Is a Population Policy Needed to Protect New Zealand's Environment?

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We need a lot of changes to get to an egalitarian and sustainable society, but  is population policy one of them?

by Byron Clark

Byron Clark is a long time activist in the Workers Party of New Zealand. This is the text of a  talk he gave at a conference sponsored by the Workers Party in Wellington, June 4-7.

A few people here may be familiar with the environmental sociologist Allen Schnaiberg, Schnaiberg is the co-author of The Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy and a number of other works, tomorrow [June 6th] is the one year anniversary of his death and I would like to acknowledge the contributions he made to radical theory about society and the environment.

Schnaiberg coined the term ‘populationism’ to describe the various movements aiming for a reduction in population, and wrote in his 1980 book The Environment from Surplus to Scarcity that populationism is a social ideology that attributes social ills to the number of humans. While agreeing that there is of course a limit to the number of people the planet can hold, modern populationism and its historical precedents, says Schnaiberg, are regressive, reactionary, and at times racist.

I’m going to talk about how the environmental destruction we are witnessing today, notably climate change, is not something we can attribute to ‘to many humans’ but something we can attribute to our social and economic system. Because of this, New Zealand does not need a population policy to benefit the environment, but can, with the right type of social change, sustain a much larger population.

I’d like to start in a way thats fitting for a conference called Marxism 2010, by quoting Karl Marx:

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed.

Marx was not writing about climate change when he said this, but the idea that population is an abstraction if we don’t discuss the classes that compose that population is one totally relevant to climate change. The amount of greenhouse emissions a person emits depends on the position they occupy in capitalist society. For example, between 1980 and 2005, 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 additional emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth during that time happened in places with very low emissions.

Facts like this are often neglected in the mainstream discussion of population and the environment, for example the text book Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects has this to say:

Generally, if one person has an environmental impact of some arbitrary quantification, x, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that two people will have an impact of 2x, three people an impact of 3x, etc; in other words, that environmental impact is proportional to population

Except of course, that supposition is completely wrong if the first person is in the United States and the other two of them are in the Congo.

There is however the “Western Lifestyle” argument, the idea that its not population growth per se that is fueling climate change, but the increasing amount of people living a Western lifestyle, this view was expressed by Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panal on Climate Change when he told The Guardian last year:

Today we have reached the point where consumption and people’s desire to consume has grown out of proportion. The reality is that our lifestyles are unsustainable.

Pachauri doesn’t himself call for population reduction, and advocates lifestyle change, specifically reducing meat consumption. But what the populationists take from this view is that we need less people on the planet living a western lifestyle. A third solution, that we as a society make changes at the point of production to produce more sustainably, is one that I will come to later.

The Green party population policy which states “in order to maintain both spare capacity and a decent standard of living, the optimum population figure [for New Zealand] will be significantly lower than the maximum carrying capacity of the land.” seems to be another example of the Western lifestyle argument. To be fair on the Greens, they don’t necessarily equate ‘decent standard of living’ with ‘Western lifestyle’ but the idea of setting a maximum figure on population, is in effect excluding people from that standard of living based on which part of the planet they were born. Its an idea of Western exceptionalism, this lifestyle is our right, but not the right of those in the developing and underdeveloped world.

The problem with this is that the environment does not recognise borders, The Green party goes some way toward acknowledging this by stating that we need to absorb climate change refugees, notibly those from the Pacific displaced by rising sea levels. However, the definition of enviornmental refugee could be incredibly broad, if the role of imperialism in world history was acknowledged. The Western world developed by plundering the natural resources of the rest of the world, and indeed Western countries continue to do so. At the same time, the underdeveloped world has been used as a dumping ground for environmentaly damaging waste.

Is a former fisherman from Nigera an environmental refugee because oil production for the West has made the lakes and rivers devoid of life? What about the peasant farmer of South America who has lost her land to large agricultural development exporting to the North? I see it as reactionary to wall off wealthier areas of the globe to keep out those whos local environments were destroyed so that we could keep ours pristine.

The other problem with the Western lifestyle argument is the one I mentioned earlier. To paraphrase Marx, Its not enough to just look at population, we need to look at the classes that compose that population. As you probably suspect, the wealth an individual owns has a direct corolation with their ecological impact. I have quote for a very informative and amusing article that George Monbiot wrote for The Guardian last year.

