`Overpopulation' — a political weapon for conservatives

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By Simon Butler

July 24, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- Forget about the climate science and the record high temperatures. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard has decided she doesn’t need a serious climate change policy to win the August 21 federal election. In its place, she kicked off her election campaign on July 18 with a “sustainable Australia” policy. It promised a future of low population growth, which “preserves our quality of life and respects our environment”.

Opposition leader and climate denier Tony Abbott was quick to say he fully agreed with this vision, but was even more committed to it than Gillard.

From a conservative point of view it makes sense to raise the spectre of overpopulation in this election campaign. Population control is the mother of all political diversion tactics. Population levels explain nothing about social problems. But they can be scapegoated for just about everything, from traffic jams and home prices to grocery bills and climate change.

A promise to reign in population growth is useful for the right wing because it substitutes for the fundamental social and economic changes needed to really deal with these problems.

For instance, it appears to recognise the climate crisis, only to propose a “solution” that avoids replacing fossil fuels with clean energy.

In the past, population control has been raised as a key measure needed to end Third World poverty, overcome starvation and stop environmental decay.

More recently, it has regained popularity as a response to the climate crisis. The simple theory is that more people equals more emissions. Support for this idea now extends to many who would consider themselves progressive.

But as the Ugandan writer Mahmood Mamdani wrote in his 1972 classic work, The Myth of Population Control: “Optimism concerning the possibility of population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative.”

This weapon can’t be picked up and used by leftists for progressive causes: a focus on population levels inevitably shifts the blame away from where it should be placed. Nor does the green argument for population control rely on facts. Indeed, it relies on downplaying the fact that the world population growth rate is falling fast; population levels will peak by about mid-century.

British journalist Fred Pearce summarised some of the data on population trends in a July 11 Grist.com article. He wrote: "The population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast. Back then, most women round the world had five or six children. Today's women have just half as many as their mothers — an average of 2.6. Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere."

The rich world’s unsustainable consumption “today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count”. Meanwhile, “virtually all of the remaining population growth is in the poor world, and the poor half of the planet is only responsible for 7% of carbon emissions”, Pearce said.

In a recent Triplecrisis.com article, US economist James K. Boyce pointed out that the “too many people” argument tends to reinforce feelings of political impotence and hopelessness in the face of the climate crisis. “Blaming climate change simply on human numbers is itself founded on denial — denial of the real causes of the problem and denial of our potential to forge positive solutions”, he said. “It spreads demoralisation and paralysis at a time when we need hope and activism.”

He concluded: “Instead of buying into the ‘more people = more emissions’ equation, we should put the blame for climate change squarely where it belongs: on fossil fuels and the vested interests that seek to perpetuate dependence on them.”

This is a necessary task, but it is also a difficult one. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground will mean defeating the world’s most powerful corporations and institutions. It will take a strong, global mass movement of millions to do it — and this movement doesn’t yet exist.

Rather than rise to this challenge, populationists fear that it’s too difficult. Support for population control tends to reflect pessimism about the potential to make widespread change. Yet it has one advantage: it seems much easier.

Take Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins, someone who has repeatedly called for immigration cuts to Australia on environmental grounds.

In September 2009, he wrote: “Since the rich countries are reluctant to countenance a decline in living standards, to put it mildly, and the poor countries most assuredly won't abandon their quest for affluence, there's one obvious variable that could be used to limit global economic activity's deleterious impact on the ecosystem: population growth.

“Limiting population growth in the developing world and allowing population to continue on its established path of decline in the developed world wouldn't be easy, but it would be easier than trying to prevent rising living standards among those already living.”

Part of Gittins’ confusion here is to link serious action on climate change with a “decline in living standards” — as if a high quality of life depends on trashing the planet.

His argument also raises a question put by Katie McKay Bryson, a coordinator of the US-based Population and Development Program: “Why is it easier for those who use and waste the most to imagine fewer people than less stuff?”

But it’s the conservative political choice Gittins has made that is most glaring. He feels it’s too difficult to rapidly change the wasteful economies of advanced countries like Australia. So he reverts to denial and embraces sharp immigration cuts instead.

To be fair, Gittins does support a rollout of renewable energy and other measures to deal with climate change too. He supports stronger government action on climate change.

Indeed, most people who are sympathetic to populationist arguments would say having fewer people is not the only answer. Rather, they say fewer people would simply make it easier to decarbonise the economy and feed the world.

But the point is that population control is a substitute for fundamental social change. It does not smooth the progress of change but makes it harder and reinforces the status quo.

Population theories assume “other people” are part of the problem. Genuine social change relies on people power — those who fight for social change must hold that “other people” are the solution. In the end, the two views are at odds with one another.

The two big parties will play the population card without hesitation in this election. Labor and the Liberals know a useful conservative weapon when they see it.

[Simon Butler is a Sydney climate activists and a member of the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]