Do the ‘population doesn’t matter’ arguments stand up to their own evidence?

At the Green Party autumn conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. I wrote about this in a recent blog post, describing the debate between a representative from Population Matters and Sebastian Power from the Green Party. I also mentioned that Sebastian offered during the debate to send references for his claims to anyone who was interested in what he said.

Now that he has sent these around, I wanted to write a third (and hopefully final) blog entry on the population debate. Having followed up his references, I felt I had to write this because so many people in the conference audience and more widely will have heard his arguments and heard his claim that he based them on solid, scientific references. He also made the same arguments in an article for the internal magazine, Green World, and I have heard the same arguments from several other party members.

This post is all the more important now that some members have submitted a proposal to delete the Green Party’s entire policy chapter on population at the spring 2014 conference.

I realise that in writing this blog entry it could seem like an extended personal attack, but I really don’t intend it that way. I want fellow Green Party members to find points of consensus on which we can mobilise to elect Green politicians and engage in other Green political action. I don’t want to dig trenches and see party politics as a protracted internal war of attrition. But in light of the above I feel it is important to publicly air a critical examination of these arguments, and to examine how our own policy on population stands up in relation to the academic literature Sebastian has circulated.

The headlines, for those short of time

For the impatient, the key points that one should draw from the references he circulated are:

  • population is relevant, and stabilising the global population sooner rather than later through policies like family planning and access to contraception could deliver up to one fifth of the greenhouse gas reductions we require
  • there is no simple solution to feeding nine or ten billion people while addressing environmental problems, it will require revolutionary changes in production and consumption around the world, not just in the West
  • the academic and journalist literature mentioned below often point towards exactly the principles and policies found in the Green Party’s population policy chapter

The references

Here is what Sebastian sent us following the debate at conference:

According to a paper in the scientific journal Nature, global population will peak this century at around 10 billion1. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs reckons “even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem”2. According to another paper in Nature we will also be able to sustain 10 billion so long as we change our consumption habits in the West.3Danny Dorling4, Ian Angus and Simon Butler5 and literally hundreds of other authors of peer reviewed journal articles also come to the same conclusion.6

Kuylenstierna believes we need ‘productivity increase, changes in trade and market regimes, climate change adaptation and an increased focus on land and water management issues’7 but does not believe population growth is the fundamental problem, especially considering it will, according to the peer reviewed literature, plateau at around 10 billion.

Monbiot has done a lot of research on population/consumption and I generally agree with his opinion on the matter. Worth reading what he has to say about it.8

1 Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516

2 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects.

3 Foley, J. 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, pp 337–342

4 Population 10 Billion by Danny Dorling



7 Kuylenstierna, J. 2008. Feeding the future world: securing enough food for 10 billion people. Water for Food 

I’d like to cover each in turn, then make a general critique of Sebastian’s portrayal of his research, and then turn to the Green Party’s policy.

1 – Global population will peak this century at around 10 billion

I don’t have any argument with this suggestion, which seems uncontroversial. Population growth is already slowing, and ten billion is within the range that most experts seem to agree on, as you’ll see in some the articles I review below. I will note, though, that the difference between a population of nine, ten or twelve billion (the normal range given by the UN) is very substantial.

2 – Even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem

This argument sounds like a strong reason to ignore population.

Sebastian’s reference didn’t actually contain the quote he gave – that zero population growth would barely touch the climate problem. The report he linked to wasn’t the ‘World Population Prospects’ report he mentions, nor could I find evidence that a 2005 revision of this report was ever published, and the versions of that report I could find make no mention of this debate. But the exact quote can be found in the State of the World Population 2011 report by the United Nations Population Fund. Sebastian is critical of this branch of the UN, pointing out to me in over email that they have been criticised for “dubious assumptions” in some of their population projections. Anyway, as this is the only place I could find that quote I presume it’s his reference, so here’s what it says.

The report states that consumption is the key, but not only, problem. Before it concludes that “zero population growth… would barely touch the climate problem”, the authors cite a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That paper suggested that “slowing population growth could provide 16 per cent to 19 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change”.

So by “barely touch” they mean “only deliver up to one fifth”. It does not say that stabilising population will have no impact on climate change, it says the opposite.

Bear in mind that 16 to 19 per cent of emissions reductions is probably greater than the entire impact of domestic energy efficiency programmes.

3 – We will also be able to sustain 10 billion so long as we change our consumption habits in the West

The paper he refers to sets out a number of challenges to overcome in feeding ten billion people. One of its main sources for problems is some work by the Stockholm Environment Institute, which covers a range of major challenges and quantifies the changes we need to make. I touched on this SEI paper in my second of three blog posts on the subject.

Reading both papers gives you some idea of the challenges we face, and the depth and breadth of changes required to meet them. The authors of the paper suggest that we could “double food production while greatly reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture” by “halting agricultural expansion, closing ‘yield gaps’ on underperforming lands, increasing cropping efficiency, shifting diets and reducing waste”.

I will raise two points on this paper.

First, this is not the same as saying we just need to “change our consumption habits in the West”. This paper lays out massive changes to the entire agricultural system across the globe, with targeted measures in every country depending on particular local issues. In the tropics, they say farmers should stop clearing forests. In many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, they advocate better deployment of existing crop varieties with improved management of water and nutrients. In developing countries, they suggest better storage and transport to stop 40% of post-harvest food being wasted, and in developed countries they pin a similar proportion of wastage on retailers and consumers.

Second, the changes the authors cover, taken as a whole, pose an immense challenge. They describe it as a “revolutionary approach”. I argued in my first population blog post that we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of achieving such big change. Given the importance of grappling with these issues, we can’t afford to hide in utopian politics.

Let me turn to another example for a moment. It may be theoretically possible, as the Committee on Climate Change suggest, for us to meet climate change targets while aviation expands by 60 per cent. But that would require us to reduce emissions elsewhere by 90 per cent. Given the gravity of the situation and the difficulty of achieving those 90 per cent cuts, not to mention that we have reasons to think the Committee is unduly optimistic, most Greens argue that it isn’t worth the risk and we should halt the expansion of aviation.

I would argue that the same could be said of population. Even if it were theoretically possible to tackle climate change, resource depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss, the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and all other environmental problems without aiming to stabilise population sooner rather than later, not trying to do so would make our task much harder. If socially just means of stabilising population sooner rather than later can deliver up to 19 per cent of emissions reductions, they would make our chances of sustainably feeding the world’s population a good deal more realistic.

