The Overseas Expert and the climate change population myth

In an interview broadcast on TVNZ’s One News a couple of days ago, the renowned naturalist David Attenborough was asked about the politics of climate change. He answered by remarking that when he started making  tv programmes, the global human population was only one-third what it is now. The clear suggestion is that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is caused by the growth in numbers of humans.

On the One News report, as usual, the Overseas Expert’s viewpoint went entirely unquestioned; to the casual observer it would seem the issue is simple and clearly understood. And so it follows that the solution to climate change is population reduction.

This idea could not be more wrong.

However, Attenborough is not alone in his view. There seems any number of lobby groups supporting this viewpoint: see for example “Rising Emissions, Growing Numbers of People: Demography and Climate Change” (pdf here) from US group Population Connection.

In the UK, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) frames the issue by equating “fewer emitters” with “lower emissions, less cost” (pdf here). The Trust numbers David Attenborough, Jonathan Porritt and James Lovelock among its trustees. Given the weighty names of these OPT trustees, it is rather amusing that, in a September 2009 piece on “the population myth”, George Monbiot writes:

It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed.

Indeed. And the rest of Monbiot’s piece is equally scathing. He ends as follows:

People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance.

Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth”. It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.

So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against superyachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it?

It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.

There is a lot more analysis available that challenges the simplistic idea that population growth causes climate change, and much of it has been gathered together by Ian Angus at the Climate & Capitalism website (here). It’s a shame David Attenborough et al haven’t read any of it. In these articles the point is made over and over again: Concern about global population is directed (implicitly or explicitly) at the fast-growing poor nations of Africa, Asia and South America but the poor of the earth cannot be blamed for the consequences of the hyperconsumption of the wealthy.

A useful article by Simon Butler takes the argument a couple of steps further. First, Butler comments that population levels are in fact an effect of an unsustainable economic system rather than a cause of the unsustainability, and wealth inequality would be one of the principal issues here. Secondly, Butler reminds us that the people of the Global South are not “passive victims of climate change”; rather they are “potential agents of sustainable change”:

Population control theories all relegate the billions of people in the global South to being just a part of the problem. But this outlook is radically false. They are, in fact, what [Walden] Bello calls “the pivotal agent in the fight against global warming”.

The populations of the global South are not responsible for climate change. Rather, they are an essential component of a safe climate solution. Our strategy should be to join up with them in this fight for the future — not draw up plans to reduce their numbers.

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