Monthly Archives: January 2013

Filmmaker Sir David Attenborough Calls Humans a Plague – From LiveScience

David Attenborough and friend.

David Attenborough and friend.

“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Sir David Attenborough, the famed British naturalist and television presenter, has some harsh words for humanity. “We are a plague on the Earth,” Attenborough told the Radio Times, as reported by the Telegraph. “It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so.”

Attenborough went on to say that both climate change and “sheer space” were looming problems for humanity. “Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,” he said.

Sir David is not the only naturalist who has warned of population growth outstripping resources.  Paul Ehrlich, the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University and author of “The Population Bomb” (Sierra Club-Ballantine, 1968) has long used language similar to Attenborough’s. And in 2011, an analysis of species loss suggested that humans are beginning to cause a mass extinction on the order of the one that killed the dinosaurs.

When asked about Attenborough’s comments on humanity as its own scourge, Ehrlich told LiveScience he “completely agree[d], as does every other scientist who understands the situation.”

Even so, that doesn’t mean forceful measures must be taken. “Government propaganda, taxes, giving every sexually active human being access to modern contraception and backup abortion, and, especially, giving women absolutely equal rights and opportunities with men might very well get the global population shrinkage required if a collapse is to be avoided,” Ehrlich said.

In fact, providing free, reliable birth control to women could prevent between 41 percent and 71 percent of abortions in the United States, according to a study detailed in the Oct. 4, 2012, issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Other scientists also agreed to some extent with the heart of Attenborough’s message. “It’s clear that increasing population growth makes some of our biggest environmental challenges harder to solve, not easier,” said from Jerry Karnas, population campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.

Karnas added, however, “What’s needed is not population control but a real emphasis on reproductive rights, women’s empowerment, universal access to birth control and education, so more freedom for folks to make better, more informed family planning choices.”

Human Throng: underground train station in Moscow, 1969.

Human Throng: underground train station in Moscow, 1969.

And population numbers would matter less for the planet’s health if clean renewable energy were widely adopted as well as planning laws, he told LiveScience during an interview.

Attenborough is famous for his “Life on Earth” series of wildlife documentaries, among other nature programming. In 2009, he became a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a group that advocates voluntary population limitation. At the time, he released a statement saying, “I’ve seen wildlife under mounting human pressure all over the world and it’s not just from human economy or technology – behind every threat is the frightening explosion in human numbers.”

Earth’s population reached 7 billion people on or around Oct. 31, 2011, according to United Nations estimates.


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Filed under Environment, Growth, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability

UK Parliamentarians Call for Action to Protect 10 Million Girls from the Abuse of Child Marriage

Portrait of Mohammed Fazal, 45, with his two wives (L-R) Majabin, 13, and Zalayha, 29 in the village on the outskirts of Mazar Al Sharif. Fazal was offered Majabin as a debt settlement when a fellow farmer could not pay after a night of playing cards. They have been married for six months.

Portrait of Mohammed Fazal, 45, with his two wives (L-R) Majabin, 13, and Zalayha, 29 in the village on the outskirts of Mazar Al Sharif. Fazal was offered Majabin as a debt settlement when a fellow farmer could not pay after a night of playing cards. They have been married for six months.

Every year, 10 million girls around the world are married while they are still children. With a rising global population, numbers of child brides are predicted by United Nations experts to increase to 14 million per year in the next decade. Following a hearing into child marriage, a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians are calling for governments here and abroad to take urgent action to protect girls from the consequences of being married and becoming mothers while they are still children themselves.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) is calling on the government to tackle child marriage on two fronts. In the UK, this includes a recommendation to implement statutory guidance on forced marriage, training for professionals, inclusion of consent in marriage and sexual relations in the personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum, compulsory registration of all religious marriages and an increase in the minimum legal age for marriage to 18. They are also encouraging the Department for International Development (DFID) to conduct research into the prevalence and practice of child marriage, to evaluate existing interventions to ensure that UK aid is spent effectively and to scale up programmes to prevent child marriage and support survivors. In particular, they would like to see British aid being spent to meet the needs for family planning, sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare of girls and women of all ages and whatever their marital status.

