what i'm reading / marxism 2012 program notes: "too many people?" population, immigration, and the environment

I've just finished reading Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis by Ian Angus and Simon Butler. Co-author Angus spoke at the 2012 Marxism conference; I wasn't able to attend his talk, but Allan did, and afterwards bought the book for me.

The clarity of the authors' arguments, their unassailable reasoning, their thorough research, the full transparency of their worldview, and the readability of their writing, make this one of the best nonfiction books I've read. If you care about both the environment and reproductive justice, this book is a must-read. If you, like so many well-intentioned people, subscribe to - or wonder about - the notion that population control and curtailed immigration are even partial solutions to the environmental crisis, I hope you will read this book.

Here, I'll try to summarize Angus and Butler's principal points.

The populationists

Throughout the history of the modern environmental movement, there has always been a school of thought that the central problem (or at least one huge part of the problem) is overpopulation. Under this view, in order to preserve natural resources, we must slow global human population growth.

Historically and today, this involves changing reproductive patterns in developing or third-world nations, here called the global south. In short, women in the global south must have fewer babies, for the sake of the survival of the planet.

Further, we must prevent people from the global south from emigrating to the global north, or at least greatly slow the rate of immigration. The more people who move from low-consumption lifestyles in the south to high-consumption lifestyles in the north, the more pressure is put on the environment. Therefore, we are told, we must stop or sharply curtail that movement.

The problem, in this view, is too many people. Reduce the numbers of people, therefore reduce CO2 emissions, therefore slow or even reverse climate change.

Historically, many promoters of these ideas have had strong, although often covert, ties to racist, white supremacist, or eugenicist movements. But many within the environmental movement believe in and promote these populationist ideas with no racist intent. Many of the same people support reproductive freedom in a general sense, but believe that the urgency of the global environmental crisis outweighs reproductive freedom in certain parts of the world (i.e., the parts of the world they don't live in). [See below for notes on terminology.]

Numbers and their misuse

Too many people? Which people, how do they live, and what do they consume?

Angus and Butler dismantle and completely disprove these populationist arguments, often by dissecting their statistics and supposed facts. The numbers may be accurate - yet completely irrelevant. The measurement may be correct, but what is being measured proves nothing. Correlation is confused with causation.

Two prime examples of this are statistics about global population and global emissions, and per capita emissions.

The more people who live on the planet, the more CO2 emissions there are. That's easy to show. The correlation between population growth and emissions growth seems obvious. On further inspection, though, the link proves to be illusory.

Consider these facts:

• Between 1980 and 2005, Sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world's population growth, and accounted for just 2.4% of growth in emissions.

• During that period, the US had 3.4% of the world's population growth, and 12.6% of the growth in emissions.

• Low-income nations accounted for 52.1% of the world's population growth, and 12.8% of the growth in emissions.

• High-income nations accounted for 7% of the world's population growth, and 29% of the growth in emissions.

Almost all the growth in emissions is occurring in countries with little or no population growth. And almost all of the population growth is occurring in areas with extremely low growth in emissions.

Emissions are a problem of rich countries, not poor countries. The 19 countries in the G20 produced 78% of the worldwide total carbon dioxide emissions - four times as much the rest of the world combined. Seen on a per capita basis, emissions from the US alone are, for example, 197 times greater than those from Mozambique and 400 times greater than in Mali.

And those figures above are significantly understated, since they don't take into account the US' global footprint, from both the military and international air travel.

There is actually no correlation between population growth rate and emissions. In fact, there is usually a negative correlation - most of the big polluting countries have a birth rate at or below replacement levels, or nearly so. If we thought correlation equals causation, as the populationists do, we'd conclude that low population growth causes high emissions or high population growth causes low emissions! That's ridiculous, of course. Because both emissions levels and population growth are shaped by other social and economic factors.

