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  • Environmental movements need to critique capitalism, not overpopulation

Environmental movements need to critique capitalism, not overpopulation



Last week, Bob Brown, the founder of the Australian Greens, made statements asserting that Australia needs to be a leader in slashing global population growth. This is not the first time that Brown has pointed to population growth as an existential threat to the planet.

People walking across world map (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

In 1996, he argued that population decline was the 'precondition of everything the Greens wanted to achieve'. Their original population policy campaigned for a reduction in immigration. In 2010, the Greens charter ‘believe(d) the world’s population is excessive and should be reduced, and advocated ‘eliminating the causes of population growth.’

These ideas are but a small snapshot of a larger issue. The environmental movement in general has a serious race problem. Make no mistake, an ideology that says humans are the problem is a colonial ecology; the Malthusian fear of overpopulation is rooted in racist ideals.

Let us consider who might be the people tasked with having fewer babies. The West has had a declining population for years, to the point where certain western countries have taken to paying people to have babies. Instead, it is countries like India which are facing a booming population or continents like Africa where ‘all 10 countries that are projected to experience the biggest growth in population by 2100 are in…' Hence, when environmentalists talk about reducing population growth, their target is the Global South.

But the truth about population growth and its impact on the environment is obscured. The places with high levels of population growth account for just 10 per cent of lifestyle consumption emissions while the richest in the world make up half of the total emissions. Activist Naomi Klein points out that the places with '… the highest levels of population growth, (are) the poorest parts of the world with the lowest carbon footprints.' Since most of the people in countries with rapidly growing populations will be poor (by Western standards), this means their consumption of per-capita resources will be low. Simply put, the people having too many babies are not the ones causing environmental degradation. The environmental movement’s focus on reducing population growth does not make sense in the light of the actual numbers.

Instead, looking at capitalism and western colonialism makes more sense. The use of resources and pollution levels are not divided equally across the globe. Environmental devastation is not directly caused by individuals or households, but by corporations. Just a hundred companies are responsible for 71 per cent of the world’s emissions.


'Green parties all over the world are fashioning themselves as a credible alternative to current governments which are simply not doing enough to stem the tide of climate disaster, but they cannot do that if they are engaging in racist language dressed up as caring for the environment.'


It seems more environmentally prudent for Australia to become a leader in reducing the number of corporations mining the earth.

But this has never been the prevalent ideology because the global environmental movement has been overwhelmingly led by wealthy, white men. These groups have lacked the perspective and will to draw connections between environmental devastation, racism, sexism, inequality and other social injustices. The idea that population growth, in and of itself, causes environmental destruction has been dominant in Australia’s environment movement, even though Klein has argued that many big green environmental groups pose an even greater threat to the planet than climate deniers because of their willingness to work with corporate polluters.

Positing population as an environmental problem is an eco-fascist tactic that considers poor people, black and brown people etc., as the problem. Without an analysis of the vastly unequal distribution of wealth and resources, the movement focuses its efforts on reducing the populations in developing economies, which are predominantly not white or western and are still dealing with the ravages of colonialism.

Pointing the finger at the poorest among us and demanding that they stop having babies is eugenicist rhetoric. Instead of looking at how capitalism uses resources at an unsustainable rate, environment groups that use the overpopulation argument seek to reduce the human population so that the wealthy can continue to plunder the earth’s resources.

Thinking that human overpopulation is the problem is a line of thought which leads to the idea that there needs to be fewer humans on earth. This usually unleashes policies around sterilisation or allowing ‘certain people’ to die (mostly people with disabilities, aged, poor, ect.) and eventually ends in the predictable culling of ‘undesirables’ as justified by appealing to what is good for the planet.

Think this is fearmongering or an overactive imagination? The El Paso Texas shooter was an eco-fascist, as was the Christchurch shooter. The Texas shooter’s manifesto expressly referred to the ‘immigration as environmental warfare.’ Their actions were the inevitable final point of a racist discourse that blames the demise of the environment on populations.

