Posted by Big Gav in population
George Monbiot has a column in The Guardian echoing John Brunner's theory in "The Sheep Look Up" - population growth isn't the root cause of environmental degradation - Stop blaming the poor. It's the wally yachters who are burning the planet.
It's no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it's about the only environmental issue for which they can't be blamed. The brilliant Earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for instance, claimed last month that "those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational." But it's Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.
A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world's population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out only 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three percent of the world's population growth happened in places with very low emissions.
Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that about one sixth of the world's population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees (£40) a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning 30,000 rupees or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce. ...
Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3,000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.
In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined "Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation". It revealed that "some of America's leading billionaires have met secretly" to decide which good cause they should support. "A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat." The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it's the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it's impossible to satirise.
James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust. It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven't been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.
The obsessives could argue that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect. There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their reproduction, but weak environmental reasons – except among wealthier populations.
The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact that the world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century, probably at about 10 billion. Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.
But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don't consume less – they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock's words, "hiding from the truth". It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.