Here’s Why The “Overpopulation” Argument Is More Dangerous Than You Think

You've probably heard the argument that overpopulation is a driver of climate change. I learnt about the 'problems of overpopulation' in school (watching Dick Smith's Population Puzzle is one of the times I explicitly recall learning about it). When you're presented information as fact, particularly during schooling, sometimes it takes a bit of time to question it. Even into adulthood, it can take seeing, hearing or experiencing something to ignite a memory. But with age and retrospect, you can realise that what you learnt isn't quite right. And when it comes to overpopulation, this argument has insidious roots, dangerous implications and a racist history.

In this piece titled 'I'm an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation. Here's why.', the author David Roberts, writes that speaking about population growth is "morally and politically fraught." He acknowledges that population is a factor in environmental impact but goes on to explain that where you find concern over 'population', you often find 'racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings. It's almost always, ahem, particular populations that need reducing.'. Which is where the problem is, and looking at the 'population problem's' history, we see these roots. Overpopulation, and tackling it via controlling population growth in some way, isn't a new argument. It first appeared in the 18th Century (yes, it goes back that far). Thomas Malthus suggested that unlimited population growth would lead to human society's collapse and bring famine, illness, conflict and scarcity. This argument exacerbates inequality above all else as it " suggests that the poor and people of color are responsible for the inequalities that actually constrain their lives and their choices". The population control argument then prominently appeared again in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book 'Population Bomb', which predicted widespread famine and suffering due to overpopulation.

So, what does the overpopulation argument get so wrong? Here's the actual problem...

Let's start with overconsumption. Overconsumption and our current economic systems drive climate change. A common retort to this line of argument, is that less people means less consumption. Logically, that makes sense but when we drill down to who is doing the consuming and who is spoken about when it comes to overpopulation, there's a different story. The way the world produces, distributes and consumes resources is not equal, and it never has been. Wealthy countries have a far higher carbon footprint on all counts. The average British citizen emits more carbon by January 12 than individuals who live in seven different African countries emit in a full year. Moving elsewhere in the world - citizens of Australia, the USA and Canada, emit roughly 10 times the amount of carbon as people in India or Indonesia. And historically, a third of the carbon pumped into the atmosphere has come from the USA, another third from the EU and just 3% from Africa.

The population argument showing up in eco-facism and environmental racism

It's 2020, and most of us are familiar with the rise of the alt-right and far right views spreading quickly and unchecked across digital media and even into governments. These spaces, although often associated with climate denial, have another corner they inhabit and that's eco-facism. What's eco-facism? Vice describes it as an ideology "which blames the demise of the environment on overpopulation, immigration, and over-industrialization, problems that followers think could be partly remedied through the mass murder of refugees in Western countries.". Another way of looking at it, is how xenophobia and white supremacy intersect with the climate crisis.

In her book 'On Fire', Naomi Klein writes about how climate denial at one point will have to fade away as we face the full force of the climate crisis. But, she describes, these groups of people won't suddenly be grabbing their placards and joining climate strikes, they are much more likely to pivot to eco-facism, shifting blame onto marginalised communities, who are also those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis. Shifting the blame onto marginalised communities rather than the real cause of the problem is all too familiar, we've seen governments and political groups blame everything from job losses to crime on marginalised communities and the same is happening with climate change. When the conversation moves to overpopulation, the subject is shifted from the unsustainable lives of the rich to the 'procreation habits of the poor'.

As this article states, "While it's true human consumption harms the environment, eco-fascists place the blame exclusively on the marginalized. Because consumerism produces massive amounts of garbage, eco-fascists incorrectly blame poor people (of color) for using plastic bags and other cheap, disposable products — often without pointing to the damage done by major polluting corporations, like those in the fossil fuel industry."

The Christchurch and El Paso shooters both referenced overpopulation and climate change in their manifestos, the Christchurch killer, self-identifying as an "entho-nationalist eco-racist". Now, there is no denying the Christchurch killer was driven by racist hate, rather as Namoi Klein puts it - "ecological breakdown was one of the forces that seemed to be stoking that hatred". It's dangerous. Population control also featured as a solution in Michael Moore's notorious and widely debunked film 'Planet of the Humans'.

Arguments on population are not all the same, they exist (as with anything) in different spaces and on different levels and it's important to point out that it's not a fringe idea. On World Environment Day this Year, WWF was the centre of controversy, as they posted a video narrated by David Attenborough, stating that we need to 'stabilise human population as low as we fairly can' over footage of people of colour.

The organisation Population Matters, whose purpose is to tackle population as a climate issue, talk about population as an issue that impacts all people in all countries.

It's complicated

The climate crisis has so many different facets, it's complicated. And we need to stop making overpopulation a scapegoat argument - it's so harmful and damaging and so much more complex than reducing the amount of people on this planet.

Increasingly, it seems that no matter how we look at the climate crisis and beyond to the current pandemic and to the Black Lives Matter movement prominent this year - our current economic system sits at the core of so much injustice and exploitation. They say all roads lead to Rome and the longer I spend time immersed in climate conversations, it feels like all roads lead to reinventing our current economic system completely. We need to look at our relationship with ownership, work and money, and the exciting thing about 2020, is that we are having these conversations about creating a new world.

Emily Contador-Kelsall Head of Social Media Suggest an article Send us an email

Recent Blog Articles