Too many people – Has world population reached its limits?

One of the major divisions within environmentalists is on the issue of population and ‘overpopulation’, with many claiming that a key cause of environmental damage is too many people. The British Royal Society recently released a report, People and the Planet, which argued that, to avoid “a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills”, the world’s population needs to be stabilised. Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s book, Too Many People, examines these claims and explores their implications.

On the surface, the argument is straightforward. All other things being equal, more people will consume more food, need more shelter, produce more waste. The world’s population has grown rapidly, from two billion in 1927 to seven billion in 2012. At the same time, environmental damage has increased significantly. So, the argument goes, too many people are causing mounting environmental problems.

One of the most influential books to argue overpopulation was The Population Bomb, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, published in 1968. They stated that there would be mass starvation as the world could not produce enough food to feed the growing population, that even more people would die from other environmental problems, and that both of these could be “traced easily to too many people”.

While the world’s population is growing, however, the rate of growth is slowing. The key factor for population growth is the total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of live births per women over her life. According to the CIA, in 2012 Europe, China, the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and almost all of the former Soviet Union, have TFRs below the replacement rate. There is a time lag before populations stabilise or fall, as young females grow up. But several European countries, Japan and Russia already have declining populations. The world’s population is still growing but the rate of growth has halved since the 1950s.

Butler and Angus dissect the claim that it is population that is driving environmental damage. Globally, it would appear that growing population causes increasing CO2 emissions. But low-income countries have 52% of population growth and only 13% increase in CO2, while high-income countries have 7% of population increases yet 29% of CO2 releases. The claim that an exploding population causes environmental damage is not supported by the facts – it is simplistic.

There are different trends of populationists: ranging from outright racists to those who try to combine advocating population control with wider social issues and women’s rights. But underlying all of these trends is a blaming of the poor, the biggest victims of environmental damage. Paul Ehrlich admits that the idea of overpopulation first struck him while in New Delhi, yet New York had a much higher population density.

David Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First, argued that in the US anyone with more than two children should be denied welfare. His view of the 1986 Ethiopian famine was to “let nature seek its own balance, to let the people just starve there”. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory, argues that the earth faces a “plague of people” and action should be taken to prepare “those parts of the earth least likely to be affected by adverse climate change as safe havens for a civilised humanity”, including naval action to exclude refugees – an odd form of ‘civilised’ action.

Garrett Hardin, author of widely quoted articles, The Tragedy of the Commons and Lifeboat Ethics, describes pollution as due to too many people “using the commons as a cesspool”, and that “it is unlikely that civilisation and dignity can survive everywhere, but better in a few places than none. Fortunate minorities must act as trustees of civilisation”. He suggests that this is done by refusing food aid to poor people outside the US and by stopping immigration to these few islands of civilisation.

More moderate populationists urge voluntary population control alongside social action, especially on women’s rights and education. While seeming reasonable this still focuses on poor people. It ignores the good reasons in some societies to have children. It delivers often contradictory messages of population control and action for social change. Most ‘voluntary’ population control programmes include some coercion to get results: giving money to very poor people is exploiting their poverty. Population control has resulted in 100 million missing women, due to selective abortion and infanticide – hardly women-friendly results.

The best way to reduce the number of children, if that is the desired aim, is to focus instead on women’s rights and education, raise living standards, and provide a good welfare and pensions systems. Smaller families are a by-product of these actions, yet governments around the world, urged on by the major financial institutions, are doing the exact opposite.

One of the commonly used ways of describing environmental damage is I=PAT (impact = population x affluence x technology). It looks like a formula, is simple, and seems to make sense. It is none of these. There is no scientific basis or measurable units to this description.

It ignores who makes decisions about what technology is developed and how it is used, what is produced and how, and who has power to act. It assumes that all consumers in a country share equally in the environmental damage. Greenpeace blamed all US car drivers for the Exxon Valdez disaster. But consumers do not have any control over military pollution, what technology is used to produce food, built-in obsolescence or the consumption patterns of the rich.

The World Bank stated that the richest 1% of humanity consumes 25% of the world’s resources and the richest 10% consume 59%. I=PAT totally ignores this, as do most populationists. This is the core failing of their approach: they ignore class divisions.

Even if it was possible to democratically reduce population, the time lag to even stabilise population is around 30 years – far too long for action on climate change. The most modest assumptions set the need to reduce CO2 releases by 50% of the 1990 levels by mid-century. No populationist seriously thinks that population can be reduced to below three billion (half the world population in 1990) in 40 years. And this assumes that if the population is halved then pollution will also be halved – ignoring the consumption of the rich and the pollution of industry and the military. Much of the environmental damage in poor countries – logging, growing food for export or extracting resources – is not controlled by the people there and gives them little or no benefits. Populationists are blaming the wrong causes and, even if their goals could be achieved, they will not have the hoped for results.

By blaming the poor for population growth and working people in richer countries for consumption, populationists falsely analyse the causes, avoid challenging the system, capitalism, and make it harder to build the alliances needed to make real change.

Many of the most important struggles on the environment are taking place in poorer countries with mobilisations of poor people. Blaming them makes them less likely to be allies of environmentalists in the richer countries. Most working people in the richer countries have had stagnant living standards for decades and now face massive cuts in jobs, wages, and public services. Blaming them will also not make them allies.

The answer to environmental damage does not lie with the number of people. It lies with how production is organised, what technology is used, how decisions are made and by whom, and how wealth and goods are distributed. If all the available clean technology was used, pollution and CO2 releases would be drastically reduced. Combining this with ending the excessive consumption of the richest 1% and military waste would have a dramatic impact. Alongside these, policies to provide good jobs and public services for all would win overwhelming support and would tackle both environmental damage and human wellbeing.

However, most populationists and many in the environmental movements either do not want to overturn capitalism or do not believe it is possible. Instead, they chase a dead-end policy of population control which only allows the causes of environmental destruction to continue.

The authors have done a service in highlighting the failings and dangers of focusing on population control. It is up to socialists to continue to develop a programme and build campaigns to win most of those concerned about the environment to a shared struggle with the poor and working class of the world to end capitalism and create a society that puts an equal priority on the wellbeing of humanity and the planet.