1. Adam Ramsay said:

    Hi Tom, thanks for a thoughtful and interesting post. Last time I tried to comment here, it didn’t work for some reason, so I’m just going to test this before I comment at greater length.


    31st July 2013
  2. adamaramsay said:

    OK, cool, that seemed to work…

    Well, there are a few interesting things here. First, I hadn’t seen your previous post on housing and London, and think it’s worth saying that I think you are right and that the party is sometimes on the wrong side of that.

    The second thing is that I think you are right about immigration. One thing that frustrates me is when people talk about how densely populated we are. Britain is quite densely populated. But not as much as India, or Bangladesh, from where many of our immigrants come, and Pakistan is roughly the same level of density to us. I also think your point about biodiversity is really important. We should care about density, I think, for two reasons – the local environment, and quality of life. In the former, how dense it is now isn’t the only question – there is a good case for people clustering. On quality of life, it is hard to argue that density is the only factor.

    Finally, on global population, I won’t dispute your basic figures. However, I think there are a few things to add.

    First, I think that, were population to lower with our current economic system, it would quickly rise to similar levels of consumption – that’s what endless growth in material throughput requires. Second, it is important to recognise that we live in a world in which there are vast inequalities. You say that 1 tonne of CO2 would be sustainable per capita in a world with 10 billion. In the country with the highest birth rate, Mali, the per capita emissions are significantly lower than that.

    But none of that is really the point, because none of that is an argument against highlighting this, it’s just an argument that it’s not the top priority, and that’s never a reason not to talk about something.

    But I also do think there is another factor we need to think about – the effect that us highlighting one thing vs another has on debate, and on the likelihood of securing change. And this is where discussion of population concerns me. Given that the way in which we influence the world is primarily through what we say (we aren’t in government), we have to believe that this matters, if only a little.

    Out of consumption and population, there is an important question – who is it that is seen as resonsible for each one. The answer is obvious: the vast majority of consumption is done by white people in Europe, America and Australasia (and some people in Gulf States). Most population increase comes from much poorer people – those who also, it happens, are suffering most from the impacts of the historic emissions which have contributed to our wealth.

    If we highlight population as a factor, even if we do so alongside consumption, then we are in effect shifting blame onto those people who are suffering, and who are least to blame. There are two problems with this.

    The first is that it is perpetuating a racist narritive. I chose those words carefully – I do not mean that people who say this are racist. Lots of people who talk about this are vocally anti-racist, including you, Tom. However, by teaching people in the West that environmental probems are caused by population, in a world in which almost all population increase happens in those communities least responsible for these problems and suffering most from them, they are inadvertently encouraging racist attitudes, and are blaming the victim of the problem, despite them being the least responsible.

    (there is also a case that it is perpetuating a sexist narritive, common in climate activism, that it is a problem caused by things which are largely seen as the responsibility of women, when in fact the opposite is true – more on this here: http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2011/11/disentangling-population-reduction-and-womens-empowerment/)

    These are very real problems. Friends who work as fundraisers at Oxfam, for example, tell me that the most frequent negative comment they get from the public is that the real cause of poverty and of environmental problems is women having too many children, and so they won’t do anything about these – why should they, until these Ethiopian women stop what they are doing. Contributing to this attitude is risky.

    This feeds in to my second concern. If the problem is located elsewhere, then the solution is also elsewhere. And that removes any imperritive for us to act here. And that too is very dangerous.

    I hope all is well,


    31st July 2013
    • Tom Chance said:

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the comments.

      I don’t understand why you think a population of 5 billion will necessarily end up having the same impact as a population of 10 billion. Surely the economic growth imperative and population are separate? It is no more difficult to stop endless growth with a population of 5 billion than 10 billion, and it is twice as easy to level off the economy at a level of consumption that is sustainable.

      Mali is an interesting example to raise. Their ecological footprint is already slightly over the sustainable and equitable limit. Are you suggesting we should all level down to the Malian economy and then some more? Or that we should stop Malians from developing?

      We can’t even provide basic public services and a welfare safety net in the UK without busting our per-capita allowance in a world of ten billion people.

      I’ve read pieces by people like George Monbiot and Duncan Green, but they always look backwards. Mali is growing fast but it hasn’t increased its footprint very fast, so they’re not to blame and their population growth doesn’t matter. But hang on, there are two factors in that equation, and if we want their quality of life to develop fast then their average footprint will develop fast as well. That growing population of middle class people then joins the rest of us. The environmental consequences of the growth of the middle class in the global south along industrialist lines is truly terrifying.

