October 26, 2011 -- Grist via Climate and Capitalism, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Ironically, while populationist groups focus
attention on the 7 billion, protesters in the worldwide Occupy movement
have identified the real source of environmental destruction: not the 7
billion, but the 1%
This article, published today on the environmental website Grist,
has provoked a vigorous discussion there. Many of the comments defend
variations of the “consumer sovereignty” argument, that corporations
only destroy the environment in order to provide the products and
services consumers demand. We encourage readers to join that conversation.
* * *
By Ian Angus and Simon Butler
The United Nations says that the world’s population will reach 7 billion people this month.
The approach of that milestone has produced a wave of articles and
opinion pieces blaming the world’s environmental crises on
overpopulation. In New York’s Times Square, a huge and expensive video
declares that “human overpopulation is driving species extinct”. In
London’s busiest Underground stations, electronic poster boards warn
that 7 billion is ecologically unsustainable.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller The Population Bomb declared that
as a result of overpopulation, “the battle to feed humanity is over”
and the 1970s would be a time of global famines and ever-rising death
rates. His predictions were all wrong, but four decades later his
successors still use Ehrlich’s phrase — too many people! — to explain
But most of the 7 billion are not endangering the Earth. The majority
of the world’s people don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered
species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no
Even in the rich countries of the global North, most environmental
destruction is caused not by individuals or households, but by mines,
factories and power plants run by corporations that care more about
profit than about humanity’s survival.
No reduction in US population would have stopped BP from poisoning the Gulf of Mexico last year. Lower birthrates won’t shut down Canada’s tar sands, which Bill
McKibben has justly called one of the most staggering crimes the world
has ever seen.
Universal access to birth control should be a fundamental human right
— but it would not have prevented Shell’s massive destruction of
ecosystems in the Niger River delta, or the immeasurable damage that
Chevron has caused to rainforests in Ecuador.
Ironically, while populationist groups focus attention on the 7
billion, protesters in the worldwide Occupy movement have identified the
real source of environmental destruction: not the 7 billion, but the
1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who own more, consume
more, control more and destroy more than all the rest of us put
In the United States, the richest 1% own a majority of all stocks and
corporate equity, giving them absolute control of the corporations that
are directly responsible for most environmental destruction.
recent report prepared by the British consulting firm Trucost for the
United Nations found that just 3000 corporations cause $2.15 trillion
in environmental damage every year. Outrageous as that figure is — only
six countries have a GDP greater than $2.15 trillion — it substantially
understates the damage, because it excludes costs that would result from
“potential high impact events such as fishery or ecosystem collapse”,
and “external costs caused by product use and disposal, as well as
companies’ use of other natural resources and release of further
pollutants through their operations and suppliers”.
So in the case of oil companies, the figure covers “normal
operations” but not deaths and destruction caused by global warming,
not damage caused by worldwide use of its products and not the
multi-billions of dollars in costs to clean up oil spills. The real
damage those companies alone do is much greater than $2.15 trillion,
every single year.
The 1% also control the governments that supposedly regulate those
destructive corporations. The millionaires include 46 per cent of members
of the US House of Representatives, 54 out of 100 senators and every
president since Eisenhower.
Through the government, the 1% control the US military, the largest
user of petroleum in the world, and thus one of the largest emitters of
greenhouse gases. Military operations produce more hazardous waste than
the five largest chemical companies combined. More than 10 per cent of
all Superfund hazardous waste sites in the United States are on military
Those who believe that slowing population growth will stop or slow
environmental destruction are ignoring these real and immediate threats
to life on our planet. Corporations and armies aren’t polluting the
world and destroying ecosystems because there are too many people, but
because it is profitable to do so.
If the birthrate in Iraq or Afghanistan falls to zero, the US military will not use one less gallon of oil.
If every African country adopts a one-child policy, energy companies
in the US, China and elsewhere will continue burning coal, bringing
us ever closer to climate catastrophe.
Critics of the too many people argument are often accused of
believing that there are no limits to growth. In our case, that simply
isn’t true. What we do say is that in an ecologically rational and
socially just world, where large families aren’t an economic necessity
for hundreds of millions of people, population will stabilise. In Betsy
Hartmann’s words, “The best population policy is to concentrate on
improving human welfare in all its many facets. Take care of the
population and population growth will go down.”
The world’s multiple environmental crises demand rapid and decisive
action, but we can’t act effectively unless we understand why they are
happening. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious
time on ineffective cures; at worst, we will make the crises worse.
The too many people argument directs the attention and efforts of
sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect.
At the same time, it weakens efforts to build an effective global
movement against ecological destruction: It divides our forces, by
blaming the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not
Above all, it ignores the massively destructive role of an irrational
economic and social system that has gross waste and devastation built
into its DNA. The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, not
population size, are the root causes of today’s ecological crisis.
As pioneering ecologist Barry Commoner once said, “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”
[Ian Angus and Simon Butler are the coauthors of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis.]
Population, consumer sovereignty, and the importance of class
By Ian Angus
October 28, 2011 -- Climate and Capitalism -- This week, the environmental website site Grist published an article by Simon Butler and me, Is the environmental crisis caused by the 7 billion or the 1%? This was a departure for Grist,
which frequently carries articles warning of an impending
overpopulation apocalypse. Kudos to editor Lysa Hymas for commissioning
and publishing an article I’m sure she doesn’t agree with, in order to
promote discussion of this important issue.
