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.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 09/23/2009 - 12:59



By Ben Courtice

September 23, 2009 -- There has been a flurry of comment about population growth and immigration. This last Friday I heard ALP MP Kelvin Thompson advocating immigration cuts on the radio. That same afternoon I came across a street plastered with stickers on every pole reading "save water - end immigration" from the organisation "Nationalist Alternative" - who appear to be a group of racists trying to infiltrate their ideas into the mainstream. Their website says "Our vision of Australia is one of an organic nation, founded upon Western/European ideals, and created by it’s descendants primarily the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic ethnicity as well as fellow Europeans from northern, central, southern and eastern Europe." (Slackbastard posted about them, too. The populationist website candobetter approvingly posted Thompson's speech... and far-right website Stormfront approvingly posted a link to candobetter!).

But racist boneheads are an aside. Now Ross Gittins has chimed in in the Sydney Morning Herald. This population argument is gathering support.

I think the call to limit immigration on environmental grounds is a bit hypocritical. Australia is the driest continent but has some of the most wasteful water management. We have now become the world's worst carbon polluters. Why don't we actually address those issues? Immigration may add incrementally to those problems, but cutting immigration actually won't fix them. Immigration is a distraction from the real issue here.

Reducing world population to stop climate change is equally off the mark. If we had time to take a generation - or, more realistically, several -- it might work. But climate change has to be addressed urgently. Right now.

I'm all in favour of providing education and contraception to people in developing countries, along with all sorts of other aid. It should be noted that a lot of what passes for "development" in these countries is not uniformly welcomed - dams in India, for example, usually destroy the livelihoods of the people they displace. But once again, limiting population growth where it is the fastest (in the poorest countries) blames the wrong people. It is the already-affluent first-world nations that have produced the vast majority of the world's pollution (and are generally continuing to do so). If Australia's per capita emissions and renewable energy industry were anything like China's we might have some useful advice to give, but until then I don't think so.

Whatever your views on sustainable population (hopefully informed by science, not "White Nationalism") it's a dangerous diversion for the climate movement.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 09/29/2009 - 22:28


People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 29th September 2009

It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for example, claimed last month that “those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.”(1) But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.

A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2).

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.

Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together(3). Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm(4).

The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development - that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) - is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.

While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few superyachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they’re accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour(5) I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 l/hr(6). But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3400 l/hr when travelling at 60 knots(7). That’s nearly one litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre(8).

Of course to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet skis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in ten minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we’re burning, baby.

Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.

In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined “Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation”. It revealed that “some of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly” to decide which good cause they should support. “A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.”(9) The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirise.

James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.

The obsessives could argue that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect. There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their reproduction, but weak environmental reasons, except among wealthier populations.

The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact that the world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century(10), probably at around 10 billion(11). Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.

But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth”. It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.

So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against superyachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it?

It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.


1. Optimum Population Trust, 26th August 2009 Gaia Scientist to be OPT Patron.

2. David Satterthwaite, September 2009. The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change. Environment & Urbanization, Vol 21(2): 545–567. DOI: 10.1177/0956247809344361.


4. For example, Satterthwaite cites the study by Gerald Leach and Robin Mearns, 1989. Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis – People, Land and Trees in Africa, Earthscan Publications, London.




8. 15 US gallons/nm = 56.775l/nm = 31 l/km.

9. John Harlow, 24th May 2009. Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation. The Sunday Times.

10. Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516

11. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. The 2004