Population alarmists explain away the cause of COVID-19 and the climate crisis with ‘overpopulation’. As John Molyneux outlines, this myth not only crumbles in the face of evidence but is very dangerous in the hands the right-wing racists.
The idea that the world is, or will shortly become, ‘overpopulated’ has been around for a long time. It can be traced back to Thomas Malthus and his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population which Marx and Engels denounced as ‘a slander on the human race’. Its most famous modern articulation was in Paul Ehrlich’s best selling book The Population Bomb in 1968 and it has always been one component of the ideology of the right wing of the environmental movement .
Both in Malthus and in the 1960s, the claim was mainly that overpopulation was the cause of world poverty as population growth was outstripping, or inevitably would outstrip, food production. But this argument was so comprehensively refuted by events – world population continued to rise but food production rose even faster – that it became largely discredited.
Nowadays, however, with climate change and the numerous other crises of the Anthropocene, from plastification of the oceans to COVID-19, this overpopulation argument is making a comeback.
The most obvious symptom of this is the 2019 Michael Moore film Planet of the Humans, which attacks the case for renewable energy and backs population control instead. Another example is the ‘charity’ (in reality a pressure group) Population Matters, headed up by David Attenborough, and the argument has been raising its head even in parts of the left. Even the notorious meme, ‘Humans are the virus, Covid is the cure’ stems from overpopulation as the root cause of COVID-19.
The whole idea that overpopulation or population growth should be seen either as a driver of climate change or as some kind of general ‘problem’ is wrong, a tool of the right, and the left should lay waste to it.
Climate Change and Population Growth
The idea that climate change is caused by population growth is a variation on idea held by the political establishment that the main cause of climate change is the behaviour of ordinary people which needs to be ‘modified’ by, for example, carbon taxes. This is simply not true.
We know very precisely what are the causes of climate change: the projection into the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, and the release of methane from cattle and the melting permafrost.
A cursory glance at global population densities and per capita carbon footprints shows that the two are not causally related.
Canada, Australia, Iceland and Greenland are among the least densely populated countries on earth, yet all have very high per capita carbon footprints ( 16.9, 16.8, 12.1, 9.4 respectively, measured in metric tons per year) compared to a global average of about 5.0.
Among the countries with the highest per capita carbon footprints are Bahrain (21.8), Kuwait (23.9), Saudi Arabia (18.6), UAR (22.4) and Qatar (38.2). These are not densely populated countries: Kuwait has around 200 people per square km, UAR 99, and Saudi Arabia only 15. There are no prizes for guessing why their carbon footprint is significantly higher than others, and it has nothing to do with population.
Ireland is also a good example, too, with an above average per capita carbon footprint (7.1). As Leo Varadkar conceded ‘Obviously, climate emissions and greenhouse gas is an area where we’re laggard and falling way behind’. Yet Ireland has relatively low population density and, crucially, a smaller population than it had before the Famine of 1845-9, when its carbon footprint was more or less zero.
In short, the variation and level of carbon emissions has nothing to do with size of population and everything to with the level and specific character of a country’s and, by extension, the world’s economic and social activities.
Carbon footprints are grossly unequal within countries, as well. It is not Brazil’s favelas or Amazonian Indians that are producing its 2.4 footprint, and still less is it Australia’s indigenous Aborigines who are responsible for its very high 16.8 footprint.
It is the behaviour of big business, especially the fossil fuel industries, car companies, engineering factories, airlines, lorry fleets, giant beef and dairy farmers, and the politicians linked to them, who bear the main responsibility.
70% of greenhouse gasses emitted since 1988 have been produced by just 100 multinational corporations. If 750 million of China’s, India’s and Africa’s poorer population stopped producing carbon altogether, while ExxonMobile, BP, Toyota and Volswagen etc. continued to operate as usual, the effect on global carbon emissions would be minimal.
Therefore to respond to the challenge of climate change with any sort of focus on population growth or population control would be to pass the buck to where it has no currency and to let the corporations, the 1% and capitalist governments, completely off the hook.
Population in perspective
This does not apply only to climate change but to poverty, unemployment, housing, homelessness, education, health and every other social issue. Any notion that the problems and crises in all or any of these areas is because there are too many people plays into the hands of capitalist governments everywhere.
Advocates of population control respond to this by scaremongering about numbers. At the head of the Population Matters website we find the statement:
It took humanity 200,000 years to reach one billion and only 200 years to reach seven billion. We are still adding an extra 80 million each year and are headed towards 10 billion by mid-century.
