Sunday, February 2, 2020


Recently the famous primatologist Jane Goodall attracted criticism for saying that environmental issues "wouldn't be a problem" if our numbers were at the levels they were 500 years ago. I assume what she meant is that they would be much more manageable, not absent, as even mere hundreds of millions of people would produce waste, use non-renewing resources, etc., but the point is that whenever somebody brings up population pressures, the immediate reaction in much of the social media that I frequent is an evidence-free rejection of the idea combined with personal attacks on the person who made the statement. The same happened in this case.

I am really quite puzzled by this. While a discussion could be had about whether the planet is overpopulated or not, depending on what resource constraints we assume, Goodall's statement is irrefutable. Of course 500 million people would have less of an environmental footprint than seven billion. One could just as well try to reject the idea that four people will have it easier to fit into a car than twelve.

Consequently I was quite interested to see an article in The Conversation titled "why we should be wary of blaming 'overpopulation' for the climate crisis". It was written by an academic and of some length, so the argument can be expected to have been developed more clearly than in a rage-tweet. After citing Goodall the author, Heather Alberro, begins her argumentation as follows:
This might seem fairly innocuous, but its an argument that has grim implications and is based on a misreading of the underlying causes of the current crises. As these escalate, people must be prepared to challenge and reject the overpopulation argument.
So we are promised here two different arguments:

First, nobody should say that the planet is overpopulated because it has "grim implications". This is not about whether a statement is wrong, it is about whether somebody else could misunderstand or deliberately exploit the statement to justify something terrible.

I am always uncomfortable with this stance, because the logical end-point is that nobody should be allowed to state a demonstrable fact if there is an interest group that will use this fact to promote a harmful agenda - and there will always be such a group if a topic is controversial at all. Or in other words, the logical end-point of this stance is to restrict your ability to use evidence in decision making towards your own, hopefully benevolent agenda, which means that your decisions will be ill-informed and less likely to solve the problem you are dealing with.

Therefore any argument along those lines must, in my eyes, meet a fairly high standard. It cannot simply be, "you aren't allowed to state this fact because somebody somewhere could do something bad". It would have to provide a clear, convincing causal chain from stating the fact to the probable occurrence of a harm that would be significantly less likely to happen if the fact were kept confidential. A causal chain like:
Somebody says the world is overpopulated -> ???? -> genocide
What needs to be in the middle of this chain to make genocide plausible?

Second, Alberro also argues that the world is not in fact overpopulated, that this would be a "misreading" of the situation. This claim is what I find particularly interesting, because as mentioned in the beginning the relevant conversation on social media can be comfortably summarised as "everybody who says there is overpopulation wants to commit genocide against the developing world", in other words the previous argument plus character assassination. I have yet to see anybody addressing the question whether the world is, actually, overpopulated; it simply gets ignored.

I will therefore start with the examination of this factual argument, which also makes up the majority of the article.
In reality, the global human population is not increasing exponentially, but is in fact slowing and predicted to stabilise at around 11 billion by 2100.
I do not quite understand what it means that "population is slowing". I assume what is meant is that population growth is slowing. That is great... but. First, it is like wanting praise for promising to only stuff eleven people into your five seater car, instead of infinity people. Yes, okay, but you already have seven people in there right now, and even that is not safe. So will you please stop putting the eighth in there, like, right now please, instead of ignoring the problem? Second, slowing growth is clearly irrelevant to Goodall's statement, which implied that we are already too many.
More importantly, focusing on human numbers obscures the true driver of many of our ecological woes. That is, the waste and inequality generated by modern capitalism and its focus on endless growth and profit accumulation.
This is the key argument of this article, which is subsequently detailed in various ways: inequality is the problem, not number of people. Now in what way would ending inequality solve ecological woes? First we need to consider how it would be ended, as there are at least two ways to do so.

First, raise the living standards of the poor. This would be the humane approach, but I do not see how it helps with carbon levels in the atmosphere, waste, soil erosion, groundwater overuse, whatever. It would only make things worse. Second, reduce the living standards of everybody to that of the poorest people on the planet. That would help reduce emissions etc., but spelling it out like this should reveal the obvious problem: nobody is going to accept this immiseration, neither the wealthiest nor the poorest, who desperately want a better life too.

