Do Consumers Cause Climate Change?

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Readers of Climate & Capitalism debate the causes of damaging economic expansion. Do “more consumers” mean “more pollution”?

by Ian Angus

One of the most contentious debates among green activists concerns the responsibility of individual consumers for promoting greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change.

In addition to the obvious question of whether changing individual behavior is an effective way to fight climate change, this issue is also a key factor in the debate on the relationship between climate change and population growth.

The claim that consumer behavior causes emissions growth is frequently made by advocates of population restriction: in essence, they argue that more people cause more emissions, so reducing the population will reduce emissions. A very similar argument is used to argue for limiting immigration to rich counties: immigrants, it is said, will adopt high-emission lifestyles, and so accelerate global warming.

Most ecosocialists would reply that individual consumers have very little control over greenhouse gas emissions, that consumption patterns are driven by an irrational system of production, not vice versa.

These issues have been discussed in several recent Climate and Capitalism articles:

C&C readers who are interested in this important issue should check out the Comments following those articles. While the quality of individual contributions varies, the discussion as a whole provides valuable insight into the thinking on both sides of the “individual consumer responsibility” debate.

I found the following exchange particularly interesting, so I’m reproducing excerpts here, to make it easier to find and follow. The Comments appear in full after “Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change,” in which Betsy Hartmann and Laurie Mazur debated the population issue.

Jeff White:

“Very revealing is Mazur’s observation that it would be ‘easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.’ Implicit in this is a faulty assumption that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. Back in 1975, when world population was only 4 billion people, was it ‘easier’ to provide a good life, at less environmental cost, to the majority of the world’s people than it is today, when we have nearly 7 billion? Obviously not.

“The reason is that poverty and climate change are socio-political, not biological problems. Under a system of globalized capitalism, it doesn’t matter how many people there are on the planet; reduce the world to a billion inhabitants and there would still be unsustainable ecological destruction and enormous economic, racial, and gender inequality.”

Laurie Mazur:

“I do argue that that it would be ‘easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.’ But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of this is easy. Nor do I assume that that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. See, for example, my recent blog on Haiti:

“I certainly do not believe that a smaller world population is a panacea; it would not by itself usher in a new era of sustainability and equity. Nor am I naive enough to believe that slowing population growth is ALL we must do. Challenging the petro-military-corporate-industrial complex is the first order of business if we hope to survive as a species. This challenge is every bit as daunting as it was in 1975, the year Jeff White references.

“But other things have changed since 1975. The atmosphere is now full. We have surpassed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that would preserve a habitable planet for current and future generations.

“Against that backdrop, consider the challenge of raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day. We can hope that developing countries will steer a different course than the one we’ve followed, and ‘leapfrog’ over the most environmentally destructive technologies. But almost any scenario that accounts for economic growth in the developing countries means a vast increase in carbon emissions.

“China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

“Indeed, the only scenario in which population size doesn’t matter for CO2 emissions is one in which the current inequitable divide between rich and poor countries remains fixed for all time. At best, that scenario is unrealistic. At worst, it is cruel beyond imagining.”

Jeff White:

“Laurie Mazur commits the fallacy, common among the population fetishists, of presenting per capita emissions statistics as the primary driver of climate change. She says:

‘China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.’

“It starts with mathematical sleight-of-hand. Representing a country’s total emissions as simply the sum of all the per capita emissions helps to create the false impression that total emissions are a direct function of population.

“The fallacy lies in the fact that the total emissions must be known before you can calculate the per capita emissions. First you take the total emissions and divide by total population to get a per capita figure; to then multiply that figure by the total population is merely to reverse the calculation back to the original number you started with – total national emissions! It’s these total emissions that are the primary data; per capita figures are derived from the total, not the other way around.

“Per capita figures are statistical artifacts that tell us the ratio of a country’s total emissions to its population. But they don’t tell us about individual contributions to the country’s total emissions. For example, if I tell you that Canada’s annual per capita emissions are 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, it doesn’t tell you how much of that 23 tonnes I, as an average Canadian, am personally responsible for. It includes, for example, ‘my’ per capita shares of the emissions caused by the mining of the tar sands in Alberta, the manufacture of cement in Quebec, and the industrialized livestock production in Ontario – none of which I have any personal control over.

“If half the population of Canada suddenly disappeared, my per capita share of emissions, and that of every other remaining Canadian, would increase dramatically overnight, without any change being made in my – or anyone else’s – personal levels of carbon consumption. The population fetishists would realize their fondest wish (a dramatic reduction in population levels) while per capita emission levels would soar! What could demonstrate more clearly that per capita statistics tell us nothing about ‘overpopulation’?

“Canada’s per capita emissions are among the worst in the world. Does that mean Canada is suffering from overpopulation? On the contrary; Canada is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with about 3.3 people per square kilometre. Moreover, the current fertility rate of 1.66 babies per woman is far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Without immigration our population would decline. When it comes to carbon emissions and overconsumption, Canada’s problem is capitalism, not too many people.

