Calling overpopulation concern ‘ecofascist’ is absurd and harmful

There’s a disturbing new trend of associating concern about human population growth with fascism and racism. Here’s why this is hugely damaging to people and planet.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

If you, like me, are a progressive environmentalist concerned about the impact of our huge and growing numbers, you have probably found yourself frustrated at comments about how this concern is invariably rooted in racism. The sinister term ‘ecofascist’ has been repurposed into a trendy label that is indiscriminately tossed around by those who have irrational knee-jerk reactions to conversations about human population size.

In a recent op-ed, environmental writer George Monbiot, who is usually very reasonable, claimed: “Population is where you go when you haven’t thought your argument through. Population is where you go when you don’t have the guts to face the structural, systemic causes of our predicament: inequality, oligarchic power, capitalism. Population is where you go when you want to kick down.”

Oh dear. Yes, environmental racism is real, people with profoundly problematic views are sometimes motivated by concern about population size, and historical attempts to ‘control’ population have led to terrible human rights violations. But it is wrong to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The modern, mainstream population movement is driven by compassion and the vision of a happier, more equal world.

Population IS a problem

An interesting surge of socialist tendencies within the environmental movement has created a single, abstract enemy: modern capitalism, also known as neoliberalism. This system that ‘puts profit before people’ is solely responsible for the devastation of our planet, we are told. I want big corporations held to account and radical system change too, but I cannot ignore the other half of the equation. Our population shot up from 1 billion in 1800 to almost 7.8 billion today, and according to the latest UN median-variant projections, we are heading toward 11 billion by the end of this century. This is a disaster for nature, food and water security, and public health.

Many environmentalists downplay population to the extent that they spread misinformation. For example, a surprising number of people believe that our population has already stopped growing. Attempting to point out that population is no longer a problem, Monbiot tweeted, “Global population growth today is 1.05%. That’s half the peak growth rate, reached in 1963 (2.2%).” This is misleading. In 1963, the world population size was 3.2 billion – 2.2% of that is 70.4 million. 1.05% of 7.8 billion is 81.9 million. We are still adding more people every year.

The primary causes of biodiversity loss are habitat destruction and overexploitation – both are directly driven by human population growth. In many developing countries, where overconsumption is largely non-existent, rapid population growth is the main cause of nature loss. A recent Africa-wide assessment published in Nature Scientific Reports found that increasing human population density is more strongly correlated with environmental degradation than a whole range of other socio-economic factors, including GDP (a measure of economic activity), inequality and governance, with the most densely populated areas suffering the worst environmental damage.

A major analysis published in People and Nature found that wild animals in lower income countries benefit from social development (including improved gender equality) and even economic growth, while human population growth consistently causes wildlife loss. It’s important to note that the reason many of these studies focus on developing countries is because that’s where most biodiversity hotspots are located. We’ve already largely extirpated wildlife from Europe and sadly there’s just much less left to save (which is why some conservationists are now turning to rewilding).

One reason many modern environmentalists rarely mention wildlife is due to what Population Media Center calls “climate change myopia”. For many, the climate crisis is THE environmental crisis while the sixth mass extinction gets comparably very little attention. It seems to me that this is caused by growing anthropocentrism within the movement. Concern for the millions of other species we share this planet with has somehow dropped off the agenda.

Regarding climate change, it is fact that the lion’s share of emissions is caused by overconsumption of fossil fuels in rich countries, but the total number of consumers still matters. According to Project Drawdown, achieving the UN’s low population projection of 7.3 billion by the end of the century could reduce atmospheric CO2 by more than almost all other available climate actions.

The notion that population activists are obsessed with poor “black and brown” people is ridiculous. Every sane population campaigner will tell you that having a small family is particularly impactful among the wealthiest of us. A 2017 study published in Environmental Research Letters found, rather predictably, that having one fewer child is one of the most powerful climate actions individuals can take. Spreading the notion that family size has no effect on the environment means fewer couples in high-income countries will be persuaded to make that responsible choice.

The combination of population growth and climate change is creating major water shortages. Vulnerable areas like the Sahel that are hard-hit by both face catastrophe unless urgent action is taken to decrease fertility rates. In terms of food, while unequal distribution is indeed a major issue, it is not the only issue. According to the World Resources Institute, the calorie requirements of a population of 10 billion (which we are expected to reach by 2050) are 56% higher than current total crop production. Agriculture is a one of the main causes of habitat loss and pollution. The sooner we end population growth, the less additional land will need to be converted to crops.

The Covid-19 crisis has made it clear that high population density does us no favours health-wise either. The emergence and spread of novel zoonotic diseases is caused by the destruction and exploitation of nature. Lower population pressure means less environmental degradation and reduced transmission.

