. All proceeds from the sale of an additional animal go to the herdsman, so “the positive utility is nearly 1”.
“The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal”. But the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen. Therefore “the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of –1”.

“Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd, and another and another...”. But, Hardin goes on, all the other herdsmen reason in the same way, each one feels compelled to increase his herd without limit, and all this in a world that is limited. “Therein is the tragedy”. So “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”. Hardin went on to look at human reproduction in a similar light.

Perhaps the ‘rational herdsman' thought process has become engrained in the human psyche. What is certain is that we here are confronted with a dilemma – individual versus group rights. For insisting on individual rights can harm society as a whole especially in crowded societies. Now the whole burgeoning human rights industry has served to emphasise people's individual rights. At the same time society in the industrialised world had become much more individualised. As we say when we discuss the second demographic transition in the global section of our Population Trends web page, there has been the development of what are sometimes referred to as post material values , emphasizing self–realisation and personal autonomy. In such a situation, discussion about group rights or benefits to society as a whole receives scant support. We return to individual versus group rights in the second section of this article.

3). There is evidence that religious people tend to have larger families than non–religious families (see the UK section of our Population Trends page). And we know about the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply, and populate the earth”. In western industrialised countries we have seen a massive decline in organised religion, yet this does not apply to all countries, certainly not the USA , and even in England and Wales where church attendance has dramatically decreased, a majority of persons identified themselves as Christian in the 2001 census. It seems likely then that in the industrialised western world a certain religious attitude in both formal members of Christian groups and in the population at large may cause people to avoid discussions about population growth and to oppose any attempt at population control. And of course in the industrialised countries there are growing populations of ethnic groups of foreign descent who take there religion very seriously. The subject of religion leads us to the next reason.

4. Vested interests. There are some powerful groups with strong views about population matters, and such groups have had an influence on policy makers. For example at the United Nations Population and Development Conference in Cairo in 1994 attention became focused not on what were primarily demographic and economic matters where population was seen as a 'problem' of rising numbers, particularly among poor nations, (the focus of previous United Nations conferences), but much more on human rights. Newsletter 19 at the end of the conference dealt with the programme of action agreed at the conference and there we read: the conference “strongly endorses a new strategy for addressing population issues, one that emphasizes the numerous linkages between population and development and focuses on meeting the needs of individual women and men rather than on achieving demographic targets” (our underlining).

The conference affirmed the principle that individuals have the fundamental human right to determine the number and spacing of their children, a principle stemming from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that asserts that the natural and fundamental unit of society is the family. Consequently decisions about the family must rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anybody else.

This change of focus was achieved partly through the influence of pressure groups, notably the Roman Catholic church and women's movements, (but aided by the Secretary General of the Conference, the United Nation's Nafis Sadik).

The Cairo conference seems to have had a significant influence on governments and non–governmental organisations, which in turn have influenced public opinion.

5). The main–line economic argument. Most economists and governments consider that to maintain a healthy economy, there must be quantitative growth in that economy. We accept that in some circumstances such as industrial countries with an ageing population, continued population growth promotes economic growth. However, the planet, or any country such as the UK, is of finite size. Economic growth and population growth cannot continue for ever. Further, economists in their accounts have generally ignored the harmful effects on the environment of economic growth. Herman Daly, former senior economist in the World Bank's Environment Department has repeatedly made these arguments. Daly also writes that as natural resources ('natural capital') become depleted, it becomes more expensive to extract sufficient quantity (e.g. ocean fish catches). And increased growth comes increasingly to entail unpleasant effects like pollution and congestion. The point is reached when economic growth becomes uneconomic growth. We need to change, Daly argues, from promoting quantitative economic growth, to promoting qualitative development.
Two useful articles by Daly are:
(1) "Economics in a full world", Scientific American September 2005; (2) "On a road to disaster", New Scientist 18th October 2008.

The main–line economic argument is canvassed by governments and many organisations concerned with policy development. And we think this perspective has been accepted consciously or unconsciously by the general public. So discussion about adverse effects of population growth falls on deaf ears.

6. The education of the general public, and indeed probably most government officials, has been such that most people do not understand basic biological principles of reproduction and population growth and the manifold interactions between population change and environmental change. Consequently most people are bemused about the serious way that some organisations and individuals write or speak about the dangers of population growth.