Smaller families in Africa or South America are not going to change global emissions or slow climate change. The countries where women have a relatively high degree of control over their reproduction are also the countries that are doing the most to destroy the environment. From Fred Pearce in his book Peoplequake:
The poorest three billion or so people on the planet (roughly 45% of the total) are currently responsible for only 7% of emissions, while the richest 7% (about half a billion people) are responsible for 50% of the emissions.

A woman in rural Ethiopia can have 10 children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Manchester or Munich. In the unlikely event that her 10 children live to adulthood and all have 10 children of their own, the entire clan of more than 100 will still be emitting only about as much carbon dioxide each year as you or me.

So to suggest, as some do, that the real threat to the planet arises from too many children in Ethiopia, or rice-growing Bangladeshis on the Ganges delta, or Quechua alpaca herders in the Andes, or cow-pea farmers on the edge of the Sahara, or chaiwallas in Mumbai, is both preposterous and dangerous.
The "per capita" problem

A country's emissions are often expressed per capita - the total emissions from that country divided by its total population. But per capita figures are a convenient way to make any social problem appear to be an individual problem.

Take the per capita emission output of Canada, often said to be the highest in the world. From progressive environmentalist Jeff White:
Per capita figures are statistical artifacts that tell us the ratio of a country's total emissions to its populations. But they don't tell us about individual contributions to the country's total emissions. For example, if I tell you that Canada's annual per capital emissions are 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, it doesn't tell you how much of that 23 tonnes I, as an average Canadian, am personally responsible for. It includes, for example "my" per capita share of the emissions caused by the mining of the tar sands in Alberta, the manufacture of cement in Quebec, an the industrialized livestock production in Ontario - none of which I have any personal control over.

If half the population of Canada suddenly disappeared, my per capita share of emissions, and that of very other remaining Canadian would increase dramatically overnight, without any change being made in my - or anyone else's - personal levels of carbon consumption. The population fetishists would realize their fondest wish (a dramatic reduction in population levels) while the per capita emissions levels would soar! What could demonstrate more clearly that per capita statistics tell us nothing about "overpopulation"?
But isn't the planet running out of food? (Short answer: NO.)

It can be shown in several different ways that the earth is still capable of producing enough food for every person on it. The problem is not a shortage of food, but a for-profit system that sees food distributed according to one's ability to buy it, rather than according to need.

Food follows the money, and this is as true globally as it is within countries. Remember, in the richest country in the world (the US), even by conservative estimates, 17% of all children are hungry or malnourished.

In the industrialized food chain, most grain is used to feed animals. The use of sustainable farming practices would allow us to retain half our supply of meat, while freeing up a tremendous amount of nutrition in grain - not to mention the huge health and environmental benefits (and further not to mention the benefits to animals).

Then there are biofuels, thought by many to be the promise of fuel independence and the end to resource wars. In 2007, vehicles in the US burned enough corn to cover the entire import needs of the world's 82 poorest countries. In 2009, more corn was processed by ethanol makers in the US than the combined grain production of Canada and Australia. Mark Lynas:
What biofuels do is undeniable: they take food out of the mouths of starving people and divert it to be burned as fuel in the car engines of the world's rich consumers.
And finally, huge quantities of food are destroyed, thrown away, and wasted in industrial food production, packaging, and distribution. As the authors say:
Blaming food shortages on overpopulation downplays the fact that the existing global food system is grossly inequitable, wasteful, and inefficient. Plenty of food is grown, but it isn't available to hungry people.
Population control is a war on the world's poorest people

Throughout modern history and in the not-distant past, "population control" usually meant forced sterilization. Representatives from wealthy nations, usually under the aegis of well-intentioned foundations, forced men and women to submit to sterilization practices without anything resembling informed consent.

Imagine giving birth and waking up to find your reproductive organs had been removed, or you had been implanted with a tamper-proof IUD! Imagine consenting to a procedure you were told was temporary birth control, until after it was performed, when you were told it was permanent! There are scores of examples of this being done to huge populations. Millions of women and men in India, South America, Africa, the United States, and in indigenous communities all over the world include this in their history. "Those people" - those brown people, those poor people, those others - should not be having all those babies! So we'll come in and decide who has babies and how many they have.