4 and 5 – The books

I’ve not read these books, and buying them or getting them from the library seemed over the top in writing this blog entry. If what they say particularly contradicts the academic papers I’ve read in writing this blog, I’d be interested to know why.

6 – the hundreds of other peer-reviewed articles

I’m not going to read hundreds more articles on the strength of a recommendation from somebody who has misrepresented the work I have reviewed so far. I just don’t have the time. So I read the first article on that page that I could access without payment just to test the waters, and it made for very interesting reading.

The paper in Science magazine, ‘Food Security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people‘, looks at how we can reconcile this with environmental sustainability. Its content is very similar to the paper in section 3 of this blog.

It looks at closing the yield gaps that often occur

“because of technical constraints that prevent local food producers from increasing productivity or for economic reasons arising from market conditions. For example, farmers may not have access to the technical knowledge and skills required to increase production, the finances required to invest in higher production (e.g., irrigation, fertilizer, machinery, crop-protection products, and soil-conservation measures), or the crop and livestock varieties that maximize yields”.

The authors caution that “we do not yet have good enough metrics of sustainability, a major problem when evaluating alternative strategies and negotiating trade-offs”, suggesting they are far from confident that they have reconciled the problems “at the interface of science, engineering, and economics that urgently need more attention”.

They cover the sovereign wealth funds that are buying up land, funds by the way that are based in countries as diverse as Norway, Libya and China. In my previous blog post I discussed Sebastian’s suggestion that rich, white men in the West are principally to blame for our environmental problems because they consume too much. But those aren’t all countries run by rich, white men in the West.

The authors also mention the pressures arising from the “rapidly increasing demand for meat and dairy products… largely attributable to the increased wealth of consumers everywhere and most recently in countries such as China and India”. Again, are these all the rich, white men we are told to blame?

But it is their conclusion that is particularly important for everyone interested in this debate to reflect on (emphasis added):

There is no simple solution to sustainably feeding 9 billion people, especially as many become increasingly better off and converge on rich-country consumption patterns… Together, these challenges amount to a perfect storm. Navigating the storm will require a revolution in the social and natural sciences concerned with food production”.

It bears repeating: the academic literature should not give us hope that “we will also be able to sustain 10 billion so long as we change our consumption habits in the West”.

7 – Population isn’t the fundamental problem

The chapter in the ‘Water for food‘ booklet that Sebastian refers to is written by Johan Kuylenstierna, the Chief Technical Advisor for UN Water. So far as I can tell, this wasn’t peer reviewed. Sebastian suggested that Kuylenstierna does not think population is “a fundamental problem”.

But this is clearly misleading.

The author repeatedly states that population growth is one of the underlying factors, is a challenge, and cannot be ignored as part of the complex issue. If we understand “fundamental problem” to imply “impossible to solve”, then at best Kuylenstierna leaves us with other factors that might allow us to supply enough water to feed the world even with the projected population growth. But he offers no evidence that we can do this, he only expresses his hope that it might be possible.

He clearly outlines why population growth is a relevant factor that cannot be ignored, one that limits our options, just as ruling out onshore wind farms would limit our ability to generate electricity in a more ecologically sustainable way. 

Here are some quotes that set up the context:

Keeping pace with population growth remains a challenge in many regions

[The current situation] shows the complexity of current problems – how difficult it is to understand what the main drivers are and how they interact

With a population approaching 6.5 billion and still increasing by 90 million each year, the degree of freedom to act is becoming limited, and minor changes can trigger substantive effects.

He states that it is “a responsibility [of] anyone working with global development issues not to believe [that] the same technologies and methods we have developed over the past two centuries will, with some refinements, be enough to cope with future challenges”. It’s one thing to hope this, but he states quite baldly that “improvements have lately not managed to keep pace with the total population growth”. Faith versus fact.

The author also states that our understanding of the impact of climate change on water resources for growing food is limited. He hopes that “if we strengthen capacity to deal with current [climactic] variability, through improved water management and investments in infrastructure and adaptive physical planning, humanity will clearly be better prepared to deal with climate change by 2050.” Of course we will be better prepared, but do we know how to make these changes to an extent that will enable us to feed ten billion in a world that warms by 2°C or 4°C? He doesn’t say.

In an honest paper that repeatedly stresses the complexity of feeding the global population, Kuylenstierna also pays no attention to whether the population could be stabilised sooner rather than later. If, as reference 2 suggests, this could deliver 16 to 19 per cent of the global emissions reductions we require in a socially just way, it’s a critical oversight on the part of Kuylenstierna.

8 – What does George Monbiot say?

Monbiot has written some very strong articles on this subject, and most of Sebastian’s references are also found in Monbiot’s articles from the past four years or so.  Monbiot’s main theme is attacking “post-reproductive wealthy white men” whose “sole purpose” is to raise population as an issue in order to distract from their own impacts, best argued in this article from September 2009.

However, he doesn’t argue the same case that has been made by Sebastian and others in recent party debates. In fact, Monbiot’s argument pretty much reflects the Green Party’s position, as I’ll show in the last section of this blog.

In that article from 2009, he proposes that we adapt “the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT)”. It is wrong, he says, it should be “I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology” because “many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation [and] are the ones who have most children”. But this is really just an adjustment of who we count in “population”, not a rejection that population is relevant at all.

As he wrote in April 2013, “I agreed that population is an element of the problem, but argued that consumption is rising much faster and – unlike the growth in the number of people – is showing no signs of levelling off”.

Following his reading of the report that I covered in section 2, he wrote, in October 2011 that the relatively smaller contribution made to climate change and other environmental problems by population stabilisation should make it the junior partner in this debate. His concern is with the wealthy and powerful trying to use population as a distraction to avoid policies that address their own impacts, not with it being raised at all. In his 2011 article he saysthis should not prevent us from strongly supporting the policies which will cause population to peak sooner rather than later. Sex education, the report shows, is crucial, so is access to contraception and the recognition of women’s rights and improvement in their social status. All these have been important factors in the demographic transition the world has seen so far.”

In his 2013 article, he points out that wealthy people commonly emphasise things like “recycling and population” in order “not to see the clash between protecting the environment and rising consumption”. They are probably raising a red herrings – a kind of informal fallacy where one attempts to change the topic of debate to save one’s skin. It can also be less conscious. I have often come across the sort of people who mention recycling and their veg box while leaning on their 4×4 about to go on their third foreign holiday of the year. Their hypocrisy (or inconsistency) doesn’t make veg boxes or recycling wrong or pointless. In the same vein, hypocrites emphasising recycling and population doesn’t logically make those issues wrong or irrelevant.

