People are not pollution -- Why climate activists should not support limits on immigration
By Ian Angus and Simon Butler
January 25, 2010 -- Immigrants to the developed world have frequently been blamed for unemployment, crime and other social ills. Attempts to reduce or block immigration have been justified as necessary measures to protect “our way of life” from alien influences.
Today, some environmentalists go farther, arguing that sharp cuts in immigration are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. However sincere and well-meaning such activists may be, their arguments are wrong and dangerous, and should be rejected by the climate emergency movement.
“Environmental” arguments for reducing immigration aren’t new. In a 1974 article, “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor”, US biologist Garrett Hardin argued that “a nation’s land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land”. Immigration, he said, was “speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries”.
Elsewhere he wrote: “Overpopulation can be avoided only if borders are secure; otherwise poor and overpopulated nations will export their excess to richer and less populated nations.”
Hardin’s ideas have been very influential in the development of the right-wing, anti-immigration movement in the US and elsewhere. In 1979, he helped to found the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant lobbying group that has been named a “hate organization” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In addition to the usual array of anti-immigrant arguments FAIR has made a particular point of linking concerns about the environment with opposition to immigration.
Virginia Abernethy, a Hardin collaborator who calls herself an “ethnic separatist”, argues that the ability to migrate to rich countries gives people in poor countries an incentive to have bigger families. “The U.S. would help, not harm, by encouraging an appreciation of limits sooner rather than later. A relatively-closed U.S. border would create most vividly an image of limits and be an incentive to restrict family size.”
In the past, the “environmental” anti-immigration argument was: immigrants should be kept out because their way of life is a threat to our environment. That argument is still made by anti-immigrant groups and some conservationists.
Recently, as concern about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming increased, the anti-immigrant argument has taken on a new form. Now the argument is: immigrants should be kept out because our way of life is a threat to the world’s environment.
That’s the argument made in a recent briefing from the US Center for Immigration Studies, a “think tank” founded by FAIR: it says that immigration worsens CO2 emissions “because it transfers population from lower-polluting parts of the world to the United States, which is a higher polluting country”. The CIS calculated that the “average immigrant” to the US contributed four times more CO2 than in their country of origin.
Otis Graham, a founder of FAIR, made the same argument in his 2004 book Unguarded Gates:
“Most immigrants … move from poor societies to richer ones, intending to do what they almost always succeed in doing, take on a higher standard of living that carries a larger ecological footprint. This being the case, the logic of the relationship is straightforward. Population growth in both poor and wealthy societies, but especially in the latter, intensifies environmental problems. Where immigration shifts population numbers to wealthier societies, it does not leave global environmental damage the same, but intensifies global as well as local environmental degradation.”
A recent FAIR report claims that increased population is the primary cause of the huge increase in US greenhouse gas emissions between 1973 and 2007 – and that the population increase was caused by immigration. “The United States will not be able to achieve any meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions without serious economic and social consequences for American citizens unless immigration is sharply curtailed.”
The racist British National Party, which likes to call itself the “true green party” because it opposes immigration, also uses this argument. BNP leader Nick Griffin recently told the European parliament that climate change isn’t real – but that hasn’t stopped him saying immigrants will make it worse. He told author Steven Farris that by accepting immigrants from the Third World, “We’re massively increasing their impact of carbon release into the world’s atmosphere. There’s no doubt about it, the Western way of life is not sustainable. So what on Earth is the point of turning more people into Westerners?”
(It is significant that none of these supposed defenders of the environment take their argument to its logical conclusion: if immigration to the global North is bad for the climate then emigration to poor countries with low emissions must be good and should be encouraged.)
Greens versus immigration
For anti-immigration bigots, concern for the environment is just a ploy – they’ll say anything to justify keeping immigrants out. It’s an example of what author and feminist activist Betsy Hartmann has called “the greening of hate — blaming environmental degradation on poor populations of color”.
But it is particularly disturbing to witness the promotion of similar arguments in the mainstream media, and by environmental activists whose political views are otherwise hostile to those of FAIR and the BNP.
For example, Ross Gittins, economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, said in 2008 that cutting Australia’s immigration was “one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the growth in our emissions” because “it’s a safe bet they’d be emitting more in prosperous Australia than they were before”.
