A while ago I wrote a post probing critically at the idea that human population levels were at the root of our contemporary environmental problems. It prompted various critical responses in turn, including this one from Alan Ware and Dave Gardner of World Population Balance that’s only just come to my attention. They published it so long ago that I suppose the moment to engage with it has probably passed, except that it’s helped me clarify a few thoughts – as has a recent article by Meehan Crist in the London Review of Books1. Since the issues involved are still very much with us, it seems worth wading into the population question once again, this time through the lens of the critique levelled by Ware and Gardner (henceforth WG) at my original post.
I mischievously titled that original post “Population – what’s the problem?”, not necessarily to suggest that population isn’t a problem but to question what kind of problem it is. On this score, WG have no doubts – for them, it’s an “existential problem”. They proceed to substantiate this, as do many analysts on the topic, mostly by asserting very emphatically that it is a problem, sometimes invoking the emphatic assertions of others, especially those most respected of others, ‘scientists’. These scientists include the World scientists’ warning to humanity and other works co-authored by Eileen Crist. Seems like you need to be called Crist to weigh in on this debate.
Ah well, I almost qualify – and for my part, notwithstanding all these assertions, I’d say that inasmuch as population is a problem it seems to me a secondary problem that’s derivative of other, deeper ones. But perhaps what’s of most interest here is not who’s right or wrong so much as how we frame the issues. You can frame them in such a way as to suggest that population indeed is the fundamental problem, or you can frame them otherwise. These different framings invoke different understandings of how the world operates and point to different policy or political conclusions. I think that WG’s approach, like most approaches that frame ‘over-population’ as the fundamental problem, points to policies that will have little impact on the resource depletion, species extinction, poverty and climate change issues they (and I) care about, and to a fanciful and troubling politics. Of course, this itself is a framing that others will no doubt question – but at least then we get closer to the issues dividing us.
One of WG’s main points of substance is that choosing not to have a child is, in a ‘developed’ country, the most effective way of reducing one’s carbon emissions. Citing a study from Lund University, they say that this is over seven times more effective than various other ‘green’ measures (like not flying) combined. That study draws on an earlier one2 which, if I understand it correctly (and it’s possible I don’t), assumes that carbon emissions will be fixed in the future at 2005 levels – the two studies then effectively attribute proportionately to parents in a generation G1 all these fixed-rate future emissions generated by all subsequent generations G1+n in an exponential decay function.
Well, no doubt there’s a logic to doing that. After all, if nobody had any children, then human impacts on earth systems would soon cease, so indeed all future impacts in some sense are attributable to parents. Following that logic, it’s hardly surprising that the choice to have a child weighs heavily on an individual’s impact in the study results. But to me, it’s a strange logic. Though it’s no doubt intended to inform decision-making at the margin in any given generation, to avoid multiple counting it surely must assume that the emissions and by implication wider behaviours of all G1+n generations are zero, according them no responsibility of their own, but only their parents or grand+ parents for birthing them or their forebears.
Conceptually, this approach rests on a strong methodological individualism – everything that happens must be regarded as only the sum of individual choices. Historically, it’s anachronistic, because it’s clear that if humanity is still around in a century or two then one way or another it won’t be burning significant fossil fuels, causing further major species declines and so forth. And spiritually and philosophically, the approach seems like a kind of inverted original sin whose logic surely terminates in the notion that humans should seek voluntary extinction through non-procreation to avoid the weight of later generations’ trespasses. The Lund authors note that none of the school textbooks they consulted mentioned having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions – a good thing in my opinion, since confusing the fact that a person has impacts with the idea that a person is an impact has potentially disastrous political consequences.
Let me propose another approach, which I think is suggested in the graph below. This plots global population, energy use, CO2 emissions, and real GDP year on year from 1972-2014 as ratios relative to the base year of 1971 (I calculated this from the World Development Indicators, which only have complete data for these four variables from 1971-2014).
The graph shows the three other variables of interest rising relatively faster than population. GDP shows the greatest relative increase – more than energy use or emissions, possibly suggestive of the decreasing energy intensity of the economy (‘relative decoupling’), or of the increasing dematerialization of our modern, fictitious money economy. But both energy and emissions are still rising in absolute terms, faster than population. The kink in 2008-9 of course indicates the economic crisis of those years, which was immediately reflected in lower energy use and lower emissions, but unsurprisingly was not reflected in a lower population.
