Are we too many?

Andy Lockhart is concerned by the returning spectre of 'overpopulation' in arguments about climate change

May 29, 2010
7 min read

You’ve probably come across an argument recently that goes something like this: ‘Yeah, sure… but the real issue that no one’s talking about is population, isn’t it?’ You might have read it in the newspaper or online, seen it on television or heard it on the radio. Perhaps you heard it from some guy in the pub. The ‘last taboo’ of environmentalism, the one that nobody’s prepared to acknowledge, is, rather confusingly, everywhere. The idea that soon we will be too many, or that we already are, for the planet to sustain, has become common sense for many people today. The conversation certainly needs to be had, but we need to be asking far more penetrating questions than the rhetorical ‘Are we too many?’

The debate over whether the planet and its productive and regenerative capacities can cope with a growing human population has been raging for more than 200 years. There is little need to go over overpopulation arguments in detail, predicated on when, rather than if, the number of people will exceed the world’s limited carrying capacity. They are well known. Since Thomas Malthus’s infamous Essay on the Principle of Population was first published in 1798 – with its apocalyptic vision of a world collapsing into chaos, war and starvation – the ‘dismal parson’s’ theories have repeatedly returned to haunt society.

Fears about overpopulation and so-called ‘natural’ scarcity have been variously associated with colonial administration, anti-welfare and austerity reforms, social Darwinism, the eugenics movements and tight immigration controls. More recently they have informed many of the anti-poverty programmes of international aid and development agencies, anti-natal policies in India, China and black communities in the US. These currents have also been running through much of the western environmental and ecology movement since the 1970s. The post-cold war era saw the rise of neo Hobbesian environmental security theory, especially in the US, which proposed international security was under threat from overpopulation and resource scarcity in the third world, and purportedly explained persistent conflicts and related flows of ‘environmental’ refugees and migrants.

Fresh impetus

It’s easy to see why overpopulation is so controversial, and how politically expedient it has proved throughout history for brutal oppression, social control and perpetuating inequalities. Today the spectre of catastrophic climate change has given fresh impetus to those urging action on the ‘population problem’. The reasoning has moved on since Malthus’s time. While Malthus’s thesis openly attacked the ‘immorality’ of the poor and the threat they posed to a landed gentry in the age of the Enlightenment, contemporary analyses are often far more scientific in character.

Organisations such as the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) in the UK and the Worldwatch Institute in the US justify their positions by carefully constructed computer modelling systems. Aggregate numbers of people, defined by their average carbon or ecological ‘footprints’, are inserted into these complex models, and analysed as to their impacts on various ecological and planetary systems. The results are often terrifying: OPT estimates 5.1 billion people to be the planet’s maximum sustainable population and just three billion to be the ‘optimum’. OPT argues that population reduction in the UK must include stopping net immigration, which accounts for much of the country’s growing numbers, both directly and indirectly as migrant families tend have more children.

This view of overpopulation as the key driver of global warming is by no means restricted to such elite institutions. It has popular traction among both mainstream and grass-roots environmental groups. Using the same scientific justifications, they paint the same picture of natural scarcity and impending doom, caused by too many people. Most predictions see world population at nine billion by 2050. Some see it then evening out and declining, while others forecast further growth. Either way, nine billion is viewed as incompatible with a sustainable planet and likely to cause a severe population crash.

Many contemporary environmentalists and climate activists are deeply uncomfortable with this Malthusian heritage, however. George Monbiot, for instance, sees overpopulation as a red herring and calls for the curbing of fossil fuel extraction, economic growth and overconsumption. Similarly Fred Pearce, author of Peoplequake, argues that population is likely to level out and start declining around 2040 and is unlikely to rise above eight billion. Like Monbiot he focuses on the consumption habits of the living and economic expansion rather than overpopulation. Both point to how responsibility for carbon emissions is deeply unequal, both historically and in the present, and how justice demands that cuts reflect this.

Human excess

Playing the numbers game has its limitations, though. Focusing on consumption fails to dispel the central Malthusian belief that the source of environmental degradation is human excess, rather than socially mediated and concrete forms of production. At a recent conference held in Manchester, entitled ‘Financialisation and the Environment’, Larry Lohmann gave an illuminating presentation on the ‘commodification of carbon’. He explained how, for the purposes of carbon trading, carbon has had to become fetishised as a commodity. Drawing on Marx he suggested the series of abstractions needed to turn carbon to commodity purge it of all social, cultural, historical, geographical and technological context in which it is produced. In essence you cannot tell whether a tonne of carbon on the market comes from heating an elderly person’s home or a plane dropping bombs on Afghanistan.

People have not been commodified and put on the market in the same way (though OPT recently launched its bold ‘PopOffsets’ initiative, where people and organisations can ‘offset’ their carbon footprints in the most ‘cost-effective way’ by funding family planning programmes. You can apparently offset your own emissions by 150 per cent by helping people in India and Kenya not to breed!) But the idea of fetishism and abstraction holds true when dealing with the statistics churned out by the population control lobby.

Analysing people as mere numbers creates a problem for progressives. Individuals and communities are eliminated as social beings, capable of creative social change, and even as people of value in themselves. Instead, they are predetermined as competitive and threatening ‘footprints’ in need of some kind of control, unable to see the bigger picture, whose relationship with nature can only be destructive. The most problematic logically become those least in control, those who reproduce most – invariably the poorest in the global South.

Why is population growth so high in these parts of the world? The reasons are many, but most prominent are severe poverty and inequality coupled with lack of welfare and healthcare provision, patriarchal religions and cultures where boys are valued higher than girls, and where large families define social status. Access to education and family planning, while crucial, can only scratch the surface of these issues. Women’s reproductive rights, moreover, should be seen as inalienable and not some instrument for environmental management. Feminists, often the most vociferous opponents of overpopulation theories, ask why women’s fertility is so often targeted over men’s, suspicious that something deeply conservative and sexist lies beneath such claims.

At the same conference in Manchester I was told by the director of a Brazilian NGO working on modern-day slavery in rural Brazil – particularly acute in the growing biofuel industry – that the majority of the MST (landless workers’ movement) still doesn’t believe in climate change, and sees it as a western construct designed to further underdevelop the south. The view is becoming less common, which is of course positive, but it’s also instructive. Poor rural Brazilians live with scarcity every day, and it isn’t some natural phenomenon, it’s because agribusiness owns most of the land.

Of course none of this solves the very real environmental crisis we face. The matter is urgent, but progressives should be careful not to succumb to the fear-inducing rhetoric of the Malthusian apocalypse and the deeply political solutions that emerge from it. Instead, we need to put equity and justice at the heart of solutions to climate change. When faced with the question ‘Are we too many?’ the first thing we should be doing is asking why that particular question is being posed to us, and how and by whom any answer is likely to be used.


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