A more general comment on “peer-reviewed science”

Credit for this point really goes to Andy Chyba from Bridgend Green Party. Sebastian made much of his references to peer reviewed science during the debate at the Green Party conference. In a later email he tried to suggest an equivalence between his reading of the literature and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s work on climate science. This shows a confusion on two points.

First, the IPCC’s fifth assessment report involved more than 250 scientists from 39 countries examining more than 9,000 scientific papers and nearly 55,000 comments on their work. It was an immense and unparalleled exercise in peer review, and to compare the level of consensus on population to that of the IPCC undermines the latter’s significance.

Second, there is a difference between empirical science based on observational data, and the academic work Sebastian refers to about possible future scenarios based on loaded and imprecise assumptions. Yes, the work has been peer-reviewed so we can assume it is of a high quality and credible. But it doesn’t make the work correct, nor as certain as science based on the observation of phenomena confirmed by subsequent tests. It also doesn’t mean all of these revolutionary changes are feasible or likely.

I have had work published in a peer-reviewed journal on BedZED, the eco village where we found that the usual strategies to reduce consumption still left working class tenants with unsustainable carbon and ecological footprints (‘Towards sustainable residential communities; the Beddington Zero energy development (BedZed) and beyond.’ Environment and Urbanisation 21: 527 – 544, 2009). I mentioned this in my first blog to argue that achieving sustainability is much more difficult than many make out. I would like to think it is credible work of a high quality, but it is in no way comparable to that of the IPCC, nor is it ‘scientific’ and so beyond reproach.

I would hope we would make much more use of peer reviewed academic literature, along with other means of getting at the truth such as randomised controlled trials of policies. But we shouldn’t confuse respect for scientific evidence with scientism – the attempt to displace political ideologies by slavishly following current scientific research programmes. It might be great science, but it might ask all the wrong questions, or be chasing the wrong objectives. Ironically, it seems that Sebastian got the science dead wrong in order to arrive at the answers he wants to suit his ideological position.

What does the Green Party’s population policy say?

I wanted to cover the population issue in so much detail because some members of the party want to change or delete the population chapter in our Policies for a Sustainable Society.

So what does it actually say, and how does it stand up in relation to these various academic papers?

Our population policy:

  • is based “on the principles of ecological sustainability, equity and justice”
  • sets out some of the general reasons why it should be “explicitly considered”
  • protects individual liberty, for example it “holds that the number of children people have should be a matter of free choice”
  • reaffirms our “liberal migration policy” that should achieve “greater global justice and equality” and rules out restricting migration on grounds of “social, economic and environmental pressures” that might arise
  • notes that the UK’s consumption is unsustainable, which is also detrimental to the global south, and reaffirms our commitment to deal with our own problems and support poorer countries to develop their own economies

The chapter therefore sets population up as the junior partner to other related issues of ecology and social justice. This is exactly what you would do if you were basing your policy on the academic papers I have reviewed in this blog, and on the views of journalists like George Monbiot.

The chapter then proposes twelve long, medium and short term objectives (which should be read in light of the hundreds of policies in other areas that address the UK’s over-consumption). These cover the familiar points about ensuring access to family planning services and sex education. These objectives also, again, affirm the importance of tackling consumption in the developed world, affirm the need for socially just migration policy, and rule out setting population targets.

The party’s sole objective is definitely not to distract from consumption but rather, as Monbiot advocates, to strongly support policies which will cause population to peak sooner rather than later in a humane, liberal and socially just way. I would hope that any Green Party member interested in the evidence would support our policy.

Endnote – many thanks to my friend Ed Jones for his help reviewing this post, helping me to write more clearly and be more rigorous in my research, as he has done a number of other times.

What is the population question?

The population debate rumbles on. David Attenborough crashed back into the debate with a pretty crass set of remarks about not sending food aid to places struck by famine, earning lots of impassioned responses. The activist-comedian Robert Newman wrote an interesting piece pointing out that population growth is tailing off so claiming it really isn’t the issue, and so it continues, round and around.

At the Green Party autumn conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. We heard from a speaker from Population Matters, who argued that our impact on the rest of nature is a function of our population, our affluence (and inequality) and our technology. I explored this “IPAT” formula a bit in my previous blog entry. Then Sebastian Power made more or less the same case as Newman – that we suffer from (in his words) “rich white men” consuming too much, not too many people. He suggested that talk of population is really a way of blaming poor, black women from the global south for problems created by rich white men from the global north, and that we should ignore population. Sebastian offered to send references for his claims, which I asked him for after the panel, but I’m waiting for him to reply so I won’t get into his arguments. But I do want to reflect on the way in which he and the speaker from Population Matters seemed to talk at cross purposes.

The problem is, what question are we discussing when we talk about population? I think Power, Newman and others look back and make it a question of blame, but I want to look to the future.

Is population growth to blame for our environmental problems?

This is an interesting area for discussion. It is pretty obvious that poor, black women in the global south aren’t to blame for climate change. I think Newman is right to argue that, to date, “the problem facing a population of 7 billion is not too many people crowding too small a piece of land, but too few people owning too much world.”

It’s a bit of a simplification – there are plenty of examples of materially poorer civilisations collapsing, and of poorer societies today harming their natural environment. But of course to make it less of a simplification, we have to talk about technology and affluence (and inequality), as per the IPAT formula, to explore whether it’s possible that better technology and a better economy and political system could avoid these problems, making population an irrelevance.

Who is then to blame is a further interesting question. Are we Brits all to blame for our excessive consumerism, or is our ethical agency diminished by marketing and social psychology that makes it difficult for us to resist? This is a big question that would require a lengthy tangent into ethics, psychology, sociology and political theory. Suffice to say, it isn’t so simple as saying that we automatically blame people when we consider their environmental impacts to be relevant.

That said, there is another question.

Can the earth support ten billion moderately wealthy people?

This is the question I explored in depth in my previous blog entry, and which I want to return to.  I’m not interested in blame. I want to look to the future and consider whether the better world I aspire to is possible. It might be possible, with current technology, for seven billion people to live within the earth’s limits if we all converged on the average global income, and the quality of life that implies. But that’s a pretty low income! If the world were really equitable, if everybody had a similar and decent quality of life, could the earth sustain ten billion of us, or indeed seven billion?