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 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. 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. That’s nearly one litre per second.

Superyachts are a bit of an extreme example, but it almost goes without saying that those individuals with more money with in general live in a larger home, use more electricity, drive further and more often, take more long haul flights, etc. Those with less money are more likely to live in smaller homes, conserve electricity, drive less or not at all, use appliances for longer etc.

I want to use a few examples from Christchurch to talk about a couple of these things. The trend in the post world war two decades, which has stopped in some cities but continues in Christchurch, is for people to move further away from the central city the more wealth they accumulate. This of course results in larger homes which are less energy efficiant, and longer commutes to work and other activities which results in more fuel use.

Figure 1

This map (figure 1) shows the median income in different areas of Christchurch. Christchurch has a medium income around $24,000, (which is actually less than Manakau or Porirua) so most of the map is in the lighter colours representing lower incomes. The small pockets of the comparatively wealthy are concentrated, with some exceptions, in a few areas which are indeed closer to the outskirts of the city. In Sumner and Mount Pleasant, The Cashmere hills, and Halswell. What’s not visible on this map, probably due to a very small population, is the gated community of Styx Mill, which is as far as I know the only neighbourhood to have a country club.

Maps like this are problematic as low income people live far from the central city as well, those on low incomes vastly outnumber those on high incomes so they are all over the place. Many of those low income workers in the outer suburbs are likely to work low wage jobs in Christchurch’s massive suburban malls rather than the central city, or if they are industrial workers they likely live and work in the industrial areas here around Hornby which have sprung up on the south western outskirts of the city where land is cheaper than the older industrial areas in this part of the city. Those on lower incomes are more likely to take public transport as well, whereas rich areas such as Styx Mill have lobbied City Council against having buses service their neighbourhood, using tragic excuses such as that buses would bring criminals into their pleasant community.

Figure 2

What this map doesn’t show however is the suburbs of the super rich, which are so far from the central city that they are not even part of Christchurch. Pegasus [figure 2], at 30km from central Christchurch, is the ultimale playground for the bougeouise, when construction is completed it will contain an 18 hole golf course, a luxuary resort, yacht club and my personal favourite, a 14 hectere humanmade lake with a heated swimming bay. Thats right, heated swimming bay.

Christchurch and its far flung suburbs are an example of cities we could find all over the developed world, there is no universal ‘Western Lifestyle’ — there is the prolifigate, conspicious consumption lifestyle of the rich, and the modest lifestyle of the poor. The former is responsible for much greater ecological impact than the latter.

You might by this point have some questions, how can I claim population is not the cause of environmental destruction, because of the different lifestyles of the rich and the poor, yet simultainiously defend the right of all people for an increasing standard of living. Well, densly populated areas have less of an ecological impact than low population cities. The following quote is from an article in the June 2008 issue of Wired Magazine.

Manhattan is perhaps the greenest place in the US. A Manhattanite’s carbon footprint is 30 percent smaller than the average American’s. The rate of car ownership is among the lowest in the country; 65 percent of the population walks, bikes, or rides mass transit to work. Large apartment buildings are the most efficient dwellings to heat and cool.

New Zealand is drastically different, there are 2.5 million cars for a population of just over four million people, including children. New Zealand’s car ownership rate is one of the world’s highest. We make only about 2% of our journeys by bus and fewer than 1% by rail.  If New Zealand’s current population was at the same density as Manhattan all of us could live in Tauranga. Seven times the current population could live in Auckland.

When I raise this argument with people I’ve often been told that New Zealanders have chosen to live in the suburbs, and it’s wrong to make people live in urban apartments. Well, as of April this year there were 10,749 people on the Housing New Zealand waiting list. Nearly half of them classified as having significant or severe housing need. Surely a public housing programme based around urban living would be utilised by many of those people? Not to mention new immigrants from poorer parts of the globe.

To talk about my home town again, Christchurch is, as I mentioned, a city characterised by significant suburban sprawl, as a consequence the central city has declined as a business disctrict and a public place. The plan for revitalisation from the city council has revolved around new bars, and as a result alcohol related incidents have led to the central city having the highest crime rate in all of Christchurch. A better revitalisation plan would be one based on new homes.