7. People have also not been given a historical perspective of either human population growth or environmental deterioration. Consequently they do not realise just how serious things are. Further most people are bounded by short time horizons. To really appreciate the impact of population growth one must adopt a long–term perspective. As I wrote in the introduction to my book " England in the New Millennium. Are we prepared to save our countryside?" (see our ‘Our Publications' page):

"It is when you take a long term view of the situation that one realises the real magnitude of the environmental problem. The attention of most people is however firmly focused within a short time span, during which environmental changes are small and so have little impact on the imagination. People are primarily concerned about present conditions, and perhaps secondarily about how things will be when their children grow up. Rarely do they think about the environment of later generations. For most people, the only occasions when they seriously look ahead is when they are dealing with a mortgage for a house or planning old age insurance. So long term changes are not matters which engage their attention and cause them concern. Politicians too, working to a five–year election horizon, tend to focus their attention on the short or at best medium term.

"Now it was sensible for Neolithic man to concentrate his attention on the present. His concerns were justifiably immediate – that another person might knock him on the head or wolves devour his child. But it is not a sensible attitude now, and has not been so for generations. For in Neolithic times, the population was very small, and grew so slowly, and the environment seemed limitless. There was no need to be concerned about the environment beyond the horizon – there was so much of it, no need to think of the environment in the future. Now the population is very much greater, has been growing much faster, and is spread over practically all the world except arctic and some other desert regions, and world wide environmental degradation has accelerated to the point where if we go on as we are doing, the environment will not be worth living in shortly. Yet man's attitude has not changed. Mankind is short sighted.

"Living in the present with no clear picture of the past and no vision for the future can reduce people's perception of the extent of environmental deterioration, and repress any sense of urgency to do something about it. People can become inured to severe deprivation. As Day (1992) puts it "the fluid nature of human values is a major threat to any effort to block progressive deterioration of environmental quality. It underwrites the ever–present tendency to adjust to debasement of the environment by lowering our standards; by, that is, being willing to settle for less" (L. H. Day "The future of low–birthrate populations". Routledge).

"Day gives an illustration close to the central concern of this book – the loss of green land. He quotes the American demographer Cole to the effect that many younger people see nothing wrong with many of the changes that older citizens decry. Cole himself felt deprived by the disappearance of open land round Princeton , but comments that his own children never miss it".

The consequence then of this short time perspective is that the significance of population growth has not been given the focus it deserves by governments and in public discussions.

An it is an important fact that a high percentage of the current native population stock in countries like England were born, grew up and worked for many years in this minute, transient, and unique period of the whole history of mankind when continued massive population growth coincided with massive net immigration. These people may have noticed their urban areas and roads becoming more crowded, new housing estates gobbling up the countryside, and if, like us, they walked the countryside, have noticed paths becoming more frequented. But that is all they have known; it would seem to be quite normal. So why would such people be concerned abut population growth and migration?

7. Any debate about the advantages and disadvantages of population growth is complicated in industrialised countries by the fact that a significant cause of population growth in those countries is immigration. In the European Union current and future population growth is actually mainly caused by immigration; not surprisingly, governments, organisations and individuals who accept the need for partly immigration driven economic growth draw attention to the supposed benefits of immigration rather than the adverse effects of same. For the general public, the official version is that immigration is good for us. This may lull people's apprehension about immigration.

8. However, immigration brings with it a further complication. We are not dealing with the situation where immigrants and natives belong to the same group, whether defined by race, ethnicity or religion. The fact is that in industrialised countries both the present population and the immigrant population are heterogeneous in these categories, but at the same time the immigrant population differs considerably from the existing population in terms of these same categories.

Consider the UK, national census categories and net immigration. Bear in mind that the ‘White' population is divided into three sub–categories; White: British, White: Irish and White: Other. Also bear in mind that the White: British category is still by far the largest category of any ethnic group

The proportion of non–White: British in the net immigration stream is higher than in the present resident UK population. Look at the situation in a different way and consider just England and Wales . Through immigration and differences in fertility between ethnic groups, one projection of future change has the total non–White population increasing from 8.7% to 24.5% in 2051. And if we just combine the White: British and White: Irish groups (hence leaving out the massive immigration from the European A8 countries), the proportion of all other ethnic groups (therefore including the White: Other category) is projected to rise from 11.4% to 36.1%. These are massive changes. And these changes bring with them massive cultural changes (see the UK section of our Population Trends page).

