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Climate Change and Population

Liam Young takes on ideas within the environmental movement blaming population growth for climate change.

One of the most disconcerting trends to re-emerge within the environmental movement in recent times is the notion that population growth is to blame for climate change. Amongst well meaning people who want to prevent the deterioration of our eco-systems and save the planet, the idea that too many people is part of the problem is becoming more common. As James Lovelock, the author of The Revenge of Gaia states: “those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.”

Earlier in the year, naturalist Sir David Attenborough used the science program Horizon to add his name to those that espouse this view. In supporting such a position, he gives credibility to those that seek to divert attention away from the actual causes of environmental degradation, and thereby understate the scale of the transformation required to resolve the situation. This continues a trend amongst some of our leading thinkers and ecologists, who posit population control as a solution to our current ecological difficulties.

If we are to prevent such notions gaining common currency amongst sections of society we hope to win to our ideas, then we have to offer explanations and solutions that allay the fears and concerns those seeking the continuation of the current system are attempting to exploit. As socialists who seek to construct a positive solution to the developing environmental crisis, we require to reach an understanding of these issues that will enable us to reveal the true agenda behind neo-Malthusianism and challenge the view that population growth is endangering the planet. It is therefore instructive to begin by examining the historical development of such ideas.

In his documentary on population, Attenborough quotes 18th century populationist Thomas Malthus: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” He claims Malthus made a very simple observation about humans and resources, and used it to look into the future. In other words, food production can’t increase as rapidly as human reproduction and, as such, the finite resources of the earth will ultimately determine how many humans it can sustain.

The way in which Attenborough quotes Malthus is similar to others who support the populationist agenda. He simply ignores the purpose behind the original ‘Essay on Population,’ penned by Malthus over 200 years ago, and instead portrays him as an ecological thinker way ahead of his time. But in order to understand Malthus and the original intentions that lay behind his essay, we need to place it within a historical context.


Thomas Malthus first published his work in 1798, shortly after the French Revolution and during a period when people in Britain were inspired by the idea that it was possible to improve their lives. It was written in response to enlightened thinkers of the time, who proposed that society could be re-organized in a more just and equitable way, and that everybody could live a more comfortable and fulfilling life. The title of the first edition from which Attenborough quotes in his programme was “An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers.” As the title implies, Malthus was engaging in a political polemic about social improvement.

The views that Malthus wished to refute are in themselves revealing about his intentions. Both Godwin’s book and Condorcet’s work were highly popular when they came out in 1793, discussing the possibility of a world constructed on the basis of science and rationality. Godwin argued that it was “impossible to be rationally persuaded, and not act accordingly”; this fostered in him a belief in the perfectibility of man. Condorcet stressed the emancipation of humankind and envisioned a society free from ignorance, tyranny, and superstition, with equality in wealth, education, and between the sexes.

It was in opposition to such ideas that Malthus wrote. In later editions of his essay, Malthus would drop the names of Godwin and Condorcet from the title as they faded from the public limelight, and turn his attention to progressives such as Thomas Paine and Robert Owen.

Adopting the standpoint that all future improvements to human society “in particular, the conditions of the poor” were not possible, Malthus argued that inequality was the natural way of things and that it was counter-productive to pursue an alternative. He developed his ‘law of population’ theory, which states that population increases geometrically (1,2,4,8,16..) while food production only expands arithmetically (1,2,3,4,5,6..). According to Malthus, food producing capacity was under pressure from an expanding population, thereby causing most people to live in poverty and close to starvation. As the population reached its natural limits, it would begin to drop as the poor had fewer children due to infant mortality, or other forms of premature death such as war and famine. If food production increased again, so too would the population, thereby causing the cycle to repeat itself.

It was this ‘principle of population’ that was the basis of Malthus’s argument that “systems of equality that try to alleviate economic distress are self-defeating” and undermine the “natural limits” on population growth. In one edition of his essay, he argued: “With regard to illegitimate children, after the proper notice has been given, they should on no account whatever be allowed to have any claim to parish allowance [...] The infant is, comparatively speaking, of no value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place.”

By the mid-19th century, the theories of Malthus had been largely discredited due to the expansion in productive capacity that came with the Industrial revolution. With the introduction of machine production, the capitalist economy grew, and so too did the demand for child labour. This meant that both the impoverished and wealthy classes had an economic interest in the poor having children — the poor in order to take advantage of the new opportunities to sell their labour; the wealthy in order to exploit them.

Contrary to the way in which he is portrayed by Attenborough, Malthus was not concerned with the threat of overpopulation at some point in the distant future. Rather, he claimed that food resources were under constant pressure from population and that they always would be. According to Engels, to believe Malthus is to believe that “the earth was already overpopulated when there was only one man.” Therefore Malthus was not inspired so much by the desire to avoid the over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources, as by a fear of any notion that the majority of the population could be raised out of poverty. Far from being an ecological thinker concerned with the environment and the future of humanity, Malthus was opposed to all attempts to progress towards sustainable human ecology.