The article was posted on October 26, and by October 28, 820 people had
“liked” it on Facebook, making it one of the three most-liked articles
in Grist‘s population section this year.
But judging by the comments it received, some readers are less than
keen about any discussion that focuses on issues of class, power and
inequality. One wrote:
What a piece of leftist drivel. I don’t need to say
this because most of the other commentors already have, but this crap is
another low point for Grist.
The most frequent criticism from Grist commenters accuses us
of failing to understand that consumer desires drive the economy, that
corporations are just responding to our demands, expressed through the
market. The system isn’t at fault, “we” are.
“Billionaires aren’t mining and pillaging for their own
enjoyment – almost all of us in developed nations use those resources
“The 1% may own the companies and wealth, but that wealth comes from
selling us all stuff, and it is hypocritical to say that all of us have
not invested something in the global economic system. ”
“Less consumers equals less demand equals less consumption equals
less sprawl equals less congestion equals less garbage equals less need
for fossil fuels. Grist is on the wrong side of this issue.”
“But BP could not have polluted the Gulf Coast if there was no demand
for petroleum. The demands of those 7 billion are driving corporations
to fulfill the demands of all the humans inhabiting this planet. After
all, if we were at say 3 billion now BP would not have had to drill in
the Gulf in the first place.”
I responded to these comments with a brief summary of arguments that Simon and I make in Chapter 12 of Too Many People?
That view, known to academic economists as “consumer sovereignty,” suffers from at least four fatal weaknesses.
First, it ignores the immense market power of the wealthiest
consumers. In the U.S., the richest one percent have greater wealth than
the bottom 90 percent combined. The poorest 50% collectively own just
2.5% of all U.S. wealth. Analysts at Citibank have used the term
‘plutonomy” to describe the economies of the U.S., Canada, U.K.,
Australia, and others, which are dominated “rich consumers, few in
number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and
consumption they take.”
Second, it ignores the fact that markets aren’t just unbalanced in
favor of rich buyers, they are consciously manipulated by rich sellers.
The 1% aren’t just richer, they have the power to engage in what John
Kenneth Galbraith called “management of demand” – far from just
responding to consumer demand, corporations actively create demand for
the products they find most profitable to sell.
Third, it ignores the fact the range of choices available to buyers
is determined not by what is environmentally friendly, but by what can
be sold profitably. As a result, we get microchoices such as Ford vs
Hyundai — but not real choices such as automobiles vs reliable and
affordable public transit.
Fourth, it ignores the fact that buyers have little or no influence
over how products are made or produced. BPs decision to ignore safe
drilling practices in the Gulf, Shell’s decision to dump oil in the
Niger –those decisions were made not by consumers but by corporate
executives, to maximize the profits demanded by their shareholders. And
remember – 1% of the population owns a majority of stocks.
In short, the 1%, not the 7 Billion, control what is sold and how it is produced.
The underlying problem with the discussion, I think, is that many Grist readers – certainly the ones that are unhappy with what we wrote – are blind to class. They
know that the 1% do more environmental damage than the rest of us, but
view it as just a matter of degree, not as a fundamental class divide.
In fact, to echo F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very rich are different from you and me. As we wrote in Too Many People? they don’t just have more money:
At some point near the top of the income ladder, quantitative increases in income lead to qualitative changes in social power, exercised not through consumption but through ownership and control of profit-making institutions.
The Grist commenter who wrote that we all damage the
environment, “the rich are just more destructive”, seems to be unaware
of just how vast the gap exists between the very wealthy and the rest of
Perhaps this will clarify matters for greens who don’t trust what two
leftists have to say. Last week, the decidedly non-socialist investment
bank Credit Suisse issued its annual Global Wealth Report. Its main conclusion was reported by the decidedly non-socialist Wall Street Journal.
Here’s another stat that the Occupy Wall Streeters can
hoist on their placards: The world’s millionaires and billionaires now
control 38.5% of the world’s wealth. … the 29.7 million people in the
world with household net worths of $1 million (representing less than 1%
of the world’s population) control about $89 trillion of the world’s
This Credit Suisse graphic gives some idea of how unequally global wealth is distributed.
Economics professor David Ruccio comments in the Real-World Economics Review blog:
the figures for mid-2011 indicate that 29.7 million
adults, about 1/2 of one percent of the world’s population, own more
than one third of global household wealth. Of this group, they estimate
that 85,000 individuals are worth more than $50 million, 29,000 are
worth more than $100 million, and 2,700 have assets above $500 million.
Compare this to the bottom of the pyramid: 3.054 billion people,
67.6 percent of the world’s population, with assets of less than
$10,000, who own a mere 3.3 percent of the world’s wealth.
Add another billion people with assets between $10,000 and $100,000
and we have 91.2 percent of the world’s population that owns something
on the order of 17.8 percent of total world wealth.
He could have added that most of the wealth held by the bottom 90%
consists of family homes, while richest 1% own most corporate shares.
The rich aren’t just richer — they own wealth that gives them control of
our economic system, and they profit from environmental destruction.
Reducing human numbers might, over many decades, make a small
difference to the global environment. Eliminating the wealth and power
of the 1% is the only way to completely turn things around.