There exists an often unchallenged view that overpopulation is among the primary drivers of the planet’s ecological and climate crises. It is a misconception. “There are just too many people” is simplistic and a misdiagnosis of the problem but it is a widely held analysis, rather than there are too many people it is to the endless pursuit of profit that environmentalists must look in order to save nature. An economic system that prizes endless short-term profit maximisation above all else is incompatible with ecological processes.
Overpopulation is not responsible for the current devastation of nature. Understanding that would also allow us to focus on the real problem problem. It is both convenient and beneficial to blame overpopulation as the problem instead of the economic system. Doing so protects the interests of those who benefit from it, the powerful. The use of overpopulation to explain the ills of hunger demonstrate this. There is, in fact, an abundance of food and much of it wasted, yet there is hunger. This contradiction points towards the deficiency in the distribution of food, a result of food being produced for profit. Conveniently for the farming industry and agricultural corporations that profit from food, overpopulation is there to obscure things.
Today’s world is based on the imperative for endless growth through market-based economies. We are talking about capitalism.
The earth’s resources are finite, they tell us, and we human beings are using them up. The more human beings there are, the more pressure on these resources, and unless population growth is stopped, the planet will be destroyed. But this reasoning is as false. Yes, the earth’s resources are finite. But this does not mean that human activity is anywhere near reaching those limits, either now or in the foreseeable future.
Often arguments by the greens are centred on emissions by individuals, their carbon footprints. This gives the illusion that converting to vegetarianism or using electric cars are somehow going to transform modern industrial society is going to save the world.
The overpopulation argument, historically and as primarily used today makes “the poor” the main culprit for all the problems of the world. In 2015, Oxfam released data should surprise nobody who is familiar with inequality statistics, nonetheless, they are still shocking. The richest 10% of people produce 50% of all emissions, while the reverse is also true, that the poorest 50% produce just 10%. Crudely put, in terms of population, a poor person must reproduce themselves 25 times to account for the emissions impact of one of the richest.
If people are hungry and there are food riots , this is because of the inability of the poor to pay. In other words it is because of capitalist economics and capitalist politics.
We cannot entirely dismiss overpopulation as something that we should not be concerned about. There are 163,000,000 million people living in Bangladesh — half the population of the United States — all crowded on a land area the size of the state of Illinois. How could that ever be sustainable? But it is the manner in which the current economic system operates that requires to be radically challenged to avoid ecological collapse. This will happen when we break from the endless search for profit maximisation towards prioritising the needs of nature and the well-being of people. Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary collapse. But if we don’t overthrow capitalism, Nature is going to solve the overpopulation problem in a most unpleasant manner. Those who cite population reduction as a way to stop climate change are really saying they find it easier to conceive of “losing” a few billion of people, rather than contemplate overthrowing capitalism.