Too Many People?

In 1932 I was born into a world of 2 billion people.  Nearly 80 years on there are 7 billion, more than three times as many. My own small country New Zealand has nearly tripled its population in that time. I confess to feeling anxiety about the capacity of the globe to sustain this level of population, let alone the further billions we can expect this century. Does that make me a populationist? That’s the term used by Ian Angus, editor of online journal Climate and Capitalism, and Simon Butler, coeditor of Australian Green Left Weekly, in their new book Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis to describe people who attribute social and ecological ills to human numbers. The authors don’t. They attribute climate change and other ecological challenges to the growth imperative of capitalism, and their book takes issue with those who see “overpopulation” as a cause of the threats to the environment.

Whether there are too many people on the planet is not a question which can be lightly answered, say the authors. They agree that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, but consider it untenable to jump from there to the conclusion that the environmental crisis proves that we have exceeded the maximum number of people the earth can support. The high level of greenhouse gases points not to there being too many people but to the need to change human activity. Greenhouse gas emissions are not correlated with population growth.  Almost all of the population growth is occurring in countries with low emissions but almost all of the emissions are produced in countries with little or no population growth.

On the question of food shortages being due to overpopulation the authors argue that there is sufficient food but the existing global food system is grossly inequitable, wasteful and inefficient, preventing the food being available to hungry people.  To those who claim that the only way to feed so many people will be by industrial farming which carries environmental hazards with it, they argue that there is evidence that ecologically sound farming is in fact able to feed projected mid-century levels of population.  In an interesting discussion they cite the findings of the Agrimonde project as offering reasons for optimism, albeit against the likelihood that giant corporations will resist conversion to ecological agriculture and unabated climate change could harm many crops.

The book stoutly defends the world’s poorer peoples against accusations that they are having too many children and somehow thereby adding to the world’s environmental problems more significantly than the reined-in populations of the developed world. Any distancing of the North from the South, as in the immigration policies practised or advocated, is unjustified in view of the wealth the North has obtained from the exploitation of the South, including these days the export of dirty industries.

Sectors of society in the richer nations are also defended against the claim that their consumerism is responsible for the danger we are in. “In 2009, 43.6 million Americans lived on incomes below the official poverty line. If anyone is consuming the world into ecological catastrophe, it isn’t them.” The income disparities in the developed countries today are huge. The 147 individuals who topped the 2002 Forbes “World’s Richest People” list had total wealth equal to the total annual income of three billion people, half of the world’s population.

The authors let George Monbiot say what they are honing in on:

“It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.”

The individual greed and gluttony of some of the rich is distressing enough, but it is their ownership of ecocidal organisations and institutions which causes the worst damage. Corporations are the drivers of the consumer society, relentless in their drive for growth, their stimulation of a sense of need through advertising, their waste on a gigantic scale. Fossil fuels are the very basis of the power of the corporate world. And the book includes the military as the biggest polluter on earth.

So it’s not population growth that is the cause of our ecological troubles. It is capitalism’s need for growth. To focus on overpopulation is to divert attention from the real environmental vandals.

The book argues its case vigorously and interestingly, though its rigour seems excessive at times. I refuse to regard Lester Brown or Jeffrey Sachs as populationists, for instance, in the sense in which the book defines the term, yet they are so accused. They and others like them are certainly concerned that the world’s human population should level off, as I am, but I don’t see in their writing the facile argument that overpopulation in poorer countries is the cause of our environmental dangers.  The book comes up with some real enough and alarming enough examples of such attempts to shift the responsibility which belongs to the developed societies, and rightly exposes them, but it also does some tilting at windmills when it turns on people who would for the most part agree with the contention that we need governments who will move immediately to transform the most destructive features of capitalism. The prescriptions that the book provides are not confined to the eco-socialist position the authors represent, and where common ground exists it strikes me as sensible to occupy it in mixed company.

