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John Passant

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November 2011



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Is the environmental crisis caused by the 7 billion or the 1%?

The United Nations says that the world’s population will reach 7 billion people this month.

The approach of that milestone has produced a wave of articles and opinion pieces blaming the world’s environmental crises on overpopulation. In New York’s Times Square, a huge and expensive video declares that “human overpopulation is driving species extinct.” In London’s busiest Underground stations, electronic poster boards warn that 7 billion is ecologically unsustainable.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller The Population Bomb declared that as a result of overpopulation, “the battle to feed humanity is over,” and the 1970s would be a time of global famines and ever-rising death rates. His predictions were all wrong, but four decades later his successors still use Ehrlich’s phrase — too many people! — to explain environmental problems.

But most of the 7 billion are not endangering the earth. The majority of the world’s people don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases.

Even in the rich countries of the Global North, most environmental destruction is caused not by individuals or households, but by mines, factories, and power plants run by corporations that care more about profit than about humanity’s survival.

No reduction in U.S. population would have stopped BP from poisoning the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Lower birthrates won’t shut down Canada’s tar sands, which Bill McKibben has justly called one of the most staggering crimes the world has ever seen.

Universal access to birth control should be a fundamental human right — but it would not have prevented Shell’s massive destruction of ecosystems in the Niger River delta, or the immeasurable damage that Chevron has caused to rainforests in Ecuador.

Ironically, while populationist groups focus attention on the 7 billion, protestors in the worldwide Occupy movement have identified the real source of environmental destruction: not the 7 billion, but the 1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who own more, consume more, control more, and destroy more than all the rest of us put together.

In the United States, the richest 1% own a majority of all stocks and corporate equity, giving them absolute control of the corporations that are directly responsible for most environmental destruction.

Read more from Angus and Butler in their new book Too Many People?A recent report prepared by the British consulting firm Trucost for the United Nations found that just 3,000 corporations cause $2.15 trillion in environmental damage every year. Outrageous as that figure is — only six countries have a GDP greater than $2.15 trillion — it substantially understates the damage, because it excludes costs that would result from “potential high impact events such as fishery or ecosystem collapse,” and “external costs caused by product use and disposal, as well as companies’ use of other natural resources and release of further pollutants through their operations and suppliers.”

So in the case of oil companies, the figure covers “normal operations,” but not deaths and destruction caused by global warming, not damage caused by worldwide use of its products, and not the multi-billions of dollars in costs to clean up oil spills. The real damage those companies alone do is much greater than $2.15 trillion, every single year.

The 1% also control the governments that supposedly regulate those destructive corporations. The millionaires include 46 percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 54 out of 100 senators, and every president since Eisenhower.

Through the government, the 1% control the U.S. military, the largest user of petroleum in the world, and thus one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Military operations produce more hazardous waste than the five largest chemical companies combined. More than 10 percent of all Superfund hazardous waste sites in the United States are on military bases.

Those who believe that slowing population growth will stop or slow environmental destruction are ignoring these real and immediate threats to life on our planet. Corporations and armies aren’t polluting the world and destroying ecosystems because there are too many people, but because it is profitable to do so.

If the birthrate in Iraq or Afghanistan falls to zero, the U.S. military will not use one less gallon of oil.

If every African country adopts a one-child policy, energy companies in the U.S., China, and elsewhere will continue burning coal, bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe.

Critics of the too many people argument are often accused of believing that there are no limits to growth. In our case, that simply isn’t true. What we do say is that in an ecologically rational and socially just world, where large families aren’t an economic necessity for hundreds of millions of people, population will stabilize. In Betsy Hartmann’s words, “The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets. Take care of the population and population growth will go down.”

The world’s multiple environmental crises demand rapid and decisive action, but we can’t act effectively unless we understand why they are happening. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious time on ineffective cures; at worst, we will make the crises worse.

The too many people argument directs the attention and efforts of sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect. At the same time, it weakens efforts to build an effective global movement against ecological destruction: It divides our forces, by blaming the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause.

Above all, it ignores the massively destructive role of an irrational economic and social system that has gross waste and devastation built into its DNA. The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, not population size, are the root causes of today’s ecological crisis.

