Do citizens of industrialized, consumerist nations have the moral authority to lecture the world about overpopulation, singling it out as the root of all the world’s problems? William Catton coined the term Homo colossus to describe those living in the industrialized world whose consumption of resources is disproportionately greater than those in the so-called undeveloped world:
If we take a look at who is actually pushing the environment to collapse according to their consumption levels, it becomes clear by the numbers that the real planet destroyers are not the teeming masses of the Third World, but industrial civilization’s energy gluttons driving their SUV’s, checking their stock portfolios on the internet, and wagging their finger at the huddled masses who have been corralled into megacities because globalization wiped out their indigenous means of subsistence:
…What is immediately apparent from Chart 1[above] is that the 10 percent of the world’s population with the highest income, some 700 million people, are responsible for the overwhelmingly majority of the problem. It should be kept in mind that this is not just an issue of the rich countries. Very wealthy people live in almost all countries of the world—the wealthiest person in the world is Mexican, and there are more Asians than North Americans with net worth over $100 million. When looked at from a global perspective, the poor become essentially irrelevant to the problem of resource use and pollution. The poorest 40 percent of people on Earth are estimated to consume less than 5 percent of natural resources. The poorest 20 percent, about 1.4 billion people, use less than 2 percent of natural resources. If somehow the poorest billion people disappeared tomorrow, it would have a barely noticeable effect on global natural resource use and pollution. (It is the poor countries, with high population growth, that have low per capita greenhouse gas emissions.22) However, resource use and pollution could be cut in half if the richest 700 million lived at an average global standard of living.
Thus, we are forced to conclude that when considering global resource use and environmental degradation there really is a “population problem.” But it is not too many people—and certainly not too many poor people—but rather too many rich people living too “high on the hog” and consuming too much. Thus birth control programs in poor countries or other means to lower the population in these regions will do nothing to help deal with the great problems of global resource use and environmental destruction… – link
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the carbon footprint of the top quintile is over three times that of the bottom. Even in relatively egalitarian Canada, the top income decile has a mobility footprint nine times that of the lowest, a consumer goods footprint four times greater, and an overall ecological footprint two-and-a-half times larger. Air travel is frequently pegged as one of the most rapidly growing sources of carbon emissions, but it’s not simply because budget airlines have “democratized the skies”–rather, flying has truly exploded among the hyper-mobile affluent. Thus in Western Europe, the transportation footprint of the top income earners is 250 percent of that of the poor. And global carbon emissions are particularly uneven: the top five hundred million people by income, comprising about 8 percent of global population, are responsible for 50 percent of all emissions. It’s a truly global elite, with high emitters present in all countries of the world.
In the post Earth to Humans: “Get Off Your Merry-Go-Round Ride to Extinction”, I quoted a well-reasoned article by Devon G. Peña who explained the self-serving and hypocritical stance taken by the capitalist industrialized nations regarding the issue of overpopulation. The root causes driving mankind to extinction are completely sidestepped:
…In climate change debates, overpopulation arguments serve to delay making structural changes in North and South away from the extraction and use of fossil fuels; to explain the failure of carbon markets to tackle the problem; to justify increased and multiple interventions in the countries deemed to hold the surplus people; and to excuse those interventions when they cause further environmental degradation, migration or conflict.
As such, population theory is far more than a theory or a principle. It is above all a political strategy that obscures the relationships of power between different groups in societies, whether these be local, national, global, while at the same time justifying those political relationships that allow certain groups to dominate others structurally, be they men over women, property owners over commoners, or ‘us’ over ‘them’. The “too many” are hardly ever the speakers, they are always the Other.
This partially explains why those considered to be surplus are not those who profit from continued fossil fuel extraction but those most harmed by it and by climate change…
As was shown in the post The Biophysics of Civilization, Money = Energy, and the Inevitability of Collapse, GDP and money are tied to energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Climate change is the greatest threat to humanity and our economic model and profligate way of life are on a collision course with catastrophe. Realistic solutions require dealing with the root of the problem, not the symptoms. Geoengineering, carbon trading schemes, and GMO’s are technocapitalist solutions to climate change. Focusing on overpopulaion ignores the socio-economic system behind all the exploitation and destruction.