The Greens came under fire for their rhetoric in 2010 where talking about reducing immigration had them lumped in with parties like One Nation. They have since removed the references to immigration in their current charter, but the question remains as to whether the environmental movement as a whole has made a serious effort to fundamentally root out this harmful and racist ideology.

Green parties all over the world are fashioning themselves as a credible alternative to current governments which are simply not doing enough to stem the tide of climate disaster, but they cannot do that if they are engaging in racist language dressed up as caring for the environment. As long as the environmental movement cannot make a sustained and critical analysis of the links between the destruction of the environment and capitalism, these parties remain little different from the multitude of mainstream politics.



Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer and social media activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore and Australia. She is the originator of the term 'Chinese Privilege', which situates institutionalised racism in Singapore. She can be found at @kaliandkalki

Main image: People walking across world map (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Sangeetha Thanapal, eco-facism, Bob Brown, population, racism, Naomi Klein



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Existing comments

You make some strong points with passion, Sangeetha. Nevertheless, not everyone who considers continuing human population growth a global problem is racist, elitist, eugenicist or genocidal. There is no silver bullet, so it seems prudent to challenge both capitalism AND population growth in addressing the existential climate change and environmental degradation challenges we now face as a race.

Penny | 03 November 2020  

Thanapal's article is full of hyperbole and omissions aimed at the environmental movement, a world wide broad church which therefore has many views. It is women's right to have access to ALL forms of safe birth control methods and access to a greater share of their nation's wealth and power in rich and poorer countries. Let them decide how many babies they want to have. It sickens me to see nations like Senegal sending off their young men to Europe to horrible uncertain futures in leaking boats and losing their lives. Having been married to a Senegalese I am aware of the strong cultural value they place on their women having big families. Of course it is a dual problem; no one in the environmental movement denies that the world's wealth, both within nations and without, needs to be shared equitably. We must campaign for that also. Time is running out for taking cheap shots at those trying to stem the race towards extinction of all that we cherish on this small green planet hopelessly swamped with one species: humans.

Susan Hartley | 03 November 2020  

Human behaviour attributed to racial origin and skin colour, popularly described as racism, has more to do with culture. It is the threat to culture regardless of race or skin colour that moves human beings to rejection and discrimination against others. All races and skin colours are capable of what is called "racism" in equal proportions when cultural norms and practices are threatened by foreign "intruders". For example, an Aboriginal elder of my acquaintance tells me that in multicultural Australia his people experience more "racism" from some immigrant groups than from the Australian born "whities". The same applies in Europe, for example, where "racist" disaffection between countries is not based on race or skin colour but on culture alone.

john frawley | 03 November 2020  

Thank you Sangeetha. Your article points to how difficult it is to find ways to reduce our impact on the earth. Yes, there are too many of us wanting the lifestyle that most in the west currently has. Yes, most people in poorer countries aspire to raise their standard of living. The emergence of the Indian and Chinese middle class demonstrates that, Corporations make a huge footprint but individuals buy the products they make. What we need is a global response to the things that are killing our earth. And that starts with each one of us., regardless of our ideological position.

Jorie Ryan | 03 November 2020  

Spot on.

Malthus Anderson | 03 November 2020  

Thank you Sangeetha for a terrific and thought-provoking article. It is certainly the case that the richest and whitest demographics have been and are the most responsible for emissions and climate change. But it's not quite a binary either/or situation. I'm in agreement with you that capitalism (and the above-mentioned group) has been primarily responsible for this situation, BUT there is no doubt that the world is overpopulated. Hence, I think that first it is necessary to empower poor people of colour or otherwise, the world over, but if (and when) successful then tackle overpopulation, because the latter is killing species that we cannot afford to lose, and if we lose those species (which is already happening) it will be to the detriment of EVERYBODY who inhabits this planet. The problem at present is that the first world nations are virtually only, or at least mostly, accepting migrants who are already well-educated, and we can see that in places like the US and Australia they mostly - and quickly - turn into arch-capitalist themselves. Keep on writing - this is a great article. I wish you well, Christine

