Population Control and Climate Change, Part One: Too Many People?

Population control is once again being touted by some in the green movement as an answer to climate change and other environmental problems.

By Phil Ward

Why is population control an issue?

There is a long history of intersection between the ecological movement and the advocates of population control. Sometimes, views on this issue are not explicitly reactionary, but still use terms and categories familiar to more trenchant population controllers, for example, the UK Green Party: “The UK casts its ecological footprint over the world, reflecting the real costs of a high, and still growing, population with high consumption.”[1] They link desired (lower) birth rates with sustainability and consumption levels with the “earth’s carrying capacity.”

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth appear not to take an official position on population control, but this means that they do not combat the reactionary positions put forward by the population control movement.[2]

The second reason that population control is a live issue is that simplistic responses to famine or ecological crisis reflect current public consciousness, including large sections of the working class in the imperialist countries. As I will argue, even if there were no campaign for population control measures, there is such a long history of linkage equating “hunger” or “demand for resources” with “too many people” that it has become deeply ingrained in Western culture. In this respect, the issue intersects with racism.

Origins of Population Control

The first attempt to codify the link between population and hunger came from Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). His ideas are still being used in the population control movement.[3] Malthus proposed an extreme form of the idea of the earth having “natural limits” or a finite “carrying capacity” in terms of the human population it could support. He argued two propositions which had already been disproved by the time he was writing, namely that population increases geometrically (for example, doubling every 40 years), while food production increases arithmetically (by a set absolute amount each year — for example by adding 1m hectares of farmland).

From this “inevitability,” he argued that excessive population growth and famine was only kept in check by “vice”, that is extramarital sex – which he presumed to be a contraceptive — and sexually transmitted diseases. Further, it was courting famine to aim to raise the living standards of the working class, “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.”

This is exactly the argument used by prominent population controllers of the 1960s. However, Malthus differed from these people in one respect (and here he was being consistent): his “mathematical” reasoning implies that whatever the population, agriculture will never be able to feed it and there will always be hunger. It was for this reason that he thought there was no point in “helping the poor.” His interest was less in population control than in controlling “vice.”

Malthus also argued that, as a result of excessive population growth, “the middle classes of society would be blended with the poor.” It is no accident that Malthus was writing immediately after the French Revolution, where “the poor” overthrew the aristocracy. Malthus’ book An essay on the principle of population was written in response to William Godwin, a prominent English supporter of the French Revolution and the Marquis de Condorcet, who was involved in the Revolution. Malthus saw the “inevitability of hunger” as an argument against Condorcet’s view that society could be “perfected.”

John Bellamy Foster shows that Malthus’ views, in a distorted form, influenced liberal reformers like John Stuart Mill, and early trade union and suffrage campaigners like Francis Place, on the moderate wing of Chartism. Malthus’ influence led to contraceptives being called Malthusian devices.

Marx and Engels on Malthus

Marx and Engels’ critique of Malthus centred on the following issues:

1) “[Malthus] applies his principle of the geometric growth of population as an eternal law of nature to all places and all times, suggesting therefore that the earth was already overpopulated when one man existed.”

2) He attributes the condition of the poor to a natural deficiency, not to the actions of human beings (from Robert Owen).

3) Only a small proportion of the earth is cultivated and not very productively at that. Malthusianism rejects scientific and social advance.

4) Only socialism, can make possible the “moral restraint of the propagative instinct which Malthus himself presents as the most effective and easiest remedy for overpopulation.”

5) Malthus’ “overpopulation” was in fact unemployment, a necessary adjunct to capitalism. Unemployment explains the existence of poverty, not lack of food.

Other socialists at that time made similar arguments. Thus H.M. Hyndman, leader of the Social Democratic Federation, pointed out in 1881 that, between the years 1848 and 1878, the British economy had grown by 110% and the population by 20%. He pointed out that what was obnoxious about capitalism was not people demanding to eat, but the rich appropriating the labour (means of subsistence) of the masses.