To answer this question, we need to look at our best technology, our most radical politics, our most successful behaviour change policies, and ask whether they can meet the challenges we face. In my previous blog post I looked at whether they could:

  • reduce our greenhouse gas emissions very radically in a very short space of time, such that ten billion people could attain a decent standard of living
  • reduce our overall resource consumption to a “one planet” level, when almost no developed country is anywhere near that level, even the widely admired greener countries like Sweden

I concluded that a very large population makes both tasks a good deal harder. Stephen Emmott, in his very readable but flawed book 10 billion, takes this to the conclusion that “we’re fucked”, largely because he is pessimistic about the likelihood of the right behaviour change policies ever being enacted by democratic governments, and because he sees no problem-free saviour technologies. The flaws lie in his exaggerated use of statistics, but it is still worth a read because of the range of real problems he covers and his analysis of our chances of tackling them. Newman laughs at Emmott’s “we’re fucked” conclusion in his article, but offers no rebuttal.

There are many complicated aspects to the question of whether the earth can support ten billion moderately wealthy people. We most often hear about climate change, and the bold assertion that with the right technology and politics everything will be fine. I want to briefly look at just two wider aspects – feeding ourselves, and our consumerism – to illustrate how much more complicated it is.

Feeding ten billion

One absolutely massive challenge is feeding the world. Very often, I see people point out that we already produce enough food to feed everyone, that the problem is the unfair distribution. Too much is wasted by rich people, too much land is used to produce feedstock for cattle to give rich people burgers, too much land is used to produce biofuels and luxury crops, all while too many poor people go hungry.

That’s probably all correct to a point, but it ignores all the problems this “adequate” farming system has created and that would continue if we were to move to a more equitable system of agriculture.

Half of the world’s tropical rainforests are gone, often cleared to provide agricultural land. Large areas of grassland previously home to wildlife, from our wildflower meadows in Britain to wide open prairies in the USA, are now chemical-soaked monocultures for agriculture. Can we reverse the massive loss of biodiversity, both globally (e.g. the 30 per cent decline in biodiversity in the last forty years), and nationally (e.g. in the UK the 60 per cent of species that have declined despite all our conservation efforts) while feeding the world?

To take one example, it might be possible to stop a lot of deforestation if we massively reduced our meat consumption, possibly by getting everyone to go vegetarian. But is that even remotely likely to happen on a large scae in the next few decades?

Work by the Stockholm Environment Institute offers more problems for feeding ourselves. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society quantified nine major ecological challenges we face, including those I have already touched on. While feeding ten billion with a good diet, the paper suggests we would also have to:

  • reduce the amount of nitrogen we fix in the soils for agriculture by about two thirds, bearing in mind that artificial means of fixing nitrogen were among the key innovations in the “green revolutions” that enabled us to feed so many people
  • no more than double our freshwater usage while expanding irrigation for agriculture, both to grow food crops and others like cotton for clothing

These are global perspectives. There are also more local issues, for example in water stressed regions like south east England we are already beyond the point of sustainable water use, and it is difficult to accommodate the growing population even with technological and behaviour changes.

With all of these challenges, population becomes an important factor. Ten billion people means twice as great a challenge as five billion. Can we feed five or ten billion people sustainably – addressing all of those concerns – even if we have a more equal world, with less food waste and damaging biofuels? I’m not sure, but I think people who want to say “population doesn’t matter” need to answer these questions.

Keeping ten billion people comfortable

The more you look at the impacts of our civilisation, the harder this all becomes.

Take mobile phones, computers, TVs and cars. Just mining the tin for current demand has devastating social and environmental consequences. Friends of the Earth are pragmatically calling for better practice, but are we likely to persuade five or ten billion people to move away from a disposable, consumerist culture?

Even if we did, providing ten billion people with durable mobile phones will necessarily mean twice the amount of tin mining as for five billion. Then there are all the other components, with all the other raw materials.

As I wrote at the start, considering the environmental consequences of the global poor becoming consumers doesn’t mean we blame them, nor that we blame them more than ourselves, or those in positions of political and economic power.

The difference between realism and utopia

Underlying many of these questions is a tension between the utopian vision – what is possible in theory if we transform behaviour, economics, politics and technology at every level – and what we might learn from the past few decades of intransigence and environmental damage.

Maybe it is theoretically possible to address all our problems, but is that likely to happen? What do we think is likely to happen in the next few decades, and how do we best shape our future and adapt to it starting with the current reality? How can we continue to give hope that a utopia is possible, while fighting for realistic steps towards it and accommodating our vision within the democratic process? Unless you are a person of rigid principle, unwilling to engage in democratic politics, can we ignore population when considering those questions?

So what?

Those questions bring me to the most compelling argument against the “let’s talk about population” position that I heard in the panel at the Green Party conference. It was, essentially, “so what?” What policies can we enact that will really change this?

A population of seven billion is locked in. Even if you take out net immigration, the population of the UK is still growing in spite of some of the best family planning services in the world. The ONS found in the 2011 census that natural change accounted for 44 per cent of our population growth. Making it harder for people to drive their car while improving public transport is one thing, but trying to stop them having a child is quite different.

At this point I stray into areas where I lack the expertise and professional experience that I feel I have brought to the discussion so far. I suspect there are ways we could improve family planning and sex education in the UK, for example, but it’s not an area I know a great deal about. So I don’t have a strong answer to the “so what?” question,

What I am convinced of is that population is relevant, as well as affluence, inequality and technology. It is wrong to close down consideration of population.

You know, people aren’t stupid. Most of the arguments I have gone through in this blog entry are pretty intuitive and widely understood. Declaring that population is simply irrelevant makes you look like you have buried your head in the sand to protect an ideological position, unmoved by facts.

It would be much better to acknowledge that population is part of the equation, and to then explore the best responses to our problems that we can press for in a democratic society and that, we hope, reflect our values of ecology and equality.

On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!


One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

Ignoring the carbon deficit

Here’s another message I have sent to the Today programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4. For readers unfamiliar with the programme, it is the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs programme. But the substance of this message is an all-too-frequent problem with their coverage.

Unlike my last complaint, I just sent this one in as feedback. I didn’t feel it merited a formal complaint. If I get a reply I will post it below, as before.

Regarding the item on npower’s report on energy prices, I was disappointed that the questioning seemed to ignore or underplay the urgency of decarbonising our energy supply.