Baroness Jenny Tonge, Chair of the Group and the hearing, said,

‘Every three seconds, a girl is coerced or forced into marriage, losing her childhood, her dreams and the opportunity to make her own choices about her life and relationships. This is not just bad news for the girls themselves, it also means that too many children are born into a world that is already overpopulated and half of the productive population of a developing country cannot participate fully in their societies because they are uneducated and unable to contribute to the workforce. Countries where girls are educated, marry later and have fewer children show higher economic growth and a better standard of living for all.’

Child marriages are driven by poverty, gender inequality and harmful traditional practices. In the developing world, a lack of access to education is both a symptom and a cause of child marriage. Child brides are generally expected to bear children from an early age, leading to a prolonged period of reproduction and larger numbers of children, yet adolescent girls are twice as likely as women in their twenties to die in childbirth. Some don’t even make it that far. Gauri van Gulik of Human Rights Watch told the hearing about Elham Mahdi al Assi, a thirteen-year-old girl in Yemen who died just days after her marriage to a man in his twenties in a ‘swap marriage’ exchange in which her brother also married her groom’s sister. She died from internal bleeding as a consequence of her husband raping her. Delaying marriage saves lives as well as giving girls and women equal opportunities to boys and men.

In most cases, laws and international conventions are in place to protect children from being forced into marriage. Yet, time and again governments fail to implement these protections. Evidence shows that British girls are being taken out of the country to be married against their will and here in the UK, families are getting children married off in ‘community’ or religious ceremonies or by taking advantage of the fact that the law in Britain allows the marriage of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds with parental consent.

The British government recently announced plans to criminalise forced marriage. Nearly 30% of the calls received by the UK Forced Marriage Unit helpline this year related to minors, so implementing this change in the law should also help British girls. Jasvinder Sanghera, author of the memoir Shame and chief executive of the Karma Nirvana support network for those affected by forced marriage and child marriage in the UK, said,

‘I welcome the fact that our Prime Minister has committed to making forced marriage a criminal offence – my plea is that we work to also enforce what already exists. Statutory guidelines continue not to be implemented or monitored effectively and the lack of school engagement remains concerning. There remains the need to universally agree a minimum age of marriage, it cannot be right that children as young as 8 years old here in Britain are entering a marriage arrangement. This is abuse and not part of anyone’s culture or tradition and we as a society have a duty to recognise it as such.’ 

Baroness Tonge’s message for parliamentarians, DFID and those working in child protection in the UK is simple: ‘Resolve to do something about our sisters worldwide whose cries are not heard.’

 Source: UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health press release 26th November, 2012.

 A Childhood Lost, the report of the parliamentary hearing on child marriage held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, will be published on 27th November 2012, and available to download from the Group’s website:

 The UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) aims to encourage initiatives to increase access to, and improve reproductive and sexual health programmes worldwide. It has 70 members, from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, representing the UK’s main political parties. The Group provide members with a forum for discussing population, development and reproductive health. For more information please go to


Filed under Culture, Family Planning, Human Rights, Population, Women's Rights

Denmark: Small Happy Prosperous Families by Marilyn Hempel

Danish coffee and pastries.

Danish coffee and pastries.

According to the OECD 2012 world report on life satisfaction, Danes are the happiest people in the world.

Have you ever tasted a freshly baked Danish pastry?  It’s delicious—why wouldn’t the Danes be happy! Putting pastries aside (reluctantly), studies of the happiness of nations are always fraught with difficulties. How does one quantify such a nebulous term as happiness? Isn’t happiness an individual state of mind? As it turns out health, a balance of work and leisure, and a strong social support network continue to correspond highly with happiness.

Despite the difficulties associated with quantifying happiness, each year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) unveils its report on life satisfaction in the developed world. Since it was founded in 1961, the OECD has strived to help governments design better policies for better lives for their citizens. Based on this experience, its 11 topics reflect what the OECD has identified as essential to well-being in terms of material living conditions (housing, income, jobs) and quality of life (community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance).