But many left-wing intellectuals in the 19th century took up Malthus’ views, often in combination with practical activity to promote birth control. They frequently held eugenicist views: that is, they believed that selective breeding out of “deformity” and “imperfection” would result in a healthier “race.” Holders of these racist, classist and disablist views included Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. In the 20th century, the radical birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger moved from a position of support for women’s rights to advocating the sterilisation of “unfit” women — “more children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control.”

The zenith of eugenicist ideology was of course the Nazi period, where the existence of a dictatorship allowed the implementation of a policy that was advocated in the other imperialist countries but applied in a more piecemeal manner. The Nazi policy was praised by the British Eugenics Review in 1939, “the most advanced eugenics legislation is carried through without difficulty.”[4]

So it is not surprising there were sterilization programs in the “democracies.” in the prisons and mental hospitals. Sixty-five thousand people were compulsorily sterilized in the USA up to 1981; 21,000 in Sweden in 1934-76; as late as 1999-2000, nearly a million indigenous people in Peru under Fujimori. Bonnie Mass cites examples of sterilization after birth in US hospitals in areas where there are large immigrant communities as late as the 1970s.[5]

The postwar period

The defeat of the Nazis led to the discrediting of strongly eugenicist ideas. But with the beginning of the involvement of the UN in population issues, the prospect of famine again became the main excuse for advocates of population control. The focus shifted to the neocolonial countries, in an attempt to exercise political control, as a result of the successful anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. A whole range of government and non-government organisations were established to promote and implement population control policies, led by the UN Fund for Population Activities, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the US Agency for International Development. These were backed up by an ideological onslaught, supported by foundations like Ford and Rockefeller.[6] The result was a press and publicity campaign which took up the themes of the time, “Hundreds of millions of people in the world are hungry. In their desperation, they are increasingly susceptible to communist propaganda… our way of life, if not the existence of ourselves and our children, is at stake.”[7]

The most famous ideological onslaught came from Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 1968, significantly a year that represented a high point in revolutionary challenges to imperialist power. Their book The Population Bomb predicted apocalypse if the third world population was not curbed. Paul Ehrlich showed his colours in his account of a taxi ride through Delhi, on a “stinking hot night.” “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.”[8]

Mahmud Mamdani, a Ugandan Marxist, challenged the Ehrlichs, pointing out that London and New York were just as crowded. What they really objected to – just like the eugenicists of the 1930s – was not people’s numbers, but their “quality,” in other words, their poverty (Mamdani did not suggest their colour as well).

“To talk, as Ehrlich does, of ‘overpopulation’ is to say to people: you are poor because you are too many. People are not poor because they have large families. Quite the contrary: they have large families because they are poor.”[9]

Mamdani and Bonnie Mass demolished the view that the key to improving the environment was population control. Mamdani’s research showed that villagers in rural India often politely took the Harvard-sponsored programmes’ contraceptives, but did not use them. In the prevailing economic and social conditions, it was not in their material interests to have fewer children. Western researchers were perplexed as to why they continued to have babies. Mass showed that US population control programs in Latin America from the 1930s on, were motivated by the desire to reduce the disruption and political turmoil caused by imperialist exploitation. In Puerto Rico, a third of women of childbearing age were sterilized by 1968.

The ultimate argument of population controllers was well articulated by Garrett Hardin.[10] He argued that the “freedom to breed” should be replaced by “mutual coercion, mutually agreed.” This means child taxes in the West (applied in China, in the form of fines) and denying food aid, food technology and immigration rights to developing countries, so that, “the rate of their population growth would be periodically checked by famines.” These measures would ultimately breed out “fecundity.” There is a clear concordance between Hardin’s views and those of Thomas Malthus.

At the same time two think tanks were producing similar ideas. The Ecologist published the “Blueprint for Survival” in 1972. In this, the world’s population was already considered too high (it was 3.9 billion: today it is 6.5 billion). Most of their policies to reduce population were rather mild, consisting of, “publicizing the relationship between population, food supply, resource depletion, quality of life etc. and the great need for couples to have no more than two children,” free contraception, abortion and sterilisation, and commissioning research on ways to reduce population, including, “the subtle controls necessary for the harmonious maintenance of stability.” But one thing they were sure of was complete opposition to immigration — a theme that is consistent on the right wing of the ecological movement.

The Limits to Growth report (also 1972) presented a left social democratic approach to what was perceived in the 1960s and 1970s as the population and resources crisis. It predicted that (then) current trends were unsustainable, leading to collapse of human civilization as a result of resource depletion “well before 2100.”

The report recognized that an equilibrium of constant population and industrial output is not compatible with current economic relations, which have increased the gap between rich and poor. But, immediately after this it says, “the greatest impediment to more equal distribution of the world’s resources is population growth.” It used arguments similar to Hardin and Malthus, but also echoed those who cite carrying capacity and ecological footprints, “Equal sharing becomes social suicide if the average amount per person is not enough to maintain life.” Statements like this were seized upon by some environmentalists to argue for population control, while their dire predictions for the future were scoffed at by anti-environmentalists.

In the period following these two reports, the idea of population control as a means to prevent resource depletion and protect the environment gradually lost credibility. The period saw militant campaigns against sterilization programs, especially in India, and against the use of contraceptive injections like Depo-Provera. The Greens in Britain modified their position on population and UN reports and conferences backed off from outright advocacy of population controls.

The new ecological right

Following a weakening in the 1980s and 90s, in the face of a growing awareness of climate change, a new movement for population control has developed, especially in the USA. The connection with immigration controls is much more explicit. The argument now is that as “we” consume so much energy and emit so much carbon dioxide, we should limit our population growth and refuse to let in migrants from countries where energy use is lower. This is combined with calls for (more) population control in those countries where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are rising very rapidly, such as India and China.

Thus, since at least 1998, there has been a campaign in the Sierra Club, one of the biggest environmental groups in the world, to link an anti-immigration policy with its policy of population reduction over the whole world. Many US anti-immigration groups use the environmental crisis and climate change to bolster their arguments.[11] Thus Numbers USA argues that, “US population growth explains the preponderance of growth in our national energy consumption,” neglecting to mention that immigrants are some of the poorest and least energy-consuming members of the community.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) argues that, “When immigrants come to the United States, they do not maintain the old lifestyle of their home country. They begin to adapt to the American lifestyle. As they do, they become greater consumers and damagers of natural resources; their individual rate of environment degradation increases.”[12] Clearly, the task of environmental degradation is too important to be left to immigrants.

In Britain, the main organization making the links between population, immigration and climate change is the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). The driving force behind this is Jonathan Porritt, head of the government’s sustainable development commission.[13] Other leading lights are Paul Ehrlich (again), former Green leader Sara Parkin, Crispin Tickell, who wrote Thatcher’s first speech on climate change and David Nicholson of the New Economics Foundation.

Nicholson’s recent report for the OPT, called A population-based climate strategy, starts with a list of the organizations and people agreeing that population growth is a main driver for GHG emissions, including the Hadley Centre (which models climate change), Sir Nicholas Stern of the Stern Report and Tony Blair. The report argues that planned cuts in emissions will be cancelled out by population growth.

Thus OPT pushes for draconian state controls on birth rates and on immigration: Their press release of 30 May 2006 argues that mass migration is stopping people from repairing the damage caused by climate change and by other factors that led to the migration in the first place.


Jonathan Porritt claims that China’s one-child policy since 1979 has averted 400 million births. Multiply that by 3.5 tonnes of CO2 per year and you get 1.4 billion tonnes, “the biggest CO2 abatement since Kyoto came into force.” He fails to mention that up to 2002 Chinese women were given no choice about contraceptive method, with the result that 37% of married women have been sterilized.[14] There is also illegal sex-selective abortion and less aggressive treatment of ill girls.

