Population Control: A Diversion from the Real Issues

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“Too many people” arguments provide no solution to the global warming crisis 

By Simon Butler

See also: Will Population Control Solve the Climate Crisis?

Last week, in Green Left Weekly and Climate and Capitalism, I argued that population reduction schemes provide no answers to the threat of climate change. Population-based arguments wrongly treat population levels as the cause, rather than an effect, of an unsustainable economic system. This means they tend to divert attention away from pushing for the real changes urgently needed].

Campaigning for such measures as the rapid introduction of renewable energy and the phasing-out of fossil fuels, along with a shift to sustainable agricultural methods, should instead be the highest priority of the environmental movement.

Strategies to reduce human population also end up blaming some of the world’s poorest people for the looming climate crisis, when they are the people least responsible. Instead, it is the powerful, vested interests that profit most from the fossil-fuel economy who pose the real threat to the planet. They must be confronted.

A section of those who accept the idea of population reduction on environmental grounds would protest that their own ideas aren’t designed to substitute for the introduction of renewable energy, but to complement it.

Others would be indignant at the suggestion that their views have anything in common with the overt racism expressed by the likes of prominent US population theorist Garrett Hardin.

Hardin argued against providing food and medical aid to countries in the Third World facing famine. Such humanitarian aid only encourage more babies to survive, driving up “overpopulation” and resulting, he said, in further environmental destruction.[1]

Population theories still retain their appeal to people who are genuinely worried about the threat of global warming, are concerned with enduring poverty in the global South and would reject Hardin’s callous conclusions.

The rapid world population increase over the past two centuries appears to offer a plausible explanation of how the world got itself into ecological distress — reducing world population seems like a plausible solution.

Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) is an example of an environmental group that couches its population reduction arguments in the framework of a professed humanitarian response to the perils of climate change.[2]

A “key document” published in 2007 by SPA and available on its website predicts a depressingly dire future for humanity. According to SPA: “Without a planned humane contraction, this century will see social chaos and human suffering on an unprecedented scale.”[3] If population reduction schemes are not implemented, they warn, then population reduction will be inflicted on us anyway — in the form of famine, war and disease.[4]

SPA supports the introduction of renewable energy, believes foreign aid should be increased, opposes immigration selection on racial grounds and argues wasteful and excessive consumption in the big polluting countries in the First World must be reduced.

But they contend that the environmental benefits of these measures will not be enough. Any gains, SPA asserts, will be wiped out by increased human consumption unless a planned world population reduction occurs as well.[5]

SPA concludes the “most important single action … governments should take is to begin at once to implement humane strategies to reduce population”[6]

But SPA’s “humane” position still fails to provide either an effective, or a truly humane, strategy to avert the consequences of climate change for a number of reasons.

There is no factual basis to the SPA’s claim that a shift to renewable energy could be simply negated by population increases. Clearly, in a zero-emissions or low-emissions economy, population levels will impact on the environment in a very different, more sustainable way. SPA simply does not take this into account.

Furthermore, the argument still serves to divert attention away from the genuine, urgent need for widespread renewable energy by insisting population reduction schemes should take number one priority.

This is dangerous because it dovetails with the message coming from the advocates of “business as usual” policies who imply, against the evidence, that renewable technology is not advanced enough to replace fossil fuels today.

SPA recommends a global average of one child per family as part of its strategy for a sustainable world. Yet they fail to examine the case of China, which has enforced a one-child policy on its population for three decades.

There are many problems with this far-from-humane policy. But if assessed solely on sustainable climate outcomes then China’s population reduction scheme can only be considered to be a spectacular failure.

To sustain their emphasis on population control, SPA has to downplay the inconvenient truth that the world’s rate of population growth is actually declining, not blowing out of control. The growth rate of greenhouse gas emissions, however, is expanding dangerously today.

While there is no direct link between population increase and greenhouse gas emissions there is a clear and obvious link between expanding fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas increases.

In common with other populationist arguments, SPA fails to tackle the question of political power in society. That’s why SPA’s “humane” argument is couched largely in terms of containing, or mitigating, the apparently inevitable effects of environmental destruction.