And this brings us to the heart of the matter as far as western industrialised countries like the UK are concerned. Many, perhaps most of these countries including the UK, are, we think, dominated by what we will call the Politically Correct Brigade (PCB), a grouping whose origins are on the left side of the political spectrum and which is driven by an ideology encompassing an uncritical belief in globalization, the belief that we must have open doors to all who may face persecution in home countries, and a firm belief in cultural relativism and multiculturalism. But in the UK, in terms of political parties, all three main parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal, seem under the sway of this brigade to a varying extent. For the PCB, immigration by groups different from the native groups racially, ethnically or in terms of religion is not a problem, indeed it should be welcomed. We however, do not see things in such black and white terms. While we acknowledge the contribution of many immigrants of different race, ethnicity or religion to the cultural life and the economic development of the UK and other industrialised countries, we also think that the massive immigration of the last half century has brought with it actual or potential harmful effects on social cohesion.

Such is the power of the PCB, and its members total belief in the ideology (or for hangers on the decision that it is prudent for the sake of careers to accept the ideology), that PCB people and organisations feel free to discard respect for the principles of true discourse. Most commonly they respond to person or organisations who either express concern about the level of immigration and its ethnic composition or produce any evidence that does not agree with PCB ideology, by either ignoring the plaint or accusing the person/organisation of being at the least 'extreme right–wing', or ‘fascist' or ‘racist'. Consequently most members of the general public and environmental organisations ‘keep there heads down', and say little or nothing about the significance of population growth and migration, especially adverse effects of same. And one reason why environmental organisations stay silent is fear of losing members.

In parenthesis, the fact is that the PCB ideology is not based on facts . Underlying the PCB ideology are beliefs rather than facts. For example, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights'. But the PCB seems to take things further and believe that all persons are born equal (remember the “We hold these truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal..... of Thomas Jefferson). But people are not born equal. One of the fundamental things that modern genetics shows is that every person is different (except identical twins), not only in genes governing physical appearance, but genes governing all other quantitative characters.

Now the only legitimate way to attempt to analyse any situation is the scientific way. An essential aspect of this way is the attempt to be as objective as possible and not to start any investigation with any assumptions .One may start with one or more hypotheses, but it is always remembered throughout the investigation that they are only hypotheses, not facts. The PCB in our opinion breaks the scientific indeed the scholarly rule; it is driven not by the burning desire to establish the facts, but by a firmly believed ideology. Further, recently installed human rights legislation, championed by the PCB makes it very difficult to openly discuss freely ethnic differences of any sort. Such suppression of open discussion is not good for society.

In parenthesis again, the massive ethnic change in the UK population, already underway, is surely something that any responsible government or any political party would feel it had the responsibility to highlight to the general public. Most political parties in fact say little or nothing about it, and the present government seems silent on the subject.

Thinking of the UK, the country we know most about, we must return to a consideration of the education system. We think that the PCB has had an influence on that system for a long time, not only in schools but also in colleges and universities. Consequently, a whole generation of better ‘educated' people (please note the inverted commas), the ‘elite', have been brought up to accept the PCB ideology, and these people are the present day main opinion generators.

Perhaps more important, the general public, here defined as the public minus the numerically comparatively small elite, has been educated under the shadow of the PCB and has not then been educated so that they are aware of demographic trends in terms of race, ethnicity and religion or aware of bad as well as good effects of same, globally or in the UK.

10. Focusing again on the UK, there are many people (members of Christian churches and others) who are genuinely concerned about the plight of poor people in the developing world and the welfare of immigrants (henceforth ‘do-gooders’), and many of these people make big efforts to help such people, with some real success. Here we see people motivated by the Christian imperative to do good to all those less fortunate than oneself, often or perhaps usually combined with guilt feelings about the way the UK has behaved in the days of its empire, especially in African and Indian sub–continent countries.

As regards the attitude to developing countries, do-gooders recognise that having many children has been beneficial because it has counteracted high death rates in younger members of the population, and provided an insurance for the older members of the population – a view with which we do not disagree. They also largely accept the idea that the way to curb fertility rates in poor countries is improving people's health, making available family planning services, providing good education, and advancing the rights of women. We agree with these measures. But we go further and argue that these measures alone will not bring about the desired effect quick enough or completely enough to deal with the present global situation. We need also stronger measures at the very least of the type of tax incentives and disincentives, even coercive measures such as China's One Child Family policy. All such measures would we think, be opposed by most of the 'do-gooders'.

