Population as a discussion topic is off-limits for most UK politicians, in a way that plays into the hands of illiberal and xenophobic organisations.
But it should be possible to have an intelligent and sensitive debate about one of the most important issues of our time. This paper, the result of research and many conversations, is our attempt to stimulate such a debate about population in the UK and beyond, and to present the issue of population growth as essentially linked to the goal of sustainable development.
The UK population is projected to grow at its fastest rate since the post-war “baby boom”, increasing from 61.4 million now to 70.6 million in 2030. According to the projections, growth will be driven in part through natural change – more people being born than dying – and also through net inward migration – more people arriving in the UK than leaving.
The growth will be uneven across the country, with faster rates in central and southern England and slower rates in northern England and Scotland. This makes the UK part of the coming global increase in population, albeit at a lower rate of growth: in the time it takes the UK to increase in population by 16%, countries in sub-Saharan Africa will grow by over 50%.
There are both costs and benefits. A further 9 million people by 2030 will increase pressures on public services, infrastructure and the natural environment, requiring thorough long-term planning. The pressure will be worse in certain areas, depending on where people choose to live.
On the other hand, population growth increases the number of economically active people and can help the UK continue to be a vibrant, multicultural society.
Ultimately however, it is impossible to see how population growth – globally or in the UK – can continue forever. Social and economic models that rely on this cycle are doomed to fail eventually and so, at some point, we will have to come up with alternative models.
In this paper, we don’t go so far as to suggest what that alternative model is, but from our exploration of the topic it became clear that there were several benefits to considering population growth through the prism of sustainability. We try to show the points of leverage for a sustainable approach to population. Using the I=PxAxT equation first developed by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren – in which impact “I” is a factor of population “P”, affluence “A”and technology “T” – we show that efficiency of systems must be increased through deployment of new technologies and better, more integrated planning; consumption must be reduced by focusing on well-being and quality of life; and population growth can be constrained, primarily through more effective family planning.
We found no argument that doing all of this would be anything but difficult. But we were able to distil from our research and our discussions seven suggestions on how to start this shift. They are:
- Plan for what’s coming
All major public infrastructure bodies and service providers should carry out detailed planning for the impacts of continued population growth.
- Use what we have more efficiently
Many of the things we need to do to live more sustainably in the UK, such as using energy and water more efficiently, also help us to accommodate rising numbers of people.
- Rethink “growth”
We need urgently to develop new ways of evaluating the success of our economy that point towards increasing human well-being and quality of life.
- Develop new attitudes to ageing
We should value the contribution that older people can make to society, and adopt a more flexible approach to family, work and education throughout people’s lives.
- Enhance family planning
We can improve targeted education and make contraception more easily available in the UK and globally.
- Hold an objective discussion on immigration
We need to understand the value immigration makes to the UK economy at the same time as seeing it in a global context.
- Have an open and sensible debate
We need policy-makers to address population head-on, not ignore it because it is too controversial.
Converting that from PDF into Word and then removing all the formatting code that remains, even after saving as text only, felt like a marathon!
I hope you think the end result was worth it.
Read the whole thing (20pp PDF) at http://www.forumforthefuture.org/files/population_web.pdf