jonathon porritt

When Jonathon Porritt publicly advocated couples having no more than 2 children recently, the press jumped on it. For the Green Party, one direct result was elected Green councillors in Liverpool having to suffer a Lib-Dem smear leaflet telling voters of a “looney” and “despicable” Green plan to “ban” children through a “2 child legal limit”. The only element of the LibDem leaflet that was factually true – and of course upon which their ridiculous fabrication was based – was the quote from Jonathon Porritt “Having more than two children is irresponsible”.

Now, to be fair to Jonathon, even that quote was taken out of context. What he said was “I think we [“we” meaning civil society in general] will work our way towards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible”, which to my mind is an especially politic way to say it.

Furthermore, in the Daily Telegraph, the headline became “Government Green Guru Calls for 2-Child Limit“, which, again, makes it sound like a legal limit, when as far as I’m aware he was making a judgement, not indicating that there should be some sort of legal enforcement.

Indeed, Jonathon Porritt’s logic is to my mind impeccable, as seen on his blog where he also admits “I’m in the population doghouse” not because of his logic, but because of people’s emotional reactions to it.

Nevertheless – although I cannot think of another time when I have thought this (including his defense of capitalism) – I believe Jonathon Porritt has made a mistake. Only a very small mistake, and one that was distorted by even the papers who interviewed him, pounced upon by the Tories and pro-life campaigners (personally I see abortion as an entirely seperate issue), and distorted monstrously by local LibDems in their libellous leaflet… but a mistake nonetheless.

The cause of the mistake, if I may venture, was to under-estimate the strength of people’s emotional reactions. And what we as Greens must not do is to then dismiss people’s emotional reactions as illogical and therefore wrong. Besides, there is a key word that offended rationally as well as emotionally:

This key thing that I really wish he had not said is “…having more than two children is irresponsible“.

There are a number of reasons why I can subscribe to pretty much everything else he said, even though I don’t in detail agree with it, but the unfortunate accusation of “irresponsibility” is a step too far.

My intention in this article is not to berate Jonathon Porritt for taking a leadership role in advocating a serious issue that he clearly believes in. My intention is to warn Green campaigners from compounding the mistake of generally accusing the public of “irresponsibility” by defending poor old Jonathan rather than radically reframing what he was saying. Along the way, my recommended future approach to the population debate will become clear too.

Firstly, accusing someone of irresponsibility is quite a severe thing. Accusing the whole nation, even more so. If we take the view that Jonathon Porritt’s statements are effectively Green Party statements (which they are not, but have been effectively received as such in some quarters), then it would be patently electorally foolish to insult your voters, especially since almost all of them have not yet had 3 children and are therefore only guilty of potentially having thought about it.

I do not think the PR negativities of this sort of accusation can be understated. It’s patently obvious that talk about population gives people the creeps. That’s why Jonathon Porritt refers to it secretively as “the P word”, and of course there is a good reason why people do not want to get into that territory. It makes almost all people highly uncomfortable and even emotionally distressed.

For greens to be putting potential voters in this frame of mind is not only self-defeating but potentially a bit nasty – at least, that’s how many voters feel about it. Whatever the academic arguments for population curbing, whether voluntary, involuntarily, state-sponsored or other, it conjures up terrible spectres: of Chinese state co-ercion, of baby girls being left on the street to die, of abortion, and, yes, of sterilisation, or cameras in bedrooms, both of which the LibDem’s Liverpool smear leaflet implied. Of course, Greens want none of the above things, but it is naive and narrow-minded of us to be more attached to our academic arguments than to recognise these associations that are conjured in most people. So, in short, even talking about population is a dodgy exercise, and to be associated with population curbing is a well-documented and predictable PR disaster. It is also a genie in a bottle: I suspect Jonathon Porritt’s single word out of place will haunt British Greens for years.

In principle, you cannot berate people into being responsible.

Secondly, I believe that in principle you cannot force people to be responsible. They have to be responsible in themselves; the quality cannot be grafted on to someone from outside.

