Population is our greatest challenge

Population growth – The real taboo

A recent article in The Ecologist magazine entitled ‘Population is our biggest challenge’ prompted me to make this short response.


Sir David Attenborough is undoubtedly right to call the silence over population numbers and growth an ‘absurd taboo’. But there is a yet much more insidious taboo. This is the taboo in governmental, business and even media circles that prevents a discussion of the real causes of population growth, overconsumption, poverty, inequality and climate change: the plutocratic capitalist system we have had to live under for so long. The question that is almost always avoided, as it is in this article, is ‘Who is doing what, where and to whom?’

I don’t want to deny the fact that total population numbers are a major ecological issue, they surely are, but in my view this misses the critical point. Ultimately the issue isn’t what a reified and capitalized ‘Humankind’ is doing to our planet, but what our present capitalist system is doing. Fred Pearce is absolutely right to point out that 'rising consumption today far outstrips the rising headcount as a threat to the planet. And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet. By almost any measure you choose, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution’. This takes us in the right direction. To blame dark-skinned Africans or Asians for the destruction of the planet is not only tending on the racist it is also completely wrong. To quote Fred Pearce again: 'The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians or 250 Ethiopians. The truth is that the population bomb is being defused round the world.’

Certainly Fred is right to say that overconsumption is key. And he has quite clearly stated the difference between the consumption of the ‘average’ American or European and the ‘average’ African or Asian. One interesting, though horrifying, statistic is that the ‘average’ American has used as much energy by 2 o’clock on the morning of January 2nd as the ‘average’ Tanzanian uses all year! Yes the ‘West’ is over-consuming, but such an analysis doesn’t go far enough. Within the ‘West’ the distribution of wealth and consumption is as unequal as it is between North and South. Americans (and Europeans and Japanese) may ‘on average’ be consuming too much but huge swathes of their populations live a precarious existence – caused by our present capitalist system which benefits, and is designed to benefit, only a few. I accept of course that precariousness is relative – most Africans might welcome the level of American precariousness!
But what does all this have to do with population growth? Professor Cafaro asks: 'What is the greater threat to poor people in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Niger, Pakistan or India? Global climate change or national population growth?' Well of course the answer is both. But that’s not really the right question. Let’s state it bluntly, neither of these is their ‘fault’. Climate change is caused by the ‘grow or die’ imperative of the advanced capitalist economies (including China) and population growth is caused by the precariousness of people’s existence. I think the first part of this statement is uncontentious. Regarding the second part, there is ample evidence that when people, particularly women, are empowered and educated population growth slows down or ceases. In a comment such as this I don’t have space to go into this in more detail.

Let’s return to the point of ‘who is doing what, where and to whom?’ We also shouldn’t reify and capitalize ‘Capitalism’. As Utah Phillips once said, ‘The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.’ Take just one example, that of the so-called ‘Roving Pirates’. This is a term coined by the economist Mancur Olsen. But today’s Roving Pirates are mostly not illegal fishermen or loggers. In the main they are acting quite legally, they are simply capitalist enterprises going about their business of enriching themselves whatever the ecological or social consequences. Roving Pirates in factory fishing ships arrive in a particular locale and hoover up all the fish, they then move on. Local fishermen are deprived of their living and have either to turn to real piracy or they have to move to the cities to try to eke out an existence. Thus we get population growth (and poverty) in cities which may be susceptible to future rises in the sea level due to global warming. The same is true of Roving Pirates logging in the Amazon or Indonesia or India/Bangladesh. They come, they log and they move on. The social and ecological costs are born by the locals who have been deprived of a livelihood.

I can even agree with Professor Cafaro, whose views were stated in this article as suggesting that, ‘many environmental groups and government policymakers … have been fearful of wading into a host of contentious ethical issues, including family planning, abortion and immigration. The result has been limited progress in tackling ecological limits to growth and a failure to embrace one of the two primary drivers of climate change, along with consumption’. Yet ultimately, I suggest, the main ‘ethical issues’ are not so much family planning, abortion and immigration (important as all these are) but the ethical issues surrounding justice – justice for people, justice for other species and justice for the planet.  As Cafaro says, 'cutting consumption is proving a tall order, with a global economy designed to provide ever more. Even amongst environmentalists we largely live like our fellow citizens. I don't know what the answer is there? The goal always seems to be to accommodate more people and more economic activity with fewer carbon emissions.' Indeed! So let’s really look at and question ‘a global economy designed to provide ever more’. And this means overcoming the real taboo of asking:‘Who is doing what, where and to whom?’ This means naming names and calling a spade a spade.

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