Christine Nicholls | 03 November 2020  

There is nothing fundamentally racist about calling for population control. No doubt consumerism is largely responsible for our present plight. But overpopulation will push our species to the brink, even with an (unlikely) retreat from over-consumption. It is one of several absolutely indispensable factors towards cutting down the footprint of our species (already beyond the ability of the planet to adequately resource) that certain religious organisations, ours among them, refuse to accept. It is indisputable that we are getting to the point where there are too many people on the planet. As with climate change, it is a problem that has to be managed urgently, but in a controlled and staged way, to avoid unintended consequences. This is absolutely essential to saving the viability and liveability of our planet.

Patrick John Mahony | 03 November 2020  

Limiting population growth voluntarily is not racist, merely realistic. With Climate Change, demands on the world's resources must be limited.In 1966 after the birth of our second child, my husband and I decided to adopt any more children because the world had too many people, while ,in many countries, there were children without families to care for them. In 1975, a son born overseas joined our family to the joy of us all. Many years later, his sister and her husband adopted two children from the same country before the birth of their third child. I know other families who adopted for similar reasons. In Australia ,we learn of hundreds of children whose birth parents are unable to care for them and so need foster/adoptive parents. People who wish for more children should first consider offering a home to these children so enabling them to reach their potential and live fulfilled lives.Nowadays,in this country, there are several reliable methods of contraception to enable people to voluntarily forego children by birth in order to offer a loving home to children in need of one. In some countries, very poor couples must live in dread of another pregnancy resulting in a child who may suffer hunger, lack of education, deprivation and ill health affecting not only him but also any children already in the family.This situation cannot lead to a happy marriage and family life.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 03 November 2020  

I acknowledge the point about racism expressed in this article. However, how does Sangeetha respond to people who say that white people in the West should consider not having children as they use up the Earth's resources at a greater rate than those in developing countries?

Lucy Osborn | 03 November 2020  

A highly superficial analysis. The Left has always hated humans. Margaret Sanger's Planned Parenthood was and is a relentless campaign against the breeding of blacks, specifically African Americans. The free market on the other hand has lifted billions of all colours out of poverty as even the left-liberal Brookings Institute has documented. The author of this post seems oblivious to the miracle of Hong Kong, lately throttled by the anti-capitalist/fascist/call them whatever Uighur-hating Chicoms, beloved of our Pope Francis, which saw millions of people, many of them desperate refugees from socialism, rise from poverty in the years since 1950. Left alone, with their property rights secure, human beings have always created more wealth in their lifetime than they have consumed. Julian Simon's "The Ultimate Resource" tells that incredible story. And by the way, free market nations are the LEAST polluted. Once you get past bare survival, you can afford to address other priorities, such as conservation, etc. Unless, of course, you stupidly count CO2, one of the staples of life on this planet, as a cause of "catastrophic" global warming for which there is to date no scientific evidence whatsoever, as the IPPC AR5 attests, if you actually care to read the report. Gosh, who does that around here? Enough said.