According to U.S. Anarchist and ecologist Murray Bookchin, “The ‘population problem’ has a Phoenix-like existence: it rises from the ashes at least every generation and sometimes every decade or so. The prophecies are usually the same, namely, that human beings are populating the earth in ‘unprecedented numbers’ and ‘devouring’ its resources like a locust plague.” This suggests there is a deeper ideological agenda behind populationist theories; an agenda which denies that the causes of environmental destruction, famine, poverty and population growth are linked to current economic and political arrangements, and instead suggests that they are somehow part of a natural biological cycle.

This idea is the essence of neo-Malthusian thought today, and the most dangerous aspect of this philosophy is that it seeks to divert us from tackling the social origins of environmental degradation. As socialists, we believe that the environmental crisis has its roots not in the natural eco-sphere, but in the social system that determines how resources are used and what production methods are applied. The neo-Malthusians seek to convince us of the opposite; that the problem is ecological, caused by an imbalance between the Earth’s limited resources and expanding population. The purpose of neo-Malthusianism is therefore to transfer the blame for ecological destruction onto those that suffer the worst consequences of it.

Population Bomb

In the late 1960s, a growing literature espousing theories on the ‘population bomb’ and the ‘limits of growth’ began to emerge. Written by leading U.S. environmentalists, these were a response to fears about the growing problem of famine in the ‘Third world.’ Calling for a limit to growth, they utilized mathematical models and computer simulations. These analyses sought to demonstrate that population was overshooting the capacity of the planet to support it. For countries in the southern hemisphere however, the prospect of no growth condemned them to a life of misery. The ‘environmentalists’ of the wealthy nations, imagining a drop in their comfortable lifestyles, simply outlined in these models circumstances already in existence for the majority of people living in poor countries.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote his benchmark essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ in which he stated: “The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste [...] But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded [...] Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” Without coincidence, 1968 was also a year that saw an upsurge in struggle against American imperialism, both at home and abroad. Hardin would later go on to write ‘Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor’ the title speaks for itself in its unbridled attempt to protect the status quo.

The same year, another more influential work was released called The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, in which he stated: “The casual chain of the deterioration of the environment 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.” In the book, he stated that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Predicting the death of billions of people in famines across the third world, such views encouraged the notion that population control was the only way of curtailing pollution and other social ills such as famine and poverty.

The theory behind this was a fundamental ecological concept regarding the relationship between a species population and its food supply. As one ecologist put it: “If rabbits reproduce at the rate at which they are eaten by wolves, and wolves reproduce at the rate at which they die or are killed by hunters, both populations will be stable in size. If however one of the factors on the wolves death rate is decreased, fewer hunters perhaps, so that the wolves population increases above the equilibrium size. Now the rabbits are likely to be eaten faster than they can reproduce, and their population will decline, reducing the carrying capacity of the eco-system for wolves. The wolf population will then become short of food, die off faster, and become smaller until it once more comes into balance with the rabbits.”

Using the same theory to explain famine in human society, populationists can blame famine on over-population rather than any failings on the part of the social system. Thus, Garrett Hardin suggested that famine relief is self-defeating, as it only “keeps more natives alive,” which “causes the community to transgress carrying capacity more.” Therefore, according to Hardin, our choice is “between letting some die this year or letting more die in the following years […] Only one thing can really help a poor country; population control.”

Despite disguising themselves in softer language and a more engaging science, it is these ideas that the current proponents of population control descend from. In the process of supporting such an approach, they are in danger of giving ecology a conservative character rather than the revolutionary one that resolution to the current environmental crisis demands. The Green Party, for instance, states: “The UK casts its ecological footprint over the world, reflecting the real costs of a high, and still growing, population with high consumption.”

This statement links the damage done to the environment by the culture of consumerism to population, without taking into account any other factors. As Marx stated: “When we study society it might seem appropriate to begin by looking at population. After all society is composed of people and social production would not take place if there were not people to produce and consume. On closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out for example the classes of which the population was composed.”

Contraception – Green Technology?

Such analysis is absent from any policies advocated by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), the organization that David Attenborough has recently been promoting. The OPT seeks to link population and immigration to climate change without providing any substantial evidence, and proposes population control and tougher immigration laws as solutions to the problem.

Their main proposal to resolve climate change is to push contraceptives as a ‘Green technology’; they claim that, “considered purely as a method of reducing future CO2 emissions, family planning is more cost-effective than leading low carbon technologies.” This will be done by consumers offsetting their carbon emissions by donating money to a fund which will distribute contraceptives in places such as Madagascar. There is, however, no proposal to curb the rampant consumer culture driven by wealth accumulation that is devouring the planet’s resources.