Deflecting attention from empowering solutions

The worst part about the denigration of population concern is that it deprioritises urgently needed solutions. Since 1994, the proportion of women using modern contraceptives has increased by only 6% to 58% today. Still almost half of all pregnancies are unintended, more than 800 women die every day from pregnancy complications, and nearly half of women in 57 low- to middle-income countries have no decision-making power regarding their health, contraceptive use and sex lives. A quarter of all girls do not attend secondary school and one in every five girls is married, or in union, before turning 18. Child marriage is a violation of human rights and robs children of a bright future, yet it remains common practice – to end child marriage by 2030, progress needs to be at least 12 times faster than it is now.

Advancing gender equality is morally essential and is one of the most powerful solutions to our environmental and social crises, yet it remains chronically overlooked and hence underfunded. Very few environmental organisations have prominent women’s rights and family planning programmes, in large part because they are afraid of being accused of “policing women’s wombs”. Ironically, population activists desperately want to achieve the exact opposite: a world in which every woman is free to choose what happens to her body and life.

Perpetual poverty?

Another major flaw in the ‘ecofascist’ argument is that it assumes poor people will stay poor forever. Population is not a problem, we are told, because the fastest growing areas have comparably low environmental footprints per person. But these people are entitled to consume a lot more! We must facilitate this by ending population growth as soon as possible alongside reducing consumption in high-income countries. According to the Global Footprint Network, we’d all have to adapt to the average living standards of a handful of developing countries to sustain our current numbers without depleting natural resources – already a tough sell that’ll get increasingly tougher with further population growth.

Monbiot argues that consumption, not population is the real issue, because the economic growth rate is now higher than the population growth rate. However, global economic growth is in part fuelled by a very large number of people escaping poverty – undoubtedly a good thing.

The increasingly precarious state of our planet makes it more important than ever that the environmental movement merges into one united front. Infinite growth, whether it’s consumption or population, can never be sustainable on a finite planet. Fortunately, the most effective solutions to overpopulation benefit everyone, everywhere. And they urgently need your support.

28 thoughts on “Calling overpopulation concern ‘ecofascist’ is absurd and harmful

  1. Absolutely fantastic article. Some great quotes in there that express exactly what I feel is going on in the whole debate about our species’ impact on this planet.
    “a surprising number of people believe that our population has already stopped growing” ..sadly very true.
    “Concern for the millions of other species we share this planet with has somehow dropped off the agenda” …That’s the non-thinking ‘green’ movement in a nutshell.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. FYI I have over 5,000 followers on Twitter & have tweeted this a couple of times today & intend to keep pushing it.. also on my Steady State Economy FB page. I hope this has driven more readers to your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article. it is literally senseless to prioritize consumption over population, or vice versa. Consumption is a problem because there are so many billions of people; population is a problem because our modern economies turn those billions into overconsumers.

    Can someone explain to me why, if George Monbiot is so against capitalism, he spends so much time arguing for big business’s endless growth population policies?

    To learn more about the connections between environmental sustainability and human numbers, visit the website of The Overpopulation Project at https://overpopulation-project.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a brilliant and thorough article! ✨👌👏👏👏

    I have had many similar arguments and conversations with people who oppose concerns about overpopulation, and call us fascists! My reasoning and arguments have been pretty much the same as the points made in this article, but what I have understood is most of the time people argue with the intention to respond, not with the intention to understand and debate.
    Effective communication and the ability to debate opposing/or different views is in itself a skill that the environmental movement lacks, hence the divide, the name-calling, labeling and the religiosity on certain standpoints.

    This brilliant article with its scientific referencing and thorough approach is a must read for everyone, especially those who need assistance in seeing the big picture and connecting the dots!

    Thank you for this wonderful piece. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In fairness, I think George Monbiot was criticising Michael Moore and his emphasis on population growth rather than consumerism in the west. Realistically everything has to be in the equation to keep this planet habitable for humans.

    Like

    1. Hi Martin, I fully agree with George that Planet of the Humans has some major flaws, but “racism” isn’t one of them. The film never even mentioned developing countries – it was entirely focused on overconsumption and overpopulation in high-income countries, mostly US.

      Like

  6. Great article, a most succinct, thoroughly argued, well researched and balanced piece. It is high time that women’s empowerment (in particular the power to decide over over their own bodies and reproduction) is seen as one of the most important contributors and tools to a more equal society and more sustainable nature conservation. National governments and international bodies should take this so much more to heart.
    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this fine piece of work. I appreciate your clear thinking and careful writing.

