Stop blaming the poor  

Posted by Big Gav in

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.


"People breed less as they become richer, but they don't consume less – they consume more."

So, we hope to raise people out of poverty (a noble goal). Of course that will undoubtedly increase their consumption. And we are concerned about levels of consumption, but we should not worry about the total number of consumers on the planet?

Forgive me, this seems pretty illogical. Why not make efforts to achieve sustainable levels of both consumption AND population? Ignore overpopulation and our consumption-reduction goals will be a moving target, ever more difficult to achieve.

Dave Gardner
Director, Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

If the goal is simply to raise people out of poverty then you (eventually) solve the population "problem" (as population growth disappears as people get richer) - but you destroy the environment in the process given our current systems of production.

Alternatively you can either:

1. Keep everyone in poverty - consuming less as a result, but still having more children - so we'd destroy the environment.

2. Reduce the population via some sort of enforced mechanism - which might save the environment but is morally repugnant.

3. Let everyone get richer (reducing population growth) and completely restructure the systems of production to be driven using renewable energy sources and have closed-loop, "cradle to cradle" style manufacturing.

Option 3 is the only one that makes sense to me...

The children-per-woman drops pretty quickly, much faster than the consumption increases. Basically any woman not in complete poverty (less than $2 a day) who actually has political freedom and is literate will restrict herself to an average of around 2 children in her lifetime.

See for example this graph of per capita income vs fertility rate of women. Basically, after about US$5,000 per capita GDP fertility drops to replacement or below; the higher birth rates tend to be in countries which are not democracies and which are reluctant to educate their women.

[Note: the replacement rate, the horizontal dotted line in the chart, at 2.33 is more than 2 since some women are infertile or never have children, some children die before reaching adolescence, etc]

Or you could check out this graph of female literacy vs fertility.

The really high birth rates are found in countries which are religious tyrannies (eg Saudi Arabia), or which have strong religious subcommunities (eg Israel) or which are in a state of civil war - well, if you expect most of your kids to die before 10, you'll have 6 of them, too.

Give a woman peace, democracy, and the chance to earn about $15 a day, and your 5 child woman becomes a 2 or less children woman. And it doesn't lead to wild consumption. I mean, nobody is buying a whole lot of crap with five grand a year.

It's easy to think that the quest for prosperity is misguided when you're talking about going from $40,000 to $45,000; when you're talking about going from $500 to $2,000, it doesn't seem such a bad idea. When the First World tells the Third World overconsumption is bad, they are naturally somewhat cynical.

"Prosperity" is a relative term. I think the world ought to be able to survive having everyone on $15 a day, literate, at peace and in a democracy.

We don't need to "raise people out of poverty", Gardner, we just need to take out foot off their necks and let them raise themselves. There are all sorts of trade and military issues you can read up on for that if you're interested.

But what it comes down to is that the poorest people are poor for three reasons:
(a) they have corrupt tyrannical governments,
(b) they have civil wars, and
(c) we in the West choose that they should be poor (we also support their tyrants and civil wars).


If we would like to be active in cutting population growth we might want to take a little wealth to those parts of the world that have the highest birth rates. Mostly Sub-Saharan Africa.

We might identify some sustainable manufacturing that could be done in those areas, take the capital and expertise to get it off the ground, and train locals to run the plants down the road.

Pair that with sustainable food production, education improvements, and reasonable access to birth control information/products.

We might also need to create means for people to provide for their old age. (Think some sort of pension system.)

What we know about high birth rates is that there are a lot of factors that drive high birth rates.

Children are an asset in agricultural areas, a liability in urban areas.

As women acquire education and political power they tend to limit their number of children.

In some cultures where there is no system for providing for the elderly and life expectancy of children is low, people tend to have extra children as a form of personal old age care.

Rather than waiting passively for things to play themselves out, taking solutions that improve thequality of life to the people creating population growth seems to me to be a win-win....

I wouldn't disagree with most of what has been written in these recent comments. None of them would lead us to the conclusion that we should ignore population's role in the sustainability of our civilization. And none of them lead us to the conclusion we should ignore our obsession with economic growth as a major culprit.

My original point was, and still is, that focusing ONLY on the "wally yachters" is not going to do the trick. We have multiplying populations (a problem) who want to emulate the "wally yachters" (a problem). We also have a few "wally yachters" who still believe population growth leads to more proseperity (another problem).

Let's address all three. Addressing only one will allow the other two to erase any gains made in the one.

Dave Gardner
Director, Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Kiashu -

Perhaps you wrote Israel when you meant Palestine.

Israel has a population growth rate of 1.66.

Palestine has a population growth rate of 3.88.

The thing is, Dave, as I said - peace, democracy, literacy and some prosperity are the only proven way to lower birth rates.

But when Westerners talk about "the population problem", they are rarely or never discussing how to help bring peace, democracy, literacy and some prosperity to the Third World. They're talking about One Child Policies and that sort of thing.

We in the West are not keen that the Third World should have these things, because their conflict, tyranny, poor education and poverty means we can get resources cheap.

For example, two-thirds of France's tuna catch comes from Somali waters - it wouldn't if that country were a peaceful democracy. Frenchmen would then have to pay more for their tuna. Which is not to say that the Somali conflict is caused by France. It's not. But it is to say that France has no particular interest in doing things to encourage peace there. Instead it sends the French Navy to protect French fishing boats from Somali "pirates".

The context of the debate has to be remembered. Westerners are desperately looking for any excuse not to change anything in their lives. As soon as you talk about population, they have an excuse to keep on truckin' their SUVs to the burger drivethru. "Well I don't have children, so it's okay."

If you want effective change, you have to eliminate people's possible excuses, not give them more.

Again, the problem is not growth itself, but what is growing, how it is is grown and where.

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