Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The spectre of ‘overpopulation’

Whenever global environmental crises, poverty or world hunger is at issue, the overpopulation argument is raised. It is now occurring in debates on the worsening climate situation, warns Sarah Sexton

December 7, 2009
4 min read

Over 200 years ago, free market economist Thomas Malthus rejected the idea that everyone should have shared rights to subsistence, in favour of a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The poor were poor because they lacked restraint and discipline, not because of the privatisation of land. This is the essence of the overpopulation argument – that it is the increasing number of people that causes resources to become scarce.

Today, the same argument is increasingly being used in climate debates to justify the colonisation of the future for particular interests and to privatise commonly held goods. The talk is sometimes of teeming populations causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their excessive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions – unless polluting companies are granted property rights over the atmosphere, through carbon trading schemes such as offset credits.

Malthus was compelled to admit that his mathematical and geometric series of increases in food and humans were not observable in any society. For over 200 years, his theory and arguments have been refuted endlessly by demonstrations that any problem attributed to human numbers can more convincingly be explained by social inequality, or that the statistical correlation is ambiguous.

If over one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, it is because water, like food, is usually controlled and flows to those with the most bargaining power: industry and bigger farmers first, richer consumers second. The poor whose water is polluted by industrial effluent, exported in foodstuffs or poured down the drain through others’ wasteful consumption are the last to be considered.

Studies have highlighted the contradictions in trying to correlate population growth with carbon emissions, both historical and predicted. They describe how industrialised countries, with only 20 per cent of the world’s population, are responsible for 80 per cent of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions are those with slow or declining population growth. The few countries in the world where women’s fertility rates remain high have the lowest per capita carbon emissions.

Aggregate per capita emissions figures, however, still tend to obscure just who is producing greenhouse gases and how they are doing this, by statistically levelling out emissions amongst everyone. One estimate is that it is the world’s richest half-billion people, some 7 per cent of the global population, who are responsible for half the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while conversely the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for 7 per cent of emissions.

Population numbers, in sum, offer no useful pointers toward policies that should be adopted to tackle climate change. Massive fossil fuel use in industrialised societies cannot be countered by handing out condoms. Nor will reducing the number of births dent the massive annual subsidies, estimated at $200 billion, that energy companies receive in tax breaks for fossil fuels, giving them an unfair advantage over low-carbon alternatives.

But it may be argued that facts, figures and alternative explanations, while necessary, have never had much effect on population debates or disagreements over policies. This is because, deep down, these are political and cultural disagreements, not mathematical ones. Overpopulation arguments and the policies based on them persist not because of any intrinsic merit, but because of the ideological advantages they offer to powerful political and economic interests to minimise redistribution, to restrict social rights, and to advance and legitimise their goals. In fact, the ‘too many’ are hardly ever the voices you hear on this issue.

This partially explains why those considered to be surplus are not those who profit from continued fossil fuel extraction but those most harmed by it and by climate change. From Malthus’s time onwards, the implied ‘over’ in ‘overpopulation’ has invariably been poorer people, darker skinned people or those from the South – or a combination of all three. Other categories are increasingly added to the list of overpopulation ‘targets’: the elderly, the disabled, immigrants, and those needing welfare.

Ultimately, if the human population was halved, quartered, decimated even, so long as one person has the power to demand from or deny food, water, shelter, land, livelihood, energy and life to another, even two people may be judged ‘too many’.

The Corner House

This article is republished from Climate Chronicle

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali