Population Growth Threatens Us All


Any claim that unsustainable population growth is a threat is likely to provoke reactions that can become highly emotive. Go a step further, suggest something needs to be done about it, and you’ll probably have a range of accusations levelled at you, ranging from negativity through pessimism to doom-mongering.

You may even be labelled an evil advocate of eugenics, so let’s get rid of that nonsense right away: eugenics is controlled breeding to improve desirable characteristics in a species. Fine if we’re talking about racehorses or chickens, but given an irredeemably bad name as a result of the Nazis’ attempts to apply it to people. No civilised person is suggesting anything like that today.

Any discussion around the nature of unsustainable population growth needs to start with the facts, which are startling. By the year 1800, after around 200,000 years of human existence, there were 1 billion of us on the planet. It took a mere 100 years more to double our numbers, and a further 100 years to treble them again. So from 1 billion in 1800 to 6 billion in 2000, and already today we’re approaching 7 1/2 billion – 14% of all humans who ever lived. We’re now trending towards 9 billion by 2150 and 11 billion in 2100.

Most reputable authorities concur that we’re already way past the level that can be sustained in the long term, unless we’re prepared to end up living like battery hens, with no quality of life (which is already the fate of millions). So there’s surely no disputing that we “need to do something about it”. The question is what, against a background of many complicating factors. Chief amongst them perhaps is that our present economic system depends in large part on perpetual growth, to create jobs and rising living standards, and the easiest way to achieve those things is by finding ever more consumers. And a reliable way to do that, unfortunately, is by having an ever-rising population.

Resources are already being consumed at an unsustainable rate, and it would be wildly optimistic to expect technology to provide anything other than a partial solution. Politicians tend to think short-term, with their attention generally on “growth’, yet the situation arguably requires them to focus more on what many highly credible experts are advocating: an approach encompassing, of course, technology, but also environmental conservation, voluntary birth control, and sustainable lifestyles. And, perhaps, a search for new economic models based on sustained stability rather than permanent expansion.

In the meantime, since our leaders are heavily constrained by what we demand of them, surely we should acknowledge that we too need to play our part, as individuals?

There are a number of things we can do, and if you’re interested in what they are I recommend a visit to the website of Population Matters. The measures outlined there include a number of sensible, practical steps we can all take to help make the planet a fit place to live on for future generations.

Plastic waste is a killer – why’s it in the gyres?

Plastic waste in the oceans – our waste – may kill this beautiful bird.


Pollution by non-biodegradable plastic waste is a major problem for the oceans, wildlife, and us. One place it collects is in gyres, huge systems of rotating sea currents. The major ones are two in the Atlantic, two more in the Pacific, and another in the Indian Ocean.

Floating plastic waste naturally collects in them, and one estimate is that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. As Laura Parker’s article for National Geographic makes clear: ‘the numbers add up to trouble for the oceans, wildlife, and us.’ 

The waste involved includes the obvious larger items, such as discarded lines, nets and plastic bags, that kill by entanglement, all the way down to smaller pieces that kill by ingestion; the latter include microplastics, small fragments broken down from larger items, and polyethylene microbeads, even tinier particles about one third of a mm in diameter that are used in some toothpaste and facial scrub products.

Chris Jordan, an American environmental artist, photographer and film maker, has been working for years on a project about Midway Atoll, a Pacific island over two thousand miles from the nearest continent. The effect  can be seen there of plastic waste ingestion on albatrosses, one of the world’s most beautiful and iconic birds, and it’s truly devastating.

Plastic bags are given out in vast numbers by supermarkets (8.5 billion p.a. in the UK alone); they’re used for just minutes before ending up in landfill for thousands of years, or in inland waterways and the sea. A bag levy coming soon in England, as already in place in Scotland and Wales, will result in less plastic bags used. It will help a little, but there’s still a massive problem.

What can you do to help?

One answer is to re-use plastic bags, and dispose of them and other plastic rubbish safely. We can encourage people not to drop plastic litter, and avoid using products containing microbeads (look for polyethylene on the ingredients list). Simple measures that, if we all do them, will make a difference.

Another is to support the campaign at the brilliant www.5gyres.org, and write to your political representative. We need our politicians on board.


Photograph copyright A.P.Jessett

Malala: books not bullets


If we’re ever going to get rid of war, a first step is doing more to reduce the arms race. We do of course need to protect ourselves, so throwing all our weapons away is not a sensible option. But as the inspirational Malala Yousafzai has pointed out this week, a relatively small reduction in military spending would enable a massive increase in educational opportunities for the young people of the world.

She is appealing to world leaders to do more, by diverting at least a part of military spending towards education. The potential benefits are startling:

If the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education to every child on the planet.”

The potential spin-off benefits from such an outcome are incalculable, but you don’t have to be a feminist to realise that a greater involvement of women in world affairs might also reduce the number of wars in future, if you believe that testosterone, among many complex political, economic and socio-cultural reasons, is perhaps an important factor in conflict at some deep primeval level.

Perhaps that’s one reason that some would deny education to young girls, specifically, and even try to silence those who campaign for it. One of the many remarkable things about Malala is that even after her attempted murder, she says “Do not be afraid.”

You can read the whole article here: Books not bullets