Now one could reply to this that we could all live sustainably in equality if we just made our economy carbon-neutral. That is correct, but the whole controversy is about whether we turn the population-growth dial or the economic equality dial. (Why we should only do one of those is left unexplained.) Goodall said that we would have less of a problem if there were less people using fossil fuels, and Alberro (somehow) tries to argue that this specific statement is false, that we should not turn that dial but only the other. The third dial, carbon-neutrality, is orthogonal to this discussion.
The industrial revolution that first married economic growth with burning fossil fuels occurred in 18th-century Britain. The explosion of economic activity that marked the post-war period known as the "Great Acceleration" caused emissions to soar, and it largely took place in the Global North. That's why richer countries such as the US and UK, which industrialised earlier, bear a bigger burden of responsibility for historical emissions.
That is true and an important point but also completely irrelevant for the question of whether the planet is overpopulated. "Yes, I am trying to stuff eleven people into my five-seater, but that is totally safe because last week that other guy was speeding."
In 2018 the planet's top emitters - North America and China - accounted for nearly half of global CO2 emissions. In fact, the comparatively high rates of consumption in these regions generate so much more CO2 than their counterparts in low-income countries that an additional three to four billion people in the latter would hardly make a dent on global emissions.
Well, clearly adding more people will not make a dent in emissions, it would increase them, but I get what is meant here: adding more poor people to the planet will have less of an impact than the rich increasing their consumption even further. I find it ironic, however, that China is mentioned as one of the two worst offenders, because if we should be worried about how racists spin concerns about overpopulation then we should also be worried about somebody concluding "see, it is China's fault, so we Europeans don't need to do anything".

Consumption levels in China have risen, of course, but they are still much lower per person than in the USA. A key reason why China rivals North America in emissions is that it accounts for about one fifth of the world population all by itself. And we are back at Goodall's point, which applies across all consumption levels.
There's also the disproportionate impact of corporations to consider. It is suggested that just 20 fossil fuel companies have contributed to one-third of all modern CO2 emissions, despite industry executives knowing about the science of climate change as early as 1977.
This is another argument that frequently comes up on social media, very often citing the number twenty, so that meme must all go back to one statistic somewhere. Now I will agree immediately that more powerful people bear more moral responsibility, because a CEO has more influence than a single supermarket customer or a single assembly line worker.

But still, what rarely seems to be considered is that these corporations produce the emissions to offer products and services that we seven billion humans buy and consume. It is not the case that these industry executives run polluting factories and refineries at a loss and for the giggles because they like pollution, like some cartoon villain. It is not the case that they are doing their thing over there, and we normal people are doing our entirely unrelated thing here. They run their factories because we buy stuff, and they run them unsustainably because many of us insist on buying stuff as cheaply as possible. Conversely, that also means that if there were only one billion of us these corporations would produce only one seventh of the emissions that they are producing now.
Inequalities in power, wealth and access to resources - not mere numbers - are key drivers of environmental degradation. The consumption of the world's wealthiest 10% produces up to 50% of the planet's consumption-based CO2 emissions, while the poorest half of humanity contributes only 10%.
I have already mentioned how likely the poorer half are to accept that they should never see the wealth of the wealthier half themselves (i.e. not very likely), but let's assume that we reduce everybody's standards of living to those of the poorer half: even those who are currently billionaires will live in crowded little, non-AC'd apartments with only a bicycle and the bus as transport options. I am a frugal person myself, so I could happily live with that. But what exactly does that for us, carbon-wise? According to the numbers cited above, it would logically reduce "consumption-based" emissions to a fifth of what they currently are.

Now it is a bit unclear, at least to me, what exactly is meant with "consumption-based". Googling for some guidance I find that, according to the EPA, US greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 were distributed as follows: transportation 29%, electricity 28%, industry 22%, commercial & residential 12%, agriculture 9%. What is consumption? I assume all of agriculture and at least part of industry, so at a minimum perhaps 20%. The rest is less easy - is electricity consumption in Alberro's sense? Maybe yes, maybe no, but transport probably not.

