Posts filed under ‘Population’

Dick Smith’s population book obscures causes of ecological crisis

Dick Smith launching a $1 million prize for anyone who develops an idea to limit Australia's population growth.

Dick Smith’s Population Crisis: The Dangers of Unsustainable Growth for Australia
Allen & Unwin, Sydney
2011, 228 pages
Those who say today’s big social and ecological problems stem from there being too many people on the planet face a special difficulty.

As the Australian ecologist Alan Roberts once said, populationist authors need “to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of those readers themselves”.
But the “too many people” argument keeps cropping up partly because it gives a neat, simple solution to our environmental problems.

It has often been used to shift the blame for ecological destruction to the poorest parts of the world where the human population is growing the fastest.
Once you accept that “too many people” cause our environmental problems, the next question is which people are surplus to requirements?

Which people pose the most threat to the planet? Invariably, the answer given is “somebody else”.
“When an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced [their] alarm at the plague of ‘too many people’,” said Roberts, they were “not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists, too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.”
Millionaire businessperson Dick Smith’s new book on population, Dick Smith’s Population Crisis, never escapes this framework.

It claims to be a book about making the world a more sustainable and healthy place. But it’s really an extended argument for slashing immigration to Australia to protect living standards and the environment. 
Smith is genuinely worried about climate change and the broader ecological crisis, and wants to find solutions.
He says population growth is at the root of the most serious environmental problems. For Smith, more people will equal less food, more pollution and more pressure on frail ecosystems.
His explanation for the cause of the climate crisis is typical: “If the answer to accelerating climate change is a reduction in carbon emissions, then it is absolutely ridiculous not to consider who is causing most of those emissions in the first place.

“And that, of course, is humans — yes, all of us.”
Nowhere does Smith try to prove this “people equals pollution” argument. He simply says it’s true.

But the argument does not bear up to scrutiny.
In 2009, Dr David Satterwaite from the  International Institute for Environment and Development crunched the numbers on population growth and carbon emissions.

He found that between 1980 and 2005,  sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world’s population growth but contributed just 2.4% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

Meanwhile, the United States had 3.4% of the world’s population growth but accounted for 12.6% of growth in carbon dioxide emissions. China’s had 15.3% of the world’s population growth, but 44.5% of carbon emissions growth.

Clearly, a focus on human numbers does not explain very much at all.

Smith also repeats a falsehood often made by other populationist writers: that the world’s population is growing at an exponential (ever-increasing) rate.

The mistake is hard to fathom.
The world population growth rate is slowing down, not growing exponentially. The United Nations says global population will likely peak mid-century at somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people and fall thereafter.
Smith’s arguments illustrate what the US ecologist Alan Schnaiberg called “thinking in nonsocial ways about social systems of production and consumption”.
That is, if we are to find solutions to the climate emergency, the food crisis and other environmental ills, we have to explore and act upon the causes. These lie in the unequal relationships that exist between different groups in society.
We have to look at the huge differences in power between the super-rich and poor, the First World and the global South and, crucially for understanding population growth, the relationships between men and women.

Of course, endless population growth is not sustainable or desirable on a finite planet.

But the answer to this also lies in fundamental social change, as the US population writer Betsy Hartmann has pointed out.

“The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets,” said Hartmann. “Take care of the population and population growth will go down.

“In fact, the greatest irony is that in most cases population growth comes down faster the less you focus on it as a policy priority, and the more you focus on women’s rights and basic human needs.”

Smith does not neglect this argument entirely in his book.

He says the quickest way to address population growth is to address poverty, admits “the rich westernised countries created the [ecological] problem” and argues “the god of capitalist economic growth is a false god” that puts ecosystems in peril.
So how should we tackle capitalist economic growth?

Smith says: “It’s estimated that fewer than 1000 corporations are responsible for about 80% of economic activity … they will object to change and do their best to prevent it, but ultimately they will come to accept that a sustainable economy is in their own best interests too.”
Again, we are confronted with a double standard. Chinese bricklayers, Filipino nurses and Fijian shopkeepers searching for a better life must be turned away from Australia’s borders because they will supposedly cause too much environmental damage.
But the world’s biggest corporate polluters that make billions by driving greenhouse gases up, bulldozing forests and worsening social inequality — they “will come to accept” that they should voluntarily relinquish their power and privilege for the greater good.
Smith’s brand of “border-control ecology” may be well intentioned, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous or naive.
It suggests the main threat to natural ecosystems and social welfare lies in the relatively powerless people outside Australia’s borders who may migrate here sometime in the future.
This obscures the real problem, which remains the tiny “home-grown” minority that hold political and economic power and are resisting sustainable change.
Like most populationist explanations of the environmental crisis, Smith’s book urges us to worry the most about the world’s least powerful people — the so-called over-breeding poor.

Because of this, Smith’s “too many people” argument is most likely to weaken environmental movements and presents a barrier to finding real solutions.
[Simon Butler is the co-author (with Ian Angus) of the new book Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. The book will be launched at the Climate Change Social Change conference


September 2, 2011 at 5:37 am Leave a comment

Breaking the real population taboo

by Ian Angus, Climate and Capitalism

Is there a taboo against attributing environmental problems to population growth? Are populationist views being suppressed?

Sir David Attenborough thinks so. On March 10, the noted naturalist and broadcaster told a meeting in London that there is a “strange silence … some bizarre taboo” about the population issue. This “absurd taboo” has “a powerful grip on the minds of so many worthy and intelligent people.” Attenborough urged his listeners to “break the taboo,” by raising the population issue whenever and wherever they could.

Who was he talking to? Who were the brave people who dared to listen to a talk on this forbidden topic? Was it some secretive group, hanging on despite all odds, somehow keeping alive the truths that are suppressed by the powers that be?

Well, no.

Far from being a gathering of outsiders, it was a sold-out public meeting organized by Britain’s prestigious and influential Royal Society of the Arts. Attenborough was delivering the RSA’s annual President’s Lecture, at a meeting hosted and chaired by the RSA President, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.