What I would judge to be their common ground prescriptions include rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with clean energy sources such as wind, geothermal, wave, and, above all, solar power; actively supporting farmers to convert to ecological agriculture; introducing free and efficient public transport networks; restructuring existing extraction, production, and distribution systems to eliminate waste, planned obsolescence, pollution, and manipulative advertising; retrofitting existing homes and buildings for energy efficiency, and establishing strict guidelines for green architecture in all new structures; ensuring universal availability of high-quality health services, including birth control; launching extensive reforestation and biodiversity programs.  Other prescriptions such as the cessation of military operations may be more divisive, but there’s plenty here that can unite people of different political persuasions.

However, the authors from their political perspective provide an ever-necessary reminder that the world’s poor are the first victims of ecological disaster, not the cause. And that is a fact which is receiving far too little attention from the more powerful countries. Over-population may be a matter which needs addressing, as the writers themselves somewhat reluctantly allow, but it’s not up there with the urgent requirement to fashion economies which no longer use fossil fuel energy and which respect the ecologies within which they function.

[Paul McCartney]

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9 thoughts on “Too Many People?”

  1. Thanks Bryan. This is a book I’d never bother to read, so I appreciate your review. And I completely agree with your summing-up above.

    How many left/liberal folks really are populationists anyway, in the caricature sense? Who really denies that impact equals population times affluence, after all? (Yes, technological refinements can diminish the impacts of affluence, but the basic equation still remains.)

    Surely, though, logically we all have to be populationists at some point? As you say, all the points they make are valid, but if you allow that there have to be limits on resources there also must be limits on sustainable populations – otherwise you’re just joining the cornucopians, albeit with a more forgivable humanist slant. It’s about education and control over a decent lifestyle rather than compulsory Depo Povera, sure, but it all has to stop somewhere…

    I was remembering only today an old Mad magazine back-cover mini-poster I sued to have on my wall in the 70s – a picture of the earth with a caption underneath ‘Occupation by more than 4.5 billion people is dangerous, and should be unlawful’ ! 7 billion doesn’t really seem like a laughing matter, particuarly given the leap in carbon emissions in 2010.

    This is probably a good location to flag Naomi Klein’s Capitalism vs. Climate essay, which also addresses the question of the responsibility of Capitalism itself.

        1. Yes concur wholeheartedly with the sentiments concerning the Naomi Klein article – an excellent exposition.
          Regarding the continuing expansion of world population – I read a year or so back an excellent book the name of which escapes me – but the tenant of the thesis propounded was that there is a generational time-lag. We cannot just say – “that’s enough!” and turn off the tap, as it were, to population growth. When you think about it, of course, that’s obvious. Factors such as the number of fertile women in the population, the death rates, the levels of nutrition, levels of education, etc all influence the population growth. Even if it was possible to stop populations at a certain figure – the down stream effects would be equally disastrous as we rely on successive generations to care for older, and maintenance of society etc.
          The most favourable outlook would be achieved in a far more equitable world than we have at present, (vis Naomi Klein article) where mortality rates were improved, along with improved life expectancy, education and nutrition etc. Under this scenario, fertile women would tend towards having fewer children – (eg developed countries) and the population would tend towards replacement birthrates. Even so, the projected World population would be around 9 to 11 Billion.

  2. The simple fact is that the more people there are on this crazy planet, the more difficult it will be to reign in emissions and move to a more sustainable economic system.

  3. No matter what the ‘number’ might actually be for a given level of affluence, there can be little doubt that a growing population in the light of a finite population and finite resources will eventually tip us over the edge. Affluence inevitably means increased consumption – at least so far. It is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If we don’t decarbonise our economy and embrace renewables and ‘fast’ reactors, we are likely to limit our population by starvation. Because, modern agriculture turns oil into food, but we cannot do that forever. Were the oil to run-out suddenly, the contraction in the world food supply would be very sudden. We must achieve the same result with solar, wind, tidal and ‘fast’ nuclear, before the oil runs out. To use coal would be a disaster.

    How we adapt society to an ageing population in the light of population reduction, is a puzzle we have yet to get to grips with.

  4. Although I agree that the rich and their huge corporations are a major part of our problem, I find it interesting that one important change wasn’t mentioned. The title of this article says it all: A neglected climate strategy: Empower women, slow population growth. Empowering women is important on so many levels, not the least population growth.

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