You rarely question the assumption that we must close the fiscal deficit, which is an economic construct and a subject much debated by economists. Yet you are happy to entertain the idea of ignoring our carbon deficit, which is a scientific fact beyond debate with 97% of scientific papers agreeing on it.

Just as you challenge Labour politicians to explain how they would balance the fiscal books, you should be challenging Conservative politicians and energy companies to explain how their policies will reduce carbon emissions in line with the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

Why isn’t the Green Deal delivering the energy demand reductions we need to meet climate change targets and offset bill rises? Why do we still have such poorly insulated homes? What is the cost to business of inefficient buildings? What is npower doing to drive down the costs of new energy infrastructure?

Instead, the questioning led on whether we should drop low carbon policies.

Just imagine if you led with Osborne on whether he should ignore the fiscal deficit, instead of debating how best to close it – growth or cuts!

Fingers crossed!

My complaint to the BBC

The BBC broadcast a report today by Roger Harrabin entitled “has global warming stalled?“. You can follow the link to listen to the piece. I don’t often submit formal complaints, but I think the framing of the issue is so important that I submitted the following to the BBC complaints department.

I have two specific complaints in relation to your Today programme piece on climate science broadcast on the 17th May. The first is that the report used misleading language about recent developments in the science. My second complaint is that the report gave undue attention to a marginal opinion. Roger Harrabin’s report contained some interesting interviews, but the presentation was entirely misleading.

On my first, I believe it is misleading to suggest that the scientific establishment agrees that “global warming appears to have stalled” as he did in the opening segment.

The media, including Radio 4, covered a Met Office announcement in January by suggesting it showed global warming had stopped. The report was so misleading that the Met Office had to issue a statement.

The short-term fluctuations in the background temperature trend are well known, though as your report pointed out they are not yet fully understand. Carbon Brief produced a very useful summary of these issues back in January.

There are some scientists who have an optimistic view of future warming, believing it could still remain at 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. There are others who believe we are heading towards at least 4 degrees of warming. This uncertainty has been a feature of the scientific debate ever since the IPCC was set-up.

If Roger Harrabin is able to point to evidence of a growing consensus among scientists that global warming has stalled, I would be very interested to read it!

Second, in the BBC Trust’s 2010 review of impartiality and accuracy in scientific reporting, Professor Steve Jones made clear that the BBC was at times applying an “over-rigid” application of the editorial guidelines on impartiality, and giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”. The guidelines were revised around the same time to ensure that the BBC gives “due weight” in relation to impartiality.

A recent study found that 97% out of nearly 12,000 scientific papers agreed with the consensus position of anthropogenic global warming. This reinforced several other studies conducted in the past decade, which found a similar level of agreement.

So I believe that in this item you have given undue attention to an exceptionally marginal opinion of a poorly qualified blogger.

A more balanced and credible piece would have interviewed several scientists and climate policy experts about the implications of tipping over 400 ppm CO2, with a note of caution that, as in all complicated areas, nobody can be quite certain where in the range we will end up.

I won’t hold my breath. Carbon Brief have produced a much more sympathetic write-up of the piece on their blog. I agree that most of the segment was interesting and quite clear, but Harrabin’s opening suggestion – that scientists are now agreeing with sceptics that global warming has stalled – was a grievous misrepresentation.

Update – their response

I received the following response from the BBC:

Thanks for your contact regarding ‘Today’ broadcast on 17 May on BBC Radio 4.

I understand that you felt an item on the above edition of the programme was biased in favour of climate sceptics.

Whilst I appreciate your concerns, it’s firstly worth noting that Roger Harrabin’s report was simply one of many in relation to this topic. In addressing any wide ranging issue such as this, balance cannot be judged simply on the basis of individual reports, and consideration must be given to our overall reporting.

Indeed, the issue of climate change has been covered on numerous recent occasions by the BBC, for example:

Please be assured that we are committed to impartial coverage when it comes to this issue. That said, we don’t ignore the fact that there is broad scientific agreement on the issue of climate change and we reflect this accordingly; however, we do aim to ensure that we also offer time to the dissenting voices.

Nevertheless, please be assured that I’ve registered your comments regarding this issue to our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback made available throughout the BBC, including to programme producers, as well as members of senior management.

The audience logs help to shape future decisions regarding BBC programming and output.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

I’m not really satisfied with the BBC basically saying “I’m not going to respond to your complaint about that specific programme because, look, we have all this other coverage too”. I’ll give a reply some thought… any suggestions gratefully received.

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Evidence

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s interesting programme on evidence-based policy making went out yesterday evening. Like so much of his work, I found myself alternately agreeing vigorously and disagreeing in exasperation. The trouble is not what he does say, but what he doesn’t.

His central argument is a familiar one.

In medicine, scientists determine what works using randomised controlled trials. Give one set of patients a pill, give another set a placebo, and see what difference the pill makes. Do this lots of times, trying to control for confounding variables (like the participants’ lifestyles) and if possible make it “double blind” by ensuring neither the participants nor the researchers conducting the test know which group anyone is in.

This method gives us a high degree of certainty that some pills work while others don’t, or do so less well. It is far superior to simply acting on a hunch, monitoring a particular outcome and then assuming it was a result of your pill, without checking whether it might have been some other variable you haven’t considered and controlled.

So why can’t this method be applied to public policy? Why do we subject children to educational methods, the unemployed to work programmes, and criminals to rehabilitation methods that lack this rigorous evidence?

It’s a good question, and I completely agree with him that it would be good to do this more to weed out the “bad evidence” that informs so many policies. I’ve been supporting Jenny Jones in her scrutiny of the Mayor of London’s mandatory work experience pilot, which seems bedevilled by bad evidence, never mind whether it might be wasting the time of young people suffering in a very difficult jobs market and now feeling punished for it.

I felt sufficiently strongly about our approach to policy making to include several proposals in the Green Party’s manifesto for the 2012 London Mayoral and Assembly elections (PDF).

But there is also a danger that evidence arrived at through rigorous research could become “bad evidence” if it were applied technocratically.

For what Goldacre’s radio programme ignored, inexplicably, is the normative element of policy. He talked about “outcomes”, but how do we define a good outcome? It might seem obvious – stop a criminal reoffending, get a young person back into work. But it isn’t that simple.

It might be the case that one particular approach to criminal justice is more effective than another, but it might be considered unjust. What if we found that all forms of punishment led to higher reoffending rates? Should we drop our long-held belief in the moral right of punishment in favour of better “outcomes”? This is a normative, moral question – short of brushing it aside we cannot ignore the role of normative considerations.