After the large and well-heeled crowd applauded his talk, Attenborough’s remarks were quoted at length in the conservative Daily Mail, Britain’s second most widely-read newspaper. The full text of his talk to the RSA was published a few weeks later in the influential weekly New Statesman, and when that appeared the Daily Mail again gave his comments prominent coverage.

Despite his desire to be seen as a lonely voice in the wilderness, Attenborough spoke as a patron of the influential group Population Matters, formerly Optimum Population Trust. And he wasn’t speaking to a hostile audience: his host the duke, also known as Prince Phillip, once said that he would like to be reincarnated as a deadly virus, “in order to contribute something to solve overpopulation.”

Last year another wealthy group with a similar name, the even more prestigious Royal Society, appointed Attenborough and others who share his views to a special committee to report on “the implications of the changes in global population.”

So much for the taboo. If this is a “strange silence,” no one has told the media.

Attenborough is just one of many populationists – people who attribute environmental and social problems to population growth – who routinely claim that there is a taboo against discussing the population problem. A Google search for web pages containing both “population” and “taboo” returns “about 8,200,000 results.” Not all of those are populationist sites, but a great many are.

It’s truly ironic — populationists, speaking on behalf of large and well-financed organizations, regularly use well-publicized events and the pages of major newspapers and magazines to complain that their views aren’t being heard. Even the producers of a new feature length documentary film on the subject, a film that’s being shown this year at major U.S. film festivals, claim that it “breaks a 40-year taboo by bringing to light an issue that silently fuels our most pressing environmental, humanitarian and social crises — population growth.”

Of course that’s nonsense. No explanation of the environmental crisis gets more exposure than the claim that it is all caused by overpopulation.
The view that really doesn’t get such coverage is the anti-capitalist alternative, the argument that the crisis is caused by a social and economic system that has waste and destruction built into its DNA.

The noted US ecologist Barry Commoner once said that populationist solutions to environmental destruction are equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship forcing passengers overboard. He said that instead we should ask if there isn’t something radically wrong with the ship.

But people who ask that question – especially if they answer “yes” – aren’t likely to be invited to speak at public meetings hosted at British royalty.
Still, we do what we can to get our views out, through the platforms available to us.

Climate and Capitalism has published many articles on the “population question”, and we’ve been very pleased with the response. Many of them have attracted vigorous debate and discussion, and quite a few have been picked up by other web sites and by print publications. There is obviously a lot of interest in – and a lot of confusion about – the relationship between population, capitalism, and environmental destruction.

Through this experience, we have become very aware of a major gap on the ecosocialist bookshelf. There are many works exposing the fallacies promoted by the grandfather of populationism, Robert Malthus, but he lived 200 years ago – few contemporary populationists have read what he wrote, and even fewer actually support his views. Modern populationism is just as misleading and harmful as traditional Mathusianism, but it relies on different arguments, and it promotes very different social policies.

Despite that, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, popularly written book that exposes and refutes contemporary populationist ideology. There are good academic books on population, but none that we could recommend to green activists who want to understand and reply to populationist arguments.

So last summer I asked Simon Butler, co-editor of the fine Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly, if he would be interested in collaborating on a book that would both answer the principal arguments put forward by populationists in the environmental movement, and present the ecosocialist alternative clearly and concisely. He responded with enthusiasm, so for the last eight months or so we’ve been burning up the Internet with emails and draft chapters.

It’s been a true joint effort – for each chapter, one of us wrote a draft for the other to edit, then drafts went back and forth until we were both satisfied. When we assembled the chapters into a book, both of us edited the entire text many times over. (The editing process was of course complicated by the fact that we live on different continents, with a 14-hour time difference, but somehow it worked.)

We received invaluable input from a number of very knowledgeable people who read the drafts at various stages. We were very honored when two of them — Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, and Joel Kovel, author of The Enemy of Nature and co-author of The Ecosocialist Manifesto — agreed to write Forewords for the book.

Now the writing is done, and we are pleased to announce that it will be published in September by Haymarket Books. They aim to publish it as an affordable paperback: barring unforeseen inflation, the U.S. price should be under $20.

We plan to formally launch it at the World at a Crossroads: Climate Change Social Change conference that begins on September 30 in Melbourne, Australia, and we expect it to be available in North America and Europe at the same time.

Climate and Capitalism will post more information about the book as publication nears. In particular, we hope that soon we can tell you how to pre-order the book, so that you can be one of the first in your climate justice group to read it.
Oh yes, the title …

Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis

by Ian Angus and Simon Butler

Betsy Hartmann writes: “With clear prose and careful, cogent analysis, Angus and Butler provide the tools necessary to dismantle the myth of overpopulation step by step. In so doing, they also show the way to a more hopeful, justice-centered environmental and reproductive politics. Like the excellent publications they edit, Climate and Capitalism and Green Left Weekly, this book makes complex information, ideas and arguments accessible to a wide variety of readers – activists, students, educators, journalists, policymakers and indeed anyone who wants to better understand the world.”

April 29, 2011 at 5:06 am 1 comment

Population Puzzle distorts reality

Dick’s Smith’s Population Puzzle, a documentary that aired on ABC1 on August 12, made no modest claims. It went for the direct, hard sell. Its message: “Cutting immigration to Australia is a great product, and you should buy it.”

It said a smaller Australia would not solve just one or two social problems, but more than a dozen.

The documentary claimed cutting immigration would reduce overcrowding in our cities, end urban traffic jams and make houses more affordable. It would reduce hospital waiting lists and crime, improve public health and put a stop to unsustainable development.

It would help prevent water shortages, avoid expensive fuel imports, stop Australia turning into Bangladesh and ward off the prospect of widespread starvation by mid-century.

Having fewer people in Australia would also improve public transport, stop climate change and help Third World economies develop. Smith even appealed to unemployed Australians who, he said, were losing jobs to higher-skilled immigrants.

He spent little time trying to prove the link between population size and these various issues. Instead, he raised the alarm about a country bursting at the seams.

