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Environmental movements need to critique capitalism, not overpopulation

  • 03 November 2020
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.

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