When we look at the people involved with the OPT, we can see the nature of the ruling class interest in population control. For instance, amongst their luminaries are people such as Crispin Tickell, the author of Thatcher’s first speech on climate change, and Green capitalist David Nicholson, of the New Economics Foundation. It was David Nicholson who, in the face of the recent economic collapse, promoted the idea of a new green deal in order to rebuild the economy and solve the environmental crisis. He also issued a report entitled ‘A Population-Based Climate Strategy,’ in which he argued that population growth would cancel out any action taken to curb carbon emissions.

The proposals of the OPT would neither reduce population growth nor solve our environmental problems. The issue is much more complex. Studies that blame poverty and the deterioration of the environment on growing population trends ignore the global context which influences the complex relationships between and across societies, the peoples of poor and wealthy nations, classes, and even between sexes. If we are to establish a positive solution to these problems, we must begin by analyzing the historical processes that created and enable the continuance of these relationships, and the effect that those relationships have on population growth.

The evidence from demographic studies shows that birth rates are more influenced by social and economic factors than by fertility and contraception. Historically, death rates and birth rates were high in all pre-modern societies, but they were stable until the onset of the Industrial revolution. During this period, countries in North America and Europe saw an increase in agricultural and industrial production, which led to rising standards of living and a fall in the death rate. This saw an expansion in population as the birth rate remained high. However, within a couple of generations, as living standards continued to rise, the birth rate also declined, thereby reducing the rate of population growth. This process of demographic transition has taken place in all developed countries, and has led to the current situation wherein most now have population growth rates either below or at replacement levels.

The same process has been taking place in poor nations, but with a more prolonged period between falling birth rates coming into balance with decreased death rates. This process has been exacerbated by an economic system dependent upon an historical imbalance in the distribution of wealth between classes and nations, contributing to a generalized state of poverty in the southern hemisphere. Despite this, population growth has actually been declining in most poor countries since the 1960s as health conditions have improved. Birth rates fall with infant mortality, as couples realize they no longer need to have more children to replace the ones that die. These decisions are also determined by the need for children to contribute economically to sustain the family or look after people in their old age.

Evidence would suggest that, rather than population growth creating poverty and insecurity, it is poverty and insecurity that leads to population growth. Thus, where poverty maintains a high infant mortality rate, such as in areas of Africa, the birth rate also remains high. Infant mortality is most responsive to rising levels of nutrition and can only be resolved by the elimination of poverty. It is true that contraception can play an important role in this process, but barring coercion, it has to be combined with rising standards of living, in which the OPT seems to have little interest.


There is no denying that population growth can be a contributing factor in planning resource use and avoiding environmental degradation, but it is not alone in this respect. Contributory factors also include production methods employed, and the level of consumption per head of capita. Therefore, environmental degradation equals the production processes used to manufacture a good multiplied by the consumption rate per head of capita multiplied by population. In fact, the effect population has on the environment is largely determined by the other two contributory factors.

A simple example of this is to be found in the way that milk is now packaged and sold. In the past, it was sold in glass bottles that would be washed and recycled, the only waste being the silver top. Each bottle would be used over and over again to distribute a pint of milk. The replacement of re-usable bottles with disposable cartons made of layered cardboard and plastic has led to an increased damage to the environment. Therefore, the change in the production process has increased the damage to the environment way above that which can be attributed to either the consumption rate or the increase in population. These changes were introduced, not at the demand of the consumer, but to better enable the expansion of supermarkets.

It is this same motivation that has determined the drastic increase in the use of petro-chemicals in the production process of most household goods. The use of non-renewable energy sources has allowed the development of a system of mass commodity production by enabling labour costs to be reduced. This period has seen detergents replace soap, plastics replace wood, the displacement of railroad traffic by automotive vehicles, synthetic fibers replace wool and cotton as well as the massive increase in dependency on fossil fuels that has taken place in agriculture.

The populationist argument is also flawed as it is based on the idea that our planet is a closed system that has no outside support and is sustained only by its own limited resources. The Earth’s eco-system depends upon the sun for its energy; it is through the process of photosynthesis that this energy is absorbed by plants and so begins the food chain from which the energy is circulated round the eco-system. It is true that, theoretically, there is a limit to economic growth, but this is dependent upon the social system, the type of growth it pursues, and how it utilizes the planet’s resources. Since matter is indestructible, the resources of the planet can be re-used indefinitely, so long as we have access to energy resources that allow us to harness that matter for the benefit of humanity and the environment. This opens up possibilities that the constraints of the current system of wealth accumulation cannot accommodate.

Therefore, the issue we face as socialists in the 21st century is not whether we have enough resources to sustain the planet’s population, but how to construct a social system of production that can grow and develop in harmony with the environment. As John Bellamy Foster says: “Where threats as we know it to the bio-sphere are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life that constitute the greatest danger.” The task, therefore, is not how to reduce the population of poor countries to enable the continuance of a social system that encourages such a culture, but to develop an alternative model that can harness the talents of humanity in order to utilize the resources of the planet and ensure all peoples can lead a fulfilling life.