The topic of overpopulation is linked to racism, eugenics, and eco-fascism — joy thieves for those who are touched by them.
We’re gonna see the dog-whistles ramp up as the planet exceeds 8 billion humans, so I wanna take today’s newsletter to point out the joylessness of focusing on the overpopulation narrative.
The Harm of the Overpopulation Myth
The overpopulation theory is supported by staunch environmentalists, such as David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Chris Packham. So, you’d be forgiven for believing overpopulation is a primary threat and a key contributor to climate change.
More often than not, the overpopulation message points towards people of colour, particularly in the global south, undertaking steps to control their population growth. In a video by WWF David Attenborough states, ‘saving the planet is within reach’ if we ‘stabalise the human population as low as we fairly can’, while people of colour flash across the screen, communicating the message of which populations require control. WWF later deleted the video, and apologised for the overt racism.
Overpopulation ideologies that link or blame the demise of nature, biodiversity, and ecosystems on overpopulation fall into Eco-Fascism. Overpopulation ideologies that link or blame the demise of nature, biodiversity, and ecosystems on overpopulation fall into Eco-Fascism. These ideologies often stem from the idea that previously-colonised countries have populations that grow ‘too large, too quickly’. This notion removes accountability from colonising countries, which often over-consume the earth’s resources and have more global power to make change. Instead, it seats the problem with marginalised people, who have less global power and consume far less.
This constant pointing towards previously colonised, global south countries allows those in the global north to wrongly focus on people of colour as the environmental issue instead of their own consumption, fossil fuel emissions, and industrial agriculture.
These harmful messages, especially from well-respected individuals and organisations, translate to actual harm for communities in the global south, people of colour, the poor, the disabled, and women.
Reproductive Rights Are Compromised
When the world focuses on overpopulation, it is more often than not women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) people who suffer the most. Population control programs are often anti-poor, anti-black, anti-non-white and anti-disabled, forcing joylessness on marginalised communities who lose the human right to autonomy and choice. Not sure you believe it? Just look at this list of forced sterilisations from around the world.
- Bangladesh: Women and men are incentivised to undergo free sterilisation for money and clothing. Funded by northern Europe and the United States.
- Brazil: In the 70s and 80s, sterilisation was funded by the USA. Some employers asked women to provide proof they had been sterilised to get a job, as they didn’t want to offer maternity leave. Female sterilisation is higher among less educated, black and indigenous communities (Amorim et al. 2008)
- Canada: As recently as 2017, a number of Indigenous women were unable to see their newborn babies unless they agreed to sterilisation.
- China: In 2020, it was reported that large-scale compulsory sterilisation was being carried out as part of a cultural genocide of Uyghurs.
- India: Sterilisation was incentivised for men in the 1970s, but changed to coercing women through withholding social welfare. Sterilisation policies are still enforced, targeting mostly indigenous and lower-class women, who are taken to ‘sterilisation camps’.
- Israel: Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants have been intimidated or tricked into taking contraceptive shots.
- Peru: President Alberto Fujimori accused of genocide and crimes against humanity due to a sterilisation program against indigenous people.
- South Africa: Reports of HIV-positive women sterilised without their informed consent.
- USA: The inability to pay for raising children has been a reason courts have ordered coercive or compulsory sterilisation of both men and women.
- Uzbekistan: Forced and coerced sterilisation for women with two or three children.
Do you see how dangerous and joy-stealing the overpopulation myth can be? Sterilisation programs rip bodily autonomy and fundamental rights from people, primarily women, worldwide. It is never rich white people who are targeted, and we must remember this.
Access to Health Care for All
Of course, freely available sexual health care and resources, alongside freedom of choice and lack of coercion, are integral to women’s living standards improving. These social initiatives are needed, and it goes without saying (but I will say it just in case), I fundamentally support these initiatives.
Environmentalists supporting health rights is an essential element of global intersectional justice. However, access to family planning services doesn’t necessarily;
- make a significant impact on international population figures
- make a nation more ‘sustainable’ or carbon-efficient
- directly help a country mitigate the impacts of climate change
I find it bemusing when environmentalists choose overpopulation narratives (hidden behind AFAB rights) as critical environmental protection while simultaneously forgoing supporting topics like divestment from fossil fuels, dismantling capitalism, decreasing consumption, and redistributing wealth.
Real Issues, Joyful Solutions
There’s no denying global population is growing. If the world is ‘overpopulated’ then I see no solutions that drastically reduce the total population with joy instead of harm.
If we only have harmful, joyless solutions, we must look to other areas to find joyful, just, and equitable solutions to climate change. In a world with 8 billion people, we must be strategic with resource use and maintenance to provide access to all without using more resources than the planet can replenish.
The list below indicates climate issues that don’t involve population control alongside solutions that have significant potential to avoid harm. They are also more likely to raise living standards globally, reduce carbon emissions and help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Issue: Capitalism and Wealth Disparity.
Joyful Solution: Dismantle Capitalism and Redistribute Wealth.
Issue: Negligible Governments and Businesses.
Joyful Solution: Accountability and Environmental Justice.
Issue: Fossil Fuels and Green House Gas Emissions.
