Since the 1798 publication of Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, arguments that the world is getting too crowded have habitually reared their head during times of societal crisis. The dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch is no different.
The equation upon which Malthus based his research, that birthrates increase in multiples while crops fecundate arithmetically leading to scarcity if not kept in check, has since been widely disproven. However, his insistence that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man,” has persisted.
The late sixties saw the birth of a neo-Malthusian movement with the publication of Paul and Anne Ehrlichs’ The Population Bomb, in which they suggested putting sterilizing chemicals in water and food supplies among other methods of population control; along with “The Tragedy of the Commons,” an essay written for the journal Science by ecologist Garrett Hardin, a proponent of eugenics. Both works argued that Earth was already at capacity and that our species was procreating its way toward scarcity and ultimately oblivion.
“A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero,” wrote Hardin, whose views led him to advocate against aid to the Third World since it would lead to increased birthrates and for restrictive immigration policies in order to prevent citizenry from overpopulated countries swarming the US.
Concerns that there are too many of us persisted into the 21st Century with climate change adding new fodder for population reduction advocates — although these days, some are adopting a subtler stance than that of Hardin and the Ehrlichs.
“When you start telling people they should control their own populations and how many children they should have for the sake of climate change it can be very touchy and contentious,” Roger-Mark De Souza, Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Woodrow Wilson Center acknowledged, speaking with Planet Experts. “But it is an important dimension to a suite of responses that need to take place in the United States and elsewhere.”
The Wilson Center, an influential think-tank based in D.C., is attempting to take a nuanced approach to exploring population growth. A report from the institute, set to be released by the end of this year, calls for increased funding for voluntary family planning programs, as a mechanism for both cutting carbon emissions and adapting to global warming.
A previous report, written for the think-tank by gender policy specialist Suzanne Petroni, that explores the ethics of population control counted an expanding global citizenry among three key factors driving up temperatures. Together with emissions of greenhouse-gases and “economic growth that fuels energy consumption,” rising populations contribute to climate change by fostering “increased greenhouse gas-emitting activities,” she wrote.
However, not everybody consumes energy equally around the world. Countries with the lowest birthrates are also the planet’s highest current and historical emitters. “In 2005, the average U.S. citizen was responsible for an estimated 20 metric tons of CO2,” Petroni noted, “some 20-30 times the emissions of the average Indian, Nigerian, or Guatemalan, and 73 times that of the average Bangladeshi.”
For this reason, De Souza contends, the onus is not simply on developing countries to reduce their birthrates but also on developed nations. “Because the U.S. has such high consumption levels,” he said, “the more people we have in our population the more we will be emitting.” As the standard of living improves in the developing world their emissions will increase as well, but currently the most immediate benefit to cutting birthrates for those in Global South is that it will lessen the burden of climate change upon them.
“Population growth will expose more people to climate change impacts and make adaption more difficult,” said De Souza, observing that many of the world’s poorest live in densely populated coastal areas susceptible to rising tides, and that global warming will exacerbate already existing scarcities in the water and food supplies.
Access to family planning tools such as birth control and contraceptives along with expanded education for girls, all of which the Wilson Center’s upcoming report calls for, has the added benefit of increasing women’s economic opportunities.
Yet, despite the Wilson Center’s effort to frame population reduction as an issue of female empowerment, Ian Angus, author of Too Many People, contends arguments surrounding growth rates and climate change invariably blame climate change’s victims no matter how delicately professed and mistake the effect for the cause.
“I’m all for providing women greater access to birth control,” Angus told Planet Experts. “And nobody would question there are places that are overpopulated – Mexico City, Tokyo, New York City. What I’m against are programs that tell poor people you can’t have more children in order to save the world. In very poor countries larger families are an economic necessity. There’s an old saying that when you are in poverty, you’ll need six children because two will die, two will move away, and two will stay and support you in old age.”
For Angus, social inequality is the driving factor behind climate change. Viewed from this angle, what the world might need is not fewer people, but fewer rich people. Even within industrialized nations a large emissions disparity exists in relation to wealth. For instance, a 2013 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy that looked at German transportation habits found that the carbon footprint among those in the highest income bracket was 250 times greater than that of the country’s poorest citizens.
Rather than focusing on strategies to reduce birth rates, Angus said environmentalists should push for a radical reduction in fossil fuel use and move towards energy models based on renewable sources like wind and solar. “Article after article is telling us, here is how we get off of fossil fuels,” he said. “Richer countries should take the lead but it should be done unilaterally coupled with a transfer of technology and resources to the third world so that they can improve their standard of living without fossil fuels. If that’s not possible in our economic system, our economic system has to go.”
While Garrett Hardin asserted that a finite planet called for a finite birthrate, Angus contends a finite planet calls for transitioning to a finite economy, one that isn’t predicated on profits and growth but first and foremost on human welfare and ecological sustainability.
When asked if such a technological and economic transformation would alleviate his population concerns, De Souva responded doubtfully. “Those possibilities rely on some pretty big assumptions,” he said.
But maybe the problem isn’t that there are too many of us, but that there aren’t enough of us imagining a future beyond the confines of the present. If ever there was an incentive to dream big and fight for another world, the threat climate change poses to this one is it.