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

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