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Climate change: Why population is not the problem

By Jess Moore

August 9, 2009 -- We face a climate crisis and something needs to change. The world’s resources are finite, as is the amount of destruction humans can do to the planet if we are to survive. There is a debate in the environment movement about whether or not curbing population is an essential part of the solution. We have a decade, maybe a decade and a half, to transform our current relationship with the planet. Of course, the starting point for environmentalists cannot be solutions. We first need to identify the cause of the crisis before we can know how to fight it.

People who see limiting population as essential to solving the climate crisis argue the cause of environmental degradation, at least in part, is overpopulation. Most “populationists” argue there are already too many human beings on the planet to provide for everyone’s basic needs. All contend that curbing population growth or decreasing population is some or all of the solution to climate change and to the fact that the basic needs of many people are not satisfied.

In Green Left Weekly #805, Jane Addison wrote: “To address [the sustainability] imbalance, we have two options … On the one hand, we reduce the amount that each of us consumes. On the other, we reduce the number of us consuming.”

Addison argued that the best way to balance the sustainability equation is to stop population growth because “it is morally wrong to deny developing countries — the world’s majority population — a standard of living equal to that of richer countries”.

Similarly, in the April 15 Canberra Times, Dr Mark Diesendorf wrote: “Greenhouse gas emissions, peak oil, urban traffic congestion, air and water pollution, loss of soils and destruction of biodiversity are driven by three factors: population, consumption per person and technological impact. A doubling of any one of these factors doubles the environmental impact.”

Populationists thus draw a direct correlation between population size and environmental destruction: the more people, the more pollution. Generally, the argument is nuanced with an acknowledgement that per person greenhouse gas emissions vary a lot. For example, Australia’s per person greenhouse gas emissions are nearly double the OECD average and more than four times higher than the world average.

Population and environmental destruction

Concrete examples disprove the assumed connection between population and environment destruction. For example, Japan’s population peaked at the end of 2004 at about 127.8 million and is now in decline. According to the January 2 British Guardian: “Health ministry records estimated the population fell by 51,000 in 2008. The number of deaths hit a record of 1.14 million ... and the number of births totalled 1.09 million.”

However, ABC Online said on November 12 last year the Japanese government had announced that Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high in the year ending March 2008.

Cuba’s example makes this same point, but for the inverse reason. From 1990 to 2004, the Cuban population grew by about 1 million or 8.5%. For the same period, total carbon dioxide emissions fell from 32 million tones to 25.8 million tones; a 19.4%.

So, a decline in population has no direct link to a decline in emissions. Population growth does not always increase carbon emissions therefore a decline in population does not automatically lead to a cut in emissions.

‘Consumers’ aren’t to blame

Addison calls for pollution control through consumption reduction, but misses the point that under the current economic system production isn't for consumption, it's for profit. Populationists tend to reduce the complexity of modern human society down to individual “consumers”, as though we all have equal choice and buying power, and therefore equal responsibility to reduce our consumption.

This entirely ignores the fact that we are not all equal consumers. Capitalism ensures that a tiny minority of the world’s population makes the big decisions about how things are produced — against the interests of the majority of humanity and the planet.

This ruling minority has an interest in keeping environmentally damaging industries in business. Their huge control over the market limits consumer choices dramatically. Changing consumer habits has little impact on this reality. You can’t replace a coal-fired power station with a wind farm by green choices in the supermarket aisle.

Consumption rates are not the cause of the problem — the methods of production and who makes the decisions over it are.

Development and consumption

Linking development levels directly to consumption rates also leads to false solutions. The argument assumes that countries cannot sustainably develop; that affluence necessarily leads to increased environmental destruction; that production is based on human need and consumption, and that the nature of production cannot change. None of this is true.

According to a 2006 report published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Cuba has sustainable development. Cuba satisfies the minimum criteria in terms of both the United Nations Human Development Index and ecological footprint, measured as average energy and resources consumed per person.

