Overpopulation and the environment

It’s a weird feeling when you find people questioning something you would’ve thought was both obvious and widely accepted. That’s something that happened to me recently regarding the impact of human population on the environment, something we’ve been hearing is a problem from environmentalists for decades. That’s why I was surprised to read an article by Ketan Joshi talking about the problems in a recent film (which I haven’t seen) and being completely against the idea that we need to talk about population. In fact, he goes so far as to call population control “a cruel, evil and racist ideology.”

I had no idea how he had come to that conclusion, and I still don’t know how much of that was directed specifically at the film he was critiquing and how much was a general comment, but there was a Twitter thread by George Monbiot which is a good read and makes explicit a similar line of reasoning. His contention is that, although the majority of carbon emissions are by the, primarily white, ultra rich, people (particularly white people) prefer to blame population growth than the wealthy as it deflects responsibility from their own actions and that this is, intentionally or not, racist because those countries with the highest population growth rates have largely black or brown population. While I agree with several of his starting points, I think he makes several errors in reasoning as he builds upon them that undermines his conclusions and which I wish to address here.

Racism

I want to start with the racism aspect because it’s the least relevant to the rest of this blog post and I think has some interesting implications. My first problem with it is that it interprets criticism of certain countries, mostly non-white, to be racist even if that is not an intentional stance of the person.

Nor am I claiming that most of those who over-emphasise population are intentional racists. I think it is possible to entertain subconscious racist beliefs without actively wishing to discriminate against people of colour.

Barring any other evidence which would support the racist narrative (And I’m sure there are some people who hold such a position for racist views.), this neglects the principle of charity, which is to interpret an opponent’s argument in the best possible way. With the principle of charity that would be to say that their position is not held because of racism but because they really think population growth is a problem.

This entire racist framing also neglects that many non-white people take the dangers of population growth seriously. China’s disastrous one-child policy is well known and India has also discussed what to do about their own immense population. Concerns about human population are not just white concerns.

Furthermore, assuming a racist underpinning can be used to dismiss legitimate concerns. We must surely see that there can be legitimate criticisms of policies or actions which may occur primarily in non-white countries. For example, homosexuality and gay marriage is recognised and legal in most of Europe and North America. The countries where homosexuality is illegal are mostly in the Middle East and Africa. However, it would not be right to say that criticism of laws against homosexuality are evidence of racism. Similarly, one can have legitimate criticisms of population growth without it being due to either intentional or unintentional racism. Regardless, any assumption of a person’s motivations, particularly generalised to such a large extent, must come with a large degree of uncertainty.

Emissions are mostly by the rich

The second place where I feel Monbiot falls short is when he claims that population growth is not a concern because most emissions are by the very rich. He quotes one website which says:

Even several billion additional people in low-income countries — where fertility rates and population growth is already highest — would leave global emissions almost unchanged. 3 or 4 billion low income individuals would only account for a few percent of global CO2.

I completely agree there but it misses key points. Those people in the low-income countries have negligible carbon emissions because they are living in poverty. According to researchers in 2018, there isn’t a single country that is able to provide for its citizens while staying within planetary boundaries. But we can not allow our fellow man to languish in poverty, we need to make sure that the needs of every person are met. Once that happens, their carbon emissions are, unless there is a substantial change in technology and its availability, going to increase rapidly.

Population growth is a deceiving measurement

This is where we get to the really important bit. Moniot makes a fairly big deal about how population growth has decreased.

Global population growth today is 1.05%. That’s half the peak growth rate, reached in 1963 (2.2%). In other words, population growth is not, as many claim, exponential. The rate is falling rapidly.

This makes the situation look so much better than it actually is. Remember that the global population is around 7,8 billion people. So a 1% growth rate means an increase of 78 million people. We don’t notice that easily because it is spread throughout the globe but look at it this way. A country with 78 million people would have the 20th largest population, between Thailand and Germany. So rather than a 1% growth rate, imagine if you had to place a new Thailand or a new Germany on the map every year. Where would you find the space or the resources? That is our reality.

