Amy Thomas traces the history of arguments for population control, and shows why they have no place in the movement to combat climate changeThe threat of runaway climate change has given rebirth to the idea that overpopulation is a problem.
Sections of both the left and the right of politics argue that the more people in the world, the more demand for polluting resources—each human being is a “carbon footprint” and a threat to the planet.
They say that beating climate change demands measures to stop population growth and restrict immigration to Western nations.
Recently the idea has been plugged by everyone from climate writer Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers) to former NSW premier Bob Carr to Treasury Secretary Ken Henry.
Ideas of overpopulation have a sordid history—and a twisted logic.
They originate in the thought of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). He believed that population increased geometrically and production increased arithmetically, so that that growth in population would outstrip food supply: “[it] is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it”.
To deal with this problem, the earth needed checks to stay at equilibrium—plague and famine were God’s checks. The “lower orders” needed also to be controlled because of their tendency to have more children: “The impoverished head of household who has chosen to marry without the means of supporting a family should be taught to know that the laws of God had doomed him and his family to starve for disobeying their repeated admonitions.”
Increases in living standards for the population ought to be held back: “If [nature’s guests] … make room for [a destitute person], other intruders get up and demand the same favour …The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed and the plenty that reigned before is changed into scarcity.”
Malthus’ ideas were taken up by British capitalists of his era, who used them to justify keeping their workers on “subsistence” wages. Malthus’ work anticipated eugenics, discussing the possibility of a society that breeds out “deformity” and “imperfection”.
Modern day proponents of population control may reject some of Malthus’ most obscene conclusions, but their ideas rest on the same logic.
The UN Commissioner on Population and the UN Fund for Population Activities, successfully pushed for by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1960s, were designed to re-involve in the UN in issues of population and food distribution in the developing world after many of the colonial powers had been booted out.
The Population Bomb by Anne and Paul Elrich, published in 1968 provided the ideological backing for this offensive and is still influential. They argued that if the “population explosion” in the Third World wasn’t curbed, the world faced apocalypse.
Environmentalist Betsy Hartmann considers Paul Elrich to be responsible for “popularising the false belief that over population is the main case of the environment crisis…aided immensely in the spread of his ideas by the US media”.
Their racist undertones are evident in a passage in the book describing a taxi ride through Dehli, India: “people defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people… All three of us were, frankly, frightened. Since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”
An example of the horrors wrought include a $21 million World Bank project to deal with the “population emergency” in India in 1972, which resulted in “millions of involuntary sterilisations and thousands of deaths” according to the information project of Africa.
During this period, an issue of the left wing Ramparts magazine explained: “[population control programs] are tied to elite interests more concerned with devising ways to minimise the increasing Third World upheavals than protecting the environment.”
Production not population
The use of resources is not determined by population, but by the economic and social structure of society—how we produce things. A country’s living standards are not determined by its population, but by historical and geopolitical factors.
Malthus’ own initial formulation—that population increases geometrically and production increases arithmetically—has not been empirically confirmed by history. World population is growing, but not exploding. It stands at 6.7 billion. Between 1950 and 2000 the global population grew from 2.5 billion to 6.0 billion—an increase of 140 per cent.
But in the 50 years to 2050 experts on population predict it will rise by just 50 per cent, and in the 50 years after that by 11 per cent. Birth rates are falling because as education and medical care improve, women are having fewer children.
Between 1950 and 1970, world food production rose by 250 per cent, completely outstripping population growth over the same period.
What creates poverty and hunger is not lack of food, but unequal distribution. There is more than enough food produced in the world to supply everyone with a decent diet—but people starve because they are unable to pay the prices demanded by the market.
The carbon emissions that generate climate change are a part of the same picture. As George Monbiot points out: “The journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5 per cent of the world’s population growth and just 2.4 per cent of the growth in CO2. North America turned out only 4 per cent of the extra people, but 14 per cent of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.”
The tendency to look at China and India’s rising population and rising emissions can also be put in perspective by looking at who generates these emissions—mostly Western-owned companies producing goods for export.
What we produce and how we produce it is not based on the needs of the mass of the population, or the level of population in each country—it is based on the decisions of a tiny minority who control the productive process and compete for profit.
The mass of people do not decide to produce electricity through burning fossil fuels, dig up uranium or poison our rivers —these decisions are made by states and corporations.
They are committed to fossil fuels and other environmentally destructive processes not because of the size of the population, but because of the crucial role they play in economic competition and profit generation.
Currently, powerful interests are manipulating the goodwill of millions of people by telling us these things can be solved by ordinary people changing their consumption patterns.
For example, the NSW state government is running an advertising campaign encouraging restricted electricity usage to meet the threat of climate change. This from the people set to open two new coal-fired power stations (see back page)!
Such propaganda works to hide the real criminal consumption and environmental destruction going on. Of energy consumption in Australia, 12.3 per cent is residential, 29.7 per cent is in manufacturing and construction and a further 40 per cent in transport and storage. Mining, agriculture and the commercial and service sector make up the rest. That means 90 per cent of the electricity usage in Australia has nothing to do with household consumption—and everything to do with production for profit.
The same goes for water. While governments encourage us to take four minute showers, the Roxby Downs uranium mine guzzles 42 million litres of water a day—set to rise to 250 million after the proposed expansion.
Fight for transformation
How we use the earth’s resources is not fixed—there is nothing inherently exploitative about humanity that means “more of us” means more environmental destruction. In fact, each new person has the ability to labour to create more resources and think creatively about methods of production.
Some of the earth’s resources are finite. But there are ways to use the planet’s resources that are regenerative. Some resources, like oil, may be fixed in quantity. But others, like the power of the wind or the sun, are not fixed. We are forced to use oil to power our cars instead of solar because of the priorities of capitalism, and we’re forced to use cars because our cities are built for them rather than public transport.
According to British biologist Colin Tudge, using just the land that is currently cultivated, we could feed over 10 billion people—but only by changing the destructive nature of the current production process. That is, ending monoculture plantations, genetically modified crops designed not to regenerate, and huge levels of wastage, like dropping food into the ocean to raise prices.
It is the task of the environment movement to fight for productive practices that help restore and regenerate the world’s ecosystems and encourage a more equitable distribution of resources.
Those who cite population reduction as a way to stop climate change are really saying they find it easier to conceive of “losing” a billion or so people than contemplate fighting to change capitalism’s priorities.
The early socialist Robert Owen pointed to the fact that populationism attributes the condition of the poor and the hungry to a natural deficiency—by ignoring the historical effects of our unequal economic system, the theory ends up blaming the poor. Instead of asking “why do people go hungry?”, it asks “why do people have to eat?”
Henri Acselrad sums this up in an article for the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment: “Neo-Malthusianism has not pointed to the struggle against poverty through distributive social policies but instead to controlling the quantity of poor individuals. It seems to have the intention of preserving poverty.”
Overpopulation is a distraction from the practices of the big polluters—and at it’s worst, it can serve to legitimise their practices. That’s why the climate movement must reject it root and branch.