Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo



This feature aims to explode a few urban myths

These are as follows:
1. There is no overpopulation
2. The government has a grip on immigration and the impact of an increasing population
3. I am perfectly entitled to have as many children as I like
4. Sustainable growth is not an oxymoron
5. Technology such as "all the things the Romans did for us" will overcome the problem


Consider Hardinian Taboo
( or would you rather not think about it?)

A summary of latest thinking by
Bob Davidson
with immense help from
Jack Parsons
(to whom this is dedicated)
and the Optimum Population Trust
(from Capital Doctor, issue 58; Sept 06)
http://www.capitaldoctor.co.uk/

An effective gate keeper of the mind does not call attention to itself. It actuates a psychological mechanism called a taboo.

Copyright: Little Known Photo (2006)

A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.
-- Garret Hardin


If the theory about the taboo is right,
then you will not be able to consider or voice your opinion in public
and this will be yours and everyone's downfall.
so how fundamental is this to our health?
The taboo affects the planet,
but the implications for the health of London look pretty damn bleak.


Doctor, being literate and numerate alone are not sufficient -- you should also be ecolate. Otherwise you might end up better off with a copy of Machiavelli.

Garrett Hardin author of The Tragedy of the Commons - said to be the most quoted and republished scientific paper ever written - elucidated stark ecological clarity on a basis of very simple ideas and logic. Jack Parsons (see page ) highlighted Hardins' views saying that while all informed people recognise the universal need to be literate and numerate how many - even of their thinking elites have the remotest idea that a still more basic requirement is to be 'ecolate', the absence of which quality inevitably aims a society towards its doom?

In the UK, population is officially projected to rise from 60.2 million (mid 2005) to 70.7 million in 2074 - another one and a half Londons in less than a lifetime.

So what is this taboo?

We do not like to think, talk or generally air the ails of ‘overpopulation' because it isn't PC. If you do not believe that we are overpopulated, or that people find this a difficult concept to accept -- read on. If you want the London demographic, which is also a barometer for demographics around the rest of the world, to die of ignorance -- don't bother.

Nine years ago a landmark paper appeared in the BMJ entitled - To the point of farce: a Martian View of the Hardinian taboo - the silence that surrounds population control, by Maurice King, honorary research fellow, University of Leeds and Charles Elliott, Dean and Chaplain Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. The full paper can be seen at: http://bmj.bmjjournals.com, but here is the gist of it:

'Hardinian Taboo' is a self-inflicted thought-control process that effectively disables us from considering, or discussing population control. If we don't have to think about it, we cannot recognise the problem or deal with the thorny issue. The taboo was named after the famous demographer, Garrett Hardin who referred to it as ostrich factor.

The paper used the genocide in Rwanda as an example of an outcome in the event of one of the worst kinds of demographic problems -- that of 'demographic entrapment'. They describe how if the Hardinian taboo on entrapment is not removed, there will be increasing slaughter and starvation throughout much of Africa and elsewhere (malignant uproar), as shown in Rwanda.

If the taboo is removed, there will be intense discussion (benign uproar), followed -- as they argue - by behaviour change in the countries of the North (sustainable lifestyles) and of the South (reduced fertility).

They said that we have a basic choice; Do we open the dialogue or don't we? The "foundations" of this taboo include the problems of one child families. They said that they believed that the US State Department had been orchestrating the population debate to the point that it had corrupted critical aspects of academic demography, to the greatest possible disadvantage of trapped populations, presumably lest its own consumption of resources be criticised.

They followed Hardins' thinking in that, with modern communications, the solution to "the population problem" could come quite quickly. The difficulty they said was in removing the taboo sufficiently to get enough "benign uproar".

In response to this paper, a Locum GP from Birmingham -- Dr Gardner, wrote: Ideologically driven movements are rarely equipped or eager to examine their own presuppositions. The population control lobby and its apologists in the BMJ are examples. King and Elliott, for instance, extol the ideas of Garrett Hardin. Hardin is a eugenicist, being a former director of the American Eugenics Society. He was an active member at the same time as the Nazi eugenicist Otmar Von Verschuer, who became a foreign member in 1956. Verschuer, who was a teacher of Josef Mengele and similarly interested in research on twins, helped finance Mengele's grotesque experiments at Auschwitz.

The GP went on to quote Hardin and generally demonise him as being anti human rights. He continued his parallel argument between eugenics and population control by linking the Eugenics Society with China's brutal coercive population policy, under which women have undergone forced abortion and sterilisation and untold numbers of baby girls have been killed. The Chinese law promotes these atrocities on eugenic grounds. He stated that the slaughter in Rwanda was due to eugenic racism and not population pressure. He finished by saying, Eugenics did not die out in 1945. It is flourishing among population control groups and intellectual elites, and now it is on the pages of the BMJ.