But if the population is rising by 80 million a year that means that the rate of population growth is actually slowing. If that were not the case, the annual increment would increase. In 1973 the world population was approximately 3.9 billion. Today it is 7.7 billion. 70 million is a much smaller proportion of 7.7 billion than of 3.9 billion.
The world population growth rate in 1970 was 2.1% per annum and now it is 1.2%. In other words, the rate of growth is slowing and if the present trend continues, the population will level out by the end of the century and could even decline thereafter.
And why should 80 million per year or 10 billion by mid–century be a particular problem? Population Matters and other ‘populationists’ assume it will be but offer no convincing reason.
Underlying this assumption is the misanthropic idea that any more people is a bad thing and a lot more people must therefore be a very bad thing, which is why Marx called Malthus a slanderer of the human race.
Actually this involves a completely upside down view of human history and human development. Here is a snapshot of the growth of world population over the last 1000 years.
1000 AD 190 million
1500 AD 450 million
1900 AD 1,600 million
1950 AD 2,500 million
2000 AD 6,143 million
If population alarmists were right, this history would be an unmitigated catastrophe with people getting poorer and poorer from some imaginary golden age of prosperity a thousand years ago. In fact the exact opposite is the case.
Here are the figures for per capita GDP using the measure of 1990 International Geary–Khamin dollars, used by Angus Maddison for historical and international comparisons:
1000 AD 436 IGK $
15000 AD 566 IGK $
1900 AD 1525 IGK $
1950 AD 2111 IGK $
2001 AD 6049 IGK $
Moreover, as a moment’s thought, as opposed to vague scaremongering, makes clear, there could not
have been the huge population growth that has taken place unless living standards were, on
average, rising, because people are not having more children. The rise in population is due to a fall in
the death rate, not a rise in the birth rate.
But infinite growth is ‘unsustainable’ our population alarmists will cry. Of course infinite expansion of anything is unsustainable and impossible but it is also not going to happen.
The example of Hong Kong is useful here, whose population was 7,450 in 1841. By 1851 it was 32,983. Looking at Hong Kong in those days it would no doubt have seemed ‘obvious’ that this small island could not possibly ‘sustain’ or ‘carry’ a population of 7.4 billion as it does today. Clearly they would all starve or eat each other long before such an unthinkable figure was reached!
Yet it is one of the most densely populated areas on earth today, and also has some of the highest standards of living anywhere in Asia . It has ‘sustained’ a huge mass democratic movement against the immensely powerful dictatorship in Beijing. And this should remind us of a key reason why the increase in population in the great cities of the Global South is something socialists should actually welcome. It is producing, from Sao Paolo to Seoul, an international working class of historically unprecedented size and potential power.
If it is entertained that world population size or growth is ‘a problem’, which it emphatically should not be, then what should be done about it? The left could, in practice, do little or nothing apart from campaigning for women’s reproductive rights, which we do anyway without any talk of population control. But what about the right?
There would be no shortage of right wing forces eager to march through this ideological door we would have opened for them.
In the first place there would be dictatorial and authoritarian regimes more than happy to impose state enforced population control. This is not hypothetical. What better excuse could we give a Tory Government (or a neo-liberal government with a Green mudguard) to cut child benefit?
We have already seen India’s forced sterilisation under Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s, the horrors of China’s one-child policy, and the widely condemned Tory policy of offering child benefit for only two children.
Then there is the nasty little matter of racism. Many of the advocates of population control would vehemently and, no doubt sincerely, deny any racist motivation. But it is a question not of personal intention but of the political logic of ideas.
If world population is too large and further growth must be restricted just who are the people whose excessive breeding needs to be curtailed? We know full well it will not be white Europeans and North Americans who are nominated.
Moreover, there has long been a tendency among populationists to project ‘scary’ images of the teeming millions of Mumbai or Lagos. And if too many people in the world are a problem what about too many people in a particular country? The aforementioned Population Matters, despite including the liberal David Attenborough as its patron, writes:
As an island nation with limited land area and natural resources, the United Kingdom is under tremendous population pressure.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and with no end to population growth in sight, pressure on wildlife, housing, public services and resources will continue to grow.
The step from ‘we need to have a conversation about population’ to ‘we need to have a conversation about immigration’ is a short one and we know where that step leads.
For all these reasons, scientific, historical and political, it would be a big mistake to entertain the notion that population growth is the cause of any of the great crises gripping capitalism in its decay.