Some people “take on” responsibility: being responsible is not something you can have thrust upon you. Surely what Jonathon Porritt wants British people to do is to “be responsible”. That’s exactly what I want them to be, but surely a single glance at Obama shows us that generating a sense of responsibility is fairly easy and it is a positive thing, not a negative thing. It comes from a shared sense of perspective, place and duty. And shared values. If Obama had accused whole sections of the American people of being irresponsible, he would not be elected now. You get people to be responsible by appealing to them to be so, not by telling them that they have failed already.

If we as Greens continue to make this mistake, we will not deserve to have the British people place their trust in us. And indeed, they won’t, because no-one can help being defensive to the person who’s telling them off.

You can’t force people to do anything.

Thirdly, the whole business about telling people they are being irresponsible assumes that somebody has some sort of right to tell people what to do at all, or a right to make them do it. Fundamentally, I think we can ask people to be responsible, or to do something, but we cannot make them do it. I for one don’t believe in a world where we tell people what to do. For me, that’s not what Green politics is about.

The idea of deliberately matching the shared resources of human fertility to an overall environmental carrying capacity assumes that someone or some authority has the ability to do that matching, and the right to make it happen. When one thinks of population issues one automatically imagines the ideal state of the “replacement rate”, which is obviously around 2 children per couple, or 1 child per person (in fact allowing for complicated factors, it’s 2.1 per couple). Observing this fact is fine, but some authority trying to forcibly steer that figure towards 1 to 1 is not fine at all. No authority does, and, I believe, morally, no authority should have that power. This is because I do not see how human fertility as a resource or ability can be owned by any other person than the man and woman concerned. In the same way that I am (with a heavy heart) a firm defender of a woman’s right to have an abortion, I am sure that the decision to carry a child to term should be the decision of the woman (and man) involved. Please be aware at this stage that Jonathon Porritt has never advocated any intervention like this; but I would argue there is an extremely strong emotional need for him to rule this possibility out absolutely, in every way, and at every opportunity, in order to emotionally reassure.

Otherwise, I can imagine people’s thoughts would follow these sort of lines: if someone was to come along and suggest that a child be aborted, that would be disgraceful. To achieve that aim by force would be abhorrent. While a woman might have the right to stop something growing inside her own body, that right does not and cannot extend to anybody else; it is well-established that even the father-to-be does not have that right; that is as much a violation of the sanctity of a woman’s body as the opposite – conception by force – rape.

In the same way, any sort of enforced sterilisation would be an unacceptable invasion of a person’s body and the inalienable abilities of that body. You can’t start messing with the natural functions of a person’s body and pretend you’re not harming the person. We’re not talking about murderers here; we’re talking about fathers, and mothers. And as much as a 0 to 1 replacement rate might be great for the earth, it would soon get pretty lonely for what was left of humankind. And I think we as Greens really do need to prove that we love humankind, not just the earth. I submit that we do; we just do so begrudgingly sometimes.

Besides, how could one regulate against the most basic and most human of activities, which is so central to our existence: the creation of new life? It would so clearly be a breach of fundamental rights to do so that this must surely give us our first clue that even talking about anyone other than the peron whose body it is deciding whether that body should have a child or not is cutting close to the bone.

Yes, it might well be preferable in an overall ecological view for couples to not have loads of children; but either we believe in human rights (including the right to control one’s own body and to exercise its natural abilities) or we do not. If we do believe in human rights, and I’m sure we do, then there can be nothing to say coercively in the population debate. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, and in the population debate we can inform people of facts but as leaders we cannot and must not compel or even denigrate their ultimate choices, even if they ignore those facts and we therefore believe their choices are wrong. And we would be foolish to give the impression that we think that, too.

It’s all relative anyway

Another way I would question the whole “having more than two children is irresponsible” statement is on grounds of accuracy. Statements such as “Couples who have more than 2 children are irresponsible” are essentially meaningless and pointless in this sense: if family B create half the environmental impact per person of family A (by living frugally etc) then family B are surely entitled by Jonathon Porrit’s logic to twice the number of children. This obvious point highlights the fact that sustainability is relative anyway. So why bother winding people up with prescriptions for how they should live their lives when those prescriptions themselves come with hidden and extremely complicated conditions of their own? Far better to generally educate people and let them make up their own minds about how they – and their family – should live sustainably.

British population growth at the moment is below the replacement rate anyway.