When governments or organizations have enforced measures to control reproduction, the world's poorest people have lost their freedoms, and poor women of colour have suffered the most. This is true whether the goal is to restrict the fertility of poor women or to stop the poor from migrating to the rich world:
Population control schemes inevitably treat the victims of social and economic injustice as obstacles to a sustainable society.
These days, population control rhetoric is less overtly racist and the tactics are less blunt - but only by degree. Population control, when dictated from above or from outside the individual and the community, always involves force or coercion. In some countries, sterilization became a condition of land allotment, electricity, ration cards, pay raises, and promotions. Entire villages would lose government benefits if families had more than the prescribed number of babies.

These schemes amount to one group of people deciding that another group of people are "surplus".
For the planet-destroying rulers of the world, the excess people are never themselves. The excess people are always somebody else.
It is the worst kind of victim-blaming, and an absolutely immoral practice.

Of course everyone should have access to safe, legal birth control, including safe, legal, and easily accessible abortion services. But women and men must be free to decide for themselves when and how many children to raise.

Women limit their reproduction when they have an interest in doing so. When educational and economic opportunity increase, when child mortality rates fall, when large families are not needed for agricultural labour, when the Catholic Church gets out of the picture, then birth rates fall. By choice.

The lifeboat mentality: immigration control is the wrong focus

Historian Robert Biel writes:
It is not just that there is one group of countries in the world which happens to be developed and another which happens to be poor. The two are organically linked; that is to say, one part is poor because the other is rich. The relationship is partly historical - for colonialism and the slave trade helped to build up capitalism and this provided the conditions for later forms of dependency - but the link between development and underdevelopment is a process that continues today.
People seeking to leave the global south and emigrate to the global north are often the victims of environmental degradation and social dislocation caused by that process.

Anti-immigration policies say, in effect, "I deserve to live a privileged life, because I happened to be born here, because (in all likelihood) my ancestors came here, but these people do not."

It is a lifeboat mentality. The earth is the sinking ship, and we're not letting anyone else in the lifeboat.

But our ship will sink or continue to float only if we all work together to save it. Kicking people off the lifeboat or throwing people overboard will not prevent or even forestall disaster.

The world over, indigenous people are fighting back against monumental environmental disasters, many of which barely graze our radar screens. To use just one example, each year more oil is spilled in the Niger delta than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010. Despite the brutal repression that led to the execution of environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian people continue to campaign and to fight for environmental justice.

That story is echoed in India, Ecuador, China, South America, and so on. The people of the global south are allies in our fight to save the planet. "Born here" vs. immigrant is another wedge used to divide and divert.
Support for immigration controls strengthens the most regressive forces in our societies and weakens our ability to deal with the real causes of environmental problems. It gives conservative governments and politicians an easy way out, allowing them to pose as friends of the environment by restricting immigration, while continuing with business as usual. It hands a weapon to reactionaries, allowing them to portray environmentalists as hostile to the legitimate aspirations of the poorest and most oppressed peopled in the world.
Angus and Butler expose the links between the anti-immigration environmental movement and right-wing hate groups: "the greening of hate". However, there are many sincere environmentalists who do not share those ties.

Whether intentionally or not, linking the environmental crisis to immigration is another way of shifting blame. "Those people" are the problem.

"It's up to each of us": the myth of consumer sovereignty

I've blogged many times about planned obsolescence, advertising propaganda, and the mistake of blaming consumers for outcomes largely outside of their control. This is a theme I think about frequently, but I had never seen so fully unpacked before reading Too Many People?.

Here in North America, we are frequently admonished to change our lifestyles, and told that our individual choices account for environmental destruction. I agree that living more simply, wasting less, and making green choices are all healthy goals. But the 99% are not to blame for the environmental crisis, and all of us "doing our part" will not solve it.