“Mazur also makes the error of assuming that raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day necessarily involves unsustainable forms of economic activity and growth. It doesn’t, unless you also assume that there is no alternative to profit-driven, capitalist modes of production.

“In fact, the whole population control movement is predicated on an inability to imagine a sustainable alternative to capitalist waste, greed, and exploitation. It seeks to find biological solutions to economic and political problems.”

Alex Haughey:

“It is true that per-capita carbon emissions of each country are not a measure of personal responsibility for climate change. A measure that does attempt to represent that is a carbon ‘footprint.’ A person’s carbon footprint is the total carbon emissions caused by all of the goods and services they consume. Under this measure responsibility for Canada’s cement industry would not be heaped onto Jeff’s total, but rather the totals of the ultimate customers of that industry.

“The problem with this measure for Jeff’s repost to Laurie, is that while Canadians lose personal responsibility for their Cement industry, they gain personal responsibility for the carbon footprint of all the plastic tat that they buy that has been manufactured for them and shipped to them from overseas. If Canadian habits are anything like British ones (I am from the UK), then that is a hefty responsibility indeed.

“If half the population of Canada disappeared, then a lot less plastic tat would be made, and Canada’s carbon footprint would be dramatically reduced (not by half, to be sure, but a significant reduction nonetheless).

“My personal view is that we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. Carbon footprints help show us the environmental consequences of buying goods and services. They could also show us the environmental consequences of starting a family. Clearly there are many other extremely important things to consider, but they can be part of the decision. What is wrong with that?”

Jeff White:

“Alex, it’s wrong to focus on the consumption rather than the production of goods. If I buy things made out of plastic or packaged in plastic, and consume those goods, my consumption does not create greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, the emissions associated with the goods have already been created by the manufacturer, before I ever get my hands on the product. They properly belong to the manufacturer’s carbon footprint, not mine.

“I do not personally have any control or influence over the manufacturing process or the packaging of goods. If manufacturers are profligate with fossil fuels and use carbon-intensive production methods, then the responsibility lies with them, not me.

“This is what the population-control ‘leftists’ fail to understand. By making environmental issues all about consumption rather than production, they simplistically jump to the conclusion that the environment can be saved by having fewer people around to consume manufactured goods. In other words, they completely let the manufacturers off the hook.

“They also swallow the fallacy of ‘consumer democracy’ – the idea that we as consumers can ‘vote with our wallets’ to force manufacturers into ecologically sustainable modes of production. It’s a fallacy born of a quasi-religious belief in the power of the marketplace to solve all problems, thereby avoiding the messy necessity to actually take political action to bring about the systemic, revolutionary social and economic change that will be required to allow humanity to live in harmony with nature.”

The discussion continues. Please feel free to add your comments below, and watch for more articles on this subject on Climate & Capitalism in the near future.


  • What I’m struggling to understand, Nicole, is where your argument, including its extreme caricature of the ecosocialist position, leads to a viable strategy for combating climate change. I’m struggling to understand why someone such as you, who claims to be capable of criticizing capitalism and its power dynamics, and capable of respecting individual dignity, thinks that an appreciation of “population dynamics” is going to make the movement for climate justice more effective.

    If, as you maintain, “population dynamics” are part of the ecological problem, what are we supposed to do about it? I have yet to see anyone who thinks overpopulation is the real problem come up with a single proposal for action that doesn’t blame women, immigrants, and racialized populations for the ecological crisis.

    So how does your position do anything other than divert the climate movement away from an anti-capitalist perspective, and into racist, sexist, xenophobic, and personal-lifestyle issues?

  • What I am struggling to understand here is this. Ian, Betsy Hartmann, and many others start with the assumption that if you even *allow* yourself to consider the possibility that *just maybe* the size and rate of growth of the human population is a salient factor in the complex and dynamic process that is ecology, then you are automatically lacking in critical awareness of the capitalist system, its neverending need for growth and consumption, and its inherent tendency to distribute both wealth and power in radically unequal ways. That you devalue the actual experience of each individual human being as an existential end in him- or herself. That you have no respect for the rights or the dignity of these unique individuals.

    However, humans, as it turns out, ARE capable of criticizing capitalism and its power dynamics, respecting individual dignity, AND, simultaneously, recognizing that you absolutely cannot discuss ecological matters without addressing the population dynamics of species. This includes all species, not only humans. Population dynamics are an inherent aspect of environmental science and ecology. They affect every biome and every interspecies relationship. Someone above mentioned carrying capacity– this is a concept that I have YET to hear mentioned by Betsy Hartmann or anyone else who is coming from the human rights perspective.

    I understand where Ian, Betsy Hartmann, and others are coming from. I understand that there are racist, sexist, and classist perspectives that have been justified in the name of conservation and population stabilization. I acknowledge this and admit that it is a blind spot for some ecologists. I also acknowledge that policies based on these perspectives are authoritarian and coercive at worst, or paternalistic and condescending at best. However, I think that swinging to the opposite extreme + reacting in an alarmist, knee-jerk fashion to even the mere mention of the word “population” (RED ALERT! FASCIST RACIST STERILIZATION DEPOPULATION PROGRAM AHEAD!!) is not only unproductive, but it is equally as fundamentalist (i.e. rigid and oversimplified) as an exclusive focus on, as Dr. Arizpe says, “numbers of human bodies” and nothing else.