There’s little in SPA’s position that gives hope that the climate justice movement can actually win the political battle for social justice and a safe climate in time. Population control measures assume the absolute worst case scenario from the outset — a future world so harsh and so polluted they hold it will become more “humane” to stop people in the global South from being born at all!

There is a kernel of truth in this apocalyptic scenario. Left unchecked, human-induced climate change is a serious threat to life on the planet. But the challenge this poses, however, is to fight for an alternative model of development based on meeting the needs of people and the planet, before it is too late.

Part of the problem is that groups such as SPA tend to see the people of the global South as passive victims of climate change — not as potential agents of sustainable change.

Environmental movements in the Third World are active, growing and involving far greater numbers than the movements in the First World. Millions are fighting for a sustainable world today, so their children and grandchildren can have hope for a decent life in the future.

As Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, has pointed out: “The challenge facing activists in the global North and global South is to discover or bring about those circumstances that will trigger the formation of a global mass movement that will decisively confront the most crucial challenge of our times.”[7]

Population control theories all relegate the billions of people in the global South to being just a part of the problem. But this outlook is radically false. They are, in fact, what Bello calls “the pivotal agent in the fight against global warming”.

The populations of the global South are not responsible for climate change. Rather, they are an essential component of a safe climate solution. Our strategy should be to join up with them in this fight for the future — not draw up plans to reduce their numbers.

* * * * * * *


[1] Richard Lynn’s “Tribute to Garrett Hardin” unabashedly praises these racist, anti-human, misanthropic ideas. A good indication of how far away Hardin’s populationism is from the ideology of the left. http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/tributes/tr_lynn_2001.html.

[2] www.population.org.au

[3] Global Population Reduction: A 21st century strategy to avoid human suffering and environmental devastation. p.3. Available at < http://www.population.org.au/GPR_SPA_2007.pdf>.

[4] “So the world faces a stark choice: either act now to reduce population or do nothing and allow this population reduction to be inflicted upon us either directly through famine or indirectly through disease or civil and regional wars motivated by resource scarcity.” Ibid. p 1.

[5] ” Savings made by implementing renewable technologies (lowering T) and reducing unnecessary affluence (lowering A) would soon be offset by consumption growth due to the rate at which the population (P) continues to expand. The most enduring way to lower total human environmental impact (I) is therefore to lower the value of the population size (P).” ibid, p5.

[6] Ibid, p10.

[7] Walden Bello ‘The Environmental Movement in the Global South: The Pivotal Agent in the Fight against Global Warming’  <http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?act_id=17458>



  • Take a look at this graph. As anyone can see, the gross world product has expanded about 8-fold since 1950. In the same time, population has less than tripled.

    Obviously economic growth is not driven by population. And it is economic activity that causes the emission of greenhouse gases.

    Population levels are not the problem.

  • these are numbers–interpret them as you will

    906m 1171b 1609b 2400b 6080b 6,840b
    1800 1850 1900 1950 2000 2010

    notice between 1900 and 2000 the almost 4x increase?

  • In my humble opinion, the diversion and distraction going on here is talk of racism and North vs. South, and even attaching the word “control” to the word “population.” There is much evidence that Earth cannot support 9 billion people even at very high efficiency. We are wringing the life out of our soils today and using a lot of fossil fuel to feed the current 6.7 billion. Water supply is a huge challenge. Mass extinction is underway.

    The fact is a sustainable population level at moderate lifestyle is well below today’s 6.7 billion. Can technology and lifestyle changes make the world work long-term for 7, 9 or 12 billion? That is unlikely, unproven, and certainly a risky gamble.

    So, why do we ignore the simplest part of the solution with no guesswork involved? Fewer people on the planet improves all the lives, guaranteed. Can we not simply agree on this fact, without having to agree to take any draconian measures to force a reduction in fertility rates?

    To suggest that population level is not worthy of respectful, reasonable discussion as a critical part of the sustainability equation is incomprehensible. I have to wonder why the taboo on discussing sustainable population levels, and including them in the climate change conversation, pervades even the writing of very intelligent people with access to all the facts.

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