Yet, Cuba is a poor, Third World country. According to the UN, GDP per person in 2007 was US$4641. Yet 2007 World Bank statistics show that life expectancy is higher and infant mortality lower in Cuba than the US, with a GDP per person of $45,047.

There is no direct link between affluence and consumption. So why are developed countries generally much higher consumers?

Production and distribution

Populationists reduce us to individual consumers, but we can only consume what is available. Within the current undemocratic system, the vast majority of us have no say in what or how things are produced. Everything produced, and the means of production, is owned and controlled by capitalists. The rest of us have to work to make a living.

Meanwhile, producers use advertising and the media to tell us we need two cars and a large house, that we need to consume beyond satisfying basic needs.

Likewise, the profit motive plays a role in determining population growth. It is profitable to exploit people in the Third World; to take their collective natural resources so that they must work to sustain themselves. All the while, profiteers pay them only a fraction of their worth.

Due to this process, people in underdeveloped countries are forced to have the maximum number of children — future workers — to provide them with the greatest possible security later in life.

We live in a time of abundance, with the potential to produce enough for everyone. However, distribution of food is on a profit basis, and people starve needlessly. For example, by 2006 the number of obese people surpassed the number of starving people. This was not because world hunger decreased. In fact, the number of those hungry is at an all time high. It is because the big multinational food companies are out to make a profit, not to feed the hungry. So production for profit, not a lack of resources, is the main cause of starvation.

Under capitalism, waste is immense. In February, the United Nations Environment Program released a report that put food waste and losses in the US at around 40-50%. It said close to one third of all food bought in Britain is thrown away and that, in Australia, food waste makes up close to half of all landfill. The problem is not that there isn’t enough food to feed the world’s population, but that it’s more profitable to waste food than get it to the people who need it most.

Those who see limiting population as a solution to the ecological crisis fail to tackle the cause of climate change at its roots: the environmentally destructive way things are produced and distributed under capitalism.

The problem is not that goods are produced, but how they’re produced. The most profitable means of production — at least for short-term profit — tend to be the most environmentally destructive. But under capitalism, we have little choice about how environmentally unfriendly most of what we consume is. Recycled products, for example, tend to be more expensive than products made from non-renewable sources.

For example, an aluminium can made from recycled aluminium has, in the course of its production, contributed substantially less greenhouse gas emissions than a can made from newly mined ore.

We could say that there are too many people are buying canned drinks, or limiting how many cans each person can “consume”, or we can target the corporations producing the soft drinks, bring their factories under democratic control and convert their production to sustainable, renewable practices.

The system itself does not allow for sustainable development. Unless we challenge production and distribution, we cannot solve the environmental crisis.


Addison and Sustainable Population Australia argue that we must prevent migration from Third World to First World countries because the carbon footprint of these people would increase. This is discriminatory and incorrect. It assumes current production methods cannot, or will not, change. It also implies people born in poorer countries have less right to a decent standard of living.

Rather than deny people access to the same standard of living, shouldn’t we force a change in production methods so that a comfortable lifestyle for everyone is sustainable?

No time for false solutions

Of course there are limits to population and consumption. The Earth’s resources are finite. But its carrying capacity is dynamic. Earth could not sustain 6 billion people with Australia’s current production practices and greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

However, in the same scenario, if Australia moved to a zero-emissions economy, the world could support a much bigger population than 6 billion, with a massive increase in global development.

Population arguments fail to recognise that the cause of the climate crisis is profit-driven production and that population growth, consumption and barriers to technological development and implementation are all products of a system driven by profit.

We do not have time to spend demanding false solutions to symptoms rather than causes. We have a 10-year window in which to radically reduce emissions. The environment movement cannot afford to spend time and energy on false solutions.

[Jess Moore is a member of the Socialist Alliance of Australia and the national coordinator of the socialist youth group Resistance, which is affiliated to the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #806, August 9, 2009.]

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