After the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989, Greenpeace ran ads blaming the spill on North Americans' addiction to oil.
This perspective completely overlooks the fact that it was Exxon that chose to use single-hulled ships, that failed to manage the drinking habits of its ship captain, that has worked and lobbied persistently to maintain America's need for a large supply of petroleum, and that pressed to open up the Alaskan oil fields in the first place against the protests of environmentalists.

Similarly, we can reply to those who blamed BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster on our supposed addiction to oil: even if we accept the far-fetched idea that oil companies drill new wells only to please consumers, no one can reasonably suggest that consumers somehow forced BP to cut every possible corner, suborn regulators, or violate safety guidelines. Those decisions were made in BP's executive offices, and consumers had no say.
I am reminded of a bumpersticker that we've discussed in wmtc: "Out of work? Keep buying foreign!" As if consumers decided that everything we purchase should be made in countries without labour and environmental protections to maximize corporate profits! As if there is some alternate store in our neighbourhood selling only products manufactured in Canada or the US! As if we have a choice!

First, blaming individual choice for the environmental crisis ignores gross income equality within the global north. Poverty is rampant. Millions of people are struggling to eat and keep a roof over their family's heads. When we hear and read about how much Americans (Canadians, Australians, etc.) consume, we generally hear averages. But in the US, the wealthiest 20% of the population receives and spend 60% of all income. The average means very little.

Second, most people have very little choice about whether and how much fossil fuel they use. Most Americans and Canadians have no choice but to drive, if they are to participate meaningfully in their society and community. They may be able to choose between Ford and Toyota, but they're not able to choose government policies that fund decent, affordable public transportation. They're not able to buy products that last for 20 years, or 10 years, and these days, two years. Planned obsolescence and policies that support the production and consumption of fossil fuels are built into the capitalist system.

Third, individual choices, while important and valid, can have only a marginal impact on the environment, as long as corporate decisions remain untouched - as long as global capitalism remains intact. To illustrate, Angus and Butler detail the mind-bogglingly profligate lifestyle of one American trillionaire. It reads like a cartoon, a person who has more wealth than he can consume in hundreds of lifetimes, and the tremendous waste that he leaves in his wake. Then they detail the waste, pollution and environmental degradation generated by that person's corporation - and his lifestyle is dwarfed in comparison.

Ultimately, believing that "we all" caused the environmental crisis and we as individuals can address it is the environmental equivalent of "bright-siding": a individually-based false solution to a problem that must be addressed collectively. Perpetuating the idea that consumer choice can save the environment serves as a convenient cover for the status quo.

The problem is capitalism: grow or die

When industrial disasters like Bhopal or the BP disaster come to our attention, the stories are often framed as exceptional - a horrendous mistake.
It's important to expose the arrogance and indifference to human life that lead to criminal acts such as the Bhopal and Love Canal disasters, but it's even more important to understand that corporate environmental destruction doesn't typically involve outright lawbreaking. In most cases, polluting is business as usual.
Environmental destruction is built into the global capitalist system. The real culprit of the environmental crisis is not an Ethiopian woman with 10 children, or immigrants to North America who are picking crops, driving taxis, or cleaning offices, or middle-class Canadians who drive to work.

Blaming overpopulation or immigration or our own lifestyles shifts our focus from what is really killing the planet: an unsustainable system with a mandate of constant growth, a system that devours resources not for the continuation and improvement of life on earth, but for one reason only: for profit.

Read this book. It will make it all perfectly clear.

Language notes:

- Arguments that attribute environmental ills to human numbers are often referred to as Malthusian, after Thomas Malthus, who wrote about about the supposed human population crisis in 1798. Malthus' theories are seldom, if ever, read today, and are widely mischaracterized. Angus and Butler use the more precise term populationist.

- The global north is shorthand for the industrialized nations of Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. The global south is shorthand for what is often called under-developed or third-world countries.

