The obsession with the birthrates of the poor has a grim history,
and is used by the rich to transfer blame.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th
When a major
study was published last month, showing that the global population is
likely to peak then crash much sooner than most scientists had assumed, I
naïvely 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 – 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, as 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, who have scarcely
any A or T 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.
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
At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the primatologist
Dame Jane Goodall, who is a
patron of the charity Population Matters, 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.” I doubt that any of those who nodded and clapped were thinking,
“yes, I urgently need to disappear.”
In 2019, she appeared in an advertisement for British
Airways, whose customers produce more greenhouse gas emissions on one
flight 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, our environmental impact would probably be greater
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 and Thomas Malthus
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 blamed the Bengal Famine of
1943, that he helped to cause through the mass export of India’s rice, on the
like rabbits”. In 2013 Sir David Attenborough, also a patron of Population
Matters,wrongly blamed famines 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 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, 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, in
India and other nations. It blamed the poor for the crisis it was helping to cause.
easily into racism. The great majority of the world’s population growth 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, promoting conspiracy theories about “white
replacement” and “white
genocide”. When affluent white people wrongly transfer blame for their
environmental impacts to the birthrate of much poorer brown and black people,
their finger-pointing reinforces these narratives. It is inherently
The far right now uses
the population argument to contest immigration into the US and the UK. This
too has a grisly heritage: the pioneering conservationist Madison Grant
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. The major obstacle to female empowerment is
extreme poverty, whose 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 our
own financial sector’s processing of money
stolen abroad? 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
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