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Population: Still a Big Taboo

Times Square NYC
Times Square in New York City. The population of the metropolitan region is nearly 20 million, the largest by far of metro areas in the United States. JOHN PENNEY

I’ve been preoccupied with the overlap between population and the environment ever since I read the Ecologist’s “A Blueprint for Survival” in the early 1970s. I’ve campaigned assiduously for progressive family planning programs since that time on, just as I have for environmental and social justice issues. It’s always been a no-bloody-brainer that the two go hand in hand. That’s not the case for the majority of people in the environment movement. For most of the big nongovernmental organizations in Britain, population has either been completely off-limits or grudgingly acknowledged as an important area of concern but not one in which they feel any need to get actively involved. Throughout that time, the intellectual and moral disconnect has, for me, been startling. And it still is.

A few months ago, as a patron of Population Matters, which focuses on sustainability and lifestyle, I teamed up with my good friend and environmental writer/campaigner Robin Maynard (who is as baffled by this disconnect as I am) to invite the eight leading environmental nongovernmental organizations (international and national) operating in Britain to review their position. Guided by the headline conclusion from the Royal Society’s groundbreaking “People and the Planet” report in 2012 (“population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues”), we asked them whether they would be prepared to commit to the following six actions:

  • Accept and promote the findings of the “People and the Planet” report that population and consumption must be considered as indivisible, linked issues;
  • Acknowledge publicly and actively communicate the crucial relevance of population to your organization’s mission and objectives;
  • Support and advocate the principle of universal access to safe, affordable family planning for all women throughout the world;
  • Call on the government to act on the findings of the report and draw up a national population policy;
  • Use your organization’s considerable policy resources, voice and influence to speak and engage members of the wider public in an intelligent, informed and honest debate about population;
  • Include the population factor in all relevant communications and policy pronouncements.

Hardly a revolutionary manifesto — but you might have thought the sky had fallen. Lengthy delays, prevarication, excuses, weasel words — that was our reality for the next few months. The responses confirmed all our worst fears, and with the honorable exception of Friends of the Earth (which has now developed a new and rather more progressive position on population that — to be completely fair — is a much better position than the organization had when I was its director in the 1980s), they’re all pretty much where they were four decades ago; that is despite a massive increase in human numbers and a correspondingly massive deterioration in the state of our physical environment.

In the interests of transparency, Maynard and I have decided to publish summaries of all the responses from the eight leading environmental organizations operating in Britain, ranking the best to the worst.  (See the press release, report and briefings here.)

1. Friends of the Earth
2. The Wildlife Trusts
3. Campaign to Protect Rural England
4. Greenpeace
5. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
6. Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
7. National Trust
8. Worldwide Fund for Nature (Britain)

As you can imagine, I take no pleasure in these findings, but my continuing anger on this score remains proportionate to that sense of collective blindness on the part of organizations that for the most part I respect and love.

This essay was adapted from a blog post published here.

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