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Ian Angus
Ian Angus

The return of the population bombers

Overpopulation ideology undermined the environmental movement in the 1970s, diverting social protest into harmless channels. To prevent a similar setback today, we must understand populationism’s conservative role, and why it is attractive to a growing number of green activists.

As you might know, Simon Butler and I have written many articles and an entire book refuting the claim that the environmental crisis is caused by overpopulation and the related idea that environmentalists should make reducing birth rates and immigration a top priority.

I’d like to say that our arguments were so convincing that populationism has disappeared from the green movement, but of course that isn’t so. Far from disappearing, the overpopulation argument is gaining strength, winning new converts among environmentalists.

The promoters of that view like to pose as underdogs. They regularly claim that there is a “taboo” on discussing overpopulation. But in the real world their views get far more coverage than the counter argument. Check the environmentalism section of any large bookstore: you’ll find dozens of books arguing that overpopulation is destroying the earth. You can count the books that disagree on the fingers of one hand.

We saw this dramatically last October. That was the month our book was published, but it was also, by coincidence, the month chosen by United Nations as the symbolic date when the world’s population passed 7 billion.

This gave the populationist lobby — the groups and individuals who attribute social and environmental problems to human numbers — an outstanding opportunity to spread their argument through the mass media, and they took full advantage of it. We were treated to a tsunami of articles and opinion pieces blaming the world’s environmental crises on overpopulation. Numerous environmentalist websites carried articles bemoaning the danger posed by high birth rates.

Global warming, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation, food and water shortages: all of these problems and many more problems were consistently blamed on a single cause: too many people.

In New York’s Times Square, members of the Committee to Defend Biodiversity handed out condoms in colorful packages depicting endangered animals, while a huge and expensive video billboard warned that “human overpopulation is driving species extinct.”

In London’s busiest Underground stations, electronic billboards paid for by Optimum Population Trust declared that 7 billion is “ecologically unsustainable.”

Overpopulation theory spreads

Recently some otherwise responsible scientific groups have joined in promoting the 7 Billion Scare. In April Britain’s Royal Society published a major report calling for action to reduce birth rates in poor countries. More recently, the organization that represents 105 global science academies called on the Rio+20 conference to take “decisive action” to reduce population growth.

Populationist ideas are gaining traction in the environmental movement. A growing number of sincere activists are once again buying into the idea that overpopulation is destroying the earth, and that what’s needed is a radical reduction in birth rates.

Most populationists say they want voluntary birth control programs, but a growing number are calling for compulsory measures. In his best-selling book The World Without Us, liberal journalist Alan Weisman says the only way to save the Earth is to “Limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Another prominent liberal writer, Chris Hedges, writes, “All efforts to staunch the effects of climate change are not going to work if we do not practice vigorous population control.”

In the recent book Deep Green Resistance, Derrick Jensen and his co-writers argue for direct action by small groups, aimed at destroying industry and agriculture and reducing the world’s human population by 90% or more.

And the famous British naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s tells us that “All environmental problems become harder, and ultimately impossible, to solve with ever more people.”

Attenborough is a patron of Optimum Population Trust, also known as Population Matters, an influential British group that uses environmental arguments to lobby for stopping immigration.

In the United States, groups such as Californians for Population Stabilization, Carrying Capacity Network, and the grossly misnamed Progressives for Immigration Reform do the same, arguing that immigrants are enemies of the environment.

Anti-immigrant organizations in Canada and Australia have adopted the same strategy.

Sadly, we’re hearing the same thing from some people who appear to actually care about the environment, who aren’t just using green arguments to bash immigrants.

For example, William Rees, co-creator of the ecological footprint concept, argues that immigration harms the global environment because immigrants adopt the wasteful lifestyles of the wealthy North. He also says that the money immigrants send home to their families will increase consumption in their home countries and so “contribute to net resource depletion and pollution, both local and global.” In effect, he says that protecting the environment requires potential immigrants to Stay Home and Stay Poor.

I could cite many more examples. Population growth is once again being identified as the primary cause of environmental destruction — and population reduction is being promoted as the solution. Not just by right-wing bigots, but by sincere but confused environmental activists.

While I was writing this talk, the magazine Earth Island Journal was running an online poll on the question “Can you be a good environmentalist and still have children?” The last time I looked, 74% had replied “No.” It’s a small sample, but indicative.

That’s why Simon Butler and I wrote Too Many People? — to provide information and arguments that environmentalists and feminists and socialists can use to respond to the many well-meaning but mistaken activists who have adopted populationist ideas and policies.

