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Ten reasons why population control is not an answer to climate change

By Simon Butler

June 1, 2009 -- Climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. The scientific evidence of the scale of the threat is overwhelming, compelling and frightening. Climate tipping points -- points which if crossed will lead to runaway global warming -- are being crossed now.

We live in a time of consequences. So it’s crucial that the climate justice movement -- made up of those determined to take a stand now to win a safe climate future -- campaigns for the changes that can actually make a difference.

A discussion has surfaced about whether population-control measures should be a key plank in the climate action movement’s campaign arsenal. Below are 10 reasons why such a decision would hinder, rather than help, the necessary task of building a movement that can win.

1. Population does not cause climate change

Advocates of population control say that one of the most effective measures we can take to combat climate change is to sharply reduce the number of humans on the planet. This wrongly focuses on treating one symptom of an irrational, polluting system rather than dealing with the root causes.

People are not pollution. Blaming too many people for driving climate change is like blaming too many trees for causing bushfires.

The real cause of climate change is an economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy and unsustainable agriculture. Unless we transform the economy and our society along sustainable lines as rapidly as possible, we have no hope of securing an inhabitable planet, regardless of population levels.

Population-based arguments fail to admit that population levels will impact on the environment in a very different way in a zero carbon emissions economy. Making the shift to renewable energy -- not reduction in human population -- is the most urgent task we face.

2. The world is not ‘full up’

The world is not experiencing runaway population growth. While population is growing, the rate of this growth is in fact slowing down. This is mostly due to rising urbanisation and marginal improvements in women’s access to birth control technology. The rate of population growth peaked at 2% annually in the 1960s, and has fallen consistently since then[1].

According to the United Nations the average number of children born per woman fell from 4.9 in the late 1960s to 2.7 in 1999[2]. A December 2008 assessment from the US Census Bureau predicts a steady decline to 0.5% annual population growth by 2050[3].

Between 1950 and 2000 world population increased by 140%. Experts predict a rise of 50% between 2000 and 2050 and just 11% in the 50 years following that.

In contrast, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is rising out of control. Polluting technology, rampant consumerism and corporate greed are driving this increase -- not population.

Can we feed this many people? Studies by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation insist it is possible to feed well over 10 billion people sustainably -- but only if we move to a very different food system. A diversified and organic farming system which produces a balanced mix of plant foods, along with small amounts of meat, could, according to British biologist Colin Tudge, sustain 10 billion people without farming any new areas[4].

A shift to sustainable farming is also desperately needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Social justice and women’s equality is the best contraception

Larger population growth rates in the Third World are a consequence of dire poverty and restrictions on women’s ability to control their own fertility. The evidence for this can’t be challenged.

The latest UN population report released on March 12, 2009, predicts population will exceed 9 billion people by mid-century. Almost all of this growth will occur in the global South.

The 49 poorest countries in the world will have by far the biggest increases. In the richest countries, however, population will decline from 1.23 billion to 1.15 billion if projected net migration is left aside. (It will increase to only 1.28 billion including net migration.)[5]

Raising living standards globally, eradicating hunger and poverty, improving health care, providing access to education and achieving greater equality for women are all necessary if we are to win a safe climate with global justice. They will also result in lower birth rates.

4. The climate emergency demands immediate, transformative action now

Even if they could work in the long term -- a dubious proposition – population-control schemes are plainly inadequate as a response to the climate emergency.

The well-known Australian environmental writer Tim Flannery is also one of the patrons of Sustainable Population Australia -- a group that argues population reduction should be the number one priority to avert climate change.

Yet in a recent survey of the latest climate science in Quarterly Essay even Flannery had to conclude: “The truth is that if we wish to act morally, we can influence population numbers only slowly. So, while it’s important to focus on population decrease as a long-term solution, we cannot look to it for answers to the immediate crisis.”[6]

5. Population arguments wrongly downplay the potential to win

Left unchecked, climate change threatens life on the planet.

Recognition of this fact is the major impetus for the movement demanding that governments take serious action on climate change without delay.

Populationists, however, try to turn this fact on its head. Climate change will lead to a world so harsh, uncertain and polluted, the argument goes, that it’s more “humane” to prevent future generations from being born at all[7].

This “humane” population reduction argument is couched in terms of containing, or mitigating, the apparently inevitable effects of environmental destruction. Instead, the struggle for an alternative model of development, based on meeting the needs of people and planet, should be our main concern.

6. Population control is an old argument tacked onto a new issue

Climate change is just the latest in a long list of issues that has been seized on by advocates of population control.

