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https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/26/panic-overpopulation-climate-crisis-consumption-environment

Population panic lets rich people off the hook for the climate crisis they
are fuelling
George Monbiot <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/georgemonbiot>
[image: George Monbiot]

Rising consumption by the affluent has a far greater environmental impact
than the birth rate in poorer nations
[image: sebastien thibault200826-opinion web] Illustration: Sébastien
Thibault/The Guardian
Wed 26 Aug 2020 01.00 EDT


When
<https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/26/panic-overpopulation-climate-crisis-consumption-environment?utm_term=81d41d9a04fa599f551cce1e2ec2be7d&utm_campaign=BestOfGuardianOpinionUK&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=opinionuk_email&emci=9be38ed9-a7eb-ea11-8b03-00155d0394bb&emdi=c258f1dc-b3eb-ea11-8b03-00155d0394bb&ceid=4029375#comments>a
major study
<https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30677-2/fulltext>
 was published last month, showing that the global population is likely to
peak then crash much sooner than most scientists had assumed, I naively
imagined that people in rich nations would at last stop blaming all the
world’s environmental problems on population growth. I was wrong. If
anything, it appears to have got worse.

Next week the BirthStrike movement
<https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/12/birthstrikers-meet-the-women-who-refuse-to-have-children-until-climate-change-ends>
 – founded by women who, by announcing their decision not to have children,
seek to focus our minds on the horror of environmental collapse – will
dissolve itself <https://www.birthstrikeforfuture.com/>, because its cause
has been hijacked so virulently and persistently by population obsessives.
The founders explain that they had “underestimated the power of
‘overpopulation’ as a growing form of climate breakdown denial”.

It is true that, in some parts of the world, population growth is a major
driver of particular kinds of ecological damage, such as the expansion of
small-scale agriculture into rainforests, the bushmeat trade and local
pressure on water and land for housing. But its global impact is much
smaller than many people claim.

The formula for calculating people’s environmental footprint is simple, but
widely misunderstood: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (I =
PAT). The global rate of consumption growth, before the pandemic, was 3% a
year. Population growth is 1%. Some people assume this means that the rise
in population bears one-third of the responsibility for increased
consumption. But population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated
among the world’s
poorest people
<https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956247809344361>, who
have scarcely
any A or T
<https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf>
 to multiply their P. The extra resource use and greenhouse gas emissions
caused by a rising human population are a tiny fraction of the impact
of consumption
growth <https://ourworldindata.org/co2-by-income-region>.

Yet it is widely used as a blanket explanation of environmental breakdown.
Panic about population growth enables the people most responsible for the
impacts of rising consumption (the affluent) to blame those who are least
responsible.

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the primatologist Dame Jane
Goodall, who is a patron of the charity Population Matters
<https://populationmatters.org/our-patrons>, told the assembled
pollutocrats, some of whom have ecological footprints thousands of times
greater than the global average: “All these things we talk about wouldn’t
be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years
ago <https://twitter.com/tomselliott/status/1220696092532187136>.” I doubt
that any of those who nodded and clapped were thinking, “yes, I urgently
need to disappear”.

In 2019, Goodall appeared in an advertisement for British Airways
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2w2bCMhc9k>, whose customers produce more
greenhouse gas emissions on one flight
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2019/jul/19/carbon-calculator-how-taking-one-flight-emits-as-much-as-many-people-do-in-a-year>
 than many of the world’s people generate in a year. If we had the global
population of 500 years ago (around 500 million), and if it were composed of
 average UK plane passengers
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/25/1-of-english-residents-take-one-fifth-of-overseas-flights-survey-shows>,
our environmental impact would probably be greater
<https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf>
 than that of the 7.8 billion alive today.

She proposed no mechanism by which her dream might come true. This could be
the attraction. The very impotence of her call is reassuring to those who
don’t want change. If the answer to environmental crisis is to wish other
people away, we might as well give up and carry on consuming.