“We’re in the middle of a population boom, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1950s”, said Smith. “Australia is the gold medallist in population growth. No other major economy is growing at anything like the pace that we are.”

As a nation, Australia (population 22 million) is “setting a terrible example in a world already struggling with too many people” by “even out-populating some of the poorest nations”.

Smith said Australia needed a plan to stabilise population: immigration should be cut to 70,000 a year (down from 270,000 in 2009), he said.

Immediately after the hour-long documentary, the ABC’s Q & A program hosted a debate on population that featured Smith; Liberal shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison; Greens’ leader Bob Brown; Labor’s sustainable population minister Tony Burke; former Liberal Party president John Elliot; and Curtin University’s Suvendrini Perera.

Morrison, Burke and Brown all said Smith’s documentary made valid points, but Perera asked the audience to look closer at the documentary’s argument. She compared it to a “rather long, negative commercial”.

She said: “I think [the documentary is] ingenuous in that it speaks to real concerns that people have about the environment, about overdevelopment. But I think it collapses them into a rather simplistic focus on population. And for that reason I think it’s rather manipulative and rather dangerous.”

Smith’s documentary is manipulative because it advances a false solution to deal with very real problems.

The issues raised reflect many worrying things about our society: falling public investment in services and infrastructure, the strong corporate influence over government, undemocratic planning laws and the continued use of dirty fossil fuels.

But Smith tries to say he has the silver bullet, an easy way to deal with these problems in one hit: stop migrants coming here.

The documentary is dangerous because it distracts attention away from the real causes of social and environmental decay. Instead, migrants are cast as scapegoats, even though they are the least responsible for causing any of Australia’s problems.

Part of Smith’s technique was to ignore any facts that contradicted his call to hit the panic button on population.

But the fact is that the UN projects global population will peak mid-century and then decline. Birth rates in most Western countries, including Australia, have already fallen below replacement levels.

The global “population bomb” has been defused. Yet human impact on the planet is gaining pace.

The ecological crisis is worsening. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising. The polar ice caps are melting. Extreme weather events are multiplying … and all while population growth rates fall.

This speaks against the idea that population growth is the main factor driving the environmental crisis.

Perera also pointed out that Smith had disregarded the immense waste and consumption in countries like Australia.

She said: “It seemed to me that the real elephant in the film and perhaps in this room is consumption, because we talk about population but we don’t talk about the need for us in the rich world to reduce consumption.”

And it is quite unbelievable that the documentary left this out. Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter and emits the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person in the OECD.

Australians are the world’s most overweight people, but up to 40% of our landfills are made up of food we throw out. Australians have the largest houses of any country in the world. We have the world’s best solar energy resource, but we hardly use it.

If the rest of the world consumed like Australians, we’d need the resources of four or five planet Earths.

In the face of this unsustainable consumption, to suggest that population is the key factor in Australia’s high ecological footprint betrays a distorted view of reality.

This high consumption serves a deeper purpose: to maintain the endless economic growth that is the stated policy of most governments and is the top goal for every corporation.

Australia’s high consumption is driven by the needs of the profit system, which has an inbuilt drive to grow and can accept no limits to its expansion.

So to deal with consumption we need to deal with its deeper economic cause. In the end, it’s a struggle over who controls production: corporations or people?

It’s about who makes the decisions on whether we dig for coal or build solar plants, bulldoze new highways or plan train lines and cycleways. It’s about popular control over decisions ranging from development in our local communities right up to Australia’s international role.

The problems raised by Smith are not caused by overpopulation, but reflect a much bigger crisis to do with our entire profits-based system, which is threatening us with oblivion.

The alternative is to refashion the economy, so it serves to maintain the integrity of ecosystems and improve human welfare. But this also means a drawn-out political confrontation with the corporate elites who will not willingly give up their power and privileges.

Smith’s documentary drew much of its power from the way it tapped into people’s understandable feelings of powerlessness and alienation in the face of these big dilemmas.

The tragedy of the film is that it tried to foist the blame onto migrants — another powerless group of people.

During the Q & A debate, Smith acknowledged that capitalist economic growth is unsustainable.

“The problem is we’ve had 150 years of addiction to growth”, he said. “The god of capitalism is growth, but it’s a false god because it’s a finite world and you can’t always grow using resources. It’s impossible.”

It’s true that endless growth is impossible. But Smith’s assertion that cutting migration would help solve this problem too is his wildest claim of all.

He lets the real culprits for capitalist growth — the corporate interests who benefit most from the status quo — off the hook.

Smith’s documentary obscures the most important “population problem” in Australia. The scandal should be that such a small, wealthy part of the population has such overwhelming power and influence over our lives and future.

To win a sustainable future, the enemy is not the young migrant family, who, with a mixture of nervousness and excitement, plans to start a new life in Australia.

Our real target “population” should be the coal company CEO, the oil executive, the big property developer, the finance mogul and the media tycoon.

August 29, 2010 at 3:44 am 1 comment

Population control — a political weapon for conservatives

Forget about the climate science and the record high temperatures. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has decided she doesn’t need a serious climate change policy to win the federal election.

In its place, she kicked off her election campaign on July 18 with a “sustainable Australia” policy. It promised a future of low population growth, which “preserves our quality of life and respects our environment”.

Opposition leader and climate denier Tony Abbott was quick to say he fully agreed with this vision, but was even more committed to it than Gillard.

From a conservative point of view it makes sense to raise the spectre of overpopulation in this election campaign. Population control is the mother of all political diversion tactics.

Population levels explain nothing about social problems. But they can be scapegoated for just about everything, from traffic jams and home prices to grocery bills and climate change.

A promise to reign in population growth is useful for the right wing because it substitutes for the fundamental social and economic changes needed to really deal with these problems.

For instance, it appears to recognise the climate crisis, only to propose a “solution” that avoids replacing fossil fuels with clean energy.

In the past, population control has been raised as a key measure needed to end Third World poverty, overcome starvation and stop environmental decay.