For centuries, simplistic population theories have been advanced to explain the existence of poverty, hunger, famine, disease, war, racism and unemployment.

In each case, the real social and economic causes of these social ills have been glossed over. Time is running out to avert global warming -- we need to take serious action that tackles the problem at the root.

7. Arguing for tighter migration restrictions is a dangerous policy

Reducing immigration intake into Australia is the current policy on the anti-environmental Labor government[8]. As the climate crisis deepens, we can expect the government and the big polluters will want to divert attention from their own inaction. Migrants could be a convenient scapegoat. Migrants are already being falsely blamed for adding to unemployment. We can’t allow them to be blamed for corporate Australia’s addiction to fossil fuels.

Supporting cuts in migration avoids the real burning issue -- Australia is the highest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita in the world. Migrants who come here should be welcomed and invited into our movement for a safe climate. They are not responsible for the policies of past governments or the greed of the big polluters.

8. Population control has a disturbing history

In practice, there has never been a population-control scheme that has had acceptable environmental or humanitarian outcomes. Columbia University professor Matthew Connelly has thoroughly documented this disturbing history in his 2008 book, Fatal Misconception[9].

China’s one-child policy has been hailed as an environmental measure by prominent population theorists such as Britain’s Jonathan Poritt..[10] But he and others ignore that China’s population control has hardly solved that country’s growing environmental problems.

The human costs of the policy, however, are shocking. Until 2002 Chinese women were denied any choice of contraceptive method -- 37% of married women have been forcibly sterilised[11]. Female infanticide has reached epidemic proportions. The global ratio for male to female births is 106:100. In China today, male “births” outnumber females by 120:100[12].

9. People in the global South are part of the solution, not the problem

At its worst, population-control schemes put the blame for climate change on the poorest people in the global South -- those least responsible for the problem in the first place.

It’s a major mistake to see the masses of the global South as passive victims of climate change. In truth, they are the pivotal agent in the campaign to avert global warming.

We need a strategy of building stronger links and collaboration with movements for climate justice in the global South -- not draw up plans to reduce their numbers.

10. Who holds political power is the real `population’ issue

There is one part of the world’s population that poses a genuine threat: the small group of powerful, vested interests who profit most from polluting the biosphere and are desperately resisting change.

The real “population change” we need to focus on is not artificially reducing human numbers. Rather, it is about winning real democratic change, i.e. dramatically increasing the numbers of ordinary people who can participate in making decisions about investment in green industries, agriculture, global trade and military spending.

Population control narrowly looks only at the quantity of human beings to find a solution to climate change. Ultimately, its narrow vision makes it a divisive policy.

The climate action movement, however, is really concerned with improving the quality of human life.

On that basis we can build a movement of hope and solidarity strong enough to penetrate national borders and restore a safe climate for future generations.

[A shorter version of this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly. Simon Butler is a climate change activist in Australia, and a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance.]


[1] US Census Bureau, International Data Base, December 2008, http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldpopchggraph.html.

[2] The World at Six Billion, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldpopchggraph.html.

[3] US Census Bureau, International Data Base, December 2008, http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldgrgraph.html.

[4] Tudge, Colin. ``Can organic farming feed the world?’’, http://www.colintudge.com/articles/article06.php.

[5] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. ‘World population to exceed 9 billion by 2050’, March 12 2009. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2008/pressrelease.pdf.

[6] Flannery, Tim. ``Now or Never’’, Quarterly Essay, issue 31, p 9.

[7] Sustainable Population Australia makes this deeply pessimistic argument explicitly. See http://www.population.org.au/images/stories/Documents/gpr_spa_2007.pdf.

[8] ``Kevin Rudd targets skilled workers to protect jobs’’, http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,27574,25191742-2682,00.html.

[9] The preface of this important work is available online at http://www.matthewconnelly.net/FM_page.html.

[11] Quoted in Ward, Phil. ``Population Control and Climate Change, Part One: Too Many People’’, March 2, 2008, http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=348.

[12] Davidson, Shannon; Bunnell, Jennifer and Yan, Fei, ``Gender Imbalance in China’’, October 27, 2008, http://aparc.stanford.edu/news/gender_imbalance_in_china_20081027/.

Comments

Matthew Connelly

This is a very thorough review of the "population debate'" and Connelly destroys the assumptions and fears that the population controlists utilize to relegate "population" as a workshop for many technological fixes in regard to resources.

Historian Professor Matthew Connelly of Columbia University proposes some alternatives.

Population control:myth and reality

Agreed

Thank you for this informative post.
The climate emergency demands immediate, We need act now and population control is not a option for today and now.

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