The Population Myth

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People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor

By George Monbiot, 29th September 2009

It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for example, claimed last month that “those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.”[1] But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.

A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.[2]

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.

Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together.[3] Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.[4]

The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) – is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.

While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few superyachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they’re accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour[5] I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 l/hr.[6] But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3400 l/hr when travelling at 60 knots.[7] That’s nearly one litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.[8]

Of course to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet skis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in ten minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we’re burning, baby.

Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.

In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined “Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation.” It revealed that “some of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly” to decide which good cause they should support. “A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.”[9] The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirise.

James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.

The obsessives could argue that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect. There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their reproduction, but weak environmental reasons, except among wealthier populations.

The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact that the world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century,[10] probably at around 10 billion.[11] Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.

But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth.” It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.

So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against superyachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it?

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.


1. Optimum Population Trust, 26th August 2009. Gaia Scientist to be OPT Patron.

2. David Satterthwaite, September 2009. The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change. Environment & Urbanization, Vol 21(2): 545–567. DOI: 10.1177/0956247809344361.


4. For example, Satterthwaite cites the study by Gerald Leach and Robin Mearns, 1989. Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis – People, Land and Trees in Africa, Earthscan Publications, London.




8. 15 US gallons/nm = 56.775l/nm = 31 l/km.

9. John Harlow, The Sunday Times, 24th May 2009. “Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation.”

10. Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516

11. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. The 2004 Revision


  • Good article, I want to add a few words about the *positive* effects of a large population. Population acts as a multiplier for the amount of value produced by almost all creative endeavors: if you invent a new widget, the more people who exist, the more will use your widget. As an example, today it’s easier than ever before to scrap together a living as a writer, artist, or blogger, making that your full time occupation. None of this would be possible with a small population.

    As civilization progresses, it does so via specialization: every (scientific or academic) field is already so advanced that in order to make substantial progress in any field, you almost *have* to devote your life to that field. This practically requires a large population– in a small population, there wouldn’t be enough economy of scale, and everyone would pretty much have to be farmers.

  • “Its not the biomass of humans that is “crowding out” other creatures (Alan Weisman’s 2007 book ‘The World Without Us’ says the near-7 billion humans alive today wouldn’t fill the Grand Canyon) but the inherently anti-ecological impact of human society as currently organised. Human impact on the environment would have a very different impact on the natural world in a socialist, zero-emissions economy.”

    Couple of relevant links:

  • Do we need a global one child policy and is it an effective or humane reponse to the ecological crisis? No on both counts.

    A state mandated one-child policy is a gross violation of a woman’s right to control her own fertility – something socialists should treat with the upmost importance.

    But also, the rate of human population growth is slowing down, not growing out of control. Monbiot’s point that population is set to peak at around 10 billion is correct (if we disregard the deadly impact of business as usual climate change will have). So for Richard’s question re how long can human pop growth go on for … the answer is around somewhere around mid-to-late this century according to the UN’s predictions.

    Its not the biomass of humans that is “crowding out” other creatures (Alan Weisman’s 2007 book ‘The World Without Us’ says the near-7 billion humans alive today wouldn’t fill the Grand Canyon) but the inherently anti-ecological impact of human society as currently organised. Human impact on the environment would have a very different impact on the natural world in a socialist, zero-emissions economy.

  • Great article by Monbiot, one of many. (About the only thing I have disagreed with in his recent pieces was his support, however relunctantly, for newspapers dependent on corporate ads, which he thinks can be suitably sieved to remove cheap flight promotions etc. – impossible in my view). Present readers might be interested in Michael Barker’s recent article on the elite’s campaigns for population control, including information on OPT,published in Swans Commentary, Aug.10,09. On the same website he has published much on the sadly neglected general topic of liberal elite foundations funding and manipulation of countless,nominally democratic movements.

  • Well, yes, but the left often argues as simple-mindedly as the right, in this case treating the issue as an either/or. Obviously, the poor don’t consume and produce CO2 emissions as the rich. But on a per capita basis they do consume more or less as much water, air, less food to be sure but some nevertheless. They consume land, some resources, some services, and they account for plenty of waste as is plainly evident in every slum on the planet. We Marxists are quite right that the capitalist system is the overwhelmingly the driving engine of eco-destruction but do we really want to argue that, therefore, it does not matter at all if the global human population soars to 9 or 10 or 20 billion with wall-to-wall people driving every other life form off the planet? It took all of human history for the human population to reach 1 billion by around 1800. It took not much more than a century to double to 2 billion by around 1927. The 3 billion mark was reached about 1960, 4 billion barely 14 years later in 1974, 5 billion 13 years later in 1987, 6 billion 12 years later in 1999 and 7 billion is expected in 1012. How long can this go on? If we are to survive in any kind of planet worth living on, humanity needs a global socialist revolution but it also needs a global one-child policy for a few generations to bring the world population way back down and give some space to other critters.

  • Monbiot has been accused of sanctimony for a while now. I think that he was seen this way because his greenhouse gas emission targets would require changes by everyone – rich and poor alike. This article demonstrates that he can distinguish between the interests of the rich and the poor. I hope that his future writings on climate change mitigation keep this class distinction front and center.

  • An excellent article, which flags up the difference in nature and impact of basic and necessary improvements in living conditions for the people of “low-income” countries, and the flagrant overconsumption of the top percent or two of the richest countries’ populations.

    Ironically, much of the response on the Guardian website is accusing Monbiot of therefore being against improvements in the quality of life for the world’s poorest billions. I am really struggling to understand how they extracted this from his words…

    PS. Thanks for this excellent website – the news and commentary keeps me grounded and up to date.