Too many people, or too much misanthropy?

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.

This entry was posted in General and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Too many people, or too much misanthropy?

  1. Thanks for this post, Brendan. I see where you’re coming from, and you’re definitely not the first person to accuse ecologists and environmentalists of being misanthropic or anti-human. But I do have a few problems with your characterization of the deep ecologist’s position on this.

    First of all, I’ve never heard any environmentalist or deep ecologist seriously propose killing or sterilizing individuals as a solution to the population crisis. (Except maybe out of frustration or despair, speaking in an emotional and intentionally hyperbolic way. Do you have any citations for where you’ve seen this claim being made as a serious proposal?) There’s one very good reason for this: the study of population dynamics in the science of ecology clearly links population growth to resource availability. This applies to humans as well. In other words, the problem of human over-population is directly related to our ability to, and even our obsession with, extracting increasing value out of our available resources. An organized campaign to kill or sterilize humans in order to decrease our numbers would be just as ineffective as similar attempts to control animal and plant populations through limited hunting or harvesting (in other words, not very effective at all).

    Second of all, as Naess says in his principles of deep ecology, the flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. Since no one seriously believes that a society that sanctions organized killing or forced sterilization of individuals could be considered a flourishing culture in any respect (and, by definition, human life cannot flourish if it is prevented or prematurely ended), this to me immediately suggests that Naess has in mind some other solution than the one you ascribe to him. (In fact, your claim that he is a misanthrope is directly contradicted by his very first principle, which affirms that human life and well-being have value in and of themselves.) He talks at length about what this alternate solution is, namely a fundamental change in our worldview from one that sees resource extraction and endless growth as the primary goal of human society, to one that sees the natural world as valuable in its own right and emphasizes quality of life over quantitative measures of “progress.” He is explicitly concerned for the quality of life for humans as well as nonhuman beings and believes that the quality of human life can be greatly improved by adopting principles of deep ecology; that by adopting these principles, the human population will naturally bring itself into proper balance with its supporting environments (just as happens with every other species on the planet). This does not sound like misanthropy to me, unless we assume that misanthropy means promoting a philosophy or worldview that happens to be at odds with the one that is currently held by the mainstream. In other words, if this is misanthropy, then we might as well say that refusing to let a child have ice cream every night for dinner is child abuse.

    Thirdly, you rightly say that “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.” But you yourself point out that, among those ecologists and environmentalists you quote, over-population is only one concern among many and that curbing over-population is only one of several different suggested changes that need to be made. Naess, for instance, lists changes to “policies [that] affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures” in his sixth principle. Foreman mentions the problem of over-population only once among his sixteen principles, and even when he does so he does not make any explicit suggestion about how this problem should be dealt with, only that it must be acknowledged to be a problem. So again, I am not sure who you are referring to, other than a straw man, when you argue that we can’t reduce all environmental issues to the problem of over-population. I’m not aware of anyone who says that we can or should. Even your very first quote, from Ehrlich, does not suggest that all of these various problems, which can be traced back to over-population, therefore have only one single solution — rather, he is pointing out what he sees as being a common cause. To use another emotionally charged metaphor, this would be like saying that because we can trace STDs, unwanted pregnancies and rape back to sex, that sex is therefore inherently bad and the “only solution” to all of these problems is abstinence-only education. We know that this kind of simplistic thinking does not work. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge a common thread that runs through all of these related issues; in fact, acknowledging what these problems have in common can give us the perspective necessary to approach these related problems in more practical ways.

    Fourthly, in general I think that the accusation that nature writers in the American tradition are “anti-civilization” is problematic because it takes for granted that American society is the prototype of civilization. It’s important to place these writers in context and realize that they were critiquing the society in which they lived, and not necessarily “civilization” as a whole in all its possible forms. Many of them were in fact challenging their contemporaries to work towards new ways of living in society. Again, Naess explicitly points this out in his principles of deep ecology by stating that we need to rework the way we imagine human culture and that, if we are successful, society will look very different from how it does today. I tend to give these writers and thinkers at least enough credit to believe they are intelligent enough to recognize they are writing from a particular perspective and in a particular context. I also happen to agree with many of them that we should be critical of certain aspects of our current society. Again, this is only misanthropy if we assume that criticizing the way humans currently live in some cultures (namely, Western industrialized cultures) is equivalent to rejecting all possible forms of human society.

    I agree with you that there are underlying class and race issues here, and that the problem is not how many of us there are, but how resources are distributed. I find it kind of weird that you are criticizing some of the very writers who have put principles of simple living and voluntary poverty at the center of their critiques of current society, for the very sake of emphasizing a better quality of life for everyone. (There are some people who would claim that simple living is itself misanthropic, because it represents a withdrawal from society and a refusal to engage in relationships of trade via the market economy that dominates most social interactions today. Needless to say, I think those people are full of shit.) There’s plenty of evidence that principles of simple living, coupled with access to education and equal opportunities (especially for women) along with adequate medical care, play a very big role in decreasing population growth naturally. In fact, projections of population growth have repeatedly over-estimated — back in the 1980s, for instance, it was believed that we were going to hit 10 billion people three years ago. It turns out that providing for the health and well-being of humans is a far more effective curb on population growth than any campaign of killing or sterilization. (And this is true among other animals as well — for instance, the hunting of cougars in the Pacific Northwest in order to curb the population actually resulted in an increase in injuries and deaths during human-cougar encounters because such hunting destabilized familial and territorial relationships, whereas when the cougar population was left to regulate itself without the interference of human hunters, the result was fewer “rogue” young male cougars wandering into suburban neighborhoods and encountering humans while in search of new territory.)

    Jeff tells me that I really need to end this comment by emphasizing that I value our friendship and that your blog is one of the only ones I actually still read these days. 🙂 Seriously. Sorry for the comment-dump. It’s just, deep ecology has been a bit of an obsession for me over the past few years, and it seems to me that accusations of misanthropy leveled at environmentalists outnumber actual instances of misanthropy among environmentalists by at least 100 to 1 (but probably closer to 10,000 to 1 or maybe even 1 million to 1). So…. it made me a little sad to see you doing it. 🙁 Again, I value our friendship. Please don’t be mad at me.

  2. Pingback: People. What a bunch of bastards. | Working the Three Realms

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *