Too Many People? rebuts claims that population is the source of environmental crisis. Since capitalism is the problem, the fight for a sustainable society must be at the centre of the struggle against austerity

Ian Angus and Simon Butler, Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket Books 2011), xix, 266pp.

Among environmentalists, it is often a given that current and future increases in global population are undesirable. Not everyone goes as far as James Lovelock, who has referred to the human population of the globe as a ‘plague’, but the notion that the planet has a carrying capacity – a limit to the number of people who can be supported sustainably – is fairly widespread, appearing for example in the Green Party’s population policy.

It might seem obvious that, since human activity is causing climate change, fewer people would mean lower greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the food price spikes, which since 2007 have driven thousands of people to protest across the world, could be seen as indicating that we are reaching the point where the world’s resources are unable to feed the world’s population. These might seem like commonsense assumptions, but as Angus and Butler point out, they make sense only within an essentially capitalist view of the world.

If you believe that production and consumption always work according to the rules of supply and demand, and that everyone is a discrete unit of consumption, causally responsible for their per capita share of their country’s greenhouse gas emissions, then you might be able to view the issue of population and its effect on the environment in this determinist way. Yet, an understanding of our environmental problems as the result of the system in its totality, rather than of the accumulated effects of the behaviour of individual consumers, leads to a very different view of the population question.

In Too Many People, Angus and Butler set out a clear argument for how the populationist ideology – that increasing population is at the root of environmental problems – is false. In so doing, they also provide an effective introduction to how the populationist ideology has enabled concern for the environment to be mobilised by the right.

The idea that the world’s population is in crisis goes back, of course, to Malthus, who wrote in the early nineteenth century, and who argued that the poor would breed until they could no longer feed themselves, and would starve to death. Malthus is dealt with here only in an appendix, as Angus and Butler’s starting point is the post-World War Two panic about population, beginning with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, published in 1968, and continuing with the Club of Rome’s report The Limits to Growth.

Ehrlich famously introduced his argument that millions were heading for imminent starvation with an illustration of what overpopulation looks like, based on travelling through some crowded streets in Delhi while he was on holiday. He thus set out an agenda where the problematic populations were the numbers in the developing as opposed to the developed world. Angus and Butler describe here how this view has been used to justify forced sterilizations and other repressive programmes which have actually killed women, and which taken together can reasonably be described as a war against the poor.

Despite the real harm these programmes have caused, the obvious truth that women should be able to control their own fertility has enabled populationists to make common cause on this issue not just with environmentalists but also with feminist campaigners. Their success in eliding the considerable difference between giving women control of their fertility and wanting said fertility to be controlled can be seen for example at the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo. This conference is regarded by populationists as a landmark combining of populationists and feminists ‘because their interests were aligned’ (p.102), and shows the right’s ability to co-opt feminist concerns, just like environmental ones, when it suits them, to serve entirely un-feminist ends.

The focus on Third World populations as problematic makes little sense even within an individual consumer-focused understanding of the causes of climate change, since it is not the people of the developing world who are producing the greenhouse gas emissions. As Angus and Butler point out, much of the populationist ideology arose out of conservationism in the US, and many populationist writers remain fixated on the effect increasing population has on how crowded national parks get on public holidays. This origin means that it lends itself particularly well to a ‘lifeboat’ ideology, as set out by James Lovelock, who thinks that our efforts in the UK should be aimed at preserving it as a ‘climate haven’, including the use of force to keep climate refugees out (pp.30-1). Organisations like the US Optimum Population Trust take this to its logical conclusion and use concern for climate change as an argument for preventing immigration, on the grounds that increasing the US population would be A Bad Thing for the US and for the world. The argument here is that allowing immigration from the developing to the developed world is an exercise in enabling individuals to improve their standards of living and therefore increase their personal greenhouse gas emissions.

Angus and Butler introduce the book as an attempt to arm climate activists with the arguments on the ‘critically important debate’ about the climate question. They are not wrong about its importance, but this formulation perhaps underplays how dangerous the right-wing population arguments are. The population question is a reminder of how concern about climate change does not automatically lead to socially progressive proposals. The twin concepts in much environmental thinking, that human activity is essentially problematic and that addressing climate change requires us to sacrifice, make it easy for the right to co-opt green concerns, in order to justify the imposition of austerity, attacks on jobs, and reductions of living standards, as we have seen recently with the Spanish miners. The lesson here is that if we do not want the climate crisis to be used to attack working people, environmentalists have to be explicitly on their side.

Too Many People points out that blaming the lifestyles of ordinary people for climate change misrepresents how capitalism works. The greenhouse gas emissions from individuals’ car use or food choices are dwarfed compared to the effects of the lifestyles of the super-rich. Angus and Butler have some eye-popping examples of the Barclay brothers’ £60 million Sark mansion, complete with battlements, an 80-metre long dining room, two swimming pools and a helipad, or the world’s most expensive private home, a 22-storey tower in Mumbai, with an artificial snowfall room and 600 servants. Even these, however, are a drop in the ocean compared to the effects of industrial production. The case against individual consumers has it that industrial pollution is also all down to us, since if we did not demand things we do not need, they would not be making them for us. Angus and Butler could be more explicit that in this system, supply leads demand, rather than the other way around, but nevertheless the point is clearly made that it is the system, and not the behaviour of even wealthy individuals within it, that is the problem.

Uncoupling environmental damage from individual behaviour makes clear that we cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the numbers of people on the planet. This is not to say that the idea of carrying capacity is valueless, simply that it is not about numbers of individuals, but about systems. There are indications that sustaining nine billion people on the planet under capitalism may be problematic, but that tells you nothing about how many people could live sustainably under a different system. It is capitalism, not the population, which does not fit.

This realisation puts anti-capitalism at the heart of environmental campaigning, and Angus and Butler conclude with a call for ecosocialism. Their transitional demands are those made at the Cochabamba conference in 2010, which included a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2017 and ecological debt repayments from rich countries to poor ones. The point that the populationist agenda has served to separate developed and developing world activists on climate change is a good one, and the attention here to the work of groups like Via Campesina is important. However, an understanding of climate change as a problem of capitalism also opens up real possibilities for environmentalists to make common cause with others fighting the system, from anti-war to anti-austerity campaigners. Angus and Butler concede that ‘the path of ecological revolution will not be easy’ (p.201). It may be eased by seeing that what is needed is not a movement specifically on climate change so much as to put the fight for a sustainable society at the centre of the fight against austerity.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.