      But I don’t think it is helpful to talk about people being responsible, or bringing blame into this discussion. I haven’t said that countries where the population is growing (including the UK, let us remember!) are to blame for high populations, nor that the citizens of rich countries are to blame for high ecological and carbon footprints. It’s unhelpful, and I think it is often raised to set-up a straw man that can obscure important arguments. The same accusations are levelled against Greens by those who want to ignore the damage that cars and factories have – that we are blaming people for trying to make ends meet and give their children a better life. Except we aren’t blaming anyone, we’re just pointing out some facts and arguing for change.

      In domestic politics, Greens think we should use public policy to make sustainable lifestyles the easy option, and to discourage, penalise and even prevent unsustainable choices. I see no reason why we shouldn’t also, with sensitivity and humanity and justice, use public policy both domestically and internationally to promote women’s rights, family planning and welfare systems as well.

      It isn’t either/or. It isn’t about shifting responsibility. It’s about doing everything we can to find an equitable, sustainable future for the global population.

      As for what we prioritise, that is an entirely different question and gets us into a discussion about whether this theoretical transition to an ecologically benign world is even remotely likely!

      1st August 2013
  3. Violeta Vajda said:

    Hi Tom and Adam, I’m absolutely fascinated by the discussions here and on the margins of my article, and I am learning a huge amount from all of it.

    I wrote my piece on immigration from a particular individual perspective, chosen because I believe people often forge ahead with generalities without understanding how the personal is political – a feminist outlook which has the virtue of getting people to think twice about the implications of our positions on ourselves and those close to us. (And I’m really pleased to see sexist narratives named in your post, Adam.)

    At the same time, I do think there is a larger issue at stake in the immigration and population debates, and one that is highlighted in what you both said and, lest we forget it, in Natalie’s original speech which sparked this discussion.

    I’m talking about the scapegoating mechanism, successfully employed for many centuries by the powers of the day to deflect attention away from real problems (eg economic exploitation of the majority by the minority) and onto particular groups of people that were/are more vulnerable and ‘primed’ for scapegoating. Jewish people everywhere have been ‘fed to the lions’ for centuries when rulers felt they needed to escape the wrath of the masses.

    Unfortunately, since humanity has not really successfully got its collective mind around how scapegoating operates as a general mechanism, all of us are vulnerable to allowing it to happen again and again. Hence, Muslims have also become fair game, and of course immigrants too. And I really appreciate learning a bit more about how we push the blame onto the global majority population living in non-Western countries.

    I personally do think that economic inequality and greed (leading to excessive consumption) are the main culprits in our day and age, and for these to continue, artificial divisions are created between all of us (such as the local/foreign dynamic). These divisions then prevent us from organising collectively to solve major challenges such as the rise in population and the degradation of the environment.

    I’d love us to think together about how to move forward the discussion on this within the Green Party.
    With much respect and good wishes


    1st August 2013
  4. Rachel Fleming said:

    I’m not sure how shifting the blame to countries with low industrialisation and high birth rates contributes to a racist narrative?

    In the developing world there are lots of different races. We in the west live in a multi-racial society. In fact white people are in the minority in the western world. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/sep/03/race.world

    Racism is prejudging people based on the colour of their skin, that all people who are white, for example, behave in the same way. But high consuming countries and high birth rate countries do not belong to one racial group

    You cannot ignore population, you cannot ignore consumption, as the carbon emissions by country clearly show:


    Who’s at the top? – China -high population with mid level consumption and United States, high consumption, medium population.

    Also, in the top emissions per capita list appear a whole mixture of countries (not just countries traditionally viewed as western)


    Personally I’m much more interested in the 3rd item in your population x consumption x technology equation. We have technology to green the grid – now, ready, also the technology to reduce the impact of heating our homes by 90% through energy efficiency. It’s all there it’s ready to go – we need policies and political change to make these technologies economically viable.

    1st August 2013
  5. Adam Ramsay said:

    Thanks for the replies all.

    I think, Tom, that your example kind of makes my point for itself when you say:

    “The same accusations are levelled against Greens by those who want to ignore the damage that cars and factories have – that we are blaming people for trying to make ends meet and give their children a better life. Except we aren’t blaming anyone, we’re just pointing out some facts and arguing for change.”

    You are quite right that you are careful not to talk about anyone being to blame. But that’s not necessarily the message people hear. People are very quick to take complex policy messages and turn them into simple morality lessons in which the finger of blame is pointed at someone. And so when we talk about things, it’s also very important to understand not just what we say and the policy content of it, but what will be heard, and the real world implications of that. And, as members of a small political party, the latter is more likely to be important than the former.

    In the Guardian blog I wrote today, for example, a number of the comments below are basically saying ‘well, the problem is people in poor countries having too many children’. That’s the context we live in, and it’s the most common response I hear to both global environmental problems and to global poverty. If, in that context, you encourage those people, then you are contributing to a process which shifts blame, even if you don’t do so yourself.

    Which, Rachel, I think is an answer to your comment to.