    I think an ability to shift continually from the unique individual endowed with dignity and rights, to our ecological and economic systems made of relationships and energy flows– is a crucial ability that we all need to cultivate, whether we are human rights activists, ecologists, or anti-capitalists. Or all three. 🙂

  • Joe …

    One positive result of this discussion has been that the tone has become more respectful on both sides, that both sides have at least tried to discuss issues. I thank you for your contribution to that process. Although we don’t agree, I hope we better understand each other’s views.

    I want to comment briefly on the issue of coercion.

    You have repeatedly said that you, like Laurie Mazur, oppose coercive measures to reduce population, that you believe that just making birth control generally available will achieve that goal. You object to being bracketed with those who favor compulsory birth limitation.

    As I said in the article that touched off this debate, I do not doubt Mazur’s sincerity. Nor do I doubt yours.

    Unfortunately, sincerity isn’t enough. Sincere people have unwittingly caused a lot of damage in this world.

    As I also pointed out in that article, study after study of family planning programs in Third World countries — including a study reported in Mazur’s own book — shows that programs motivated and funded by a desire to cut population have consistently used coercive measures, regardless of the desires of their supporters.

    In my opinion, that’s a direct result of viewing people as the abstraction “population,” rather than as actual human beings who live and work in a host of different social, economic, political, geographic, institutional and ecological contexts.

    Dr. Lourdes Arizpe, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and former Assistant Director General of UNESCO, put the problem very clearly in a book she co-edited, Population and the Environment:

    “The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context. It is what these bodies do, what they extract and give back to the environment, what use they make of land, trees, and water, and what impact their commerce and industry have on their social and ecological systems that are crucial.”(p18)

    She’s saying that to change the world, we need to understand how it really works, in detail. Global statistics and broad generalizations about population are rarely helpful: in fact they are often barriers to understanding and to effective action.

    As an ecosocialist, I am an unbending defender of human rights, including women’s right to safe and effective birth control. I am equally unbending in my determination to expose and deal with the real causes of ecological destruction. For both reasons, I am resolutely opposed to blaming the world’s problems on “too many people.”

    I will be writing more articles on various aspects of populationism in coming months. I hope you read them, and I will continue to welcome your comments.

  • Jeff White:

    I am not asking eco-socialists to give priority to population issues, writ large.

    As this article shows, you have more important work to be doing:

    However, when you go out of your way to attack someone like Laurie Mazur and insist on using stale old stereo-types to throw mud at people trying to good work, and put word in our mouths that we’ve nothing to do with, I will confront you and argue you down from now until the cows come home.

    Now, let me also say that I am glad people like you, Ian and Betsy Hartman exist. You are like cruel old watchdogs acting on behalf of the progressive population stabilization movement; we don’t even have to pay you.

    There are far too many (even one would be too many) people for whom your critiques are chillingly accurate. Your criticisms force a clearer understanding of self-identity for those to whom they do not apply.

    Additionally, one of your core messages — re: the ecological deprivations of capital — is one that sorely needs to be heard and considered in the western psyche.

    I can’t ask you to change your mind or your convictions.

  • Dear Ian:

    Thanks for offering your responses to the questions I posed. The aim of the exercise is to draw attention to how ecosocialists are still bound within the pre-Darwinian notion of human superiority. We typically call other species “invasive” if they threaten ecosystems balance. For example, currently Asian carp is considered a threat to the Great Lakes or the 12 million or so feral cats in australia are correctly seen as a threat to many indigenous species in that country.

    But I am not aware of any serious concern, including among ecosocialists, that humans are invasive species par excellence! What was missing from my note was that China has 1.1 billion people and about 40 tigers in the wild. Hundred years ago, there were tens of thousands of tigers in the wild. Or it does not bother you if humans have brought under cultivation half of the land mass, thereby destroying the habitat for all kinds of wild lie.

    If ecosocialism differs from socialism of the old, it is not in the bourgeois idea of preserving the Earth so that humans continue to use “goods and services” provided by Nature. That would be superficial (bourgeois) ecosocialism. Rather, it is the revolutionary (Deep) ecosocialism that true to Darwinian evolutionary theory places humans on the same level as other species.

    Why socialists and ecosocialists are for planning, but no for planning human population in accordance to what science of ecology tells us about our adverse impact on diversity of life?

    Why are we for the rights of oppressed and exploited humans, but continue to slaughter tens of millions of lams, cows, pig, chicken, turkeys, etc. to provide us a “menu of choice” at each meal. Surely, it is not because humans should eat meat (and at immense quantity), we can do better as vegetarians.

    I could go on. But let me pause here and ask you; Why cannot we have just 2 billion people living under socialism in peace and harmony not only among ourselves but with other species that grace the beauty of what we call Nature. The figure of 2 billion comes from various ecological studies. and it can be attained in 50 years from now, if on average every woman would be happy to have one child. That is not such a bad idea and what bars of from it is nothing less than what bars of from socialism itself.