So we are talking about reducing to a fifth what may now be somewhere between 20% and 50% of the total emissions. That means tackling inequality by impoverishing everybody would reduce our overall emissions by 16-40%, or to 60-84% of what they currently are. That is hardly going to stave ecological and societal collapse off by many years, much less solve the problem. Reducing inequality by the more desirable approach of lifting everybody out of poverty or an approach in the middle between those extremes would, of course, have the opposite effect.
With a mere 26 billionaires now in possession of more wealth than half the world, this trend is likely to continue.
I do not like inequality either because of how unfair it is and how it distorts democracy, and I certainly do not believe anybody morally deserves to have a billion dollars, but purely in terms of greenhouse gases I doubt that somebody with a hundred thousand times my money contributes a hundred thousand times the emissions that I do. There are only so many private jets or yachts any single billionaire can use at a time and only so much a single person can "consume". Much of their wealth is invested or used for gambling at the stock exchange as opposed to buying a hundred thousand people's worth of food, for example.
Developing regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America often bear the brunt of climate and ecological catastrophes, despite having contributed the least to them.
Again true but again does not contradict Goodall's statement that environmental problems would be less pressing if there were less humans.
The problem is extreme inequality, the excessive consumption of the world's ultra-rich, and a system that prioritises profits over social and ecological well-being. This is where where we should be devoting our attention.
See above. Again, I would prefer a much more equal distribution of wealth. But that does not mean that overpopulation is not an issue. It is simply an undeniable fact that all else being equal, reducing our numbers by half reduces our ecological impact by half. Just as it is a fact that all else being equal, reducing our consumption would also reduce our ecological impact. There is no either-or, and we can devote attention to several problems at the same time.

Coming now to the political or strategic argument:
The idea that there were simply too many people being born - most of them in the developing world where population growth rates had started to take off - filtered into the arguments of radical environmental groups such as Earth First! Certain factions within the group became notorious for remarks about extreme hunger in regions with burgeoning populations such as Africa - which, though regrettable, could confer environmental benefits through a reduction in human numbers.
Here the implied causal chain is: Somebody says the world is overpopulated -> fringe group without any political influence whatsoever thinks that famine is beneficial -> genocide. Not sure I am convinced. Then towards the end of the text:
Issues of ecological and social justice cannot be separated from one another. Blaming human population growth - often in poorer regions - risks fuelling a racist backlash...
Somebody says the world is overpopulated -> racist backlash -> genocide. There might be a few steps missing here. Also, see above regarding the backlash that could result from blaming China for half the problem even from an inequality angle.
...and displaces blame from the powerful industries that continue to pollute the atmosphere.
Somebody says the world is overpopulated -> fossil fuel industries can claim it isn't their fault. I do not see this logic at all, sorry. They still sell the fossil fuels, and the only difference is that they sell them to even more people.

Is it really that difficult to keep three factors in one's head at the same time? Imagine a three-dimensional graph, a cube. In one corner are very few humans, all getting along with very little, and what little they need is produced using renewable energies. In the opposite corner are billions of humans, each of them consuming massive amounts of throw-away goods, and these goods are produced burning the dirtiest coal you can imagine. To change the emissions we produce we can move along all three axes of this graph, along all three edges of the cube.

Not only is entirely unclear to me how the idea that we would have less emissions if we moved down on the population-axis is refuted by arguing that we should move down on the consumption per person axis; it is not even clear whether Alberro even argues for that, because again, inequality could also be resolved by moving up that axis, making our ecological impact worse.

So in summary, I do not see how this article refutes Goodall, and nor could it have, because the relationship between population size and ecological footprint is obvious. It does not appear to make an argument that the planet is not overpopulated either - as always the question is merely deflected. And finally, it does not even provide a plausible causal chain leading from the discussion of this question to "grim implications", leaving the intermediate steps up to the imagination of the reader, who, however, could just as well say, "what is so terrible about empowering people to be able to do family planning?"