HH | 03 November 2020  

Sangeetha, I am a climatologist, a retired Social Science teacher . I am an environmentalist with children and grandchildren to whom I hope to leave a livable world. I agree that excessive consumption in the developed world puts catastrophic strain on the environment. There is an urgent need to curb that exploitation . There is an enormous gap between the material well being of the population of world's richest and the majority of the world's population living in poverty. However to make such a generalized attack on all environmentalists is simplistic and hurtful. You are correct to lay part of the blame on powerful corporations. The greed of the corporations arose from " neo liberalism" allowing the 'invisible hand ' to govern economics. The population of the planet exploded since the Industrial revolution .In part due to improved hygiene , allowing more children to survive to reproductive age . It is a result of colonial and exploitative expansion into the rest of the world from the Europe. Some experts say with more equal distribution of the world's resources, the Earth can accommodate more people. The evidence is accumulating that this may not be possible . If everyone living today enjoyed a western standard of living, we would need five earths . Obviously not possible. There are three solutions . The first is EDUCATION of women and men, in the 'developing world'.Knowledge is a solver of problems.The second and harder is a more equal distribution of the resources . The third is reduction in the rate of population increase in the developing world. As a geographer I see the increasing destruction of the 'wild environment'in Africa and Asia as burgeoning populations expand into undisturbed habitats . COVID - 19 Virus may have come from wild animals impacted by human expansion into their environment.That is Nature's warning to us.

Gavin O'Brien | 03 November 2020  

Some years ago in his address to students at a prominent university in Scotland, Malcolm Muggeridge made a similar calling-out of the exploitative neo-Malthusian ideology now manifest in Greens' policy. I don't have his words to hand, but I do recall the line "We took their earth's resources, now we want to deprive them of their most precious resource: their children." This imperialist motivation has been exacerbated, of course, by the moribund contraception, abortion and sterilisation escalation in the world's wealthy nations, many of which are now below sustainable population replacement level. No wonder they're nervous and aggressive in imposing their regime via the UN under the banner of "reproductive health' and other measures.

John RD | 04 November 2020  

I am disappointed with Mary Samara-Wickrama's comments. Adoption as practiced in Western countries is NOT an ethical solution to over-population and poverty. It is a Western myth that orphanages in developing countries and Western out-of-home care systems are full of children with no parents or extended family to care for them, though most of the children have been placed there because of systemic family poverty or disadvantage. We should be seeking to support these families, lifting them from poverty and disadvantage, rather than seeking to remove and legally (often also socially) disconnect the children from their natural families, communities and countries, as well as their natural identities. Western adoption practices are morally contestable; breach numerous universally accepted children's and human rights; and have long-term negative consequences for the adoptees and their natural families, as attested by the formal apologies made by all Australian governments, federal and state, within the last decade.

Penny | 04 November 2020  

Sangeetha Capitalism is not the problem, its the Governments proclivity to take the easy way out when it comes to letting manufacturing contracts go overseas based on the idea that cheapest is best. Hence trains go to India and China, dams go to Korea, cars go to Korea and Japan, ships go to Spain and Italy. As a result manufacturing dies on the vine at home. AS for greening Australia, if NZ can plant 1 bn trees, why couldnt we plant 5bn here? If we can divert the Snowy River to create hydro power again, Snowy 2, why couldnt we divert the Northern rivers and have a staged series of turbines all the way to the Darling? Sure the cost is double Snowy 2 but the benefits are a hundredfold in comparison. If we put our minds to it we could have the biggest and best aquaculture farms in the world. We have the longest pristine coastline. Population control isn't a serious issue in a country with 7.693 million sq Km land mass and a population of 25.5m. India for example has 3.287 million sq km and a population of 1.380 bn people. And while we are about it consider China. The most polluted country on earth gets to build Vicrail's next generation of trains and every living species of bird and animal there is endangered. Did DA consider that fact when he let the tender? This is not a racist issue but a common sense issue. The next 135 F35 jets get made in the USA. Why dont we wake up and show some initiative for a change?