  • Joe Bish wrote: Population stabilization is part of any legitimate sustainable living scenario we hope to achieve with the planet, be [it] eco-socialist or otherwise. Focusing on population in exclusion of inequity, militarism and the worst deprivations of capitalism is wrong; ignoring it is worse.

    Single-payer public health care is also part of any legitimate sustainable living scenario we hope to achieve with the planet. So are old-age pensions, mass transit, and a free public education system. But we don’t see too many advocates for those issues coming around to scold ecosocialists for “ignoring” them and demanding that we give them priority over the need to replace the capitalist system. Only the population-fetishists seem to do that. Is it any wonder our reaction is to call them anti-people?

    Equating population control with emancipation and empowerment of women is nothing but a rhetorical device designed to stifle any criticism of seeing “overpopulation” as the root cause of all humanity’s problems. In actuality, the main aim of the “too many people” lobby is not the liberation of women, but merely the reduction of their fertility rate.

    Who’s to say that fully emancipated and empowered women in some future society would not want to have children – even more children? Isn’t it conceivable (pardon the pun) that many women in today’s society feel constrained from having (more) children because of the need to keep working, the lack of affordable child-care, the cost of child-rearing, and the years of unpaid hard work involved?

    Ecosocialists understand that the empowerment and emancipation of women is about far more than handing out family planning information and contraceptive devices, useful though those activities are. So long as capitalism persists women will never be fully emancipated and empowered; the essential precondition for the full liberation of women is socialism. Campaigning to reduce fertility rates doesn’t even begin to come close.

  • Tim,

    That’s all so wonderful, but you keep insinuating that I am representing an anti-people movement; that’s profoundly dishonest.

    Secondly, you seem to expect me to allow you to disavow the historical excrement of socialism without a blink; meanwhile, if I say “progressive population stabilization efforts mean to me what they mean to Laurie Mazur: the empowerment and emancipation of people, especially women” you keep invoking the spectre of Malthus or forced sterilizations. Why do you do that?

    The rate of population growth has peaked, but absolute nominal population growth is still absurdly high at 2.4 people per second. Like it or not, “stabilization at mid-century” is about as likely to occur as eco-socialism is — unless serious efforts to are made to provide reproductive health and family planning services to those who want them.

    Population stabilization is part of any legitimate sustainable living scenario we hope to achieve with the planet, be eco-socialist or otherwise. Focusing on population in exclusion of inequity, militarism and the worst deprivations of capitalism is wrong; ignoring it is worse.

  • I have no need to repeat myself. But just to clarify a few things:

    1. I have nothing kind to say about the state capitalist regimes of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China, etc. Those tyrannical regimes were not socialist. Socialism means to me what it meant to Marx: self-emancipation of the working class and the oppressed from below.

    2. The fact is that population growth peaked decades ago and has been on the decline ever since.

    3. As the sociologist John Bellamy Foster pointed out in an article on Malthus a decade ago: “Where threats to the integrity of the biosphere as we know it are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life, that constitute the greatest danger.”

    4. Population is not the reason for ecological degradation or world hunger, nor will it be in the foreseeable future. The global capitalist system is. Focusing on population is incorrect, confusing, and plays into the hands of the ruling class. As Ian continually reminds us, we need an anti-capitalist movement, not an anti-people movement.

  • Tim,

    I did not deny the existence of atrocities in the name of misguided “population control”, they are a clear landmark in history. I did provide evidence that trying to frame the population discussion as a north vs. south fight is disingenuous, as there are many people from all around the world, including southern countries who are concerned with the ecological ramifications of rapid population growth… and they are not all capitalists elites or lemming-like stooges of the capitalist system.

    One thing I will tell you for certain is that I don’t go ’round accusing you or Ian of the historical atrocities committed in the name of socialism — so I would appreciate it if you stopped with the slander. There is nothing hysterical about concern for people and planet. I feel safe in assuming you don’t intend to see the ecosocialist vision you have come via the iron fist… maybe I am wrong.

    The much-heralded stabilization of population at mid-century is dependent upon as yet unrealized investments in family planning and reproductive health care:

    Ironic thing is that as long as we don’t mention our motivations for the hope, I feel safe in assuming we would both hope these investments are made.

    “We support it because we are committed to human emancipation.”

    I support “it” for that too, along with the fact it will help slow population growth.

  • Joe Bish said:
    “the eco-socialists talk about changing the system of production, while for some as yet unclear reason dogmatically oppose the effect of what can happen by providing women and families around the world reproductive free choice and comprehensive family planning tools.
    – – –
    Interestingly, most do not oppose the provision of choice and family planning tools per se”

    That’s such a crock. Socialists, eco- and otherwise, are the staunchest and most consistent advocates of womens reproductive rights and womens liberation you can find anywhere. In fact, only by ending the class system where womens oppression is rooted can true liberation occur. Bourgeois feminism that accepts the limits of the capitalist system has been beneficial to a small number of ruling class women, but for the majority of women, it has proven itself to be a dead end. What Engels wrote of working class women in his ‘Origin of the Family…’ is relevant today:
    “When she fulfils her duty in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and cannot earn anything; and when she wishes to take part in public industry and earn her living independently, she is not in a position to fulfil her duties.”