Australian renewable energy expert Mark Diesendorf has urged the Australian Greens party to call for immigration restrictions because Australia is such a big polluter. “Australia is world’s biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. So every additional Australian has a bigger impact than anywhere else.”
Even the highly respected US environmentalist Bill McKibben has written that, “the immigration-limiters … have a reasonable point”, because “if you’re worried about shredding the global environment, the prospect of twice as many world-champion super-consumer Americans has got to worry you”.
Noted environmentalist and journalist Tim Flannery made a similar argument during a debate on immigration policy broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in September 2009:
Growing Australia’s population has a much greater impact than growing the population of a poor country. We are the heaviest carbon users in the world, about 23 tonnes per capita, so people that come to this country from anywhere on the planet will result almost certainly in an increase carbon emissions ….
As these examples show, “green” arguments against immigration are no longer the exclusive property of anti-immigrant bigots. They are increasingly heard within the climate movement, and so require strong answers from climate activists.
Wrong diagnosis, wrong cure
The view that stopping immigration to wealthy countries is a good way to fight global warming rests on a the simplistic idea that because immigrants come from countries with low per capita emissions to countries with high per capita emissions they supposedly increase total emissions simply by moving.
This argument is false on its face.
To calculate “per capita emissions”, we simply divide a country’s total greenhouse gas emissions by its total population. This provides a useful baseline for comparing countries of different sizes – but it tells us nothing at all about the emissions that can actually be attributed to individuals.
In fact, most emissions are caused by industrial and other processes over which individuals have no control. In Canada, for example, no change in the number of immigrants will have any effect on the oil extraction industry at the Alberta Tar Sands, described by George Monbiot as “the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions”.
Reducing immigration to the United States will have no effect whatsoever on the massive military spending – up 50% in the past decade – which ensures that the Pentagon is the world’s biggest consumer of oil. To put that in context: a study published in March 2008 found that the CO2 emissions caused directly by the Iraq war until then were equivalent to putting 25 million more cars on the road in the US.
Closing Australia’s borders would have had no effect on the climate-denial policies of the previous Liberal Party federal government, or on the current Labor Party federal government’s determination to continue Australia’s role as “the world’s largest ‘coal mule’”.
As US immigrant rights campaigner Patricia Huang has pointed out, “the relationship between population growth and environmental destruction is shaped by how we use our resources, not by the number of people who use them”.
Labeling migrants as a climate change problem is not only unjust, but it obscures the real challenges the climate movement faces. The decisive question we must address is who makes decisions about resource use in society. In capitalist society, the big financial institutions, multinational corporations and fossil-fuel companies wield this power with devastating results for the planet’s ecosystems – and governments do their bidding.
Focusing on immigration diverts attention from the real social and economic causes of global warming, and makes it more difficult to solve them. This approach mistakenly links the trends of population and ecological harm, and so misdiagnoses the root causes of the current environmental crisis. It leaves social change out of the equation or consigns it to the far future. It downplays or ignores the fact that immigration would have a very different impact in the zero-emissions economy we need to fight for.
A pessimistic outlook
As we’ve seen, the argument that reducing immigration will protect the environment originated with right-wing, anti-immigrant bigots. Our major concern, however, is that virtually identical arguments have been adopted by progressive activists and writers who are sincerely concerned about global warming.
Despite their sincerity, their arguments betray regrettable pessimism about our common ability to build a climate emergency movement that is powerful enough to win the anti-emissions fight. As Larry Lohmann of Cornerhouse writes, the anti-immigration argument “relies on the premise that changing Northern lifestyles is a lower priority, or less achievable, than preventing others from sharing them”.
In fact, including “close the borders” as an anti-emissions demand tends to make their pessimistic outlook self-confirming, by making it more difficult to build a mass movement. Not only does targeting immigration divert attention from the social causes of global warming, but it divides us from our allies, while strengthening our enemies.
Sadly, some groups that favor immigration control seem oblivious to the danger of lending credibility to bigots and racists who view immigrants as a threat to “our” way of life.
For example, last year the Australian Conservation Foundation praised Labor Party member of parliament Kelvin Thompson, and Sustainable Population Australia named him to its “Population Roll of Honour” when he called for immigration cuts to deal with climate change. Both ignored the fact that just 10 days earlier Thomson had revealed his real motives by calling for immigration cuts “to minimise the risk that people who do not respect Australia’s laws and legal system will enter this country”.
