We're overpopulated with oil tycoons and coal barons

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Simon Butler tells a populationist meeting that the super-rich are the real ecological vandals

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Simon Butler and I wrote the book Too Many People? “to promote debate within the environmental movement about the real causes of environmental destruction.” 

To that end, Simon recently accepted an invitation to speak at a meeting organized by the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, an organization which officially considers population growth as a “a key ethical issue,” and which advocates “a statutory structure to move towards an ecologically sustainable population for Australia, one smaller than our current population.”

Below is the text of a talk he gave on November 17, as one of three speakers on a panel titled “Sustainable population: towards a meaningful dialogue.”  He tells me that his talk “departed sharply from the other two presenters on my panel,” but the discussion was polite and several attendees described his comments as “thought-provoking.”

That’s not a stirring endorsement, but it is a start.

by Simon Butler

I don’t think there are too many people on the planet, but I do agree there are too many of “some” people. I think there are too many coal barons. There are too many oil tycoons. I think there are too many Clive Palmers  – there’s just one of him, but one is still more than we need in my opinion. (Palmer is an outspoken – to put the case mildly – Australian coal billionaire  Ian)

I also think there are too many stockbrokers speculating on food commodity prices and too many coal seam gas wells being sunk across Australia. I definitely agree that there is just too much stuff: our sick economy thrives on waste and an endless stream of products “designed for the dump.”

The relationship between population size and environmental decay has been a long running controversy among environmentalists. But I take the side of the late Barry Commoner, the great US ecologist who sadly died earlier this year. His view was: “It is a serious mistake to becloud the pollution issue with the population, for the facts will not support it.”

In our book, Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis, Ian Angus and I took issue with a recurring mistake we found many populationist writers had made about population numbers, which is to think that correlation equals causation. For example, population levels and carbon emissions both rose in the 20th century, but these facts alone do not prove that one caused the other. The cause is still a matter for investigation.

Too often, populationist explanations for our environmental crises fail to look behind the big numbers. Our dispute with populationists is not about the numbers, but about what the numbers actually mean. We think the raw figures can’t reveal much at all unless they are placed in an economic context, a social context, a historical context and an ecological context.

To make sense of population, we also have to consider the unequal relationships between rich and poor, the between the First World and the global South and, especially, between men and women. Countries with extreme levels of poverty, and where woman lack education and economic independence, tend to have the highest population growth rates.

When you break down the population and pollution numbers countries by country a striking pattern emerges, which upends the simple people equals pollution assumption.

In the 20th century, the nations with the highest population growth rates tend to have had lower carbon emissions growth rates, and the nations with lower population growth rates tend to have had higher emissions growth. Clearly, population growth cannot not explain this. In truth, the biggest factor in ecological decay is how a society uses its resources, not how many people live in that society.

Given what we know about climate change and the consequences of acting slowly, it makes sense for environmentalists to focus energy on the most critical areas. These include campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground and forests in the soil, close existing fossil fuel infrastructure, build renewables and public transport and spread sustainable farming methods.

These campaigns aren’t new, but they have proved incredibly hard to win mainly because of the array of powerful corporations that stand in the way. To avoid the worst of climate change, we must make biggest polluters write off trillions of dollars of value.

The coal barons, oil tycoons and resources giants have moved to protect their assets from these campaigns. They’ve used their economic weight and political influence to accumulate even more wealth, while working to poison the public debate about global warming.

Their political grip is now so strong, US Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could not even utter the words “climate change” in their three televised debates. The fossil fuel industry had spent enough to make sure it won the US election no matter who took office.

In Australia, the two big parties are equally tied to the big polluters. Labor and Liberal both agree that the fossil fuel juggernaut can keep rolling on indefinitely, when the science says that’s suicide.

In Too Many People? we say if we want a safe future, it’s either them or us. Any significant environmental gains will be won only through a confrontation with these elites who are resisting change. No gains will be permanent if they keep hold of economic and political power. And we won’t be able to harness the human potential needed to prevail unless we can build democratic political systems – controlled by people, not corporations – too.

We argue the super-rich are the real ecological vandals, whereas population growth, which has been trending downwards worldwide for the past 50 years, is not a key factor. Our pressing problem is the 1%, not the 99%. Or, as Barry Commoner put it: “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

And we also warn that the population argument is too often used to shift the blame for ecological destruction away from the real culprits and toward the poorest parts of the world where the human population is growing the fastest.

If we are to find solutions to the climate emergency, the food crisis and other environmental ills, we have to explore and act upon the causes, not the symptoms. These causes lie in the unequal power held by between different groups in society and an economic system geared for infinite growth on a finite planet.



More from my notebook …


  • I also agree with Dave Gardner that population must be reduced, in rich and poor countries alike. But global capitalism is one of the greatest impediments to achieving a widespread and democratic embrace of humane and sound population policies. We shop at WalMart, and buy what we think we need and want, with awareness of neither the social consequences (e.g., the unsafe working conditions and low wages in WalMart’s distant and unseen suppliers) nor of the carrying capicity of the earth to continue this stream of production without degrading ecosystems, destroying species, and robbing future generations of human and nonhuman life. We don’t see or feel any of those impacts in the global system of consumer capitalism. But if we had significantly localized democratically controlled economies, committed to using no more resources per capita than could be sustained across the planet without endangering species and degrading the ecosystems which sustain us, then we would each personally gain a tangible sense of the carrying capacity of our bioregion and local area in which we are producing most of what we consume, and of the impacts of our presence and actions on that capacity. And so we would experientially grasp the connection between our level of population-and-consumption on how much there is to go around for us and our children. We would then come to see birth control as a wonder technology for creating genuine ABUNDANCE (reliably having all that we need for a decent and genuinely satisfying life).