More recently, it has regained popularity as a response to the climate crisis. The simple theory is that more people equals more emissions.
Support for this idea now extends to many who would consider themselves progressive.

But as the Ugandan writer Mahmood Mamdani wrote in his 1972 classic work, The Myth of Population Control: “Optimism concerning the possibility of population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative.”

This weapon can’t be picked up and used by leftists for progressive causes: a focus on population levels inevitably shifts the blame away from where it should be placed.

Nor does the green argument for population control rely on facts. Indeed, it relies on downplaying the fact that the world population growth rate is falling fast; population levels will peak by about mid-century.

British journalist Fred Pearce summarised some of the data on population trends in a July 11 article.

He wrote: “The population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast.

“Back then, most women round the world had five or six children. Today’s women have just half as many as their mothers — an average of 2.6. Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere.”

The rich world’s unsustainable consumption “today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count”.

Meanwhile, “virtually all of the remaining population growth is in the poor world, and the poor half of the planet is only responsible for 7% of carbon emissions”, Pearce said.

In a recent article, US economist James K. Boyce pointed out that the “too many people” argument tends to reinforce feelings of political impotence and hopelessness in the face of the climate crisis.

“Blaming climate change simply on human numbers is itself founded on denial — denial of the real causes of the problem and denial of our potential to forge positive solutions”, he said.

“It spreads demoralisation and paralysis at a time when we need hope and activism.”

He concluded: “Instead of buying into the ‘more people = more emissions’ equation, we should put the blame for climate change squarely where it belongs: on fossil fuels and the vested interests that seek to perpetuate dependence on them.”

This is a necessary task, but it is also a difficult one. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground will mean defeating the world’s most powerful corporations and institutions. It will take a strong, global mass movement of millions to do it — and this movement doesn’t yet exist.

Rather than rise to this challenge, populationists fear that it’s too difficult. Support for population control tends to reflect pessimism about the potential to make widespread change. Yet it has one advantage: it seems much easier.

Take Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins, someone who has repeatedly called for immigration cuts to Australia on environmental grounds.

In September 2009, he wrote: “Since the rich countries are reluctant to countenance a decline in living standards, to put it mildly, and the poor countries most assuredly won’t abandon their quest for affluence, there’s one obvious variable that could be used to limit global economic activity’s deleterious impact on the ecosystem: population growth.

“Limiting population growth in the developing world and allowing population to continue on its established path of decline in the developed world wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier than trying to prevent rising living standards among those already living.”

Part of Gittins’ confusion here is to link serious action on climate change with a “decline in living standards” — as if a high quality of life depends on trashing the planet.

His argument also raises a question put by Katie McKay Bryson, a coordinator of the US-based Population and Development Program: “Why is it easier for those who use and waste the most to imagine fewer people than less stuff?”

But it’s the conservative political choice Gittins has made that is most glaring. He feels it’s too difficult to rapidly change the wasteful economies of advanced countries like Australia. So he reverts to denial and embraces sharp immigration cuts instead.

To be fair, Gittins does support a rollout of renewable energy and other measures to deal with climate change too. He supports stronger government action on climate change.

Indeed, most people who are sympathetic to populationist arguments would say having fewer people is not the only answer. Rather, they say fewer people would simply make it easier to decarbonise the economy and feed the world.

But the point is that population control is a substitute for fundamental social change. It does not smooth the progress of change but makes it harder and reinforces the status quo.

Population theories assume “other people” are part of the problem. Genuine social change relies on people power — those who fight for social change must hold that “other people” are the solution. In the end, the two views are at odds with one another.

The two big parties will play the population card without hesitation in this election. Labor and the Liberals know a useful conservative weapon when they see it.

July 26, 2010 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

Should Climate Activists Support Limits on Immigration?

by Ian Angus and Simon Butler

Immigrants to the developed world have frequently been blamed for unemployment, crime and other social ills. Attempts to reduce or block immigration have been justified as necessary measures to protect “our way of life” from alien influences.

Today, some environmentalists go farther, arguing that sharp cuts in immigration are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. However sincere and well-meaning such activists may be, their arguments are wrong and dangerous, and should be rejected by the climate emergency movement.

Lifeboat ethics and anti-immigrant bigots

“Environmental” arguments for reducing immigration aren’t new. In a 1974 article, “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor,” US biologist Garrett Hardin argued that “a nation’s land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.” Immigration, he said, was “speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries.”[1]

Elsewhere he wrote: “Overpopulation can be avoided only if borders are secure; otherwise poor and overpopulated nations will export their excess to richer and less populated nations.”[2]

Hardin’s ideas have been very influential in the development of the right-wing, anti-immigration movement in the US and elsewhere. In 1979, he helped to found the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant lobbying group that has been named a “hate organization” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[3] In addition to the usual array of anti-immigrant arguments FAIR has made a particular point of linking concerns about the environment with opposition to immigration.

Virginia Abernethy, a Hardin collaborator who calls herself an “ethnic separatist,” argues that the ability to migrate to rich countries gives people in poor countries an incentive to have bigger families. “The U.S. would help, not harm, by encouraging an appreciation of limits sooner rather than later. A relatively-closed U.S. border would create most vividly an image of limits and be an incentive to restrict family size.”[4]

Shifting gears

In the past, the “environmental” anti-immigration argument was: immigrants should be kept out because their way of life is a threat to our environment. That argument is still made by anti-immigrant groups and some conservationists.

Recently, as concern about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming increased, the anti-immigrant argument has taken on a new form. Now the argument is: immigrants should be kept out because our way of life is a threat to the world’s environment.