The anti-immigration response to climate change raises a huge wall between the climate movement and the most oppressed working people in the imperialist countries. How can we possibly win migrants and refugees to the climate movement while simultaneously accusing them of responsibility for rising emissions and asking the government to bar them and their families from entering the country?
What’s more, it undermines efforts to work with the growing and important climate justice movement in the Third World, where global warming is now producing its earliest and most devastating effects. How can we expect to be taken seriously as allies, if we tell those movements that migrants are not welcome in our countries?
The Climate Justice and Migration Working Group, an international coalition of human rights and immigrant rights groups, estimates that between 25 and 50 million people have already been displaced by environmental change, and that could rise to 150 million by 2050. It calls for recognition of the right of human mobility across borders as an essential response to the climate change threat.
The climate justice movement in the rich countries has a particular responsibility to support this demand – but blaming immigrants in general for global warming will make it more difficult to win public support for climate refugees.
Despite the good intentions of its green advocates, support for immigration controls strengthens the most regressive forces in our societies and weakens our ability to stop climate change.
It gives conservative governments and reactionary politicians an easy out, allowing them to pose as friends of the environment by restricting immigration, while doing nothing to reduce real emissions.
It hands a weapon to climate change deniers, allowing them to portray the climate movement as hostile to the legitimate aspirations of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world.
People are not pollution. Inserting immigration into the climate change debate divides the environmental movement along race, class and gender lines, at a time when the broadest possible unity is essential. It is a dangerous diversion from the real issues, one the movement cannot afford and should not support.
[Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and co-editor of Socialist Voice. Simon Butler is a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance, a staff writer for Green Left Weekly and a contributor to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. This article first appeared at Socialist Voice.]
 Garrett Hardin. “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.”
 “Garrett Hardin Quotations.”
 Southern Poverty Law Center. “New SPLC Report: Nation’s Most Prominent Anti-Immigration Group has History of Hate, Extremism.”
 Virginia Abernethy. “The Demographic Transition Revisited: Lessons for Foreign Aid and U.S. Immigration Policy.”
 Leon Kolankiewicz & Steven Camarota. “Immigration to the United States and World-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions9.” Centre for Immigration Studies, August 2008. http://www.cis.org./GreenhouseGasEmissions.
 Otis L. Graham Jr. Unguarded Gates A History of America’s Immigration Crisis. Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham·MD. 2004. p. 140.
 FAIR. “Immigration, Energy and the Environment.”
 Fred Pearce. “How can Nick Griffin’s racist policies belong to the only ‘true green party’?” Guardian, December 10, 2009.
 Betsy Hartmann. “Conserving Racism: The Greening of Hate at Home and Abroad.”
 Ross Gittins. “An inconvenient truth about rising immigration.” Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2008.
 Mark Diesendorf. “Why Environmentalists must address Population as well as Technology and Consumption.” Powerpoint presentation to a meeting organised by the NSW Greens, June 2008.
 Bill Mckibben. “Does it make sense for environmentalists to want to limit immigration?”
 George Monbiot. “The Urgent Threat to World Peace is … Canada.” December 1, 2009.
 Sara Flounders. “Pentagon’s Role in Global Catastrophe: Add Climate Havoc to War Crimes.” December 19, 2009.
 Ian Angus. “Global Warming and the Iraq War.”
 Guy Pearce. “Quarry Vision: coal, climate change and the end of the resources boom.” Quarterly Essay, March 2009. .
 Patricia Huang. “10 Reasons to Rethink the Immigration-Overpopulation Connection.” DiffernTakes, Spring 2009. .
 Larry Lohmann. “Re-imagining the Population Debate.” Corner House Briefing 28, March 2003.
 Emily Bourke. “Migrants may pose terrorist threat.” ABC News, August 7, 2009; Australian Conservation Foundation. “Population boom will bust environment and quality of life.” September 22, 2009; Sustainable Population Australia. “Kelvin Thomson Joins Population Roll Of Honour.”
By Fred Pearce
March 8, 2010 -- Prospect magazine -- Many of today’s most-respected thinkers, from Stephen Hawking to David Attenborough, argue that our efforts to fight climate change and other environmental perils will all fail unless we “do something” about population growth. In the Universe in a Nutshell, Hawking declares that, “in the last 200 years, population growth has become exponential… The world population doubles every forty years.”