Both the present and previous governments went for “workfare” schemes where unemployed people lose their benefits if they refuse to take up work placements. One of the supposed outcomes of this policy is that more people get work as a result. My reading  of the evidence for these suggests they don’t. But proponents also make a normative claim that it is right to make people work for their benefits, especially if they haven’t worked for a long time, if at all. On the other side, some (myself included) think that a compassionate and wealthy society such as ours can extend a universal right to a basic standard of living and shouldn’t impose conditions on those basic benefits.

Goldacre didn’t say that evidence should trump political philosophy. But the two can often get confused in political debate. Politicians can lose the courage of their convictions and feel compelled to assert that evidence supports their case, when they began sure only of their convictions. Opposition can often feel that a policy must be “wrong” because the evidence shows it doesn’t achieve the outcome they would think right, perhaps ignoring the different view of a “right outcome” held by the Government.

It isn’t sufficient to consider these points in isolation – to, on the one hand, ascertain the evidence about the outcomes of a particular policy, and on the other to have one’s normative beliefs entirely in parallel, and to then attempt to reconcile (or more likely confuse) them in the murky world of political debate. Normative and empirical considerations must inform each other.

Another very interesting series on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg’s examination of “the value of culture“, included a very good programme today on the old “two cultures” debate most famously expressed by C. P. Snow. He was concerned in the 1950s that artists weren’t assimilating the advances of science, and vice versa, to the detriment of both, and to the point where both “parallel cultures” viewed each other with suspicion. Instead of seeking to bridge the gap through understanding and engagement, they preached at each other. Goldacre’s programme  would have been much improved if he had engaged with both the empirical and the normative.

Rothamsted: things I’ve learned, things I want to know

In the days since I wrote my first blog post on the Rothamsted GM wheat controversy I’ve spent more time reading up on GM than in the past nine years. It’s been a tortuous few days for me. As a big fan of the Bad Science movement who was loosely involved with improving the Green Party’s science policy; as the author of the 2012 London manifesto on which Jenny Jones and others stood, and somebody who has put a lot of my life in the last four years into helping her achieve great things on the London Assembly and Southwark Council; and as somebody who slightly sits on the fence on the GM debate; I’ve found myself agreeing with all quarters.

On the eve of the protest I thought I’d put down a few more thoughts following the debate.

There is a lot of nonsense from all quarters (but it’s not the end of the world)

The Sense About Science petition really took off because Take The Flour Back appeared to carry a number of misleading or false scientific statements on their web site. For example, wheat isn’t wind pollinated, as they claim. It looked like an open and shut case of Bad Science, one that many anti-GM campaigners remain unwilling to accept or engage with.

Robert Wilson sent me a particularly egregious case of mendacious attacks on GM. This report, signed by major environmental organisations and hosted by Friends of the Earth, makes repeated mention of the tragic suicide rate amongst Indian farmers and the adoption, post 2001, of GM crops. Yet when the report was published in October 2011 there appears to be plenty of research showing that hypothesis has been debunked. It’s slapdash at best, irresponsible and appallingly disrespectful at worst, to repeat this theory if it is false, and is typical of the approach that too many anti-GM campaigners seem to take.

But then the Rothamsted researchers, ably assisted by a remarkable online campaign from Sense About Science, went too far in debunking that claim. One of their researchers (I think it was Prof. John Pickett) went onto BBC news to say there was “zero” risk of contamination. This contradicts his statement to the Telegraph that it is possible but unlikely. Their claim that wheat is only “1% self-pollinating” also looks suspect when you consider that this EU-funded public information web site states the risk is up to 9.7% depending on climate and the type of what. The researchers have certainly put in place safeguards. But perhaps any risk is too great?

Too often campaigners on any issue can be their own worst enemy.

The “pro science” tweeters have also been willfully naive and amazingly one-sided on a number of issues…


Tom Chivers of the Telegraph quoted Prof. Pickett verbatim on the risk of contamination without once asking whether he is telling the full story. Tweeters haven’t stopped for breath to examine the protestors’ concerns about a 1% chance of contamination, or their claims that it has happened elsewhere. Their “safeguard” of crops planted around the site which they’ll destroy is only 20m wide.

You don’t have to dig very far to find cases of contamination where risks were downplayed (example one, two, three) and with very serious consequences for farmers whose livelihoods were threatened.

Maybe this small chance really is too big a risk to take? I’ve not reached a firm conclusion on this, but too much of the unhesitating support given to one group of scientists never really engaged with this question.


They have also failed to engage critically with the issue of patents. Yes, the researchers say this stage of research will be openly published patent-free. But in Farmers Weekly Prof. Pickett is quoted as saying that “companies are very interested and they are keeping a watching brief as they always do in all research”, that “this is of global, great significance and it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business”. Rothamsted are in the business of licensing patents.

My objections to biopatents are so strong that I do not see the value to humanity of any scientific research that is likely to be applied in the field in the form of patent-encumbered crops controlled by multinational corporations. I am always happy for scientists to do their thing, to probe questions of interest to them without reference to anyone else. But until we can invalidate patents on plants I would not give a penny of public money to research that is clearly leading to a commercial patent-encumbered product.

The silver bullet

There is a tendency among some people who care about science to believe technology is a silver bullet. Any cursory study of the history of technology will quickly unearth a more complicated picture. Just as anti-GM campaigners can overstep evidence when they suggest there is absolutely no need for GM anywhere, so it is daft to think GM is a silver bullet and essential to our future food security.

GreenFacts have an official summary of a major 2008 World Bank study, in which over 400 experts looked at options to secure our future food supplies. The full study was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. It’s a very good place to start if you want to understand the place of GM.

They concluded should be part of the solution. But they also think that dealing with problems with patents, land ownership and many other issues need to be part of the picture.

Sense About Science

I feel I should withdraw my public statement of respect for Sense About Science. I have seen them do some good work in the past on libel reform, debunking the rubbish celebrities come out with about homeopathy, and so on. But the way in which they swiftly launched this campaign on behalf of the research project did seem a bit suspect.

I was pointed to this LobbyWatch page on their background and some startling allegations made in The Ecologist. It’s difficult to make sense of this, and to pick out slander from truth, but it is clear that they launched head first into a highly biased campaign without bothering to explore the science or the wider issues. Instead they just gave a platform to the scientists involved in the research project.

It’s a shame that the material posted on their web site has been accepted at face value by many who are highly critical of materials posted by the protestors.