Francis Armstrong | 04 November 2020  

Thank you for your article Sangeetha. I fully agree with you that the environment movement needs to be very critical of capitalism. After all, it is capitalism in its neo-liberal phase that has stepped up the exploitation of the environment to the point where scientists are warning that we are getting to the situation where it may no longer be able to support human life unless we make very important changes in the way we live. The same is true for the exploitation of people - especially in developing countries but we are also seeing huge numbers of workers being cheated out of their award wages in developed nations by some big dishonest employers. Having said this, though, it has to be acknowledged that the human population of 7.8 billion is putting a heavy strain on the world's resources. and whether we like it or not, it is a big factor in considerations about the viability of the planet to support populations in the future . Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world's land area, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest, according to the World Bank—an area larger than South Africa. And we must remember that we need forests because they are also sources of oxygen and water as well as food and medicines for indigenous peoples. As the population escalates, the rate of deforestation will continue at a faster rate to provide larger areas od land for housing, the growing of food and crops for clothing and extra mining for industry to produce various products. While I acknowledge that there is a problem with the tactics of "eco-fascism" and oppose such arguments, just because scientists see problems with the accelerating population growth it does not necessarily make them "eco-fascists". The fact is that humanity will have to tackle both the problems of exploitative neo-liberal capitalism and over-population. I also think that because of the crimes against humanity committed by the western nations that colonised other peoples, they gave a moral duty to assist poorer nations much more than they have been to help solve these problems.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 November 2020  

It is frankly absurd to claim that 'the environmental movement cannot make a sustained and critical analysis of the links between the destruction of the environment and capitalism'. They are, on the contrary, the only electoral bloc making such an effort. To cry racist at those who seek not only a lower global population but also the living standard benefits of smaller families is appalling overreach. Those who love their planet do not deserve this insulting treatment. Associating green movements with terrorists of any kind is a tactic on a par with tarring all Muslims with the IS brush.

Christopher Kelen | 05 November 2020  

Nonsense. Australia can reduce its very high rate of immigration. Australia's natural increase is slowing. The world can slow its population increase. We can talk numbers without singling out any group. The article reeks of ideology and prejudice that preclude sensible discussion. Of course there has been and still is entrenched racism, and we need to work against it. 'Capitalism' is critiqued by many. We need to avoid conflating the issues, even as we deal with them all. It is disappointing that Eureka Street would publish such an un-constructive, even inflammatory piece.

Geoff Davies | 06 November 2020  

Christopher Kelen: “Associating green movements with terrorists of any kind is a tactic on a par with tarring all Muslims with the IS brush.” All reasonable (ie., cherry-picking) Muslims are tarred with the IS brush. Cherry-picking (no matter how well intentioned) is trying not to see the umbilical cord that tethers all Muslims to certain canonical (ie., irremoveable) but brutal verses in the revealed text which fundamentalists are logically at liberty to use. A lesser (because potentially removeable) umbilical cord attaches green movements to ‘racism’. Standard Left dogma (not that all greens are Left) is that institutional ‘racism’ exists when certain policies have a ‘disparate impact’ (a US-generated term) on one or more types (probably better described as typecasts) of people. If Thanapal can show that western green policies have a disparate impact on the overseas poor/s, then western green policies are ‘institutionally racist’.

roy chen yee | 06 November 2020  

Australians through our monocultural media and politics have only been presented the fringe nativist population view for past several decades. THe credible and informed analysis outside Australia sees differently i.e. mid century or sooner a peak then a precipitous decline..... Bob Brown can be at best very patronising towards (potential/undefined) 'immigrants' e.g. demanding that international students should return home to help their own country, but says nothing of the many Australians emigrating to work and/or live long term abroad? What's that all about? The roots of the population movement are rooted in eugenics, then the realisation in the '60s and '70s that fossil fuels were warming the planet and the need to deflect from and preclude robust environmental legislation. The modern right wing population growth movement grew from ZPG Zero Population Growth with Paul 'population bomb' Ehrlich and his long term collaborator, now deceased white nationalist John 'passive eugenics' Tanton. They were supported by Rockefeller Bros. (Exxon Mobil), Ford and Carnegie Foundations. Not only did 'population growth' through 'brown immigration' become the obsession of corporates and/or elites, Ehlrich and Tanton also supported the founding of Sustainable Population Australia and similar in the UK. A long game resonating with the 'great replacement theory' and useful dog whistle in Australia.

