CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE OVERPOPULATION MYTH

SOME REFLECTIONS

The Corner House

The burning of fossil fuels to drive a century and a half of Northern industrialisation is by far the major contributor to human-caused climate change. Once dug, mined and taken out of the ground and burned, coal, oil and gas add to the amount of carbon cycling between the atmosphere and the oceans, soil, rock and vegetation.  

On human time scales, this transfer is irrevocable  and unsustainable. There is simply not enough “space” in above-ground biological and geological systems to park safely the huge mass of carbon coming out of the ground without carbon dioxide building up catastrophically in both the air and the oceans. The earth and its ecosystems have their limits.  

At the most fundamental level, therefore, the climate solution requires turning away from fossil fuel dependence. Societies locked in to fossil fuels need to adopt structurally different, non-fossil energy, transport, agricultural and consumption regimes within a few decades to minimise future dangers and costs. Infrastructure, trade, even community structure, will have to be reorganised. State support will have to be shifted from fossil-fuelled development toward popular movements that are already  constructing or defending low-carbon means of livelihood and social life.  

Solutions to the climate crisis thus depend first and foremost on political organising and on social and economic changes.  

It is not surprising, however, that a worsening climate situation is often attributed not to continued fossil fuel extraction but to too many people. Whenever global environmental crises, Third World poverty or world hunger are at issue, whenever conflict, migration or economic growth are discussed, economists, demographers, planners, corporate financiers and political pundits (at least in the North) frequently invoke overpopulation.  

Over 200 years ago, at a time of immense social, political and economic upheavals and deprivation in England triggered by the enclosure of common lands and forests on which peasant livelihoods depended, free market economist Thomas Malthus wrote a story about how nature and humans interact. The punch line was his mathematical analogy for the disparity between human and food increases. Harnessing politics to mathematics, he provided a spuriously neutral set of arguments for promoting a new political correctness – one that denied the shared rights of everyone to subsistence, sanctioning instead the rights of the “deserving” over the “undeserving”, with the market as arbiter of entitlements. The poor were poor because they lacked restraint and discipline, not because of privatisation. This is the essence of the overpopulation argument.  

Today, a range of industries use the same argument to colonise the future for their particular interests and to privatise commonally-held goods. In agriculture, for instance, the talk is of extra mouths in the South causing global famine – unless biotechnology companies have the right to patent and genetically-engineer seeds. With respect to water, growing numbers of thirsty slum dwellers are held to threaten water wars – unless water resources are handed over to private sector water companies. And in climate, the talk is of teeming Chinese and Indians causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their greenhouse gas emissions – unless polluting companies are granted property rights in the atmosphere through carbon-trading schemes and carbon offsets.

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Frequently left out of discussions about tackling malnutrition, hunger, starvation and famine, for instance, are the maldistribution of the world’s food supplies, skewed access to land, trade policies, the hazards of devoting land to agrofuel or carbon offset production, unequal access to money to buy food, and commodity speculation.  

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

As such, population theory is far more than a theory or a principle. It is above all a political strategy that obscures the relationships of power between different groups in societies, whether these be local, national, global, while at the same time justifying those political relationships that allow certain groups to dominate others structurally, be they men over women, property owners over commoners, or ‘us’ over ‘them’. The “too many” are hardly ever the speakers, they are always the Other. 

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 or darker skinned ones or people from the colonies and countries of 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.

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From its earliest days, moreover, demography has espoused the belief that “females create population problems”. Unlike almost all other development, economic, environment or social policies devised by think tanks, implemented by governments and funded by multilateral agencies, population policies focus on women from the outset rather than tacking them on later – or rather focus solely on the number of children to whom women give birth.  

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