• Leanna Christina

The overpopulation myth

There is a dangerous rhetoric surrounding the continuing rise of the global population. It claims that 'overpopulation' is a leading contributor of climate change, and it shifts the blame from the consumption of the affluent onto the birth rates of poorer people. It is a baseless accusation, as the impact of the former is far greater than that of the latter.

It is true that population growth can cause particular kinds of ecological damage through the expansion of small-scale agriculture and pressure on the local water and land supply, but the global impact of this is often vastly exaggerated. Pre-pandemic, the global rate of consumption growth stood at 3% per year, population growth was at 1%, and this led to the assumption that the rise in population was directly responsible for one third of consumption. However, as soon as you take into account that the population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated amongst the world's poorest people, who lack the affluence and technology to contribute to consumption on that level, it becomes quite obvious that the extra resources and emissions needed for a rising human population are in fact a tiny fraction in comparison to a sharp rise in consumption growth. The fact remains that the richest 10% of the population are directly responsible for 50% of global emissions.

The creation of panic surrounding overpopulation as a leading cause of environmental breakdown works as a two-fold blanket excuse. Firstly, by allowing the people that are responsible for rising emissions (the affluent) to blame those least responsible (the poor). Secondly, its an impotent idea, there is no proposed working solution for overpopulation, so business carries on as usual.

Using population growth as a tool for blame and distraction is not new, it has in fact been implemented many times over the centuries:

  • Clergyman Thomas Malthus wrote of poverty and hunger being blamed not on starvation wages, war, misrule and wealth extraction by the rich, but on reproduction rates of the poor as far back as 1798

  • Winston Churchill blamed the Bengal Famine of 1943 on the Indians "breeding like rabbits", as he exported masses of India's rice - this famine was later proven to be caused by his policy failure. The famine killed up to 3 million people

  • In 2013, David Attenborough infamously blamed famines in Ethiopia on "too many people for too little land" - he has since acknowledged that it is in fact capitalism that needs to be curbed

  • American biologist Paul Ehrlich argued that the US should "coerce" India into sterilising all Indian men with 3+ children, by making food aid conditional on this policy - Gandhi later introduced a similar programme with financial support from the UN and World Bank

  • The UK was funding crude and dangerous sterilisations in India as recently as 2011 (in the name of climate change) while pouring billions of pounds into developing coal, gas and oil plants both there and in other nations

When affluent white people transfer the blame for their environmental impacts on the birthrates of much poorer black and brown people they are reinforcing inherently racist, colonial moral ideals about "superior and degenerate races"

  • these abhorrent claims have been revived today by the far right, who generate conspiracy theories about "white replacement" and "white genocide"

  • the far right uses the population argument to contest immigration into the US and the UK - based on the theories of eugenicist Madison Grant's claims that the "Nordic master race" was being "overtaken"

We have seen the devastating effects of the fear of migrants in the west, as the ghosts of fascism have rematerialised in governments throughout Europe and the US in recent years, manipulating this manufactured fear into rage. Eco-fascism is rising alongside this, a theory that is fundamentally underpinned by the idea that humans will kill the earth unless there is a major intervention - possible tactics range from "sending people back where they came from" to sterilisations and even culling human life. This level of ideological extremity has not grown significantly in recent years, but there are watered down versions of it seeping into popular culture;

"the earth is healing" & "humans are the virus"

One of the leading problems of the eco-fascists hijacking the population discussion is that it actually detracts from genuine and proportionate concerns. Low birthrates are in part determined by female emancipation and education, which is hindered by extreme poverty - felt disproportionately by women. Fighting the structural poverty and inequalities that trap people (rather than observing it and then complaining about their fertility) is where the focus of population debate needs to be - we need to resist the attempts of the rich demanding that we demonise the poor (again).

Helping raise people, particularly girls and women, from the grips of poverty is one of the key elements to getting the climate crisis in hand. Investment in renewable energies is another. Lowering consumption of the richest people and countries. Governments being held accountable. There are many things that can be implemented that will massively improve the grave situation we have found ourselves in, they require creativity and innovation, and punching up - never down.