`Too many people' arguments provide no solution to the global warming crisis
By Simon Butler
November 17, 2008 -- In Green Left Weekly, Climate and Capitalism and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal , I argued that population reduction schemes provide no answers to the threat of climate change. Population-based arguments wrongly treat population levels as the cause, rather than an effect, of an unsustainable economic system. This means they tend to divert attention away from pushing for the real changes urgently needed.
Campaigning for such measures as the rapid introduction of renewable energy and the phasing-out of fossil fuels, along with a shift to sustainable agricultural methods, should instead be the highest priority of the environmental movement.
Strategies to reduce human population also end up blaming some of the world’s poorest people for the looming climate crisis, when they are the people least responsible. Instead, it is the powerful, vested interests that profit most from the fossil-fuel economy who pose the real threat to the planet. They must be confronted.
A section of those who accept the idea of population reduction on environmental grounds would protest that their own ideas aren’t designed to substitute for the introduction of renewable energy, but to complement it.
Others would be indignant at the suggestion that their views have anything in common with the overt racism expressed by the likes of prominent US population theorist Garrett Hardin.
Hardin argued against providing food and medical aid to countries in the Third World facing famine. Such humanitarian aid only encourage more babies to survive, driving up “overpopulation” and resulting, he said, in further environmental destruction.
Population theories still retain their appeal to people who are genuinely worried about the threat of global warming, are concerned with enduring poverty in the global South and would reject Hardin’s callous conclusions.
The rapid world population increase over the past two centuries appears to offer a plausible explanation of how the world got itself into ecological distress — reducing world population seems like a plausible solution.
Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) is an example of an environmental group that couches its population reduction arguments in the framework of a professed humanitarian response to the perils of climate change.
A “key document” published in 2007 by SPA and available on its website predicts a depressingly dire future for humanity. According to SPA: “Without a planned humane contraction, this century will see social chaos and human suffering on an unprecedented scale.” If population reduction schemes are not implemented, they warn, then population reduction will be inflicted on us anyway — in the form of famine, war and disease.
SPA supports the introduction of renewable energy, believes foreign aid should be increased, opposes immigration selection on racial grounds and argues wasteful and excessive consumption in the big polluting countries in the First World must be reduced.
But SPA contends that the environmental benefits of these measures will not be enough. Any gains, SPA asserts, will be wiped out by increased human consumption unless a planned world population reduction occurs as well.
SPA concludes the “most important single action … governments should take is to begin at once to implement humane strategies to reduce population”
But SPA’s “humane” position still fails to provide either an effective, or a truly humane, strategy to avert the consequences of climate change for a number of reasons.
There is no factual basis to the SPA’s claim that a shift to renewable energy could be simply negated by population increases. Clearly, in a zero-emissions or low-emissions economy, population levels will impact on the environment in a very different, more sustainable way. SPA simply does not take this into account.
Furthermore, the argument still serves to divert attention away from the genuine, urgent need for widespread renewable energy by insisting population reduction schemes should take number one priority.
This is dangerous because it dovetails with the message coming from the advocates of “business as usual” policies who imply, against the evidence, that renewable technology is not advanced enough to replace fossil fuels today.
SPA recommends a global average of one child per family as part of its strategy for a sustainable world. Yet they fail to examine the case of China, which has enforced a one-child policy on its population for three decades.
There are many problems with this far-from-humane policy. But if assessed solely on sustainable climate outcomes then China’s population reduction scheme can only be considered to be a spectacular failure.
To sustain their emphasis on population control, SPA has to downplay the inconvenient truth that the world’s rate of population growth is actually declining, not blowing out of control. The growth rate of greenhouse gas emissions, however, is expanding dangerously today.
While there is no direct link between population increase and greenhouse gas emissions there is a clear and obvious link between expanding fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas increases.
In common with other populationist arguments, SPA fails to tackle the question of political power in society. That’s why SPA’s “humane” argument is couched largely in terms of containing, or mitigating, the apparently inevitable effects of environmental destruction.