I’m not going to repeat all of the arguments in Too Many People? today. If you haven’t read the book, I hope you will do so soon.

Rather I want to offer some historical context, and discuss why the overpopulation argument is so effective and so harmful.

A conservative defense of capitalism

Complaints about overpopulation aren’t new. Writers have been complaining that there are too many people for thousands of years.

But in the modern era, since the French Revolution, the overpopulation argument has played a specific social and ideological role that we don’t find in earlier times.

In good times, the standard capitalist position is that everything is as good as it can be, and everything is getting better. But for over two hundred years, when people protest the system’s massive failures to live up to its promises, the overpopulation argument has been capitalism’s fallback position,

It provides a biological explanation for social problems, allowing the powers that be to shift blame for human problems away from society onto individual behavior. Sure there are problems, but nothing can be done so long as poor people keep having too many babies.

In the 20th century, overpopulation theory had its greatest impact between World War II and the late 1970s.

It began as a response to the revolutionary movements that were then sweeping the Third World, particularly the Chinese revolution of 1949. The revolutionaries blamed capitalism for poverty and hunger, and promoted socialism as the solution.

But if the poverty of India and other countries was actually caused by overpopulation, then Communism could be defeated by birth control. It’s easy to see why that argument appealed to the rich and powerful: it offered a solution that didn’t actually require a change.

As U.S. President Lyndon Johnson expressed it in 1965, “less than $5 invested in population control is worth $100 invested in economic growth.”

That view became the official foreign policy of most wealthy countries. It was implemented directly by northern government aid agencies, and indirectly through massive fertility control projects organized and funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations.

A conservative argument against social environmentalism

In the 1960s and 1970s, while overpopulation theory was being used to explain Third World poverty, it was doing double duty as the explanation for the growing environmental crisis. Once again, it provided an explanation and a solution that did not question capitalism, and that diverted people away from effective solutions.

I should stress here that I am not suggesting that this was a conspiracy to promote capitalism, or that the theorists of overpopulation didn’t believe what they were saying. On the contrary, they were absolutely sincere — they couldn’t imagine any alternative to capitalism, so any remaining problems must be the result of individual human failures.

The first wave of modern environmentalism was triggered by the publication of Rachel Carson’s wonderful book Silent Spring, in 1962.

It’s not widely remembered today, but Carson was a left-wing thinker, and her book focused attention on the crimes of the chemical industry and the complicity of the governments. The principal causes of ecological degradation, Carson insisted, were “the gods of profit and production.”

The chief obstacle to sustainability, she wrote, lay in the fact that we live “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.” (MR Feb 2008)

Carson wasn’t alone in offering that kind of social critique.

In 1962, in Our Synthetic Environment, Murray Bookchin wrote:

“The needs of industrial plants are being placed before man’s need for clean air; the disposal of industrial wastes has gained priority over the community’s need for clean water. The most pernicious laws of the market place are given precedence over the most compelling laws of biology.”

And in 1966, Barry Commoner, who had played a leading role in exposing the dangers of nuclear fallout, argued that environmentally destructive technologies had become “deeply embedded in our economic, social, and political structure.” (Science and Survival)

Carson and Bookchin and Commoner helped initiate a new kind of environmentalism that was rooted in a radical social critique.

Their analysis was rejected by the traditional conservationists, the wealthy organizations and individuals whose primary concern was protecting wilderness areas for tourists and hunters, not overthrowing capitalism or even protecting human welfare.

In 1968, the oldest and richest of the conservation groups, the Sierra Club, financed the publication, promotion and wide distribution of a book that was more agreeable to their pro-capitalist views.

The Population Bomb, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, skipped over and ignored all the social complexities and critiques offered by Carson and Bookchin and Commoner. It contained not one word about corporations, or industrial policies, or markets.

Instead it explained all environmental destruction with just three words:

“The causal chain of deterioration is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide—all can be traced easily to too many people.”

The Population Bomb was published in 1968, at the very height of the global radicalization, at a time when millions were questioning capitalism, and when a significant part of their questioning focused on the ongoing and increasing destruction of the natural world.

The Population Bomb was heavily promoted by the Sierra Club, by newspapers and television, and by liberal Democrats who correctly saw it as an alternative to the radical views of Carson, Commoner and Bookchin. It became a huge best-seller— and it played a central role in derailing radical environmentalism.

The impact of Ehrlich’s argument could be seen on the official poster that promoted the first Earth Day in 1970. Its main headline was a sentence from Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo — “We have met the enemy and he is us.”That often repeated slogan said, in effect, that the threat to the environment wasn’t corporations, or capitalism or profit — it was people as such.