The excessive emphasis on population growth has a grim history. Since the
clergymen Joseph Townsend <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Townsend>
and Thomas Malthus <http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf>
 wrote their tracts in the 18th century, poverty and hunger have been
blamed not on starvation wages, war, misrule and wealth extraction by the
rich, but on the reproduction rates of the poor. Winston Churchill
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/29/winston-churchill-policies-contributed-to-1943-bengal-famine-study>
 blamed the Bengal famine of 1943, that he helped to cause through the mass
export of India’s rice, on the Indians “breeding like rabbits”. In 2013 Sir
David Attenborough, also a patron of Population Matters, wrongly blamed
famines
<https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/sep/18/david-attenborough-famine-population>
 in Ethiopia on “too many people for too little land”, and suggested that
sending food aid was counter-productive.

Another of the charity’s patrons, Paul Ehrlich, whose incorrect predictions
about mass famine helped to provoke the current population panic, once
argued that the US should “coerce” India into “sterilising all Indian males
with three or more children”, by making food aid conditional
<https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/27/immigration-panic-how-the-west-fell-for-manufactured-rage>on
this policy. This proposal was similar to the brutal programme that Indira
Gandhi later introduced, with financial support from the UN and the World
Bank. Foreign aid from the UK was funding crude and dangerous sterilisation
in India as recently as 2011
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/15/uk-aid-forced-sterilisation-india>,
on the grounds that this policy was helping to “fight climate change”. Some
of the victims of this programme allege that they were forced to
participate. At the same time, the UK government was pouring billions of
pounds of aid into developing coal, gas and oil plants
<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/11/britain-spent-twice-as-much-on-overseas-fossil-fuels-as-renewables>,
in India and other nations. It blamed the poor for the crisis it was
helping to cause.

Malthusianism slides easily into racism
<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1553858>. Most
of the world’s population growth
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_growth_rate> is
happening in the poorest countries, where most people are black or brown.
The colonial powers justified their atrocities by fomenting a moral panic
about “barbaric”, “degenerate” people “outbreeding” the “superior races”.
These claims have been revived today by the far right, who promote
conspiracy theories about “white replacement”
<https://www.gq.com/story/white-replacement-conspiracy-theory> and “white
genocide”
<https://www.rawstory.com/2018/08/donald-trumps-white-genocide-rhetoric-dangerous-escalation-racism/>.
When affluent white people wrongly transfer the blame for their
environmental impacts on to the birthrate of much poorer brown and black
people, their finger-pointing reinforces these narratives. It is inherently
racist.

The far right now uses the population argument to contest immigration
<https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/environment-climate-eugenics-immigration/>
 into the US and the UK. This too has a grisly heritage: the pioneering
conservationist Madison Grant
<https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2009/authors-probe-roots-us-far-right>
 promoted, alongside his environmental work, the idea that the “Nordic
master race” was being “overtaken” in the US by “worthless race types”. As
president of the Immigration Restriction League, he helped to engineer the
vicious 1924 Immigration Act.

But, as there are some genuine ecological impacts of population growth, how
do we distinguish proportionate concerns about these harms from deflection
and racism? Well, we know that the strongest determinant of falling birth
rates is female emancipation and education
<https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304387807000855>.
The major obstacle to female empowerment is extreme poverty. Its effect is
felt disproportionately by women.

So a good way of deciding whether someone’s population concerns are genuine
is to look at their record of campaigning against structural poverty. Have
they contested the impossible debts poor nations are required to pay? Have
they argued against corporate tax avoidance, or extractive industries that
drain wealth from poorer countries, leaving almost nothing behind, or the
financial sector in Britain’s processing of money stolen abroad
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/05/how-britain-can-help-you-get-away-with-stealing-millions-a-five-step-guide>?
Or have they simply sat and watched as people remain locked in poverty,
then complained about their fertility?

Before long, this reproductive panic will disappear. Nations will soon be
fighting over immigrants: not to exclude them, but to attract them, as
the demographic
transition  <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53409521>leaves their ageing
populations with a shrinking tax base and a dearth of key workers. Until
then, we should resist attempts by the rich to demonise the poor.