There’s little in SPA’s position that gives hope that the climate justice movement can actually win the political battle for social justice and a safe climate in time. Population control measures assume the absolute worst case scenario from the outset — a future world so harsh and so polluted they hold it will become more “humane” to stop people in the global South from being born at all!
There is a kernel of truth in this apocalyptic scenario. Left unchecked, human-induced climate change is a serious threat to life on the planet. But the challenge this poses, however, is to fight for an alternative model of development based on meeting the needs of people and the planet, before it is too late.
Part of the problem is that groups such as SPA tend to see the people of the global South as passive victims of climate change — not as potential agents of sustainable change.
Environmental movements in the Third World are active, growing and involving far greater numbers than the movements in the First World. Millions are fighting for a sustainable world today, so their children and grandchildren can have hope for a decent life in the future.
As Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, has pointed out: “The challenge facing activists in the global North and global South is to discover or bring about those circumstances that will trigger the formation of a global mass movement that will decisively confront the most crucial challenge of our times.”
Population control theories all relegate the billions of people in the global South to being just a part of the problem. But this outlook is radically false. They are, in fact, what Bello calls “the pivotal agent in the fight against global warming”.
The populations of the global South are not responsible for climate change. Rather, they are an essential component of a safe climate solution. Our strategy should be to join up with them in this fight for the future — not draw up plans to reduce their numbers.
 Richard Lynn’s “Tribute to Garrett Hardin” unabashedly praises these racist, anti-human, misanthropic ideas. A good indication of how far away Hardin’s populationism is from the ideology of the left. http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/tributes/tr_lynn_2001.html.
 Global Population Reduction: A 21st century strategy to avoid human suffering and environmental devastation. p.3. Available at http://www.population.org.au/GPR_SPA_2007.pdf.
 “So the world faces a stark choice: either act now to reduce population or do nothing and allow this population reduction to be inflicted upon us either directly through famine or indirectly through disease or civil and regional wars motivated by resource scarcity.” Ibid. p 1.
 ” Savings made by implementing renewable technologies (lowering T) and reducing unnecessary affluence (lowering A) would soon be offset by consumption growth due to the rate at which the population (P) continues to expand. The most enduring way to lower total human environmental impact (I) is therefore to lower the value of the population size (P).” ibid, p5.
 Ibid, p10.
 Walden Bello ‘The Environmental Movement in the Global South: The Pivotal Agent in the Fight against Global Warming’ http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?act_id=17458
``It's overconsumption, not population growth, that is the fundamental problem: By almost any measure, a small portion of the world's people — those in the affluent, developed world — use up most of the Earth's resources and produce most of its greenhouse gas emissions.''
April 13, 2009 -- It’s the great taboo, I hear many environmentalists say. Population growth is the driving force behind our wrecking of the planet, but we are afraid to discuss it.
It sounds like a no-brainer. More people must inevitably be bad for the environment, taking more resources and causing more pollution, driving the planet ever farther beyond its carrying capacity. But hold on. This is a terribly convenient argument — “over-consumers” in rich countries can blame “over-breeders” in distant lands for the state of the planet. But what are the facts?
The world’s population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century. It is still rising and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet for at least the past century, rising per-capita incomes have outstripped the rising head count several times over. And while incomes don’t translate precisely into increased resource use and pollution, the correlation is distressingly strong.
Moreover, most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.
By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution.
The world’s richest half-billion people are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Take carbon dioxide emissions — a measure of our impact on climate but also a surrogate for fossil fuel consumption. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, calculates that the world’s richest half-billion people — that’s about 7 percent of the global population — are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions.
Although overconsumption has a profound effect on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of our high standard of living extend beyond turning up the temperature of the planet. For a wider perspective of humanity’s effects on the planet's life support systems, the best available measure is the “ecological footprint,” which estimates the area of land required to provide each of us with food, clothing, and other resources, as well as to soak up our pollution. This analysis has its methodological problems, but its comparisons between nations are firm enough to be useful.