One of the most depressing charges made against the Green Party is as follows: Jenny Jones, a prominent Green politician, is going to a demonstration that will attempt to damage a scientific research project. Therefore the Green Party is anti-science.

This is just simplistic nonsense. If you are really against all forms of non-violent direction action that involve damage to property; if you really think allegedly dangerous or unethical scientific research should be able to proceed without any interference from politicians or the public; then you may think Jenny are “anti-science” in a limited sense.

But Jenny hasn’t gone around destroying the many other GM research projects in the UK. The Green Party is fine with research, but in the case of this particular open air trial Jenny – and many others – think they have reasonable evidence that it is unsafe and so think it better to stop it going ahead than to sit back and wait to see if the disaster of contamination takes place.

Another possible charge is that in reprinting scientifically inaccurate statements, the party is anti-science. But that’s equally daft. It just shows the party hasn’t got sufficient processes to weed out these statements, and perhaps subscribes to some ideas that it needs to drop. Being wrong about the science doesn’t equate to being anti-science.

The Green Party, like any loose association of likeminded people, is bound to accommodate a wide variety of views. When journalists dug up scientifically inaccurate material in our policy documents a few years ago, we took steps to address that. No doubt this recent debate will reverberate through conferences and policy discussions for the next year or two. Like all political parties with strong principles and beliefs that overlap with areas of scientific controversy, we have a complicated relationship with scientific evidence. That isn’t going to change, not for us or any other political party.

Twitter is a blessing and a curse

There is no way the pro-Rothamsted campaign would have taken off without blogs and Twitter. It was quite startling to watch. It’s a fantastic thing that a niche group of people can mobilise and gain the attention of politicians, mainstream media and their targets online. Cyclists have fully mastered this in recent years, and scientists aren’t far behind (though in their aggressive and shouty tactics many scientists are managing to achieve very little if they want to persuade people of their case).

But just as tweeters dug up and circulated interesting evidence, so allegations and misleading representations swirled around at lightning speed. Reasoned debate became almost completely impossible as the numbers of pro-Rothamsted tweeters overwhelmed the few who joined Jenny in trying to defend the protest.

Sometimes there’s no substitute for a slower, more calm debate.

Two questions I have

In all my reading and debate, two remaining questions are going round and round in my mind:

1. Why can’t GM researchers adopt a kind of “copyleft for patents”?

Dan Olner and Susannah Bird penned a very interesting open letter on the patent issue making exactly the comparison I had in mind. In the world of software, programmers who didn’t like the way that corporations were shutting people out from sharing and modifying their software created a parallel universe. They wrote copyright licenses that said “you can do what you want with this so long as you share any derived versions under the same terms”.

Richard Stallman, the original author of such a license, is a bit of a hero of mine. I’ve exclusively used free software shared under these “copyleft” terms for over ten years.

Maybe GM researchers could try a similar trick? Rather than publishing research without patents, leaving corporations to snap it up for their own nefarious ends, how about patenting your work and releasing it under a copyleft license? This would enable fellow scientists, farmers and others to freely use the work, and it would force corporations to play under the same public good terms if they wanted to use it.

2. Can anyone resolve the contamination issue?

My problem here is again my lack of expertise and background knowledge. There are many cases of GM crop contamination from around the world. Some were clearly irrelevant to this case, for example I came across a case where a farmer failed to remove GM crops before planting a new crop in the same field. Others may be irrelevant, for example the cases of rice contamination may hinge on a biological trait that wheat doesn’t share. But maybe some of the cases are relevant, and it is possible that this GM wheat trial could contaminate nearby fields.

Oh, great lazyweb, help me out?

In conclusion

I could go on, but it’s sunny outside and I don’t want this story to swallow up my weekend.

As Sunny Hundal wrote on The Guardian web site,

Every political party has to weigh up a range of interests that sometimes conflict with each other… The challenge for scientists isn’t to merely focus on what the evidence says. It is also to convince the public that their suggested course of action is the right one, even when the public is sceptical for perfectly valid reasons.

It’s fantastic that the protest has stirred up so much debate. I only hope that everyone who took an interest really takes the time to consider all the arguments before slamming politicians as “disgusting”, tearing up their party membership in outrage, writing all GM scientists off as corporate stooges or thinking campaigners are always the good guys.

The Rothamsted Wheat Trial (should Greens trash it?)

Genetically modified food is one of those subjects that’s not known for reasoned debate. The public and anti-campaigners are often spooked by the Frankenstein weirdness of splicing genes without really understanding the science. Scientists and proponents are often convinced of the science while hastily dismissing wider social, economic and environmental considerations.

As policy officer for the London region and author of our recent London elections manifesto it’s not a topic that I often cross paths with.

I’ve a personal interest as I spoke against GM at one of the national debate events organised in 2003. I was an undergraduate student at the time, and spoke at my university – Reading – against some eminent scientists. I’m pretty sure 99% of the science I drew on in my argument was probably junk. I remain persuaded by many of the wider arguments I deployed, but like too many campaigners I cobbled together a bunk of “science” I didn’t really understand to try and back up my point. I’m embarrassed thinking what the audience must have made of me!

The Rothamsted Wheat Trial has stirred my memory of this issue, as a group of anti-GM activists called Take the Flour Back are planning to trash (or “decontaminate”) this scientific research project.

It has also given me another personal interest, because Jenny Jones is going to join them. I greatly admire Jenny and have worked with her for years in the Green Party, both in my job and as an activist. She has taken lots of flak on Twitter from scientists and scientifically-minded people for joining in direct action to damage a scientific experiment.

So what should I think? This is my take as somebody who is very far from being an expert on the issue, in the hope that it might help fellow Greens in forming an opinion.

The experiment

What do I, somebody who never advanced past GCSE biology (with some A-Level maths and physics), know about GM research projects? Thankfully Sense About Science have done a great job in pulling together some analysis of the science, albeit with quite an obvious agenda.

The campaign group’s main worry appears to be that the plants will contaminate nearby fields. Their web site claims that “Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports.”

But Sense About Science got the scientists involved to answer lots of questions on this issue. The campaigners’ claim appears to be junk, though it’s interesting to note that the scientists don’t say they can guarantee no seeds will be carried away by birds, nor that no wheat at all will cross-pollinate (they leave open a 1% chance, which in a field of wheat may not be negligible). So a claim by one scientists on today’s lunchtime news that there is “zero chance” of contamination is clearly wrong.