    Also, another little thing. Either you want women to have fewer children, or you want to allow them to choose how many children they have. If you want the former, then can we please stop calling it the latter. As it happens, women do usually choose to have fewer children when given the choice, but if you pre-define the outcome of a choice, it’s not abot rights or empowerment, it’s about telling women what to do in a different way.

    1st August 2013
  6. dancarins said:

    An excellent article that argues based on evidence rather than assumptions.

    I think the Green Party’s problem is that it’s trying to distance itself from being simply an “environmental issues party” and instead to position itself broadly on the left, considering how right-wing Labour is becoming.

    Given that labour mobility is a question of freedom and a way of redressing injustices in international development on the back of decades or centuries of colonialism and imperialism, it’s a left-wing position to defend and promote it.

    This then finds Green Party members who joined the party thinking it’s about saving badgers and promoting organic food at a loss.

    1st September 2013
    • Tom Chance said:

      Thanks for the kind feedback, but I’m not sure how many members joined to save the badgers!

      I do think it would be a huge mistake for the party to try and position itself simply as a broadly left-wing alternative to Labour. We should consider labour mobility in ecological terms. If there really were good reasons to think that uncontrolled migration would cause terrible damage to the rest of the natural world, or to social cohesion, or to some other important goal, then we ought to take that into account. Just putting the aim of “redressing social injustice” on a pedestal above all others makes us little more than a traditional socialist party.

      I think Natalie Bennett, for example, is trying to explain that our ecological position has always included strong policies on issues such as rail renationalisation and migration. I don’t think she, or Caroline Lucas, or any other past principal speakers, were trying to move from “being simply an environmental issues party” (which we never were) to just being “broadly on the left”.

      2nd September 2013
  7. Chris said:

    Hi Tom,

    I wrote the letter in the Guardian which kicked this off and it seems to have been very widely misquoted and misunderstood. My personal main objection to Natalie’s letter was her implication that no one could be concerned about immigration without being part of a “rhetoric” that leads to violent abuse of immigrants. I thought and think this is a false and dangerous link to make. The reality is that, whether you agree with them or not, a large proportion of the public are concerned about immigration for reasonable and decent reasons. Those reasons you might think wrong, but that does mean they are immoral ones, still less racist or xenophobic. I briefly gave the example of the contribution net immigration (I wish people would use that term, “net migration” can mean both net immigration and net emmigration) has on populaton growth, and referred to that as a mathematical fact. It is. This is not a concern over overall global population growth, for the obvious reason that one country’s immigrant is another’s emigrant. But total global populatoin is not the only aspect of population growth that needs addressing. We are a country that grows less than half its own food – and most of that production depends on fossil fuel inputs.. We lose agricultural land to urban development at a rate of about one English county every ten years. We are currently experiencing an annual population rise of 150,000 through net immigration and something similar through natural increase. We aren’t building houses at anything like the rate needed to house that increase, and we already have a huge shortfall in housing, declining housing standards, and inexorable rising housing in costs in real terms. Economic growth can in theory solve these problems, but that is on the never ending economic growth model which the Green Party has always stood against as unsustainable. It is becoming ever more obvious that it is unsustainable. The reality of an ever richer UK, living from its exports of high tech manufactured goods and provision of financial services to the world, by which it pays for its food and raw materials on the world markets looks every day less secure. It is in any case what we have been opposing in the Green Party from our inception. We seek localism, which means populations should be located close to land that produces their staple foods, that populations are in balance with the local food and water resources, and as far as possible with timber and other natural products. We also want to protect access to landscapes, the countryside and nature, for everyone. This is simply impossible if we see this country as a mega-city which can go on growing and spreading over its productive land for ever. We have some of the best food growing land and climate in the world. Good soils, plenty of rain, mild winters and summers free from baking drought. To throw these assets away in favour of concreting over to house, how many million, 70, 80, 100, million people, who will be dependent on imports of food from poorer soils, in drought stressed climates, will in the long run help no one. These are some the problems as I see them. There is also the practical political one. Immigration has become the football of the extremes of politics. Most regretably, the extremes now includes the GP, which has positioned itself on the left extreme on this. These extremes are shouting at each other over the heads of most people. They are not racists, but nor do they want an open doors immigration policy. The bulk of public opinion lies between the extremes, and a long way from either. On this one, we have become as irrelevant to the real national debate as the BNP. Sixty % of the British public now believe that overall recent levels of immigration have made the UK a worse place. Calling them racists, and promoting an open doors immigration policy is not going to make them start voting for us. Hating them for holding an honest opinion isn’t going to help us, them, or anyone. Anyone in the party who cannot recognise that most of these people actually have a point, then I guess they will have already abandoned any idea of succes through the democratic process, so why bother with a political party?

    6th September 2013

Comments are closed.