During the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, world-renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall asserted that “most environmental problems wouldn’t exist” if the world’s population was at the level it was at 500 years ago. I have great respect for Dr. Goodall, but this perspective is simplistic at best and highly problematic at worst.
Problems commonly associated with overpopulation, namely food insecurity, water scarcity, and poverty, are already relevant in international development discussions. The solutions touted by those who believe overpopulation to be the root of the world’s problems are also eerily similar to global development goals: Overcoming gender inequality, improving equitable resource distribution, and improving education and family planning accessibility. Despite advocating for many of the same policies, overpopulation theorists fail to recognize the diversity of global consumption patterns and technology’s impact on production efficiency. Overpopulation theories are simplistic in thinking. They ignore that not every population’s impact on the environment is the same — pretending otherwise is unhelpful, as it shifts the burden of global environmental issues on developing nations that, ironically, exhibit far lower ecological footprints per capita than developed countries.
Environmentalists must recognize the true driver of environmental problems: a global economic system that has produced radical concentrations of wealth, enabling a fraction of the world’s population to grossly over-consume. Privatization, deregulation, and resource colonization (pinnacles of neoliberal policy), all ushered in en masse in the 1980s, have significantly increased the speed of environmental destruction. Focusing environmental discourse on overpopulation ignores the root of environmental problems and is wasteful of the precious time the world has left to avoid a series of ecological catastrophes.
The world’s wealthiest 1% were responsible for the same amount of emissions as the poorest 50% (roughly 3.1 billion people) from 1990-2015. Over the same period, the wealthiest 10% were responsible for 52% of all global emissions. Overwhelmingly, most population growth in the 21st century will occur in developing countries. Population booms are common for industrializing nations — as living standards start to improve, death rates start to fall. On the other hand, birth rates remain steady for a while longer (until further development has taken place, namely education), leading to an explosion in population.
Consequently, this often leads to deteriorating economic conditions in the short term, known as a ‘demographic trap.’ Developing governments are forced to spend most of their budgets (which are often constrained by foreign debt payments to begin with) on necessities such as housing, limiting the availability of government investments in education, healthcare, and other sectors. Additionally, population booms tend to cause short-term overexploitation of non-renewable resources, further damaging a nation’s long-term economic prospects. This phenomenon demonstrates that rapid population growth often comes with environmental deterioration. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that ambient environmental quality recovers as development progresses. On the other hand, overconsumption from the world’s wealthiest represents a long-term lifestyle trend.
Achieving decarbonization and sustainable economies should be a long-term goal for every nation, of course. However, overpopulation adheres to the logical fallacy of equivalency; not every individual has the same impact, demonstrated by the world’s varying per capita environmental footprints. Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudia Arabia, and Australia have some of the world’s highest per capita carbon footprints, far greater than any developing nation. Often, politicians from developed countries point the finger of blame at China and India for climate change. While both nations contribute a sizable chunk of global greenhouse emissions, their per capita carbon footprints are drastically smaller than developed countries.
Even as early as the 19th century, overpopulation theories were being explored. One such example is Thomas Robert Malthus’s “Malthusian disaster” theory, which predicted that population growth would outpace food production and the world’s finite resources, leading to mass death. Malthus’s theory came before globalization and technological proliferation, which disproved his theory by enabling production deficits and surpluses to be rectified through global trade. As such, this theory is no longer relevant to international discussions of famine. Contemporary discussions on food insecurity are based on the relationship between food production and distribution, rather than production.
Much like how discussions of famine have evolved to focus on equitable distribution, so too must environmental circles. The global population is expected to stabilize at around 11 billion people. Consider an earlier statistic: the world’s richest 1% from 1995-2015 contributed emissions totaling the world’s poorest 3.1 billion people (more than one quarter of the expected future global population). There are ample resources on this planet to sustain modest livelihoods for several billion people. Solving environmental problems is a matter of investing in technology to lower the marginal abatement cost of production, restoring and expanding protected conservation zones, reducing residual discharges, internalizing the externalities (i.e., air pollution) of resource production and development, incentivizing environmentally friendly market choices, and most of all, reigning in the power of corporations and elite members of society through progressive taxation and regulation.
What I’m describing is an ideological shift away from neoliberalism. The past 40 years have demonstrated that, when given the opportunity, corporations and the privileged elite will happily trade the middle class’s well-being for opportunities to perpetuate their self-interest. Environmentalists must recognize that to convince the world of the need for greater environmental preservation; they must couple it with humanitarian goals. Overpopulation tends to drift into eco-fascist circles (who believe in radical population reductions to protect the earth), demonstrating the problematic underlying assumptions and associations with the idea.
Simply put, radical environmentalist factions are damaging their own authority by employing an eco-centric, fringe perspective rather than attempting to perpetuate the merging of sustainability into the mainstream. Many positive indicators suggest that global markets are increasingly giving the ‘thumbs up’ to green projects. Renewable energy and other sustainable stocks fared well in 2020, despite Covid-19 unleashing a devastating recession on the world. Corporate social responsibility is an increasingly hot button topic among executive circles — brought on by popular consumer demand. Environmentalists are finally starting to see the benefits of decades of work. No longer is environmentalism seen as a hippie, anti-development ideology, but rather one that encapsulates the direction the global economy is heading in. Advocates of overpopulation talking points, such as Jane Goodall, should take note of this, as they risk damaging the environmental movements’ momentum.