Back in 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. In a chapter called “A Dying Planet” he listed a number of threats to the stability and diversity of global ecosystems, and then concluded that:
the causal chain of the deterioration is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails [from aircraft], inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide – all can be traced easily to too many people.
Then in 1986 Arne Naess and George Sessions published their eight “Platform Principles” of Deep Ecology, the fourth of which says: “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.”
And in 1991, Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, wrote sixteen principles of ecological activism which included statements like these: “A placing of Earth first in all decisions, even ahead of human welfare if necessary”, “An enthusiastic embracing of the philosophy of Deep Ecology or biocentrism”, and “A recognition that there are far too many human beings on earth.”
These are not the only examples, of course; but they are the examples which stand out in my mind. And I have heard them repeated by lots of well-meaning, serious people who care about the environment, as much as I do. But it’s nothing but misanthropy.
Now it’s certainly true that the human population is growing. A prediction made in 2005 said that there will be 8.9 billion of us by the year 2050, and most of this population growth will be in the world’s poorest countries. (1) A report issued by the World Wildlife Federation in 2002 suggested that by 2050 the world’s ecosystems will no longer be able to support this population growth. (2) But the idea that curbing or reversing population growth, is all we have to do to fix global warming, species extinction, and climate change, is pure misanthropy. It is as if we don’t want to think about the serious subtleties and complexities of a problem as big as global warming, and the “prisoner’s dilemma” forces at work within economics which created it. It’s as if we don’t want to fix our system: we just want to kill or sterilize lots of other people to make the problem go away, and thus other people will have fixed our problem for us.
In the argument that population growth is the source of our environmental crisis, the doubts about the value of civilization which began with writers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, had blossomed into undisguised misanthropy. But who shall we sterilize in order to prevent humanity from growing? Poor people in poor countries, where the population growth is predicted to be highest? And who shall decide who to sterilize? The governments of rich countries? There is a hidden element of race and class privilege inherent in this kind of thinking, and I don’t like it.
Moreover, the problem with population as it is normally described assumes that every human being consumes the same volume of resources and energy, but that assumption is simply false. Our situation is such that one country, the United States, with 10% of the world’s population, consumes around 25% of all the world’s available energy. Another block of countries with around the same fraction of the world’s population, the European Union, consumes around 20% of all the world’s energy. So the problem is not how many of us there are; the problem is the way consumer demand is unjustly distributed. Thus if the world’s population was much smaller, but there were a few countries whose demand for consumer goods was very high, then we could have a worse environmental problem, not a solved problem. The real problem with pollution and resource depletion is the nature and the distribution of economic demand. To reduce it down to the stupidly simplistic problem of population is to dress up a hatred of humanity in the fine clothes of environmental care.
For the sake of the earth, and for the sake of the flourishing of human life and culture too, we should do better.
1. “40% rise in world population by 2050” Associated Press 25 February 2005.
2. Mark Townsend and Jason Burke, “Earth will expire by 2050” The Observer 7 July 2002.