    This is a welcome antidote to the population-blindness that is now the norm in so much of the political commentary on the Left. Here’s a perfect example of the genre: https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/climate-change-crisis-covid-coronavirus-environment There is certainly much to agree with, but it’s so frustrating to see them come within millimeters of mentioning the obvious population connection, and then miss it completely. This disconnect is not helping anyone.

    I’m wondering if some part of the problem comes from differing educational backgrounds. Your site’s bio mentions your zoological training, which came as no surprise to me after I’d read your population piece. That kind of background tends to keep certain ideas – like carrying capacity – within the range of acceptable thought and dialogue. Although there are always worthy exceptions, I find that the most anthropocentric attitudes seem to be among social scientists (esp. economists!), humanists, and engineers who take human exceptionalism as a given. And they see the Earth as just a malleable stage set for the human drama, rather than a life support system.

    Please keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this article.
      I am surprised that people do not see that the constantly growing population is the source of most of today’s environmental problems. Anyone who knows basic mathematics should be aware of this!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I keep reading only examples from developing countries when you talk about the population problem. Perhaps you populationist could focus more on how much pain has produced developed countries’ population growth and what do you propose to stop THAT, while stop saying us what to do and plundering our resources for a change. It is racist and colonialist when you talk about the Global south being from the Global north or about brown or black people being a white person, without reflecting on how YOUR ELITES have plundered our resources, polluted the global atmosphere, and extinguished species for centuries. You must leave us -the Global south- alone, enough intervention.

    Like

    1. Hi Melissa, thanks for your comment. I mention in the article that the reason large-scale studies on nature destruction often focus on developing countries is because that’s where most of the remaining biodiversity hotspots are. There is sadly very little pristine nature left in the Global North because we’ve already destroyed it all. My article specifically points out the importance of choosing small families and reducing consumption in high-income countries.
      However, millions of women still have no say over what happens to their bodies and lives – doing nothing about that is morally unacceptable. There are many voices from the Global South who call for positive, empowering population solutions because they have witnessed first-hand the suffering and environmental degradation caused by gender inequality and lack of access to education and reproductive healthcare. Denigrating these much needed actions only hurts people.
      Regarding colonialism, I agree that we should talk more about the damage it’s done to developing countries and I will keep this in mind for future articles, so thanks for flagging it. But it’s not the only problem. Overconsumption (in part facilitated by colonialist exploitation of foreign countries) and population growth are two sides of the same coin and we need to end both to save our planet.

      Like

    2. That’s a big problem: The misconception that being concerned with overpopulation means focussing on the poor countries. It doesn’t. I live in Australia, and countries like ours are the WORST offenders. We have the highest per capita impact, resource use and carbon emissions in the world, yet we still seek this imaginary ‘growth’ illusion of wanting a larger population.
      So, no it isn’t at all a ‘racist’ issue, unless I’m being racist against USA, Western Europe and my own country…!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you so much Olivia. You’ve identified and described the problem with exact precision. The “anthropocentrism” you correctly identify in contemporary environmentalism can even more bluntly be characterized as “anthropofascism.” See https://anthropofascism.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/anthropofascism-the-birth-of-a-concept/
    And if you are not aware of it, “Call of Life: Facing the Mass Extinction,” is an excellent documentary film that serves as an introduction the the Mass Extinction Crisis. https://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/festival/play/7350/call-of-life–facing-the-mass-extinction

    Thanks again.
    Bernie

    Bernie Zaleha, PhD, JD
    Past Vice President, Sierra Club
    Adjunct Professor of Sociology
    PO Box 7579
    Santa Cruz, CA  95061-7579831-435-1185https://ucsc.academia.edu/BernardZaleha
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_ZalehaCall of Life Facing the Mass Extinction (Interviewee)https://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/festival/play/7350/call-of-life–facing-the-mass-extinction
    Dissertation: A Tale of Two Christianities: the Religiopolitical Clash Over Climate Change Within America’s Dominant Religion
    https://bit.ly/Zaleha-TwoChristianities181125

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Focusing on population as a major driver of the climate/ecological crisis is viewed as ecofascist because that’s what it amounts to. The first time I heard it talked of was as an excuse for inaction: “Well, it doesn’t matter what we do unless China and India do something. Canada’s emissions are small compared to their’s.”

    Convenient. Ignore that rich western nations emitted most of what’s already in the atmosphere and putting us in danger. Ignore that the USA is the 2nd largest overall emitter (not India, regardless of their 4x higher population). Ignore that emissions here per person are 160x higher than in Ethiopia, 16x higher than in Pakistan, 8x higher than in India, and 2x that of people in China–making the problem too many Asians and Africans rather than our excessive greed. Ignore the hypocrisy of denying their billions of people the right to a better living standard while thinking our own grotesquely high consumption and emissions are okay–certainly a racist double standard. Why should it be justifiable for anyone in Canada or another “First World” country to use so much fossil fuel energy but “excessive” or “a problem” for people in China, India, etc. to do so just because the lottery of birth placed them in a different place? It’s like the logic that native people should just accept the their supposed “rights” being ignored because their sufferings and old way of life are past and old treaties don’t matter now–convenient for people of the colonial culture wanting to build golf courses or pipelines on the few remaining unceded lands.

