Is the climate crisis caused by overpopulation?

By Simon Butler

November 12, 2008 -- Many environmentalists believe that environmental destruction is a product of “overpopulation”, and that the world is already “full up”. So are population reduction strategies essential to solving the climate crisis?

At best, population control schemes focus on treating a symptom of an irrational, polluting social and economic system rather than the causes. In China, for instance, such measures haven’t solved that country’s environmental problems.

At worst, populationist theories shift the blame for climate change onto the poorest and most vulnerable people in the Third World.

They do not address the reasons why environmental damage, or even instances of overpopulation, happen in the first place and they divert attention away from the main challenge facing the climate movement — the urgent need to construct a new economy based on environmentally sustainable technologies and the rising of living standards globally.

For at least 200 years, “overpopulation” has been used to explain a host of social problems such as poverty, famine, unemployment and — more recently — environmental destruction.

Between 1798-1826, the conservative English economist and clergyman Thomas Malthus published six editions of his influential Essay on the Principle of Population, which argued that population growth inevitably outstrips food production.

Malthus’ argument was that the English working class was poor because they were too numerous, not because they were exploited. He opposed welfare or higher wages because, he said, that would allow the poor to survive, and breed, compounding “overpopulation” and leading to more poverty.

Malthus was wrong about food production. In the last two centuries, food production has grown faster than population — his theories nevertheless gained wide acceptance among the English elite of the day because they provided a convenient excuse to blame the poor for their own predicament.

In the 1960s, Malthus’ anti-human ideas were resuscitated by a new generation of conservative theorists who argued that the people of the global South remained hungry because there were too many to feed. US environmentalist Paul Erlich, in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, argued for population control measures in the Third World to, he said, avert an ecological crisis.

Populationists like Erlich usually don’t question the unequal allocation of resources on a global scale. Nor do they admit that high birth rates in the Third World are largely a response to dire poverty.

Instead, they look at the world’s resources as though they were dividing up a pie: reduce the world’s population and those remaining will each get a bigger slice. They fail to address the question of power and, therefore, unequal access to global resources.

Most environmentalists who believe that population control is necessary would still reject the most extreme forms of the populationist argument.

But the fact remains that the real driver of climate change is not population growth but a market economy locked into burning fossil fuels for energy. The corporations that profit most from taking the lion’s share of global resources are the same polluting industries that, today, are resisting the necessary shift away from carbon-based economies.

Populationists tend to downplay the question of power. As renowned US ecologist Barry Commoner commented, populationist solutions to environmental destruction are “equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship by lightening the load by forcing passengers overboard”.

He went on to ask the question that populationists tend to ignore: “One is constrained to ask if there is not something wrong with the ship”.

The world is not experiencing runaway population growth. Global population is growing, but the rate of growth is slowing. It peaked in the 1960s and has been in decline ever since. Global population grew by 140% between 1950 and 2000. Experts predict a further rise of 50% between 2000 and 2050, and just 11% in the 50 years after that.

The simplistic view that population control is the main way to reverse runaway climate change can obscure debate over other measures. These include: the rapid replacement of fossil fuel-generated energy with renewables; improvements in energy efficiency; and the introduction of sustainable agricultural methods.

In rich countries such as Australia, we need to campaign for environmental outcomes that sharply reduce Third World poverty, including cancelling debt owed to First World nations.

It is well documented — including in the wealthy countries — that birth rates fall as living standards rise. Furthermore, the greater economic independence women have, and the more control women have over their own bodies, the fewer children they have. Development, along with women’s emancipation, is the best contraception.

It is undeniable that parts of the world are overcrowded, and that land degradation through over-logging, erosion, over-hunting, over-fishing and poor waste disposal are massive problems in the countries of the global South.

These social, economic and environment problems are interlinked, and point to the real causes of overpopulation and environmental destruction of the Third World — extreme poverty. Liberty and justice and rights for the poor, especially women, have to be our concern.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #774, November 12, 2008.

Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I'm not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news - growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I'm talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight other countries - India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China - as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050. The U.S. is the only developed country still experiencing third world-like population growth.

If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It's also available at Amazon.com.)

Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don't know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/21/2008 - 16:20

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Ah yes, the customary refutation of poor old Malthus, who imagined that all we needed was food. Food supplies does indeed grow as the nutritional quality of the crops lessens. Not so with water or many other resources, mostly notably the resource never considered by progressives- space.

Pete said: "Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life."

Whereas I think a real starting point for looking at the issue of population has to be "our rampant economy threatens the quality of life of the world's population".

Its the unequal distribution of wealth under capitalism that results in instances of overpopulation in the parts of the world where it exists.

Evidence of the link between third world poverty and higher rates of population growth is incontrovertable. Take this list of the world's population growth rates for example.

The ten nations with the highest population growth rates are among the poorest nations of the planet, many victims of direct imperialist occupation or inverventions:

1 Liberia 4.50%
2 Burundi 3.90%
3 Afghanistan 3.85%
4 Western Sahara 3.72%
5 East Timor 3.50%
6 Niger 3.49%
7 Eritrea 3.24%
8 Uganda 3.24%
9 Democratic Republic of the Congo 3.22%
10 Palestinian territories 3.18%

How does this compare with the popualtion growth rates in the wealthy global North. Here's a selection:

127 Australia 1.01%
131 United States 0.97%
134 Canada 0.90%
135 New Zealand 0.90%
142 Spain 0.77%
164 France 0.49%
170 United Kingdom 0.42%
188 Belgium 0.24%
189 Netherlands 0.21%
194 Italy 0.13%

So much for the claim make above that "The U.S. is the only developed country still experiencing third world-like population growth." A new economic theory based on such an obvious factual error won't be useful in helping us to understand the world today.

Interestingly, here's revolutionary Cuba's popualtion growth rate, (achieved without the kind of population control schemes advocated by advocates of human population control):

206 Cuba -0.01%

These figures underline the point I concluded my article with: "...social, economic and environment problems are interlinked, and point to the real causes of overpopulation and environmental destruction of the Third World — extreme poverty. Liberty and justice and rights for the poor, especially women, have to be our concern."

cheers

Simon Butler
www.greenleft.org.au

Simon, first of all, I should clarify: when I spoke of the U.S. being the only nation still experiencing third world-like population growth, I was referring to the United Nations' projection that, of the nine nations that will contribute fully half of the world's population growth by 2050, the United States is the only developed country on the list. You are correct that the population growth "rate" of some other developed nations is about the same as the U.S.

Regarding your claim that extreme poverty is the cause of overpopulation, I think that you have it exactly backwards. Nations in extreme poverty have both a very high birth rate and death rate and, left undisturbed, will tend to have a stable population. However, it is the introduction of modern advances, even the most rudimentary like sanitation and medicine, often provided in the form of aid, that begin to drive the death rate down dramatically, leaving a sky-high birth rate to send the population soaring. Development is not the solution for overpopulation. It's the cause. That's not to say that development is a bad thing. But we need to recognize that, when introducing development to a poor nation, we need to be aware of its potential for exploding the population and simultaneously take steps designed to rein in the birth rate.

I believe you are right , the fact that tons of waste from uneaten food from middle to upper class section of society is being thrown away is proof that we have food to spare.

If only there is an effective way to have these food properly distributed so that those who can't afford food can receive these surplus food.

-Dino Delellis

Submitted by Marc Graves (not verified) on Mon, 01/26/2009 - 17:10

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In the poorer areas the people rely on small farms and animal husbandry in order to survive. This requires labor...thus the larger families.

That is very true. The rich and powerful nations own the majority of resource and being in that position they can do a lot more. Poor nations have a ton of issues already and more people mean more manpower for them.

Submitted by renewables (not verified) on Wed, 06/03/2009 - 18:36

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Over population is not the real issue here.
Educating the populace is the key issue.
In an environment where most people are just too busy trying to survive financially no real time is given to the problems at hand and it is the problem of the few making decisions for the many.
Things are changing for the better but maybe the process is to slow.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/04/2011 - 03:17

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I find in reading those sites that say that population problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series "In Search of Utopia" (http://andgulliverreturns.info), it blasts their lack of evidence relative to their calling overpopulation a myth. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half.
The outdated fertility replacement rate of 2.1 is also clarified.