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Inquiry long overdue, says environmentalist Porritt

The population inquiry is long overdue, says Sir Jonathon Porritt, who until last year was the Government's chief environmental adviser as head of the Sustainable Development Commission.

Sir Jonathon, one of the founders of the Green Party and a former head of Friends of the Earth, has begun to speak out on the population question. Last year, he said he thought that to have more than two children was irresponsible (he himself has two daughters).

He said he had accepted "with alacrity" membership of the Royal Society's working group, which is to examine an issue that affects every aspect of a sustainable future for the world yet has, he said, been ignored by governments, environmentalists and academics. "Governments have just found it too hot to handle, and so controversial from cultural, religious and political points of view that they have just chosen to keep it under the radar and not deal with it in an upfront way," Sir Jonathon said,

Many environment and development pressure groups had also chosen not to engage with it for years, he added. There are also some academics whose "analytical skills seem to desert them" when faced with the question, even though an intelligent family planning policy could make the difference between human numbers stabilising at 8 billion rather than 9 billion.

"They don't think that that is material to helping us to a sustainable world," Sir Jonathon said. "But the difference between 8 billion and 9 billion is massive – it might be the deciding effect as to whether we can have a sustainable world or not." Every government should have family planning policies enabling women to control their own fertility rather than have it controlled for them "by some very macho cultures and often abusive husbands".

Sir Jonathon said people were apprehensive about being labelled reactionary or even racist if they talked about the issue. "But it's not a race issue," he explained. "I am just as concerned with [population levels] in the rich world as in the poor world."