    We ecosocialists are not for womens liberation because of Neo-Malthusianism fear mongering and population hysteria. We support it because we are committed to human emancipation. We do, however, oppose forced sterilization and population control programs implemented by the ruling class, which you actually denied the existence of in a previous discussion. You said: “It is disingenuous to claim that the rich are trying to coerce the poor nations on population issues.”
    But make no mistake, it is very real. See:

    To say that eco-socialists aren’t in favor of real immediate actions and reforms in the here-and-now because we only see the revolution as a worthy goal and that we are concerned with ideological purity, and this explains our opposition to neo-Malthusianism and population hysteria, is another total crock. Ecosocialists are also the most consistent proponents of here-and-now pragmatic eco-reforms that will actually work and move us in the right direction (transitioning to solar and wind, more urban gardens, strict enforcable emissions limits, end to Canadas tar sands, free clean public transport, sustainable agriculture) and opponents of schemes and reforms that won’t (clean coal, nuclear, cap-and-trade, the Copenhagen agreement, factory farming, neoliberal farming and trade, and Neo-Malthusian hysteria).

    The rate of population growth actually peaked several decades ago and has been declining ever since. In fact, studies show that it’s likely that population will slowly grow for only a bit longer and then level off. Actually addressing the poverty and the neoliberal domination in the places where population is currently growing the most would likely reduce that growth. But that’s not the point because the fact is, population is not the reason for global hunger or ecological degradation right now, nor will it be at the level it is expected to level off at. As Chris Williams puts it in a recent article on this subject:
    “Even if population growth were to end today, worsening rates of starvation, the growth of slums, and ecosystem collapse would continue more or less unabated. Food production continues to outstrip population growth, and therefore cannot be considered the cause of hunger.
    – – –
    Those committed to fighting for a better world should focus their attention not on curbing population growth, but on the real cause of mass starvation and ecological crises: the capitalist system itself. Doing this necessitates a fight against inequality, exploitation, poverty, environmental degradation, racism, and the oppression of women.
    – – –
    The fact that people have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands around the globe to demand that their governments provide what should be regarded as a human right—access to food—should be welcomed, not fretted over. Fighting for a reduction in the extreme levels of poverty that exist in the Global South as well as the hunger that exists in the North, means fighting alongside the workers and peasants of the developing world to confront the entrenched corporate power of the multinationals and their paid enablers in government that exploit and oppress all of us.
    Rather than seeing the poor as some kind of demographic threat, as neo-Malthusians such as Brown do today, we should recognize them as our allies in struggle. Indeed, some of the most inspiring struggles to preserve livelihoods, decent jobs, environmental integrity, and indigenous cultures over the last 15 years have come from peasants and workers in the developing world fighting against water privatization, deforestation, and the strip-mining of local resources and food supplies by Western multinationals and financial institutions. We need to categorically reject the argument that population growth is at the heart of world hunger or that people in the developing world are not producers of wealth as well as consumers—that they are somehow not part of the struggle for a better world. To do otherwise is to accept that the division of rich and poor is an eternal law of nature, whereby there are always destined to be “too many” poor. To quote Engels, Malthus claims that:

    “the earth is perennially over-populated, whence poverty, misery, distress, and immorality must prevail; that it is the lot, the eternal destiny of mankind, to exist in too great numbers, and therefore in diverse classes, of which some are rich, educated, and moral, and others more or less poor, distressed, ignorant, and immoral.…The problem is not to make the “surplus population” useful, to transform it into available population, but merely to let it starve to death in the least objectionable way and to prevent its having too many children, this, of course, is simple enough, provided the surplus population perceives its own superfluousness and takes kindly to starvation. There is, however, in spite of the violent exertions of the humane bourgeoisie, no immediate prospect of its succeeding in bringing about such a disposition among the workers. The workers have taken it into their heads that they, with their busy hands, are the necessary, and the rich capitalists, who do nothing, the surplus population.””
    ISR, Issue 68 November-December 2009

  • Kamran Nayeri poses “some questions for ecosocialists.”

    1. Are we for unbound human population growth? UN predicts 15 billion people by 2050. If yes, why?

    Actually, the UN is predicting that world population will peak at 9 billion around mid-century, then start to decline. Not even the most extreme population control proposals claim to be able to reduce the peak by a significant amount or hasten the day when population growth will end.

    So “unbound human population growth” is not on the agenda, but considerable growth is certain.

    As an ecosocialist, I reject the premise that I have to choose one of two positions on population, for or against unlimited growth. That’s an artificial choice, a distraction from the real social and economic causes of environmental destruction — causes which are inherent in capitalism.

    2. If humans are part of the Earth’s ecosystem, is there an optimal population size for humans?

    This is actually two unrelated questions. Humans are part of the Earth’s ecosystem but that doesn’t mean there is some magical “optimal population.”

