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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.”

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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.

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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.

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8 Responses

  1. It is hard to square the specific reference to the Wilson Center showing how many more resources wealthy people/nations use and how much more greenhouse gases they emit, with Ian Angus's generic assertion that consideration of population pressure "invariably blames climate change on the victims". The Wilson Center is clearly not blaming poor. Quite the opposite, it is aggressively showing the disproportionate impact of the wealthy. In this, the Center is very much in the mainstream of the movement to slow/reverse unsustainable population growth rates. Far from "invariably" blaming the poor, the mainstream population movement invariably blames the wealthy and calls for justice, empowerment, education and freedom for women, poor people and nations.

    Citing Malthus from the 18th century and select figures from the 1960s is dramatic, but does little help us understand the work being done today by NGO's, universities, the United Nations, national governments, health care workers, women's rights advocates, and local communities to deal with unsustainable population growth and poverty.

    To pit advocacy for Justice and equality against advocacy for sustainable populations asks us to make false choices. In fact, we can and must simultaneously work for all of them. Failure to do so will hurt poor and colonized nations much more heavily and rapidly than wealthier nations.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

    • Peter Rugh says:

      Hi Kieran,

      I think the general point that Ian is making, though I can't speak for him, is that our socio-economic system is unsustainable on a really basic level. There's a tremendous amount of waste built into it whether we are talking about fossil fuel emissions or the massive troves of food that go to rot each day. Viewed in this light, population is a bit of a red herring. There are no arguments in the article above against family planning rather, the contention is that as far as resolving the climate crisis goes, addressing the underlying structural factors is the most effective remedy.

      • Thanks for following up Peter. It is true that our socio-economic system is unsustainable at a basic level. But I don't see how it follows that therefore concern for unsustainable population levels are a red herring. Can it not be simultaneously true that we have too people and a disfunctional socio-economic system?

        To get at that, we can ask: is there an example of a sustainable socio-economic system that supported anything approaching the numbers of people we have today? I think the answer is no.

        So it seems to me we have to address all fundamental problems, including population numbers and socio-economic systems, at the same time. We also have to simultaneously take action at smaller scales (housing policy, endangered species protection, etc.) because lives depend on it right now.

        Kieran

    • esewra says:

      I agree with the author of the article. If by "advocacy for sustainable populations", you mean making birth control available to women everywhere and educating the rich *and* the poor about climate change and what's causing it, then I'm all for it. On the other hand, if you mean teaching poor people that they should have fewer children so that they won't be poor or hungry and/or so that the world won't experience more global warming, then I'm against it. As Angus says, people usually have lots of children because they need them. To end poverty, people need to change the political/economic systems under which they live. As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, one of the biggest worries is the western-style consumption patterns of the growing middle classes in China, India, and Indonesia. The middle classes in those countries aren't growing because people are having "too many" children; they're growing because of the particular character of this late stage of capitalism. Their consumption patterns also fit right into this system; they are no accident.
      As Angus and Butler document in their book, populationism has taken many forms during its long history. Many of its advocates have been well-meaning people with the interests of oppressed populations at heart. But they never want to take the next step: to see that *real* solutions lie, as Rugh says, in "imagining a future beyond the confines of the present".

  2. Jack Alpert says:

    I am not sure which planet the people at the Wilson Center are looking at when they measure the human predicament and discuss a process that slows growth by giving rights and education, and health support to women to control their births. Buy my calculations we are in overshoot by a factor of 100. The earth can support only 50 million of us. And She is about to cause a large culling. this century. We can do little to stop the carnage besides having very few children until we crawl back into our niche. Please see the short videos on at http://www.skil.org.

    Jack Alpert

  3. Jenny Goldie says:

    I agree with Jack and Kieran and, indeed, I found the article offensive. To do nothing about population is to support continuation of a system whereby women are second class citizens, unable to control their own fertility and thus their lives. And who said Ehrlich had been discredited? He seems to have the support of his colleagues and keeps getting award after award. Every nation has a duty to keep within ecological limits and if that means restricting immigration, so be it. Someone has to speak up for all the other species with which we share this planet. Surely climate change is the biggest symptom of overshoot and continuing to grow populations will only make the task of reining in emissions all the harder. The there's peak oil. Once we work through the current temporary glut, oil prices will rise again putting pressure on economies and thus their ability to support their own population. We're hitting peak everything in fact. Population growth just makes the whole situation untenable.

  4. Ian Angus says:

    CARE International: Fertility control won’t solve the climate crisis

    One of the world’s largest and oldest humanitarian aid organizations says: "“Action on climate change hinges on tackling inequality and the consumption patterns of the wealthiest far more than on the reproductive behaviour of people living in poverty.”
    http://climateandcapitalism.com/2014/12/07/care-f

    • Ian, to say that reducing our population "won't solve" the climate crisis, therefore we shouldn't do it is illogical. There is no one thing that will solve the climate crisis. Thus if a singular solution is the only thing we can take action on, we end up taking no action at all. There are many important areas to focus on to solve the climate crisis. We have to address them all.

      Note also that the climate crisis not the only critical justice and environmental issue. Thus we shouldn't make it the singular standard for all activism.

      Kieran

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