By Martin Empson
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Are there too many people on the planet?

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Martin Empson unpicks the arguments of those who claim that population growth is to blame for the climate crisis.
Issue 448

At some point between October 2011 and March 2012 the world’s population surpassed 7 billion people. Whenever such a milestone is passed there is a rash of alarmist articles in the media warning of the dangers of uncontrolled population growth. In the years since 2012 the total has increased by a further 700 million people, which for some activists, politicians, demographers and media commentators only fuels the panic. As a result, you don’t have to campaign around environmental issues for long before someone will tell you that the problem is “too many people”.

Arguments that link population to environmental degradation, resource use and hunger are not new. They rest on a simplistic idea that more people equals more resource use. Such arguments go back to the work of the English economist Thomas Robert Malthus in the late 18th century. But today they are re-emerging as part of the debate around the current environmental crisis. Unfortunately, I think those who link population growth directly to climate change and the biodiversity crisis are letting the real culprits off the hook and offering a dangerous diversion for the movement.


Take the recent United Nations report on the biodiversity crisis. It concluded that one eighth of species — one million species of plants and animals — are at risk of extinction. The report argues that the “key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability”.

In some reports these interlocking and complex drivers are reduced to one simple cause, “overpopulation”. Writing in the Financial Times for instance, under the headline “Clever science alone cannot prevent the next mass extinction”, Camilla Cavendish says that the UN report “warns that human overpopulation is harming the very plant and animal species on which we rely for survival.”

She then concludes, “It is irresponsible to welcome the UN report with warm words, while promoting increases in population. We started a war with nature to survive. But if we do not call a truce now, the losers will be us.”

The journalist made two conceptual leaps in her argument. Firstly, she abstracted the question of population from its wider context and secondly she implied that the biodiversity crisis arises out of a “war with nature” by humans. The problem is that this argument is incorrect.

Cavendish’s argument is not, however, new. In the late 1960s as environmental issues started to move into the mainstream, a number of writers began to debate the causes of these. The argument was frequently dominated by those who linked population growth directly to environmental destruction and other issues such as hunger. Most famously, and most influentially, the American academic Paul Ehrlich argued in his 1968 book The Population Bomb that population growth had already caused major environmental issues and would lead to hundreds of millions of people dying of famine in the 1970s.

He put a crude argument that is very similar to that used today: “Think of what it means for the population of a country to double…the food available for the people must be doubled. Every structure and road must be duplicated. The amount of power used is doubled. the capacity of the transport system must be doubled. The number of trained doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators must be doubled.”

Taken to its logical conclusion this line of reasoning moves very quickly from concerns about overpopulation to asserting the need for a smaller population. The influential environmental writer and scientist James Lovelock said, in a 2009 interview with the BBC, that “living the way we do” a sustainable population for the world was “not more than one billion, probably less”. David Attenborough explains that “all our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people”. Both men are patrons of the organisation Population Matters, formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust.

In the hands of the far right this logic can become ideological justification for reactionary policies. While there is no suggestion that James Lovelock, David Attenborough or Population Matters advocate forcible population reduction, it is worth noting that arguments about overpopulation originated in reactionary politics.

When Malthus first published his book The Principles of Population in 1798 he did so for a very specific reason. He was writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution and against English radicals like William Godwin who wanted a world of freedom, equality and equal access to resources. Malthus was arguing on behalf of the English bourgeoisie that such a world was impossible as the poor would inevitably grow in uncontrollable numbers and will thus always be immiserated. Contemporary radicals like William Cobbett and later Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels viciously attacked Malthus’s reactionary politics. Marx called it a “great libel” on the working class. Cobbett was blunter to Malthus: “I have, during my life, detested many men; but never anyone so much as you.”


More recent works often contain a similar fear of the masses and link overpopulation to the fear of revolution and mass discontent at lack of resources, particularly food. Ehrlich’s infamous introduction to The Population Bomb describes the moment he began to “fear” overpopulation while on a taxi ride in Delhi:

“One stinking hot night in Delhi. We entered a crowded slum area. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window begging. People defecating and urinating… Since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”

The link between overpopulation, the politics of migration and racism even reaches mainstream politics. While researching this article I came across a report in the Independent newspaper on 6 June 2019, which describes a meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi, the prime minister of Myanmar, and far right Hungarian politician Viktor Orban who agreed that “continuously growing Muslim populations” is one of the “greatest challenges”, alongside migration, facing their countries. Aung San Suu Kyi has been condemned for her failure to act around the 2017 Rohingya massacre when thousands of Muslims were killed in what the UN described as genocide.

The danger is that theories of overpopulation can become an excuse for racism and anti working class arguments that may, in the hands of the right, become justifications for reactionary policies. In their excellent book Too Many People? Ian Angus and Simon Butler show how in the 1960s and 1970s “Western populationist groups” won over the Indian government to act on population growth. This led to forced, undemocratic action. Prime minister Indira Gandhi said that “some personal rights have to be kept in abeyance for the human rights of the nation, the right to live, the right to progress.” Between 1975 and 1976 over eight million Indians were sterilised, including on occasion the forced sterilisation of the male population of entire villages. Similarly, in China in the 1980s with the introduction of the infamous one child policy provinces had to sign up to quotas, with parents who had more than two children sterilised, and there were forced abortions. Angus and Butler describe programmes in Tibet as “equally barbaric”.