    The meaning of “optimal” depends on a host of assumptions. In the words of Joel Cohen, who devoted an entire book to the subject:

    “The Earth’s capacity to support people is determined partly by processes that the human and natural sciences have yet to understand, and partly by choices that we and our descendants have yet to make. A numerical estimate of how many people the Earth can support may be a useful index of present human activities and of present understanding of how to live on the Earth; it cannot predict the constraints or possibilities that lie in the future….

    “At any given time, a current but changing human carrying capacity is defined by the current states of technology; of the physical, chemical and biological environment; of social, political and economic institutions; of levels and styles of living; and of values, preferences and moral judgments.”
    (How Many People Can the Earth Support? Norton & Co, 1995. pp. 11, 17)

    2a. Consider this: China now has 1.1 billion people and left in the wild (about 4500 are raised in their farms for their parts). Is this something you can support? If not, why not?

    There seem to be words missing here, so I can’t answer.

    3. 41 percent of the world population now lives in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    This isn’t a question. Am I bothered by that statistic? No.

    4. About half the earth land surface is under cultivation. A direct result if loss of habitat for other species, a direct cause for mass extinction.

    I don’t know where you got your total figure, but you seem to be confusing “land under cultivation,” with “agricultural land.” About 70% of all agricultural land is devoted to raising livestock, a result of global agribusiness promoting expensive and unhealthy food. I and many others have written about the need to radically change the profit-driven food industry. Unless we do that, mass extinction will continue.

    5. Life, including human life, is richer, literally, by diversity. We live in the midst of the 6th great extinction in Earth’s history, with humans (capitalist or Soviet type “socialist”) being the cause.

    No ecosocialist doubts the importance of ecological diversity, or the horror of the current wave of mass extinction. But I disagree with your assumption that humans as such are the cause of the great extinction. What matters is not how many people there are, but what those people do. As I’ve said before, we need to build an anti-capitalist movement, not an anti-people movement.

  • A curious divide between what “ought to be” and what “is”.

    It seems that everyone seriously engaging in this discussion believes the planetary situation is not ecologically sustainable; that is certianly my position as well.

    In a nutshell, the eco-socialists talk about changing the system of production, while for some as yet unclear reason dogmatically oppose the effect of what can happen by providing women and families around the world reproductive free choice and comprehensive family planning tools. That effect being the further reduction in global fertility rate, slower population growth and sooner population stabilization.

    Interestingly, most do not oppose the provision of choice and family planning tools per se… they merely oppose the idea that one can retain a moralistic integrity by supporting those provisions out of concern for the ecological welfare of the planet.

    They view this as profoundly misguided, having identified the capitalistic system of production as essentially the one and only ecological problem facing the human community. They view conscious attention towards lowering planetary fertility as something naively elitist, in most cases misanthropic, and ultimately a red-herring so long as the system of capitalist production remains dominant.

    In other words, you can support womens liberation and family planning programs only in so far as you do not in any way, shape or form link that support to your concern about the current and future well-being of the biosphere (human and non-human).

    All your concern in that regard is best, and to retain any legitimacy *must be*, channeled through devotion to seeing an era of eco-socialism reign on a planetary scale. Because if this scenario is achieved ecological stewardship will be, first and foremost, the focus of human productive efforts and malignant relations with our planet will be minimized almost as to not exist.

    I agree that there is tremendous value in this intellectual vision of what “ought to be”. It is an unusual, relatively speaking, critique of the situation and could serve so many a much needed pill of cognitive dissonance.

    However, what the situation “is” — from any honest assessment — suggests the main benefit of this eco-social vision is in its polar opposition to reigning ideology and popular notions of normalcy. Further, what “is” occurring is that 9000+ more people are being added onto our planet each hour, many unwanted and unplanned, but all who will need to utilize our already tragically burdened planet, whether in subservience to capitalist production or the fact that they would like to eat sometime this week.

    Trying to tell me, or anyone, that they are mistaken in calling attention to this unsustainable tragedy and simultaneously offering human rights enhancing remedies that are uncontested as good things in themselves (family planning, reproductive health) can only be a symptom of unrelenting devotion to a higher priority — in this case, eco-socialism.

    I do not think eco-socialists necessarily have their priorities wrong, but I am certain they are fools in trying to run concerned environmentalists through their sieve of ideological purity when it comes to the issue of the absurd rate of population growth of homo sapiens.

    Every time eco-socialists bring forth the argument that population is not intermingled within the ecological sustainability issue they validate their own worldviews of what “ought to be”, but do nothing to help the planet as it “is”.

    They may be doing yoeman’s work in their other articulations, but on this issue, in my opinion, they fail.

  • The population question is central for ecosocialist movement to proceed beyond what socialist movement was able to achieve theoretically and in terms of policy. Any one who raised the problem of population growth reminds our socialists of Malthus, who Marx’s criticized for his anti-working class bias and under-estimating capacity for agricultural productivity increases. But that was in the nineteenth century when human population was below 2 billion! It has since tripled to under 7 billion people.

