Socialist Worker

Don’t buy Chris Packham’s myth of overpopulation

A BBC TV programme says ‘overpopulation’ causes climate change. Gabby Thorpe debunks this dangerous racist idea

Issue No. 2686

A Population Matters map focuses on birth rates in Africa

A Population Matters map focuses on birth rates in Africa (Pic: Population Matters)

Right wing arguments that blame “overpopulation” for environmental destruction haven’t gained much purchase in the new climate movement.

That hasn’t stopped the BBC giving Chris Packham an hour of airtime in one of its main documentaries on the causes of climate change.

Packham, a patron of the right wing Population Matters pressure group, has talked of how population growth is “stifling our green and pleasant land”.

Superficially, the argument about overpopulation can seem like common sense.

More people use more resources, the argument goes. This will cause higher levels of carbon emissions that are heating up the planet. But put simply, the problem isn’t too many people—it’s too many rich people.

The poorest three billion people, around 45 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 7 percent of carbon emissions. They are overwhelmingly people in the Global South, often in more densely populated countries.

Meanwhile, the richest 7 percent of the world’s population, around half a billion people, are responsible for 50 percent of emissions.

These stark differences between rich and poor aren’t just between Western countries and the rest of the world.

In Britain, for instance, just 15 percent of the population take 70 percent of flights according to a study in 2014. This is made up of bosses jetting around the world, not ordinary people going on holiday.

But the problem with capitalism is more structural than just overconsumption by the rich. All mainstream economists—whether free marketeers or those in favour of state intervention—agree that capitalism is driven by ordinary consumers.


They argue that corporations are only responding to consumer demand when they produce more stuff. So it would follow that more people means more consumer demand and more stuff.

In reality, capitalist production is driven forward by competition among rival firms. Each firm has to maximise profits or they would be driven out of business by their competitors.

And, because production under capitalism isn’t planned, there is often overproduction. The bosses’ solution is then to compete with one another and try and get people to buy more stuff.

For example, car firms produce more cars and constantly bring out newer models to increase sales.

Carbon emissions, environmental destruction and depletion of resources flows from a system that subjects everything to the logic of profit maximisation.

A socialist economy would be based on workers’ control and democratically planned to meet human need.

The idea of overpopulation has become a touchstone for far right and racist politicians across Europe. They believe in a “Great Replacement” of white people by Muslim and other immigrant populations.

While Population Matters doesn’t talk about forcibly reducing the population, the argument is rooted in racism.

They shift the blame on poor people for having children. In a video advocating smaller families, a map of fertility rates singles out Africa.

But the higher the infant mortality rate the higher the birth rate. When people worry that some of their children will die through lack of food, they are likely to have more in the hope that some survive. People who are better off, are likely to have fewer children.

Population Matters strongly denies that its arguments lead to racism or are racist. "Population concern is not about 'targeting' those places where birth rates and population growth are high," it says.

Overpopulation is a dangerous, racist argument that distracts from what we need—a socialist society that puts people and planet above profit.

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