Despite fears that the far right will jump on the bandwagon, respected figures are now calling for public debate on how a predicted population explosion in the UK will be devastating for sustainable development.
Only professional jeremiahs of overpopulation, such as Crispin Tickell and Jonathan Porritt, noticed the forecast last week that Britain would have 4 million extra people by 2025, plus a further 1.5 million by 2050—a 10% rise in the lifetime of our children. The UK is the only major European population still growing.
Public debate on population is so preoccupied with the social impact of immigration that nobody asks how we will support 66 million consumers of energy, housing and driving space on the roads. Already we have 631 people per square mile in the UK (993 in England)—more than twice as many as France, and the highest density in Europe after the Netherlands. China’s population density is 352.
Yet the new forecast from the US-based Population Reference Bureau attracted no comment from our government, which has barely begun to shape a population policy, as distinct from an immigration policy, which it says sets “no upper limits”.
Tickell and Porritt are patrons of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), which takes a deeper look at the issue. It argues that the government’s hopes for sustainable development in food, clean water, healthy soil and a stable climate will be dashed if the population is not reduced from 60 million to 52.5 million by 2050, and possibly to 30 million by 2121.
The OPT demands firm action against unintended pregnancies, particularly among teenagers, and extra support for the raising of small families. The average British woman chooses to have 1.7 children; in Italy and Spain it is 1.2.
Unabashed at sharing some opinions with the British National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Daily Mail, the OPT wants net immigration brought down to zero. Immigration has been the main contributor to recent UK population growth and is projected to account for more than 80% of future growth.
Two years ago, 360,000 people left the UK and 513,000 came in—a net immigration of 153,000. The government expects the influx to be lower when the figures for 2003 are released, but natural increase—the excess of births over deaths—is expected to rise from 62,500 in 2002 to 83,000.
The OPT has been a voice in the wilderness, but in recent weeks officials have begun replying to its emails and even inviting its input on the future of farming. Tickell, who is director of Oxford’s Green College environmental policy centre, does not support OPT’s ambition to reduce net immigration to zero, but he does want to stem the flow by discouraging migrants and refugees from coming to Europe. He argues: “We should give aid at the European level to the countries where refugees originate—especially aid in population policies.”
Porritt agrees that most of the expected increase will be caused by immigration, “plus a bit of demographic pressure”. But, unlike the OPT, he accepts the government’s current immigration policy for humanitarian reasons and because immigrants will help the economy. “I don’t think they’re letting too many people in,” he says. “Population talk is far too tied up with immigration and racism. The fact is that we are nearly in balance. We’re not showing hundreds of thousands coming in.”
Porritt, who drafted the Ecology party’s demographic policy in 1976, can claim to be the doyen of the population prophets. Now, as chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, he is an influential critic who blames the government for not having a population policy.
“The next sustainable development strategy paper is due in March, but will population even feature in it? This government is not doing enough to make a difference. We need more energetic policies on fertility management, which could give us a net reduction even with the present rate of immigration. People should be made to understand that their commitment to the world includes not having too many children.”
The OPT appears relatively untroubled that its two famous patrons disagree with its aim to stop immigration in its tracks. The trust’s starkest warnings come from its research coordinator, Andrew Ferguson, a retired airline pilot who calculates that Britain will only be sustainable when its population is brought down to 20 million or, at most, 30 million. “Only by extravagant use of fossil fuel can we support 60 million people, let alone 65 million,” Ferguson says. “As we run out, we will have to go back to old methods of making energy, and that will need lots more space—wood burning, hydroelectric and, to a far lesser extent, wind and solar.”
Most OPT pundits belittle the prospects of renewable energy—“too many energy fantasists”, says Ferguson. Most accept the revival of nuclear power as inevitable, but insist that the drawbacks, especially the hazards of radioactive waste, make it a least-worst option and no substitute for curbs on population.
Ferguson, who sits on teenage pregnancy panels, points out that, with 40,000 such births a year, the UK leads Europe in the field, “beating even Holland—and we are six times worse than Holland”.
The trust shows little embarrassment at sharing some of its platform with anti-immigrant agitators. “We have nothing in common with the racists, and if there are social problems of immigration we don’t get into that,” says John Guillebaud, researcher in reproductive health at University College London, who is co-chair of OPT. “Genuine asylum seekers and others reasonably admitted can be black, khaki, purple or green, as long as we bring immigration and emigration into balance and control teenage pregnancies over five to six generations. Given the below-replacement average family size chosen by women in this country, that could bring the UK to 30 million by 2130.”
He agrees that restricting immigration could worsen Britain’s already problematic age structure, and “we may give up economic advantage in excluding potential workers who are promising, or willing to do jobs we ourselves don’t want to do—but here the end would justify the means: we have to think of the bigger picture. Increasing the population of a seriously overcrowded country is just crazy.”
Rosamund McDougal, a family planning expert and a co-chair of OPT, argues that the race issue is “simply irrelevant”.
“I’d rather have 40 million people in the UK and half of them black than 100 million all white,” she says. “We can’t affect the death rate—we can’t go around shooting people. What we can do is cut down unwanted births and immigration that we cannot sustain.”
At last, she thinks, the message is getting through to government. “We were unheard of, our emails got no reply, then the penny dropped,” she says. “Defra [the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] used to be hostile, but now wants our input on rural scenarios; we argue that the notion of farmers as paid keepers of the landscape is nonsense because we’re going to need the land for energy.”
Best of all, a letter arrived from the Treasury promising that the current review of the sustainable development strategy will “consider what the challenges are, including in relation to trends in population and lifestyles”.
Has the penny dropped?