On the home front, do-gooders seems to regard all asylum seekers and the vast majority of illegal immigrants as legitimate seekers of residence in industrialised countries, and all should be given as much help as possible. We have perhaps framed this too starkly, but our own experienced chimes with this view. Such people generally do not consider that controlling population growth though controlling immigration is a valid undertaking, because the humanitarian imperative overrides it.

We think also that many such people have the same attitude to economic migrants who seek to better themselves; because through focusing on individuals, and lacking any overall appreciation of demographic trends, they fail to consider the inevitable demographic consequence  -  the stream of economic migrants is large and if all were admitted this would be the cause of a massive increase in population growth pushing the UK population even further above carrying capacity.

All in all then, there are various reasons why governments, environmental organisations and most individual activists have not drawn attention to the adverse effects of population growth and migration. 

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Part 2. Reproductive rights in the real world.

The present global environmental and societal situation is so serious that only radical and probably unpopular measures will in our view make it possible to avoid the collapse, if not the extinction of the human species. Our essay “population growth and environmental deterioration. Are things finally coming together for mankind's doom?”, (analysis section, Comment and Analysis page) published quite a long time ago (the beginning of November 2007) is worth reading here.

The global population is projected to continue to grow massively, the greater part of this growth taking place in so called ‘developing' countries, which include not only India and China but all those poor countries in sub–Saharan Africa and elsewhere.

Demographic forces at work make it impossible to suddenly or even quickly stop this population growth (short of killing a major part of the global human population). But measures could be adopted that would significantly slow down this future population growth and hasten the day when the global population would actually slowly decrease, avoiding possible sudden collapse of the population.

Now The United Nations, aid agencies and most other parties, do support certain policies to reduce population growth. We mentioned what the actual policies supported are in the first part of the present article – improving people's health, making available family planning services, providing good education, and advancing the rights of women. And as we say in that first part, we agree with these measures. Also very many individual nations have population objectives of one sort or another, and many of these countries support contraceptive services, directly or indirectly (UN, 2002, “National Population Policies”).

But alone, the specific policies just specified will not in our view reduce population growth sufficiently and quickly enough to avoid global catastrophe.

We argue that we also need specific policies to actively encourage people to have smaller families such as strong tax incentives and disincentives, even coercive policies such as China's One Child Family policy. Such policies should be integrated into an overall policy that includes the specific measures previously mentioned. And each country should set a goal, namely the desired eventual population size, as part of a UN adopted global population size goal.

But underlying any assessment of how things have changed in the past and how they ought to change in the future is a fundamental and often ignored concept, namely reproductive rights .

In the first part of this article we referred to the ‘tragedy of the commons': “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”. Now the principle has been widely accepted that individuals and families should have as many children as they like. The underlying doctrine is that decisions about the family must rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anybody else. Hardin argued this was wrong, and we agree. Of course we should consider the wishes of individuals and families. But in the present world where massive population growth continues, against a backdrop of continued massive environmental degradation, the control of the human population cannot be left to individuals or individual families, not even with policies in place to persuade people to have fewer children. We argue that we need to adopt the principle that Group Rights are paramount and start policy development from there, if adequate and timely reduction of global population growth is to be achieved.

That is why we say as Key Point number six:
“The United Nations and aid organisations affirm that individuals have the fundamental human right to determine the number and spacing of their children. We, on the contrary conclude that in the present crowded world where global environmental degradation has become so severe, group reproductive rights must take preference since ultimately it is the survival of groups and hence of the species that matters. We also consider that global and national population size targets should be set with the aim of reducing the global population as soon as possible”.

However, we think that it is unlikely that policies to actively encourage people to limit family size mentioned above will be widely adopted, and even more unlikely that the principle of the paramountcy of group reproductive rights will be adopted. Even if policies incorporating these measures were developed, it would we think be almost impossible to implement them. We are not dealing here with some nice experimental plot at a research station where various variables are controlled. Think of sub–Saharan Africa. In general, fertility rates have been slower falling in this region than in any other, despite wide spread acceptance that rates need to fall faster, and in many countries they remain very high. Food production has not kept pace with population growth (per capita food production has decreased). These factors have led to a rapid rise in commercial food imports and food aid in a region that could have been the bread basket of the world.

This is a region where severe environmental degradation continues, where corruption is endemic, and violent conflict keeps bubbling up here and there. Think too of the massive refugee camps and the masses of grossly undernourished people elsewhere in the region. How many of these countries have an effective infra-structure or sufficient trained personnel? And one is up against centuries old traditions that are sometimes at odds with any rational attempts at development.

Copyright @ John F. Barker