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.

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright