Will Population Control Solve the Climate Crisis?

Many environmentalists believe that environmental destruction is a product of “overpopulation”, and that the world is already “full up.” Are population reduction strategies essential to solving the climate crisis?

By Simon Butler
Green Left Weekly, November 8, 2008

See also: Population Control: A Diversion from the Real Issues

At best, population control schemes focus on treating a symptom of an irrational, polluting social and economic system rather than the causes. In China, for instance, such measures haven’t solved that country’s environmental problems.

At worst, populationist theories shift the blame for climate change onto the poorest and most vulnerable people in the Third World.

They do not address the reasons why environmental damage, or even instances of overpopulation, happen in the first place and they divert attention away from the main challenge facing the climate movement — the urgent need to construct a new economy based on environmentally sustainable technologies and the rising of living standards globally.

For at least 200 years, “overpopulation” has been used to explain a host of social problems such as poverty, famine, unemployment and — more recently — environmental destruction.

Between 1798-1826, the conservative English economist and clergyman Thomas Malthus published six editions of his influential Essay on the Principle of Population, which argued that population growth inevitably outstrips food production.

Malthus’ argument was that the English working class was poor because they were too numerous, not because they were exploited. He opposed welfare or higher wages because, he said, that would allow the poor to survive, and breed, compounding “overpopulation” and leading to more poverty.

Malthus was wrong about food production. In the last two centuries, food production has grown faster than population — his theories nevertheless gained wide acceptance among the English elite of the day because they provided a convenient excuse to blame the poor for their own predicament.

In the 1960s, Malthus’ anti-human ideas were resuscitated by a new generation of conservative theorists who argued that the people of the global South remained hungry because there were too many to feed. US environmentalist Paul Erlich, in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, argued for population control measures in the Third World to, he said, avert an ecological crisis.

Populationists like Erlich usually don’t question the unequal allocation of resources on a global scale. Nor do they admit that high birth rates in the Third World are largely a response to dire poverty.

Instead, they look at the world’s resources as though they were dividing up a pie: reduce the world’s population and those remaining will each get a bigger slice. They fail to address the question of power and, therefore, unequal access to global resources.

Most environmentalists who believe that population control is necessary would still reject the most extreme forms of the populationist argument.

But the fact remains that the real driver of climate change is not population growth but a market economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy. The corporations that profit most from taking the lion’s share of global resources are the same polluting industries that, today, are resisting the necessary shift away from carbon-based economies.

Populationists tend to downplay the question of power. As renowned US ecologist Barry Commoner commented, populationist solutions to environmental destruction are “equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship by lightening the load by forcing passengers overboard”.

He went on to ask the question that populationists tend to ignore: “One is constrained to ask if there is not something wrong with the ship”.

The world is not experiencing runaway population growth. Global population is growing, but the rate of growth is slowing. It peaked in the 1960s and has been in decline ever since. Global population grew by 140% between 1950 and 2000. Experts predict a further rise of 50% between 2000 and 2050, and just 11% in the 50 years after that.

The simplistic view that population control is the main way to reverse runaway climate change can obscure debate over other measures. These include: the rapid replacement of fossil fuel-generated energy with renewables; improvements in energy efficiency; and the introduction of sustainable agricultural methods.

In rich countries such as Australia, we need to campaign for environmental outcomes that sharply reduce Third World poverty, including cancelling debt owed to First World nations.

It is well documented — including in the wealthy countries — that birth rates fall as living standards rise. Furthermore, the greater economic independence women have, and the more control women have over their own bodies, the fewer children they have. Development, along with women’s emancipation, is the best contraception.

It is undeniable that parts of the world are overcrowded, and that land degradation through over-logging, erosion, over-hunting, over-fishing and poor waste disposal are massive problems in the countries of the global South.

These social, economic and environment problems are interlinked, and point to the real causes of overpopulation and environmental destruction of the Third World — extreme poverty. Liberty and justice and rights for the poor, especially women, have to be our concern.

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Other Climate and Capitalism articles on Population Control:

 

 

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barry
6 years 3 months ago

safe to say most of the above posts are written by people living in and are beneficiaries of the civilization that many people escape to.socialists should be asked where else would they prefer to live? their beloved utopia can’t exist without brainwashing the human race into becoming a star trek like “borg collective”.
the alternative (which they accuse private corporations of scheming on)is the use of forced labor gulags and concentration camps to suppress dissidents.the term soviet means”socialist citizen”btw.

John Pope
6 years 4 months ago

S. Butler: “…populationist theories shift the blame for climate change onto the poorest and most vulnerable people in the Third World.”

Wrong.

Let’s be logical:

1. Developed countries are trying to increase their numbers of prosperous citizens (to grow their economies).

2. Prosperous people create a greater carbon footprint than poor people.

3. As the overall population grows, so does the number of prosperous people.

4. The number of prosperous people increases as the economy grows.

5. The increase in the number of prosperous people increases carbon emissions, and contributes to climate change.

6. Therefore: policies in developed countries, which try to increase their population, are contributing to climate change.

It is wrong to accuse those concerned about over-population of blaming the poor.

John Pope

7 years 5 months ago
Most of those in this discussion – not everyone – but most, seem to be in a “business as usual” mode. The actual point, though, is that business as usual is over. That’s what unsustainable means – it means “can’t be sustained anymore.” Translate that: “It’s over.” One way or another, it’s over. Either fossil fuels area over because they are running out, or they’re over because their continued use means planet- wide extinction on the scale of the Great Dying at the end of the Permian era. Either way, the population boom that arose from the fossil fuel boom under industrial capitalism and socialism is simply _over_. Human population is going to contract, and what none of us have to say about it is going to change that. The “Green Revolution” that is credited in large measure with enabling the population boom was a fossil fuel boom, from fertilizers to the industrial farming machinery to transport. Has anyone stopped to wonder exactly what the underlying connections might be between the evolving Food Crisis and the fact that, at a minimum, Peak Oil is on the horizon? Who among us has questioned their premises closely enough? I can only claim… Read more »
7 years 5 months ago
Most of those in this discussion – not everyone – but most, seem to be in a “business as usual” mode. The actual point, though, is that business as usual is over. That’s what unsustainable means – it means “can’t be sustained anymore.” Translate that: “It’s over.” One way or another, it’s over. Either fossil fuels area over because they are running out, or they’re over because their continued use means planet- wide extinction on the scale of the Great Dying at the end of the Permian era. Either way, the population boom that arose from the fossil fuel boom under industrial capitalism and socialism is simply _over_. Human population is going to contract, and what none of us have to say about it is going to change that. The “Green Revolution” that is credited in large measure with enabling the population boom was a fossil fuel boom, from fertilizers to the industrial farming machinery to transport. Has anyone stopped to wonder exactly what the underlying connections might be between the evolving Food Crisis and the fact that, at a minimum, Peak Oil is on the horizon? Who among us has questioned their premises closely enough? I can only claim… Read more »
7 years 5 months ago
Population is just one of those questions that one wishes we could avoid not because it is NOT part of the real problem but because it is used by the right to obfuscate the true nature of the problem. Simply put capitalism requires, in order to exist, an abundance of people to be exploited and a scarcity of resources for humans to use. The higher the population and the greater the scarcity, the greater the profits! Therefore NOT breeding is a revolutionary act which will destroy capitalism. Breeding is a reactionary act which prevents the achievement of socialism. What?! I hear you cry. Lets step back and understand the motor of capitalism and therefore the driving force behind populaton. Capitalism functions by having two markets ‘resources & production’ and ‘consumption’. The capitalist needs the resources as cheap as possible and therefore produces as much as possible. This is also why capitalism is so technological driven and energy intense. People are a resource (human labour) and therefore anything to encourage their breeding to lower their market value is good. Hence anti-birth control, etc. This massive surplus of production means that food commodity prices (in the commodity market) are at 1930’s levels.… Read more »
John F.
7 years 5 months ago

Fred Meyerson, assistant professor of demography, ecology, and environmental policy at the University of Rhode Island provides some other reasons why addressing population is key to dealing with climate change:

http://www.peopleandplanet.net/doc.php?id=3159

John F.
7 years 5 months ago

“Because of the short amount of time the world has to deal with global warming, population control is not a solution”

Yes it is, for two reasons:

1) *Any* reduction in fertility rates today means fewer emissions tomorrow. In the long term is means far fewer.

2) If we fail, in our current actions, to account for *either* the near term or the long term, we are just as dead in the latter.

Milton Takei
7 years 5 months ago

Because of the short amount of time the world has to deal with global warming, population control is not a solution, unless the plan is to kill off millions of people. For an example of how a poor country has reduced its birth rate, see Cuba.

7 years 5 months ago
Okay, Simon. Let me try again to make this understandable, for I agree that we only have one lifeboat. So let’s borrow that Spaceship Earth metaphor. We only have on spaceship. We are complete idiots to have put 6.7 billion people on it. So now the atmosphere has its problems. Yes, we should do all we can to minimize per-capita CO2 contributions to the atmosphere. And we cannot euthanize some of the passengers, so it will indeed take awhile to address the number of crew-members part of the equation. So much more heroic must be the per-capita reduction. And you are correct, we cannot rely on population reduction to be of significant help in the short term (though it cannot hurt). However, let’s be intellectually honest about what per-capita CO2 emission level we can (and should) get the crew down to. And let’s be honest about whether the spaceship can support 6.7, 7, 9, or 2 billion crew at that emission level. Can we keep feeding them and processing their waste? If we cannot, then I see no reason to dance around the population issue. The sooner we all admit that we have too many crewmembers, the sooner crewmembers will… Read more »
Robert
7 years 5 months ago
Simon “In my view this very real threat makes it necessary to shift as fast as possible to a zero-emissions economy based on meeting environmental and social needs…” The flaw in your argument is that the planet can only sustain 6.7 billion people by continuing most of the industrial and agricultural practices that are causing our current environmental problems. We have expanded the human carrying capacity of the planet by drawing down fossil fuels and pumping up agricultural yields through fossil fuel fertilisers, pesticides and agricultaral machinery. In the natural order humans sit close to the top of a food chain pyramid, and under natural conditions you would therefore not expect the human population to be more than a few hundred thousand. By artificially (but temporarily) boosting the carrying capacity we have inverted the pyramid, yet convinced ourselves that this is somehow the new natural order of things. It won’t make any real difference whether we have an extreme left or an extrame right system of government – 6.7 billion people is a completely unsustainable number. Irrespective of climate change, fossil fuels will deplete to nothing over the next century or so and we will be back to living on… Read more »
7 years 5 months ago
David G wrote that he disagreed with Barry Commoner’s sinking ship metaphor that I quoted in my article. David wrote: “Let me offer a more meaningful metaphor. A populationist solution to environmental destruction is actually more like being in one of the lifeboats of a sinking ship, and refusing to take on so many passengers that you sink the lifeboat!” I think this sums up the populationist approach fairly well… and it also graphically reveals its false basis. In all of his ecological writings Commoner was very sensitive to the fact that the the ship we’re travelling on – the planet – is the only one we have. Make no mistake, we travel on a ship with no lifeboats! If we don’t ‘repair’ our ship then we all go down with it together. The lastest research from climate scientists like James Hansen and others reveals that the warming of the planet is occuring at a drastically faster rate than previously thought. Key climate tipping points – such as the melting of the Arctic ice caps, release of methane from melting permafrost, warming oceans etc, are upon us already or are desperately close. It is more than extremely unlikely that a… Read more »
John F.
7 years 5 months ago

Andrew proclaims:

“Population hysteria is a depoliticizing balm…”

There is nothing more arrogant than the knee-jerk notions that (a) in the last moment of our history, the human population has not exploded at tremendous cost to other species, and (b) that its continued growth, so grossly beyond the population of any comparable species, is not a dire problem for the biosphere.

By the way, most serious population activists agree the “global north” has the worst population problem in the world.

Robert
7 years 5 months ago
Andrew Have you ever asked yourself why the global population has grown by a factor of 10 in the last 200 years? It is surely that those in the poorer countries live off the “crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table”. It takes very little food to simply survive – far less than most of us in the rich west throw away – and because of that poor populations can and do grow rapidly. Thus we have a situation where populations are growing fastest in the poorest parts of the world. Add to that the easy access to global information, porous borders and ease of travel and you find that, not surprisingly, much of this extra population is migrating to richer countries so that they can join our over-consumption bandwagon. The net result is both a growing global population AND a growing per-capita impact on the planet. None of it is planned. It is just an inevitable by-product of unrestrained growth in a (mainly) democratic industrial civilisation. Malthus will inevitably be proved right in due course. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. The so called “green revolution” was really just a step change in our efficiency… Read more »
Andrew
7 years 5 months ago

The Malthusians as ever are completely unhinged from social *and empirical* reality.

According to the World Bank’s 2008 development indicators, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounts for 76.6& of global consumption.

A look at per capital CO2 emissions is equally stark. Sparsely populated Canada ranks 11th in per capita emissions, crowded India, 133rd.

Population hysteria is a depoliticizing balm for the bad conscience of the global north, and one which doubles as a neo-colonial stick with which to beat the Majority world, who bear the brunt of climate change but not the blame.

Latter-day Malthusians can fuck off.

7 years 5 months ago

Roland, you said: “One fact that always contradict their theories is that the higher the standard of living — the lower the fertility rate. So the real solution, to their argument is for all to share the abundance of wealth and the problem will go away naturally!”

Actually, economic development is the cause of overpopulation, not the cure. Undeveloped nations have both a very high birth rate and death rate. The introduction of modern technology causes a decline in the death rate much, much faster than the birth rate declines. Yes, the fertility rate does fall eventually, but only following an enormous population explosion.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t promote development, but that we need to recognize what will happen and simultaneously introduce measures to quickly bring the birth rate under control.

Pete Murphy
Author, “Five Short Blasts”

Robert
7 years 5 months ago

Agree with all the comments. Disagree with the article. The deer on St Matthew island had the same problem:

http://dieoff.org/page80.htm

7 years 5 months ago

Roland,

While it is true that improving standard of living does bring fertility rate down, that creates quite the conundrum, as the planet clearly doesn’t have the resources to support half the world’s population living at even modest American standards. China or India alone, consuming and polluting at U.S. rates, will be an ecological disaster.

So, once again, we are simply going to have acknowledge that population level is a critical issue and the sooner we can all agree to that, the sooner and the more people will voluntarily limit family size and policy-makers will stop incenting larger families.

We just can’t ignore it, and there is absolutely no moral, logical or scientific basis for doing so.

Dave Gardner
Producer/Director
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
Join the cause at http://www.growthbusters.com

Rick Shea
7 years 5 months ago

It is clear that the current “Sixth great extinction” of other species on this planet is human-caused. We are crowding them out of their habitat with our sheer numbers, and our economic activity is destroying their habitat. Our apparent “prosperity” and “abundance of wealth” are temporary bubbles supported by cheap energy (which, of course, is about to end) and by our willingness to accept a human monoculture on this planet. Promoting even more of this obscenity will only make the coming crash even worse — Ronald Wright’s worst fears made real.

Malthus wasn’t wrong, he was just ahead of his time.

Roland Sheppard
7 years 5 months ago

Those that think capitalism can be reformed always try to give population growth as a reason for unemployment, racist competition for jobs, the destruction of the environment ect.. They provide a fig leaf for capitalist pauperization and destruction of the world.

One fact that always contradict their theories is that the higher the standard of living — the lower the fertility rate. So the real solution, to their argument is for all to share the abundance of wealth and the problem will go away naturally!

Wolfger Schneider
7 years 5 months ago

The author states:
“But the fact remains that the real driver of climate change is not population growth but a market economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy.”

False: The fact is that the drivers of climate change are the size or the global population, AND our non-sustainable, carbon-based lifestyles practiced by the developed countries and aspired to by the undeveloped countries.

The green revolution which allowed us to feed more people is based heavily on natural gas and petroleum products. Wheras we once produced a calorie of food with less than a calorie of energy, we now need in excess of ten calories to produce and deliver a calorie of food. With the slow disappearance of fossil fuels it will be difficult to feed even the current population numbers without doing great damage to other lifeforms in our competiton for more agricultural land.

Just visualize how easy life might be with only 1 billion people and then ask yourself what is the benefit of 10 billion in another century?

Wolfger Schneider
Citizen

7 years 5 months ago
I’m disappointed in this writer’s near-blanket condemnation of sustainable population advocacy. It’s the all too typical bleeding-heart, save the poor, don’t think too hard about the problem, liberal response to some very sound arguments for including population as HALF the long-term solution to achieving sustainability on a finite planet. I do not dispute that economic justice is an important goal. I don’t believe you’ll find that Paul Ehrlich is indifferent to this problem. The writer shared US ecologist Barry Commoner’s comment that “populationist solutions to environmental destruction are “equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship by lightening the load by forcing passengers overboard”. Let me offer a more meaningful metaphor. A populationist solution to environmental destruction is actually more like being in one of the lifeboats of a sinking ship, and refusing to take on so many passengers that you sink the lifeboat! Human impact on the planet equals population times per-capita resource intensity. They are equally important in achieving sustainability. If you reduce one while the other increases, the net effect is zero improvement. The writer suggests we should relax about population growth because global population is “only” predicted to rise 50% during the first half of this… Read more »
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