That’s the argument made in a recent briefing from the US Centre for Immigration Studies, a “think tank” founded by FAIR: it says that immigration worsens CO2 emissions “because it transfers population from lower-polluting parts of the world to the United States, which is a higher polluting country.” CIS calculated that the “average immigrant” to the US contributed four times more CO2 than in their country of origin.[5]

Otis Graham, a founder of FAIR, made the same argument in his 2004 book Unguarded Gates:

“Most immigrants … move from poor societies to richer ones, intending to do what they almost always succeed in doing, take on a higher standard of living that carries a larger ecological footprint. This being the case, the logic of the relationship is straightforward. Population growth in both poor and wealthy societies, but especially in the latter, intensifies environmental problems. Where immigration shifts population numbers to wealthier societies, it does not leave global environmental damage the same, but intensifies global as well as local environmental degradation.”[6]

A recent FAIR report claims that increased population is the primary cause of the huge increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 1973 and 2007 – and that the population increase was caused by immigration. “The United States will not be able to achieve any meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions without serious economic and social consequences for American citizens unless immigration is sharply curtailed.”[7]

The racist British National Party, which likes to call itself the “true green party” because it opposes immigration, also uses this argument. BNP leader Nick Griffin recently told the European parliament that climate change isn’t real – but that hasn’t stopped him saying immigrants will make it worse. He told author Steven Farris that by accepting immigrants from the third world, “We’re massively increasing their impact of carbon release into the world’s atmosphere. There’s no doubt about it, the western way of life is not sustainable. So what on Earth is the point of turning more people into westerners?”[8]

(It is significant that none of these supposed defenders of the environment take their argument to its logical conclusion: if immigration to the North is bad for the climate then emigration to poor countries with low emissions must be good and should be encouraged.)

Greens versus immigration

For anti-immigration bigots, concern for the environment is just a ploy – they’ll say anything to justify keeping immigrants out. It’s an example of what author and feminist activist Betsy Hartmann has called “the greening of hate — blaming environmental degradation on poor populations of color.”[9]

But it is particularly disturbing to witness the promotion of similar arguments in the mainstream media, and by environmental activists whose political views are otherwise hostile to those of FAIR and the BNP.

For example, Ross Gittins, economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, said in 2008 that cutting Australia’s immigration was “one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the growth in our emissions” because “it’s a safe bet they’d be emitting more in prosperous Australia than they were before.”[10]

Australian renewable energy expert Mark Diesendorf has urged the Australian Greens to call for immigration restrictions because Australia is such a big polluter. “Australia is world’s biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. So every additional Australian has a bigger impact than anywhere else.”[11]

Even the highly respected U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben has written that, “the immigration-limiters … have a reasonable point,” because “If you’re worried about shredding the global environment, the prospect of twice as many world-champion super-consumer Americans has got to worry you.”[12]

Noted environmentalist and journalist Tim Flannery made a similar argument during a debate on immigration policy broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in September 2009:

“Growing Australia’s population has a much greater impact than growing the population of a poor country. We are the heaviest carbon users in the world, about 23 tonnes per capita, so people that come to this country from anywhere on the planet will result almost certainly in an increase carbon emissions ….”

As these examples show, “green” arguments against immigration are no longer the exclusive property of anti-immigrant bigots. They are increasingly heard within the climate movement, and so require strong answers from climate activists.

Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Cure

The view that stopping immigration to wealthy countries is a good way to fight global warming rests on a the simplistic idea that because immigrants come from countries with low per capita emissions to countries with high per capita emissions they supposedly increase total emissions simply by moving.

This argument is false on its face.

To calculate “per capita emissions,” we simply divide a country’s total greenhouse gas emissions by its total population. This provides a useful baseline for comparing countries of different sizes – but it tells us nothing at all about the emissions that can actually be attributed to individuals.

In fact, most emissions are caused by industrial and other processes over which individuals have no control.

In Canada, for example, no change in the number of immigrants will have any effect on the oil extraction industry at the Alberta Tar Sands, described by George Monbiot as “the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions.”[13]

Reducing immigration to the United States will have no effect whatsoever on the massive military spending – up 50% in the past decade – which ensures that the Pentagon is the world’s biggest consumer of oil.[14] To put that in context: a study published in March 2008 found that the CO2 emissions caused directly by the Iraq war until then were equivalent to putting 25 million more cars on the road in the U.S.[15]

Closing Australia’s borders would have had no effect on the climate denial policies of the previous Liberal Party government, or on the current Labor government’s determination to continue Australia’s role as “the world’s largest ‘coal mule.’”[16]

As US immigrant rights campaigner Patricia Huang has pointed out, “the relationship between population growth and environmental destruction is shaped by how we use our resources, not by the number of people who use them.”[17]

Labeling migrants as a climate change problem is not only unjust, but it obscures the real challenges the climate movement faces. The decisive question we must address is who makes decisions about resource use in society. In capitalist society, the big financial institutions, multinational corporations and fossil-fuel companies wield this power with devastating results for the planet’s ecosystems – and governments do their bidding.

Focusing on immigration diverts attention from the real social and economic causes of global warming, and makes it more difficult to solve them. This approach mistakenly links the trends of population and ecological harm, and so misdiagnoses the root causes of the current environmental crisis. It leaves social change out of the equation or consigns it to the far future. It downplays or ignores the fact that immigration would have a very different impact in the zero-emissions economy we need to fight for.

A pessimistic outlook

As we’ve seen, the argument that reducing immigration will protect the environment originated with right-wing, anti-immigrant bigots. Our major concern, however, is that virtually identical arguments have been adopted by progressive activists and writers who are sincerely concerned about global warming.

Despite their sincerity, their arguments betray regrettable pessimism about our common ability to build a climate emergency movement that is powerful enough to win the anti-emissions fight. As Larry Lohmann of Cornerhouse writes, the anti-immigration argument “relies on the premise that changing Northern lifestyles is a lower priority, or less achievable, than preventing others from sharing them.”[18]

In fact, including “close the borders” as an anti-emissions demand tends to make their pessimistic outlook self-confirming, by making it more difficult to build a mass movement. Not only does targeting immigration divert attention from the social causes of global warming, but it divides us from our allies, while strengthening our enemies.

