Sir David Attenborough said “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible with more.” High Wycombe marked Population Day on Wednesday 11th July with a showing of the movie “Growthbusters” at the new Wycombe Environment Centre. The event was put on by the High Wycombe Branch of “Population Matters”. Now we know what you are thinking: You know, “Population”… Just don’t mention the P-word: it’s a big turn off. It’s controversial. Almost anything else seems easier to tackle in polite company. Thus most of us won’t read to the end of this blog. I don’t blame you, but please hang on for a second. We ask: how is this relevant to High Wycombe & do we care?

Is population utterly beyond our control? Is it even a problem? Just how many people is too much? Aren’t more people a good thing? Or is it simply irrelevant to us in High Wycombe? Sympathies if you feel that way. The Transition Movement has a certain expertise in public engagement and we know how hard it is to talk about fuel poverty, local money and extreme weather. If we cannot even talk about the stuff that effects us all everyday how on earth are we to talk about population?

We have a population problem due to the exploitation of fossil fuels in industrialised food production. One of the guru’s of the post-carbon movement, Richard Heinberg, has said that is we could just tackle ONE THING then it should be our addiction to oil. It is the silver bullet that makes everything else better. But what came first? The chicken or the egg? The people or the oil? Supply restrictions of future fossil fuel production marks the ceiling beyond which population growth must eventually stop. With it much of our assumptions about economic growth must stop too. Not because we wish for it, but because we reached a limit. Yet when we walked into the Environment Centre on World Population Day the first member of Population Matters we spoke to had never heard of the Transition Movement. Curious!

Maybe this is an isolated case but there were all new faces in that room. Why is it that the deep concern about population attracts a certain segment of our community who, at the same time, seem unaware of the efforts to build a sustainable community? Why would you care about population if you aren’t trying to create a sustainable community?The answer maybe (what I call) that “silver bullet syndrome”. Life is complicated so we if we boil all of its challenges down to just ONE THING, and focus just on that, then all the other problems go away. Sir David Attenborough maybe as guilty of this as Richard Heinberg. Population, oil, banking, you name it. We all have our pet hobby-horses.

Thankfully the Transition Movement (and, indeed, Heinberg) has a flair for keeping multiple balls in the air because the world is complicated. Our three-pronged approach to community sustainability is based upon local money, local energy and local food. We naturally assume that growth has limits and we need to adjust. It is about reducing demand in a world of declining supply in order to maintain your quality of life. The issue of population is generally buried inside the issue of economic growth. We assume both will come to a natural end. We are not alone. When I stood up to deliver a talk about Transition to the public in the Guildhall this July, I started with a review of Global Risks by the Word Economic Forum compiled in 2011. The top three were “fiscal crises”, “climate change” and “extreme energy price volatility”. Of the forty-odd risks on the map, “population” didn’t appear. Hence I cut the one PowerPoint slide out that mentioned population.

At this juncture those concerned about these things will say “aaah, but it is the elephant in the room and nobody talks about it”. Agreed, but how do we talk about it? And will talking about it help? Do the people of High Wycombe need to care? Before writing this article I had a look at some work on population growth by both WorldWatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org/nine-population-strategies-stop-short-9-billion) and the Copenhagen Consensus Center (www.copenhagenconsensus.com/Projects/CC12/Research/PopulationGrowth.aspx). Broadly they say much the same thing: to tackle population we must target “family planning programs” and the education of young women. OK, but where? Sub-Saharan African seems to be the answer. I checked a map. High Wycombe isn’t in Africa. So we are asking the wrong questions.

For us the right questions are: what about absolute numbers today and can our land support us? The truth is that places such as northern Europe and Britain are grossly over-populated. Without fossil fuels & the resources of other countries we cannot maintain our population. Our population density is vastly higher than those countries in Africa population growth policies seek to target. Our natural birth rate in the UK is already below replacement. Naturally we should shrink. We keep growing because of the large influxes of economic migrants. We keep growing because we are rich. We grow because others are poor. Are our concerns hypocritical? Is this an environment in which to engage the people of High Wycombe? Isn’t this dangerous?

Hopefully Population Matters can defuse the issue. Their suggestions for tackling global population growth are; write to your MP, increase awareness, improve family planning and women’s equality. It all seems a little like trying to divert a supertanker by pushing on a piece of string. It must be a very frustrating battle. We can only suggest that, if you are concerned about population then please, do everything Population Matters suggests, but please also join us in Transition to tackle everything else. It helps to pull on the string too!

Which leads us to: “Growthbusters”. This is a vast sprawling 90 minute film that tackles economic growth generally. Population is but one aspect of the film, another is the Transition movement. Economic growth in rich industrialised nations is viewed in the movie as both a cancer and a religion. The case was convincing and the topic treated with plenty of humour & talking heads. It may not be to everyone’s taste, and was a little too long, but “Growthbusters” is an excellent film and highly recommended. If Population Matters had not shown it then Transition Town High Wycombe would have. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough focus on positive solutions. Other movies (such as “The Corporation” & “The Economics of Happiness”) have tackled some of the aspects better. But this may be the first feature length documentary to critique Economic Growth head on. Please do show it to your community group.

So is this relevant to High Wycombe? If we wish to maintain our standard of living then “Growthbusters”, and the challenges it raises, are highly pertinent. There is a copy of the movie with a public licence. Please show it to your community. As well as tackling population growth we should recognise that the monetary growth of more “stuff” in our economy cannot continue because it destroys our quality of life. So if you wish to move our community to the-world-to-come we suggest trying some Transition in your life. You will find it complementary, rewarding and more palatable. It may be the foot in the door you need if you also wish to talk about population.

To respond to this blog go to http://www.post-carbon-living.com/blog/index.php/2012/07/12/dont-mention-the-p-word/ or drop us a line on Twitter (twitter.com/TTWycombe) or Facebook (facebook.com/TTWycombe) or via our web site at www.transition-wycombe.org.uk. You can next meet Transition Town High Wycombe at the Pann Mill open day on Sunday 15th July. We look forward to meeting you.

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