As pioneering ecologist Barry Commoner once said, “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

This article, by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, first appeared in

Ian Angus is coauthor of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. He is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate and Capitalism.

Simon Butler is coauthor of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. He is editor of Green Left Weekly.



Comment from dl
Time November 2, 2011 at 12:21 am

It’s not at all an issue of too many birth rates in developed countries. Pretty much any Western nation (Japan and South Korea are included under this aegis,) have either TFR rates hovering barely above the replacement level, or possess outright shrinking populations. Though it appears that the major reason Anglophone countries have dodged this proverbial bullet is due to their liberal immigration programs, and not native birthrates.
The issue is the almost pre-industrial level Birthrates in the lesser developed and even indigent nations of Greater Asia, Latin America and Africa, combined with an increase in average life expectancy and far lower (than historically) infant mortality rates. The problem doesn’t so much manifest itself now when appreoximately half of the world’s population lives in low consumption rural areas, but when you try to lift all of these people up to a Western standard level of wealth. This is exacerbated by having an economy based on consumption, with little incentives towards frugality of resource use in production. Having such an economic system in place should function differently to the old Malthusian food trap, as food has different demand and supply elasticities than the consumption of other material goods do As such, the risk of exhausting the Earths’ resources ( or easily obtainable ones at least) is much larger than the simple situation of poopulation growth outstripping food supply due to low crop yields. Using the price mechanism, such as is the case with Australia’s recently introduced Carbon tax, is one step in the right direction wrt better rationing commodity usage. Ominously, this strain on global resources is even starting to make itself evident now, with upcoming bottlenecks in the supply of Rare earth metals expected, even in the next decade.

All that being said,I agree that the best best way to reduce population levels in the future is through Economic development,which has been documented as having a strong, robust downward pressure on Fertility. It’d also be an act of rank hypocrisy to deny wealth to the rest of the world on the grounds of resource scarcity, given the past profligate ways of the Western world.

Finally, It’s also dangerous to see having a large global population as being good in its own right. Ironically, most globalism oriented capitalists such as the Koch Brothers, tend to have this perspective. the idea is that more people equals more profits. Instead, it should be considered from a pragmatic point of view, as being a neutral externality of the Green revolution and also due to advances in health care without corresponding checks like disease and war. This status quo doesn’t benefit anyone, and especially the extant people in the Third world.

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Time November 2, 2011 at 2:11 am

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Comment from John Turner
Time November 2, 2011 at 7:07 am

Sure Packer’s power boat uses more fuel per km than dozens of cars combined but the 99% use the bulk of the fuels and petrochemicals consumed each year. In the last few days the NY Times published a chart showing that in general citizen wellbeing the USA and Australia rate well behind the Scandinavian countries and the problem is mainly due to wealth distribution.
If growth in demand for resources continues the return to a more brutal existence for a much smaller population is inevitable.
When coal is exhausted metal production becomes impossible. The only question is when?

Comment from PopulationParty
Time November 3, 2011 at 7:52 am

I = PAT is the lettering of a formula put forward to describe the impact of human activity on the environment.

I = P × A × T

In words:

Human Impact (I) on the environment equals the product of P= Population, A= Affluence, T= Technology. This describes how our growing population, affluence, and technology contribute toward our environmental impact.

Population is therefore the multiplier of all environmental impact!

Moreso as the huge population numbers in coutries like China and India increase their per capita consumption. But this is no chicken and egg scenario. Population comes first.

Directly or indirectly (population multiplies the need to have “mines, factories, and power plants”), NUMBERS MATTER, both here and everywhere else.

Don’t deny it.


Comment from Ross
Time November 3, 2011 at 9:08 pm

What has reduced population in this country?Education and better lifestyles.Our birth rates have fallen dramatically sice WW2.Immigration is the only device by which our pop grows.

The Global Central banking system which creates people’s productivity as debt,keeps the poor,poorer;hence they have more children for labour and keep them in old age.

Greed by the few is depleting resources,increasing population and creating a very unstable planet.

The first and most important step is to end the fractional reserve system of counterfeiting our currencies.Then John we can have a debate of collectivism V’s individual reward for toil.

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