Malthusian Rebranding

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Optimum Population Trust becomes Population Matters

For twenty years, Optimum Population Trust has campaigned for fewer babies in the third world and fewer immigrants to the UK. Regular readers will recall it as the group that launched “PopOffsets” to let people in rich countries offset their carbon emissions by paying for birth control in Madagascar.

It still has the same name for tax-exemption purposes, but this month it adopted a new “working and campaign name” — Population Matters — and launched a much prettier web site.

Unfortunately, it’s like changing “Kentucky Fried Chicken” to KFC — new logo, same unhealthy ingredients.

As Simon Butler wrote recently:

Population theories assume “other people” are the problem. Genuine social change relies on people power — those who fight for social change must hold that “other people” are the solution. In the end, the two views are at odds with one another.


  • p.s. by “they” I mean the whole world, of course – or most of the world. In other words there cannot be any real eco-socialism unless everyone — or a majority — agrees this is a very good and necessary idea. But if all we see is relatively privileged people (big houses, SUVs, meat, flying, new clothes, RRSPs, etc) do more of the same, why should anyone agree to a no-growth economy, one that can accomodate everyone based on the finite resources of this small planet? Someone must least the way. That’s why Monbiot calls for austerity and moral leadership.

  • I agree that the world’s poor are not to blame. In fact their poverty is a result of the same consumerist economic system that causes climate change. We all know that. But let’s not let relatively privileged middle-class and upper middle-class people who are frequent flyers, live in big houses and drive SUVs and eat meat be absolved just because the world’s poor are. These folks – which could this column’s readers too – have personal moral responsibility in this situation. They/we are among the world’s wealthy, though certainly not as wealthy as the Koch brothers — but certainly more numerous, and thus our impact much greater than theirs. Behavioral change must be consistent with structural / political change, or else it the cries for the latter are just so much empty rhetoric. This is a matter of being morally consistent with the demand that the system change. It is as Gandhi called it “being the change you want to see in the world.” If we who have much or access to much (relative to those who make less than a dollar a day) don’t do it, why should we expect that they will?

  • Simon Ross said: “Biodiversity loss, climate change and resource depletion are caused by people” — a simplistic, wrong and mischievous statement. It puts the world’s poor on a equal footing as the Koch brothers. No solution to our deepening environmental crisis is possible unless environmentalists grasp, as Barry Commoner said, that ecological destruction begins in the corporate boardroom, not the family bedroom.

  • I fear that Ben and Ian are showing the lack of “joined up thinking” I referred to. The measures generally accepted as contributing to a lower birth rate are access to affordable reproductive healthcare, women’s empowerment, economic opportunity and education on family planning and the benefits to society of smaller families. These have been proven to work. They don’t reduce the population instantly, but that isn’t a good reason to reject them as a contribution to reducing human impact on resources and the environment. Ben and Ian are explicit in preferring the focus to be on “changes..that work” and “challenging society”, arguments used by past generations of socialists for rejecting anti-imperialism, feminism and environmentalism as distractions from the class struggle, a stance that modern socialists reject.

    • Simon Ross avoids the issue. Perhaps the measures he mentions are “proven to work” in reducing birth rates. But what I wrote was that reducing birth rates “simply won’t work” as a means of “ending environmental destruction.” A very different point.

      Dr. Lourdes Arizpe, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and former Assistant Director General of UNESCO, put the matter 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.”

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

      I don’t know which “past generations of socialists” Simon Ross is referring to, but I assure him that as an ecosocialist,

      I am an unbending defender of women’s rights, which means I support every woman’s right to choose when and whether to have children;
      I am an anti-imperialist, which means I oppose any attempt to offload the problems caused by Northern capitalism onto the people of the South;
      And I am an environmentalist, which means I am determined to expose and deal with the real causes of ecological destruction.

      And for all three reasons, I am resolutely opposed to blaming the world’s problems on “too many people.”

  • Discussions on climate change and human populations cannot really mean anything unless they focus on per capita consumption and GHG emission levels, and in particular the relative overconsumption of the global north — although so-called ‘developing’ nations and in particular China and India are catching up fast.