But this is nonsense. For a start, there is no exponential growth. In fact, population growth is slowing. For more than three decades now, the average number of babies being born to women in most of the world has been in decline. Globally, women today have half as many babies as their mothers did, mostly out of choice. They are doing it for their own good, the good of their families, and, if it helps the planet too, then so much the better.
Here are the numbers. Forty years ago, the average woman had between five and six kids. Now she has 2.6. This is getting close to the replacement level which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. As I show in my new book, Peoplequake, half the world already has a fertility rate below the long-term replacement level. That includes all of Europe, much of the Caribbean and the far east from Japan to Vietnam and Thailand, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Algeria, Kazakhstan, and Tunisia.
It also includes China, where the state decides how many children couples can have. This is brutal and repulsive. But the odd thing is that it may not make much difference any more: Chinese communities around the world have gone the same way without any compulsion—Taiwan, Singapore, and even Hong Kong. When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it had the lowest fertility rate in the world: below one child per woman.
So why is this happening? Demographers used to say that women only started having fewer children when they got educated and the economy got rich, as in Europe. But tell that to the women of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, where girls are among the least educated in the world, and mostly marry in their mid-teens. They have just three children now, less than half the number their mothers had. India is even lower, at 2.8. Tell that also to the women of Brazil. In this hotbed of Catholicism, women have two children on average—and this is falling. Nothing the priests say can stop it.
Women are doing this because, for the first time in history, they can. Better healthcare and sanitation mean that most babies now live to grow up. It is no longer necessary to have five or six children to ensure the next generation—so they don’t.
There are holdouts, of course. In parts of rural Africa, women still have five or more children. But even here they are being rational. Women mostly run the farms, and they need the kids to mind the animals and work in the fields.
Then there is the middle east, where traditional patriarchy still rules. In remote villages in Yemen, girls as young as 11 are forced into marriage. They still have six babies on average. But even the middle east is changing. Take Iran. In the past 20 years, Iranian women have gone from having eight children to less than two—1.7 in fact—whatever the mullahs say.
The big story here is that rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic, secular or devout, with or without tough government birth control policies in place, most countries tell the same tale of a reproductive revolution.
That doesn’t mean population growth has ceased. The world’s population is still rising by 70m a year. This is because there is a time lag: the huge numbers of young women born during the earlier baby boom may only have had two children each. That is still a lot of children. But within a generation, the world’s population will almost certainly be stable, and is very likely to be falling by mid-century. In the US they are calling my new book “The Coming Population Crash.”
Is this good news for the environment and for the planet’s resources? Clearly, other things being equal, fewer people will do less damage to the planet. But it won’t on its own do a lot to solve the world’s environmental problems, because the second myth about population growth is that it is the driving force behind our wrecking of the planet.
In fact, rising consumption today far outstrips the rising headcount as a threat to the planet. And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet. By almost any measure you choose, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution.
Let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions: the biggest current concern because of climate change. The world’s richest half billion people—that’s about 7 per cent of the global population—are responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent of the population are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. Virtually all of the extra 2bn or so people expected on this planet in the coming 30 or 40 years will be in this poor half of the world. Stopping that, even if it were possible, would have only a minimal effect on global emissions, or other global threats.
Ah, you say, but what about future generations? All those big families in Africa will have yet bigger families. Well, that’s an issue of course. But let’s be clear about the scale of the difference involved. The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians or 250 Ethiopians. A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and, in the unlikely event that those ten children all live to adulthood and have ten children of their own, the entire clan of more than a hundred will still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or me. It is over-consumption, not over-population that matters.
Economists predict the world’s economy will grow by 400 per cent by 2050. If this does indeed happen, less than a tenth of that growth will be due to rising human numbers. True, some of those extra poor people might one day become rich. And if they do—and I hope they do—their impact on the planet will be greater. But it is the height of arrogance for us in the rich world to downplay the importance of our own environmental footprint because future generations of poor people might one day have the temerity to get as rich and destructive as us. How dare we?