Sadly, some groups that favor immigration control seem oblivious to the danger of lending credibility to bigots and racists who view immigrants as a threat to “our” way of life.

For example, last year the Australian Conservation Foundation praised Labor MP Kelvin Thompson, and Sustainable Population Australia named him to its “Population Role of Honour” when he called for immigration cuts to deal with climate change. Both ignored the fact that just 10 days earlier Thomson had revealed his real motives by calling for immigration cuts “to minimize the risk that people who do not respect Australia’s laws and legal system will enter this country.”[19]

The anti-immigration response to climate change raises a huge wall between the climate movement and the most oppressed working people in the imperialist countries. How can we possibly win migrants and refugees to the climate movement while simultaneously accusing them of responsibility for rising emissions and asking the government to bar them and their families from entering the country?

What’s more, it undermines efforts to work with the growing and important climate justice movement in the Third World, where global warming is now producing its first and most devastating effects. How can we expect to be taken seriously as allies, if we tell those movements that migrants are not welcome in our countries?

The Climate Justice and Migration Working Group, an international coalition of human rights and immigrant rights groups, estimates that between 25 and 50 million people have already been displaced by environmental change, and that could rise to 150 million by 2050. It calls for recognition of the right of human mobility across borders as an essential response to the climate change threat.[20]

The climate justice movement in the rich countries has a particular responsibility to support this demand – but blaming immigrants in general for global warming will make it more difficult to win public support for climate refugees.

Despite the good intentions of its green advocates, support for immigration controls strengthens the most regressive forces in our societies and weakens our ability to stop climate change.

It gives conservative governments and reactionary politicians an easy-out, allowing them to pose as friends of the environment by restricting immigration, while doing nothing to reduce real emissions.

It hands a weapon to climate change deniers, allowing them to portray the climate movement as hostile to the legitimate aspirations of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world.

People are not pollution. Inserting immigration into the climate change debate divides the environmental movement along race, class and gender lines, at a time when the broadest possible unity is essential. It is a dangerous diversion from the real issues, one the movement cannot afford and should not support.

Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and co-editor of Socialist Voice. Simon Butler is a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance and a staff writer for Green Left Weekly. This article first appeared in Socialist Voice.


[1] Garrett Hardin. “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.”

[2] “Garrett Hardin Quotations.” l

[3] Southern Poverty Law Center. “New SPLC Report: Nation’s Most Prominent Anti-Immigration Group has History of Hate, Extremism.”

[4] Virginia Abernethy. “The Demographic Transition Revisited: Lessons for Foreign Aid and U.S. Immigration Policy.”

[5] Leon Kolankiewicz & Steven Camarota. “Immigration to the United States and World-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Centre for Immigration Studies, August 2008.

[6] Otis L. Graham Jr. Unguarded Gates A History of America’s Immigration Crisis. Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham·MD. 2004. p. 140.

[7] FAIR. “Immigration, Energy and the Environment.”

[8] Fred Pearce. “How can Nick Griffin’s racist policies belong to the only ‘true green party’?” Guardian, December 10, 2009. .

[9] Betsy Hartmann. “Conserving Racism: The Greening of Hate at Home and Abroad.”

[10] Ross Gittins. “An inconvenient truth about rising immigration.” Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2008.

[11] Mark Diesendorf. “Why Environmentalists must address Population as well as Technology and Consumption.” Powerpoint presentation to a meeting organised by the NSW Greens, June 2008.

[12] Bill Mckibben. “Does it make sense for environmentalists to want to limit immigration?”

[13] George Monbiot. “The Urgent Threat to World Peace is … Canada.” December 1, 2009.

[14] Sara Flounders. “Pentagon’s Role in Global Catastrophe: Add Climate Havoc to War Crimes.” December 19, 2009.

[15] Ian Angus. “Global Warming and the Iraq War.”

[16] Guy Pearce. “Quarry Vision: coal, climate change and the end of the resources boom.” Quarterly Essay, March 2009. .

[17] Patricia Huang. “10 Reasons to Rethink the Immigration-Overpopulation Connection.” DiffernTakes, Spring 2009. .

[18] Larry Lohmann. “Re-imagining the Population Debate.” Corner House Briefing 28, March 2003.

[19]Emily Bourke. “Migrants may pose terrorist threat.” ABC News, August 7, 2009.

Australian Conservation Foundation. “Population boom will bust environment and quality of life.” September 22, 2009.

Sustainable Population Australia. “Kelvin Thomson Joins Population Roll Of Honour.”

[20] “Climate Justice and Migration: Position Statement.”

January 26, 2010 at 1:49 am 1 comment

The dark history of population control

Book review. Matthew Connelly: Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008

A select group of billionaires met in semi-secrecy in May 2009 to find answers to a “nightmarish” concern. Their worst nightmare wasn’t the imminent danger of runaway climate change, the burgeoning levels of hunger worldwide or the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The nightmare was other people – lots of other people.

The self-styled “Good Group” included Microsoft founder Bill Gates, media mogul Ted Turner, David Rockefeller Jr and financiers George Soros and Warren Buffet.

The London Sunday Times said they discussed a plan to tackle overpopulation, something they considered “a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.”

Yet it was far from the first time that the “born to rule” had sought to make rules about who could be born. The brutal fact is that a policy of controlling global population means controlling the poverty stricken – whether the policy be concerned with fertility or migration. More than 90% of projected population growth in the 21st century will occur in the global South. The highest birth rates are in the very poorest nations. The same was true in the 20th century.

However, most supporters say population control is a kindness – a benevolent measure that can lift people out of poverty, hunger and underdevelopment.

Cutting population has been put forward by some as a key measure to address ecological decay and prevent runaway climate change. The simple idea is that fewer people will mean less greenhouse gas emissions. Controlling population is equated with the very survival of humanity.

The fact that, unlike greenhouse gas emissions, population growth is slowing worldwide (the UN projects world population growth will peak by 2050) does not seem to sway the hardcore populationist lobby.