    Here are some questions for ecosocialists:

    1. Are we for unbound human population growth? UN predicts 15 billion people by 2050. If yes, why?

    2. If humans are part of the Earth’s ecosystem, is there an optimal population size for humans? COnsider this: China now has 1.1 billion people and left in the wild (about 4500 are raised in their farms for their parts). Is this something you can support? If not, why not?

    3. 41 percent of the world population now lives in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    4. About half the earth land surface is under cultivation. A direct result if loss of habitat for other species, a direct cause for mass extinction.

    5. Life, including human life, is richer, literally, by diversity. We live in the midst of the 6th great extinction in Earth’s history, with humans (capitalist or Soviet type “socialist”) being the cause.

    I can go on with these, but let me stop and ask you: Should not ecosocialist give population growth a serious second look and adopt a policy? After all the most effective method is through a program that would educate and empower women.


  • I agree mostly with Ciaran Mundy’s post above. It’s undeniable that the discovery of an abundance of cheap fossil energy available for the taking (and appropriating into private hands) made possible an unprecedented period of rapid economic growth and concentration of wealth for the capitalist system. It’s even possible to imagine that, were it not for the fortuitous circumstance of this planet’s having stored vast quantities of solar energy in the form of coal, oil, and gas in its crust, capitalism would not have become such a powerful, entrenched, flexible, adaptable, and long-lived economic system as it has been.

    And of course, unlimited long-term economic growth (despite short-term recessions and depressions) has given rise to continuous population growth – although, as I have often noted, the rate of the latter has always been outstripped by the rate of the former throughout the history of capitalism.

    Because of the nature of capitalism, however, with its disregard for both the environment and the needs of greater humanity, its readiness to appropriate the natural wealth of the planet for private profit, its need to feed the machines of war, and its built-in imperative for growth, I would argue that a socio-economic system based on different principles would have reacted differently to the discovery of fossil fuels.

    For example, a democratic system based on the recognition of the importance of preserving the biosphere against destruction, the need to live in balance with the earth’s natural ecosystems and to minimize waste, and the obligation to share the fruits of nature and of human labour for the benefit of all, would have used fossil fuels in entirely different ways. In that sense, I don’t agree that the “socio-political system” is irrelevant to the way in which a natural resource is used.

    I don’t think that runaway climate change was inevitable once humans struck oil; but it’s idle to speculate on what might have happened but never did.

    What’s important is to try to figure out how a future ecosocialist society, inheriting both the mess and the bounty left by capitalism, would actually give us a chance to treat this planet and its inhabitants with the respect they deserve.

  • Roger: You aren’t alone in looking for ways to respond to populationist arguments.

    Over the next few months, Simon Butler and I will be writing a series of articles dealing with various aspects of this subject — I hope you’ll find them useful. If you have any questions as we go, or any suggestions for arguments we haven’t answered, please let us know.

    Thank you for the link to that appalling article in The Samosan, in which the author ridicules a “facially plain development worker” who he was “lumbered with” on Valentines Day. That passage really tells us all we need to know about him — but Simon and I will take up his knee-jerk populationism as well.

  • Jeff White said:
    “They also swallow the fallacy of ‘consumer democracy’ – the idea that we as consumers can ‘vote with our wallets’ to force manufacturers into ecologically sustainable modes of production.”

    He’s absolutely right. The insulting nature and absurdity of notions like ‘consumer democracy’, ‘voting with our wallets’, or maybe the worst ‘one dollar, one vote’ should be obvious to all. If a dollar is a vote, Bill Gates and Dick Cheney have so many more ‘votes’ than you or I that trying to pretend that something like democracy is taking place in the capitalist market is nothing more than a sick joke.

    The fact is that production is ultimately controlled by a tiny elite who are forced by the competitive dynamics of the capitalist system in which they operate to constantly seek profit. This reality is what’s behind ecological crises. It is what blinds elite economic planners to ecological consequences, both qualitative and quantitative. And in the end, even this elite itself isn’t truly in control. The imperative for profit controls them. If an elite won’t act to maximize profit, he/she will be replaced by an elite who will. It’s capitalist discipline. If profit increase stalls and growth slows, a crisis occurs that sends the global system into shambles. Look at our current predicament. What ultimately needs to be happen is for the vast majority to take our economic and productive lives into our own hands so we can collectively and democratically plan and control things with our own needs and ecological sustainability in mind. That means doing away with the capitalist system and its ruling class who themselves are bound by the dictatorship of profit. Shopping ‘activism’ is a dead end.

  • I’ve been following these debates for a while. I am instinctively opposed to any form of population control but I not wholly satisfied by my own arguments.

    There was an article published on the soft-left website The Samosa last week that linked to Simon’s piece:

    I think the tone of his piece if outrageous but I am less certain how to criticise his ecological arguments.