Andrew J. Smith | 07 November 2020  

Any environment has a given number of organisms it can support without detriment to the organisms and the environment on which they depend - the whole ecosystem. This concept is "carrying capacity". For Australia, the greatest limiting factor in the carrying capacity of the continent is water, next limiting factor is fertile soil. Over the last few years we have seen a great deal of the country experiencing water scarcity and restrictions, indicating that Australia is at or near carrying capacity at its present population level under current conditions. The entire globe, being a closed system, similarly has limits to its carrying capacity.Humans are part of this natural system and are subject to its limitations. (Other) animal populations boom, then crash when resources are insufficient to support the population. Humans have developed social systems which buffer us somewhat from this, but we are still vulnerable. That is the science of population growth. It's not racism, eugenics, elitism, or anything else, simply observed fact. It is the business sector's blind belief in an economic theory based on unlimited growth - impossible in Earth's closed system- which is driving all creatures to the brink.

Maria | 07 November 2020  

It is interesting in white, Post-Catholic Ireland, contraception, since it was introduced, has lowered the population growth rate appreciably and thus the exponential growth rate in Irish immigration. If there had not existed the safety valve of emigration to what was then the British Empire and the USA, I believe both Ireland and Scotland would now have the same population density as Bangladesh. They would also have real, endemic poverty. The Irish have not attempted to take the contraceptive message abroad a la Bill Gates. They had four hundred years of the Ascendancy and don't attempt to control the world, as they know it backfires. I certainly think Non-Western countries should be able to decide their own attitude to fertility without the moral badgering of the West. Pope Francis himself, in the Philippines, suggested you do not necessarily need to have a family of 12 children if you could not support them financially. Much of this is sheer common sense. I think you make an excellent point, Sangeetha, in that we in the West, in our position of extreme resource domination and extreme polluting of the environment, simply cannot afford to preach to the rest of the world.

Edward Fido | 16 November 2020  

Sangheeta, this is an interesting and surprising view that I have not previously encountered. I am not sure if you are actually advocating that we do nothing about population growth and continue breeding until there are 20, 50, or 100 billion of us? I am an environmentalist, a Greens supporter and a white woman who chose to have no children because I felt 7 billion was more than enough on a finitely resourced planet. I include all races in that 7 billion - but particularly the Global North who are, as you correctly put it, by far the largest consumers on the planet. I agree that the level of consumption needs to drastically reduce if we are to maintain any kind of decent environment for future generations but, much as I agree that corporations are a huge part of the problem, I blame us as consumers first - we are the ones that buy their stuff. Since it seems extremely unlikely that the world population is all of a sudden going to say, 'actually I don't need that piece of furniture made from tropical rainforest wood, I don't need that toilet paper made from old growth forest, I don't need those earrings mined from African gold, I don't need that intensively farmed steak and I don't need that single use plastic bottle', the only option remaining is to reduce the global population as a matter of urgency. Additionally, the Global North includes many brown and black people who are middle class or wealthy and consume just as much as any white consumer - consumerism does not affect races differently. The issue really is that there are too many humans on our little planet, and the more humans there are, the less space there is for everything else (everything else that does not go around destroying their environment with abandon). The more people there are the more land is devoted to urban sprawl and inefficient use of agricultural land for livestock and livestock fodder. And the more crowded we become, the worse for our mental health. But there is a silver bullet - education and contraception - both of these being relatively cheap and easy solutions (particularly vasectomy). These solutions are also very empowering for women in particular: there is a very strong link between the education level of women and number of children (i.e. more education = less children), and between education level in general with health, income, quality of life and so on. This holds in Western nations just as it does in developing nations. If childbirth was reduced to two children per woman, the world would quickly see an improvement in everyone's quality of life, a massive reduction in global consumption, and an increasing amount of habitat for the wildlife we are rapidly losing. It is not a matter of race, it is a matter of humans being the problem and the less of all of us being the better for the Earth, its other inhabitants and ourselves.

Bernice | 04 March 2021  

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