[Update: a colleague also sent me this page on an EU-funded public information web site, which suggests that – depending on the wheat’s genotype and the local climate – the chance of cross-pollination could be anywhere between 1-9.7%, suggesting some of the scientists are misleading the public when they so categorically deny the chance of contamination.]

Another point is that the campaigners would presumably struggle to contain any risk of contamination from a bunch of untrained activists turning up to trash the crop, potentially carrying seeds and other plant material out from the trial area.

Green Party policy

Far from being anti-science, as some seem to think, the Green Party’s policy on science has really been quite strong for a number of years. Junk like homeopathy was excised a number of years ago, while in areas like climate change and drugs we have long been the only party to take an evidence-based approach.

On GM the policy is fairly sound. It says:

  • We accept that certain uses of genetic engineering may be benign, but are concerned about the level of research to quantify risks and about the level of corporate control over farmers and health services which this research generally feeds into;
  • We’re in favour of research going ahead;
  • The precautionary principle should be applied – basically that in the absence of consensus the burden of proof for showing it won’t be harmful falls on the researchers; without sufficient proof, nothing goes ahead because the suspected risk outweighs the suspected benefit;
  • Some points on animal welfare not relevant to wheat trials.

So the Green Party should be supporting this research project so long as the researchers can prove that the possible harms have been properly controlled.

The wider issues

Sense About Science also asked the scientists to respond to people’s wider concerns about commercialisation. The scientists also raised this at the end of the page about cross-pollination. Here, to my mind, the weaker arguments start to creep in. For example,

Question: What is the widest held misconception about GM research?

Answer: That it’s somehow all controlled by big multinational companies. Most GM research is done in universities or by independent institutes”

The thing is, while it’s important to defend the scientific method as a means of testing and falsifying hypotheses, or as a way of rigorously working through research programmes, or impartially developing a current scientific paradigm (take your pick), the scientists in the Q&A seem to take a wilfully naive view of commercial interests. Going back to my debate at Reading, their department was sponsored by Syngenta, as was Cambridge in the UK and Berkeley in the USA. Many academic scientists have patents themselves, have spun out their own companies and work closely with large agricorp like Monsanto and Syngenta.

Too often these links seem to close some scientists’ minds to the possibility that these companies might be psychopathic in their pathology, as Joel Bakan has convincingly argued (read the book). Research may not be controlled by multinational corporations, but it is definitely influenced in a way familiar to philosophers and sociologists of science who have long been aware of the bias and influence that can creep into the very human world of scientific research.

Or take this answer:

Question: Presumably GM crops will become commercially owned and create shareholder profits. What about the ethics of patenting life?

Answer: The seeds business is commercial; seed companies that are not go out of business. The patents apply not to “life” but to genes that have been discovered or changed to do something useful, or at least, something that farmers find helpful. Such genes include those for insect resistance, drought tolerance and those that facilitate weed control by herbicides.

Here the scientist totally falls to engage with the question, passing no comment on the ethics at all.

There is huge opposition to agricorp influence, particularly in the developing world (here’s one example) where patents and monocultures and driving poverty, inequality and food insecurity.

When I spoke at the national debate this was my main focus – until biopatents are made invalid by the World Intellectual Property Organisation and all signatory nations (which is Green Party policy); until farmers and governments are able to control their own agriculture free of multinational corporations; until the many other arms of corporate control are shackled, freeing peasant farmers and national governments to control their own policy agenda; and until research is primarily conducted in universities and research institutes free of any commercial influence; I will oppose the commercial applications of GM research.

Scientists can’t dodge these issues, and while scientific research is in no way to blame it would be better to see advocates of GM research engage with these concerns. It’s great that Sense About Science did, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the scientists’ responses.

Summing up

It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it is morally right to engage in direct action to damage the research project. I’ve engaged in plenty of direct action myself and have no problem with people committing criminal damage so long as it is non-violent, they are prepared to face the legal consequences and have a genuine political or ethical reason for doing so.

Personally, subject to the contamination issues being cleared up I don’t think the action is justified. I’m not 100% convinced by the scientists’ responses to the contamination concerns, but it seems to me that if we cannot allow this research to go ahead then we really are adopting an anti-science position.

I remain a supporter of the European ban on the sale of GM foods for the reasons I gave above, but I am also a supporter of scientific research.

Don’t be such a scientist

It’s unhappily easy for our earnest efforts to fall on deaf ears, especially if (like me) you’re a bit of an egg-head. It would be lovely if people listened attentively to our reasoned arguments, but any academic psychologist could tell you it ain’t so.

The Bad Science movement has roundly bashed the media for dangerously misrepresenting science. Ben Goldacre angrily lays blame at the feet of humanities graduates (like me?) who write and make editorial decisions about scientific subjects without any understanding of the subject or even getting the basics of the scientific method. Just recently we have seen climate scientists have their names dragged through the mud by, er, journalists and editors who obviously don’t realise how much of a non-scandal “Climate Gate” really was.

So do we fight back with Goldacre-style condescension, taking the arguments to pieces and shouting at humanities graduates like me? That probably won’t get us too far.

Randy Olson’s book – yes, what a good name for a scientist – takes you through five basic lessons that he picked up after jacking in his career as a marine biologist and tenured professor to do film school and acting classes. I’ve summarised them in my page about communications theories. I would, without hesitation, say that every Green should read his book if they want to counter climate change deniers, or in fact to communicate just about any political issue.

What does it boil down to? Basically, don’t reel off a factual argument in a condescending manner. Instead, think of your subject like a story; arouse their interest, connecting to their emotions and gut instincts, then build a strong narrative that delivers your message in a way that fulfills their expectations. If you’re trying to beat a blockbuster-style conspiracy theory like Climate Gate, do it with an even better movie plot. Sounds obvious, but goodness me we can be bad at it!

Might eco-nagging encourage more shopping?

Here’s another reason not to try and terrify people out of conspicuous consumption, aside from the basic flaws in the “eco angel” approach and recent evidence that moralising is putting people off ethical consumerism.

Some interesting research by Swiss psychologists found that warnings about death has the ironic effect of making some smokers want to smoke even more! The reason? They derive a self-esteem boost from smoking; warnings about death sent these smokers to a trusty source of self esteem to overcome that downhearted feeling – death-bringing cigarettes!

So next time you tell someone that buying too much crap might cause planetary collapse, it’s fairly likely that your nasty nagging well send them running for a standard Western self-esteem boost: shopping.