Joyful Solution: Divestment from Fossil Fuels, Investment in Renewable Energy.
Issue: Industrial Agriculture.
Joyful Solution: Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture.
Capitalism is the driving economic platform for continual, never-ending growth. Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible*, and we (rich nations) are already consuming more than the world can replenish.
Capitalism also enables the infinite accumulation of wealth. We have more millionaires (the prominent environmentalists mentioned at the beginning included) and billionaires than ever before. As they accumulate wealth and assets, they continue to get richer. Their wealth KEEPS GROWING, and as the rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer, decreasing their quality of life.
*I know what you’re thinking. I’ve said, ‘infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible’. Population growth can’t be infinite on a finite planet either then, can it?
At some point, we may reach a time when there are too many people to sustain. But I want us to question, have really reached that point or…
- do the wealthiest individuals over-consume and resist changing over-indulgent lifestyles?
- do we live within a system that depletes resources and eco-systems rather than sustaining them?
- do we have inequitable distribution of resources?
- do industries degrade rather than protect the environment?
Basically, I’m asking if we’re jumping the gun with the overpopulation narrative. We have so many options left to explore when it comes to sustaining every person on the planet that until we live in a sustainable and equitable world, it’s hard to tell at what point the world is actually overpopulated.
We need to reject this system of inequality and overconsumption and create a global community that shares and protects all resources to enable a just and joyful world for all.
In a world without super-rich (who have the most significant carbon footprints) and proper resource protection, we may be able to successfully limit the impact of climate change AND sustain the population.
Accountability for Businesses and Government
With 97% of climate scientists speaking urgently about climate change and impending disasters, you would hope governments and businesses would buck up and start taking urgent action.
In fact, instead of regulating and defunding polluting businesses to invest in sustainable options, we’ve seen many governments continue to support polluters. The UK government has even agreed to open new North Sea oil fields, despite knowing the environmental costs of such projects.
It’s grotesque that our political and economic system acts negligently and harmfully towards people worldwide.
We need businesses that operate for social and environmental good first instead of constantly trashing ecosystems in pursuit of profits to make a handful of people richer.
We need governments to create and uphold policies for social and environmental good, as well as manage the rapid fade out of polluters.
We need those with power who fail to protect people and the planet from harm to be held accountable for that harm.
Imagine if accountability for pollution was legislated — what joy that would look like.
Greenhouse gases (GHG) are emitted in the pursuit of fossil fuels and industrialisation — whether it’s the over-farming of cattle, the fracking of gas, or the production of plastics; problematic gases are emitted that change our climate, increasing global temperature. We need to stay below 1.5C warming to mitigate global climate catastrophes, and we do that by limiting our carbon and other GHG emissions.
According to Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, it is the world’s richest who are ‘exhausting the world’s carbon budget’.
- Emissions rose by 60% between 1990 to 2015.
- The increase in emissions from the richest 1% (those earning over $100,000 per year) was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half of the global population.
- The richest 10% of the global population (those earning $35,000 per year) are responsible for 52% of global emissions over the 25-year period.
Furthermore, the Carbon Majors Report found that 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. That same report states that ‘ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988’.
The above reports clearly indicate the issue is less about population and more about who critical consumers and emitters are i.e., the rich and businesses. Linking this back to capitalism, the poor — which the majority of the population can identify — are not primarily responsible for climate change. Therefore population narratives at this point are moot.
While we as individuals are not able to single-handed save the planet, our actions and our money still matters. Sustainable/ethical purchases are essential, and so is sustainable, ethical investment. Not only does it matter where we spend our money, but it also matters where we store it, where we save it, and where we invest it. It also matters where intuitions, such as banks, universities, and governments, put their money.
The sad truth is that many of these institutions invest in fossil fuels. We need them to divest and make significant investments in renewables — Wind, hydro, and solar.
The Beef with Agriculture
How we farm land is highly disruptive, not just in terms of GHG emissions but also biodiversity.
Soil is alive, a living thing containing insects, microbes, and connective systems that help store carbon. Tilling soil, chemical fertilisers, mono-crops, mono-livestock, and pesticides kill that life and destroy the soil’s microbial biodiversity. Soil quickly becomes infertile, growing food becomes more challenging, and land becomes more prone to flooding and drought.
We already have enough food to feed the global population, so farming is related to two issues.
- Food/fertile land is disproportionately distributed — usually, the rich and white have access to the most fertile land and a broader food choice.
- Our current agricultural practices degrade the soil, and therefore we lose eligible land to farm on every year.
We have enough food for everyone and know we are losing fertile soil. Shouldn’t we focus on protecting and regenerating soil with sustainable growing practices and distributing food equitably instead of talking about overpopulation?
The overpopulation myth is perpetuated through media and high-profile figures who use environmentalism as the reason for population narratives. But it is a conversation with little joy, outweighed by harm. It is a narrative that punches down at those with little power instead of up to those that have immense power. It holds the marginalised ‘accountable’ while ignoring those with the ability and power to make actual change.
A joyful future is possible for everyone if we adopt sustainable and regenerative social, environmental and economic practices that raise living standards equitably and replenish resources across the world.
Will life look different? Probably.
But everyone on this planet will have:
Chemical free food
What more could we want?