london crowdJust the usual crowd on a usual day in London…Photo courtesy of Odolphie via flickr

Environmentalists in Britain and elsewhere have sometimes been reluctant to talk about population in recent years. But with the U.K. Office of National Statistics projecting a 9 million rise in the country’s population to 70 million by 2030, it’s increasingly difficult to get away from the old Malthusian dilemma of population, resources, and economic growth.   

Engaging in this debate is fraught with risks for the well-meaning green. As Sara Parkin puts it [PDF], “The maths of sustainability is simple — it requires fewer people, consuming less — yet we find it difficult to talk about either.”

We all sort of know deep down that if it looks difficult for 6 billion global citizens to achieve the standard of living we are used to in the West, then it’s got to be much harder — about 50 percent harder, in fact — for 9 billion to do the same. With poor countries consuming so much less per capita, it’s been fair to look to the high-consuming nations to clean up their act, rather than blame population and economic growth in the South for the ills of the world. If numbers in wealthy nations like the U.K. are increasing too, any moral stance we might take on population management elsewhere looks holed beneath the waterline. Time to take on this taboo. But with the increase in numbers in Britain largely a result of immigration, simply raising it can easily be cast as racist, especially by those with an anti-migrant axe to grind.

So, girding up our loins, we at Forum for the Future entered the fray yesterday with a report on the implications of U.K. population growth for sustainability. Growing Pains: Population and Sustainability in the U.K. [PDF] sets out our stall, in what we hoped would be a reasonable but challenging way. We looked at the environmental and social consequences of 14 percent more Brits on our crowded island, and found that — guess what? — resource demands will almost certainly increase, along with waste and pollution. So we set out a seven-point plan — from preparing for the increase, to managing it down through better family planning (a third of U.K. pregnancies are unplanned), to developing new attitudes to aging, to rethinking our growth paradigm — and called for an objective and sensible discussion on immigration and population. And then we held our breath …

It was the first Forum for the Future study ever to be picked up big time by all of our tabloid newspapers. Since most of them are just a teensy bit “conservative,” we feared the worst. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express were perhaps the most excitable, with the latter inevitably focusing on how a “migrants boom” would throw our public services “into chaos.” But they also reported our recommendations in a pretty balanced way. The BBC and ITN were more measured still. By and large, we seem to have successfully avoided coming to the aid of anti-immigration groups, most of whom are perhaps still licking their wounds in the aftermath of the British National Party making zero headway in the recent election.

Whether that means the average Brit is up for a sensible debate on population and sustainability is rather less clear. They’re certainly up for debate: With 185 comments on the Daily Mail story and counting, there’s any amount of opinion, but about 99 percent — including all the highest rated comments — express raw anti-immigrant sentiment. Particularly vehement are the Brits living abroad, who of course like nothing better than the idea that the country has gone to the dogs since they left. I wonder if they think they should be sent home too — along with the 6 million or so other Britons living overseas.

Scary stuff, and the temptation is to run away. But in the end, if we believe we have to face the population question globally, then we have to face it within each country, and Britain can’t be an exception.