In response, other environmentalists say a focus on population is a dangerous diversion from the urgent need to transition to a zero-carbon economy and keep all remaining fossil fuels in the ground. They say population control schemes are not only ineffective but inevitably treat the victims of social and economic injustice as obstacles to a sustainable society.

Dark past

In these debates, few populationists care to reflect thoroughly on the history of population control. But population control has a dark past, which must be taken into account by everyone who wants to put forward solutions to the ecological crisis.

Matthew Connelly’s exhaustively researched history on the population control movement, Fatal Misconception, describes what happens when powerful, influential groups decide other groups of people are “excess.” “This is a story of how some people have tried to control others without having to answer to anyone,” Connelly says. “They could be ruthless and manipulative in ways that were, and are, shocking.”

He emphasises that population control has never been a global conspiracy. Rather, it reflects a highly conservative social outlook that treats other people as the biggest problem.

“In effect, [populationists] diagnosed political problems as pathologies that had a biological basis. At its most extreme, this logic has led to sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ or ethnic cleansing. But even family planning could be a form of population control when proponents aimed to plan other people’s families.”

Connelly, an associate professor of history at Columbia University, has no time for the “pro-life” religious groups who have opposed population control because they are against contraception or abortion.

The denial of a woman’s right to control her own fertility is simply another form of population control. State-run programs to artificially boost population levels are also contemptible.

“No less manipulative were those who were those who denied hundred of millions more people access to contraceptives and abortion because they wanted them to have more babies,” he says.

But his book deals mostly with the policies, influence and actions of those who organised to cut population in the 20th century. Fatal Misconception “is a history of how some people systematically devalued both the sanctity of life and the autonomy of the individual.”

Influence of eugenics

A key actor in this history is the US feminist and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. In a 2008 interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National’s Phillip Adams, Connelly described Sanger as a tragic figure.

She rose to public prominence in the US before World War I as an outstanding representative of the political struggle for women’s right to safe abortion. She was persecuted and hounded by US government authorities for her pioneering stand.

But by the 1920s, she had gravitated from being a campaigner for working-class women’s rights to a supporter of efforts restrict the right of working-class people to parent children.

In 1925 she said:

“If the millions of dollars which are now expended in the care and maintenance of those who in all kindness should never have been brought into this world were converted to a system of bonuses to unfit parents, paying them to refrain from further parenthood, and continuing to pay them while they controlled their procreative faculties, this would not only be a profitable investment, but the salvation of American civilization.”

Sanger’s shift reflected a political compromise she, along with other early feminist activists such as Britain’s Marie Stopes, Japan’s Shidzue Ishimoto and Sweden’s Elise Ottesen-Jensen, made with the flagging eugenicist movement.

In this period, “With few accomplishments, less public credibility, and little access to policymakers [birth controllers] agreed on the need to ally with eugenicists in every country,” says Connelly.

The influence of eugenicist ideas became increasingly marked in Sanger’s public statements. Connelly records her saying:

“I believe that now, immediately there should be national sterilisation for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them.”

During the interwar years, Sanger played a key role in laying the foundations of a global population control movement.

From the outset, the partnership with the eugenicists warped the movement’s aims. Its prescriptions for the Third World avoided policies that focused on economic development or women’s access to education – despite the proven link between these and lower birth rates.

“But while birth control proponents were quite diverse and usually divided, none took up the cause of women’s education,” says Connelly.

“That would have undermined efforts to forge an alliance with eugenicists, because it would only remind them of how contraception helped educated women avoid contributing to the gene pool. Instead they could agree that the solution was to find a simpler, cheaper contraceptive that could be used by uneducated people.”

Population bomb becomes a Rockefeller baby

However, it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the population control movement began to build real influence in the halls of power.

In this period, the wealth gap between the capitalist West and the global South developed to unheard of proportions. But it was also a period of colonial revolution. Strong nationalist movements in most colonies defeated their colonisers and won independence from European powers in the decades following the war.

The unmistakable poverty in the majority world, along with the periodic rebelliousness of its people, reinforced the support for population control policies in conservative circles.

For those who benefited most from the global status quo, population control measures were a far more palatable alternative to ending Third World poverty or promoting genuine economic development.

“In the aftermath [of WWII], one might have expected the whole idea of shaping populations for political purposed to be discredited, considering the ways in which Nazis tried to control reproduction,” Connelly says.

“Instead, the cause of increasing access to birth control was about to enjoy a remarkable revival. In the years immediately following World War II it won outspoken converts among the leaders of new United Nations agencies. Tentatively at first, but with increasing largesse, it gained the support of the world’s richest foundations. And it would become the official policy of the largest nations.”

By the 1960s, record population growth rates in the global South were exploited to win broader support for population control. Paul Erlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb convinced millions that world’s biggest crisis was overcrowding.

Groups such as the Population Council and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) had already formed but they now began to attract serious private and government funding.

Two of the biggest private sponsors were the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller III served as the Population Council’s first president.

The formation of this new “American population elite” was the subject of a famous 1970 essay by Steve Weissman inRamparts magazine, titled “Why the Population Bomb is a Rockefeller Baby.”

“In the hands of the self-seeking, humanitarianism is the most terrifying ism of all,” Weissman concluded.

Controllers, not doctors

Flush with funds and political clout, the search was on for a suitable method for population control on a mass scale. In the early 1960s, Western-sponsored population control programs in rural India and Pakistan experimented with contraceptives. But the programs failed, mostly because the villagers themselves saw no reason to take the pills.

The populationists turned to a highly intrusive method: the insertion of intrauterine devices (IUDs) into targeted women. The practice of inserting the spiral or ring shaped IUDs inside a woman’s vagina was widely discredited in medical circles. It was known for causing very high rates of infection, pain and bleeding.

Despite this, J. Robert Willson, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Temple University, told the 1962 Population Council conference IUDs should be rolled out regardless. “We have to stop functioning like doctors,” he said.