At a teach-in during that first Earth Day, Barry Commoner strongly challenged Ehrlich’s views. “Pollution,” he said, “begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

He and others carried that argument through the 1970s. Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle is a classic of socialist environmental thought. I recommend it highly.

But the left lost that battle of ideas. In Murray Bookchin’s words:

“Based on my own experience as a very active participant in this momentous period, I can say that if there was any single work that aborted a confluence of radical ideas with public environmental concerns, it was Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb. By the early 1970s, Ehrlich’s tract had significantly sidetracked the emerging environmental movement from social critique to a very crude, often odious biologism the impact of which remains with us today.”

The transformation from happened very quickly. By mid-1971 Zero Population Growth, founded and headed by Paul Ehrlich, had some 36,000 members on 400 U.S. campuses, making it by far the largest supposedly progressive organization in the country.

Of course it is impossible to say whether a large-scale anti-capitalist green movement could have been built — but it is very clear that the focus on population diverted the energies of tens of thousands of young greens into harmless channels.

“Green” became synonymous with population control for the third world and personal behavior change in the north. By abandoning the fight for social change, the green movement became powerless and irrelevant.


In the 1980s, the overpopulation argument seemed to fade away.

In part that was because it was obvious to everyone that Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of massive global famine had not materialized.

And it was clear that even the largest population control programs had had no impact on Third World poverty. Population control simply did not deliver as promised. What’s more, the population control programs financed by U.S. foundations were generating mass resistance: opposition to mass sterilization programs in India played a major role in the 1976 defeat of the government led by Indira Gandhi.

But there was another, deeper cause for the decline of populationism. Put simply, capitalism no longer needed overpopulation theory. The mass radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s was slipping away, and the rise of neoliberalism meant that government intervention in economic and social life, including attempts to control birth rates, was no longer appropriate.

The Reagan government declared that population growth was a non-issue, and slashed spending on family planning programs at home and abroad. George HW Bush, who had advocated global population control programs in the 1970s, reversed himself when he ran for president in 1988. Population reduction was out of style in the ruling class.

The population bombers return

But now the population bombers are back, reflecting the renewed need for a non-radical explanation of the environmental crisis. They aren’t yet as influential was they were in the 60s and 70s, but they are growing, they are being listened to by parts of the ruling class — and most important to us, they are misleading many new green activists.

If we are to win the battle of ideas this time, we need to understand why the overpopulation argument has been so remarkably successful for so long.

One important factor is its power as a weapon of those who seek to provoke division among the oppressed and hatred of those who are “different.” Some of the loudest supporters of populationist policies today are anti-immigrant and racist groups for whom “too many people” is code for “too many foreigners” or “too many non-white people.”

But many activists who honestly want to build a better world and are appalled by the racists of the far right are also attracted to populationist arguments. In Too Many People?, Simon and I argue that three related factors help to explain why the “too many people” explanation is attractive to some environmentalists.

1. Populationism identifies an important issue. Some writers on the left have tried to refute populationism by denying that population growth poses any social, economic, or ecological concerns. Such arguments ignore the fact that human beings require sustenance to live, and that unlike other animals, we don’t just find our means of life, we use the earth’s resources to make them.

There is a direct relationship between the number of people on earth and the amount of food required to sustain them. That’s a fundamental fact of material existence, one that no society can possibly escape. Socialist planning will have to consider population as an important factor in determining what will be produced, and how.

The populationists’ error is not that they see the number of people as important, but that they assume that there is no alternative to society’s present ways of organizing production and distributing products. In the case of food, they assume that the only way to feed the world’s hungry people is to grow more food. Since modern agriculture is ecologically destructive — which it certainly is — feeding more people will cause more destruction, so the only ecologically sound approach is to stop and reverse population growth.

But as we show in Too Many People?, ecologically sound agriculture can produce more than enough food to feed the expected population growth.

In fact, existing food production is more than enough to feed many more people. Just by reducing the food wasted or misused in rich countries to reasonable levels, we could feed billions more people. Or, if population doesn’t grow as much as expected, we could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reforesting excess farmland.

But such changes will require global planning for very long-term use, something capitalism cannot do.

One of the major tasks facing a post-capitalist society will be to confront and resolve the gross imbalance that capitalism has created between resources and human needs. And that won’t be a one-time task. The relationship between human needs and the resources and ecological services needed to meet them will constantly change, and so the need to monitor and adjust will be constant as well. We can’t possibly ignore population as a factor in this.

