[News] Population panic lets rich people off the hook for the climate crisis they are causing

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Wed Aug 26 16:22:44 EDT 2020


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

POPULATION PANIC LETS RICH PEOPLE OFF THE HOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS
THEY ARE CAUSING

George Monbiot - August 26, 2020 
-------------------------

When a major study [1] 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 [2] - 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 [3],
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 [4], who have scarcely any
A or T [5] 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 [6]. 

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 [7],
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 [8]." 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 [9],
whose customers produce more greenhouse gas emissions on one flight [10]
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 [11], our environmental impact
would probably be greater [5] 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 [12] and Thomas Malthus [13] 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 [14] 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 [15] 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 [16]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 [17], 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 [18], in India
and other nations. It blamed the poor for the crisis it was helping to
cause. 

Malthusianism slides easily into racism [19]. Most of the world's
population growth [20] 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" [21] and "white genocide" [22]. 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
[23] into the US and the UK. This too has a grisly heritage: the
pioneering conservationist Madison Grant [24] 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 [25]. 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 [26]? 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 [27]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. 

* George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist 

  

Links:
------
[1]
https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30677-2/fulltext
[2]
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/12/birthstrikers-meet-the-women-who-refuse-to-have-children-until-climate-change-ends
[3] https://www.birthstrikeforfuture.com/
[4] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956247809344361
[5]
https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf
[6] https://ourworldindata.org/co2-by-income-region
[7] https://populationmatters.org/our-patrons
[8] https://twitter.com/tomselliott/status/1220696092532187136
[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2w2bCMhc9k
[10]
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
[11]
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/25/1-of-english-residents-take-one-fifth-of-overseas-flights-survey-shows
[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Townsend
[13] http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf
[14]
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/29/winston-churchill-policies-contributed-to-1943-bengal-famine-study
[15]
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/sep/18/david-attenborough-famine-population
[16]
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/27/immigration-panic-how-the-west-fell-for-manufactured-rage
[17]
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/15/uk-aid-forced-sterilisation-india
[18]
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/11/britain-spent-twice-as-much-on-overseas-fossil-fuels-as-renewables
[19] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1553858
[20]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_growth_rate
[21] https://www.gq.com/story/white-replacement-conspiracy-theory
[22]
https://www.rawstory.com/2018/08/donald-trumps-white-genocide-rhetoric-dangerous-escalation-racism/
[23]
https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/environment-climate-eugenics-immigration/
[24]
https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2009/authors-probe-roots-us-far-right
[25]
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304387807000855
[26]
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/05/how-britain-can-help-you-get-away-with-stealing-millions-a-five-step-guide
[27] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53409521
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