Some green activists need to take a long hard look at themselves. We all like to think of ourselves as progressives. But Robert Malthus, the man who first warned 200 years ago that population growth would produce demographic armageddon, was in his time a favourite of capitalist mill owners. He opposed Victorian charities because he said they were only making matters worse for the poor, encouraging them to breed. He said the workhouses were too lenient. Progressives of the day hated him. Charles Dickens attacked him in several books: when Oliver Twist asked for more gruel in the workhouse, for instance, that was a satire on a newly introduced get-tough law on workhouses, known popularly as Malthus’s Law. In Hard Times, the headmaster obsessed with facts, Thomas Gradgrind, had a son called Malthus. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was also widely seen at the time as a caricature of Malthus.
Malthus, it should be remembered, spent many years teaching British colonial administrators before they went out to run the empire. They adopted his ideas that famine and disease were the result of overbreeding, so the victims should be allowed to die. It was Malthusian thinking that led to the huge and unnecessary death toll in the Irish potato famine.
We must not follow the lure of Malthus, and blame the world’s poor for the environmental damaged caused overwhelmingly by us: the rich. The truth is that the population bomb is being defused round the world. But the consumption bomb is still primed and ever more dangerous.Fred Pearce is author of Peoplequake (Eden Project Books)
By Fred Pearce
July 11, 2010 -- A green myth is on the march. It wants to blame the world's overbreeding poor people for the planet's peril. It stinks. And on World Population Day, I encourage fellow environmentalists not to be seduced.
Some greens think all efforts to save the world are doomed unless we "do something" about continuing population growth. But this is nonsense. Worse, it is dangerous nonsense.
For a start, 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.
This is getting close to the long-term replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don't make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. Women are cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to, but for their own good and the good of their families -- and if it helps the planet too, then so much the better.
This is a stunning change in just one generation. Why don't we hear more about it? Because it doesn't fit the doomsday agenda.
Half the world now has fewer than the "replacement level" of children. That includes Europe, North America, and the Caribbean, most of the Far East from Japan to Thailand, and much of the Middle East from Algeria to Iran.
Yes, Iran. Women in Tehran today have fewer children than their sisters in New York -- and a quarter as many as their mothers had. The mullahs may not like it, but those guys don't count for much in the bedroom.
And China. There, the communist government decides how many children couples can have. The one-child policy is brutal and repulsive. But the odd thing is that it may not make much difference any more. Chinese women round the world have gone the same way without compulsion. When Britain finally handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it had the lowest fertility in the world -- below one child per woman. Britain wasn't running a covert one-child policy. That was as many children as the women in Hong Kong wanted.
What is going on? Family-planning experts used to say that women only started having fewer children when they got educated or escaped poverty -- like us. But tell that to the women of Bangladesh.
Recently I met Aisha, Miriam, and Akhi -- three women from three families working in a backstreet sweatshop in the capital Dhaka. Together, they had 22 brothers and sisters. But they told me they planned to have only six children between them. That was the global reproductive revolution summed up in one shack. Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest nations. Its girls are among the least educated in the world, and mostly marry in their mid-teens. Yet they have on average just three children now.
India is even lower at 2.8. In Brazil, hotbed of Catholicism, most women have two children. And nothing the priests say can stop millions of them getting sterilized. The local joke is that they prefer being sterilized to other methods of contraception because you only have to confess once. It may not be a joke.
Women are having smaller families because, for the first time in history, they can. Because we have largely eradicated the diseases that used to mean most children died before growing up. Mothers no longer need to have five or six children to ensure the next generation, so they don't.
There are holdouts, of course. In parts of rural Africa, women still have five or more children. But even here they are being rational -- they need the kids to mind the animals and work in the fields.
But most of the world now lives in cities. And in cities, children are an economic burden. You have to get them educated before they can get a job. And by then they are ready to leave home.
The big story is that rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic, secular or devout, with tough government birth-control policies or none, most countries tell the same story: Small families are the new norm.
That doesn't mean women don't still need help to achieve their ambitions of small families. They need governments or charities to distribute modern contraception. But this is now about rights for women, not "population control."
It is also true that population growth has not ceased yet. We have 6.8 billion people today, and may end up with another 2 billion before the population bomb is finally defused. But this is mainly because of a time lag while the huge numbers of young women born during the baby boom years of the 20th century remain fertile.
With half the world already at below-replacement birthrates, and with those rates still falling fast, the world's population will probably be shrinking within a generation.
This is good news for the environment, for sure. But don't put out the flags. Another myth put out by the population doom-mongers is that it's all those extra people that are wrecking the planet. But that's no longer the case.
Rising consumption today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count. And most of that extra consumption is still happening in rich countries that have long since given up growing their populations.
Virtually all of the remaining population growth is in the poor world, and the poor half of the planet is only responsible for 7 percent of carbon emissions.
The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians. How dare rich-world greens blame the poor world for the planet's perils?
Some greens need to take a long, hard look at themselves. They should remember where some of their ideas came from.
The granddaddy of demographic doomsters was Bob Malthus, an English clergyman who got famous by warning 200 years ago about population growth. He believed that the world's population would keep increasing till it was cut down by disease or famine. Back in the ferment of the Industrial Revolution, he was a favorite of the evil mill owners and a scourge on anyone with a social conscience.
Malthus hated Victorian charities because he said they were keeping poor people alive to breed. Better that they die, he said. He believed the workhouses, where the destitute ended up, were too lenient, and he successfully campaigned for a get-tough law known at the time as Malthus's Law.
The novelist Charles Dickens, a social reformer, attacked Malthus in several of his books. When Oliver Twist asked for more gruel in the workhouse, that was a satire on Malthus's Law. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was a caricature of Malthus. In Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind, the unfeeling headmaster of Coketown, had a son called Malthus.
I think Karl Marx, another contemporary, was spot on when he called Malthusian ideas "a libel on the human race." And we are seeing the truth of that today as, round the world, women are voluntarily cutting their family sizes. No compulsion needed.
The population bomb is being defused right now -- by the world's poor women. Sadly, the consumption bomb is still primed and ever more dangerous. Now that would be a proper target for environmentalists.
James K. Boyce
There is no doubt about it: people are changing the Earth’s climate. The evidence for what scientists call “anthropogenic climate change” is overwhelming, notwithstanding the obfuscation efforts of the climate change denial industry kept on life-support with infusions of corporate money.
But to say that our emissions of greenhouse gases are causing climate change is not to say that every extra person automatically multiplies the problem. Nor does it imply that population control is the ultimate solution – a view espoused by some on the Malthusian fringe of the environmental movement.
The Washington-based NGO Population Action International claims that human population trends are “a major driving force of emissions growth.” Flashing the simple but misleading equation “More people = more emissions” on its website, the UK-based Optimum Population Trust sells “population offsets” by which individuals and organizations ostensibly can “offset their carbon footprint” by funding family planning programs.
On Valentine’s Day, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity gave away ten thousand “endangered species condoms” sporting slogans like “Wrap with care, save a polar bear.”
Voluntary family planning is a good thing in its own right. But condoms won’t save the polar bear.
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. It spreads demoralization and paralysis at a time when we need hope and activism.
In recent decades population growth rates have plummeted across the globe. In the Global South, the average number of children per woman is now 2.7 and it is predicted to fall to 2.1, the replacement level, by mid-century. In the meantime, in the poorest countries with the highest birth rates, consumption levels are so low that they contribute little or nothing to greenhouse gas emissions. In the Global North, where below-replacement fertility is now the norm, demographers worry mainly about the rising ratio of elderly to young people.
For most of human history, people did not pour greenhouse gases into the air. Climate fluctuations from natural causes were slow, and so people could adapt to them. This changed in the nineteenth century when we commenced burning fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – on a large scale. For the past six generations or so, we relied for much of our energy on poisonous stuff excavated from beneath the Earth’s surface. It is this crude technology – not human numbers – that drives climate change.
Blaming climate change on “people,” rather than on specific things done by specific people in specific times and places, puts Malthusian environmentalists in an uncomfortable position. After all, they’re people too. The psychological solution is to project blame onto others, while drawing comfort from the thought that they are the enlightened exceptions to the rule. This conceit feeds the greening of hate, the scapegoating of foreigners and immigrants for our environmental ills.
The people-as-problem message also undermines public receptivity to environmental truths. Most people do not appreciate being told that they are a cancer on the face of the Earth. The fact that nearly half of American adults do not believe that humans are causing climate change cannot be attributed solely to corporate propaganda and deficient education. It also reflects their desire for a worldview that is not based on self-loathing.
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.
We also ought to give credit where credit is due, recognizing the positive innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including smart-grid technologies to facilitate locally distributed power generation and green-power superhighways to lower the costs of transmitting wind and solar power over long distances. The clean-energy future is being created by people, too.