Climate change, population growth, and social justice

At the recent climate change town hall series put on by CNN, Bernie Sanders got asked a question about overpopulation and climate change. His answer focused on reproductive rights, and on expanding the right to birth control and other family planning options not just to American women, but to women all over the world. This includes ending bans on foreign aid going to organizations that do things like providing abortion and other family planning services around the world:

This take is a good one, in my view, because it shows a commitment to improving the world for everyone that is often sorely lacking in discussions around overpopulation and limited resources. It’s one of those issues where a lot of people talk about how important it is to find a solution of some sort, but the conversation often doesn’t go farther. Most of the solutions that are readily available in popular culture seem to be… Bad. Also generally authoritarian.

If you have the time, I strongly recommend Peter Coffin’s video on the subject, as he does a great job of going into the history of concern over the problem, as well as some of the proposed solutions:

The original European solutions basically involved “solving” the problem by having more poor people die faster. Other proposals tend to involve some form of forced birth control, through taxation/funding schemes, forced sterilization, forced use of birth control (for women), and the like. These tend to rely on the assumption that there is no way to solve the problem, and also respect the rights and autonomy of women in general, often poor, non-white women in particular.

This last bit also ties uncomfortably well into white supremacist narratives like “the great replacement”, (another youtube video, I’m afraid – this one from Shaun) particularly when the focus is always on regions like Africa and Asia.

This is a dangerous narrative to have floating around, unchallenged, and I mean literally dangerous to human life. We’re headed into an era in which, without a change in how we do things, we could well see global shortages in resources like food and water, even ignoring those created deliberately, like the current genocidal war in Yemen, or the continued enclosure/privatization of fresh water around the world.

The Republican administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is a good example of what the future could hold – disasters strike, followed by sudden and mysterious “incompetence” when it comes to saving the lives of people held in low esteem by those in power. That was then followed by a propaganda campaign to blame the victims of the disaster for their own deaths. For the survivors, particularly those who cannot claim citizenship in areas less effected, concentration camps await, where people are kept in conditions known to cause disease. For those who have watched the Peter Coffin video, or followed world history over the past century, some of this will sound familiar.

And all along, the justification will be that there just aren’t enough resources. We can’t afford to feed everyone. We just can’t get water to them. We just can’t get medicine to them.

Never mind that we have the food needed. Never mind that we can land troops, and therefore supplies, pretty much anywhere in the world. In THIS case, for whatever reason we can come up with, we just had to let them die.

The reasons for wanting to control the population have moved away from food availability, as food production continues to exceed the needs of the global population, and into concerns about pollution generated, and in general, the solutions talked about still seem to be focused on punishing the poor for their poverty. That makes me suspicious of the motivation, at least in some people, for so much concern about overpopulation.

We do know how to reduce birth rates, without violating anyone’s basic rights – we increase access to birth control, and empower women to use it. We take away some of the economic drivers for large families, like fear of destitution in old age. In short, I think that the more we make progress on economic and environmental justice, an raising the standard of living and access to resources and education around the world, the closer we will get to our goals of a sustainable society. Progress on social, economic, and environmental justice (insofar as those are separate things), will also mean progress on sustainability, on adapting to climate change, and on empowering the many to take back control of the planet from the few. In the end, it might be the only way we CAN do that.

Of course we have to fight for changes in environmental policy at the same time, and we have to push for cultural shifts in how we view things like our relationship to the rest of the biosphere, but as with those who want to hyper-focus on population, trying to focus on environmental problems OVER the various struggles for justice leaves out something important.

People want justice. People want the right to live their lives as they see fit, provided they don’t infringe on that right for others. When people don’t have that, they fight for it. If we want a global focus all their energy on the environment, or on population for that matter, the first step needs to be removing other barriers to them living what they view as fulfilling lives. It’s not rational to demand that people set down the fight for their rights, in order to deal with a bigger problem. It’s not rational to discount the drive for fairness, and the need for safety.

There’s an argument, for all of these issues, in support of the slogan: ain’t no war but the class war. That doesn’t mean drop everything to fight the class war. It means recognizing that the various forms of oppression experienced by different people around the world – sexism, bigotry against trans and non-binary people, racism, religious conflicts, bigotry based on sexuality – all of those are weapons in the class war that are almost always used against the majority of the population. Is it some deliberate plot by the would-be rulers of the world? Sometimes yes, sometimes I don’t know, but the effects are the same. They divide people. They drive energy that could be spent making the world better into blaming scapegoats for somehow making the world worse. People who could be working for justice for themselves instead pour energy into obstructing justice for those they’ve been taught to hate or fear. And the targets of bigotry, in turn, are forced to spend energy defending themselves, and fighting for rights they should have had in the first place.

We’ve reached a point where we can’t afford to let climate change just sit on the back burner. Honestly, we never COULD afford that, but the human cost of ignoring it is higher than it used to be, and that’s only going to get worse. The fights against the gross injustices built up through history were more pressing. I have a harder time than I used to passing judgement on past generations for dropping the ball on global warming, because many of the fights they fought were needed. Without the advances of the 20th century, we would have to fight THOSE battles NOW, in addition to everything else.

And now we’ve reached the point where the struggle against colonialism, and capitalism, and racism, and sexism, and environmental degradation are all intersecting. If you’re a climate hawk, and you want to save the planet, who are you saving it for if you allow those who’ve been impoverished by colonialism and capitalism to die, or to be further marginalized?

The climate struggle is a struggle for justice, and it’s through achieving that justice, as we change how our society handles things like power generation, that we will be most likely to meet our goals for sustainability, in energy use, resource use, and in population.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we have the food needed.

    Only at the cost of mining our topsoils, aquifers, oceans, fossil fuels, etc, at an unsustainable rate.

    Economists’ delusions aside, we face numerous severe resource bottlenecks, which only (gradual, peaceful, voluntary) population reduction can ameliorate.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Correction to my # 1 – … population reduction and decreased consumption by affluent nations and classes can ameliorate.

  3. says

    There are also ways to build up topsoil, were we to make that a priority. There’s a lot we COULD be doing that we’re not, because we’re spending those resources on things like the military, or redundant homes for rich people (and the lawns associated with them).

    Again, I don’t know that we can solve the problem entirely, but we can absolutely get closer to it than we are right now, and improve the world/buy time in the process.

  4. KG says

    Another interesting point about the “overpopulation crisis” narrative is how ignorant those pushing it almost always are of the actual facts of global demography. Frequently, they announce that world population “is growing exponentially”. But it isn’t. “Exponentially” means that the proportional growth rate is constant, so the absolute increase per time period itself increases. One could accept a bit of variation in the growth rate, but what we’ve actually had is a half-century of continuous decline – the growth rate peaked some time in the 1960s and has since approximately halved. Even the absolute annual increase peaked in the 1990s, although its decline since has not been monotonic, due to roughly periodic changes in the age distribution of the population. On all this, Danny Dorling’s Population Ten Billion? is a useful source.

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