  • I think Jeff White makes his point very well on population not being ‘the issue’, but its not correct to frame the fossil fuel era as a purely socio-political phenomenon. It is more than coincidence that human populations exploded around the same time we started mining for energy, rather than depending on the flow of energy in natural systems. More fossil fuels allowed industrialisation of agriculture. Any species finding a rich exploitable resource of energy/food would likely go through a population explosion as a result and then crash if that resource declined or created too much toxic waste (peak oil & climate change). It’s a serious predicament irrespective of the socio-political system within which such a problem occurs. The point remains as to what kind of system is best suited to handling this predicament in the most humane way? This is the political question to my mind. I agree that change driven by consumer responsibility is fatally flawed. In the consumer capitalist paradigm, agency is seen to reside in our individual ability to shop our way to sustainability. This is clearly not the case:

    Even if sustainable substitute products were generally available, it’s impossible to be informed enough in the face of endlessly shifting branding, where most of the information acted upon is that delivered through advertising (commercial world will always have greater resources than ‘campaigns’ to message relentlessly) The idea that most people could sift through advertising information to find all relevant details to make informed choices is ridiculous. We must recognise this if we are not to waste precious time and energy.

    However, that does not mean that trying when and where possible to make signal changes in our own behaviour is not meaningful. If I want to persuade others to join me in changing the system causing so much damage, I think being willing to take responsibility for ones own behaviour is necessary, whilst recognising that we are part of the system we want to change.

    For example I have reduced massively my dependence on meat and dairy, I cycle and use public transport and never fly. I campaign in my neighbourhood, city and country to change the system. The Transition movement I have found a powerful tool for getting many people together from across social and political boundaries. It is shifting the centre of gravity right here and now.

    My gripe is with the system, not with people who depend on it. BUT it’s much easier to stay motivated and persuade others about changing the system when I choose to avoid supporting it where I can.

  • Paul York wrote:

    “The system we have now – capitalism and industrial technology – very often manipulates or forces people or persuades them to act in accordance with the paradigm of unlimited economic growth – at the expense of human rights, animal rights, and the rights of nature. So systemic change is needed.”

    Quite correct. So which is more effective:

    a) Changing the system to one that doesn’t manipulate, force, or persuade people to conform to a nature-destroying paradigm, or

    b) Convincing 6 billion people not to be manipulated, forced, or persuaded to conform to a nature-destroying paradigm?

    Do we spend our energies organizing consumer boycotts and encouraging people to buy capitalism’s “green” products, or do we use our energies to fight for social change?

    Ecosocialism or barbarism – there is no third way.

  • To imply that it is either consumption or production – that one is not a driver for the other – seem strange to me. They contribute to each other. If consumers choose not to buy Hummers or fly or eat meat, the markets for those products will decrease, with positive environmental consequences. In feminist thought there is much criticism of earlier “radical feminism” for stripping women of “agency” – personal choice in their decision-making. In the same way, sometimes socialist thought focuses too much on the system and not the choices of the people in it, as though they have no agency. I think both the system and the free will of people in it are determinants. The system we have now – capitalism and industrial technology – very often manipulates or forces people or persuades them to act in accordance with the paradigm of unlimited economic growth – at the expense of human rights, animal rights, and the rights of nature. So systemic change is needed. At the same time, people absolutely do choose to be bigger consumers and to consume the wrong things – sometimes knowingly – as in the case of cigarettes. There is an argument to be made that there is addiction and that capitalists are to blame – certainly the fossil fuel industry has manipulated the marketplace and the media – but at a certain point ordinary people must also be held accountable for the decisions they make. The fact is that the comforts of the consumer life are alluring and hard to resist. That is why much of the developing world wants an affluent North American style life. As we know it is impossible for everyone on the planet to live this way without courting ecological disaster; that is why limiting our consumption – all of us – is necessary. Dismantling the system as it is now is necessary, and so is the personal choice on the part of conscientious people to not buy into that system. Of course the rub is that even if a lot of people opt out, the rest won’t and the system fails anyway. So both personal and systemic change are needed, concurrently.

  • Alex wrote: “My personal view is that we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. Carbon footprints help show us the environmental consequences of buying goods and services.”

    There is nothing wrong per se with people choosing to be less wasteful. The big problem is how changing individual consumption patterns is all too often presented as some kind of strategy to solve ecological problems.

    When people raise the consumption argument with me, my normal reply is something like: “But you can’t shut down a coal-fired power station, build a public transport system or buy a solar thermal plant on the supermarket shelf. We need political action to win these things.”

    In Australia, the approach is typified by the World Wildlife Fund’s annual Earth Hour advertising blitz, which urges climate conscious citizens to turn off your light bulbs for an hour. It has a bad ideological impact – it reinforces the illusion that individual consumption choices can play a major role in winning a safe climate.

    Individual consumption theories fall down for another practical reason – household energy consumption accounts for about 12% ot the total in Aust. For water consumption, the figure is slightly lower.

    Populationist responses to climate change (or any other social problem) are also a kind of “consumption-side environmentalist”. As Jeff pointed out, they generally leave changing polluting capitalist production in the too-hard-to solve basket, even though its the only way to deal with the climate emergency. It makes for another dangerous diversion when the science shows we are running out of time.

  • “Man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

    – Marx: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844