Once again, the United States failed to make the top 10 list of happiest nations in the world, while all the Scandinavian nations did. They all have small stable populations. The US has the highest population growth rate of any industrialized nation.

Denmark tops the OECD ranking with the most satisfied citizens. If one only glances at the numbers, the reason is not obvious. Denmark ranks no higher than fourth in any of the categories that appear to correlate strongly with overall satisfaction. Yet, in addition to the OECD, organizations such as the World Map of Happiness and the World Database of Happiness have consistently put Denmark at the top of their list of the world’s happiest countries.

When asked why they are happy, Danes usually give two reasons. First, they point out that most of their society is not created for the upper class. Just the opposite, nearly all things are catered to the middle class. Hence, there is a sense of contentment, which is key. There is little of the mentality of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or a 1% vs 99% debate.

Second, they mention the great services that the state provides. This comes at a price—extremely high taxes. But it turns out high taxes have another benefit. People tend to decide on an occupation based on what they like and not based on earning potential. Incomes are somewhat comparable across the country so that a garbage collector lives in the same kind of neighborhood as a doctor. As a general rule, prestige is not so important: the garbage collector gets the same kind of respect as the doctor for a job well done. This creates happiness as well.

Denmark has a high employment rate (73%), and a low percentage of employees working long hours (less than 2%).  Not surprisingly, having enough leisure time affects a person’s mental health and strongly impacts happiness. The citizens of Denmark have the most leisure time per day of any country in the study, at 16.06 hours (including sleep) —and this is encouraged by government policies.

Badly hit by the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Denmark responded with a sustained, focused and systematic approach to energy production and use that today is the envy of the world. Denmark is one of very few energy independent nations. This didn’t happen by Danish politicians telling their people the solution was ‘drill baby drill’ and fracking.

What did Denmark do? They imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy—while barely growing their energy consumption—and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent.

Government policies have spurred developers to build homes with thick insulation, and consumers to only buy energy-efficient appliances.

The result of these and many other policies is that Denmark’s energy consumption—the amount of fuel it uses to heat its buildings, drive its cars and power its economy—has held stable for more than 30 years, even as the country’s gross domestic product has doubled. (Remember, the population is stable as well.) During the same period, energy consumption in the U.S. has risen 40 percent, while its GDP has quadrupled. The average Dane uses 6,600 kilowatt hours of electricity a year (even with their fierce winters), compared with 13,300 for the average American.

Danish parents feel their children are safe within their families and in society as a whole (not true for American parents); baby prams are left unattended; bicycles are left unlocked; trust in other people and government is high.

Education, including sex education, is available to all with equity and with ease—99 percent of children graduate from high school (68 percent for the US). Higher education doesn’t come with an enormous student loan price tag that requires trading off financial ease for knowledge and expertise.

Denmark has national health insurance which provides for all. Family planning, counseling, and pre- and post-pregnancy services are given free. The Danes accept sexuality as a normal part of life, and feel that abortion should be allowed free of charge. They decided that prevention of adolescent pregnancy should have high priority, therefore sex education and responsible parenting classes are part of their school curriculum, starting at an early age. Denmark’s conception rates are less than 1/2 of those in the US.  Not surprisingly, there are very few unwanted pregnancies, and few babies to be adopted.

Denmark is a small country with a relatively miniscule defense budget and no major defense obligations. Yes, if Denmark were attacked by a larger country, it is possible the Danes could not resist. However, they have good relations with their neighbors, and have no reason to fear them.

Denmark has a stable population, social cohesion, a great educational system, energy independence, fine health care including free family planning, jobs and a retirement system for everyone, comfortable housing, lovely countryside and plenty of leisure time to enjoy it. In short, why wouldn’t the Danish people be happy? They have built themselves a society that looks after their citizens and gives them many reasons to be satisfied with their lives.

Marilyn Hempel is the editor of the Population Press.

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Filed under Culture, Family Planning, Growth, Population, Sustainability