    This is, in my view, one of the most powerful arguments in favor of a genuinely ecological, largely localized, democratic, grassroots socialist management of the economy: The world desperately needs to reduce its human population, yet capitalism impedes acceptance of humane and adequate population policies. Too bad that socialists like Ian Angus not only fail to embrace this very powerful argument, they are undercutting it by means of an aggressive campaign that is steeped in fallacious either-or thinking. A socialist movement which succeeds in galvanizing the masses will have to be rooted in sound reasoning and a balanced appraisal of the various factors contributing to our ecological and social crises.

  • I’m in the awkward position of agreeing, to some extent, with everybody here. Growth is indeed a systemic intrinsic necessity for capitalism, and therefore we must focus efforts on bringing decisions of economic allocation under the management of a democratic and highly participatory process, in which everyone has a fair say, rather than let a tiny minority of people concentrate productive assets and decision-making into their hands. And I agree with Ian Angus and others that stopping immigration is not the answer. (Rather, creating a just and sustainable steady-state economy characterized by modest consumption, democratically planned production, and modest use of renewable energy sources, is, so as to make an immigrant’s ecological impacts no greater in the U.S. than in Guatemala, while providing enough for all.) But I think Dave Gardner’s “growth busters” message is also crucial, because if we don’t directly challenge consumers’ addiction to (and aspirations among the poor to) the current high-consumption North American way of life, then even if we succeed in bringing a socialist movement to victory, there will be public pressure on the socialist government to keep the excessive gravy train flowing, rather than ensuring a simple yet decent lifestyle for all. We must address the systemic issues, as well as the personal affective issues by which capitalist ideology maintains its hegemony. Both/and, not either/or.

  • A lot of good points made here. But it’s no secret that most sustainable population advocates – myself included – believe we absolutely are so far off the charts we have got to work toward having a smaller population alongside addressing the very real problems Simon catalogued.

    I wish Simon and Ian would stop repeating this false statement:

    “And we also warn that the population argument is too often used to shift the blame for ecological destruction away from the real culprits and toward the poorest parts of the world where the human population is growing the fastest.”

    It is simply untrue. Get over it, and let’s have more people rowing the boat toward sustainability and fewer people arguing over what the oars are made of.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    • “Simply untrue”? Oh come on.

      Have you not read letters to the editor claiming nothing can be done about global warming unless we stop Third World people from breeding? Do you not attend public meetings at which populationists routinely blame everything from urban sprawl to crime on immigrants from the South?

      If you’d been to any of the book launch meetings for “Too Many People?” or listened to the phone-in shows I was on, you would have heard those arguments made repeatedly.

      Do you not see the endless articles that blame tropical deforestation on over-breeding peasants? Have you not read the calls for creating “conservation” zones in third world countries, from which the poorest people in the world would be expelled?

      As I’ve said before Dave, I don’t doubt your sincerity. But you remain sadly blind to the way your arguments are used in the real world.

      • Ian, I’m afraid you hear what you want to hear. You interpret with a lens that tells you every statement about overpopulation intentionally excludes overconsumption and capitalist growth obsession. At any rate, one would have to be a fool to wish for an equitable world where 10 billion starve equally. Why not strive for an equitable world in which there is plenty for all? That is physically unsustainable at 10 billion.

        • No. I hear what is actually said, and I compare it to actual proposals for action. Populationist “intentions” are irrelevant — that’s what the road to hell is paved with.

          Many populationists spout pious wishes about reducing consumption for the rich, but they have no proposals at all for actually accomplishing that. Their practical programs all target the poor — blocking immigration, shifting aid dollars into third world population control programs, creating conservation reserves by driving poor people off the land, etc. Actions speak much louder than words.

          When someone says that the world’s population has to be rapidly reduced by billions, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the main burden of accomplishing that will be imposed on the poorest people in the poorest countries — the people and places who are least to blame for the environmental crisis.

          • And Ian: The main problem isn’t even the “consumption” habits of the rich, severe as those are. The main problem is the dictatorship of private wealth-seekers over macro-economic choices. The problem is the production habits of the rich. (Props to the late Barry Commoner.) Product-use (“consumption” in the cynical/misanthropic/capitalist lexicon) is a by-product of product production and marketing. Every time a “green” dwells on “consumption,” the species and the planet lose another day.

        • Is it overconsumption or overproduction? And growth is not an “obsession” for capitalists. It is a systemic requirement, 100 percent. To elide that point is to convey the impression that we just have to reason with the capitalists and get them to slow themselves down. ROFL.

          Hating on the commoners is a plague within the green movement, and it is, as Ian argues, at its worst among those who want to attack “overpopulation,” which is a systemic effect of the wildly unequal distribution of wealth.