The authors replied by saying that their only presupposition was that the Rwandan population was demographically trapped, there is something to be done other than casting a taboo over the whole problem when a community proceeds to starvation and slaughter as the result of exceeding the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, and its opportunities for migration, and the ability of its economy to produce necessary exports which it can exchange for essential imports, especially food If tribal tensions are already acute, slaughter is inevitable. They argued that the level of slaughter normally endemic in the region would not have escalated in quite the way it did had not Rwanda been severely demographically trapped. People killed each other because there were too many people on too little land, and with a few less there would be more for the survivors.

Whatever else Hardin may or may not have done, they said, is irrelevant to this issue. As an ecologist he considers us humans to be constrained by the limitations of food, territory, and migration and not somehow above them (the humanist exemption). Consequently, he has studied the taboos we use to avoid facing them. For this work he has had them named after him.

Finally they said that Gardner had muddled eugenics (controlled breeding for desirable inherited characteristics (Oxford English Dictionary) with population control, a term inserted in the title of the paper by the editor and one usually avoided, since it is often used emotively. They argued that the legitimate incentives and disincentives for fertility control may be better than for a community, of whatever ethnic group, to proceed to starvation or slaughter. This issue needs to be debated globally in the context of a United Nations programme for a one-child world.

One-child world

Since publication of this paper and subsequent letters, little has really changed in terms of quantity of discussion or media coverage -- or ‘benign uproar'. However, in the meantime the population by-product i.e. global-warming has leaped up the agenda, although the link to human populations is not always made clear, but I guess that Hardin would have an explanation for this. Ecological study has advanced, so let's now look at a few facts and figures closer to home.

The UK Stamp on other Countries

See Optimum Population Trust website --

An 'ecological footprint' is a measure of man's use of renewable natural resources in relation to 'biocapacity', nature's biologically productive capacity. Work in this area has been pioneered internationally by university scientists and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The latest WWF calculations, many of which are used below, are published in its Living Planet Report 2002: 'A country's footprint is the total area (expressed in 'global hectares') required to produce the food and fibres that country consumes, sustain its energy consumption, and give space for its infrastructure'.

In these terms the UK consumption of food, wood and energy, is 5.35 global hectares (gh) per person, its existing biological capacity is 1.64 global hectares per person. Even without its carbon dioxide footprint of 2.99gh per person, its consumption footprint considerably exceeds its biological capacity.

The UK population is precariously dependent on large imports of food, wood and other commodities, and will soon become more dependent on imports of crucial oil and gas supplies. Its dependence on imports will be threatened by competition with increasing demands by the growing populations of the developing industrialising countries, and its ability to pay for imports with exports may be impaired by competition with the cheaper exports of those countries. The UK also makes inequitably large demands on the world's pollution sinks. For example:

UK carbon dioxide footprint

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows the UK's per capita emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels to be about double the world average. The WWF estimates the UK's carbon dioxide footprint as 2.99 gh per person, compared with a world average of 0.99. The UK uses a disproportionately large share of the Earth's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and makes a disproportionately large contribution to global warming.

The UK's forest footprint

Britain imports about 85 per cent of its wood and wood products, consuming the output of a disproportionately large share of the world's 3,300 million hectares of forest. It also imports wood from tropical countries, where it is not replanted, and so causes deforestation and soil erosion. With 10 per cent of its own land area under forest and woodland, the UK in 1995 produced about 7,000,000 cubic metres of wood a year. Production is rising and expected to peak at about 1520 million cubic metres a year by 2025, but that output would only be a third to a half the present rate of consumption. The UK's consumption of wood is expressed by WWF as its forest footprint (excluding wood for fuel) of 0.32 gh per person, while the UK's own forest biocapacity is only 0.13 gh. Not all forest is available for commercial use, explaining why Britain produces only 15 per cent, not 25 per cent, of the wood it consumes.

Bigger threat than climate change?

Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Prof Chris Rapley called earlier this year for scientists and policy-makers to drop their de facto embargo on the discussion of the population issue, which he called the "‘Cinderella' of the great sustainability debate - rarely visible in public, or even in private.

In an opinion piece for the BBC's Green Room website, he drew attention to the daunting organisational and environmental problems involved when over 10,000 delegates attended the recent climate change talks in Montreal, pointing out that the world's annual population increase was 75,000 times that number (76 million).

Imagine organising the accommodation, feeding arrangements, schooling, employment, medical care, cultural activities and general infrastructure - transport, power, water, communications, waste disposal - for a number of people slightly larger than the population of the UK, and doing it each year, year on year for the foreseeable future.

The 40 or more decisions made in Montreal were announced as an historic success but Prof Rapley questioned whether they would be sufficient to secure an acceptable quality of life for the generations to come.