Under the policy, the average number of children born per woman fell from 2.9 in 1979 to 1.7 in 2004. But the biggest fall, from 5.9 to 2.9, was in the nine years up to 1979, under a voluntary policy of later childbearing, greater spacing between children and fewer children. It is well known that urbanization and economic development reduce population growth rates, and the number of children born per woman worldwide fell from 4.9 to 2.7 between the late 1960s and 1999. [15]

Malthus again

Porritt repeats Malthus’ “Fundamental Attribution Error” when he states in The Ecologist that, “completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep that continent permanently stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.” On the contrary, this population growth is precisely attributable to deep and real poverty. As for the “darkness,” that is a product of Porritt’s bigoted brain.

Moreover, Hyndman’s century-old point about the unjust distribution of economic wealth still holds true: between 1820 and 2003 world population grew by a factor of six, while the world economy grew by 60 times.[16] Inadequate distribution of resources is the main factor involved in the poverty that leads to population increase.

A socialist critique of Porritt and others should therefore take earlier Marxist objections to Malthus as its starting point, but should not be content to remain there. The argument against the population controllers will be further developed in a future article.

From Socialist Outlook, Autumn 2007

NOTES[1] UK Green Party, Manifesto for a Sustainable Society. Note also the position of Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP, “We are the only major political party to have a detailed policy position on population, which includes non-coercive measures to ensure global population reflects the Earth’s sustainable carrying capacity in the long term: boosting sex education, increasing the availability of contraceptives, promoting poverty reduction and female empowerment.” Letter to the Guardian, July 16th 2007.

[2] See http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewForeignBureaus.asp?Page=/ForeignBureaus/archive/200705/INT20070517b.html

[3] Here I am following John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Monthly Review Press, 2000

[4] Bonnie Mass, “Population Target.” Latin American Women’s Group, Toronto, 1976

[5] Mass, 1976.

[6] Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, South End Press, Boston, 1995

[7] T O Greissimer “The Population Bomb” The Hugh Moor Fund, 1954, quoted in Joseph Hansen, Too Many Babies, Pathfinder Press 1960

[8] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb 1968, p15. For the full quote and Mamdani’s riposte go to: http://web.mit.edu/.

[9] Mahmud Mamdani, The Myth of Population Control 1972, p14.

[10] Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 1968, also Lifeboat Ethics, 1974.

[11] For notes on these groups see: http://www.splcenter.org/.

[12] See http://www.inthesetimes.com/ and Daley, Ehrlich and Ehrlich, “Population and immigration Policy in the United States’

[13] See http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/.

[14] T Hesketh, Li Lu, Zhu Wei Xing, “The effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy After 25 Years,” New England Journal of Medicine 353, pp1171-1176, 2005

[15] UN ‘The World at Six Billion’

[16] Angus Maddison: http://www.ggdc.net/.

Posted in Climate Change, Population
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6 years 10 months ago

Fantastic article.

My own research into the history of biology textbooks drove me (kicking and screaming) to the same conclusions, and a place where heroes – Julian Huxley, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, etc. – became villains.

But there are a few characters (several of them socialists) in our past that deserve note for their anti-eugenic, economic justice positions. Off the top of my head, Herbert William Coon, Benjamin Gruenberg and Rachel Carson to name just three.

