Los Angeles smog. (Photo: Harshil.Shah / Flickr)
We’ve all heard the claim repeatedly: humans pollute, so if we just reduce the number of people – both the number being born and the number immigrating from point A to point B – the despoiling will cease and Eden will be restored.
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If only it could be so simple.
Eco-socialists Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s critical assessment of population policy, “Too Many People?” begins with the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, who, in the early 19th century, put forward the idea that poverty is inextricably tied to population growth.
The authors next revisit the theories of Anne and Paul Ehrlich, highly influential 20th-century writers who linked the failure to impose population controls to ever-worsening environmental calamity, and then zero in on – and argue against – contemporary population-reduction advocates such as The Population Justice Project, Population Action International, Earth First! and the Optimum Population Trust in the United Kingdom, groups that aim to reduce the number of humans tromping the earth.
While Angus and Butler clearly champion access to birth control and abortion as human rights, “Too Many People?” is a clear and convincing challenge to the idea of population control as political necessity.
First, the authors remind us, countries throughout North America and Europe have already seen their birthrates plummet; at the same time, environmental destruction has shown no sign of waning. Conversely, in countries where women bear high numbers of children but where heavy industry is rare, residents live in far less degraded environments than those of us in the so-called developed world. A quick gander at CO2 emissions makes the case: “The poorest three billion or so people on the planet [roughly 45 percent of the total] are currently responsible for only seven percent of emissions while the richest seven percent [about half a billion people] are responsible for 50 percent of emissions,” they report. “A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Manchester or Munich.”
That said, while it’s obvious that many of us can do more – as individuals and within our families and communities – to reduce our carbon footprint, those in the middle or lower strata shoulder less blame for fouling the environment than those who own the means of production or control the military. “Since 99 percent of all solid waste in the United States today comes from industrial processes, eliminating all household waste would have little impact on per se waste,” they write. Similarly, they add, the majority of greenhouse gas emissions “originate in industrial and commercial operations. Attributing these emissions to consumers is, to say the least, misleading.”
It’s also ridiculous. The obscene excesses of a handful of the world’s richest people – Bill Gates’ 66,000 square foot home in Medina, Washington, billionaire investors David and Frederick Barclay’s $94 million English Channel castle, and oil and gas tycoon Mukesh Ambani’s 22-story Mumbai mansion come to mind – showcase overconsumption at its most blatant, something that has precious little bearing on resource use by the majority of the planet’s people, even if we live in the global north and consume far more than we should.
And even these grotesque examples pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by the military. “In 2009,” Angus and Butler continue, “the U.S. military used 5.7 trillion gallons of oil, just under 16 million gallons a day. Its operations produced an estimated 73 million tons of greenhouse gases,” making it the biggest polluter – and the largest petroleum gobbler – in the universe. In fact, in just four years, 2003-2007, the Iraq War resulted in 141 metric tons of CO2 emissions – the equivalent of 25 million cars.
“Those who claim [that] slowing population growth,” Angus and Butler write, “will stop or slow environmental destruction are ignoring these real and immediate threats to life … Corporations and armies aren’t polluting the world and destroying ecosystems because there are too many people, and they won’t stop if the birth rate is reduced. If Afghan women have fewer babies, the US military won’t stop firing shells made of depleted uranium into their villages. Nor will military bases in Afghanistan stop dumping toxic wastes into open burn pits.”
As for corporations, the ethos of planned obsolescence and disposable everything has led to gargantuan profits at the expense of the environment. “The problem isn’t people, it’s profit, and no population control program will change that,” the authors quip.
Yes, as Bolivian President Evo Morales has so eloquently written, “If we want to save life and humanity, we are obliged to end the capitalist system.”
Sadly, since there is no GPS device to guide this shift, political pontificators have rallied around the easier-to-sell idea of population control as a means to an end, as if reducing human numbers is the surest way to reach the promised land of cleaner air and purer water. Following this trajectory, the poor are pushed to reduce their family size – often through coercive means such as forced sterilization – and are encouraged to remain in their homelands – again, often through coercive means – rather than move to places that are likely to be more economically viable. Instead of focusing on ecologically sound agriculture to feed the hungry, or working to equalize resource distribution, advocates of population control offer an oversimplified solution to what ails us.
Angus and Butler hope to alter this trend and suggest an action plan to move the world in a more environmentally respectful direction: cease all military operations at home and abroad; begin phasing out fossil fuels and biofuels and replace them with wind, geothermal, wave and solar power; bolster efforts by farmers to convert to ecological agriculture; eliminate factory farms and agribusiness; support local food production; increase public transportation networking; regulate corporations to eliminate waste, planned obsolescence, pollution, and manipulative advertising; and ensure that women everywhere have access to birth control and abortion.
Unfortunately, “Too Many People?” – sane, clear, and forthright as it is – doesn’t tell us how to push this agenda forward. That’s our job – and we’ll need every last soul to push the naysayers out of the way and make it happen.
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