The other problem is that Jonathon Porritt had essentially little need to berate people in Britain about their family sizes in the first place. According to National Statistics the average married couple in 2004 had 1.8 children. Jonathon Porritt mentions single mothers as a key source of “excess” babies, but apparently the average in cohabiting couples and in lone-mother families was lower, at 1.7. I would suggest the first step with potential lone mothers is contraception, education, and, frankly, emotional and community support. This is a humane and necessary approach that comes before the question of having children, and has value in its own right.

Yes, the picture might be different elsewhere in the world, but why get the backs up of people in Britain when the average of 1.8 is comfortably below the replacement rate (which is 2.1, not 2 as you might expect).

And in fact, the picture is generally getting better in other parts of the world too. Many of the following stats are from an Indy article itself quoting the British Medical Journal:

In Europe the last time that fertility was above replacement level was in the mid-1960s. But now, for the first time on record, birthrates in southern and eastern Europe have dropped below 1.3 – well below the 1.5 which the United Nations has marked as the crisis point. If things continue the population there will be cut in half in just 45 years.

Looking at the overall global level: in the 1970s women around the world had 6 children each; today they have just 2.7 children on average, and in some places that figure is as low as 1.

In Britain, the average number of children in a family declined from 2.0 in 1971 to 1.8 in 2004.

In Japan the total fertility rate declined by nearly a third between 1975 and 2001, from 1.91 to 1.33. Overall in Asia the fertility rate fell from 2.4 in 1970 to 1.5 today. China’s rate is down from 6.06 to 1.8 and declining.

Yes, birthrates are still very high in Africa, and India is growing apace.

But as Green MEP candidate Rupert Read recently commented to me “maybe in many developing countries where the birth rate is way ahead of the replacement rate, then there should be an emphasis on population issues, and in Western countries where things are kind of okay the emphasis should be on the existing population living more sustainably”.

In other words, we don’t need to be banging on about population as a massive issue; if I lived in Burkina Faso, then I would probably be saying something different, but thankfully we only have to convince people in this country.

And besides, we now have role models to inspire and guide those countries that still have high birthrates.

And even if the birthrate in the UK is “creeping up again” from the low of 1.8, that is still some way from 2.0 – from where it has declined since the 1970s – and even further from the “replacement level” of 2.1, and so surely for the time being our approach to population should be a “watching brief” rather than an accussation of “irresponsibility”.

Maybe, even, the British people should be being applauded for already having established a trend for smaller families, not berated for their potential to create a growing problem some time in the future.

In terms of the public reaction to Greens, we should surely be taking every opportunity to praise and hold up good examples, rather than condemn and berate. In fact, at the end of a 40-year sustained decline in British birth-rates, maybe Greens should be not only taking the opportunity now to praise this laudable British trend but to to talk less about population than ever.

Indeed, next time someone asks us about population, we can make Jonathon’s perfectly valid factual points, by all means, but why not go out of our way to reassure them that Greens would never call for any sort of coercion, that we value human life as the most valuable resource, that the other parties have completely misrepresented us on the matter, and that the last thing we would do is talk about controlling human population…?

So, can we call a halt to the growth of the population debate? If ever there was an issue that is divisive, inflammatory and open to misinterpretation, it’s this one.

We don’t need to talk about it very much (for the time being at least), we have largely no power whatsoever to influence it anyway, and we certainly don’t need to make people feel bad about it. That does them no favours, and it does us no favours.

A fellow green has told me privately that addressing climate change without addressing human numbers is “cloud cuckoo land”. Now, there is clearly a direct – if varying – relationship between numbers of people on the planet and environmental damage. But it is not – and will never be my job as a politician – to “address human numbers” in any way that does not involve the free choices of the humans involved. This is what we must emphasise again and again in our communication on population. Education, yes, contraception, yes, family planning advice, yes. But using the language of “addressing human numbers”? I suggest we put that away, and take every opportunity to project the opposite vibe.

Greens believe in allowing people to make their own choices and even their own mistakes. That might be hard on the earth, but if we can’t solve the climate crisis by respecting everything it is to be human – including illogical emotions and irrational fears – then I don’t see we will solve it at all.

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