“Many people today seek to live in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. They travel less, or in ways that cause lower emissions. These are to be welcomed, but they only reduce a person’s impact to a limited extent and only for their lifetime.”

On 11 July, the world celebrates World Population Day. The day usually prompts people to question the social, political and economic aspects of overpopulation. However, rapid population growth also has a severe impact on the environment, an aspect that is often much less apparent and less scrtunised.

In honour of World Population Day, the IPF spoke to the CEO of Population Matters, Simon Ross, who has dedicated his life to raising awareness about the link between overpopulation and the environment. Here, Simon tells us about how having smaller families can be more effective than using energy efficient sources, reducing food waste and even recycling.

The effect of overpopulation on the environment

Simon always wanted to be involved in an environmental charity. However, he realised that most charities ignored what he considers one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time: population control.

At the heart of Population Matters’ environmental philosophy are serious concerns about limited resources. They believe that the most urgent problem created by large families is the pressure they put on limited oil and coal reserves:

“Your choice about how many children you have is important. Each additional child will have more impact on the enviroment and consume more resources. And the impact will continue for that child’s life and the lives of all his or her descendants.”

The world’s population increased from 3 billion less than 50 years ago to more than 7 billion today. This has had serious consequences for the environment. More people are occupying more land, creating more waste, and spewing more chemicals into the land, water and air.

Education about family sizes

Population Matters is currently running the “Small Families Campaign“, which encourages people to consider the benefits of having smaller families. The centrepiece of their campaign has been educational initiatives with schools and universities, where they talk to people about making well-informed choices about family size.

The campaign educates people about the quality of life in smaller families, quality of parenting and childhood, as well as avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

“If you do decide to have children, please consider how many to have when you think about the sort of world in which you want them to live. It is the biggest environmental decision you will ever make.”

Population Matters makes the moral case for smaller families, without passing judgement. Unlike other initiatives to curb overpopulation, they don’t propose penalising those who choose to have larger families:

“If you already have a large family, we are not asking you to feel guilty or apologise. People can end up with large families for all sorts of reasons and children are only one form of consumption. Having a large family need not stop anyone appreciating the threat rising consumption and population poses to sustainability.”

Challenges and opportunities in campaigning for smaller families

One of the challenges for Population Matters has been attempting to influence decision making that largely happens on an individual or family level, rather than an institutional level. In order to be successful at this, the charity has to reach out to a large number of people and capture their attention effectively. Simon explained:

“People think about themselves and their own interests when making decisions about family.”

The role of women is particularly interesting when talking about overpopulation. Women with large families are more likely to have to take time out of their working lives to care for children. This can be a serious impediment to their professional development and the representation of women in many industries.

“Women are still much more likely to bear the principal burden of childrearing. Having a smaller family enables women to have a full and fulfilled life in other spheres of activity.”

The global context

The global reaction to population management has yielded some mixed results. Religious objections to birth control and abortion have plagued much of Central and South America. On the other side of the globe, China has just scrapped its one-child policy after 35 years after concerns over its economy and a rapidly ageing population. Meanwhile, lack of sexual education and access to birth control has caused serious overpopulation problems across the developing world.

Alongside all of this, Population Matters remains concerned about industrialisation and rising standards of living, which are increasing each person’s consumption of water, energy and materials, as well as food. They point out that the general lifestyle in today’s world, as well as the technology we use, are driving over-consumption and leading to serious consequences as resources rapidly begin to run low across the globe.

The future of the world could be drastically different depending on how populations grow. World Population Day is a time to reflect on the environmental and social impact of the decision to bring children into the world.

Population Matters caccept members from around the world and key supporters include public figures such as Sir David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall. To find out more about their work, visit their website at www.populationmatters.org.