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Are too many people the problem?

John Bell

November 20, 2011

Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis

Written by Ian Angus and Simon Butler

Reviewed by John Bell

According to the United Nations, the population odometer just clicked over. There are now seven billion people on Earth.

Marking the occasion was an avalanche of media attention. Interviews, articles and analysis were almost unanimous in assuming that the number constitutes “overpopulation” and is responsible one way or another for poverty, hunger and environmental degradation.

In the face of this seeming consensus on “overpopulation,” the arrival of Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis could not be more timely or welcome. Co-authors Ian Angus and Simon Butler demand we take a step back and question the common sense assumptions that underlie the “overpopulation” argument. The result: what they call “populationism” is based more on ideological assumption than fact.

They point out that accepting “overpopulation” as a fact leads directly to calls for immigration controls. It is argued that, since residents of industrialized nations like Canada have bigger “carbon footprints”, we are doing the world a favour by shutting our borders, especially to people from places which produce lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Anne and Paul Ehrlich, whose books The Population Bomb and The Population Explosion are the founding documents of the populationist movement, put it plainly: “The flow of immigrants into the United States should be dampened, simply because the world cannot afford more Americans.”

However well meaning, such arguments provide “progressive” cover for racist policies that shift the blame for environmental crisis onto the shoulders of those least responsible for creating that crisis.

Angus and Butler do a superb job of breaking down the number to show that even with current methods, the world produces more than enough food to satisfy the needs of all seven billion of us. World hunger results not from too many mouths, but from wasteful practices, high prices and, worst of all, conversion of food into fuel for cars.

Instead of blaming people, the authors point to the profiteering of big corporate agriculture: “Blaming food shortages on overpopulation downplays the fact that the existing global food system is grossly inequitable, wasteful and inefficient. Plenty of food is grown, but it isn’t available to hungry people.”

The issue of women’s rights and reproductive choice is not ignored; the authors are staunch supporters of birth control and abortion rights. But they describe how good intentions lead in practice to coercive tactics. Improving the economic situation of women around the world, giving them more choice in all areas of their lives, will result in better reproductive choices as well.

They also take on the argument that “overpopulation” equals “over-consumption,” especially in developed nations like Canada; that it is our individual choices that cause environmental degradation and climate change. As the authors point out, such descriptions make no attempt to separate individual consumption from corporate consumption.

They point out that 99 per cent of the solid waste that ends up in landfills comes from industrial processes, not individual consumption. And in Canada, only 34 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from individual cars and homes, with the rest coming from corporate sources.

Angus and Butler would be the first to agree that the 34 per cent figure should and could be lowered. But they clearly show that consumers have few real choices and options to reduce their “footprint.” In fact, they point out that record numbers of us are trying to change our consumption behaviour, and carbon emissions continue to soar.

Both Angus and Butler are socialists, and their central argument–that it is not simply our numbers, but how our society is organized to benefit only a few–is one that needs to be heard in the environmental movement. Whether or not grouping around the label of “ecosocialism,” as Angus and Bulter advocate, is the best way to bring this message into the movement is debatable.

What is certain, and what Too Many People? argues most persuasively, is that those who argue for the need to reduce population are unwilling or unable to consider the possibility of a different social organization, one that places harmony among people and between people and the environment.

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