    What’s usually missed in discussing consumption is diet, how important that is, and how simply it can be remedied. UNEP/FAO (a UN/IPCC report) called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (online) says that 18% of ALL global GHG emissions come from factory farms. There are 60 billion animals killed per year for human consumption. Over 1 billion cows in the world, producing methane, which is roughly 26x time the global warming factor of CO2. The Worldwatch Institute revises the figure as 51%!

    If the world chose to eliminate all animal products from diets, it would be a GHG emission reduction of somewhere between 18 to 51%. Human beings can live healthy productive lives on vegan diets (I have been doing it for 3 years). In fact, this reduces chances of heart disease and cancer. If done right, it’s healthier.

    Reducing meat from diets is reccommended by IPCC chair Rajendr Pachauri for environmental reasons. He is an environmental vegetarian. Sir Paul McCartney has launched a similar campaign called “Meat Free Monday” which is slowly gaining worldwide support. Numbers of vegans and vegetarians is increasing in the global north; however, at the same time, the amount of meat consumption is increasing in the global south at the same time, due to increased industrialization.

    The next few years are a crucial turning point on this front. Food and climate change is proving to be as complex a topic as energy, and there are growing movements to address it.

    I agree that human overpopulation needs to be addressed. We are only at the numbers of 7 billion, going up to 9 billion, due to industrial agriculture, which ultimately won’t last and is unsustainable, in terms of water and arable land and oil use, as all these finite resources are depleting fast.

    However, we could easily feed 9 billion people with much less land and water and oil use if the majority of people reduced meat consumption. Widespread vegetarianism / veganism would solve world hunger. This would also prevent pandemics borne in factory farms (such as swine flu, avian flue), and the immense pollution problems factory farms create.

    However, I predict people will not do this, and as a result many more animals and more people will suffer die than need to.

    Another issue, brought up by Ursula Franklin, is the car population. Let’s get rid of cars, airplanes, and other devices causing GHGs. Their numbers keep going up, however. People would rather drive and eat meat than help future generations survive – which is very short-sighted, but that is the reality at present.

    The population issue is a complex one. There are no easy answers, but the key thing is that consumption and diet are important aspects, which cannot be ignored. These fall under the rubric of behavioral change, but they are not the “ten easy steps” advanced by Al Gore long ago: these are among the “3 hard steps” which are:

    – Stop flying and drastically reduce driving
    – Stop eating meat, dairy and eggs, or reduce them
    – Stop buying new items, buy only local items
    – Do not live in a large difficult to heat house

    Of course structural changes are needed too: both individual changes and collective changes are needed. The solutions lie on many fronts, not just one or two. But relying only on centralized technology or policy changes is as foolish as relying only on individual behavorial change.

  • As far as I know the number of humans on the planet has already exceeded the number that the planet can sustainably support even if each and every person had a sustainable individual foot print. Consequently ‘Produce, at most, only one descendant’ needs to become the commitment of everybody alive. I have certainly stuck to that commitment myself.

  • Populationists like Simon Ross reduce it all to a misanthropic algebra. Less people, less pollution, they say. It avoids challenging the unsustainable industry and society that produces the pollution.

    Arguments for birth control are legitimate when talking about women’s and families’ empowered choices. They only muddy the waters in environmental debates.

    Population cannot be “controlled” in the time-frame in which we have to act on global warming, other than by genocidal means. On the other hand, it can easily be used to prop up xenophobic immigration policies which delude rich first world people that they have “done their bit” (by refusing access to their grossly inequitable use of the world’s resources to the world’s poor).

  • The comment by Simon Ross, who is CEO of Optimum Population Trust/Population Matters, misses the point.

    As the quote from Simon Butler makes clear, this is not a disagreement about which method of ending environmental destruction is “the best one.” OPT/PM advocates measures that simply don’t work — and in doing so they interfere with winning support for changes that will work.

    As the Ugandan writer Mahmood Mamdani wrote in his classic 1972 book, The Myth of Population Control: “Optimism concerning the possibility of population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative.”

  • Biodiversity loss, climate change and resource depletion are caused by people. To reject efforts to reduce human numbers and hence their impact on the basis that this is a “distraction” from lifestyle change, green technology, economic development, social change or all of the above is simply a strategy for ineffectiveness and immiseration. We should be using all the tools in the box to address human impact, not squabbling over which is the best one.