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.
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.
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.