[Update: See John Feeney's excellent response to Monbiot here.]
A few people have pointed me to George Monbiot’s recent article on population in the Guardian. While it is welcome that Monbiot addresses the issue I wanted to reply because I found it really disappointing, failing to join the dots and in some ways misleading.
The main thrust of the article is that some environmentalists complain the issue of population is ignored- perhaps for political reasons- even though it is the “number one environmental problem” and Monbiot sets out to discuss whether this is in fact true. The basic issue in this debate is, can we really give out as it were about the large populations of the developing world when over-consumption in the West is in fact having a bigger environmental impact?
However, this is really a straw dog issue because as Ehrlich (whom he refers to) pointed out in The Population Bomb population and consumption are two sides of the same coin. It is in my opinion quite meaningless to speak about which is the greater issue, like we are dealing with some kind of Top of the Apocalyptic Pops.
Ehrlich’s famous formula- which should be on every high-school curriculum- is:
I (Impact) = P (population) x A (Affluence) x T (Technology)
The issues of consumption and population are quite simply inseparable. If the population increases, there will be less resources to go around, so in theory we can increase the population so long as we reduce per capita consumption- and vice-a-versa.
Monbiot then presents some statistics to demonstrate that economic growth is projected to have a bigger impact than population growth:
“Many economists predict that, occasional recessions notwithstanding, the global economy will grow by about 3% a year this century. Governments will do all they can to prove them right. A steady growth rate of 3% means a doubling of economic activity every 23 years. By 2100, in other words, global consumption will increase by about 1,600%.”
Any one who knows about Peak oil can see that this is impossible. Peak oil will end the past 150-year period of growth and lead to a shrinking economy. But Monbiot has never really satisfactorily bitten the Peak oil bullet, although more recently he has been coming closer.
There are a number of issues apart from this that Monbiot has missed:
Firstly, there is hardly as government in the world which does not assume that population growth is an inherently good thing. in other words, in the world of politics, it is not a question of economic OR population growth- they are treated as essentially the same thing, one leading to another. More people means more economic activity, more consumers, a larger pool of workers that can help keep down wages. Population growth is not an alternative to economic growth so much as a requirement for economic growth.
Secondly, in a similar way, it is misleading to treat the low-birth-rate, high-consuming “rich” as separate from the high-birth rate low-consuming (per capita) poor as if they are separate species. This is the “politically correct” excuse that is always used for avoiding or downplaying the population issue, and Monbiot ends his article with this point:
“to suggest… that population growth is largely responsible for the ecological crisis is to blame the poor for the excesses of the rich.”
But it is not simply that there are rich people in the world and then there are poor people; it is more that there are rich people because there are poor people- the one group depends in effect on the other (the poor do low-paid work for the rich). In a sense, the “poor” are simply “that group of people that have failed as yet to become rich”. The rich and the poor of the world are not separate species; wealth is not genetic. It is a one-world system in which the activities of one group effect the activities of the other- and of both groups, the impact on the whole system.
This mistake is the same one that is found in the “diffusion of affluence” theory in mainstream economic theory: “A rising tide will rise all boats”. The argument goes: look at the rich world: they seem to have controlled their birth rates; this is because of education, particularly of women, which leads to economic growth, which leads to falling birth rates. The way to deal with global population is education and development.”
The problem is, as Monbiot is clearly aware, there are not enough resources for everyone to enjoy a western lifestyle, so this diffusion will never happen to any great degree; and poor people generally want to increase their standard of living.
For example, Cuba has been pointed to as representing the kind of standard of living that could be sustainable if it were equally distributed throughout the world- about a quarter of the per capita resource consumption of the average European The problem is, it is not at all clear that Cubans are content with this standard of living; while few in the more affluent world would accept a cut to that level. But even if this was acceptable and achievable, if the worlds’ population continues to grow, this standard will have to be continually lowered.
Thirdly, this kind of debate always tends to ignore processes and the demographic momentum:
Playing around with statistics to show that consumption is the real problem, not population, as Monbiot does, again fails to see that the two issues are inextricably linked. For example, it is often said, if we all become vegetarian, the world could support a bigger population. But what happens then if we achieve this and the population continues to grow?
Presumably, the response to those who try to raise the issue of population control will once again be:
“Ah, yes, but if we all just live on one bowl of rice a day and huddle round a single light bulb the world could support twice the current population! Let’s have 10 billion! Let’s have 20 billion!”
Population growth rates have been declining, but as Stanton has argued, it is the total number of people added each year- currently about 80million- not the rate. In a world already over-populated, any further numerical increase will make things worse.
Another issue that Stanton discusses that is really mentioned is the concept of “aggressive breeding” whereby one ethnic group encourages rapid population growth as a deliberate strategy in order to outnumber a rival group. One of the examples he gives is of Albanians with a high birth rate immigrating to Serbia which ultimately lead to war. The peace-keeping efforts of the west have failed to address the demographic causes of this war and if the peace-keeping forces are ever to leave, the underlying causes are still there.
Underpinning this whole debate is the reality that the world is already in an advanced state of overpopulation, by whatever measure you care to choose, and that this is a result of the cheap fossil fuel era. So whatever we do, whatever our take on the issue, we have to acknowledge that population will fall. Talking about how if food and resources were rearranged we could feed 6.5 billion or more is meaningless when the production of these resources is unsustainable and will surely decline- even as we are committed to another couple of billion people on the planet because of the demographic momentum.
So what we need is a more sophisticated, systemic understanding of these issues, not a kind of competition by different camps competing for “their” issue to take priority. I dont think that those who are writing about population are necessarily doing that; it seems that way because the issue is generally ignored and considered taboo.
Among the many things we need to do to create a sustainable culture is to have a mature approach to our total numbers, as well as and always in the same breath as limiting our personal consumption of resources. The discussion needs to be focussed around “what standard of living for what number of people relative to what degree of availability of sustainable resources”.
Any discussion of an Energy Descent Plan, for example, MUST in my opinion include an analysis of Population- not just the total number of inhabitants in an area today, but what the trend is, what the growth rate is, and include in such a report recommendations for limiting population. It is surely obvious that any measures to address the myriad of environmental issues we face will be easier to implement with fewer numbers.
The environmental crisis is a result of the Total Human Footprint. Any discussion of sustainability that ignores population is going nowhere.