The great population debate: too many carbon footprints?

Saturday 30 October, 5.15pm until 6.30pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery

Contemporary fears about climate change have brought historical concerns about global population numbers back onto the agenda. There has been much discussion about the need for lifestyle change, particularly in the Western world, to reduce the amount we consume. But a growing number of voices argue that this skirts around an equally important consideration: the need to reduce the absolute number of ‘carbon footprints’ left on the planet. With the global population set to reach seven billion in a few years time, some argue we are heading for a crisis, as food supplies and energy sources wane in the face of increasing demand.

On the other hand, it is pointed out that similar arguments have been made throughout history – most notably by Thomas Malthus – and have been proven wrong, as development and human ingenuity have solved the problems posed by apparently natural limits. Critics object to the way more people are seen as a burden on the planet, rather than a source of creativity. Moreover, the world population is growing in the developing world rather than the richer countries, and there is a concern that population reduction arguments might be tainted with racist undertones. 

The Optimum Population Trust produces calculations to show how reducing population levels will ameliorate the environmental and social crises provoked by growing numbers of people. Others argue controlling population has immediate benefits – to women, who in some parts of the world lack access to modern contraception; and to families on low incomes struggling to support the children they already have. Some family planning organisations have brought the environmental argument together with the arguments for reproductive choice, claiming the number of ‘births averted’ through abortion is a boon. But what – if any - is the link between individuals’ reproductive choices and the state of the natural environment? Is it irresponsible for people to have large numbers of children in the knowledge they will consume more resources? Is there anything wrong with promoting voluntary strategies for limiting family size?

Listen to session audio:


Roger Martin
chairman, Optimum Population Trust

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Ann Furedi
chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; author, The Moral Case for Abortion

Produced by
Jennie Bristow senior lecturer in sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University; author, The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges and Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict; co-author, Parenting Culture Studies
Recommended readings
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Catholics for Choice, Conscience, 2010

Demography and Destiny

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Overpopulation: 9 Billion Things to Talk About

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Mary Fitzgerald, New Statesman, 31 August 2010

A prejudice in search of a scientific disguise

The Royal Society’s two-year study of population seems to have already decided that there are ‘too many people’.

Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 19 July 2010

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Too many people? No, too many Malthusians

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Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 20 November 2009

Overpopulation is the biggest threat to our climate

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Roger Martin, Reuters, 17 October 2009

Is there a 'right' to have children?

An Optimum Population Trust Briefing

Carter Dillard, Optimum Population Trust, 2 July 2008

The coming population bust

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Jeff Jacoby, International Herald Tribune, 23 June 2008

Time Essay: How to Defuse the Population Bomb

World population growth—and how to slow it—continues to be a subject of great controversy. The planet's poorest nations have yet to find effective ways to check their population increase—at least without restricting citizens' rights and violating such traditions as the custom of having large families as insurance in old age.

Time, 25 October 1977

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