In meetings examining how the planet functions as a whole, demographers and population specialists are usually notable by their absence, he pointed out. Opportunities for both political and religious leaders and the global public to debate the stresses on the Earth caused by its human population are rare. Unless and until this changes, summits such as that in Montreal which address only part of the problem will be limited to at best very modest success, with the welfare and quality of life of future generations the ineluctable casualty.

2.8 Earths

Prof Rapley's estimate of a sustainable word population of around 2-3 billion -- less than half the current 6.5 billion -- is backed up by figures from the Optimum Population Trust, which has calculated that even if the current world population stopped using fossil fuels and lived a western European lifestyle based entirely on renewable energy, it would still need, in total, 2.8 Earths - nearly two more planets - to support it. To live within the carrying capacity of one Earth, population would thus need to be lower by a factor of 2.8 roughly 35 per cent of present levels or about 2.2 billion (calculations based on 2001 world population and ecological footprint data). World population is forecast to grow to 9.1 billion by 2050.

Similar calculations for the UK produce an optimum population of between 20 and 30 million. Currently it is over 60 million and projected to grow to nearly 71 million by 2074.

David Nicholson-Lord, research associate for the OPT, speaking at the Global Development Forum debate, said politicians, media and even environmental groups singled out climate change as the world's biggest environmental problem but ignored the more fundamental factors behind it.

Technological Crunch

Even technology has its limits and then its application has more dramatic negative knock-ons due to the interference with complex interactions within ecosystems. Prey-seeking factory ships have stripped the oceans and high intensity, chemical-dependant practices have converted much of the arable parts of the planet into fragile, mono-agricultural deserts.

Climate change is labelled anthropogenic, in other words, it's man-made. Even Tony Blair, in his recent foreword to a book on the increasing dangers of climate change, pointed out the part played by a sixfold increase in human population over the last two centuries. We're deluding ourselves if we think that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved solely through greener technologies and have nothing to do with human numbers.

Merely to accommodate the 10 million population increase projected for the UK without further increase in national emissions, each Briton would have to reduce their per capita emissions by a seventh (14 per cent). The 10 million new Britons will together produce an estimated 95 million tonnes of carbon dioxide -- the same amount as currently produced by 100 million Indians.

The growth of human population is the ‘elephant in the cupboard' as far as climate change is concerned -- the big issue that no one dares talk about, said David Nicholson-Lord. The threat posed to the climate by the growth in aviation is fundamentally about numbers, not technologies -- the numbers of those using air travel. It's intellectually and morally dishonest to talk about climate change without also talking about climate changers.

Two new Londons, 163 more Sloughs

The new housing projections published in March by the Government were described as alarming by the OPT. It's now clear that population growth is the main force driving housing demand and the UK's population is spiralling out of control, Valerie Stevens, OPT co-chair, said. Yet for population as well as for housing, Ministers are still ‘predicting and providing' -- in other words, shrugging their shoulders and looking the other way.

OPT calculations suggest that the new figures, which project that household numbers in England will increase by 4.8 million between 2003 and 2026, an increase of 23 per cent, seriously understate the scale of the problem facing the UK's environment.

In the country as a whole, it calculates, over seven million new houses and flats will be required over the next six decades if the predict and provide approach to housing continues and no action is taken to limit population growth. This represents a 28 per cent increase in the housing stock.

The projections, published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), are for England and only go up to 2026. They are based on increased population and household formation rates -- including a drop in the projected average household size to 2.1. However, forecasts published last October by the Government Actuary's Department show that the UK's population, previously predicted to peak after 2050 and then to start declining, will now go on rising to the end of the projection period, 2074.

Between now and 2074, UK population is forecast to grow by around 10.5 million, more than a sixth or 17 per cent. OPT calculations suggest that, on the household formation assumptions published today by the Government, the UK will then need almost 33.7 million dwellings, as opposed to the current figure of an estimated 26.3 million -- over seven million more than at present. Even then, there is no guarantee that population growth, and the resulting demand for new housing, will come to an end.

The Government acknowledges that population is now the major cause of household growth and housing demand. The ODPM says it accounts for around 123,000 of the 209,000 new households being formed each year - 59 per cent, compared to 19 per cent attributable to changing age distribution and 21 per cent to increasing household formation. Some 60 per cent of the projected household growth is within the East, London, South East, and the South West.

The ODPM's revised projections for England are alarming enough but for the UK as a whole the longer-term outlook for quality of life and environmental impact is genuinely frightening, Valerie Stevens added. We're already facing severe congestion and water rationing in the South of England and greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb. With another two Londons or 163 Sloughs in prospect, the Government's supposed commitment to sustainable development looks increasingly like a bad joke. or in the words of the Kaiser Chiefs I predict a riot.


Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!