…It is not surprising, however, that a worsening climate situation is often attributed not to continued fossil fuel extraction but to too many people. Whenever global environmental crises, Third World poverty or world hunger are at issue, whenever conflict, migration or economic growth are discussed, economists, demographers, planners, corporate financiers and political pundits (at least in the North) frequently invoke overpopulation.
Over 200 years ago, at a time of immense social, political and economic upheavals and deprivation in England triggered by the enclosure of common lands and forests on which peasant livelihoods depended, free market economist Thomas Malthus wrote a story about how nature and humans interact. The punch line was his mathematical analogy for the disparity between human and food increases. Harnessing politics to mathematics, he provided a spuriously neutral set of arguments for promoting a new political correctness – one that denied the shared rights of everyone to subsistence, sanctioning instead the rights of the “deserving” over the “undeserving”, with the market as arbiter of entitlements. The poor were poor because they lacked restraint and discipline, not because of privatisation. This is the essence of the overpopulation argument.
Today, a range of industries use the same argument to colonise the future for their particular interests and to privatise commonally-held goods. In agriculture, for instance, the talk is of extra mouths in the South causing global famine — unless biotechnology companies have the right to patent and genetically-engineer seeds. With respect to water, growing numbers of thirsty slum dwellers are held to threaten water wars — unless water resources are handed over to private sector water companies. And in climate, the talk is of teeming Chinese and Indians causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their greenhouse gas emissions — unless polluting companies are granted property rights in the atmosphere through carbon-trading schemes and carbon offsets. These are the tools of the main official approach to the climate crisis that aims to build a global carbon market worth trillions of dollars.
Two centuries ago, Malthus was compelled to admit that his mathematical and geometric series of increases in food and humans were not observable in any society. He acknowledged that his “power of number” was just an image — an admission demographers have since confirmed. And for over 200 years, his theory and arguments — that it is the number of people that cause resource scarcity — have been refuted endlessly by demonstrations that any problem attributed to human numbers can more convincingly be explained by social inequality, or that the statistical correlation is ambiguous. Malthus’s greatest achievement was in fact to obscure the roots of poverty, inequality and environmental deterioration. The “war-room” mentality generated by predictions of scarcity-driven apocalypse has always diverted attention away from the awkward social and environmental history of discredited policies and projects – a more important focus of study.
Frequently left out of discussions about tackling malnutrition, hunger, starvation and famine, for instance, are the maldistribution of the world’s food supplies, skewed access to land, trade policies, the hazards of devoting land to agrofuel or carbon offset production, unequal access to money to buy food, and commodity speculation.
If over one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, it is because water, like food, flows to those with the most bargaining power: industry and bigger farmers first, richer consumers second, and the poor last, whose water is polluted by industrial effluent, exported in foodstuffs or poured down the drain through others’ wasteful consumption… – link
And of course we can always wash our hands of everything by saying humans, driven by base biological urges, are inherently aggressive, selfish, and hierarchical by nature. We can blame our fossil fuel consumption on the optimal foraging theory and the lethal mutation of higher intelligence. We can excuse our self-destructive behavior on account of evolutionary blind spots such as faulty human brain circuitry with its numerous cognitive biases and inability to perceive long-term threats like climate change. We can say that “complex global human systems” are beyond anyone’s control and therefore cannot be altered or stopped. In other words, we can rationalize inaction and put forth many reasons for why we are helpless as our manmade economic system speeds toward the cliff, but as the masses see the system for what it really is, the facade becomes harder and harder to maintain. The mantra of business-as-usual is becoming a curse for most, and if continued on for much longer will most certainly be a death sentence for all.