Climate Crisis and the Environment

Why Population Control Is Not The Answer

Alice Nott

Many have felt in recent times that the earth is running out of space and by extension we need to control the population. In the face of the growing climate change such a call has become more appealing, but is this just a siren call?

James Lovelock would say not – he sees the growing population and climate change of two sides of the same coin. Sir David Attenborough too agrees with Lovelock stating “population growth has to come to an end” and calls the current trend of growth “alarming”, adding that the earth does not have room to accommodate these people.

However, others such as George Monbiot call this sort of population growth speculation a myth and in fact see it as damaging to the climate movement as a whole. The first point Monbiot notices is that most of the people advocating for ‘population control’ are in fact wealthy white men pointing to areas such as Africa, which are dominated by other ethnic groups.

North America produced 4% added population compared to 14% of added emissions

In fact, the areas which are seeing much greater population growth are seeing carbon dioxide output rise much slower. Monbiot gives the example that “Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2.” In contrast North America produced 4% added population compared to 14% of added emissions.

In a Vox article about ‘Why you shouldn’t obsess about Overpopulation’ Lyman Stones highlights that those advocating for population control often point to a need for additional land to feed this population. With land conversion being one of the biggest drives of carbon output, such an argument seems to have a logical basis.

14% of food bought in shops goes straight to the bin

However, it does not take into consideration that in most western countries rather than a lack of arable land being the issue it is instead the fact that around 14% of food bought in shops goes straight to the bin. This also does not account for what is wasted in the manufacturing process. Rather than population control, a better approach would be to change the food system so that food that would otherwise be wasted by consumers is instead redirected to those who need it.

In China where population control has been trialled on a mass scale there have been serious issues. The country’s social care network, which was largely based on parents being cared for by children, has largely fallen apart and there is mass gender imbalance as parents aborted female foetuses in the hope that a future pregnancy would be male.

So why is there a problem of the population myth? Monbiot suggests rather than being to do with preventing climate change it is instead about the populations who will be worst affected by climate change’s response. Most of the areas that have growing populations right now will be worst affected when it comes to climate change. So what happens if they rise up?

The suggestion is that people in more privileged positions advocate for population control as they are acutely aware they are outnumbered by a vast underclass, who if united by a common threat, say climate change, would pose an existential risk to these people.

Population control is a crude and ethically dubious solution to the problem of climate change. Instead it is far better to take an approach focused more on justice and liberty than control. However, this comes with the warning that if we do not act soon enough that liberty could easily be taken away in the face of a crisis.

Alice Nott

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

This article is part of Impact Nottingham’s COP26 series. For more articles on the conference check out the link here.

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