It is great that population growth is decreasing but what we really need is the population size to decrease. We are not able to support our current population without degrading the environment. We are the cause of the sixth great extinction and the reason for the climate crisis.

Monbiot acknowledges that “rising human numbers can have important local effects: pressure on housing, green space, wildlife, water quality etc.” and that “environmental impact: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.” As above, he is less worried about population growth because most environmental impact is by the richest of the population. I think the current economic inequality is unacceptable. I believe that affluence and technology should be shared equally amongst all people. If everyone benefits from humanity’s gifts equally then affluence and technology can be treated as a single carbon emissions variable. So environmental impact = population x carbon emissions. What does this look like?

Pop_graph_fin

In the above graph, you can see population size increasing to the right and maximum carbon emissions per person increasing upwards. The blue line represents the maximum carbon emissions that the planet can sustain. That is essentially constant. If you are above that line, in the red zone, then emissions are greater than can be sustained but if you are below the line, in the green zone, then everything is fine. What you can see, is that higher populations must have lower carbon emissions per person to remain sustainable. The actual values are for illustrative purposes only.

The human population on Earth is represented by the star. We are in the red, producing far more carbon than is sustainable and causing climate change and the destruction of our natural environment. The paths A and B represent ways to lower our total carbon emissions to be below the blue line. In reality, there are any number of diagonal lines between them but A and B are the extreme cases. Line B is a reduction in the emissions per person; for example by using renewable energy, recycling, and so on. Line A is a reduction in population size while emitting the same amount of carbon per person. Either A or B could theoretically move us into the green zone but I don’t think we should limit ourselves to just one; we should use a combination of reduced emissions and reduced population size.

The graph also shows other risks of a large population. A large population can emit more carbon even while being more efficient per person if the increase in population is greater than the decrease in emissions per person. And at a smaller population, you can afford to be less efficient without it being harmful. This is not even taking into account other resource limits that prevent all people from sharing the benefits of technology. This brings us to the final point.

Population control needs to be a personal decision

I think the problem Monbiot and Joshi have with the idea of population control is that they see it as a top down control, where one person or group of people imposes their control on others. That is indeed very troubling and unacceptable. But it’s also a failure to imagine anything other than our current economic and political systems. Those systems all need to change, ideally to system based not on force or control but on mutual cooperation. If we know what the problem is and we know what the solutions are, then we can start to make those changes for the benefit of all life.

People are already taking action; The Guardian had an article in 2018 on people who are not having children for environmental reasons. That same article mentions VHEMT, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which wants to see humans choose to stop breeding to reduce our impact on the planet. They are not the only ones who are reconsidering having children in the face of human-caused ecological collapse. This is voluntary population control. It is the direction in which we should be moving and these people are the heroes and role models that we should be looking to.

Some who have had these discussions with me, will already that I don’t think it’s the only reason not to have children. I also think the anti-natalist position has a strong argument. To make a very brief and very crude summary; avoiding both the joy and suffering of life – by not being born – is better than experiencing the joy and suffering of life. Therefore the only ethical position is not to bring children into the world. I doubt that overly summarised description does the position justice, so I highly recommend reading David Benetaar’s essay on the topic or The Guardian’s coverage of it which includes the overlap between climate activism and anti-natalism.

While I would say these are both great reasons not to have children, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. There are many children who are already born and need homes. Tauriq Moosa wrote two pieces several years ago that essentially say that as long as there are orphaned children in need of adoption, it is immoral to bring more children into the world.

Population control should not be forced on people but there are ways governments could help. Education on family planning is an obvious route. To help with the practical matters, imagine if all contraceptives and all medical costs for sterilisation were covered as a public good. It would make it much easier to avoid having children and the associated environmental costs.

Final thoughts

Climate change is the biggest problem we have ever faced and threatens the end of civilisation. Along with that is the massive loss of many other species which had no part in causing this crisis and have no voice to object to our actions. We should be devoting nearly all of our attention to how we can reduce our impact on the planet and part of that includes reducing our overall population size to a sustainable level. This is not something that we should continue to avoid but it is something that we most confront and which should inform our personal choices.

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