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Too Many People?


Ian Angus and Simon Butler ’s new book about population control, or “populationism” in the widest sense, is invaluable for people concerned about climate change, climate justice, environmental racism, and system change. Angus and Butler are clear about the urgency of drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and that there is simply not time for the detours, deflections, and damage caused by “population bomb” theories. Too Many People? is also good historical analysis: it exposes the illogical and unfounded assumptions about people that so persistently paralyze action on climate change.

What is “populationism”? Its basic logic is that the earth cannot sustain current population growth, so therefore addressing the environmental crisis requires reducing the population. This has been the implicit assumption of much mainstream environmentalism, both neoliberal and green economics, and the political thinking from left to right that remains within the capitalist spectrum.

This carefully researched and reasoned book is full of critical information that is too often neglected: “the vital correlation-or-causation distinction is rarely observed in arguments that claim to show population growth drives environmental destruction.” Examples of simplistic population assumptions are manifold. Reduction in China’s rate of population growth does not correspond with China’s increased rate of emissions — there are obviously many other factors. Barry Commoner, the first challenger of Ehrlich’s “population bomb” theory, points out that US greenhouse gas emissions far exceeded US population growth. A careful study of increased US car use did not correspond in any simple way with population growth, but with the emergence of two-car families when US suburban housewives joined the workforce and needed a car to get to work.

There are many gems in this book: the fallacies of blaming the consumer, such as Greenpeace blaming consumers for the Exxon Valdez; the fallacy of using “we” to make simplistic generalizations about human behaviour which obscure the institutions and people truly responsible; Garrett Hardin’s profound misanthropy (too many people “using the commons as a cesspool,” requiring “relinquishing the freedom to breed”); the top-down approach to women’s reproductive rights and the fascistic methods to reduce population in India, Peru and China, supported by the World Bank and by the United States. Even if there were a direct correlation between population and emissions such as suggested in the IPAT formula (Impact=Population times Affluence times Technology, in which each person is an equally emitting unit), reducing population could never occur quickly enough to sufficiently reduce emissions, except through mass executions. Populationists generally focus on the poorest people (generally women of colour), whose greenhouse gas emissions are lowest.

This book is part of the extensive work on climate, capitalism and eco-socialism. Capitalism’s greenhouse- gas emitting and resource-depleting industries, the agro-industrial complex, capitalism’s “free” environmental services, all need to end. Angus and Butler’s next work could expand on their discussion of militarism and eco-fascism. It is the eco-fascist, racist side that is most dangerous, particularly as projections of human insecurity based on “too many people,” on starving hordes invading our borders or taking our resources (often on their own land) become the rationale for expanding the military and closing borders. In their last chapter, “Populationism or Ecological Revolution?”, they list crucial transformations of the most destructive features of capitalism, including “ceasing all military operations at home and elsewhere; transforming the armed forces into voluntary teams charged with restoring ecosystems and assisting the victims of floods, rising oceans, and other environmental disasters.” This could be done, and it has been done before.

This article appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Degrowth Issue).


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