They show that sustaining the lifestyle of the average American takes 9.5 hectares, while Australians and Canadians require 7.8 and 7.1 hectares respectively; Britons, 5.3 hectares; Germans, 4.2; and the Japanese, 4.9. The world average is 2.7 hectares. China is still below that figure at 2.1, while India and most of Africa (where the majority of future world population growth will take place) are at or below 1.0.
The United States always gets singled out. But for good reason: It is the world’s largest consumer. Americans take the greatest share of most of the world’s major commodities: corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil, and natural gas. For many others, Americans are the largest per-capita consumers. In “super-size-me” land, Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance.
I do not deny that fast-rising populations can create serious local environmental crises through overgrazing, destructive farming and fishing, and deforestation. My argument here is that viewed at the global scale, it is overconsumption that has been driving humanity’s impacts on the planet’s vital life-support systems during at least the past century. But what of the future?
We cannot be sure how the global economic downturn will play out. But let us assume that Jeffrey Sachs, in his book Common Wealth, is right to predict a 600 percent increase in global economic output by 2050. Most projections put world population then at no more than 40 percent above today’s level, so its contribution to future growth in economic activity will be small.
Of course, economic activity is not the same as ecological impact. So let’s go back to carbon dioxide emissions. Virtually all of the extra 2 billion or so people expected on this planet in the coming 40 years will be in the poorhalf of the world. They will raise the population of the poor world from approaching 3.5 billion to about 5.5 billion, making them the poor two-thirds.
The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of four Chinese, 20 Indians, or 250 Ethiopians.
Sounds nasty, but based on Pacala’s calculations — and if we assume for the purposes of the argument that per-capita emissions in every country stay roughly the same as today — those extra two billion people would raise the share of emissions contributed by the poor world from 7 percent to 11 percent.
Look at it another way. Just five countries are likely to produce most of the world’s population growth in the coming decades: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians.
Even if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem — where we need to cut emissions by 50 to 80 percent by mid-century. Given existing income inequalities, it is inescapable that overconsumption by the rich few is the key problem, rather than overpopulation of the poor many.
But, you ask, what about future generations? All those big families in Africa begetting yet-bigger families. They may not consume much today, but they soon will.
Well, first let’s be clear about the scale of the difference involved. A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Munich. In the unlikely event that her ten children 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 I.
And second, it won’t happen. Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.
This is getting close to the “replacement fertility level” which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don’t reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic “bulge” of women of child-bearing age keeps the world’s population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.
Far from ballooning, each generation will be smaller than the last. So the ecological footprint of future generations could diminish. That means we can have a shot at estimating the long-term impact of children from different countries down the generations.
The best analysis of this phenomenon I have seen is by Paul Murtaugh, a statistician at Oregon State University. He recently calculated the climatic“intergenerational legacy” of today’s children. He assumed current per-capita emissions and UN fertility projections. He found that an extra child in the United States today will, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra Chinese child, 46 times that of a Pakistan child, 55 times that of an Indian child, and 86 times that of a Nigerian child.
It is the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint.
Of course those assumptions may not pan out. I have some confidence in the population projections, but per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide will likely rise in poor countries for some time yet, even in optimistic scenarios. But that is an issue of consumption, not population.
In any event, it strikes me as the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint because generations of poor people not yet born might one day get to be as rich and destructive as us. Overpopulation is not driving environmental destruction at the global level; overconsumption is. Every time we talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying that simple fact.
At root this is an ethical issue. Back in 1974, the famous environmental scientist Garret Hardin proposed something he called “lifeboat ethics”. In the modern, resource-constrained world, he said, “each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in.” But there were, he said, not enough places to go around. If any were let on board, there would be chaos and all would drown. The people in the lifeboat had a duty to their species to be selfish – to keep the poor out.
Hardin’s metaphor had a certain ruthless logic. What he omitted to
mention was that each of the people in the lifeboat was occupying ten
places, whereas the people in the water only wanted one each. I think
that changes the argument somewhat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also written for Yale e360 on the demographics of overpopulation and the importance of holding developing countries more accountable as global climate talks resume.
© 2008 Yale Environment 360