Populationists are right that human numbers must be considered, but they are wrong to blame the imbalance between human needs and resources solely or primarily on human numbers, and they are wrong about the measures needed to solve it.

2. Populationism reduces complex social issues to simple numbers. In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that the imbalance between people and food is a permanent fact of life because population increases geometrically while subsistence only increases arithmetically. He had no evidence for that claim, and history has decisively proven him wrong, but he had shown that appeals to the immutable laws of mathematics can be very effective.

All populationist arguments since then have been rooted in the idea that our numbers determine our fate, that demography is destiny. Hunger, poverty, and environmental destruction are presented as natural laws: surely no reasonable person can argue when the numbers say that population growth is leading us to inevitable disaster.

But even the best population numbers can’t explain the environmental crisis, because quantitative measures can’t take the decisive qualitative issues into account. Knowing the number of people in a city or country tells us nothing about the relationships of gender, race, class, oppression, and power that define our connections with each other and our world.

Dr. Lourdes Arizpe, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and former Assistant Director General of UNESCO, poses the issue very clearly:

“The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context. It is what these bodies do, what they extract and give back to the environment, what use they make of land, trees, and water, and what impact their commerce and industry have on their social and ecological systems that are crucial.”

3. Populationism promises easy solutions. The population explanation seems to offer an easy way out of the world’s problems, without any need for disruptive social change. Simon Ross of Britain’s Optimum Population Trust said exactly that in a recent public statement:

“providing family planning to everyone who wants it is cheap, effective and popular with users. It is ‘low hanging fruit’ and is much easier than many of the techno-fixes and social changes that others are touting around.”

This reminds me of the old joke about a drunk who lost his car keys on First Avenue, but was searching for them on Main Street, “because the light is better here.”

Only major social and economic change can save the earth ― so focusing on “easier” birth rates is just as pointless as searching where the light is good, instead of where the keys are.

One of the things that makes population reduction seem like an easy solution for many advocates is that it puts the burden of action on other people. As the Australian socialist Alan Roberts wrote about the previous wave of populationism, over 30 years ago:

“It was only too evident that when an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced his alarm at the plague of ‘too many people.’ he was not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists. too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.”

As Simon and I say in our book, for many populationists, “too many people” is code for too many poor people, too many foreigners, and too many people of color.

Confusing biology and sociology

Because it separates population growth from its historical, social, and economic context, the population explanation boils down to big is bad and bigger is worse, and its solutions are just as simplistic.

Two hundred years ago, the radical essayist William Hazlitt identified the fundamental flaw in Malthus’s theory that population growth made poverty inevitable. Malthus, he wrote, viewed the specific social problems and structures of his time as laws of nature.

“Mr. Malthus wishes to confound the necessary limits of the produce of the earth with the arbitrary and artificial distribution of that produce according to the institutions of society or the caprice of individuals, the laws of God and nature with the laws of man.”

Modern populationists are more likely to justify the “too many people” argument by reference to the laws of thermodynamics than to the laws of God, but Hazlitt’s criticism still applies. Blaming shortages of food and overuse of resources on human numbers confuses sociology with biology: in Hazlitt’s words, it treats the “institutions of society” as “laws of God.”

The capitalist system is grossly inefficient, inequitable, and wasteful. It cannot create without destroying, cannot survive without mindlessly devouring ever more human and natural resources. Populationist responses to environmental problems search for solutions within a system that is inherently hostile to any solution.

Recognition that the system is itself the problem leads to a different approach, the pursuit of an ecological revolution that will refashion the economy and society, restore and maintain the integrity of ecosystems, and improve human welfare.

Capitalism versus nature

In Too Many People?, Simon Butler and I argue that the fundamental cause of environmental destruction is an economy in which the need to reduce costs and increase profits takes precedence over everything else, including human survival.

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.

It would not have halted or even slowed the immeasurable damage that Chevron has caused to rain forests in Ecuador.

If the birth rate in Iraq or Afghanistan falls to zero, the U.S. military — the world’s worst polluter — will not use one less gallon of oil.

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

The too many people argument directs the attention and efforts of sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect on the environment, but can be very harmful to human rights.

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

That is the central message of our book.

Unless we transform the economy and our society along sustainable lines, we have no hope of securing a habitable planet, regardless of population levels.

Barry Commoner also said that trying to fix the environment by reducing population is like trying to repair a leaky ship by throwing passengers overboard. Instead we should ask if there isn’t something radically wrong with the ship.

Simon and I have tried to address that question in Too Many People? We hope you find it a useful weapon in the battle of ideas.

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