I think the graph is prima facie evidence that there’s a dynamic of growth in our modern global society which is not fundamentally driven by, or necessarily responsive to, population growth. And given that it’s generally reckoned we need to reduce emissions to net zero by around 2070 to avoid catastrophic climate change, I’d also suggest that seeking population reduction isn’t the priority place to look. Not that we shouldn’t look there at all, as WG mistakenly accuse me of saying, just that it’s not the priority place to look. A similar point is made in a paper by Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook, who state “over the next century at least, our largest and most immediate gains in sustainability will necessarily come from reductions in per capita consumption, whereas the benefits of fertility reduction will improve humanity’s prospects cumulatively over the long term.”3
Bradshaw and Brook’s fingering of consumption gets closer to the issue, but I’d suggest the real force that underlies the growth dynamic depicted in the graph and that overdrives population increase – the force I’m tempted to call the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – is the global capitalist economy, as I mentioned in my original post. Increased per capita carbon emissions and energy use above population increase are the material trace of a capitalist growth dynamic.
If those energy and carbon trend lines were just the dependent outcome of consumer choice summed across our human billions, as WG suppose, there’d be a better case for emphasizing fertility reduction. But there’s a systemic logic to capital increase that goes beyond individual consumption decisions. In a capitalist system, capital needs to grow – that GDP line pretty much has to follow the course it does, and the emissions and energy lines pretty much have to trail after it.
Therefore, I question the notion that reduced fertility equates to reduced impact. It feels right, because if you choose not to have a child then, very tangibly, you’re aware of the food that this non-person is not eating, the journeys and flights they’re not making and so on. Yet the capitalist economy still has to grow. It’ll just have to find another way of doing it than monetizing your non-child – and it does.
I think WG effectively admit this when they write “The UN estimates that by 2050 we’ll have to increase food production 60% over 2009 levels in order to meet the demands of our swelling population.” They don’t give a citation, but I assume this is a variant of the ‘70% food increase by 2050’ factoid that’s been doing the rounds for years. Since even the highest projections of global population increase over the 2009-2050 period suggest it’ll be less than 60%, you could be forgiven for wondering where these 60% or 70% figures come from. The truth is they’re pretty misleading. All the same, in the unlikely event that the global capitalist economy is still happily growing by 2050 (at which point it’ll have to be over twice the size of today’s global economy), it’s possible that humanity indeed will be ‘demanding’ 60-70% more food by value than in 2009, because the ability of all that extra global wealth to command the production of beef, salmon, prawns, tuna, coffee, wine, palm oil and so on will be prodigious. One study has estimated that the highest additional demand for land globally by 2030 breaks down reasonably evenly between cropland, industrial forestry, biofuel production, grazing, urban expansion and land degradation4. A good deal of that, I’d suggest, is driven less by ‘the demands of our swelling population’ and more by the demands of our economy to swell.
WG’s position on all this strikes me as inadequate. They write:
“We’ve so far NOT demonstrated a willingness to consume less and reject the worship of economic growth in the interest of stabilizing the climate or preventing further destruction of ecosystems. This doesn’t mean we should give up on this solution. But it also doesn’t mean we should ignore a solution we HAVE demonstrated a willingness to do — choosing smaller families.”
No, we shouldn’t ignore it. But if my framing above is correct, then only directly rejecting boundary-busting economic growth can do the heavy work of lowering humanity’s ecological impact. Choosing smaller families doesn’t cut it. And here, I think it’s necessary to probe further into the ‘we’ that WG say are unwilling to consume less. It’s inherent to the nature of the growth-seeking capitalist economy to co-opt or destroy other, non-growth forms of economic organization, whether this takes the form of planning laws, property prices, land expropriations or the Bay of Pigs invasion. Uneven development is also inherent to the growth economy – it requires poor people and poor countries, even if it holds out the promise of making them a little less poor. The result of all this is that few of us have any option but to participate in the capitalist growth economy. And if we have to participate, who wouldn’t choose if they could to be a beef-eating wine drinker rather than a rice-eating helot? WG invoke a story of ourselves as consumers, wanting more stuff. And, sure, if that’s the only route to provisioning ourselves that the political economy allows, it’s not surprising that ‘we’ mostly want to be as prosperous a consumer as it’s possible to be. But this doesn’t begin to tell the story of what human lives are about or where our willingness might take us.