The city crumbles while people flee to the suburbs

Figure 3

This picture [figure 3] shows one of the disused buildings in the central city. If we had a council with real concern about the poor, the environment, and the central city, buildings like these could be developed into energy efficiant public housing.

This building is going to be turned into apartments

Figure 4

This building [figure 4] which is already owned by the council, as it was purchased as part of the $17 million bail out of property developer David Henderson, the man behind many of the new bars, is indeed going to be developed into apartments, though not public housing and the affordability of them is likely going to be a concern.

A more egalitarian society is essential for ecologically friendly cities. We laugh when we hear Styx Mill residents are opposing bus routes passing through their neighborhood because buses will bring criminals, but fear of crime is a reason that those rich enough move to a gated community like Styx Mill. And as I mentioned the central city does have Christchurch’s highest crime rate. Its well documented that crime, and alcohol abuse, has a link to poverty and social inequality. So solving these problems should reduce flight to the suburbs.

A desire people have to live closer to the country or a more country lifestyle, which was originally a reason to move to the suburbs, is one that I think can dealt with by the integration of urban and rural elements, or as Marx and Engels talked about, the integration of town and country. More urban food production, such as fruiting trees in public space, community gardens and backyard vegetable growing is a way to do this.

“The present poisoning of the air, water
and land can be put an end to
only by the fusion of town and country.”

Friedrick Engels

You can argue that making people grow their own vegetables is even worse than making them live in urban areas. But as with living in apartments, there is evidence that growing vegetables in something people are happy to do. Again, it’s the poor who are doing their part. According to Housing New Zealand, which runs a best kept state house garden competition:

Since 2004, the number of entries to the vegetable garden category have increased from 17.5 percent [of overall entries] to nearly 26 percent. This trend is even more pronounced in urban areas like Auckland where the entries to the vegetable garden [category] have increased from 16 percent to nearly 29 percent in the same period. (source)

Add to that headlines like these that have appeared in the last 18 months.

  • “Producing own food a growing trend in Timaru” (Otago Daily Times)
  • “Benefits of growing own vegetables rediscovered” (The Press)
  • “Backyard vege gardens flourish as more people grow their own” (Wanganui Chronicle)

In many cases today growing your own vegetables is something done out of economic necessity, but I have no doubt that in a society with a shorter working week and increased leisure time, there would be an equal if not greater trend toward vegetable gardening as a hobby.

What about consumer goods? Well I think there are two sides to that question. One is that people aren’t as fussed on consumption as some of the cynical members of the environmental movement seem to believe. People do want cellphones, computers and telivisions, but they also want rivers and beaches they can swim in, and as we saw in the massive demonstration in Auckland last month, they want to conserve our natural environment. The other side is that buying cellphones, computers and telivisions is not in itself a bad thing. I’m an environmentalist who believes that the majority of people on the planet need to, and have the right to, comsume a lot more than they are presently.

How do we do that? We change the way we produce things. How many people here can think of someone from your parents or grandparents generation who’s always saying “they don’t make things like they used to!”? A lot of people say that, and the reason is, they really don’t make things the way they used to. This quote is from the excellent socialist and environmentalist blog Climate and Capitalism:

Until the last few decades consumer goods were designed to endure. Post-WWII corporations faced the dilemma that increasing the durability of products would mean that people would have what they needed with little reason to purchase more. By the 1960s planned obsolescence had slammed clothing, appliances and household items full force.

Along side planned obsolesence we have propriatary standards that make products from different manufacturers incompatible. For example, if there was a universal standard for cellphone chargers, something that has already been deisgned though not all manufacturers have adopted, an estimated annual reduction of 13.6 million tons of carbon dioxide would take place,  not to mention the reduction in work required to produce all those replacement chargers that often end up in landfills if they are not sold before the phone model the work with becomes obsolete.

Without the profit motive, in a planned economy that takes account of human need and ecology, we could end planned obsolesence and incompatible technologies. Producing durible quality consumer goods that would result in less production overall, leading to a smaller environmental impact and a shorter working week as well.

In this talk I’ve painted a picture of a much better society than the one we live in today, one with renewed urban centers, with green spaces, efficiant buildings and well utilised public transport. Quality food and consumer goods produced in a much shorter working week, giving people more lesiure time and a therefore a greater incentive to conserve the natural enviornment. We need a lot of changes to get to that society, but what we don’t need, is a population policy.