Michael M
7 years 7 months ago
Bravo eugene tano. I came to the same conclusion some time ago. There are different paths to this idea that it is in the nature of the species to self destruct this one and only earth. The population has been driven by the elite powers for a selfish reason. They wanted the rapid technological advances that come with growth. They perceive the technology as their only way to maintain the power they hold. Consumerism drives this growth. Untold and unknown technological advances are in the vaults of the of these elite. They can justify their pursuit by convincing the masses that without growth and the resultant technology it brings, we lose the race to keep our military technology as advanced as is needed to protect the status quo. Yes it does appear that the time necessary for transition to a sustainable eco–humanistic future by slowly reducing the population to an agreeable number has passed us by. And by what ever means the power elite will make sure that the population of the earth is reduced. Most likely by accident and natural disaster or with bio weapons that everyone knows have the great benefit of not being able to be traced… Read more »
8 years 18 days ago
Perhaps we need to find a new way of living in the world because we may not be able to provide a good enough future for our children by following much longer the “primrose path” of endless economic globalization that our leaders are relentlessly pursuing now. That is to say, we need to do something, both individually and collectively, that is different from the way we are doing things now. Time is short, it appears. Something calamitous could happen soon, much sooner than most people are imagining. Recently the great man, James Lovelock, reported that he is hoping for 20 more years before “it hits the fan.” By ‘giving’ us twenty years, I suppose he will not disturb the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us from my not-so-great generation of elders who have set their sights on rampantly growing the global economy until its unbridled increase becomes unsustainable and produces some kind of colossal ecological wreckage, the likes of which only Ozymandias has seen….come what may for our children, coming generations and for life as we know it on Earth. Such adamantine willfulness, unvarnished selfishness, unmitigated arrogance, and unfathomable potential for the precipitation of mass destruction are unparalleled… Read more »
eugene tano
8 years 30 days ago
the new world order wants to leave a world for their children to spend the billions of dollars that they have stolden from the general population and there for will do anything to any one who gets in their way. war lies, debts, anything to reduce the population so they can enjoy the good life at the expense of everyone except the eliete. be ready for a rough ride in the years ahead. atomic wars — yes biological deaths to millions yes, the space platforms are for the rich and and the nwo leaders. the under ground cities are built for the chosen ones who will drink an d enjoy life while most will be cooked by atomic and h- bombs.. but this is the fate of over population and there is no way now to stop what is going to happen very soon. but the few who do survive will start all over again and probably do it all the same again. so is the nature of man. amen…
eugene tano
8 years 1 month ago

i totally agree that the time in our history to have many children to survive is long past. tosay we should only populate with the most perfect humans that are on the planet at this time. we try to produce the best of animals so why not do the same with humands. if we dont start now we will soon be gone from this earth and the end days will not be very nice ..my plan would bring the world population back to 1-one billion at the most. it wont be easy but we must ||| do it now… or kiss the future goodby.

8 years 1 month ago

The family of humanity appears not to have much time in which to make necessary changes in its conspicuous over-consumption lifestyles, in the unsustainable overproduction practices of its big-business enterprises, and its overpopulation activities. Humankind may not be able to protect life as we know it and preserve the integrity of Earth much longer.

If we project the anticipated growth of unbridled per-capita consumption, rampantly expanding economic globalization, and 70-75 million newborns annually, then human civilization and life as we know could be put at risk soon.
According to my admittedly simple estimations, if humankind keeps doing just as it is doing now, without doing whatsoever is necessary to begin modifying the business-as-usual course of our gigantic global political economy, Earth could sustain life as we know it for a relatively short period of time.

The widely shared and consensually validated perspective of too many of our leaders that humanity is proceeding along a benign path to the future by having underdeveloped nations “leap-frog” through a ‘bottleneck’ to population stabilization in 2050, could be wishful and magical thinking.

8 years 1 month ago
Dear Phil Ward and Jonathan Porritt, If it is all right to do so here, I would like to pose a handful of questions that are related to the ominous potential for mass devastation that could result from human-induced climate change between now and 2025. Is it somehow harmful to ask direct questions regarding good scientific evidence of the potential for either apocalyptic climate change or pernicious impacts from the rapidly growing, colossal presence of the human species on Earth? Are willful blindness, hysterical deafness or elective mutism ever acceptable “defenses” for scientists who choose to deny evidence derived from good science? Is there some reasonable, sensible or moral foundation upon which faithful scientists can stand upright and say, “I refuse to acknowledge carefully and skillfully gained scientfic evidence if I cannot refute it?” Are scientists who present good evidence of climate change and human population dynamics, even though their research is plainly unforeseen and surely unwelcome, entitled to have their evidence openly discussed by professional colleagues with established expertise? If the global challenges looming before humanity are as formidable as the best available scientific evidence indicates, then is the family of humanity not well-advised to begin widely sharing in… Read more »
emmanuel pinto
8 years 1 month ago

even though malthus said overpoulation can results famine and starvation is the reason why countries are embarking on population control measures?