    If someone concerned about population doesn’t focus mainly on Asian or African states but believes every country should reduce population proportionally, maybe it’s not racist but just illogical and still potentially fascist. First, a proportional reduction would still require a much greater sacrifice by people in poor and populous nations, which would also be harder for them to bear given their already higher mortality rates and greater need for larger families to support themselves, as well as harder to implement in places where women have less freedom, education, and reproductive rights. For families in rich countries, there’d be no cultural or economic obstacle to restricting offspring (e.g., to 1 child per couple), I’m sure many would see it as an assault on their personal rights and freedoms. Policies to limit offspring could be forced on people by selective or randomized sterilization, but that would be a bit fascist and probably wouldn’t be done equitably. There’d be corruption, and the rich would keep their freedoms.

    Another matter is the timescale. The conservative IPCC warned we need to reduce emissions 50% by 2030 and reach zero by 2050 to stand a chance of staying under 1.5-2C warming, no doubt underestimating how little time there is given ever-increasing emissions, heating, melting, and feedbacks. It doesn’t seem likely that any worldwide “one-child policy” or sterilization program would change the population enough in one generation to significantly reduce emissions, especially if more and more people in those “developing” countries adopt decadent western lifestyles and increase personal consumption. To reduce population fast enough, we’d probably need to arrange premature deaths for millions or billions of people, which again would be fascist–as well as committing genocide (or at least ethnic cleansing).

    I know it’d be very hard to bear, but maybe a more humane and equitable solution would be for all westerners to give up their private cars and holiday air travel to allow more people in poorer countries the right to at least live. Moreover, reducing personal consumption and emissions (and even changing our societies and economies for low-carbon lifestyles) could be done a lot faster than it’d take to reduce global population by non-fascist means–as our quick shutdowns for a pandemic have shown. Focusing on population as the problem is foolish because it’s not at all a practical solution to the problem. All we need to do is change our ways: stop being greedy, ecocidal assholes. Live sustainably. Restore wilderness and clean up pollution as much as possible. Stop burning fossil fuels and treating trillions of animals as single-use factory products just to enjoy meat.

    Like

    1. Hi Steve, I agree that we urgently need to reduce our consumption in high-income countries. I don’t eat meat or dairy and don’t drive. It’s not one or the other – we must tackle both overconsumption and overpopulation. Regarding your comments about coercive population control, of course this is morally unacceptable and no, we cannot change population size overnight. But the switch to a 100% renewable energy powered, circular economy can’t happen overnight either, yet we still need to pursue it. The latest UN population projections have shown that just a small change in the fertility rate of one fewer child per every other couple will cause our population to peak by 2050 and decline to 7.3 billion by the end of the century – that’s almost 4 billion fewer people than we are on track for. Project Drawdown’s calculations demonstrate that the resulting decrease in atmospheric CO2 make this the second most powerful climate action (after reduced food waste). We can get there through women’s empowerment and promoting small family size (as opposed to the current pro-natalist policies in the Global North that incentivise having many kids).

      Like

  12. There are 67 million people in the UK today. The population is increasing by .6% a year, mainly through immigration. That means that in 80 years time there will be 100 million people in the UK. There is no way that is not going to affect the environment. You can kiss goodbye to the green belt for a start…

    Like

  13. The reality is that it is population growth that will sustain structural inequalities, oligarchical power and capitalism. As the population grows and resource scarcity grows, then competition and conflict will grow. The haves will seek to retain their disproportionate share and sustain the wealth and power they are accustomed to. This not only applies to the very wealthy but also the relatively wealthy in relation to global standards.

    Through market power and governmental corruption, democratic majorities within developed countries will continue consenting to appropriating resources within poor developing countries. In other words, the global haves will seek to sustain their relatively affluent lifestyles at the cost of the global have nots, with military intervention if necessary.

    The real ecofascists are people like George Monbiot who erroneously believe that their mantra of structural equality will be democratically realised. In their bigoted idealism, they are precipitating environmental genocide on an unprecedented scale.
    Their population denialism along with their distorted idealism is irreversibly leading humanity towards a global conflict between the haves and the have nots.

    The reality is that the only way to realise greater equality is by creating the environmental conditions whereby everyone feels they have enough. Within an increasingly resource constrained world, this can only be realised by a global one child policy ethic.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s