- Emissions and footprint are used as shorthand for the total greenhouse gases released by people or practices. They are imprecise terms, but are adequate for the present discussion.


johnbell said...

Excellent overview of an excellent book. Ask for it at your local bookstore.

impudent strumpet said...

If anyone else was curious about the mind-bogglingly profligate lifestyle, you can find some of the anecdotes here. If the direct link doesn't work, search inside the book for the word "billionaire".

laura k said...

If anyone else was curious about the mind-bogglingly profligate lifestyle, you can find some of the anecdotes here. If the direct link doesn't work, search inside the book for the word "billionaire".

For the person whose personal lifestyle is compared to his corporate footprint, search for "Rennert".

M@ said...

I saved this post for a while before reading it, and I'm glad I did. Really interesting -- I'm definitely going to be getting hold of this book.

laura k said...


Dan Barrett said...

I read the book as well, and though I found many of their arguments interesting, it seemed strange that they almost completely glossed over the issue of habitat loss and focused almost entirely on global climate change. While global climate change may become a larger issue in the future, habitat loss is currently the primary cause of species extinctions. I think it would be much easier to draw a direct line between population growth and deforestation, habitat conversion, etc. I personally give the book a much lower review because of that rather significant oversight.

laura k said...

Interesting. A, the book wasn't about species extinction and habitat loss. It was about the link between climate change and capitalism. That's not an "oversight" - it's a different book.

And B, habitat loss is a direct result of capitalism, as habitats are destroyed on a massive scale because of the global economy - coffee plantations, biofuels, industrialization in Asia to feed western consumption.

"I think it would be much easier to draw a direct line between population growth and deforestation, habitat conversion, etc."

That's an assumption, not based in fact. Many people *believe* there is a direct connection between population growth and habitat destruction, but is there? Where is habitat being destroyed and why? 1, for the global economy (i.e. capitalism), and 2, for first-world lifestyles (i.e. where there is little or no population growth). The populations that people say need controlling - in the global south - are not destroying habitat.

I'm glad you thought critically about this book, but your conclusions are flawed and need further analysis.

Thanks for stopping by.

laura k said...

"While global climate change may become a larger issue in the future,"

This seems odd to me, too. May become? Climate change is killing the planet right now, and will only get worse, unless capitalism is stopped. There's no "may" in the equation.

Dan Barrett said...

I'm not disagreeing that capitalist consumption is the leading cause of environmental degradation. The authors never state, though, that the argument is restricted to the links between overpopulation and climate change. In their own words it is about the "Idea that 'overpopulation' is a major cause of environmental degradation". They then proceed to overlook what are currently considered the primary causes of species extinctions: habitat loss, invasive species, and overexploitation. I never drew any conclusions about the role of overpopulation in those treats, I just stated that it seems like a more obvious connection. Therefore I take umbrage with your statement that my conclusions are flawed. I never made any conclusions. I merely pointed out that they never addressed causation between population growth and the leading causes of "environmental degradation".

I also used, "may become" correctly. I'm not trying to argue that climate change is some kind of falsity. Currently global climate change has been responsible for extinctions of species of amphibians. Some scientists have predicted that in the future climate change will become a leading cause of extinction, but for the time being it is lower on the list of "offenders". And the authors of the book do not address the other offenders.

And - although I personally think that the global "north" is the area that really needs more work on reducing consumption, there is plenty of environmental destruction that happens in the south as well, without the benefit of western capitalism. Bushmeat poaching, for example.

laura k said...

Thanks for coming back and explaining further. Generally when people leave comments on old posts, they're hit-and-run, so it's nice to have a chance to hear and talk further.

I agree with many of the ponits you're making. To me it seems like an unfair criticism of the book, because it's outside of the authors' scope. (Obviously you disagree.)

When I referred to your conclusions, I meant about the book, not about climate change or species' extinction.

Thanks again.