But what about the central argument that links population growth to increased environmental destruction? Superficially this seems logical. In 1971 Ehrlich discussed a major contemporary environmental problem — smog in Los Angeles. This, he argued, was because the growth of the city meant more people, which in turn meant more cars and more air pollution from their exhausts.

But this abstracts the problem from its real causes. Until the 1950s Los Angeles had been a city served by an extensive electric tram network. As the city grew, planners wanted to expand the suburbs, but they did not expand the tram system. A massive road network was built and public transport companies realised that buses were much more profitable than trams. Thus the growth of the city did lead to more smog, not because of population growth, but because transport became geared towards polluting cars and buses over other low pollution alternatives.

In fact there is no direct relationship between population and environmental damage. As science author Fred Pearce has argued in his excellent book PeopleQuake the “poorest three billion or so people on the planet (roughly 45 percent of the total) are currently responsible for only 7 percent of emissions, while the richest 7 percent (about half a billion people) are responsible for 50 percent of emissions.”

Crudely put, population growth in the developing world has less of an impact than population growth in affluent countries. While this is a useful counter to arguments that link population directly with environmental damage, socialists must go a step further to argue that the real problem is structural.

Karl Marx put it well when he pointed out that “overpopulation is a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production… How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!”

Between 1950 and 2010 world population grew about three-fold, but the economy grew ten-fold and it is the nature of the capitalist economy that really determines environmental damage. As one study argued, just 100 companies have been responsible for 71 percent of carbon emissions since 1988. Multinationals like Shell, Chevron and BP are the ones responsible for the worst environmental destruction.

But aren’t those companies simply responding to consumer demand? And since population growth leads to more consumers, doesn’t this mean ultimately that people are the problem? Again, this ignores the driving force for capitalist production. One reoccurring example of resource use is the mobile phone. These devices rely on expensive and rare metals and thus can be linked to the depletion of precious resources. But what drives consumers to repeatedly buy more phones is the creation of demand through the issue of new models. Mobile phone companies didn’t invent this — fashion has been used to make us buy everything from clothes to cars. One 1950s Ford car executive admitted that “The change in appearance of models each year increases car sales.”

Maximise profits

Take the example of the biodiversity crisis discussed earlier. In many parts of the world, this is being driven in particular by agricultural practices. But whether it’s the decimation of the rainforests or destruction of insects, birds and other animals in Europe, this is not the result of individual farmers desperately clearing land to feed a growing population. Instead it arises out of the nature of industrial agriculture which needs vast monocropped fields covered in pesticides and heavily dependent on artificial fertilisers to maximise the profits of big multinational food corporations.

Environmental degradation isn’t the result of extra people, but of a system that blindly puts its profits before the needs of people or planet.

Today population growth is often portrayed as being out of control. But the reality is that the most authorities’ predictions suggest that growth is levelling off. Ironically since about the time that Ehrlich’s book was published there has been a decline in the rate of world population increase. Malthus argued that population growth was inevitable, but all the evidence is that the more affluent a society is the lower its fertility rates. Education, healthcare, access to contraception and abortion and female involvement in the workforce all help to decrease fertility rates; but these are all associated with developed economies. Almost all the predicted population increase for the next century will happen in the poorest nations, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, some European countries, such as Germany and Italy, face a demographic problem of an unexpected type. Without immigration those countries will see a declining and aging population. The Italian demographic scientist Massimo Livi Bacci writes that without immigration his country’s population “would suffer an unsustainable decline, falling from today’s 61 million to 45 million.” Fertility rates in the UK are about 1.8 — below the level required (about 2.1) to replace the population. Global fertility rates are also declining. In 1950 the global average number of children per family was 4.7; today it is 2.4. Half of all countries have fertility rates below 2. The populations of Europe, China and Japan are expected to decline long before 2050, which is one of the reasons that anti-migrant policies are so irrational.

The predictions of Malthus and more recently figures like Ehrlich have proved to be highly inaccurate. Ehrlich said that by the 1980s much of the world would be starving, but while hunger and malnutrition remain, the number of hungry people is decreasing — mostly as a result of new agricultural science. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Association the number of hungry people has declined from 991 million in the early 1990s to 791 million in 2015. Ehrlich predicted mass famines in the 1980s and to some extent he was right — countries like Ethiopia suffered enormously. However, that starvation, like almost every other famine in modern history, was the result, not of food shortages, but of poverty. Today enough food is produced to feed the existing population and predicted increase. Unfortunately, industrial agriculture does so in a highly unsustainable way. But as agricultural expert Timothy A Wise has emphasised in a recent book, Eating Tomorrow, more sustainable agricultural methods can have higher yields and produce better food than the farming encouraged by big multinational food corporations.

Those who argue that overpopulation is the biggest threat to the environment are guilty of two mistakes. Firstly, they ignore the way that population and fertility is a result of social context — not an innate biological drive to have more children. Secondly they ignore the real threat — an economic system that prioritises profit.

By 2050 the world’s population will reach between 9 and 11 billion, after which it is likely to level off. Almost all of those people will be poor workers exploited by the system. But without radical action to challenge capitalism, they will live in a world ravaged by environmental disaster. If we are to build a world that rationally uses its resources in our collective interest, then we should start by seeing each of those individuals, not as a problem, but as an ally in the struggle for a better world.

Further reading

Too Many People? Ian Angus and Simon Butler (Haymarket)
PeopleQuake Fred Pearce (Eden Project Books)
Population 10 Billion Danny Dorling (Constable)
Land and Labour Martin Empson (Bookmarks)

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