In the longer run, as Bradshaw and Brook quoted above suggest, there’s certainly a case for promoting reduced fertility. However, I’m doubtful it will culminate in this cornucopia that WG conjure up: “An average family size of one-child per couple for 100 years could lead to what some experts posit as a sustainable population of around 2 billion people living at a European standard of living.” No society has yet managed a modern European standard of living without (1) a vast and unsustainable fossil-fuelled energy economy, and (2) a history of colonial expropriation and neocolonial labour exploitation to the disbenefit of other non-European people living at lower standards of living. This positing of the experts surely belongs in the realms of idle speculation.
One of the ironies of the whole overheated population debate is that actually there’s not much disagreement on the policy practicalities – it’s widely accepted that everyone should be able to have voluntary control of their own fertility. But that’s already pretty much the reality in the rich, low-fertility countries that are largely driving the ecocidal global economy. Where these interventions are most needed is in poor, high-fertility countries that largely aren’t driving it – though it’s further complicated by poverty traps that encourage high fertility. In these contexts, WG’s world of just two billion people, living extravagantly consumerist lives of the modern European variety, and promoted by an organization that claims “overpopulation” is the root cause of poverty, all starts sounding slightly creepy to me. As Meehan Crist puts it:
“Listen closely to rights-based strategies to reduce carbon emissions through increased access to contraception and family planning. These strategies almost always involve black and brown women in developing countries having fewer babies. There is, of course, an unmet need for reproductive care and birth control in these countries, but we should be deeply sceptical of climate solutions that place the burden of solving the problem on women’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor black and brown women, while demanding very little of those who actually caused the problem.”
Indeed, solving the global problems caused by humanity – and mostly by a small subset of it – is more than a numbers game. Which is why I see little merit in WG’s question to me – “Is he arguing for us to stabilize our population at today’s totally unsustainable level of 7.6 billion?” There’s no cutoff point or carrying capacity at which human numbers suddenly become ‘sustainable’. There are people, there are impacts, and there’s a relation between the two, which is fuzzy at best. It’s unlikely that the human population would have reached 7.6 billion in the absence of a modern global civilization that strains the planetary capacity to sustain it, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a population of 7.6 billion is inherently ‘unsustainable’. It depends what we’re trying to sustain. If, as I’ve long argued here, it’s small farm societies of widely shared land access oriented to skimming their local ecological base, then we could sustain a lot more people than seems likely under present extremes of global wealth and poverty. Undoubtedly, we’d be in a better position if the population were smaller – particularly the population of the richer countries. Undoubtedly, voluntary fertility reduction is in principle a good idea. But it’s not a high-impact way of reducing humanity’s high impact, and it potentially leads us into political mischief if we claim that it does.
Meehan Crist points out in her article the enthusiastic embrace of carbon footprinting by the fossil fuel companies. While lobbying hard to keep extracting, and dragging their feet over climate science, the narrative that environmental impact is a matter of individual lifestyle choice in which we all need to do our bit suits them well, helping them to duck their own responsibilities. Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests at the level of an economic system which encourages this phoniness. Even so, as well as the phoniness, I feel the force of that personal responsibility narrative. As – full disclosure – a parent of four, I’ve long wrestled with my personal culpability in this area, and the many others in which as a wealthy westerner I impact the biosphere. Maybe someone reading this will conclude I’m irredeemable, and this post mere self-justification. Yet before I was a parent I was an anthropologist, and like most of my tribe I find the idea of emergent systems, not methodological individualism, a better fit with how the world works. So while as individuals, as consumers, as parents or as non-parents, we agonize and sermonize over our own and others’ lifestyle choices, the oil companies will keep lobbying, and the GDP and emissions lines will keep tracking upwards until we reach a point of reckoning when the size of the human population or how many children anyone has will be the last of our concerns.
1. Meehan Crist. 2020. ‘Is it OK to have a child?’ London Review of Books. 5 March.
2. Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax. 2009. ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’. Global Environmental Change 19: 14-20.
3. Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook. 2015. ‘Reply to O’Neill et al and O’Sullivan: Fertility reduction will help, but only in the long-term’. PNAS 112, 6: E508-9. (My thanks to Jahi Chappell for this one).
4. Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt. 2011. ‘Global land use change, economic globalization and the looming land scarcity’. PNAS 108, 9: 3465-72.