  • “moving industrialized dairy production into urban areas would not solve the problem.”

    Oh I agree completely, the current model of dairying (and other food production) needs to change. A lot (I think still a majority) of dairy herds here are on pasture, but the industry is moving toward a more feed lot-style model as former sheep and other farms switch to dairy in areas where the environment isn’t suited for it. New Zealand now imports a quarter of the world Palm Kernel Expeller (PKE) animal feed, a by-product of palm oil production, grown on land that used to be rainforest, so the corn-fed cows in the US look green by comparison!

    A network of small farms where people can buy milk at the gate is a model I’d like to see. New Zealand could easily meet its requirements for local consumers in this way, as most of those coal-fired milk powder plants are producing for export, out competing local farmers in the developing world and pushing dairy on cultures that have not previously had much in their diet.

    Anyway, this has become a bit of tangent from the population issue.

  • Jeff White, I think you have stretched the question of New York beyond its context in the article, which is how urban form and the transportation infastructure related to that form make some difference. You agree that per capita transportation and heating impacts are smaller than for other cities (and I wonder if the same would not be true of the per capita cement, steel, etc.).

  • I hear what you’re saying Byron, but moving industrialized dairy production into urban areas would not solve the problem. The emissions of methane and the intensive use of coal (or any other fossil fuel) can only be remedied by de-industrializing food production and abandoning the monoculture model of agriculture.

    This requires (among a host of other changes) raising cattle on pasture lands, not in feedlots; allowing the cattle to fertilize their own land naturally with their manure; and growing their food on the same land. This kind of return to traditional and sustainable methods of farming requires plenty of open land (which is one reason why the feedlot was invented in the first place – to reduce the land area used) and just wouldn’t be transferable to a developed urban environment without turning the latter into something other than a city, as we know it.

  • Very valid points Jeff. I wouldn’t hold Manhattan up as an example of what a post-capitalist, ecologically friendly city should look like, for one thing more urban food production would be essential. Then there are things that could be done with water use (and re-use), electricity generation and goods transport that aren’t happening on a large scale yet.

    I don’t know if its a given that cities are responsible for more ecological impact than rural areas, in New Zealand most of our GHG emissions are methane from large dairy herds, and the dairy industry is the country’s third largest user of coal. While most of the country’s households use hydroelectric power, large dairy factories burn coal to turn milk into milk powder.

    Yes that milk feeds cities, but that’s just another reason for urban food production.

  • To suggest that Manhattan is “perhaps the greenest place in the US” is laughable. The little puff piece from Wired Magazine is based entirely on self-serving government sources, particularly the “Plan 2030” documents put out by New York City.

    These publications focus on the city’s direct GHG “emissions inventory”, including sources of greenhouse gases such as transportation, heating, air conditioning, and other direct energy use. Because of the utter impracticality of driving a private automobile in Manhattan and the ready availability mass transit, New Yorkers have an understandably lower per capita emission level from transportation activities. And because most residents of Manhattan live in apartments and smaller homes, their per capita use of energy for heating and cooling is lower.

    But a city like New York cannot exist in isolation from the rest of society. To build and sustain it requires a vast support network from within the rest of the country. This is sometimes referred to as “ecosystem appropriation”.

    The greenhouse gas inventory for New York doesn’t include the food they eat; the industrialized, carbon-intensive methods of food production that take place far away from the city and the emissions from its transportation to the Manhattan consumer are not counted in the “per capita footprint”. The manufacture of concrete, plastics, steel and other materials to build and maintain the infrastructure of the city is highly carbon-intensive, but it occurs far from the city itself, so it’s not counted either.

    The fact is that capitalist cities are highly unsustainable in terms of environmental impact, and not because they tend to be densely populated.

    “[A]s nodes of energy and material consumption, cities are causally linked to accelerating global ecological decline and are not by themselves sustainable.” – William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, creators of the concept of the “ecological footprint”.

    “[H]alf the people and three-quarters of the world’s environmental problems reside in cities, and rich cities, mainly in the developed North, impose by far the greater load on the ecosphere and global commons.” – William Rees again.