“In fact, it may well be that the incidence of infection is going to be pretty high in the patients who need the device most. Again, if we look at this from an overall, long-range view (these are the things I have never said out aloud before and I don’t know how it is going to sound), perhaps the individual patient is expendable in the general scheme of things, particularly if the infection she acquires is sterilisation but not lethal.”

Willson’s fellow obstetrician, Alan Guttmacher, an influential figure in the Population Council and IPPF, extolled the benefits of IUDs in a similar vein: “No contraceptive could be cheaper, and also, once the damn thing is in the patient cannot change her mind. In fact, we can hope she will forget it’s there and perhaps in several months wonder why she has not conceived.”

However, in its broader publicity the population control groups took more care to portray their “family planning” programs as a compassionate way to overcome poverty.

But as Connelly notes, “the most effective propaganda for population control in the period did not threaten or cajole, or invoke poor victims. It played on the anxieties about crime, contagion and mass migration, but without actually naming them. It made people feel, viscerally, that it was already too late, and that they were living in a nightmare.”

By the late 1960s, population control became official US government policy. US President Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) openly tied aid to India with it agreeing to push ahead with a population control program. He said: “I’m not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.”

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon (1969-74), dismissed democratic freedoms as condition for countries to qualify for aid, but “population control is a must … population control must go hand in hand with aid,” he said.

A new phase of population control had opened. And it was sterilisation of the “expendables,” rather than contraceptives or IUDs, that was to become the most used method, with horrendous results.

‘War against the poor’

Western populationist groups had been active in India for decades. But by the early 1970s, population control advocates had won over much of the country’s upper-caste political elite.

Remarkably, family planning programs made up 59% of India’s total health budget before the 1973 oil shock, Connelly says.

By the mid-1970s, the Indira Gandhi government had declared the country to be on a “war footing” to stop population growth. Gandhi was open that this “war” would entail undemocratic measures. She said: “Some personal rights have to be kept in abeyance for the human rights of the nation, the right to live, the right to progress.”

Connelly describes the Indian campaign of as an undeclared “war against the poor.””Sterilisation became a condition not just for land allotments, but for irrigation water, electricity, ration cards, rickshaw licences, medical care, and rises and promotions,” he writes.

“Everyone from senior government officials to train conductors to policemen, was given a sterilisation quota. This created a nationwide market, in which people bought and sold, sometimes more than once, the capacity to reproduce. Of course, for the very poorest, with no money and nothing else to sell, sterilisation in such conditions was not really a choice.”

Connelly cites figures from the state of Uttar Pradesh. People from lowest caste made up “29% of the population, but were 41% of those vasectomised”.

Government officials soon discovered that offering incentives and disincentives was not enough to meet the ever-rising sterilisation targets set. More repressive measures became common.

In 1976, the state of Maharastra proposed jailing parents with more than three children who refused sterilisation. The central government said it would not block the plan. In one case, a village in the state of Haryana “was surrounded by police, hundreds were taken into custody, and every eligible male was sterilised.”

India’s state teachers were also brought into the hysterical population control campaign. According to Connelly, teachers “like everyone else could be demoted, fired, or threatened with arrest. They, in turn, sometimes expelled students when their parents did not submit to sterilisation.”


In China, after years of promoting an artificially high birth rate, the ruling Chinese bureaucracy flipped to the complete opposite. It embarked on its own population control program in 1979.

For many years couples has to apply to the state for permission to have a child. One permit from the 1980s said: “Based on the nationally issued population plan targets combined with the need for late marriage, late birth, and fewer births, it is agreed that you may give birth to a child during [198-]; the quote is valid for this year and cannot be transferred.”

Each Chinese province worked out its own system of incentives and disincentives to meet its population control quota. Connelly give a typical example from Hubei province:

“If parents had only one child, they were to be given subsidies for health care, priority in housing and extra retirement pay. The child was also favoured with preferred access to schools, university and employment. But if the parents had another child, they were required to repay these benefits. As for those who had two or more children, both mother and father were docked 10% of their pay for a period of 14 years.”

But as in India, population control in China also relied on repressive force. In the “most coercive phase in the whole history of China’s one-child policy [in the 1980s] all women with one child were to be inserted with a stainless-steel tamper-resistant IUD, all parents with two or more children were to be sterilised, and all unauthorised pregnancies aborted.”

Defeat of the ‘old guard’

As knowledge of the human rights abuses spread, and a determined women’s rights movement arose (especially in the South), the institutional powerbase of the population controllers in the West gradually receded. Connelly cites the 1984 formation of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights as an important moment in the fightback. The feminist network of activists “condemned both abusive population control programs and the efforts to force women to bear unwanted children.”

The “old guard” of the international population control movement suffered a big defeat at the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo. Under pressure from Third World delegates, the conference formally renounced population control as its aim.

“The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they know it themselves”, Connelly concludes.

“But if the idea of planning other people’s families is now discredited, this very human tendency is still with us. The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the ‘unfit’, or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them.

“It appealed to the rich and powerful because, with the spread of emancipatory movements and the integration of markets, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That’s why opponents were correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished history of imperialism.”

Connelly ends his history with a call for a “commitment to reproductive freedom, not just a fear of the future … [the future] must be both pro-life and pro-choice, combining forces to oppose population control of any kind.”

November 24, 2009 at 11:06 pm 1 comment

Lester Brown on Plan B 3.0 for winning a safe climate

Below US ecologist Lester Brown explains the key elements of his newest version of his book Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

You can download the first version of Plan B from the Earth Policy Institute website for free.

The Plan advocates cutting 80% of emissions by 2020. He argues the kind of transition is necessary, and completely possible with the present industrial capacity of the world today, if there is the political will to act.

In one example, he points out that coal amounts to 40% of energy today. To replace coal-fired power with wind power we would need to build 1.5 million wind towers in a decade. Sound like a big ask? Not when the world produces 65 million cars every year.

I also endorse his comments on stabilising population growth – there is no way to do this without eradicating poverty worldwide. Ending poverty cannot be separated from genuine ecological aims.

July 18, 2009 at 9:01 am Leave a comment

Older Posts